Volume 3, Number 12

December 21, 2012

Theme: “Lead Me on a Level Path”

Articles:

From the Editor: Thoughts on Vocation

by Deacon Jason Ketz

One Life, One Vocation

by Michael Tishel

“Thine own of Thine Own, we offer unto Thee” Offering Ourselves and Our Lives

bu Father James Bozeman

First Steps on a Level Path 

by Kay Wakaruk

Wisdom and Vocation

by Father David Chandler Poling

Being Who You Are

by Elizabeth Gauvain

Uneven Paths and Hard Lessons

by William Kopcha

More information about the writers and contributors can be found here.


From The Editor: Thoughts on Vocation

December 21, 2012

By Deacon Jason Ketz

This month’s edition of Wonder explores the subject of Vocation – a topic of great importance to many of us. Six writers have taken up the challenge of exploring this topic, and each offers a substantial contribution to a Christian discussion of ‘calling.’ But each of them also identifies a problem with how we reflexively think of vocation today. It seems, then, that vocation is a subject easily misunderstood, and I would like to offer a reorientation to the subject, by way of an extended introduction. I would like to offer my understanding of the modern predicament, and a few things that would keep our discussion properly focused not on ‘calling,’ but on ‘Christ’s call to us.’ I will warn you, however, that I will offer nothing conclusive here, but only provide the platform from which to read and appreciate our authors’ own essays. So for those of you who have limited tolerance for words, please move directly to the featured works of the month.

Vocation in today’s society

One of the questions that we are taught to wrestle with continually in our society is the cliché “what am I supposed to do with my life?” We are introduced to the idea even before adolescence, and sometime in our teenage years, we are told that one of our responsibilities in life is to answer this question. So we approach vocation like a riddle, and set out on a journey that often spans countless miles, scores of friendships and relationships, and the better part of a decade, trying to sort out what each of us is supposed to be doing with our lives.

Discerning one’s vocation is difficult enough to most people, but Christians compound the difficulties when we invite our Lord into our own personal quest for meaning. Interestingly, we pay very little attention to the etymology of the word Church (the Greek word ἐκκλησία literally means ‘those who have been called out’), and instead we see Church as a building, or an event in our weekly lives. Naturally, and seemingly innocuously, we then identify Christ in proximity to his Church. We also cling dearly to a belief that our ‘calling’ is toward a defined, finished state of being. Then, using scripture as a springboard, we blend our desire to be close to Christ with our desire to make a living. And what is the result? A hierarchal system of rating careers, moving in concentric circles toward (or away from) our Lord. In essence, the closer a career seems to bring us to Christian teachings or to church itself, the more holy and the more worthwhile – and ultimately the more authentic – we believe it to be.

Concentric circles of Christian vocation

Our hierarchy of careers takes a very predictable shape. We consider ministry (usually ordained ministry, by default, and by reinforcement from the pulpit) to be the holiest vocation. Certainly, the Old Testament reinforces this belief – despite Israel’s designation as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exod 19:6), it is actually the High Priest who is specifically marked as “Holy to the Lord” (Exod 28:36-38). In like manner, we categorize the Prophets and the Apostles in this ‘most holy’ inner circle, as the ideal vocation. Moving outward from this Christ-centered holiness, we consider the next most worthy vocations as those that directly support God’s plan for salvation, those that care for creation, or those who expound on our Lord’s teaching. We often think very highly of health care professionals, social workers, teachers, and certain types of civil servants as holding worthwhile careers. These professionals are all somehow bringing God’s mercy to the world through healing or teaching or some such social service. But the farther out we move into the secular world, the more suspicious we are of the validity of certain careers. Many of us have a somewhat bemused indifference to farmers. Accounting and factory work are often written off as essentially worthless, and we are extremely suspicious of business owners or ‘Big Business’ executives, reflecting a very conservative reading of Christ’s warning that we cannot serve God and Mammon (Matt 6:24).

Indeed, certain life choices or career choices (such as prostitution, to use the apostle Paul’s classic example) are incompatible with a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. But our nice, neat chart of vocational holiness has many gray areas, and it ultimately does us a great disservice. Consider mothers and soldiers as two examples where our vocational categories may not apply.

Motherhood is an incredibly high calling. The maternal responsibility of one of God’s children is perhaps unmatched by any career. Yet any particular mother may or may not feel any resonance with her ‘calling’ to be a mother. Many mothers who choose to care for their children full-time find great joy in their role in the home. Some mothers would prefer to work, and offer a great gift both to God and to society through their professional careers. And sadly, countless other mothers suffer daily from the tedium of child-rearing, which can so easily lead to a sort of mental atrophy, and even forms of depression. It’s a sad indictment of the imperfection of the ‘high calling’ of motherhood that the barbituate Nembutal was nicknamed ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ in the Rolling Stones’ 1966 eponymous hit song.

Soldiers, and especially those who have engaged in foreign wars, struggle with a similar issue. On the one hand, scripture and our tradition hold them in very high regard. And yet the fundamental request we make of all armed soldiers is to be at all times prepared to violate one of our most highly regarded commandments. Our soldiers are trained to take life, which we consider to be absolutely sacred. In fact, since we utilize the sanctity of life to categorize and prioritize vocations, soldiers are placed in a terribly schizophrenic position by our understanding. Even soldiers who have not knowingly taken a life find it difficult to assimilate with a Christian community after their training and especially after combat exposure. This frustration, from the men and women for whom we pray at every single liturgical service!

Surely, our understanding of vocation has done both mothers and soldiers an injustice. And now we begin to see that our model of concentric circles of vocational holiness (or value) is so full of holes that it’s a wonder we can keep it afloat. Because, at the center of our model is not Christ, but merely a fanciful self-portrait of ourselves standing next to our Lord. The goal is fine, but the model is flawed. Thankfully, though, this whole sinking ship of ours can be righted and repaired simply by a more complete appreciation of what it means to be called by God. And the best place to begin, is with scripture.

