Entries with tag stress .

Hearing Our Story in a Parable

When I meet a new person, my immediate impulse is to try to find something familiar in the other, something we share in common. It’s my way of connecting, of identifying a shared experience or interest. It breaks down the awkwardness of, “Who’s this person?” and, “What can we talk about besides the weather?” I do the same thing with a book, TV show, or movie. If I’m going to commit to reading or watching something, I want to enter into the experience as more than just a passive observer. If I’m not active in a relationship, in a book or program, I tend to get bored with it and let it go.

 

I’ve found the same to be true of my reading of Scripture and the prayers of the Church. If I read a passage of the Gospel or a prayer and I don’t seek to identify with the words, it remains just a passive experience. It’s like I’m watching it happen to someone behind a glass wall. But when I let myself wonder, “How do Christ’s words apply to me?” then I know Christ is speaking to me. And when I ask, “When have I felt like King David in this Psalm?” his words become mine.

 

This is especially helpful in reading and understanding the parables of Jesus. In the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, Jesus is speaking about the different ways we might receive His message (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23). You could say this is the whole message of the Gospel: of God’s love for us from the Old Testament, through the New Testament and into today through the life of the Church. Jesus calls his message a seed and those of us who hear His message are one of four types of soil.

 

All of us have or will experience being all four types of soil - the path, on the rocks, among thorns, and good soil. At some point in our life, we will struggle with focusing on our faith and balancing the expectations of the world. See how each type applies or has applied to you in your life.

 

1. On the path

 

The first type that Christ talks about in this parable is the seed that fell on the path but was eaten up by birds. Christ says that this represents those who hear the message but don’t understand it and the evil one snatches the message from their hearts (Matthew 13: 4, 19).

 

The first thing I notice here is that we need to – at least in part – understand the message of the Gospel that has been given to us. There will always be elements of mystery, but we cannot rest at knowing what we know today. If we stop learning, if we give up without understanding our faith, we will be like the seed that fell on the path.

 

Even after seminary, I find that there is so much about our faith that I don’t know or don’t understand. When I discover something I’m not sure of, I can either passively ignore the fact, or I can make the effort to learn more. I can ask my question to someone I trust, or I can seek out the answer by reading Scripture, learning about the saints, and in prayer.

 

So many of us struggle to pay attention when we go to church (especially when we’re younger). But if we don’t ask questions and if we don’t understand what we’re doing in the Liturgy, we aren’t going to feel connected or even get the point in going to church. Sometimes you might learn something about God or the Church, and you will be excited about it, but you don't learn more. Maybe you experienced this at camp, and you came back excited about your week of being spiritually plugged in. Or, maybe you have questions about the faith, but you’re not sure who to ask. In this parable, Christ speaks to us and calls us to learn and to get connected so that we can discover the richness of our faith.

 

2. On the rocks

 

Next, Jesus speaks about the seed that fell on the rocks. Because there was little soil, the plants grew but then withered in the sun. Jesus says these represent those who receive the message with joy, but when their faith is tested by hard times they fall away.

 

There are many things that can challenge our faith. Even those who have a strong faith in Jesus Christ can have a hard time handling the death of loved ones, serious sickness, or the experience of being bullied. It can be difficult to sense the presence of a loving God when one’s experience of life is full of so much injustice and pain.

 

All of us are going to face a moment when our faith is challenged by turmoil. Maybe we had a good connection to our Church community as kids, but we never grew very deep in our faith. We had fun at GOYA, but we never encountered Christ as a person we could rely on. Our challenge today is to make sure we aren’t like the rocky soil, with shallow faith, susceptible to falling away from Christ.

 

The life of Christ, the Panagia, and especially the martyrs shows us that being a Christian doesn’t guarantee an easy life. So how do we live with hope in Christ like the martyrs, instead of losing hope and being like rocky soil? I find courage by reading the lives of the saints; they inspire me not to lose hope in tough times. These readings show us how the martyrs and other saints kept their faith in God and His goodness despite the challenges they encountered. No matter what we may be worried about or what we are facing, God can and will help us get through it.

 

3. Among the Thorns

 

The third place that the seeds fell in Jesus’ parable was a place overtaken by thorns. He says that this represents those of us who are overtaken by the cares of this world. In other words, those who were committed to Christ but who let life get the better of us. Jesus describes this as being choked by the cares of the world.

