Forgiveness Sunday and Housecleaning my Soul

“We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from others, but should link us to them with ever-stronger bonds”. [source]

Every two weeks I have house cleaners come into our home. They come in with their high-powered vacuum and buckets. They come in with energy and determination. And then they clean. They clean places that I wouldn’t think of, they polish and they dust and they scrub. When they are finished, the whole apartment sparkles. It smells good and it looks good. Everything comes under their scrutiny and cleaning tools. I love the days that these house cleaners come.


In my faith tradition, Today is “Forgiveness Sunday”. Forgiveness Sunday is set aside every year to remind us of God’s great forgiveness toward us. It also reminds us that because God forgives, we can forgive.

Forgiveness Sunday is the last Sunday before Great Lent begins. The focus is on two things: Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, which really means their exile from direct communion with God, and our need to forgive and be reconciled to others. The two have more in common than we might think at first glance.

The practical application of Forgiveness Sunday is not easy, either physically or spiritually. In a special service we go to each member of our parish and prostrate ourselves before them saying: “Forgive me, a Sinner.” Their response is “God forgives so I forgive. Good Lent.” At the end of the evening you are physically exhausted and spiritually humbled.

It takes a lot to ask for forgiveness.It is a humbling experience to say “Please forgive my for any offense.” It is even more difficult when there are specific things that need to be named. But once done, the sense of relief overwhelms all the other feelings.

Forgiveness Sunday is the beginning of housecleaning the soul, a process that takes place in my life during Lent. During Lent, the dirt of envy is cleaned, the dust of resentment is uncovered and cleared away, the filthiness of hatred and unforgiveness is exposed and wiped out, the refuse of malice is put into the garbage. My soul undergoes a process that is grueling and freeing.

And so the journey of Lent begins.


The Last Battle as Lenten Reading

It’s a grey, rainy Sunday. The bare trees outside accentuate the bleak weather. Slush and ice mark the sidewalk and street as if saying to me “It is, after all, February! What really do you expect?”

It may be bleak outside, but it is warm and contemplative inside. It is these days when I am most grateful for home, most grateful for the warmth of hot tea and homemade bread.

Our Lenten journey begins in a week and along with some other Lenten reading, I will begin to read The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis.

The Last Battle is the final book in the Narnia series and begins with the story of Puzzle, a donkey, who thinks he is not very clever. He is manipulated by Shift, a crafty old ape, into wearing an old, lion’s skin found in a river at the western edge of Narnia. Shift convinces Puzzle that finding the lion’s skin is a sign and that they should proceed as messengers of the great Lion, Aslan.

Word comes to Tirian, King of Narnia, that Aslan has returned, but there are signs that this is not the true Aslan. Accompanied by Jewel, his unicorn and trusted friend (after all, this is Narnia!) Tirian heads off to find out what is going on for himself.

The book is full of powerful story telling and the battle between good and evil, and this is why it is such good Lenten reading.

It is during Lent that I am more aware of this battle within and around me; during Lent that I learn more of what it is to say no to the sovereign self. It is during Lent that I am more aware that truth can be manipulated, and that I can never get enough of that which “almost satisfies.”

So in this journey, where I move further up and further in to the mystery of my faith, I think of these words from The Last Battle:

“Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek…And since then, O Kings and Ladies, I have been wandering to find him and my happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound. And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved, me who am but as a dog.”

Further up and further in on the journey, reflecting on the battle between good and evil, and the wonder of being God’s beloved.

Lenten Journey: Instant Gratification or Slow Process

God of Process

On my work space shelf, I have a box of instant oatmeal. It’s relatively healthy, full of fiber, and low in the bad stuff. I have it on hand for those days when I rush off to work, my tummy empty since the night before, my blood sugar low, and nary a minute to sit on my couch and eat breakfast while contemplating life. It is my breakfast safety net.

As far as instant breakfasts go, it’s good. Maple and brown sugar, with dried cranberries and walnuts thrown in for extra fiber and an antioxidant effect. But compared to real breakfasts, in the privacy and comfort of my home with no job anxiety yet before me, it does not satisfy. I would far rather eat breakfast at home any day of the week.

We live in a society where the instant is highly valued. Instant breakfast. Instant cash. Instant internet. Instant messaging. Instant cures. Instant results. You can even get instant degrees. I am affected by this instant value and mantra far more than I would like to admit. One of the observations I have made about the “me” who lives in the United States as compared to the “me” who lived (and still travels) internationally is that I am far more patient in Egypt, or Pakistan, or Haiti, or Mexico. I go into a different place where I am more reliant on God, less on self. I do well when the instant is not available.

I don’t only want instant when it comes to daily life; I also want instant when it comes to relief from pain and suffering – I want the magic wand to sprinkle fairy dust that turns peasants into princesses, and villains into frogs.

We are a people of instant gratification communicating with a God of process; a people who want immediate results in relationship with a God who says “Wait – I’ve got this.” No wonder there are some discordant moments. 