Scriptural vocation, revisited

Scripture is so full of divine callings and human responses that it is tough to draw any hard and fast conclusions of vocation. However, in our endeavor to reorient ourselves to the subject of vocation, it would behoove us to consider first, the condition of the recipients when they received their calling, and then, the subject of the calling.

Characters of every sort receive callings in scripture: kings, patriarchs, prophets, fishermen, a virgin in the temple. Some people are well-known, popular figures, and some were previously anonymous. And each of them was conducting themselves differently right up until the moment of their call. In many cases, these people were living holy and good lives. Mary was in the temple, as was Samuel. Jonah was acting the part of a holy prophet right up until the moment that he received his prophecy. On the other hand, the disciples were all going about their lives relatively unaware. King David was tending his father’s sheep. Moses was on a bit of a quest, but Abraham, by contrast, was just ‘doing his thing’ in Haran. Most remarkably, Saul (Paul) was actually persecuting Christians. But in every case, in every situation, with every person, our Lord had them precisely where they needed to be, to hear Him calling to them.

If these people were all precisely where God wanted them, why would we dare to believe that we currently in such a position ourselves? That is not to be understood as carte blanche for bad judgment, but seriously, why should we be so willing to believe that we may currently be unable to hear God’s call? There is simply no strong basis for this belief, and it’s dangerous, too, to the extent that we believe God’s power is limited by our choices.

The second thread of continuity in scriptural callings is the subject. Those who are called are asked to do something or say something to a group of people, in order that they repent and find salvation with God. In no case is the person asked to focus on himself. Rather, the Lord is always the subject, The exception that proves the rule is the prophet Jonah. He feared for his own reputation as a prophet when he was finally called by God to prophesy, so he fled. And it was only as he was being blotted out of existence in the belly of the fish, that he finally understood that it was not about him, but about the Lord God. Even Christ deflects attention from himself to his Father in heaven. And, in fact, John the Baptists best articulates the Christian vocation when he says simply that ‘he must decrease, so that Christ may increase’ (John 3:30). Vocation is not about us at all. It is about Christ.

One final correction must be made to our initial understanding of vocation. Vocation is an active process, but it is not a finished state. “Lead me on a level path” pleads the psalmist, and we along with him. In this psalm, our prayer is not for the destination, but for the journey. When we ask God to ‘teach us the way that we should go,’ we are asking for continual guidance and support through our entire lives – not merely a one-time course correction because we somehow strayed into dangerous waters. Our prayer affirms our belief that right now, each of us is right where Christ wants us, so that he can speak to us. And finally, we accept the possibility (and indeed, the likelihood) that we can encounter Christ and reveal Christ to others through the daily work that we already do.

 

From this position, freed from the constructs that we so willingly place upon ourselves, we are now able to enter into a more intelligent discussion of vocation in terms of Christ.  So what, then, is a healthy understanding of vocation? And how do we hear our calling today? What shape does it take? How do we discern it? And what is our response? And what should we hope to hear in reply when we pray with King David that God “lead me on a level path.” (Pss 27:11, 143:10)?

 

As mentioned above, six authors have taken up the challenge of exploring vocation in this month’s edition of Wonder. Mr. Michael Tishel leads us through popular culture and a moving anecdote to discuss our common social misunderstanding of vocation, and a healthier sense of calling. Tishel encourages us to respond to Christ’s call by honoring the great commandment, to love God and to love one another. Fr James Bozeman discusses the frustration of exploring one’s vocation and the temptation to use “God’s call” as a catch-all for bad decisions. To minimize either difficulty, Bozeman emphasizes the freedom of vocation, and suggests that the proper view of vocation is the return of our gifts and talents to our Lord who bestowed them upon us. Ms. Kay Wakaruk offers several insightful tips for understanding vocation in her essay. Comfortable with both the possibility of vocation and the use of scripture for understanding it, Wakaruk places the burden of responsibility on we, who are constantly being called by Christ.

 

Fr Chandler David Poling parses the difference between our secular understanding of vocation and a properly Christian one, refusing all the while to allow us confuse our quest for ‘vocation’ with our quest for ‘material things’ in this world. Our true call, Poling asserts, is a daily process, that may well be independent of (and is certainly not limited by) career choice. Liz Gauvain offers a brief reflection, and contributes to our discussion by assessing the importance of self-understanding. As she sees it, Gauvain considers a healthy self-understanding as a prerequisite to answering the Lord’s call. Only by knowing ourselves could we possibly hope to respond authentically and individually to our Lord. Our body of writings concludes this month with a piece by Mr William Kopcha, who offers some conventional wisdom on the subject of vocation, through his own personal journey over recent years.

 

All of these authors have given us powerful words to contemplate when discussing vocation. And each one of them more fully articulates what it means when we pray that God “lead me on a level path.” The path is unique for all of us, but the destination is the same, and the prayer is for the journey. I hope that you can take time to read and reflect on this collection of essays this Christmas season, and identify both the consolations and the challenges that these authors offer us all, as we pray that God lead us all on a level path, and teach us to do His will.

 

Wishing you all the very best in the season of the Lord’s Nativity.


One Life, One Vocation

December 21, 2012

by Michael Tishel

In an episode of the Simpsons entitled “Separate Vocations” Lisa and Bart take aptitude tests, which are processed by an enormous dysfunctional computer. After much anticipation, Lisa discovers that she is meant be a home-maker, and her brother Bart finds out, much to the chagrin of his father, that he is going to be a policeman. Lisa is crushed by this news and is determined to prove the test wrong, so she consults with a professional saxophone player who informs her that, though she has talent, she inherited her fathers’ “stubby fingers” and will therefore never be able to pursue her “vocation.” Thus, Lisa is required to spend the day doing chores with her mother, while Bart gets to ride along in a patrol car.

