Entries with tag confession .

Saving Room for Christ

Every year I look forward to holiday foods. At Thanksgiving, it’s the stuffing and cranberry sauce. At Christmas, it’s the ham. At Pascha, it’s the lamb…and well, anything related to meat or cheese. And as a Southerner, we seem to always have deviled eggs and sweet tea at every important family gathering too.

 

And you better believe I make sure to save room for that food! After all, the thin guy always has to get seconds and thirds or the host isn’t happy.

 

But what would happen if we came to holiday meals already full? The holiday spread would become just…another meal. Just more of the same.

 

During the Advent season, as we are getting closer to Christmas, we are surrounded by Christmas music, Christmas lights, Christmas coffee drinks…we get so filled up with Christmastime that Christmas itself can feel anti-climactic. After weeks of worrying over gifts, planning our holiday schedule, and running here and there, the actual feast of Christmas comes and goes before we know it.

 

We forget to meet Jesus in that quiet cave in Bethlehem. We can get so filled up on Christmas that we forget to leave room for Christ.

 

Here are three things the Church offers to help us to come to the feast prepared and to meet Him this Christmas.

 

1. Fasting

 

We know to skip breakfast before going to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, because we want to make room for the good stuff. Similarly, the Church gives us the practice of fasting so that we can make room for Christ in our lives; or rather so that we can make Him the center of our lives. Instead of filling up on all that the world has to offer us, we are given periods throughout the year to put some limits on ourselves to train us to seek Christ. As we hunger and thirst for food before the Liturgy, we are reminded that Jesus alone can satisfy us. We come to church hungry, and the first thing we taste is Christ.

 

It’s easy to ignore practices like fasting as if they were just the tradition of man, until we remember that Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:1-2) and He said that His disciples were to fast, too (Matthew 9:14-15). The Church has a calendar of feasts and fasts, many of which can be hard to remember, but here’s a simple outline we can follow. Before major feasts, we prepare ourselves by fasting from certain foods and activities to prepare ourselves for the feast. We also fast throughout the year on Wednesdays and Fridays in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and death on the cross.   

 

But how can we fast this Advent period? The Nativity Fast lasts for the forty days leading up to Christmas. If you haven’t begun, you can begin today. If you don’t fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, perhaps you could begin by fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Nativity Fast. If we are not accustomed to fasting, we should begin by making some step towards the tradition of the Church. As we live in an individualized culture, the temptation is to come up with something unique for ourselves instead of following the tried and true way of the Church. The best thing, though, is that you speak to your parish priest and ask his advice on what might work best for you and your family this year.

 

2. Confession, scripture, and prayer

 

Fasting during the Nativity period helps us to save room for Christ in our lives. Another practice during this period is to go to the sacrament of confession. Jesus desires that all of us who are “heavy laden” with our life’s concerns and worries will come to Him so that He can give us rest in Himself (Matthew 11:28). As we confess and we lay everything at the feet of Christ, we can walk away freer and lightened from those things we keep carrying along with us.

 

And as we are lightened through fasting and confession, we will have room to grow in our relationship with Christ. We can commit to saying some prayers in the morning and at night before going to sleep. We can set aside five to ten minutes each day to read scripture. When was the last time you read the whole of one of the gospels? It can be especially helpful for us to focus on one gospel, like the Gospel of Matthew or Luke during this period. As we read the life and the words of Jesus, we can encounter Him anew each time. And when we come to Liturgy on Christmas, we will be prepared to welcome Him.

 

3. Serving others

 

We worry a lot about presents during Christmastime. Did we get this person what they’d want? We think we’re thinking about people during Christmas, but usually we are just focused on the idea that we have to get everyone something. Is our focus on serving others or just getting them gifts? Are we focused on loving our neighbor? Are we remembering to love our enemy by praying for them?

