Wednesday, April 27, 2016

a hospitality conference: eating, drinking, and changing my thinking



Image from anthonycoppedge.com

I was privileged to be a part of Society of Vineyard Scholars conference last week. The theme of the conference was Hospitality, Holiness, and the Kingdom of God. It was hosted by the lovely folks at the Raleigh Vineyard Church in South Carolina, and we all got a taste of Southern hospitality in the form of local favourites such as sweet tea, biscuits, pulled pork, and shrimp and grits. Yes, focusing on hospitality meant that we were offered kindness, meals, housing, and rides to and from the venue, but it also meant that we were invited to do a bit of hard work: the hard work of embracing the unfamiliar and the strange(r). Here are a few snippets from my conference notes.

Hospitality is more than inviting a few people over for a meal in the comfort of my own home. This is a limited form of hospitality because in this scenario I remain on my home turf and, for the most part, still make the rules. True hospitality challenges me to "play the game" on the field of the stranger, to not only welcome them but to rely on them for my well-being and growth. Hospitality or xenophilia (love of the stranger) requires that I give up those things commonly associated with the hospitality industry (privacy, comfort, and security) and instead, relinquish power and preferential treatment in order to take on the posture of a guest, to be a displaced person, so to speak.

Jesus practiced a form of hospitality which placed him in both roles simultaneously: he was a guest who relied on the kindness of strangers (today I am coming to your house, Zaccheus) as well as a host who generously offering himself through friendship, food, healing, and transformation to all who would accept his offerings. To continue the sports analogy, he was seldom on home turf and had no home field advantage to speak of. This was intentional. The gracious, generous nature of the incarnation indicates, in part, that God took on human form not in order to assimilate us, but to protect and enjoy the particularity of humanity.

Some of the talks at the conference included harsh reality-checks, such as realising how inhospitable we can be to different traditions of music, how limited we are in styles of preaching and leadership, and how we are slow to adapt to increasing multi-ethnicity. Instead, we expect the world to adapt to the way we are used to doing things, and make little effort to truly welcome others by becoming informed about their traditions and history and seeking to learn from them. Being hospitable in this way means we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with embracing different ways of doing things within our faith communities even when everything inside us wants to recoil and react because certain practices seem so foreign to us. Please note that I am not talking about changing core values of the kingdom of God, but ways and means. In short, hospitality is difficult stuff.

Christine Pohl reminded us that hospitality is not an instrument to an end, not a way to catch donors or members, not about return on investment, not a strategy for church growth and evangelism. Hospitality is related to holiness, and it is a place of vulnerability where we give people a home, a place in a community, a space to add their unique contribution. Hospitality means that we can no longer view our time and resources as our own, because most opportunities for hospitality arrive as interruptions.

Luke Bretherton said that if we are to be a hospitable people (for we have a very hospitable God), we must not only host others, but be in relationship with others, and foster a common life together. As followers of God, we strive to listen to God, but we must also listen to the cries of those among us. We are not only a community of faith (joined by our devotion to God) but a community of fate (part of the lives of those around us). For this reason, we must be attentive to the dynamics in our neighbourhoods, our work contexts, and our informal gathering sites. We must be careful not to define the world through our own eyes and history and experience, but to realise that we are meant to figure things out together. We need to learn to work and play together with those who do not look and sound like us.

These are just a few of the notes from the conference which ended up being a place of great joy and connection and challenge for me. I will close with a personal story. The venue where we had the conference was not really within walking distance of anything (that felt a bit strange to a city girl who walks everywhere, but hey, that's how things are down there). This meant that after I got a ride to the conference in the morning, I was pretty much stuck there for the day. There was plenty of food and drinks to be had, but I was missing access to some of my favourites like chai latte and Diet Dr. Pepper. I was wandering around the building on Friday morning, just checking things out, when a friend asked if I needed anything. I said, not really, I was just looking around. And then I jokingly added that what I really needed was a Diet Dr. Pepper, but there was no way to get to a store.