 

separate vocations

I don’t know about you, but Bart and Lisa’s anxiety about what they will be when they are older, though humorous, hits pretty close to home. Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone asks us “so what do you want to do after college?” or “what do you want to major in?” These are most certainly well-intentioned questions, yet the looming moment of truth, when the rest of our lives will be decided by choosing one occupation or another, is daunting at best and utterly terrifying at worst.

 

I for one wanted desperately, when I was a kid, to become a Native American; I’ve since realized that I simply don’t have what it takes. Then it was a detective, but I discovered that most detectives spend far less time catching criminals, and more time filling out paperwork; so that was out of the picture. Then finally when I was in college I decided that I would like to teach English Literature. This was the most realistic goal that I had conjured up, I would say, and was motivated by the superb example of a profoundly loving high school English teacher. Yet even this desire subtly slipped away and I found myself wanting to serve Christ and the Church. I had no idea how this would pan out, but for once in my life it didn’t matter what I would be doing. What mattered was that it would be done within the context of a life in Christ. I started to realize that there was a more important question than “what do you want to do when you grow up” that begged my attention. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

The Simpsons’ episode about “vocation” certainly evokes a chuckle from even the driest viewer, but even more so it reveals our culture’s understanding of vocation. We either associate vocation with whatever job we decide get, or we understand vocation as a calling to the priesthood or monasticism. In either case, however, we can agree that vocation mostly has to do with what happens in the future. It’s that moment in the future when we become whatever it is that we’ve dreamed or hope to be (i.e. scientist, athlete, writer, missionary). We work hard (or hardly work) towards that day, but nine times out of ten, “that day” is one that, in our minds, hasn’t come yet. And “that day” is what characterizes and defines our vocation. “After I’m done with school, I will be a doctor.” “Next year I will…” This idea of vocation expresses as much a disinterest with the present as it does anticipation for the future.

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Consider the story of a young girl named Sarah. Sarah was an average child, grew up in a suburban neighborhood playing with her friends in the backyard. Sarah’s parents were both doctors and from a very young age Sarah dreamed of being just like her parents. In high school she volunteered at the local inner-city clinic, and when it came time to choose her college, she had made up her mind to study pre-med. She did well in her classes, but they didn’t mean much to her; she just needed to pass them in order to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a physician. She had her whole career planned out, and had even drawn up a design of her Beverly Hills clinic where she would treat Hollywood’s celebrities. One day during her sophomore year of college, Sarah was sitting in Biology lab, day-dreaming about the palm trees she would plant in front of her clinic. That day they had a sub, and so it was one of the least important days to pay attention, but as the class quieted down, the substitute began to introduce a documentary that the class would watch. As the film began, Sarah was still thinking about her future career, and with bland disinterest turned her attention to the projector screen. All of a sudden she caught her breath. The opening scene was of a mother in Central Africa who had just lost her 7 year old son to AIDS. The mother was weeping uncontrollably.

Sarah watched in utter disbelief as she heard the horrifying statistics of how this epidemic was sweeping through an entire continent. Is this possible, she wondered. The video turned her life upside down. She couldn’t stop thinking about the statistics, and picturing the grieving mother. Every time she tried to revisit her “dream clinic” in her mind, a barrage of confusing thoughts about suffering and poverty, like storm clouds, would cover her sun-bathed clinic in sadness. For the first time in her life, she felt real heart-wrenching pain on behalf of other people. Her dreams to treat the rich and famous seemed like petty children’s games to her now, and she started to discern another purpose in studying medicine. From then on, attending classes was no longer a bore, but held a deep significance wrapped up in her desire to heal, comfort and save human lives. Her heart-felt purpose informed all that she did and pierced through the superficiality of grades and competition amongst peers. Classes were no longer barriers, blocking her from future goals, but rather means of enriching her life and broadening her understanding of the human person. And all this, from Sophomore Bio Lab, taught by a substitute, when she would normally have been thinking of more important things.

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The moral of the story: “One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them” (C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy p. 262). Important lessons and valuable treasures often come in seemingly unimportant ways. Jesus himself said “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and appreciate the beauty and wisdom that is often disguised in normality or even ugliness. It all depends on how attentive and diligent we are in the small things.

Christ came to us in His incarnation, and will come again in His second coming, yet we should never forget that he is present now and invites us to get to know Him now. How do we know this? First of all because that’s what “the Bible says.” But we believe it because we see this truth actually lived out in the lives of the Apostles, Saints and Confessors of our faith. They are the “proof” that Christ is with us, and they witness to what He can do in our lives if we belief (i.e. trust) in Him. What will this do for us? This will do everything. It will give meaning to a life that is tainted by and ends in death. Why will it give meaning, because Christ, as witnessed by His saints up until this very day, conquered death, conquered meaninglessness, conquered darkness, by dying on the Cross and rising from the Dead.

Our true calling in life is respond to the Caller – to Jesus Christ. How do we respond? Do we send him a letter? Do we hit “reply” in an email? Our response is our life. Christ asks of us our entire life. Isn’t that a rather large request though? It would be if we didn’t know what we would get in return. In return for dedicating our life—our fleeting, brief existence on this earth, we receive the richness and depth of eternal life. This is not an eternal life in the future after we die, this is an eternal life which begins now. The saints are people who, through faith and love for God (i.e. their response to Christ’s call), felt at the core of who they were and experienced on a daily basis that they were no longer constrained by the captivity of death.

Why does this matter? Why can’t we settle for mortality, for eighty or so good years of pleasure on this earth? Isn’t it still worth it to enjoy this life, rather than having to dedicate it all to God? A life in Christ is important because death knocks at our door, not only at the end of our life, but also throughout it. We are constantly reminded of our death, by the death of loved ones, by the untimely death of young people who are killed or who were sick, by hearing about death on the news. We are reminded of death by sickness, by evil actions committed by and by and to so many people in world. We are reminded, yet we try to forget. We try to forget by taking pain-killers to numb our pain; by allowing our “busy” schedules to consume our ability to reflect on our day; we allow ourselves to forget by numbing ourselves with food, entertainment, pleasures and anything else that distracts us from the fragility and temporal nature of life. Not that all of these things are bad, they are in fact created by God, but they become this way if they are used as narcotics (a word which literally means “to numb”) from pain and ultimately death. That’s why this discussion of eternity is important. That is why Christ’s coming, his trampling down death and bring forth new life, is important. That is why a life in the Church, a life in Christ is important. We can’t forget why we are here (to love God and neighbor), who calls us (our Creator and Sustainer), and to what we are called (a life of holiness, eternal life and love). In this sense we can echo the “definition” of vocation as articulated by the Office of Vocation & Ministry and CrossRoad (the two programs for which I work): “one’s unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and one’s neighbor as oneself.”

 

So where does that leave us? Do we abandon our lives in the world and dedicate ourselves to God by becoming monastics or clergy? Does this mean that we should give up all of our “earthly” dreams and hopes? Many people throughout the history of the Church believed that this was so. St. Anthony the Great, the founder of modern day monasticism, and an ascetic of the fourth century, after hearing the Gospel precept “go, give all your possessions to the poor, and follow me” (Luke 12:33) did just that. Yet the Gospel calls us to a way of doing things, not necessarily to a particular occupation. We are called to do whatever it is that we do with love.

 

At the beginning of this post I said that I had discovered a deeper question than just “what I wanted to do when I grow up.” This question was “who do I want to be?” and “how do I want to live?” And the timeframe is not “when I grow up” but NOW. Why is it that these questions of ‘who’ and ‘how’ often seem to take second place in our lives? It may have something to do with how we’ve come to interact with ourselves and with others via social media sites. Am I the sum parts of my “interests, relationship status, religious affiliation and quotes”? I would say that these “facts” about me or about others comprise the very tip of a large iceberg. What remains hidden, beneath the surface, is in fact that bulk of who I am. We can’t be allowed to reduce ourselves (or others!) to a list of facebook facts, or to define ourselves by our five-year goals.

 

We also must take care not to fall into the habit of compartmentalizing our lives. Not only is there a connection between what we do in Church and what we do in the rest of our lives, but there is no separation whatsoever. Whether or not we approach things this way, there is only continuity before Christ. Does this mean that we are supposed to walk the streets handing out tracts about Jesus and wearing a sign saying “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand” while we’re at work? Well, maybe to some extent, though probably not through those very words. What does it mean for us to live as Christians in this world? It means that our first priority is the Kingdom of God “and all these things [insert: job searching, housing, education, good grades, relationships] will be added unto you” (Matt 6:33).

 

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Our vocation in life never changes. Our relationships will change, or our careers, or our residence. But our calling in life, based on the fact that we are all human beings, created by in the image and likeness of God, is universal. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Simple, huh? Yet how we love is much more involved. But God is waiting for us to respond to the call. He was waiting from the moment he brought us from nothing into existence. He loved us into existence, and now we respond by loving Him and our neighbor, and only through this love will we truly find life, meaning, purpose and, of course, our vocation. So may we all hear and respond to the words of St Herman of Alaska, who said so famously, “From this day, from this hour, from this moment let us strive to love God above all and do His holy will!”

 


“Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee” Offering Ourselves and Our Lives

December 21, 2012

By Father James Bozeman

“What is God’s will for my life?” This is a classic question, and one that I recall wrestling with from time to time in my life. Even more taxing and vexing were questions like, “Is it God’s will that I take this job?” or “Does God will that I date this person?”. At one time in my life, these questions presupposed a particular approach to the path of discerning “God’s will.” It was as if His will were a secret which had to be decoded, and as if God would only reveal to us as much as we could either figure out on our own or pry out of Him.

As a teenager, I became more and more desperate to figure out what God’s will was for me, largely because I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything “according to plan.” I found a book, the title of which now escapes me (it is probably better that I have forgotten it), and in this book the author suggested that God’s will was indeed a sort of code. We could crack that code simply by reading the words of the Bible literally and directly, and apply them to ourselves. Just open up the Bible and begin to read, and the words themselves will tell you exactly what to do. This was not so bad for me when I read passages that discussed virtuous activities, such as giving to the poor or spreading the Gospel. But I became more troubled trying to internalize Old Testament passages, some of which seemed to be directing me to sacrifice animals or kill my neighbors in battle. What did any of that stuff have to do with decoding God’s will?

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Why did God have to be so secretive about what He wanted me to do? Why couldn’t he simply speak to me as he did to so many others that we read about in the Scripture? And if God was going to be secretive about what His plan for me was, then how could I be blamed if I somehow missed my God-preordained path due to my ignorance and God’s subtle caginess?

I’m fairly certain that I am not the only person who has suffered in a pursuit to decode God’s seemingly-elusive will. For me, this was a mistake based in some erroneous assumptions about the fact of God’s will in our lives: as if there is one —and only one— vocation for each of us, and unless we hit all the stops along the road at the right time and in the right order, we are going to miss it.