My longing for instant is far from God’s truth. In the famous “Faith Hall of Famers” passage in the book of Hebrews, the abbreviated life stories of several people, heroes of the Christian faith, are told. Their longings and promises were not fulfilled in an instant. In verse 13 the words say “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” The end of the chapter gives the final explanation: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” 

I want the magic wand to sprinkle fairy dust that turns peasants into princesses, and villains into frogs.

There are many, many times where I have screamed at God “You’re too late” and I wonder if there were times when the people mentioned in Hebrews 13 did the same. All of them were people waiting for promises to be kept; all of them were people who died waiting.

But this I know: God is a God of process, a God who doesn’t tell me the end of the story, but continues to write it day after day. He is a God who asks me to trust the process, to honour the struggle.

My world calls me to instant access. God calls me to slow process. My world promises instant change. God promises slow and lasting transformation. May the voice and promise of God be more compelling than the voice of my world.

Lenten Journey: Palm Fronds and Hosannas


Palm fronds await us as we enter into our parish. It is Palm Sunday – that joyous day before Holy Week, where all of life makes sense as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, greeted by masses of people proclaiming him king. Unlike those crowds who gathered that day so long ago, we know what is coming. We know the grief and sadness, the immense pain and suffering that filled the following week. 

I think of this as I stand listening to our choir chanting. Two things blot the joy of this day: a bomb has exploded at a church in Alexandria Egypt, killing people as they too worshiped on Palm Sunday. The second is that my mother-in-law is dying. She is surrounded by family and excellent hospice care, but that does not take away the fact that soon she will no longer be on this earth. 

How did Jesus feel as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he already knew the tension between joy and sorrow that would take place the week following? How did he feel knowing the very people who waved palm branches would shout “Crucify him!” This is when I am more interested in the humanity of Christ than the divinity. 

How did he feel knowing the grief and suffering his mother would experience as a sword pierced her heart? 

In the midst of joy, did he feel grief for what was ahead?  And then the reverse – on the cross when he was in anguish, did he also experience the joy of knowing that finally, death would be conquered? 

It will take a lifetime for me to understand the grief/ joy paradox and there is no week where it is more profound then Holy Week. 

I’ve written before about my friend Kate, and her experience during a church bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. But I share it again, because I can’t think of a more profound illustration of the grief/joy paradox. So on this Palm Sunday, as I prepare to go into Holy Week, I give you this story. 

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack felt personal. It was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was Robynn’s father. Another was a friend who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.

In a poignant letter describing the event, she and her husband speak of the indescribable joy she felt in saving her son.

I wanted to save my boy. I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

In the face of terrible violence and possible death, my friend felt indescribable joy at saving her boy.

This is the absurdity and irrationality of my Christian faith; an absurdity and irrationality that I will hold to for all my days. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of sorrow, there can exist indescribable joy.

A bomb in Egypt, a family member’s imminent death, palm fronds and hosannas, death and a resurrection – in the midst of grief and sorrow, indescribable joy. 

This I cling to as I enter into Holy Week, covered with an umbrella of grace. 

Photo credits: Cliff Gardner 

Lenten Journey – On Forsythia and Hope


“You can cut branches of forsythia before they bloom and bring them inside and they will bloom quicker.” 

It was Western Easter a few years ago and we were at my mom and dad’s. Large branches of forsythia were in a vase on the windowsill, bright with yellow blossoms that defied the remains of winter outside. I still remember how surprised I was at my mom’s words; how surprised I was that I didn’t know this before.

Forsythia is the first plant to bloom in the Northeast. Its buds begin turning to stunning yellow flowers as the first days of spring arrive.

I remember my mom’s words as I put large branches into a white pitcher and smaller ones into a jar. The buds shyly peek out and I imagine them to be scared; scared that if they make a commitment and leave their plant cocoon, they will be betrayed by our fickle weather. I know how they feel. I know this is anthropomorphizing at its finest, but I don’t care. I still imagine we are comrades in our fight against winter’s never end date.

I realize as I arrange the branches that I am desperate for forsythia – desperate for a sign of spring, a sign of hope, a sign of new life. When all around feels dead, when relationships feel strained without reason, when I anxiously look toward the horizon, longing for Pascha when it is still Lent – this is when I need forsythia. This is when I need hope, this is when I need to know that what I see now is not the end of the story.

So my husband cuts large branches of forsythia and we stick them in water. We force them to bloom. We look for bright, beautiful yellow blossoms to fill our house and our lives.

…I need to know that what I see now is not the end of the story.

Often healing begins by embracing beauty, by voicing gratitude for the amazing signs of life that surround us, by expressing thanks for what is, instead of longing for what is not.

So we resolutely cut and arrange the forsythia, waiting for bright, yellow blossoms to fill the room.

And we begin to hope.

Lenten Journey: Waiting for Aslan

“WHAT an extraordinary place!” cried Lucy. “All those stone animals – and people too! It’s – it’s like a museum.”

“Hush,” said Susan, “Aslan’s doing something.”