A short while later, while I was sitting in a session, someone plopped a bag down on the seat beside me. Inside the bag were two Diet Dr. Peppers. I glanced around and saw my friend slipping out of the room. I was stunned and didn't know quite how to feel. I was thrilled to receive the precious drinks. I felt guilty because I had whined about not being able to walk to a corner store. I wanted to save the gift because it was sacred and at the same time, I wanted to guzzle down the drinks because I was thirsty. I wanted to give back and I wanted to humbly receive and let that be enough. I just sat there for a bit, teary-eyed that someone had been so attentive, so willing, so selfless, and so hospitable to me. Being on the receiving end of loving hospitality can be very disorienting to someone who is in giving mode a lot of the time. Finally, I blinked my tears back and opened one of the drinks. The liquid was like an elixir to my soul which, after a very eventful and taxing term at both school and church, was somewhat depleted. Each sip was a reminder that all of us are guests of the Most High and of each other. Undeserving as we may be, we are constantly being offered good gifts in the most unexpected and often unfamiliar ways. May we be moved to gratefully partake.

Monday, April 18, 2016

reading 1 Corinthians 12 again

The Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts. Image from curtisgraphics.com
A lot has happened since my last entry here: After a few intense weeks of studying, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation on April 1 (see my post here if you want to know what that entailed). We (Dean and a bunch of academics) all went for a celebratory lunch and then I spent the next few days writing a paper for a conference which is happening this week. After that, it was back to my dissertation to make the changes requested by my examiners (the title and a note about one of my sources) and fix any typos and improper citations. On Tuesday, I submitted the final version and allowed myself to sign off as Dr. Matte on an email. Just for fun.

This morning I drove Dean to the airport, waved goodbye to the house-guests we had for a few days, and sat down to read 1 Corinthians 12. It is about the gifts the Spirit of God gives to the people of God. As I am currently considering the next steps in my vocation, this sentence seemed especially significant: "Each person is given something to do that shows who God is" (1 Cor 12, The Message). As I pondered this, I read the rest of the chapter and realised that the spiritual gifts all show some aspect of God's character. Perhaps this has always been obvious to everyone else, but it was a bit of a paradigm shift for me. So often I think about spiritual gifts as those activities which build up and encourage the church, and God knows we need building up and encouraging on a regular basis. However, to see the gifts as directly linked to God, communicating something of God to us, puts a slightly different emphasis on things.

So we are given wise counsel because it is an expression of God's wisdom. We receive clear understanding or knowledge because God is the God who knows all of creation intimately. We have the gift of faith or simple trust because God is faithful and trustworthy. We are given gifts of healing because God is a Healer. We receive the ability to do miraculous acts because God is far beyond human and natural law. We are given gifts of prophecy and proclamation because God is a self-revealing God; he loves to communicate. We receive discernment because God himself discerns our innermost motives and thoughts. We have gifts of tongues because God not only desires to speak to everyone in their own language, but he also desires that we learn his language. We receive the ability to interpret tongues because God brings order out of confusion or chaos (see Genesis 1).

In the same way, God gives the church apostles (sent ones) because he sent himself into the world. God gives the church prophets because he is always proclaiming his love in words and in actions. God sends the church evangelists because Jesus is the gospel, the Good News, incarnate. God gives the church teachers because he is the divine teacher, instructing all of creation how to reflect the glory of God. God gives the church pastors because he is the Good Shepherd. God sends the church helpers because he is our helper and comforter and advocate. Every gift from God is rooted in divine character. All the gifts are for the building up of the church because God is committed to building his church.

Being part of a charismatic tradition means that we place a certain emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit. May we never forget that a gift is given in order to make the giver more present to the recipient. A genuine gift is a reflection of the giver's desire to give the ultimate gift: themselves. God gives himself to the world; this is what is at the core of the generous display of gifts at work in the church, gifts from the Spirit of God.

Postscript: It is interesting to note that the Catholic tradition references Isaiah 11 to list seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge (right judgment), courage (fortitude), counsel, piety (reverence), and wonder and awe in the presence of the Lord.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

using

PicassoGuernica.jpg
Guernica by Picasso
I am studying for my doctoral oral defence these days so have little time to write thoughtful blogs or give much attention to other topics. However, I came across a quote from C. S. Lewis a few days ago which speaks not only to my doctoral research but resonates with my ongoing mission to rescue Christianity from the language of "being used by God." Really, we ought not to speak this way. The idea of God as a "user" is deeply disturbing, and adopting this view makes us, as followers of Jesus, prone to imitate this ends justifies the means type of thinking. In essence, we become utilitarian propagandizers instead of people who pursue genuine and loving encounter.