There are two sides to this troubling coin: on one side, we are vexed whenever we find ourselves at a loss to understand what God’s “secret” will for as actually is. On the other side is the convenient, tacit response which we are entitled to, after supposedly discerning His will: God told me to do this. So on the one hand we are in the dark, thinking that there is some path that we must find and follow. And on the other hand is the logical fallacy in which we appeal to the authority of God (also as an “appeal to Heaven” or deus vult). Who can argue with us— indeed, how can we argue against ourselves?— if we assert and believe that we are doing a particular thing because God has told us to do that thing?

It isn’t the purpose of this reflection to downplay the pain that some of us endure in our effort to understand exactly why we have been dealt the particular life that we live. Nor is it my intention to cynically rule out the possibility that God may send a very direct word of instruction to a person. I merely wish to affirm how incredibly free we are to live our lives. We are free to pursue the gifts that we discern (and others discern) in ourselves. We are frighteningly free, in fact. And with this freedom comes an even greater realization that all that we have in our lives— our gifts, talents, good and bad experiences and so on— are given to us by our Lord for our edification, to suffer and to enjoy.

And so in the end, there is no “secret code” of God’s will that needs to be cracked. Instead there is simply the incredible freedom to live holy and perfect lives in which we manifest those gifts and talents that our Lord bestows on all men and women in different proportions. In this case, God’s will is for us to offer up to him whatever we have been given, by His grace and to the best of our ability, echoing those words that we hear in each Divine Liturgy: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee…”

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In returning our gifts to the Giver of all, we no longer have a need to appeal to a God-made-me-do-it argument. We are free to give as little or as much of our lives to God as we desire. But we are compelled to consider how much or how little we are offering to God, and why we may be holding back a portion of ourselves. Likewise, we are equally compelled to remember that whatever we offer to God, it is always lacking and always in need of Him to make if perfect and complete. And so we humbly offer ourselves up, giving back to Him what is already His, asking Him to make perfect all that is imperfect in us.


First Steps on a Level Path

December 21, 2012

By Kay Wakaruk

In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah 29:11, God says, “For I know the plans I have   for you…plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”.  God has a plan for each of us; a purpose for our life.  And the great adventure in our lives is discovering what that plan is.

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However, as we strive to figure out God’s plan – the thing that confuses us most of the time is that we are usually thinking about ourselves and asking, What am I going to do with my life?  This is the wrong question.  The question we should be asking is, What is God going to do through me…if I let Him…if I cooperate with Him…if I submit my will to His…if I open up my heart to Him…if I trust Him…if I surrender my life to Him…if I follow Him?

When we ask the right question, we begin to see that my life is not about me – my feelings, my wants, my needs, my time, my money, my body, my choice, my pleasure, my fun, etc. It is my life, but it’s not about me.  Remember: God can’t fill us with His grace if we are full of ourselves.  Rather, the purpose and goal of our life is to do what God is calling us to do; to follow God’s plan for our life and do God’s will.

But how can we know what God’s plan for us is?  How can we know what God is calling us to do?  How can we know what “level path” (as David says in the Psalms) God is trying to lead us on?  First we must remember that this is a life long process and journey. It is something we will continually work on and strive to do every moment of every day for the rest of our life.  But it might be helpful to keep in mind the following 5 suggestions.

1)      Make a choice and a decision for Jesus each day. Accept that He will be the most important person in your life – the center of your life – the Lord of your life. Ask Jesus to be with you at work, at school, at soccer practice, standing by your side as you do the dishes and fold the laundry, etc. Seek His advice and help in all things.  Let Him be your constant companion throughout the day.  Surrender your life to Jesus and put your trust in Him. Put yourself under His authority and be obedient to His teaching and His commandments. Imitate Jesus – strive to be like Him.  In other words, do things His way and not our way.

2)      Stay close to Jesus and strengthen your relationship with Him by spending time with Him each day in prayer and reading the Bible.  The Bible is God’s love letter to us, and (as St. Jerome said) ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ. Your Bible readings don’t have to be long – just two or three verses.  Start with Mark’s Gospel: it’s the shortest.  The Orthodox Study Bible has great footnotes to help you understand what you’re reading. And if you have questions that the footnotes don’t address, write your questions down and ask your priest, deacon, youth director, church school teacher, etc. Keep your prayer time short as well.  And if you find that during your prayer time you are sleepy, distracted, hurried, etc. – that’s ok – do it anyway so that it becomes a habit and part of your daily routine. Use an icon to help you focus in your daily prayer.  Don’t worry about what words to say; it’s the attitude of your heart that matters.  End your prayer time by spending one or two minutes in silence, just to be with Jesus and hear His voice speaking to your heart.

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3)      Fellowship: Get to know the saints, and especially our Blessed Mother, the Theotokos.  They exemplify how to do God’s will and become holy. And they are our great intercessors, always praying to God for us and always cheering us on and encouraging us to keep trying and not give up. Also, surround yourself with other people who are on the same journey you are, striving to follow Jesus and do God’s will. Then you can support and encourage each other.   Let go of relationships that pull you away from Jesus.  And avoid being in situations where you might be tempted to sin – such as certain parties, certain work situations, conversations involving gossip, etc.

4)      Learn what the church teaches. Follow the teachings of scripture and tradition, such as the 10 Commandments, the Beatitudes (and all of Christ’s sermon on the Mount, in Matt 5-7), etc.  Use the help that Jesus gives us through the church.  Attend church services and participate in the life of the church, the feasts and fasts, and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession.  The sacraments are like seven power lines that connect us to the love and power and grace of Christ that we need in order to be able to do God’s will and become holy.

5)      Persevere. Keep trying, don’t be distracted and never give up. When we “mess up” and fall into sin, we need to go to confession and receive the forgiveness and healing of Jesus and begin again. What about our feelings and emotions when it comes to doing God’s will?  In a wonderful little book by Mother Angelica called Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality,[1] she writes the following:  “It doesn’t matter how you feel, it only matters what you do.  Jesus Himself said that when He told the story of the man who had two sons whom he asked to go into the vineyard.  One son said no, but he went.  The other son said yes, and never went.  Who did the Father’s will?  The one who said he didn’t feel like going, but went anyway.  (Matt. 21:  28-31)  That is the example we must follow.”

If you are doing all these things and are still unsure about what path God is leading you on and what God’s plan for you is, pray more for Jesus to give you light and direction and then move forward in faith.  If it turns out to be a mistake, then God will somehow make good out of your mistake and redirect you.

What are some of the ways that God might use to “speak” to us and guide us and show us the way we should go?  Sometimes God shows us the way through prayer, through an icon, through a verse or story in the Bible, through the advice and insight of another person (a friend, teacher, priest, etc.), through a song or a book, through our parish community, etc. Remember: God can work through anyone and anything. But God always shows us the way in His good time …and only one step at a time.  God is a good and loving Father, and He knows that we can only handle one step at a time.

How should we respond when God answers our prayers and “speaks” to our heart and we have a sense that God is guiding us in a certain direction? To answer this question we can go back to the words of David’s prayer in Psalms 27 and 143. When David asked God to “lead me on a level path,” David also said, “Teach me the way I should go …and teach me to do thy will…for I am thy servant”.  In other words, David was open and receptive to God’s teaching, trusting in God to lead him in the right direction and surrendering to God as a faithful and obedient servant who was willing to follow God. We must also be willing to be taught by God, willing to be led by God and willing and obedient to move from where we are in order to follow Jesus and do God’s will. Remember – do not ask the Lord to guide your footsteps, if you are not willing to move your feet.

During this Advent season, we are reminded that our Blessed Mother, the Theotokos, is a wonderful example of someone who was receptive and trusting and surrendering to God in order to do God’s will.  When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she had been chosen to be the Mother of the Savior, she accepted God’s plan and calling.  And even though there were risks involved (Mary could have been accused of adultery and been stoned to death), she trusted that God would watch over her and make it all work out.  And she surrendered her will to God’s will with the beautiful and obedient words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word”.

Having said all of the above, it must also be acknowledged that striving to discern God’s plan for our life and do His will can be very difficult and scary and even painful.  Everyone is dealing with a hardship of some kind, and we are all struggling to figure out how our particular hardship fits into God’s plan for our life. On a personal note:  I was recently laid off from my job after 20 years with the company.  So I am striving to follow the above suggestions and make the decision each day to trust that God will guide me to whatever new adventure He has planned for me.  However, I confess that there are days when the fears and doubts and anxiety are overwhelming.

But let us be lifted up and encouraged in our struggles by remembering once again the reassuring words from Jeremiah that we began with. God does have a plan for our lives…plans for our welfare…to give us a future and a hope. O Lord, help us to trust that you will be the guiding light in our lives, and that you will lead us on a level path that brings us ever closer to you.


[1] Raymond Arroyo, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2007)


Wisdom and Vocation

December 21, 2012

by Father David Chandler Poling

My bookshelf holds a scrapbook my mother made me when I was seven years old. She made it for me when we moved from one small town in rural Pennsylvania to another. My mother wanted my new life after the move to be as happy as possible, so she preserved photographs, birthday cards, and other ephemera to help me preserve memories and friendships. The construction paper pages are slowly becoming brittle and faded, and the binding has nearly fallen apart.

One of the items inside is a booklet that I made in preschool. It contains on its pages a crayon drawing of a green and blue man, along with an outline of my hand. The caption reads, “When I grow up I want to be…. a policeman and help good people and put bad ones in jail.” This not only gives insight into the black-and-white moral universe of a five year old, it demonstrates how early we start tormenting kids with the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It seems like I was asked that question on a regular basis throughout my growing up. Never once did I answer, “When I grow up I’d like to be an Orthodox priest in a mission parish and be a stay-at-home dad during the week” which is my life right now. I thought I wanted to help good people and put bad people in jail. But now I’m not sure who is good and who is bad, and my job is to minister to everyone, good, bad, or mixed up.

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The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” may have no relationship to what actually happens, but we think about it all the time when we are children and young people. This question still seems to be on the mind of many recent college graduates, even throughout young adulthood. “Thirty is the new twenty,” I’ve often heard from young people who are still not sure of their career path.

However, I think that this question of deciding what “I want to do when I grow up” is different from the question of Christian vocation. What “I want to do” arises from the desire of my ego for career, money, and a comfortable life. On one hand, our personal interests can give us some indication of what God wants us to do. On the other hand, our ambition can be selfish, and can drive us away from God’s will for our lives.

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When we are baptized, we “die to our self.” We give up the ego with all of its striving and desires. Personal ambition takes a backseat to loving God and loving neighbor. Now that we strive to live according to the will of Jesus Christ, we are freed from the self-destructive demands of our ego. At any rate, that’s the idea. In reality, most of us struggle with selfishness every single day.

One story from scripture that can help us understand Christian vocation is the story of King Solomon, found in the first book of Kings, chapter two. When King David died, his son Solomon was  placed on the throne. We are told that Solomon worshipped the Lord of Israel even though many of his subjects worshipped various other idols. At the beginning of his reign, Solomon offered a sacrifice as prescribed by the Law of Moses. That night, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked him what he wanted. Solomon could have asked for anything at all, but he asked for wisdom so that he could worthily carry out his duties as King of Israel. He said, “O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am only a little child… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern these, your great people?” He admitted that he was inadequate for the task at hand, and he asked God for help. He showed humility and trusted in God to help him. This request pleased the Lord. God promised to give him “a wise and discerning mind,” as well as those other things he did not request: long life, victory in battle, riches, and honor. Even though Solomon did not claim to be wise, he began a great tradition of wisdom teachings which can be found in in writings such as Proverbs, Song of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and other wisdom books of scripture. We can still greatly benefit from those teachings today.

