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An Orthodox Guide to New Year’s Resolutions

We all need a new start. We hope for the opportunity of a second chance, we dream sometimes of a fresh beginning. Maybe tomorrow we’ll be on track where today we strayed a bit. We like to think that in the future, things will be better: that the next season will offer something we didn’t have today. When it’s winter, we dream of the beach; when it’s summer, all we want is for it to cool off a bit.

 

So it seems natural that when the calendar year starts fresh, we’d want to make a fresh start ourselves. Maybe we want to quit some bad habit, or begin a better one. We hope for better health and finances, we pray we’ll start to overcome the struggles of last year.

 

But more often than not, we realize that the new year is just the day after yesterday and yesterday’s struggles didn’t seem to disappear. We might make lofty promises and strong New Year’s resolutions, but after a few days, we start to doubt we’ll have the will to keep on. How can Orthodox Christians get past the temptation of extremes and then best direct their attention at the start of the new year? What should we keep in mind as we chose our resolutions?

 

1. A resolution needs regular renewal

 

New Year’s resolutions tend to be breakable because we forget the meaning of a resolution. If I make a resolution, I am resolving or choosing to do something; I’m making a commitment. Every Sunday, we make a commitment to Christ as the priest calls us to “commit ourselves, one another, and our whole lives to Christ our God.” We are called to commit ourselves to Christ regularly, throughout the Liturgy, and every week. Just as easy as it is to forget to commit ourselves to God, it is so easy to forget about our resolutions and then give up following through when we prove imperfect. Seeing our resolutions as commitments reminds us that a resolution needs renewal when we are tempted to drop it instead.

 

We can also see a resolution like a vow or a promise. Viewed like this, we might treat our New Year’s resolutions the way that Christ tells us to keep a vow. Instead of swearing by anything on heaven or earth, Jesus says that Christians should let their “yes be yes” and their “no be no” (Matthew 5:37). A Christian should stick to their word, and their word should be a solid enough foundation that they don’t need to swear by anything.

 

So whatever we chose to resolve to do this new year, we shouldn’t do so lightly. We should be committed to doing it and then regularly recommit to keeping up with it.

 

2. Physical, mental, and spiritual health

Many of our New Year’s resolutions revolve around our health. We might want to start exercising to get fit, to lose weight, or just to feel a bit more active. But when we aren’t used to exercising, it can be hard to keep up with it. Similarly, the spiritual life can feel the same way. If we aren’t used to praying and reading scripture, it can easily fall by the wayside as “more pressing and immediate concerns” of life take precedence.

 

This year, we might want to look at all aspects of our health: physical, mental, and spiritual. As Orthodox Christians, we cannot ignore our spiritual lives and focus only on our physical health. But we also can’t neglect the body and the mind in favor of the spirit. If we’d like to improve our physical well-being this year, we should aim to make progress in our spiritual life as well.

 

Along with a healthier diet and exercise, we can have a healthier approach to prayer and reading scripture. If we are setting aside time to walk or run, we can set aside time to sit in silence and pray. If we are eating healthier foods, we can also take in healthier reading by meditating on scripture and the lives of the saints. And, if we can limit unhealthy foods for the sake of physical health, we can also fast with the Church for the sake of our spiritual health.

 

3. One day at a time

 

If we are choosing to commit ourselves to something, and are regularly choosing to continue on with it, then we will already see the wisdom of taking things one day at a time. Instead of focusing on the entire year and feeling the pressure of the possibility of twelve months of failure, we can instead commit to our resolution this week and more specifically today.

 

One way to keep our focus on today is to spend a few moments every night reflecting on our day. How did we do following through with our resolution today? What were our highs and lows of the day? By seeing our lows in the context of our highs, it can be easier to be grateful even for our day’s small failures or imperfections.

 

We are imperfect people who are called into a relationship with a perfect God and it is He who can give us the strength we need to get through today.

 

Another benefit of taking one day at a time and reflecting on what we are grateful for each day is that we will be able to accept the fact that there will be days that we don’t stick to our resolution. We will be able to accept that we weren’t perfect today, but that with God’s strength, we can make a fresh commitment tomorrow.