So here is Lewis on the distinction between using artwork and appreciating it as art. It applies to so much more than art, going to the heart of how we view all of creation (everything from other people to the holy scriptures to the flowers that grow in the field), whether as mere tools or as beautiful, living subjects who deserve our respect and have something to teach us.

“This attitude, which was once my own, might also be defined as “using” pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the pictures – or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture – as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you “do things with it.” You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you…. Real appreciation demands the opposite process. … We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. …We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” - C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1992), 16-19.

We, as theologians, can be especially susceptible to this, using knowledge, sacred texts, and convincing ideas to press our viewpoint on others. Let us remember that theology's primary goal is not to persuade people of universal truth, but to awaken us to the presence of the loving Eternal One. Let us be forerunners in looking well, listening well, and receiving well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

having a conversation with God

Image from speakoutinc.com
Prayer. It seems so easy and so difficult at the same time. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes these words about prayer:

"Most Christians are convinced that prayer is more than the outward performance of an obligation, in which we tell God things he already knows. It is more than a kind of daily waiting attendance on the exalted Sovereign who receives his subjects' homage morning and evening. And although many Christians experience in pain and regret that their prayer gets no further than this lowly stage, they are sure, nonetheless, that there should be more to it. In this field there lies a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up. This seed has the power to become a mighty tree bearing blossoms and fruit, if only I would plant and tend it. This hard and distasteful duty would yield the freest and most blessed kind of life, if only I could open and surrender myself to it." [1]

I often have the sense that there is so much more to conversing with the Creator of the Universe than I am experiencing, and yet, I don't quite know how to move from my present habits and words and groans to a more profound and fruitful communication with the Lover of my soul. If we think of prayer as dialogue or conversation with God, perhaps the rules of good conversation might provide some insight into the area of prayer. I recently came across an article which expounds on the 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist [2] and when I read it within the context of conversing with God, I found that a lot of the principles apply.

1. Be genuinely interested in the person. Who are they? What is on their mind? What motivates them? In the context of prayer, are we interested in who God is? Do we spend time asking about him? Do we talk about topics that are not centred around us but around him?
2. Focus on the positives. Rather than talk about past grievances, opt for a discussion of future goals. Are our prayers filled mostly with complaints or problems or do we talk about projects we would like to do together with God?
3. Converse, do not debate or argue. This is not a platform to air your opinions, not a battleground to win. Be ready to chat, discuss, and hash things out, but amiably. Allow for things to be left open-ended. In other words, are we open to hear things from God that we don't agree with? And are we willing to leave room for more discussion next time instead of having everything spelled out today?
4. Respect: Don't impose, criticize, judge, or demand. Respect the other's space, point of view, and choices. If we listen to our prayers, we just might find that we lapse into imposing our ideas and choices onto God instead of respecting his ways, timing, and process.
5. Put the person in her/her best light. Give credit where credit is due. Don't assume you know why they did something unless they explicitly tell you. Look for ways to make them look good. Are our prayers filled with graciousness in how we interpret God's actions or non-actions? Do we reaffirm God's lovingkindness toward all of creation, even when we might be having a bad day?
6. Embrace differences while building on commonalities. Appreciate their uniqueness. Build on common links. Use both difference and commonality to reveal more about both of you. When talking about a divine/human relationship, we can tend to focus too much on God's distance from us, both in goodness and in ability or power. Or perhaps we think of Jesus as our buddy and are overly familiar in our prayers. Let us make room for recognising common ground (Jesus) as well as appreciating God's holy uniqueness in our prayers.
7. Be true to yourself. Don't cover up who you are. Be real. Don't just mime what the other person is saying or do what you think is expected. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, so there is no advantage to putting on an act. Let our conversations with God be filled with integrity and humility.
8. 50-50 sharing. Both parties should have equal opportunities to contribute to the conversation. Don't do all the talking. Pose questions and listen. Yes, one hundred times yes.
9. Ask purposeful questions. To have a meaningful conversation, ask meaningful questions. Get to know a person better by asking good questions. I know that sometimes my questions in prayer are pitiful, rhetorical, or vague and not at all thoughtful. We can all learn to ask better questions, even of God.
10. Give and take. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Put things in a larger context to get perspective. I believe this also means that we should be good at both giving and receiving. Prayer can be a lively exchange, a respectful silence, a pouring out of our concern or grief, a search for guidance, or an intimate exchange between friends. Sometimes we will be on the giving end more than the receiving end; other times we will be happy to listen and sit quietly. Let us cultivate both skills.