 

There are so many things in our lives that compete for our time and many of them will try to draw our attention away from God. We worry about school, work, family, social events, social status, money. On Sundays, we have conflicts with work and sports, with studying and extracurricular activities. Sunday might even be the one day we get to sleep in during a busy week. “There’s just SO MUCH to do!”

 

“Let us lay aside all earthly cares…,” we hear during the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy. We hear it every Sunday because letting go of all of the noise around us doesn’t come naturally or easily. We have to be reminded to let go of things for an hour or two on Sunday, to just be in the presence of God and not be swallowed up by our to-do list.

 

So many of us today fall into this category of being sown among the thorns. “Life is just so busy,” is so true that it not only keeps us from Church on Sunday, but also keeps us from reading Scripture and from prayer. Eventually, it stops being true and starts to be our excuse from staying away (though we can’t quite remember the reason). We get so burnt out by life that we see Church as just another thing on our to-do list, and we can’t handle anything more. Instead, our faith is truly the one thing that helps keep us afloat, with a clear mind and proper perspective to handle the “cares of this world”.

 

4. The Good Soil

 

The last and ideal situation Christ describes as being good soil where the plant bears a great harvest. The seed didn’t just grow and develop into a good plant, but produced even more seed. The Christian who becomes the good soil is the one who allows the message of Christ to take root in their heart and cultivates a love for and relationship with Christ.

 

Each person is different, and faith and even relationships don’t come as naturally to each person. So while one person might understand the Christian message from a young age, it might take others until they’re a young adult or a parent for it to sink in. The point isn’t when we become this good soil for the Gospel but that we allow God to work in our lives to become that good soil today.

 

To continue with Jesus’ gardening metaphor a moment, it takes a bit of work for some soil to become good soil. If an area is rocky or if there’s hard dirt, you’re going to have to till it up, remove the stones, add fresh soil, and then it will be ready for planting. The same is true for us; there may be things we need to let go of, we may need to have our hardness of heart challenged and our hearts softened as we let God work in our lives.

 

I need to pray each day to remember that I’m not in charge of my life. I need to read Scripture to remember the great depth of God’s love for me. I need to attend the Liturgy to see the rest of Christ’s Body in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive Him in the Eucharist. I’m not good soil on my own. I have to be worked on, and Jesus does that work on me in and through the Church. And the more this is a way of life for me, the more this will naturally bear fruit in all of my relationships.

 

*****

 

The Parable of the Sower and the Seed is a message to all of us to be aware of how we are cultivating a relationship with Christ today. We aren’t perfect, and even as good soil, we are still going to make mistakes. Our goal today is to do our best to live a life that is pleasing to God.

 

When we bring our faith into our daily lives instead of just going to church on Sunday, we see how much God can do when we let Him. We start to ask questions, to be able to endure hard times, to not let life overwhelm us, and to have a peace of mind we cannot have on our own.

 

How have you experienced being these four types of soil? Which of these do you most identify with today? What is something simple you can do each day to make your faith more active?

 

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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, genealogy, and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Finding Rest in a Restless World

Overscheduled, stressed, and tired.

That pretty much describes every person I know. We pride ourselves in our multitasking abilities during the day, but can’t seem to calm our thoughts to get to bed at night. We begin our days tired, we joke about our need for coffee, and find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish what just has to get done. If we’re not staying super busy, we think we’re being lazy. And what’s just one more obligation? I can handle that, no problem!

And then we burn out and realize we aren’t the Energizer Bunny.

If we’re always running, eventually we’re going to hit empty. We have to learn how to refuel if we’re going to do anything to the best of our potential. We need to learn how to rest.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This passage encourages me when I feel overwhelmed. But how can we put these words to good use in our lives? How can we find rest in this restless world of ours?

1. Come to Christ

The first thing that Jesus tells us is that we should come to Him. It’s such a simple command, “come!” yet so hard for us to actually do. Though we are tired of being tired, we’re also stubborn. We are so used to handling everything, we don’t know how to do any less.

The good news is that we don’t have to handle it all, alone. We don’t have to bear all of our worries and busyness, alone. Christ tells us that we can unburden ourselves onto Him. But how?

First, we simply need to come to Him in prayer. When we feel overburdened or stressed, we should take a moment to breathe. Just stop and say a quick prayer. Ask Christ for strength for that moment. 

Second, we have to let go of the need to do everything. We have to unclench our hands that hold so tightly to our busy schedules, and give them up to Christ. Give your day, your anxiety and your busy schedule up to Him. Offer your work up to God for Him to bless and to help you get through it all.

God isn’t going to take something from us if we don’t let go of it first. So we should let go of the need to be in control of our schedule, and offer our responsibilities up to Him so that we can follow the next command Christ gives us.

2. Take on His yoke

Once we have come to Christ in prayer and have laid down our stressed out lives before Him, what’s the next step? He says to take His yoke upon ourselves. But what does that even mean?

A yoke is a wooden beam that connects two animals (like oxen) and allows them to pull a load or do work together. So when Christ says to take on His yoke, He’s telling us that He’ll be in the job with us. He isn’t giving us additional stress or work; He’s taking the pressure off of us and is putting it upon Himself!

But if Christ wants us to take on His yoke, what yoke are we shouldering now? Saint Paul talks about the “yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1) that our sinful self wants to return to. He says that the temptations of the world actually shackle us into slavery. Jesus is telling us to lay down all our worries and struggles and to accept His help in sharing our burdens.

3. Learn from Christ

So we’re willing to approach Christ in prayer. We accept that He can help us get through our day. But what does He have to teach us about how to deal with our 21st century world, with all of its temptations and anxieties?  

We forget that Jesus did not live in a simple time, either. He lived in Palestine at a time when the Holy Land was occupied by yet another foreign power. It wasn’t much more than a century after the Jewish revolt of the Maccabees and there was constant rumor of a rebel leader (which many hoped Jesus would prove to be) rising up to free the Jews from their Roman overlords.

On top of the political climate, Jesus could hardly ever get alone time. Everywhere He went, people were following Him, asking for help and healing, and pressing in on Him in huge crowds. How did He handle all of His stress?

Jesus took time to rest.

Over and over again, we find Jesus going off alone to pray. He spent quality time with His friends and family. He spent time in the Temple praying in community. This is a model we would be wise to emulate. Take time for the things that really matter: community prayer, time with loved ones, and quiet time with God. When our focus is on anything else, we lose sight of what really matters.

4. Sabbath rest

The Old Testament stresses the importance of a Sabbath rest. Jews since the time of Moses have kept the seventh day holy by setting it aside for rest and devotion to God. While Sunday is the Lord’s Day for Christians – a day for community worship– Saturday is still the Sabbath. Though we don’t need to observe the Sabbath like our Jewish friends might, do we give ourselves some sort of Sabbath rest each week? Do we allow ourselves to have time to unwind?

We might not ever have the time to take an entire day to stay home and just relax with family. But we can take an hour or two, regularly, or we can take a few minutes each day to just be still and quiet before God.

Scripture reminds us, “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), but are we ever still?

Scripture reminds us of the wisdom in having a moment each day, and a time each week, to quiet down and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. But if we never stop, looking back means we’ll bump into something; and if we never look back, we won’t know if we’re going in the right direction.

And that direction, as we saw in the first point, means moving towards Christ.

*****

We all need rest; it’s part of being human. The world tells us that success rests in being able to juggle overbooked schedules while running on empty. Christ, on the other hand, says to come to Him, to offer up our burdens to Him so that He can help us carry them. Taking time to rest and to be still are not only recommended for success and healthy lives, they’re absolutely necessary for us to live as Christians. Without this time to reflect and to spend time with God, we can find ourselves locked into the yoke of slavery rather than experiencing the freedom that comes with the yoke of Christ.

Do you often find yourself burdened by stress and controlled by an impossible schedule? How can you offer this to Christ so that He can help you carry the weight?

 

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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Learning to Walk on Water

We all know the feeling. We’re doing great spiritually, we’ve got our focus on Jesus and then boom – we fall down. We go from cloud nine to sinking in the waters of self-criticism, overcome by the feeling that we’re not good enough.