 

*****

 

Another year has come and gone and now we’re in 2017. As we choose our New Year’s resolutions, we as Orthodox Christians can benefit from seeing our resolutions as commitments that need to be renewed regularly. We can remember to keep the balance in caring for our physical and spiritual health. And, we can take it one day at a time with our resolutions, and not fall into despair even if we fail today.

 

Are you making a New Year’s resolution this year? How might taking it one day at a time help you to follow through with your resolution?

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Giving Thanks Even During the Holidays

As the weather is getting colder, we enter into that period known as “the holidays”: that mix of secular and religious feasts of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Theophany. And in the midst of the hectic fervor of Christmas preparations, we stop for a moment and give thanks. Thanksgiving that secular Pascha of Autumn is a chance for everyone to be together once again, gathered around a spread of delicious food.

 

But for many people, the holidays can be a challenge. They are a reminder of what has changed and those we have lost. We remember the good old days and how things have changed, we remember our losses, we remember our differences with family members, and we remember our resentments. And then comes the predictable question from our family of why we’re still single or when we’re getting married.

 

And just as we start thinking we’re so different from our family, during the holidays we realize we’re slowly…becoming…our parents.

 

So how do we give thanks during the holidays when we just want to escape them?

 

1. Walk in love

 

One of the hardest things for many of us during the holidays is to walk in love. We have so much on our minds, so many things to do, so many places to go to see this or that family member, that we can easily get frustrated and short-tempered.

 

But we have another model to follow. "Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” St. Paul writes, “and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:1-2). The way we live out the Holidays should be modeled by Christ’s own sacrificial love. So how do we walk in love during the Holidays?

 

Well for starters, St. Paul doesn’t say to walk in fear or to walk in resentments. We are to walk in love. So the first thing we need to do is leave behind our fears and our resentments, to leave behind our family feuds and our political differences. We need to walk in love, and love requires sacrifice.

 

What can each of us offer to our family and friends? We can offer them grace and patience, we can offer them our serenity and our listening ears. This can be our offering, our fragrant offering, this holiday season. And we might even find that it’s easier to be thankful when we walk in love.

 

2. Make the most of the time

 

Time is one of those things we tend to wish away, and then wish we could get back. We take for granted the time we have with those we love. We think we’ll be able to make those amends later, we’ll be able to listen to them later. But if we are to walk in love, we need to “look carefully then how [we] walk,” says St. Paul, "not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time" (Ephesians 5:15-16).

 

When we make the best use of the time, we will be aware of all that we have to be thankful for. When we are wishing the time away, we might try to escape our present situation by going to our phones to text, tweet, snap, or scroll through Instagram. Our instinct to escape our uncomfortable situation keeps us from connecting, it disconnects us from those around us, and it is certainly not making the most of our limited time with our loved ones. We need to be present with our family and friends during the holidays, not trying to will the time away.

 

Something we can all do is to take a break from our phones when we are together with family. We can practice being more fully present by joining in conversation with family members, by engaging with those people we haven’t spoken with in a while, or to get to know our family better than with surface level conversation.

 

Do you have old-timers left in your family? Ask them family stories, ask about your family history. Usually, people don’t think anyone would be interested in these stories, so they don’t share them. But these are the stories we will never know if we don’t ask. And plus, storytelling is a way to grow closer to and to connect with family.

 

3. Discern what is pleasing to the Lord

 

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to be patient with strangers, or with your boss, than it is to be patient and loving to your family members? We are able to discern what is the right action with those we know we have to be nice to, but we struggle with our family, especially during the holidays when tension seems to run high. What we need in these moments is to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).

 

Discernment involves being able to sort through all of the noise we encounter, and find some sense of order or music in it all. Discernment is being able to find the good when we want to focus on the bad. St. Paul tells us that “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5: 8-9). So instead of being a source of darkness (being argumentative, or worse, non-communicative) we could try to be a source of light, to try to be pleasing to the Lord in all of our interactions with family during the holidays.

 

In discussing giving thanks, St. Paul frames it in contradistinction to a lack of sobriety. Instead of giving into the temptations of impurity, covetousness, foolish talk, crude joking, and drunkenness, we are to give “thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5: 4, 20). Being thankful and discerning what is pleasing to God are the sober actions that we choose to take during the holidays. And being with family during the holidays is the soil where we grow in our faith, perhaps the place our faith is tested the most.