"Prayer is dialogue, not man's monologue before God." [3]

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 13.
[2] Celestine Chua, "Art of Conversing: Do You Meet These 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist?" http://personalexcellence.co/blog/conversation/.
[3] Balthasar, 14.

Monday, March 07, 2016

two wills become one

Image from goodfridayblues.wordpress.com
I have been doing quite a bit of reading and thinking about freedom in the past year or two. Some of it has to do with my doctoral dissertation and some of it has to do with my ongoing spiritual formation and a personal desire to be truly free. When we think of freedom in our Western culture, we often think about the ability to make our own choices, to say I don't want to eat pizza today, I want to eat sushi. Or I want to do what I want to do, not what you want me to do. We often see freedom primarily as self-determination, autonomy, and the ability to say No. However, freedom can also be thought of as consent, having the ability to align ourselves with another, the power to say Yes to someone. I want to say more about this second sense of freedom, but first, a bit of an overview of the scriptural idea of freedom.

The Greek words we translate as freedom in the New Testament are:
1. eleutheria: freedom, liberty, especially from slavery; the liberty to do as one pleases, freedom from the dominion of corrupt desires so that we do, by the free impulse of the soul, what the will of God requires.
2. aphesis: pardon, complete forgiveness, a sending away, letting go, deliverance.

We see these words when Jesus quotes a messianic passage from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release (aphesis) to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (aphesis), to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV) and when Jesus answers some Jewish opponents: "I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power. Even a household slave does not live in the home like a member of the family, but a son belongs there forever. So think of it this way: if the Son comes to make you free (eleutheria), you will really be free (eleutheria)." (John 8:34, The Voice)

Other well-known passages concerning freedom are: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (eleutheria)." (2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV) and "For you were called to freedom (eleutheria), brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Galatians 5:13, NRSV). I won't comment much on these passages other than to say that freedom is closely identified with Jesus, the Son of God. Where Jesus is, we find freedom on display.

When we are talking about freedom in a theological context, it is important to differentiate between finite freedom (what we have as finite beings) and infinite freedom (what an infinite being has). Because we are not infinite, we can never have infinite freedom, meaning that the choices we have before us will always be limited. The good news is that our freedom, granted to us by God, finds its ultimate expression in tying itself to God. Freedom that is focused on autonomy is, in essence, turned in on itself and soon becomes a prison instead of bringing a person to greater freedom. The only thing that opens humans up to greater freedom is being in contact with infinite freedom, divine freedom.

This dynamic intersection of finite freedom with infinite freedom is evident in the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, knowing that suffering and death await him, prays: "Father, if You are willing, take this cup [of suffering] away from Me. Yet not My will, but Your will, be done." (Luke 22:42, The Voice) Here we witness the intimacy between Jesus and his heavenly Father; however, we see not only their oneness but their distinction as two wills are clearly identified. In an appeal to his Father, Jesus voices his desire to be free from suffering and death. This could be seen as a form of self-determination. Jesus follows this appeal with a prayer of consent, choosing to align his will with that of his beloved Father and thereby, uniting his finite freedom with infinite freedom and accomplishing what no mere human could.

Jesus shows us that freedom is not related to a demonstration of power and autonomy, but the ability to say Yes even when we are tempted to say No, and the courage to say No even when others would have us say Yes (think about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness). Life or death, fame or obscurity, success or failure, love or hate, it matters not. Jesus freely aligns himself with the will of the Father because his freedom is found in the Father, not in his circumstances. 

So what does this mean for those of us seeking to live in freedom? Ignatian spirituality identifies spiritual freedom as indifference. This does not mean that we don't care (Jesus experienced great sorrow in Gethsemane), but that we are not ruled by external forces or internal brokenness. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from personal bias and can submit our wants and desires to God, just like Jesus did. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from disordered attachments (attachments that are out of order) and we can let go of anything which hinders us from loving God and loving others. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from our personal baggage, those past experiences which can hamper our ability to say Yes to God. Spiritual freedom means that we live with open hands, not clenched fists, and that we are able to give and receive freely. Spiritual freedom means that we live fully and freely as the persons God created us to be. 

May we say the prayer of Jesus, "Not my will but yours be done," not as a prayer of weakness and limp submission, but as a prayer which is our greatest expression of freedom and leads us into even greater freedom. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

the cost of pressure

Waikiki beach, February 2016
It's been awhile since I wrote anything here. There are several reasons for that. The primary one is that I spent the first half of the month doing a final edit of my doctoral dissertation before I handed it over to the examiners. Looking carefully at every word, footnote, and punctuation mark, as well as making sure that all 200 pages read like a cohesive whole and not a collection of disjointed ideas, took up most of my hours as well as most of the space in my brain. I surfaced from my office for tea and popcorn and made appearances in classes and meetings, but my mind was always on my dissertation. I submitted it to the thesis office on February 16. Three days later, Dean and I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to fly to Hawaii for a bit of sunshine and rest. It took several days before I was able to relax and enjoy the slower pace of vacation instead of thinking about projects, obligations, and future plans. Rest is a discipline and a skill.

For the past five years, the pressure of a doctoral dissertation has been ever-present in my life, always hanging over my head. Very often this relentless pressure was coupled with feelings of inadequacy because my studies demanded more than I seemed to be able to give. Pressure in itself is not a bad thing, but it is meant to be temporary. Over time, chronic pressure can become so ingrained in our lives that we forget that there was ever another way to live; we can also assume that pressure is an unavoidable part of existence in our world. It is not. Like fear, pressure is meant to propel us to necessary action in unusual and extreme circumstances; it is not meant to become the norm nor is it supposed to rule our lives.

Pressure has not only been present in my academic life, but in my role as a church leader as well. I recently realised that for years I have been living under the pressure to establish and grow a healthy church community by doing all the things that needed to be done: leading, teaching, praying, befriending, hosting, solving problems, listening to people's concerns, and seeking to have a positive influence in our city. Honestly, it is exhausting. Part of that is because our faith community is somewhat under-resourced for the challenges before us (which church group isn't?), but it is also due to the fact that I have not always related to the church in a healthy way. I have taken its small successes or failures to be equal to my personal success or failure. Being so closely tied to another entity's outcomes is called co-dependency. This disorder is evident when we hold ourselves responsible for how other people act or react (or try to control how people act) and it is a burden we are not meant to bear. Jesus calls us to be free, not only from sin but from the pressure to conform to the ideals present in our culture.

Through some help from a spiritual director, insightful readings, and daily prayer exercises, I am seeking to live in more freedom, freedom from the weighty pressure to succeed as an academic and as a church leader. It is hard not to feel a bit lost without the constant push toward spiritual activities and high levels of academic performance, but I know that a high-pressure life is not sustainable. I must find a new way of being and it begins by listening to the Spirit of Jesus instead of to the clamouring demands all around me.

Today I was reminded of Henri Nouwen's assertion that before all else, we must identify ourselves as the beloved of God. Only this can put everything else in perspective. May I become more and more attentive to the loving voice of the Father as I stumble toward freedom on this journey.

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. - Henri J. M. Nouwen

The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world--free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or considered useless.... I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.  - Henri J. M. Nouwen

Sunday, February 07, 2016

the stories we keep telling

Kite-flying in Greece on Clean Monday
Image from www.flickr.com
If you have parents, you have no doubt heard some stories of how it was back in the day when things were different. Perhaps they had to suffer hardships like walk all the way to the television to change the channels. Can you imagine? Sometimes we tire of the stories we hear older people tell over and over. I have been known to roll my eyes when I hear the familiar phrase, "Did I tell you about the time...?" But really, there is a reason for this repetition. Stories are told again and again because they remind us who we are. For instance, my ancestors came to Canada from another land in order to escape religious persecution, and I don't want to forget that heritage. Stories such as the ones told by people who have lived through a war help us remember what is important and put things in perspective for those of us who enjoy relative peace. Stories invite us to enter into the experience of another person, so they give us chances to practice compassion and empathy. Stories which surround marriages or births are causes for celebration and they serve to strengthen relationships and rekindle fond emotions. Ideally, stories help us to build good road-maps for our lives because they illustrate values such as courage, love, sacrifice, and joy.

