Entries with tag new year .

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?

 

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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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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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Why I'm Glad I Used To Be a Protestant - Afterfeast of Theophany

At the start of a new year, we usually come up with new resolutions and look forward to making some change in the coming year. Today, however, I’m struck, not with a desire for a different future, but with a gratitude for my past.

While I’ve done things that I’m not proud of, I can’t help but be thankful for my experiences, because without my past, and the way the Lord used even my most embarrassing mistakes, I wouldn’t have my present.

I grew up in a charismatic tradition of Protestantism. Sermons would last nearly an hour, and people would bring their own bibles (!) to follow along as the pastor explained a passage. But the primary thrust of the charismatic service was on spending time in corporate worship, allowing the Holy Spirit to do work through the gathered assembly of Christians.

For some congregations, this looked like speaking in indiscernible languages called tongues (a hallmark of the tradition), with someone chosen to interpret the speech. Others would lay their hands on the sick and pray for healing; some times, people would testify to having actually been healed! And whatever else was going on, people would continually attribute these things to the power of the Holy Spirit, whom they confessed worked through them.

I know many people who have converted to Orthodoxy from similar traditions, or least from mainline Protestantism. I often hear them look back on their old congregations with a sense of superiority, “That’s SO Protestant.”

This may be in response to someone saying that they had read the Bible recently. Or that they had “quiet time.” Or that they prayed without a prayer book. Or that they called the Lord by the Name He gave Himself: Jesus.

All of these things: SO PROTESTANT.

And frankly, dismissing them as merely Protestant missed the point. Because they are good things, and I’m glad they’ve been a part of my life in Christ.

I’m glad that I came from a tradition that overtly emphasized the reading of Scripture. I’m glad that I heard about “quiet time” as a discipline. I’m glad that people encouraged me to pray what was “on my heart.” I’m glad I know the Lord’s Name.

Because this past has led me to be Orthodox. While I could never leave Orthodoxy for Protestantism, I am grateful for what I learned and experienced given what they were for me at the time. They were the path I needed to take as Jesus (Yes, Jesus) has continued to lead me to Him.

Instead of looking at my past as a Protestant and judging the worship songs, judging those who lift their hands in praise, judging those who lay hands on each other to pray for healing, today, I’m simply grateful that this tradition prepared me for the bodily realities of worship in the Church.

Instead of being weirded out or making fun of the fact that those Protestants believe in the crazy movement of the Holy Spirit who makes them speak in tongues, today, I’m grateful that I was given a sense of the Transcendent One’s ability to take even the most mundane things and transform them for His Glory (think, “This is my body…”).

My past has led me to this very point; how can I be anything but grateful?

Sure, there are some things that were incomplete about my experience of Christ as a Protestant. But that upbringing gave me the desire to have a complete experience of Him, a desire that led me straight into the Orthodox Church.

And I thank God for it.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading points to the fact that even the Lord sets this up as somewhat of a precedent. As we discussed last week, John the Baptist was given the task of preparing the way for the Lord. Ultimately, St. John was arrested.

When Jesus learns of John’s imprisonment, we read that He withdrew into Galilee, where He took up St. John’s message, which the Baptist continued to preach until his martyrdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).

Christ didn’t look at John’s ministry and say, “Ugh, that is SO John the Baptist!” Rather, Christ took up the message that John began preaching and completed it Himself, revealing to us in His very Person the Kingdom that John spent his life proclaiming.

We don’t need to be afraid of our pasts or hate them. We don’t need to be ashamed of where we came from. We all have lessons to learn, and regrets about things we’ve done. But rejecting where we’ve come from is not the path to our salvation.

If we want to be truly Orthodox Christians, we must incorporate our past into our present identities. A convert cannot dismiss his past saying, “That’s so Protestant,” any more than a cradle Orthodox can look down on his years in Sunday School or youth group. Even if those experiences are not enough to sustain us now, they are a part of the nourishment that led us to our present state of spiritual development.