 

*****

 

The holidays are as full of feasts as they are of opportunities to test and grow in our faith. When we are so wrapped up in the stresses that these occasions bring us, we can look past the little blessings, we can miss the beauty of life as we focus on its imperfections.

 

But as we prepare for our family get-togethers, we can prepare by remembering to walk in love. We can be aware of each moment so that we can make the most of our time. And we can approach our time with family in sobriety and thankfulness, with a discerning mind and by doing what is pleasing to God.

 

How are you going to walk in love during the holidays? Do you struggle with being present with family; do you find yourself escaping into your phone? How can you show your thanks to your family and make the most of this time?

 
 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Being Comfortable with Stability

There’s nothing like the holidays to make me nostalgic! For starters, there’s all the time to think in the car while driving to see family and friends. Then there’s the time catching up, and the questions about what’s new in my world and what my plans are.

And, somewhere between talking about myself and hearing about others, my nostalgia shifts and I get this feeling that I have to know what’s next. That gets especially strong on New Year’s, the day everyone decides to be an enthusiastic planner for the upcoming year.

After all of this reflecting and making plans, it feels like we’re more comfortable being anywhere than here, more comfortable being in any time other than the one right now. We’d rather plan where we should be, or could be, than simply comfortable where we actually are.

Because we’re uncomfortable with stability.

We’re always thinking about what’s next or at least what people expect us to do next. We are so used to asking ourselves, “What’s next?” that we never really appreciate the blessings of right now.

During Christmas vacation, I spoke with an abbess friend of mine (yes, I have abbess friends) about this constant feeling that we have to be on the move. I was reflecting on the fact that monks and nuns take vows of stability; they commit to staying put, to living out their lives in the religious community they joined. While those of us in the world may not be thinking about staying where we are forever, there is wisdom that we can glean from their experience.

So what can we do to be more comfortable with where we are in life, right now?

1. Discover your “field”

Jesus often used farming metaphors when teaching His disciples. One that comes up several times is the image of a vineyard or a field. For us, our vineyard or our field is where God has placed us right now. That may be our Church community, our family, our current job, or our field of study.

Like St Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6:19, we are not our own: we belong to Christ. And this means that this field isn’t for our glory, it’s been loaned to us as the place where we can work out our salvation. Since our field belongs to Christ, we will have to answer to Him about how we tend it and what fruit our work bears (check out Matthew 21:33-46 and Matthew 25:14-30).

So to be more comfortable where we are now, it might take a change of perspective. Instead of seeing our current situation as temporary, what if we took seriously that “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17)? If we see wherever we are, right now, as the place that God wills us to be today, then there’s important work we can get started on, right now.

And that work takes effort.

2. Give it your all

When we’re serious about something, it’s easier to go “all in,” to fully commit ourselves and give our best effort. But are we “all in” cultivating our field (community, family, job, studies)? Are we giving our day to day lives all the effort they need?

In a monastery, each nun or monk has a specific diakonima (a responsibility or job) that is specifically their own. This job is their everything, their place to shine, their little kingdom where they work out their salvation in their community. Having this assignment teaches the monastic the importance of being committed to something, and that their presence is vital to the community.

The same goes for us, no matter the vineyard God has given us. We should be showing up every day with our “A game,” ready to do whatever needs to get done for that day.

And the effort we put in reflects back on the One Who sent us.

3. Glorify God in your work

No matter the situation in which you find yourself today, God has given you the strength and the talents you need for today. But in order to get anything done where we are, we need to stick around long enough to get to know and love our field. We have to get to know our field so God can show us where to get to work.

If we see our life as our stage, as the piece of art that we are offering back to God, then everything we do will be an opportunity to glorify God. We won’t need to worry about plans for the future or being as accomplished as we want to be, because we’ll see today as the most important day. Tomorrow is an idea in our minds, and can never be as real as today.

It’s easier to find joy when we are working for God’s glory rather than our own. I’ve also found that it’s easier to do this when I focus on God’s will for today, rather than fulfilling all of my plans for my life. This helps pull me away from the idols I set up in my life and helps re-center me on the reality of God in the reality of the present day.