 

Our Orthodox history is filled with saints who committed their lives to the service of the poor, the needy, the sick, and the fatherless. St. John Chrysostom served the poor in the streets of Antioch and preached the rest of his life about the importance of direct service. St. Basil devoted his life to service and his sermons continue to inspire us today to give back to those who are in need. Modern saints like St. Elizabeth the New Martyr and St. Maria Skobtsova show us that service is something we are all called to do today.

 

We can all find a way to give back to others who are in need today. Have you considered writing letters to those in prison through the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry? How might you assist the work of IOCC or OCMC? How can you serve the Orthodox orphanages like those in Mexico or India? And on a local level, how can you work with local food pantries or social services help a family in need to have a Christmas dinner?

 

*****

 

We might already feel like we’re getting swept up in the preparations for Christmas. The point for us, whether we are starting now, or if we have been preparing all Advent long, is that we commit to growing closer to Christ today. If we are emptying ourselves of our pride and worldly concerns, our hearts will be open to Christ and to the many ways we can serve our neighbor.

 

What is your experience of fasting? Have you been to confession recently? How could you better serve those in need?

 

 

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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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Three Common Misconceptions about Confession

“Why can’t I just confess my sins to God, alone? Why do I have to talk to a priest about them?”

You’ve probably heard, and maybe even asked, these questions about Confession. It’s a sacrament that is misunderstood by many people, including many Orthodox. Growing up as a Baptist, I didn’t understand the role of Confession. I thought that people confessed because they didn’t trust that God could forgive them, that they could somehow only receive pardon from a priest instead of from God.

Once I became Orthodox, in my teens, I discovered that this warped vision of Confession was based on my own misunderstanding about sin. Subconsciously, I had seen sin as breaking one of the rules of Christianity’s long list of dos and don’ts. But the Orthodox Church doesn’t see sin as the breaking of a rule, a violation that needs a pardon. Instead, it sees sin as sickness that needs healing.

So our whole approach to Confession and healing from sin becomes less about “who can pardon my sin” and more about “what spiritual medicines has God given us to heal?”

Confession is one of the gifts that God has given us through the Church. So let’s look at three common misconceptions about Confession, and the Church’s answer to each.

1. “Can’t I just pray to God by myself?”

Yes, you can! We have a God who desires an intimate relationship with each of us. There is no longer any dividing wall between us and Him (Ephesians 2:14). He has torn the curtain that once separated the Holy from His people (Matthew 27:51). We no longer need Israelite priests to atone for sin through sacrifices, because Christ offered Himself for all of us (Hebrews 7:27, John 3:16). Now, we can approach God the Father directly.

Each day, we can approach God and ask forgiveness for our shortcomings. Like we talked about in “Three Things that Make Faith Personal (Yet Not Private)”, our personal spiritual lives work together with the spiritual life of the community. Just as we are called to ask forgiveness from God and pray our personal prayers at home, we are also called to come to Confession and to pray together in the Liturgy. It isn’t “either, or” when it comes to personal repentance and Confession; it’s “both, and”. The two build off of and support one another.

For our daily personal repentance, we have the blessing to use the prayers of the Church from prayer books, the Psalms, and our own words spoken to God from our heart. One of the great psalms of repentance is Psalm 50 (51). Steve talked about this psalm and how it helps us get in the right spirit for Confession.

Repentance should be a daily part of our lives. Like we discussed last week, forgiving others and asking for forgiveness are the results of living lives of honesty and self-reflection. When we take this process seriously, living each day to grow closer to Christ and to those around us, it’s easier to be more aware of our sin and to trust in God’s mercy.

And since self-reflection is so important, we need to be sure we see ourselves clearly. There are a lot of lies we tell ourselves over and over again, without realizing it. We try to balance between humility and self-deprecation, pride and healthy self-esteem. So when we’re alone praying to God about the sins we struggle with, it’s all too easy to focus on some things and ignore others. We might not have the vision to clearly see where our struggle really lies and why we keep repeating the same things time and again.