We don’t learn our Christian vocation by agonizing over the question of “what I want.” We learn our Christian vocation by asking our Lord what He would have us do. We many never settle on a single stable lifelong vocation. But we can follow the example of Solomon, who did not presume he was strong enough for the task set before him. We can ask for guidance each day and throughout the day from our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than simply rely upon our own limited judgment.

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Each day, as we pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” we learn to live more open to His will for our life. Our own haywire desires are no longer the guiding force in our lives. Rather, we learn to live by following His commands. Following our own desires often lands us in trouble, while following His guidance always leads us to peace and light.

Christian vocation is not figuring out ‘what I want and how to achieve it.’ Christian vocation is letting ourselves be guided by Jesus Christ daily. Whatever we do, at home, at work, in the Church, or in the community, we ask God for guidance as Solomon did. Our own ambitions can lead us to frustration if we fail or to arrogance if we succeed. But when we allow Jesus Christ to lead us each day, we learn how to have joy no matter whether we succeed or fail. The vocation of every Christian is the life of joy that does not depend upon achieving our ambitions.


Being Who You Are

December 21, 2012

By Elizabeth Gauvain

A lot of discernment about vocation is rightly based around a certain set of particular questions: “Is the monastic life for me?” “Should I get married?” “Is this the person I should marry?” “What should I study?” “Which career should I pursue?” “Where should I live?” “Is this the right decision?”

This discernment takes a lot of prayer, study, trial and error, and wise counsel. But another important part of the equation to take into consideration is the question of who you are. It sounds obvious and simple, but in reality, even the earnest platitude “just be yourself!” is sometimes much harder to put into practice than it would seem. Embracing our identity is difficult because self-knowledge can be obscured by a cloud of busy activity and expectations (both from within and from without), and because people are not static. It is a delicate dance to try to know yourself while that self is continually changing and growing.

Self-knowledge is not the same as self-absorption or selfishness. Rather, it is an honest and humble continuing assessment of who you are and what you do; sometimes disappointing and sometimes surprising, helpful for relationships, for discernment of life decisions of various sizes, and for Confession as well! Neither is “being yourself” an excuse for bad habits or inertia, nor should it be any sort of crass individualism. The goal of self-knowledge is to become more truly the person God created you to be, striving to be freed of both false affectation and injurious vice, to more clearly reflect His love in the way, time, and place that you uniquely can.

In the quiet of reflection, and over the passage of time, it becomes more apparent what our natural strengths and weaknesses are, what our temperament and talents are, and what are our likes and dislikes. All these things form an important whole, and our identity changes the question of vocation. “What should I do with my life?” instead becomes “How might I best be attuned to God’s will, especially given my particular talents, weaknesses, and circumstances?”

So, when making a decision, our self-understanding becomes the best tool we have at our disposal. “Would this job serve to stretch my abilities and help me become a more well-rounded person, or am I truly not suited for this particular line of work, no matter how much study I might put into it?” “Knowing how I like to see things firsthand, would a visit to a monastery/college/workplace help me better envision whether that life might be right for me?” “What things have I accomplished in the past, that I never would have thought I could do; or enjoyed, that I hadn’t anticipated enjoying?” “What hobby have I always wanted to pursue, but never have…and what delightful avenues might it open up?”

From here, we learn to rephrase the question of “what does God want me to do?” in terms of “who am I?”and the natural Christian corollary “who does God want me to be?” And our answer, whatever it may be, becomes our own unique and living reflection of the love that God has shown us all.


Uneven Paths and Hard Lessons

December 21, 2012

by William Kopcha

“Let Thy good spirit lead me on a level path,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 143:10).  It has a nice “pious” ring to it, something of the kind of platitudes that we might expect from a distant, estranged holy man playing his holy harp and writing holy poetry for a holy book.  He prefaces this request with another, equally as pious:  “Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God.”  How nice.

Almost.  Before making any snap judgments on this, let’s take a closer look at the rest of the psalm.  In doing so, we find such lines as, “For the enemy has pursued me, he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead,” and “Make haste to answer me, O Lord!  My spirit fails!  Hide not Thy face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit.”  This gives us a very different impression – that our author is in terror, that he has been “crushed,” that his faith is waning and on the verge of flickering out.  Why would he write two seemingly contradictory pleas right next to each other?  Well, perhaps it is like this:  he wants God to lead him on a level path precisely because his path is not level; he wants to be taught how to do the will of God precisely because he does not know.  Also, if we know anything about King David, we know that sometimes he was not so holy – that his pleas were perhaps not pious platitudes, but rather sincere cries of despair to the only One that David knew could save him by leading and teaching him.

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Really, I would be surprised if anyone on this earth could say that their path really has been “level” all the way through.  My own path has been anything but.  I have been conscious of this at many different points, but most acutely after graduating from college.  After a meteoric rise to academic excellence, graduating summa cum laude with a “useful” major (chemistry), I was left standing there, holding my diploma, and saying, “Okay… now what?”  This led to a certain expectation that I would get easy answers to the prayer, “Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God; let Thy good spirit lead me on a level path.” As if God would simply pop His giant hand down from the sky, point in the right direction, and say, “Okay, here you go.”  It was not so.  The path that I followed from then on was a rocky, up-and-down, meandering, aimless jaunt through grad school, unemployment, and a first “real” job that I was not in the least bit prepared for, replete with ennui, self-doubt, deep despondency, struggle, and also moments of joy, love, and relief.  Along, the way, though, I learned a few useful things.