One of the stories we tell over and over again can be found in the Christian Calendar: the story of Jesus. It begins with Advent, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. It continues through Christmastide when we celebrate that God came to be with us in a tiny baby called Jesus. This is followed by a period called Ordinary Time which means a part of the year which does not belong to a particular season. Then comes Lent (from Middle English, lengten, meaning the lengthening of days) which refers to the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays, preparing us to commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The Easter Triduum consists of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. We then enter Eastertide which celebrates Jesus's resurrection, ascension, and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on followers of Jesus. After this, we revert to Ordinary Time until Advent comes around and the story begins again. I confess, there are times when I think, "Not again," when I see Christmastide or Eastertide approaching. I have heard the story of Jesus so many times that my ears are a bit dull to it. Then I came upon Clean Monday.

In the Western Church, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday which is named after the practice of marking the foreheads of Christians with ashes from the previous year's palm branches used in celebrating Palm Sunday. Lent is associated with fasting, prayer, repentance, and self-denial. The oft-asked question is: What are you giving up for Lent? In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, the tradition is a bit different. What they call Great Lent begins with Clean Monday, a day set aside for flying kites, having picnics, and eating seafood. Yes, you read that right, flying kites. The tradition of flying kites and going on outdoor excursions on Clean Monday (which is a public holiday in Greece) has to do with celebrating the coming Spring as well as leaving behind all sinful attitudes. It is also customary to clean the house the first week of Lent and to go to confession. In many ways, Clean Monday signifies a fresh start, a getting rid of the old and beginning anew. This is mirrored in a ceremony of mutual forgiveness on Sunday night before Clean Monday, a time when people bow down to one another and ask forgiveness, thus beginning Lent with a clean conscience and renewed Christian love.

The biblical passage in focus for Great Lent is Isaiah 1: "Wash yourselves, clean up your lives; remove every speck of evil in what you do before Me. Put an end to all your evil. Learn to do good; commit yourselves to seeking justice. Make right for the world's most vulnerable - the oppressed, the orphaned, the widow. Come on now, let's walk and talk; let's work this out. Your wrongdoings are blood-red, but they can turn as white as snow. Your sins are red like crimson, but they can be made clean again like new wool." (Isaiah 1:16-18, The Voice) It is interesting that the traditions of Lent in the Eastern Church tend not so much toward repentance and fasting and somberness, but to joyfully letting go of the old, removing the clutter, cleaning the filth, and putting away sinful habits in order to make room for God's good gift of ongoing salvation.

Romans 10 puts it this way: "Say the welcoming word to God - 'Jesus is my Master' - embracing, body and soul, God's work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That's it. You're not 'doing' anything; you're simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That's salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: 'God has set everything right between him and me!' Scripture reassures us, 'No one who trusts God like this - heart and soul - will ever regret it.'" (The Message)

Instead of focusing on the "taking away" during Lent that we are so familiar with in the Western Church, the Eastern Church draws our attention to the joy of participating in God's cleaning up of our lives. We are invited to receive once again God's offer of a fresh start and to celebrate the lengthening of days which signals new growth. This year, I invited our faith community to engage in practicing the Daily Examen during Lent. The Examen is a spiritual exercise meant to help us become more aware of God's presence and movement in our lives. It is really quite simple. At the end of the day, invite the presence of God and look over the past 24 hours, asking God to highlight where he was at work, showcasing his loving goodness. Give thanks for these moments. Then ask God to highlight where you were getting in the way of God's activity. Repent for these times and invite God's healing in those areas. Finally, look forward with hope toward the next day and all that God has in store for you. It is a bit like getting a fresh start every 24 hours.

This Lent season, may we become more aware of the movements of our soul: where we turn toward Jesus and where we turn to our own selfish wanderings. May we once again offer up our dirty, stained lives filled with the mistakes of the past year and invite God to cleanse our souls. May we remove the clutter in our minds and hearts and lives and make room for God's spirit to blow on us afresh. And like those kites on Clean Monday, may we catch the wind and fly high.

Note: The Orthodox Christian Calendar is based on the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian; therefore, the Orthodox Easter falls quite a bit later in the year than the Western Easter. This year Clean Monday falls on March 14. Perhaps you want to get a kite.