So yes, we can talk to God directly. Yet we also need help to fully examine our hearts. We need someone more experienced than ourselves to guide us back on the path to Christ.

2. “Ok, but do I really need to confess my sins to a priest?”

“After all, doesn’t God forgive me when I confess my sins to Him directly?” Absolutely, but repentance is more than simply asking for forgiveness; it is about a real change in our life and a return to God.

It’s easy to make promises to God in the quiet of our own rooms. Promises that we later break. Confession helps us to open up, like opening up a window that we have kept closed for far too long. When we come out of our isolation and shed light on our struggles before another person, we’re able to see ourselves more clearly in the light.

Scripture reminds us that our repentance isn’t really a private affair. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). There’s something special that happens when we open up to someone we trust. We don’t go to just anyone to talk about personal things, and that’s why we don’t confess to just anyone in the Church. We speak with a priest because he’s trained to guide us back to the path towards Christ. He is trained to listen to us without judgment and to give us the advice we need to make lasting change in our lives.

It’s recommended to go to Confession with one priest (like we have a primary healthcare provider), so that he will better know how to help you in your personal struggles. If you aren’t comfortable with that yet, just find a priest you are comfortable with and make an appointment with him.

Aside from being a time for pastoral advice, Confession is a sacrament. It’s a moment when God gives us grace in a unique way, through the prayers and blessing of a priest. Because we don’t actually confess to a priest. We confess before a priest. The priest facilitates our connection to God rather than offer grace or healing by himself.

3. “Ok, so when should I go to Confession?”

That’s a hard question to answer in the abstract, without knowing a person directly (and that’s why having a spiritual father is such an important part of our lives in Christ). Yet what’s clear is that when we’re sick, we go to the doctor. When we feel burdened by our actions or thoughts, we go to Confession.

Different traditions apply this rule in different ways. In some Orthodox countries, it’s common to go to Confession once a week. In others, people usually go during the fasting periods of the Church, especially during Lent, Dormition Fast, and Nativity Fast. We go to Confession during fasting periods because these are times of increased vigilance and focus on our relationship with God and with those around us.

However often you end up going to Confession, depending on the advice of your spiritual father, keep this in mind: Confession is like getting a health check-up before a sports season, cleaning the house before an important visitor comes, or getting a haircut before going to see family you haven’t seen in a while. They’re things we might not want to do initially, but the results pay off and we’re better off in the end.

*****

If not taking Communion is like running a race without food or water, then not going to Confession is like ignoring the doctor’s office when you have a life-threatening disease. Confession is something each of us needs, and probably more often than we’re getting it. And it works together with personal prayer and repentance, not in replacement of them. 

Do you regularly go to Confession? If not, what keeps you away? Does fear or pride keep you from the healing grace of Jesus Christ?

 

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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Podcast Monday -Confessing to Grow Closer to God

Each of us does wrong every day. It’s a part of our nature.

Thankfully, ours is a merciful and loving God that forgives us for what we have done. But how do we seek His forgiveness? In the words of the Evangelist John, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We confess our sins to each other, to God in prayer, and through a beautiful tool that Christ has given His Church: the sacrament of Holy Confession.

Some are, understandably, nervous about the concept. “What do I confess? How do I confess? How do I know if it’s right?” Some of this is natural, as confession should be a humbling process where we expose ourselves to God in the presence of a confessor. Many of these questions can be worked out through the relationship between the confessor and penitent—especially in the context of regular, repeated confessions—but outside advice can still prove helpful.

In these two short podcasts, Fr. Seraphim Aldea of Mull Monastery gives some advice on how to give a meaningful, grace-filled confession.

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/monkseyes/confessing_to_grow_closer_to_god

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/monkseyes/continuing_in_confessional_growth

 

As you listen, consider:

1.  What have my confessions been like in the past? Have they been a simple listing of sins, or have they been a repentant, changing experience?

2.  When I confess, do I bring up others and lose focus of my own sin? How might I concentrate on taking responsibility for my failings?

