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.


Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

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Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

Reflections on Morning and Evening Prayers

 

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It’s early morning. The day is waking to summer in all its blue-skyed glory. Birds sing and chirp loud in chorus  – a liturgical chant to welcome the day.

I am standing at our icon corner, the place in our home where we say our morning and evening prayers. It is here where I try to begin the day. It is here where I take a few moments from the frantic busyness that can take hold if I’m not careful; here where I thank God for the morning, for a new day. I shake my head in wonder as I read the words “at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty” – this is what life is to be.


It is less than an hour later when my morning peace is challenged, where I shake my head in frustration at someone who jostled me on the subway, where I hold my breath because the smell of urine is so strong in the Park Street T stop.

This is my life. Perhaps it is yours as well – peace and contemplation forgotten as we face everyday life wherever we are. My everyday life is the city, where homeless find shelter in door ways and tourists meander, their faces hidden by maps and sun hats. My everyday life is data mixed with stories, real people who need cancer screenings, real communities that face various difficulties.

I stop for a moment and think of the words of Frederick Buechner: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. 


It’s at the end of the day when I hold out my hands in a physical gesture of surrender. We are doing our evening prayers, a discipline we began three years ago. We stand with our faces lifted toward icons: The Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos, and our particular saints – St. Sophia, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Isaac the Syrian. A tall, thin beeswax candle made by nuns at a monastery is our only light, but it is enough.

There is something about this evening prayer time, something about this physical opening of my hands in release. Those things that I have worried about and held tight, the backpack full of burdens, even the pain in my body is held out to God. It’s during evening prayers that I fully accept what I know to be true – I can’t do it alone. This thing called life is too much for me. There is too much hurt, too much sadness, too much pain. I cannot go to bed with all this – I must release it.

So I do.

With hands lifted up, I give it all to God. I pray the words “Visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

For those few moments, all that matters is this time where earth drifts away and Heaven seems a bit closer.

From Skin Check to Confession

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma and after a biopsy and surgery I fell into the routine of regular full body skin checks or scans. My “melanoma check” was a bit over a week ago on a Friday.  I had my day all planned. I would go to my appointment, then pick up a cup of coffee, and then head to meet Father Patrick for confession.

As I waited at the desk of the receptionist I looked around me. It was early in the morning but already the waiting area was full. Every age, every color, every size, every gender, every income level.

I quickly checked in and looked around again. There was the teenager, his face scarred with acne, a mom hovering beside him dancing the awkward dance of concern and nonchalance. If scars could speak they would probably tell a story of merciless teasing by clear-skinned kids who knew how to make life miserable for one who already suffered. There was the older couple, he with a bandage over a part of his face, perhaps a result of skin surgery. And there were so many more, all of us with our imperfect skin, there to be checked over by a specialist who knew just which imperfections we should be worried about.

This yearly visit is fairly painless other than the humbling experience of having my naked body in all its wrinkled, spotted glory fully exposed to fine specimens of young male residents (where are the females in dermatology I ask you?) A resident goes over my body with a magnifying glass. Anything suspicious they swab with alcohol and take a closer look. All the while they are talking to me and asking me questions about my skin. Do you wear sunscreen? Any history of cancer? Any history of melanoma or other skin diseases? And then statements – Ah – looks like you didn’t wear sunscreen here! It’s a bit like a dentist asking me if I floss.

All I am to these physicians is a body with a skin disease. Nothing else. I am not a wife or a mom; an employee or a friend; a nurse or a trainer; most certainly not an author. It’s immaterial to them – what matters is my body, separate from my soul, my heart, and my mind. The Big Doctor comes into the room toward the end of the visit and the residents are clearly in slight awe of him. He talks about me in the third person and turns out the lights holding a black light over my leg, focusing on the four-inch diagonal scar where the melanoma first presented. See he says see you can really visualize all her sun spots here. This is called “solar lentigo” he launches into the technical name for the white sunspots that are now gleaming like stars in a dark night on my skin. For a moment I separate myself from my body as well and look down on my legs like they are a foreign thing, unattached to my person.

And then we’re done. All set. No need to come back for another year unless you see something that is cause for concern. Out the entourage goes. The residents (who incidentally looked like they were 12 years old) off to check another body.