…..Everywhere the statues were coming to life. The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. Creatures were running after Aslan and dancing round him till he was almost hidden in the crowd. Instead of all that deadly white the courtyard was now a blaze of colours; glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds, reddy-brown of foxes, dogs and satyrs, yellow stockings and crimson hoods of dwarfs; and the birch-girls in silver, and the beech-girls in fresh, transparent green, and the larch-girls in green so bright that it was almost yellow. And instead of the deadly silence the whole place rang with the sound of happy roarings, brayings, yelpings, barkings, squealings, cooings, neighings, stampings, shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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During our summer weekend walks in Rockport we pass by some amazing houses. Each one is different in color, size and style. Each one with character and charm: wrap-around front porches on some, outside spiral staircases to rooftops on others, gilded turrets on still more. They are blue, white, deep orange, and green. They have gardens and window boxes full of flowers, driveways and wide porches.

Just to look at them is a treat for our eyes.

One of the houses we aren’t able to describe. It sits down a hill closer to the ocean. Large trees block the view and it’s clear by the No Trespassing sign that strangers are not welcome. A large plot of land opposite the driveway belongs to the house and in recent years the land was developed. Trees were removed and the land is now sculpted with bushes, plants and flowers all artistically pre-arranged so they fit in with large rocks in the area.

But that is not enough.

A couple of years ago, the owners introduced stone statues of animals to the landscaped area.

First we saw a haughty ostrich at least 10 feet tall, its neck rising above its body.

Next we saw a proud lion on a rock.

Then we saw a lioness.

And her cubs.

Stone monkeys, children, and more lions have been added to the stone menagerie.

They stand, poised to pounce and play. But they can’t, because they aren’t alive. They are merely stone and granite statues fashioned by a talented artist.

These stone animals remind me of the castle of the White Witch, Queen of Narnia, where “Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands” turns her enemies into stone and they sit in a large courtyard, seemingly forever trapped under a curse. Moments before they offended the queen, these animals and people were fully alive with a purpose ordained by their creator. Then, through the curse of this queen, they became stone.

They are waiting for Aslan.

I think of how like these stone statues I am at times. Hard. Immoveable. Lifeless. Paralyzed. Stationary. Like I’m waiting for Aslan, waitng for the great lion to breathe life into me so I can live the way I was created to live. 

In Narnia, Aslan is on the move and even stone statues are not beyond his reach. The breath of Aslan touches the statues and moves them from cold, grey stone to living, breathing reality full of color, movement and life. They become who they were created to be – the strength and glory of the Lion in their bearing.

I sit stationary, praying for the breath of the Spirit of God. Just one breath is enough to be fully alive.

Reflection Question: How has the Spirit of God used your Lenten journey to breathe new life into your heart and soul? 

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 Note: This post has been adapted from one published in 2013.

Lenten Journey – Turn the Whole World Upside Down

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Around six years ago, an eye doctor named Tom Little was killed in a massacre of 10 international aid workers in Nuristan province in the country of Afghanistan. The story made international headlines as the largest massacre of aid workers during the entire Afghan conflict. Many who didn’t even know this man paused to take inventory of their lives. That’s what happens when a tragedy occurs. You stop for a moment; you reassess and reevaluate. Often you make changes.

Tom Little had been in Afghanistan for over 33 years. He was from Albany, New York, son of an eye doctor and he loved Afghanistan and the Afghan people. To say that Tom Little lived outside of any box is a serious understatement.  In an interview with a film maker who hoped to highlight the story of Tom Little, the producer said that all the news stories of the massacre focused on the last five minutes of his life. This film maker wanted to find the story behind the 33 years before he was killed.  

I’ve watched the trailer for this film called  The Hard Places five or six times – every time, I cry. The film challenges my comfort, my security, most of all challenges me to live life fully wherever I am called to go.

Now this is a hard call in my current situation. My “government-sponsored” cubicle is often a hard place to be. There are times when I feel underused and unproductive; times when I question whether I’m making a difference.

A grey cubicle is not sexy. It is not a place where the type of headlines that mean something to eternity emerge. It is a place that tests my patience, challenges my creativity, and often defeats my spirit.

But it is currently my reality. It is where God has placed me. And the call to live fully is no less applicable to me as it is to those in far harder places, far more difficult situations. I am weak in this context – and God delights to make the weak strong.

In the trailer, Libby Little, Tom Little’s wife who was by his side throughout their years in Afghanistan, is heard reading a poem by Hannah Hurnard:

O blessed are the patient meek
Who quietly suffer wrong;
How glorious are the foolish weak
By God made greatly strong;
So strong they take the conqueror’s crown,
And turn the whole world upside down.

As I embark on this  year’s Lenten journey, I am challenged to remember that the world is not changed through one momentous event, it is changed through the often boring, simple acts of obedience that I am called to every single day. The world is changed by showing up. Arguably, Tom Little’s life did not affect the Afghan people through his last 5 minutes of a martyr’s death; his life affected the Afghan people in his daily choice to deliver excellent eye care to people in need.

It is in the strength of God as shown through the weakness of men that the world is turned upside down. So it is today that I am called to be obedient to what I know. No more and no less, trusting the outcome to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. Today I am called to show up. 

Reflection Questions: This Lent, what does it mean to be obedient? How can daily obedience turn the world upside down? Where are you called to show up? 

Readers – Passages Through Pakistan is available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble