Confession & Teaching Kids to Talk about their Spiritual Lives

For many Orthodox Christians, the only time they talk about their spiritual life is in confession. While confession is a good thing, an essential thing really, only discussing our spiritual life in confession can give us an unhealthy view of what it means to follow Christ. These misunderstandings of the spiritual life will often be passed on to the young people around us.

So there are two things we need to do in our work with young people.

First, we need to help them have a good and wholesome view of confession. In many parishes, confession is done quickly and immediately before Liturgy. There’s nothing wrong with this but it doesn’t really give the penitent and the priest much time to discuss anything but the most obvious of sins. It also works against the priest and penitent getting to know and trust each other.

Typically in some convert parishes, confession is understood as the Orthodox version of accountability. If the quick confession before Liturgy minimizing the personal quality of confession, confusing confession with accountability turns it into a stick and the priest into a judge or gatekeeper. And like with the brief confession before Liturgy, this too works against our getting to know and trust our priest.

In my own spiritual life and now as a priest, learning to do a basic examination of conscience has been helpful. You can an examination of conscience in many Orthodox prayer books. While these are good tools for adults, they can sometimes be a bit much for young people. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has a good resource for helping prepare for confession (here). The article includes two examinations of conscience. The first is based on the Ten Commandments, the second on the Beatitudes. With young people, I recommend that you use the one based on the Beatitudes.

One way to use an examination of conscience is to use the questions as the basis for group discussions. Doing this will not only help young people understand what is and isn’t a sin but also help them have richer, deeper spiritual lives. How? By teaching them to think and talk about what it means to follow Jesus Christ as Orthodox Christians.

Especially with younger children a discussion about sin might not seem practical (or even do-able). I understand why you might think this.But kids can fool us, especially when we underestimate them.

No, we can’t discuss the kinds of things with children that we would with adults. But children have a sense of moral right and wrong. Inviting them and helping them talk is a good way to form their conscience.

Having this conversation with peers also teaches them how to talk about their own spiritual lives. In addition, it also creates an atmosphere in the parish that says that it’s ok to talk about our spiritual lives with each other. We can even talk about our struggles.

Talking about our struggles doesn’t have to be something we do in any great depth or detail. But we do need to help young people begin to understand that not only do we all struggle, we struggle in surprisingly similar ways. Like Steve says in Be the Bee #36 “we all make mistakes.”

So, what can you do in your parish to help young people not only have a healthy view of confession but also to start talking to each other about what it means to follow Christ as an Orthodox Christian?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Almsgiving & Manual Labor

When we discuss the ascetical life, we’re generally pretty comfortable with prayer and fasting. In fact, not all that uncommon for Orthodox Christians to brag about the length of our services and the strictness of our fasting–even if we, personally, don’t attend the lenten service or keep the fast all that closely!

But in the tradition of the Church, asceticism isn’t simply prayer and fasting. Almsgiving and manual labor are (or should be) essential ascetical disciplines.

Building on the sacraments, the goal of the ascetical life is to restore us to the beauty we had in the Garden before the Fall of our first Parents. To borrow from the Canon of St Andrew that’ll we’ll hear soon, asceticism is meant to lift from my heart the “heavy burden” of sin and reveal “the beauty of my original image” created to reflect God’s glory.

Asceticism liberates us and makes us beautiful!

Like I said, we usually limit our conversation about asceticism to prayer and fasting and neglect almsgiving and manual labor. But we should introduce young people all four ascetical disciplines. Why do I say this?

Through prayer and fasting, I reshape my heart and make it more sensitive and responsive to God’s grace. The ascetical disciplines of manual labor and almsgiving allow me to shape the world around me and my relationship with others— including the poor— in a manner that reflects Christ. Just as prayer and fasting sanctify soul and body, almsgiving and manual labor are the means by which I sanctify the material world and therefore human society as well.

Look at the desert fathers. What did those great ascetics do?

They would often live in places where they had access to palm leaves. The monks would weave these leaves into mats and baskets while they prayed, then sell their handiwork to support themselves. Whatever was not needed to meet their own, minimal expenses would be given to the poor. So for these first monks, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor, all work together.

Introducing young people to almsgiving and manual labor helps them understand that they can, personally, make a contribution that helps others.

Asking young people to work is very different than asking young people to raise money through raffles or selling candy. Asking them to work to raise money to help those in need communicates to them there is something noble to work.

It also can help young people understand that beyond meeting our own needs, work is something we do for others. I don’t just work to make my life better; I work to make your life better as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Jesus Prayer

When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty rather than like a small child on our Father’s lap.

This anxiety about prayer isn’t helpful. “Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” As we cultivate inner stillness, we become aware of the presence of God in our lives and the myriad small blessings He has bestowed on us. So how can we begin to pray?

I like to teach young people to say the Jesus Prayer.

St Porphyrios says that “There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.” He goes on to say that the Jesus Prayer “doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God.” What make the Jesus Prayer especially valuable for young people is that, as the saint says, it is a prayer you can say “Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.”

Prayer requires silence and silence requires privacy. So we first need to help young people a cultivate a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God.

And with solitude comes a sense of atonement of being of “at one”-ment, of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions can be hard for all of us but especially for young people.

When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. But very quickly they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbors—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated.

The more we focus on human sinfulness, the more we forget that God loves us. This is why in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “the” sinner, much less the only sinner. I am “a” sinner surrounded by sinners and all forgiven by the mercy of God.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly.  What it does mean, is that we need to help young people experience God’s love for them. This is a great blessing of the Jesus Prayer.

In teaching, young people the Jesus Prayer (or really any form of prayer) need to remember what we heard from St Porphyrios

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

So, I’ve included for your consideration, a short video about the Jesus Prayer that might make a good introduction for young people. How might we go about helping young people learn to cultivate silence and begin to including the Jesus Prayer in their own spiritual lives?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Youth Ministry & Lectio Divina

Knowledge of Holy Scripture is essential to appreciating the Church’s liturgy and so for our own personal, prayer lives. Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians aren’t familiar with the Bible. This problem is not unique to our time. St John Chrysostom, for example, says this the parents in his own community:

Do not say, Bible is for monks; am I turning my child into a monk? No! It is not necessary for him to be a monk. Make him into a Christian! Why are you afraid of something so good? It is necessary for everyone to know Scriptural teachings, and this is especially true for children. Not knowing divine truths, they do know something of the pagan stories, learning from them about wondrous lives, about heroes in their sight, who served the passions and were afraid of death. Such an example is Achilles, inconsolably dying for his mistress; another who gives himself over to drunkenness, and on and on! Therefore your children need remedies for these things, in the retribution and teachings of the Lord.

So even in the 4th century, in the “Golden Age” of the Church, there were many Orthodox Christians who resisted, and even flat-out rejected, the idea that all that knowledge of Scripture is a central part of life in Christ.

Especially because of the influence of Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy, Bible studies have become more common in our parishes. But this isn’t simply the result of converts wanting to replicate something from their past. I find that while many Orthodox Christians don’t have much interest in reading the Bible, there are many others who want to learn the Scriptures.

This interest is also found among young people.

One way to help introduce youth to help them learn to use the Scriptures as part of their own, personal prayer life. The daily Gospel reading is an excellent place to start. It’s usually fairly short. And because the readings are listed on calendars most parishes give out every year, they are easy to find.

An interesting lesson to offer for older students is the formal process of spiritual reading called lectio divina (Sacred Reading). Like with enlisting students in reading at services, you might consider asking your priest to explain how to find the daily readings in the Bible.

I’ve attached a pdf that does a good job in outlining the four steps that are the traditional parts of lectio divina (and before you ask, this is a practice common to Orthodox as well as Catholics, don’t let the Latin name confuse you!). The goal here is to provide youth with a structure to help them become familiar with the Gospel that will hopefully develop into a love of Scripture.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lectio Divina Handout

Campus Free Speech?

From Bleeding Heart Libertarians, some interesting thoughts (not all of which I necessarily agree with, see #16) on free speech. It’s important to note, these thoughts pertain to public, not private, colleges and universities.

Here’s a sample:

Some people say we can’t “platform” ideas that could be used for evil. I look forward to seeing those same people demand we shut down all Marxist talks and fire all the Marxist scholars, since Marxist ideas led to 100 million or more democides in the 20th century. Note that pretty much anything can be twisted in service of evil. Nietzsche predicted the rise of something like fascism, and he pre-emotively complained about how awful fascism would be; nevertheless, some fascists twisted his ideas to justify their cause. So you can criticize X and still have your ideas used to promote X.

For more go here.

Introducing the Church’s Worship

Fr Alexander Schmemann in Liturgy and life: Lectures and essays on Christian development through liturgical experience, reminds us that understanding the Church’s worship “requires a spiritual and an intellectual effort” from us. By the latter, he means the study of the “various elements” of the different services as well as the “general order and structure” of the Church’s worship.

Given the lengthen and complexity of the services, it’s hard to teach young people about the Church’s worship. Divine Liturgy is usually familiar but Vespers, Matins, the Hours and the other sacramental and devotional services can be a mystery to people. So how might we proceed to help young people experience the Church’s worship as “doors leading us into the wonderful reality of new life in Christ,” as Schmemann writes (p. 24)?

The first thing we need to do is to be clear and our own hearts and minds about the purpose of worship (click on the drop down menu and look for video #94):

As Orthodox Christians, worship isn’t afterthought for us. Much less is it optional. It is rather an expression of what we believe and who we are as Orthodox Christians.

In the Church’s worship, we also get a glimpse of who we are in Christ (“Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim”). For young people still crafting their identity, liturgy can have a power, transforming, effect on how they see themselves.

So in addition to its doctrinal and dogmatic content, liturgy is at the very heart of Orthodox spiritual formation. Liturgy tells us who we are personally and as a community in Jesus Christ.

The Church’s worship is also central to our evangelical mission. In our worship, we joyfully proclaim the Gospel not only in words but also actions. Even if a visitor doesn’t understand what happens on Saturday evening at Vespers or Sunday morning at Liturgy, they come away with the sense that we are serious about our faith. Or, as one person told me after Liturgy, “Whatever you all believe, you REALLY believe it!”

The best way, in my view, to help young people come to a practical appreciate the power of liturgy in their own lives is simply to have young people lead services. What do I mean?

Under the guidance of the priest, it’s a good thing for young people to read at Vespers. Even if they don’t know the music, the can just read the hymns. Doing this helps them come to understand what the Church believes. The questions that naturally will arise reading the hymns at Vespers can be a springboard for discussion about dogma or the spiritual life.

While not all parishes read the the Hours and the Pre-Communion Prayers before Liturgy on Sunday, if your parish does (or your priest would like to introduce the practice), these are services that young people can also help lead. Again, this needs to be done with the priest’s permission and guidance.

Likewise, young people can be invited to help with other services like Small Compline or Matins. Retreats and church camp are good places to introduce young people to participating as readers.

The point is this. To help young people understand and make the Church’s liturgy their own we need to be willing to help them learn the services by leading the services.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Prayer and Falling in Love with Jesus

Psychology and the other social sciences can be a great help for those who serve young people. For example, while we might think that parents don’t have much influence in their children’s decision to remain active in the Church, all the available evidence suggests otherwise. As they grow older, children model their religious life, as they do the other areas of their lives, based on their parents’ example.

Another misconception that psychological research has helped us clear away is the idea that teenagers aren’t interested in religion and even rebel against it. In fact, most teenagers (even those who don’t participate in organized religion) have a positive view of religion. Far from rejecting religion in general (or Christianity), they see it as a good thing even if it isn’t exactly their thing.

Helpful though the research is, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce youth ministry and the spiritual formation of young people to merely a psychological process. As a social scientist, I know about kids in general but as a priest (or youth minister) my vocation is to get to know this unique kid.  And while there are many, non-religious benefits to active participation in church (what psychologists call prosocial behaviors or outcomes), the purpose of youth ministry is to introduce young people to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in that relationship within the context of the Orthodox Church.

St Seraphim of Sarov says that Prayer, fasting, vigil and every Christian work, however good it is in itself, does not constitute the goal of our Christian life, but serves as a means for its attainment. The real goal of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The real threat to the spiritual health of young people (and to the family, the parish, the diocese, and the Church) comes when we confuse the means of the Christian life with the goal of the Christian life. When this happens we end up telling kids to pursue conformity, not holiness. We end up, however unintentionally, telling kids being an Orthodox Christian is about fitting in and getting along rather than communion with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we confuse means and ends, we end up fostering pride and vainglory, not humility and charity.

So how to avoid this?

Well, it begins by remembering what I said a moment ago. Our task is to introduce young people to Jesus Christ. Or maybe better, God has called us to help young people fall in love with Christ.

So where to begin? With teaching young people to pray (here).

We have as Orthodox Christians a rich tradition of personal and liturgical prayer. Often though that tradition is unknown to the majority of adults and so most young people. For most of us (including young people), “prayer” only means attending Liturgy on Sunday. And even then, only about 30% of us are in Liturgy on a weekly basis.

As for personal prayer, I think most of us think personal prayer means reading out of a prayer book. While there’s nothing wrong with using prayer books, they formal prayers they contain are meant to teach us how to pray. For a Christian to only use a prayer book to pray to God is like a husband who only quotes poetry to his wife instead of actually talking to her about what’s on his heart and mind.

In the next few conversations, we’ll talk about how to teach and inspire young people to pray personally and liturgically so that, they too, can fall in love with Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Not Just Kids, But Families Too

We ‘ve seen that teenagers, and indeed child much younger, will use the tools they’re given to understand themselves and their situation (here).

On a positive note, this means that what we take as rebellion or resistance isn’t necessarily a rejection of the Gospel. It is rather the young person’s attempt to understand, to make their own, the tradition they’ve been given.

This, however, assumes that they have been given the faith.

As we also saw, for most young people—even those raised in a religious family—they spend the majority of their time in an environment that is theologically neutral (at best). While sometimes they may encounter overt hostility to the Gospel, it is usually just the absence of a religious context that causes them to drift away from the faith (here).

In other words, it isn’t (for example) learning about evolution that causes young people to leave but learning about evolution in a context where adults never discuss Creation.

All this suggests that youth ministry needs to have a broader focus than simply someone in the parish working with young people. One of the great advantages churches have is that they are one of the few social institutions that aren’t rigidly segregated by age. This gives young people the opportunity to meet and interact with a wide range of people from different backgrounds and of different ages. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance in young people’s lives of adults who are mature, committed, thoughtful Orthodox Christians. The whole parish has a role to play in the spiritual formation of young people as they make the journey to an adult faith.

The other social institution, and our immediate concern in this post, that isn’t segregated by age is the family. What can the family teach us about forming young people so they grow to be emotionally mature, spiritually committed, Orthodox Christian adults?

As a college chaplain, parents often ask me how they can keep their children in the Church. This is a good and important question. The questions that really interests me though are the ones parents never ask.

“Father, how do I keep my children as part of my family? How do I get them to come home for Christmas? How do make sure, when the time comes, they’ll invite me to their wedding? And someday in the future, how will I be part of my grandchildren’s lives?”

Nobody ever asks me these questions. Why? Because they don’t need to ask them.

Except in the most unhappy and pathological of families (and even then, sometimes!), children want a lifelong relationship with their parents and siblings. These relationships might not be easy or everything they want the, to be but the relationships exist.

And again, except for the most broken of families, people work at creating and fostering those relationships over the whole life cycle and even after death. Rarely do we “excommunicate” our family or sever our relationship with parents or siblings.

In other words, what the Church is struggling to do, even broken, unhappy families manage on a regular basis.

The article I’ve asked you to read this week (Family Traditions Help Kids Make Sense of Life) makes suggests about what families can do to build strong ties among themselves. What ideas does it give you either for working with families or for helping youth ministry become a concern for the whole parish?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Helping Kids Find Their Way in Faith

A colleague and I would set up a table in the student union of the university where we were chaplains and offer to answer religious questions for a dime (the money would go to charity). Often before we could answer the student’s question we asked if he or she was raised in a religious tradition. We did this because we wanted to know the student’s theological starting point. Or more accurately, what in their tradition the student likely misunderstood that lead to their question.

Often the way in which the questions were asked was pointed and even disrespectful. It was a challenge for me to learn that the students’ tone wasn’t the result of malice. Rather it was an awkward attempt to ask a question that outstripped their abilities to formulate. I had to learn, in other words, to hear the concern underneath the tone.