And as I began dressing I thought about where I was going next and the juxtaposition of these two visits. From skin checks to confession. One interested only in my body, the other primarily interested in my soul, yet cognizant of the role body, soul, and spirit play in our personhood. One concerned only at that moment, the memory of my skin fading as quickly as a door closing and opening to the next patient; the other concerned on an ongoing basis – concerned with my outward roles as mom, wife, and more, but more so my inner being – my soul.

At the first visit a resident is equipped with a magnifying glass and a black light, at the second there will be no magnifying glass other than the eyes of God, there will be no black light, there will be no talk about me in the third person. It is my choice to reveal that which I want to reveal.

I am leaving a place where I am a specimen and entering a space where, as a human being created in the image of God, I have inherent worth. At one there is a Big Doctor, a specialist known worldwide, his residents trying to please at every turn.At the other – a priest relies on the Great Physician, the one who heals body and soul.The contrast has me shaking my head in consternation and amazement.

From skin check to confession. Both important but one infinitely more so. I check out of the office leaving with an appointment scheduled a year away and head to confession. My body is okay. My soul still needs checking.

The Resilient Orthodox – Now Lay Aside All Cares

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It comes at the perfect time of the service, after we sing the Beatitudes and the gospel is read. After the homily and during the service of the Eucharist. It comes when my mind has started to wander and the worries of the coming week begin to creep in.

The choir leads us in what is called the “Cherubic Hymn” and we sing this phrase “Now lay aside all cares.” It is part of a longer hymn but this is the phrase that challenges me, draws me in every time. It’s repeated twice – for needed emphasis. This phrase beckons me, calls me out, asks me if I can, for this short period of time, lay aside all those things that bother and irritate, all that causes pain and sadness, all that causes confusion and anger – can I lay all of it aside? Can I come to the Eucharist with body and mind fully fixed on the eternal?

Each week this calls me – Lay aside all earthly cares.

Some weeks I do this willingly, so glad to drop my backpack of burdens at the feet of Jesus. Other weeks I hold tight. Worry and earthly cares are clasped in my tight little fist like a child grasping tight to something that will hurt them. During the first time we sing I still want to hold on, but by the second the words soak in and I begin to release. It’s as though God takes that small act and works with it, accepting my paltry attempt at release and honoring it.

Lay aside all earthly cares – who else says that to me all week? Who else gives permission to rest, release, focus on the eternal? It’s a rhetorical question for the answer is obvious. No one. The only time that I am outwardly and verbally given permission to lay aside these earthly cares is Sunday morning when earth meets Heaven in the body and the blood of Christ. I would be a fool to hang on. And so I slowly release the tight grasp I have on all things temporal, on all worries and fears that haunt and threaten to destroy, I lay them aside for this time and a small sigh escapes my lips.

“Now lay aside all earthly cares” – it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command. And so I do.

When do you lay aside all earthly cares? 

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 29 “On Dads, Pastors and Priests”

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When I was 9 years old Lizzie Hover’s dad died. He died in a head-on collision on a dusty desert road in the Sindh area of Pakistan. The night before he had been at my parents home with his lovely wife Carol. They had talked, laughed, and discussed furlough plans as both were heading to a home leave in their passport countries in the summer. My parents and the Hovers were good friends.

I heard the news along with twenty other little girls in a boarding school dormitory. The collective trauma was immense. If Lizzie Hover’s daddy could die, that meant our daddies could die. Suddenly we were no longer safe from death, we were vulnerable, our jugular veins exposed.

Ever since I can remember my father has been there for me. As the only girl in a house full of boys, I enjoyed a special place in his heart. Somehow I knew this without even being told. My father was this strong force against a world that could change in an instant, in an instant like the one that took Lizzy Hover’s father.

They say that your earliest connections with your father affect your view of God. As a little girl I viewed God as completely trustworthy, a strong force against a world that could change in an instant.

I never had a pastor growing up. Such is the life of a boarding school kid. You go to church during the year at boarding school where different faculty members serve up various denominational versions of theology each Sunday. During winter vacation I attended the local Pakistani church, always struggling yet hopeful, Miss Mall’s booming bass voice starting every 20 verse Punjabi song. During the summer we all attended Holy Trinity Church on Mall Road in Murree, a multi-cultural, multidimensional church that sprinkled one week and immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit the next week.