It’s all too easy to fluctuate between spiritual highs and lows, between the feeling that we’ve got it together and the feeling that we will never get out of our bad habits.  When I’m feeling this way, I find encouragement by remembering that the saints wrestled with this, too.  Even the Apostles, Jesus’ closest friends, struggled with keeping their focus on Him. Saint Peter had an especially close relationship with Jesus, but even he denied the Lord. Three times!  

Rather than focus on that, I’d like to reflect on another event in the life of Saint Peter: when he walked on water.

Most of us remember that Jesus walked on water (He’s God, after all!) but do we remember that Saint Peter did, too?

Matthew 14:22-33 tells us that, while the disciples were sailing one night, their boat was being rocked by the wind and the waves. Suddenly, they see Jesus walking towards them on the water and they’re afraid. Saint Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). He gets out of the boat and walks on the water to Jesus, but is distracted by the wind, so he gets scared and starts to sink. He calls out, “Lord, save me!” so Jesus pulls him up and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The story ends as Jesus and Saint Peter get back into the boat and the wind stops.

This story challenges us to do three things:

1. Keep our eyes on Jesus

Saint Peter walked on water when he kept his focus on Christ.  He only sinks when he begins to worry about the wind and the waves. If we pay more attention to the struggles we have with sin, or the stresses that we have in our lives, than we do to Christ Himself, we’re going to get tripped up.

We’re going to sink.

Saint Porphyrios (check out the book on his life and teachings, “Wounded by Love”) taught that instead of fighting against our passions directly, we should run towards Christ. He said that if we devote ourselves to loving Christ more and more by attending services, reading Scripture, and living the life of the Church, gradually the temptations will lose their strength over us. We can’t empty a room of its darkness by fighting the darkness; instead, we need to let in some light. In the same way, we can’t empty our hearts of darkness by fighting it head on; instead, we need to turn to Christ.

There’s even an episode of “Be the Bee” on Saint Porphyrios’s advice.

Saint Peter sank because he tried to battle the waves and the wind instead of keeping his eyes on Jesus.  Similarly, if we take our eyes off of Him to battle sin (or stress, anxiety, or whatever else is going on in our lives) alone, we will lose: each and every time.

And once we have our eyes on Christ, the next step is to trust in Him. 

2. Let go of control

Another reason Saint Peter began to sink was that he tried to control his situation. When he realized he couldn’t, he began to panic. On a daily basis, it’s easy to get stressed and anxious about everything we have to do. But this anxiety often results from our desire to do everything ourselves.

We, like Saint Peter, need to cultivate a faith in Jesus instead of a faith in ourselves.

Jesus told Saint Peter that he sank because of his little faith. Instead of having faith in Jesus, he tried to rely on his own strength. He forgot that, though it is impossible for a person to walk on water, Christ reminds us that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Having faith in Jesus means trusting Him to guide and support me. If I am anxious and stressed out, or if I am feeling that I just don’t know how I’ll get everything done, it’s often because I am relying on my own strength. Yet, living out my faith in Jesus means letting go of control and asking Him to be the strength I need.

I have to let go of my need to be right and of having my way, and instead learn to accept God’s will in my life, for today. Only then can I ask for the help I need.

3. Call out for help

Once Saint Peter turned his eyes away from Jesus, tried to control his situation, and began to sink, he realized he needed Christ to save him. He went from doing the impossible one moment, to sinking in wave-tossed waters the next. But, then he stopped trying to handle the situation on his own and said, “Lord, save me!”

As easy as that, he was back in the boat and the wind and waves were gone.

Saint Peter’s words marked his decision to rely on Christ. Self-reliance only gets us so far. Realizing that only Jesus can get us out of the waves and calm the wind means learning to ask for help. In the moment of our temptation to sin, or in the moment of our overwhelming worry or stress, we can stop and ask God for help.

 

Whether we’re battling a habitual sin or bad habit, dealing with stress and anxiety, or trying to handle a difficult work or family situation, finding a solution might feel impossible. It can seem like only a fantasy to imagine that there could be an end to whatever we are encountering right now.

Our situation might feel as impossible as walking on water.

But with Jesus, we have a solution. Today, we can decide to focus on Him, to stop trying to be in control and to call out to Him for help. Jesus is personally calling each of us, like Saint Peter, to follow Him in the midst of our difficulties.

Will we balk at the challenge and sink? Or will we, like Saint Peter, learn to walk on water?

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