So even if we experience trials in our lives, we can still find joy because we are learning to love the field that God has given us and to see this place as where God has called us to be.

*****

Nearly all of us are behind on our life timeline, in the big plans we’ve set for ourselves. And eight days into the New Year, we’re probably all behind on our New Year’s resolutions too! But this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn to be comfortable and content with staying put and learning to see God at work in our lives today. Stability and consistency are good for us because they offer us an opportunity to discover the field that God has given us, a chance to give it our all every day, and the ability to glorify God in our work each day.

Are you always thinking about where to and what’s next? Give stability a chance and see how God will get to work in your life, today.

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

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Home is Where the Church is

I’m an abnormally adaptable person. I move someplace and, next thing you know, I have a new accent and am calling this new place home.

You see, I’ve moved around a lot, so I’ve had to learn to adapt. Home for me is wherever I’m staying, today. This means that the more places I live, and the more people I connect to, the bigger home becomes. But as I move from city to city, my memories of each old home create a nostalgia for places that are no more. As everyone moves on, that old home isn’t quite the same.

And yet, home is still there.

The idea of home fascinates me. I’m a born and bred Virginian, but each place I’ve lived since High School has stolen a place in my heart. I’ve become a bit Egyptian and Argentine, a bit Philadelphian and Bostonian, a bit Greek and Palestinian. My heart swells just remembering my friends and chosen family from each of these places I once (even briefly) called home.

This past week, I had the joy to go back to one of these places. I returned to Hellenic College Holy Cross for a conference on “Speaking to Secular America” organized by the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity. (Click here to learn more about the Missions Institute and to hear the talks from the conference.) This meant that I got to reunite with professors and old friends, and I was also able to meet students who have come to the School since I graduated.

But the nostalgia!

While it was amazing to be reunited with my HCHC family, in other ways, it was bitter sweet. It’s like when I visited my friends in Cairo a year after I studied abroad, or when I went back to James Madison University a year after I graduated. The nostalgia, for me, is for not only the place, but for the specific time when I lived there. It’s easy for me to want to go back to those times: to relive the good times and to redo the times I wish I could change.

But then I went to church.

And I remembered that when I’m in the services, it’s not about yesterday or tomorrow, it’s just about right now. It’s not about reliving yesterday or dreaming about tomorrow. It’s just about living today.

In worship, I remember that I’m already home.

This reminds me of a story my friend once told me in college. One weekend, he visited a monastery. As he prepared to leave, he told a monk how sad he was, and how much he would miss everyone at the monastery. The monk told my friend, “Don’t worry, I’ll see you Sunday!” My friend was pretty confused, because there was no way they’d see each other any time soon. But the monk went on, “We’ll be together on Sunday, at the Liturgy. Regardless of where we are physically, we are always together in worship.”

Standing in the Holy Cross Chapel, singing hymns and worshiping with the community at HCHC, I was united with all of my School family, not just those physically in the Chapel with me. I was reminded that in the Church, we are never separated. Not truly.

We may be separated by miles, or even time zones, but in Christ there is no divide.

Not only am I united with those far away, but I’m united with all the people I don’t know standing beside me. That’s part of the beauty of being Orthodox. We are part of a family that stretches from our local community to the ends of the Earth, from yesterday to today, from this moment to the Kingdom of God made present.

So home isn’t just where the heart is. It’s where the Church is.

Home is where the Church is, because that’s where we take our first steps in the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom is “at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17), the Kingdom is “in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). We’re reminded of this every time the priest says “Blessed is the Kingdom” at the start of each Divine Liturgy. If it seems hard to explain the Kingdom of God, it’s because it’s “not of this world” (John 18:36). We’re not supposed to grasp it just yet. We only get a taste of it.

Yet a taste is never enough.

Jesus was always talking about His Kingdom through metaphors, so it seems only natural that Fr Stephen Freeman (who, by the way, I had the amazing pleasure of meeting at the conference mentioned above!) would write that “the Kingdom of Heaven is like Middle Earth” and “the Kingdom of Heaven is like the Land of Narnia” in a beautiful blog post that you can read here.

The more I move from place to place, the more I realize that my true home is the Kingdom. It’s a home I can visit every Sunday, if not every day. This is the home that my heart yearns for. It’s the true home where my heart can find rest in the Lord, in the company of His saints, no matter where (or when) they may have lived.