To be truly Orthodox, we must look at the whole of our lives, both the awesome parts and the not so awesome parts, and lift them all up to God. We should say with St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for all things!”

And so today, I say, “Glory to God for my Protestant upbringing, because it brought me here; it is what brought me and continues to bring me to Christ.”

In addition to the resolution I wrote about last week, I resolve to give thanks to God for all things. I resolve to put my trust in God, knowing that He alone can take the whole of what my life, your life, and our lives have been, and cause all things to work for the life of the world.

So let’s give thanks in the New Year, not only as we look into the future for what He has in store for us, but as we look back on our lives, seeing the winding road of the past as that which has prepared the way for us to meet the Lord today.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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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My New Year's Resolution: To Put Myself to Death - Sunday before Theophany

It’s almost the New Year, and in a few days it will be the Sunday before Theophany, the manifestation of the Triune God during Christ’s baptism. That’s a pretty awesome combination of things.

Only a few days after this Sunday, the Church helps us begin our year by showing us God in Trinity, manifesting Himself through the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Incarnate Son of God as the Father bears witness to Him. The Church shows us the fulfillment of our hearts’ desire at the beginning of the year, the time in which we deliberately take stock of the last year, and set course with renewed vigor to follow the Lord.

Before we liturgically celebrate the baptism of Christ, however, the Church invites us to spend a little bit of time with St. John, the Lord’s Forerunner and Baptist. St. John, we are told, was given a primary purpose in his ministry: to “prepare the way of the Lord, [to] make his paths straight” (Mk. 1:3).

As I approach the New Year and am considering what resolutions I intend to make, I can’t help but think of them in the light of St. John the Baptist. While I cannot make God manifest Himself in Triune Glory (He does that on His own), I am called to prepare His way, to make His paths straight within my own heart.

Admittedly, I can be a bit lazy about my spiritual life; indeed, even referring to it as “my spiritual life” divorces it from the reality that all of life is spiritual, all of life is meant to be lived in communion with God.

And this communion with God is meant to be transformative for my heart, for my life. Not just so I’ll have a “good spiritual life,” but so that my entire life may be spiritually transformed.

In recent years, many sociologists and religious academic types have given attention to what Christian Smith in Soul Searching described as the mainstream American religious belief. A mutant form of Christianity, Smith coined a new phrase to describe the most popular religious belief of the day: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).

MTD, while not an organized belief system, corrupts the truth of the Christian faith, suggesting that God is a distant God who remains uninvolved in our lives except to give blessings or to help solve problems (Deism). Other than that, God simply wants us to be nice to each other (Moralistic) and feel good about ourselves as we strive to be “happy” (Therapeutic).

And then we go to heaven when we die.

It is not difficult to see how this is a mutant form of Christianity, and very few of us would explicitly define our faith in these terms. But functionally, I find that I am drawn toward MTD, often thinking that I’m doing alright as a Christian if I talk nicely to others or if I just give enough time or enough money. Ultimately, it seems that being a Christian, following Christ, tends to be about meeting my own desires for a happy and successful life – not a spiritual one.

Part of the problem with MTD is that it is a lackluster version of the Christian faith because it misses Christ’s call, which, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, is to “come and die.” Christ doesn’t just ask me to spend time investing in “my spiritual life,” but rather, He bids me to follow Him, to give Him my everything.

This Sunday, St. John the Baptist shows us that MTD, that having a “spiritual life” doesn’t cut it. The Lord asks us to make his path straight in our hearts, and to do so is going to take our all. As St. (oh, whoops) C.S. Lewis writes:

Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.[1]

When we meet St. John this Sunday, he is walking around the desert, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts. This is a man who clearly believed that the call to make the Lord’s path straight entailed more than putting on a tie every Sunday or, even, being “spiritual but not religious.”

For St. John, and for us, the call to follow Christ is a call to give up everything, to give up our whole selves.

To give up our very lives.

Too long I have lived a lackluster faith that I’ve convinced myself doesn’t ask anything more from me than simply knowing all the right answers at Orthodox Trivia Night or making a quick sign of the cross before I eat. But St. John and his camel hair shirt this week make me realize something: preparing the path of the Lord is hard and uncomfortable work. And it’s worth it.

It’s the taking up of the cross.

We live in a culture that encourages us to eat whatever (and whenever) we want: fasting is a way of giving up that right.

We are engulfed in consumerism, and told that we are what we buy: tithing kills this, reminding us that our money is God’s and that our possessions don’t define us.

We are immersed in social media and entertainment, which we use to distract us from the otherwise endless slew of tasks and busyness: silence and solitude are the cross upon which these things die.

And as these things die, the false and broken version of myself dies with them.

As Christians, we take up the cross every day, we enter into death by continually and daily dying to ourselves. Though most of us will never be called to shed our blood in a literal sense, we are all called to put our selfish desires and jealous passions to death as we seek to join Christ in eternal life.

This is journey far different, and far more difficult, than mere self-improvement, because it involves the sacrifice of setting aside of the old self; of no longer being in the image of the old man, Adam, but of being in the image of the True Man, Jesus Christ. 

So this year, I’m making a new resolution: I’m going to put myself to death.

I’m going to put aside my ego; set aside my struggles for and anxieties over wealth and prestige; give up my own distorted and selfish will and humbly open my life to the Lord’s will.

So that it will no longer be I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20).

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 196-197.

Photo Credit:

Happy New Year: brttyking via Compfight cc 

Cross: -Mina- 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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Back to Sunday School Planning

The onslaught of  “back-to-school” newspaper ads and television commercials has begun. The beginning of another school year is just around the corner. The time has also begun to plan for another Sunday Church School year.  Here’s a checklist.

Meet with the Priest.  Are there any issues that he needs addressed this year? How will he want to be involved with the program this year that might be different from other years? How might he work with teachers on training matters?

Teachers and Assistants. Do you have enough teachers? Are all the teachers ready to start? Need to find a few more? Will they need assistants? Do you need any substitute teachers? Are all the background checks complete?  What about special programs: Oratorical Festival Chair, Music Teacher, Arts and Crafts specialists? Have you planned some meetings to deal with administrative matters? Have you planned for some training sessions? What will the focus be?

Lists. Do you have the class lists ready for each teacher? Student’s information (birthday, nameday, special issues like allergies), parents contact information (especially email), how they’ve offered to assist the program that year. Do you have a list of all the teachers, assistants, all the contact information.

Review the calendar. Set the days for registration, when classes will begin and when they will end in 2015 (include a day for preregistration for Fall 2015). Note the days for when Sunday school will not meet because of Church holidays (Pascha is April 12, 2015), vacation seasons, or special parish events. Note the days for special programs, like Christmas pageant rehearsals, the Oratorical Festival, retreats and service projects. Select days for teacher training meetings. Make sure that all of these are on the parish master calendar. Distribute the calendar to all in the parish.

Check the supplies. Will you have enough textbooks, teacher’s guides, Bibles, icons? Do you have enough materials, paper, pens, crayons, glue, notebooks, and all the rest. Take advantage of the back-to-school sales.

Are the classrooms and teaching spaces in good order? Are there enough desks, tables, chairs, whiteboards. Do some need repair or replacement? Are they sized correctly for the class? You don’t want the furniture designed for kindergarten to be in the space that you’ll use for high school and vice versa! 

Electronics. Do you have projectors and other display technology? Is it all working? Are all the cables in the right place?  Does the wireless network work? If it’s password protected, do you have the proper passwords?

Pray. Pray for the teachers, the students and their families. Pray that the 2014-2015 Sunday Church school year be a year of growth and learning for the teachers, the students and their families.

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