First, I learned that you cannot know the will of God.  To think that you can is at best misguided, at worst crazy in all the don’t-drink-the-Kool-Aid glory of the word.  What you can know is that God is greater than anything else that we can imagine – so great that He can turn even the worst tragedy into a great victory.  When His creatures that He created in His own image and likeness to be with Him and love Him rose up and viciously betrayed and killed Him, He took the opportunity to complete His plan of salvation, slay Hell, and unite Earth and Heaven.  On a slightly lesser note, my own bumpy, rocky path created many opportunities for friends, family, and mentors to intervene in my life.  Even a simple, well-timed, “Hey, buddy, I’m worried about you…” has done wonders.

One warm spring evening in late May, I gave up.  I had emerged from my dark and winding path through grad school and the doldrums of unemployment and, now, I had previously thought, my life was actually “going somewhere.”  I had a real, honest-to-goodness job as a teacher at a boarding school, my parish and family were close by, I could have time for friends and meeting new people and trying new things…  Now, I was discovering that I had less than no time (I was working all the time and still falling behind), that my students were not sold on me and eating me alive in my attempts to run a classroom, I couldn’t keep up with seeing my family or friends or doing things with my parish, let alone anything else.  I had failed, I was sinking, and worse – I had no place to go from there.  So I gave up.  That was just it – I was done.  I didn’t really know where this was supposed to lead; I just knew it was true.  I turned, said some angry things to my icon of Christ, didn’t pray, and went to bed.

 

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The very next night, another, more senior teacher and I were grading exams in our office.  It was late, everyone else had gone, and I had just packed up my own things to leave, when she turned to me and uttered a very simple question:  “So… this semester sucked, didn’t it?”  YES!  Yes, it did!  How did you know?  You were actually watching me?  You actually care?  In that very moment, I was lifted from “the pit,” and we proceeded to have a hard but necessary conversation about what is was that I needed to do in order to succeed at my calling, teaching, and to keep up with things that I loved – family, friends, church community, etc.  We might add to Matthew’s list in his account of the Last Judgment, “I was in despair and you encouraged me” or “My path was not level and you helped to show me the way.”  Opportunities like those would not have appeared had it not been for a path that was not level.

A second item on my list of lessons learned is that it’s okay to be honest about your discontentment or confusion.  If Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” what good would it do you to pretend you don’t see the truth about your own suffering?  While not scripture, my Kindle tells me that the immensely insightful Brothers Karamazov contains the word “suffer” or some derivative a total of 161 times.  Additionally, at times when my path seemed the most obscure and confusing, it was a few other books that gave a voice to my pathos, the knowledge that I’m not alone, and the will to keep on going.  Those books were the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

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A third and final lesson on vocations is that learning is hard.  As a young teacher, it’s very interesting for me to be on “the other side of the desk” from where I was not too long ago, forcing me to think about what it means to learn and how we do it.  A piece from NPR about a Western journalist’s trip to a Japanese classroom sent to me by a coworker recently made it “click:” we only make progress when we struggle.  Not all struggling brings about progress, but in order for us to strengthen our skills or knowledge, we have to wrestle with the concepts being presented to us and internalize them.

In this light, then, the entreaty to “teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God” is an inherently risky proposition.  We will learn something, yes, but that kernel of knowledge may have to be jammed into our brains.  Perhaps that’s why this prayer is coupled with the request to be led “on a level path” – because we know that the path is by definition not going to be level and we want it to be smoothed out a bit.

How, then, should an Orthodox Christian approach an obscure path or a fork in the road?  We can use our best judgment, pray, lean on our loved ones. We also must have the courage to tell them hard truths in our love for them, to bring them out of “the pit.” We cannot lose hope on our not-level paths, and while enduring and learning from its inevitable lows, the “depths of the pit, the regions dark and deep,” we must occasionally look up and appreciate the beauty, joy, and wonder of life that God has given us.


Volume 3, Number 12, Authors and Contributors

December 21, 2012

Mr Mike Tishel is the director for the CrossRoad Summer Institute, a summer program for Orthodox high school juniors and seniors. He holds a Bachelor’s in Comparative Historical Theology from Gordon College, and Master of Theology (Systematics) from the Aristotle University of Thessalonika. He currently resides in his home town of Boston MA, where he worships at Holy Resurrection Bulgarian Orthodox Church and teaches at Holy Cross Seminary / Hellenic College.

Fr James Bozeman, his wife Katie and their two sons, Alexander and Gabriel, live in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Fr James serves as priest-in-charge at St James Orthodox Mission. Converts from a protestant evangelical tradition, the Bozeman family found their way into the Orthodox Church in Toccoa, Georgia, at St Timothy Orthodox Church. Before his ordination into the holy priesthood, Fr James was a musician in a rock band, and made a living as a furniture builder.

Kay Wakaruk is a member of St. Mary’s OCA Cathedral in Minneapolis.  She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota with a major in English Literature.  She also holds a Master of Divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and has worked in the financial industry for the past 20 years.

Chandler David Poling, a recent graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, is the acting rector of St. Innocent Mission in Otego, New York. He lives with his wife, Emilita, and three children, Elias, Mariam, and John, in Yonkers, New York. More of his writing can be found at http://chandler-david.blogspot.com.

Liz Gauvain is a scone-baker and mother of four.  She is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College with a B.A. in Liberal Arts.  Her husband is a third-year seminarian at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, PA, and their home parish is St. Herman’s (OCA) in Minneapolis, MN.

William Kopcha is a psychics and chemistry teacher at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. He grew up in Connecticut and Vermont. He attends Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Southbury, CT. William holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and a Master’s Degree in Chemistry and Materials Science from the University of Connecticut. He is a past member and former president of the University of Connecticut Orthodox Christian Fellowship.  He is a frequent contributor to this blog.


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