In the Church, I’m finally home.

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo taken by Deacon Alex Radulescu

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Everyone’s favorite question: “When are you getting married?”

So, I’m officially that age when you go from celebrating birthdays and graduations…to weddings and baptisms. When you plan your vacation days according to your friends’ weddings and, in place of saving money for travel, you start keeping enough on the side for wedding gifts.  

If you’re reading this you probably know what I mean.

Now, I really love weddings - especially Orthodox weddings. The church service is beautiful, it’s like a reunion of all your favorite people, AND it’s an opportunity to gather around a table to share in quality time (and delicious food) together.  But for many unmarried people in my generation, weddings become an occasion for unwanted questions about our future wedding prospects. Questions come up like “So, when are you getting married?” or “Are you dating anyone?”

What should be an occasion to celebrate love becomes a temptation to worry about the future.

Instead of being present with those around us, we can wonder when we too will check off the next item on our life’s to-do-list. As an Orthodox Christian of that age, I’m more concerned with how we can move beyond worry for a future vocation and learn to discover what our vocation might be for today.

We young unmarried folks often have pressures to get married from both the American and “ethnic” cultural sides. This is especially true for my female Greek and Arab friends. We treat them as if they’re doomed to the inevitability of becoming nuns if they’re not married by 25. (As if that would be the end of the world…) But it’s also true for young men who are involved in Church life and haven’t found the right girl. “You need to find a nifi (bride in Greek) so you can get ordained!”

Then there’s the American culture side of the problem. A recent Washington Post opinion article (you can read it here) discussed the link between the secularization of America and the increase in what the author calls the “spiritualization of love,” which elevates romantic love to an unnatural position. Even describing what Americans are looking for in a potential spouse as a “soul mate” marks a shift in our attitudes.  The author quotes a psychotherapist named Esther Perel who says:

"We come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.”

In short, marriage has become an idol to fill up the vacuum left by God and neighbor. We see this today in society’s preoccupation with marriage (or, rather, marriage ceremonies and receptions) and the assumption that chastity, celibacy, and even singleness are the marks of failure.

But what if marriage isn’t for everyone? What if we began to treat marriage like the Church treats marriage: as a unique vocation to which many but not all people are called by God?

This is a good time to discuss vocation. An excellent Orthodox summer institute called CrossRoad frames vocation as “your unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Learn more about CrossRoad Institute here) The Church, from its very inception, has balanced an appreciation for both marriage and celibacy; we have honored marriage as blessed by Christ Himself (remember the wedding at Cana!) while also honoring celibacy as a path to holiness (remember Jesus, St John the Baptist and St Paul were single!).

So what’s wrong with people asking “When are you getting married?” Here are three things to consider:

1.     The question implies that marriage is simply what happens next. Did you graduate? Check. Go to college? Check. Get a job and work for a few years? Check. Okay, now you have to get married and have 2.5 children. This trivializes marriage, which is a sacrament, a mystery of God’s love shared between a husband and wife – not just another life event against which I measure my life’s success.

2.     It suggests that marriage is the ONLY option. This sweeps away the option for discerning monastic life or the possibility of celibacy in the context of being involved in a local church community.

3.     It distracts us from the calling to live out our Christian life now, where we live now, with the people we find ourselves face to face with in this moment.

I can only follow Christ right now, in this moment. I cannot love God and neighbor yesterday nor can I do it tomorrow…only right here, right now. I think my generation gets this intrinsically, but it’s an easy thing to forget in the midst of wedding season.

Matthew 6:34 comes to mind: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” In other words, I cannot obsess over tomorrow as if I can control what will happen. Jesus was constantly telling His disciples this – don’t worry, follow Me, trust Me!

Who has God put before you to love with Christ’s love and to see His love in your life? I don’t mean romantically (though it could be) but who has God put in your life? Which friendships is God calling you to cultivate today? These are the things we forget when we are overly concerned about tomorrow and forget to trust in Jesus.

In whatever walk of life you find yourself – regardless of what vocation God is calling you to tomorrow– you have a vocation to love with Christ’s love and to see Him in those around you today

By Sam Williams

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

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