I rarely thought about growing up and having a pastor. That was for other kids and adults, not for those of us who didn’t know what the role meant. But during the rare occasions when I thought about pastors I assumed they would be like my father, trust worthy, wanting the best for me, willing to sacrifice and care, sometimes at great personal cost. I did (eventually) grow up and I grew into having an actual pastor. God in his gracious way allowed for my first experience with a pastor to be wonderful. It was an international church in Chicago and my pastor was Indian, his wife American. The connection was immediate on my part, and I willingly trusted this man. He was trust worthy.

But later in life I learned that pastors weren’t all like my father or Samuel Mall. I learned the hard way that you can share with a pastor but they may not be trust worthy, that you can pour out your heart and yet be met with stone cold, that you can offer up your hardest situations and not be comforted. I began to think of God as less like a father and more like a pastor. It was not a good change.

Because I began to see God as one who could be stone cold, as one who could not be trusted, as one who could not comfort me in my hardest situations. When you are hurt in this way, a part of your heart shrivels and dies to the point of needing life-giving resuscitation.

It is a mystery of how this resuscitation has happened through the Orthodox Church, but it has. There is no tangible explanation – perhaps my hard crust has softened, perhaps I’ve just grown weary of being wary. But through my journey and through the pastoral care of my priest I am learning more about the God that I used to know. The God who is always present and ever faithful, the God who meets me with compassion, comfort, and challenge; who takes my hardest situations and makes them a touch more bearable. The God who I saw my own father trust and love, bowed in adoration in the early morning hours in a Muslim country.

My father celebrated his birthday yesterday. My white-haired handsome father, who enjoys life in a way that many envy, is now 88. We talked right after he had reeled in a large fish while on a birthday fishing expedition with my brother. Each day that I know my father is still alive becomes more precious as I know his life on earth is limited. And today as I think about pastors, priests, and fathers I want to honor him. A man who has loved family, loved life, and most of all loved God. Happy Birthday Dad. I love you.

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 27 “Myrrh Bearing Women”

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There were eight of them. Eight who on Palm Sunday were overjoyed with the honor given to their teacher, their rabbi. Eight of them who on Wednesday could not believe that this man Jesus, a man who they had followed and loved, this man who had known their deepest sins and pains was unlawfully arrested and taken into custody. Eight who on Friday wept soul-tears at the foot of the cross as they looked at the bruised and battered body of their Lord.

Eight who were in a white fog of grief on Saturday.

But on Sunday they got up and did what they had to do. They got up and went to the tomb of Jesus to bathe the body with oils and spices, committing his body to the grave and the ground. Because as women that’s what we do. We grieve for a time, and then we get up and do what has to be done.

That is why the Orthodox church has a Sunday set aside specifically for the myrrh bearing women. Last Sunday was that Sunday and on this, a day set aside to honor Mothers in our society, I think of these women.

Tradition tells us that these Myrrh Bearing Women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the Theotokos, Joanna, Salome, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Susanna, Mary and Martha, both of Bethany. Each of the Gospel accounts talks about these women and it is thought that they arrived at different times and in different groups. Several of these women were women of means, they had given of their time and their money for the years of Jesus’ ministry. All of them had tasted of his grace, all of them knew of his love. And all of them saw it end on a cross in a common criminal’s death.

And that is the wonder of what happened next — because these Myrrh Bearing Women would be the first to find that the tomb was empty. They go down in history as being those that went to the tomb early morning, only to be greeted by an angel and told those most precious words “He is not here for He is Risen – just as he said.” It was these women who were told to go tell the apostles what had happened. It was these women who were entrusted with this incredible joy.

But imagine if they had let the white fog of grief overtake them? Imagine if they had decided not to go to the tomb – because it was too hard. Imagine if they had missed the glorious proclamation of the Risen Lord? That’s where my mind goes. Because I know how easy it is to sink into despair, to think that circumstances will never change, that God cannot do the impossible. 

And so I miss out. I miss out on the gifts that are there when you show up. The more I learn of this faith journey the more I realize that some of this is about showing up. Some of it is about not knowing anything more that that you are supposed to get up and go. And when you arrive – that’s when you find out why.

Though weary from tears and heavy with grief these women stand out in history. They showed up and that’s when it made sense. With tears in my eyes and a prayer on my lips, I think about these Myrrh Bearing Women and I ask for strength to show up. 

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