3.  Have I treated confession like the sacrament that it is? When I confess, am I conversing with God in prayer?

4.  What practices might I employ before, during, and after my next confession in order to maximize its effect on my spiritual life?

 

- Anthony

Anthony Ladas is a student at Fordham University and currently an intern for Y2AM.

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Mercy is Better Than What I Deserve - Sunday of the Canaanite Woman

Though I have a tendency to push limits and resist authority initially, I‘m much more of a rule follower than not. I’m not saying I am happy about being under authority, but I usually honor it.

I also have (believe it or not) a real respect for the authority of process. Generally speaking, I understand that entry-level employees will have to work to get higher paying and better positions. This is just how it works.

There was one time, however, that I personally violated this rule. Before I came to work for Y2AM and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, I worked for a social service agency as a case manager. I grew tired of my work since I’m trained as a clinician, and instead I asked if I could be considered for a promotion, despite being relatively new at the company and not even having a license (yet) to practice in Arizona.

Amazingly, the company agreed.

Even though I left the company shortly after that to come work for Y2AM, the situation struck me: maybe there are some things we need to press against.

Now, I think there is a difference between being entitled and the kind of social resistance I’m talking about here.  There’s a difference between thinking you deserve special treatment, and asking for mercy.

When I went to the powers-that-be at the company and asked them to make all kinds of exceptions for me, I realized that I was asking from a position of utter undeserving.

I hadn’t put in my time.

I hadn’t even been that great of a case manager.

I just went before them knowing what I wanted, asking for them to be gracious with me.

And it worked.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading has always baffled me, because it seems like Christ is being difficult with someone who really needs His help, and asks so persistently.

At that time, Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word.
And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us."
He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."
And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."
Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
(Matthew 15:21-28)

This is one of those readings where, if you didn’t know Jesus was likely “up to something,” it might be really easy to get frustrated with Him.

Every time I read Him say, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” I can’t help but think, “How rude! Jesus! This woman needs you, and you’re calling her a dog?”

Even more amazing, however, is the fact that the woman doesn’t get upset by it. She actually kind of rolls with it. It might be easy to assume that this woman has some serious self-esteem issues, letting Jesus call her a dog and all, but there’s actually more going on here.

This woman is a Gentile, coming to ask the Jewish Messiah for a miracle. He responds that He is there for the people of Israel, the chosen People of God.

And the Canaanite woman doesn’t argue or object.  She willingly takes a posture of active humility, accepting her low status as a Gentile woman. She asks, not for a seat at the table, but for crumbs.

And that’s the point: her lowliness does not prevent her from asking the Lord to be gracious to her; it actually compels her implore the Lord repeatedly.

We seem to think that the Lord only really hears the prayers of the righteous, of those who have ascended the heights of holiness. This woman, however, demonstrates that holiness, and true humility, is revealed in lowliness.

​Declaring herself to be small, the Lord calls her faith great!

We may think that the Lord is only interested in what we have to say if we have devoted ourselves to prayer, fasting, and other ascetic work. And He may be, but if He is inclined to us, it is only because these labors have opened our eyes to perceive our own lowliness before Him.

The Lord is eager to be gracious to us; He desires to show mercy on sinners. The problem is that we are often too busy trying to look like we have it all together, too busy trying to earn promotions in the Kingdom of God.

Success in the Kingdom doesn’t look like success in the corporate world. We can’t “earn” our salvation in the way that we might earn a pay raise. We can’t confidently hand in a resume, satisfied that we’ve done all the right things to claim a new position.

Rather than reach for goals we believe we already deserve, we benefit by accepting our unworthiness before the Lord. We’re not high-powered executives marching into the boardroom; we’re dogs begging for scraps.

Not because we don’t have self-esteem, but because showing mercy on those who earned it would be nothing great. Instead, Christ’s love is so magnificent, and His grace so rich, because it is unearned. Because He bestows it upon the lowest of the low, those who meekly ask rather than forcefully claim, those who know they deserve nothing more than crumbs.