The work of the development psychologist Sharon Parks (see below) has been extraordinarily valuable in helping me coming to an appreciative understanding of how a young person learns to make sense of his or her situation using the tools we provide them (we’ll look more at these tools next week). Parks’s work also has help me understand that what often seems like rebellion or a rejection of the faith, is actually a young person awkward attempt to use the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual tools they’ve been given as they struggle to understand themselves and the world around them.

In other words, I’ve had to come to appreciate the struggle young people have with “adulating.” This understanding is important. Without it, I can’t respond with compassion to what are frequently annoying and irritating questions and comments.

(So there’s no mistake, I am unashamed to confess, that after 25+ years of working with middle school, high school and college students, sometimes young people can still get on my nerves!)

Parks has also help me remember me that I’m still learning. Each young person I met represents a new challenge, a new invitation from Christ to understand someone’s situation and to learn more fully what it means to respond with His compassion.

I travel a fair amount for work. This means I’m frequently arriving in a new city with no idea where I am. Thank God, for my GPS! Without it, I’d always be lost!

Being in a place we’ve never been before can be confusing and even frightening. And being in a new place requires that we make an effort to get our bearings.

This isn’t only true geographically. It’s also true for young people as they grow physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, and spiritually.

Working with young people means working with individuals who are often more or less lost. They’re lost because they are in a place they’ve never been before. And they do what all of us do in similar situations. They look around, they explore, they try to find the boundaries of the situation so they can find their way.

To do all this, they use the tools they’ve been given by their family, the Church and society. Some of these tools are better than others at helping young people find their way in life. But however good the tools are, especially early on, the young person just doesn’t know how to use them!

It’s our calling to help them.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Living In A Secular Culture

We live in a secular culture.  As Fr Alexander Schmemann describes it our culture isn’t “necessarily anti-religious.” In fact, American culture is “both deeply religious and deeply secularistic.” But instead of being the over-arching framework that also permeates the whole of life (what the sociologist Peter Berger called a “sacred canopy), religion is seen as merely a part of life.

We are often quite sincere in our affirmation, Schmemann says, of “the need for religion” and we even “give it a place of honor and cover it with many privileges.” But while we look to religion (including the Gospel) to “supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort, we often fail to expect the Gospel to “transform life” to transform us and those we love.

As a practical matter, this means that as an Orthodox Christian I can believe “in God and in the immortality of the soul” even pray daily “and find great help in prayer.” But when I go to work (or in the case of Orthodox young people, school), everything that I do, is done without any reference or discussion of “the fundamental religious realities of Creation, Fall and Redemption” (you can read the whole essay here).

And not only are we all generally accepting of this state of affairs, many of us even advocate for it because we live in a “pluralistic” society.

For our young people, school, extra-curricular activities, social media, and the entertainment they seek out, almost the whole of how they spend their day, happens without reference to the Gospel. This leads to the situation in which they don’t so much reject Christ and the Gospel as they simply drift away.

Spiritually, it’s like what happens when children are raised only playing video games and never going outside to play. To a large degree, we are seeing the fruit of young people being raised to be spiritual couch potatoes. Or what the fathers call the sin of sloth (acedia)

In Liturgy and Life: Christian Development through Liturgical Experience, Schmemann touches on a theme we have seen before. Orthodox Christians, like our Roman Catholics (here), Evangelical Christians and Mainline Protestants brothers and sisters, are struggling with forming young people as disciples of Christ. We know that telling young people about God isn’t enough. They too need to meet, know and love God.

What we are talking about is broader and deeper than religious education; we’re concerned with the spiritual formation of young people.

This is a task that belongs to the whole Church. This is why we need to look not only at young people but also ourselves. Why? Because “We cannot teach what we do not practice ourselves” (Life and Liturgy, p. 14).

Even when they rebel (and this is next week’s topic), young people do so using the emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual toolkit adults gave them. This raises three fundamental questions for us as youth ministers.

  • How are we failing to provide young people with the tools they need to discern and live out their vocations? In other words, how are we failing to help them rebel against the world by following Christ?
  • How are we succeeding? What are we doing well to help young people to live out who they are in Christ? Or, how are we helping them rebel against the world by following Christ?
  • Mindful of our weakness, how can we build on our strengths to help young people live life as disciples of Jesus Christ within the context of the Orthodox Church and their daily lives?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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