“It’s my first day of school!” shouted an exuberant Chrysostom as he awoke Friday morning, standing on his bed. Her puffy morning eyes were hidden in a face beaming with light.
Unfortunately, but naturally, the exuberance will not last. The irresistible momentum of the “new” will fade. There will be mornings of incessant moaning; mornings of defiant stubbornness; of tired laziness; distraction with a game or toy. There will be mornings when we, as parents, find no joy in caring for a baby while getting two uncooperative children ready for school. It may even seem 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 price).
Our enforced loyalty to the school – our unwavering commitment – will communicate a message that will penetrate deep into the soul of the young and impressionable Chrysostom.
The message, without having to say a word about it, is: “School is of the highest value, and nothing will stand in the way of it.” School is valuable and non-negotiable.
God willing (and only God knows when), Chrysostom will gradually realize the value of sacrifice by maintaining a worthy commitment. (A lot of patience and prayer may be required of parents, and even then there are no guarantees). God willing, values and their inevitable sacrifices will be grafted onto his heart. He will become a man of sacrifice, a man of character.
All sensible parents share the same commitment, a commitment that often reflects a very human desire: that our children be viable members of society. We don’t want them to “live in idleness, mere agitators, doing no work” (2 Thess. 3:11). We want them to be like Saint Paul who says: “We have not eaten anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and toil we labored day and night, so as not to be a burden to any of you” (2 Thess. 3:8).
Need terrifies us. We want our children to succeed, professionally and socially, not only for their viability, but also to enjoy a certain stature in life. And we take meticulous care to look after their global success.
Imagine if we cared for the spiritual success of our children – their eternal souls – with the same ferocity. We are less prone to this because the fruits are not so obvious. But the importance is greater, for what is more important than the relationship of our children with Christ, a relationship which determines their fulfillment in life and bears an eternal influence?
Everything we do communicates a message. Who we are shines on those around us. This is why Saint John Chrysostom says: “What is needed is a model of life, not meaningless speeches; character, not intelligence, deeds, not words. These things will secure the Kingdom and grant God’s blessings.
As we begin the new ecclesiastical and academic year, we should reflect on the message we are sending to our children, to our subconscious, and to God. What is my life pattern and what does it communicate about me? Consider a few achievable spiritual commitments that could send a soul-penetrating message:
- Come to the Divine Liturgy every Sunday, and on time. We don’t skip school or work when things are tough, and we’d be embarrassed to be late for such important activities.
- After the liturgy, reflect on “the meaning of [Epistle and Gospel] readings” (Saint John Chrysostom). Ask your children what they learned in Sunday school.
- Pray briefly morning and evening with reverence, even if your children are not paying attention.
- Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Christ was betrayed by Judas on Wednesday and gave his life on the cross on Friday. Remember his love, his willing sacrifice, and give him heightened awareness and a little sacrifice these days by simplifying your diet, cutting out the taste of meat and dairy.
- Keep less for yourself, do less for yourself, and give more. Tell your children about your charity, the social needs you support and why you do it. Get them involved, if possible. Tell your children about your stewardship in this ward: how you give your time, skills, and money in a meaningful way, because everything we have comes from God.
If we do not attend Liturgy regularly and on time; if we don’t pray; if we do not fast; if we do not discuss spiritual things at home; if we don’t look sacrificially beyond our desires to see the needs of the parish and the world – it all communicates a message. The message is this: “God is not really important. We integrate Him when there is time, and when it is practical. There are other more pressing priorities.
God is not looking for more ward members. God is not looking for religious consumers: people who come to church to get something. He is looking for followers: those who are willing to leave important things behind to follow something (Someone) of far greater importance. Discipleship is a direction – a pattern of life – that involves commitment, action, sacrifice. The Church is a hospital where we are healed, but St. Paul also refers to the Church as a sports training ground and a battlefield.
Ultimately, 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 easy. Love means I put you first. Love involves sacrifice. Love has concrete expressions. Love is never willy-nilly, depending on the evolution of feelings and circumstances.
As we enter the new ecclesiastical and academic year, let us hold in our hearts as much as possible the two most important questions: Lord, do I really love you? How do I show you my love?
Prof. Joshua Papas
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church
Grand Rapids, Michigan