Just Talk to God

Sunday, April 14, 2019: 5th Sunday of Great Lent; Venerable Mary of the Egyptian.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14/Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45/Luke 7:36-50

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Unlike contemporary morality that tends to be guilt-based, the biblical moral vision is shame-based. While shame has a bad reputation for us today, in the Scriptures and so the fathers of the Church, shame is what I feel when, intentionally or not, I am unfaithful to the demands of my station in life.

A guilt-based moral system, on the other hand, is concerned with my own internal moral standards. In such a system, I don’t feel bad when I fail to meet the expectations of those around me–again this is the origin of shame. Instead, I feel guilty when I violate my own conscience.

While it’s tempting to pit one moral system against the other to live a morally and emotionally healthy life, I really need both.

A shame-based morality reminds us that we have a role to play in the community; we matter to those around us. Above all, we matter to God.

This, in turn, points us beyond societal norms and l toward our personal vocations. Each of us has been called by God to a unique way of life and task that only we can fulfill.

And so, I feel ashamed precisely when I fail to fulfill the obligations of my vocation (see Genesis 3:7).

Assumed here, however, is that I understand my vocation and it’s obligations. In broad strokes, this is what it means to have a rightly formed conscience. I must know what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ, a faithful husband, a faithful priest. And I need to be able to differentiate all these from what people tell me it means to be a Christian, a husband, or a priest.

But knowing isn’t enough. A vocation is not an intellectual exercise but a way of life.

And so I need to internalize what being Christian, a husband, and a priest. I simply can’t go through the motions. Christian, husband, and priest are not simply the roles I play. They express or should express, who I am.

This is why shame needs guilt! It isn’t just that fail to meet the standards of others–even God. In failing to be faithful to God, I have failed myself as well.

Put in a more positive light, I am only mostly fully myself when I am being faithful to the life to which God has called me and when I work to fulfill the tasks He has given me.

There is great power in knowing and being personally faithful to the demands of my vocation. To see this we need to look no further than to the saint who we commemorate today: St Mary of Egypt.

St Mary was as extravagant in her repentance as she was in her sin. The difference is this. While her sinful excesses brought her no peace, her severe asceticism did.

But the peace St Mary experienced came not from the severity of her asceticism; she didn’t experience peace because her asceticism was hard but because she was faithful to what God asked of her.

Mary’s peace came from freely embracing her ascetical vocation. It was her acceptance of the life to which God called her that gave her the strength to endure the trials she underwent in the desert.

Like Mary, we find peace neither in merely conforming to God’s will nor having the right values. True peace, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” that guards our “hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV) comes only when we are faithful to our personal vocations.

At this point, you might ask: How do I know the life to which God has called me? How, in other words, do I know what my vocation is?

A vocation begins in the sacraments–above all baptism. It is nourished in Holy Communion. And in those moments when we fail to be faithful, we are restored in Confession.

As indispensable as are the sacraments (and the whole of the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church for that matter) in helping us discern and live our vocation, they are not in and of themselves enough.

To know what God wants from me, to know what He wants for me, I must have a life of personal prayer.

By this I mean not only attending service, reading Scripture or saying the prayers in the prayerbook. As important as these all are, there must come a moment when, like Moses, I speak to God “as one man speaks to another” (compare, Exodus 33:11). To know my vocation, I must ask God to reveal to me His will for me.

And here’s the thing. Many of us are hesitant to ask. The reason is easy to understand. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Asking God what He wants from me, isn’t a matter of looking for some objective fact about my life. No, it means opening my heart to God. I can no more rely on simply on the formal prayer of the Church than a husband can limit his conversations with his wife to quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets!

I must, in other words, speak to Jesus Christ as my Friend; as Someone Who loves me and wants what is best for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the end of the Great Fast and begin our final journey through Holy Week to Pascha, we should each of us take some time to speak directly to God.

And when we do, we should ask Him simply and directly, “God what do want from me?”

We don’t need to worry about how it sounds. Our words might be awkward and stumbling. But God hears and receives our words with delight!

And He will answer! He will honor our request and answer our question if only we will ask!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #10: “A personal relationship with Jesus is a PROTESTANT idea!”

Evangelical Christians have certainly run with the idea of a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ but this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Together with baptism, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the starting point of our life in Christ. This means that when we are asked by our Evangelical friends and neighbors “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” our should be to say—truthfully—“Yes!”

But remember, this is the first step and the first step isn’t invalid because it is only a beginning.

Think of it this way.

A toddler says “Mommy I love you!” This no less valid, no less true because when that same child, now as an adult, says “It’s okay mom, you don’t need to hang on anymore. Go be with dad. Mommy, I love you!”

All starting points are deficient because they are the first step. But without that first step, our relationship God can’t blossom. We can’t grow and mature in our Christian life until we take that first step and enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“From this time forth, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all.” St Herman of Alaska

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #9: “But my priest is my spiritual father!”

It’s better to think of your priest not as a spiritual father along the monastic lines but as a coach. Yes, the problem we ALL suffer is we are willful but the solution is not to become will-less (i.e., “obedient”) but willing.

We need to become ever more willing and able to say “YES!” to God’s will for our lives.

In this process, our parish priest through celebrating the services, through preaching, teaching, in confession and by the example of his life is there to help us discern God’s will for our lives and then to help us fulfill that will.

But, as a priest, I can’t do this without your participation. This means more than just you, personally, coming to talk with me. To do my job as your coach, I need EVERYBODY to suit up and take to the field.

We must ALL want to know and do the will of God for our lives and we must ALL want to help each other discern and fulfill what God wants from each of us personally.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #8: “Well, all I really need to do is be obedient to my priest!

Let me be blunt, most Orthodox priests have little or no training in pastoral counseling or psychotherapy. Much less do must of us have any substantial preparation as spiritual fathers.

This is important because, in the hands of an inexperienced or ill-prepared priest, obedience is a recipe for great and lasting harm for the layperson, the parish and the priest himself.

So if obedience isn’t a good idea, what do we owe to our priest?

I think we owe our priest–or at least I want as a priest–is not obedience but deference. What do I mean by deference?

In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, I think the priest should get his way in the day-to-day administration of the parish. Why is this?

Simply because when things go south, the priest is the one who has to deal with the mess. This doesn’t mean the parish council and the parishioner don’t have a role to play. It just means that, as a rule, it is the pastor who has to keep track of things.

And in our daily lives, in our spiritual lives, what do we owe the priest? We should give due consideration to what our priest tells us. By his education and his role in the community, the priest often has insights into the spiritual life that we don’t have. But this doesn’t mean he should have the last word in our lives.

Does this mean we shouldn’t be obedient? God forbid we think this!

We must be obedient but we owe our obedience first to God, then to conscience, and finally to the Tradition of Church. And priest? His vocation is to help guide us as we learn to be obedient Orthodox Christians. 

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #7: “But, we called to interiorized monasticism!”

Monastic life is NOT the foundation of the Church marriage and family life are. In fact, monastic life–like the Church itself–is modeled after the family.

This means that we need are strong marriages which in turn can be the foundation of strong families. And it is from healthy expressions of marriage and family life that we can have strong, healthy parishes, dioceses, local Churches and, yes, monasteries.

St Ignatius of Antioch is a help here:

Do not err, my brothers. Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If, then, those who do this in regard to the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be he case with anyone who corrupts the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified, by wicked doctrine? Such a person, becoming defiled, shall go away into everlasting fire and so shall everyone that listens to him (St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 16).

Simply put, we corrupt families and parishes, when we make monastic life the model for our life in Christ.

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory