“It’s my first day of school!” shouted an exuberant Chrysostom as he woke up Friday morning, standing on his bed. His puffy morning eyes were hidden in a countenance beaming with light.
Sadly, but naturally, the exuberance won’t last. The compelling momentum of the “new” will fade. There will be mornings of unrelenting whininess; mornings of defiant stubbornness; of tired laziness; of distraction with a game or toy. There will be mornings when, as parents, we’ll feel no joy in tending to an infant while preparing two uncooperative kids for school. It may even feel hellish.
When those mornings come, the real test begins. Chrysostom will continue to go to school, every day and on time, whether he likes it or not. His feelings, and our parental feelings, won’t dictate anything, no matter the cost (and parents often pay a heavy cost).
Our forced faithfulness to school – our unwavering commitment – will communicate a message that penetrates deeply into the soul of young, impressionable Chrysostom.
The message, without needing to say a word about it, is this: “School is of utmost value, and nothing will get in the way of it.” School is precious and nonnegotiable.
God-willing (and only God knows when), Chrysostom will gradually realize the value of sacrifice in preserving a worthy commitment. (Much patience and prayer may be required of parents, and even then, there’s no guarantee). God-willing, values and their inevitable sacrifices will be engrafted on his heart. He’ll become a man of sacrifice, a man of character.
Every sensible parent shares the same commitment, a commitment that often reflects a very human desire: for our children to be viable members of society. We don’t want them to “live in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (2 Thess. 3:11). We want them to be like St. Paul, who says, “We didn’t eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor, we worked day and night, so that we might not burden any of you” (2 Thess. 3:8).
Neediness terrifies us. We want our children to be successful, professionally and socially, not just for viability but also to enjoy a certain stature in life. And we’re meticulously careful to tend to their worldly success.
Imagine if we cared for our children’s spiritual success – their eternal souls – with the same ferocity. We’re less inclined that way, for the fruits aren’t as obvious. But the importance is greater, for what is more important than our children’s relationship with Christ, a relationship that determines their fulfillment in life and bears eternal influence?
Everything we do communicates a message. Who we are radiates to those around us. This is why St. John Chrysostom says, “A pattern of life is what is needed, not empty speeches; character, not cleverness, deeds, not words. These things will secure the Kingdom and bestow God’s blessings.”
As we begin the new ecclesiastical and academic year, we should consider what message we’re sending to our children, to our subconscious selves, and to God. What is my pattern of life, and what does it communicate about me? Consider a few doable spiritual commitments that might send a soul-penetrating message:
- Come to Divine Liturgy every Sunday, and on time. We don’t skip school or work when things are difficult, and we would be embarrassed to be tardy for such important activities.
- After Liturgy, reflect on “the meaning of the [Epistle and Gospel] readings” (St. John Chrysostom). Ask your kids what they learned in Sunday School.
- Pray briefly every morning and evening with reverence, even if your kids aren’t attentive.
- Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Christ was betrayed by Judas on Wednesday and gave up His life on the Cross on Friday. Remember His love, His willing sacrifice, and give Him heightened conscientiousness and a small sacrifice those days by simplifying your diet, removing the tastiness of meat and dairy.
- Keep less for yourself, do less for yourself, and give away more. Tell your children about your giving of alms, about the social needs you’re supporting, and why you’re doing it. Have them participate, if possible. Tell your children about your stewardship in this parish: how you offer your time, your skills, and your money in significant ways, because everything we have comes from God.
If we don’t attend Liturgy regularly and on time; if we don’t pray; if we don’t fast; if we don’t discuss spiritual things in the home; if we don’t sacrificially look past our desires in order to see the needs of the parish and the world – all of this communicates a message. The message is this: “God isn’t really that important. We fit Him in when there’s time, and when it’s convenient. There are other more pressing priorities.”
God isn’t looking for more members of the parish. God isn’t looking for religious consumers: people who come to church to get something. He’s looking for disciples: those willing to leave important things behind to follow something (Someone) of much greater importance. Discipleship is an orientation – a pattern of life – that involves commitment, action, sacrifice. The Church is a hospital where we’re healed, but St. Paul also refers to the Church as an athletic training ground and battlefield.
In the end, one thing matters: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Love is a commitment, and not an easy one. Love means I put you first. Love entails sacrifice. Love has concrete expressions. Love is never willy-nilly, according to changing feelings and circumstances.
As we enter the new ecclesiastical and academic year, let’s keep in our hearts as much as possible the two most important questions: Lord, do I really love You? How am I showing my love for You?
Fr. Joshua Pappas
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church
Grand Rapids, MI