And yet, it is precisely those people that Christ hears, precisely those people that He lifts up off the ground and seats at His table.

It is mercy because it is undeserved.

Photo Credit:

Business: Charles Crosbie via Compfight cc

Dog: hodge via Compfight cc

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Apologizing With Intent

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly -- they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

 

I remember distinctly the moment I decided that sometimes you have to apologize even if you don’t mean it.  

 

I was having a disagreement with a friend (we were very young) and it appeared neither of us was going to give in.  My choices were continue bickering unnecessarily (we are still both very stubborn) or say the words he needed to hear, even if I didn’t mean them.

 

At the time I was proud of myself, and considered my apology an example of how I was the bigger person.  I patted myself on the back for making the decision to prioritize my friendship over a petty argument.  For young me, it seemed like the right decision.  

 

But as an adult, I now realize how detrimental this type of apology is.

 

That first vacuous apology showed me how easy it is to half heartedly take responsibility for something you aren’t actually sorry for.  You can say the words, and even if you don’t mean them, you somehow still think that counts.  

 

It’s easy to think that the other person needs needs nothing more than words.  That regardless of the intent behind them, hearing that you are sorry should be good enough.

 

And it’s not.

 

The act of apologizing is important, don’t get me wrong.  The words need to be said, or there can never be resolution.  But they can’t stand alone.  

 

If I don’t know why I’m apologizing, if I’m not actually sorry, or if I intend to repeat the same behavior in the future, I’m not giving the situation the validity it deserves.  I’m not treating it seriously, and I’m not deserving of forgiveness.

 

And that’s true whether I’m apologizing to my friend, or confessing my sins.  

 

A half hearted apology means that I’m not truly invested in the relationship I’m attempting to mend.  And while that’s very serious when I’m dealing with my friends, it’s even more so when I’m talking about my relationship with Christ.

 

I’m overdue for confession.  And as I’ve been considering what I need to talk about with my spiritual father, I’ve noticed that there are definitely a few repeat offenders on my list.  Which has led me to wonder if I’m using confession as a half hearted apology.  

 

I have wondered if I confess like I apologize to my sister for borrowing her shirt without asking: with every intention of doing it again.  

 

And if that’s the case, why am I going to confession?

 

I talked a few weeks ago about my spiritual father (he’s awesome) and the reason my relationship with him is so important.  One of those reasons is that he helps keep me honest in confession.  Because he has been through so much of my spiritual life with me, he helps to keep me aware of where I’m making progress, and where I am not.    

 

Confession is supposed to be about mending a relationship, one that I have strained.  Even though there is no doubt that I am the problem, I do still find it difficult to truly accept responsibility.  Yet if I don’t truly intend to change, I can never take a step towards mending the relationship.  

 

I’m certainly not perfect, and it’s disheartening to make the same mistakes over and over which, if I’m honest, is something I’ll probably continue to do.  So what I’m working on (with my friendships and my confession) is making sure that I not only acknowledge that I have acted wrongly, but that I intend to make a change.  

 

And if I don’t intend to make a change, at least not yet or not fully, I should be honest enough to admit that, rather than hide behind empty words.

 

Because the sacrament of confession itself is a piece of the larger story of repentance. As important as it is for me to confess, and acknowledge my sins, I also need to make a genuine effort to not repeat the same sins.  Because if I don’t change, I’m stuck in the same cycle of detrimental behavior and empty apology forever.  And while that certainly sounds a lot easier, it isn’t helpful to my spiritual life.  

 

Or my relationships.  

 

And I owe it to myself, my friends, and to Christ Himself, to hold myself to a higher standard than that.

 

 

Charissa is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM.  Charissa grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah where she studied political science at the University of Utah.  She enjoys sunshine, the mountains and snowcones.  Charissa currently lives in New York City.   

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For more on forgiveness, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

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