Tag Archives: Confession

Homily: Become Good!

Sunday, November 17 (OS 4), 2019: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Ioannicius the Great of Bithynia (846). Hieromartyrs Nicander, bishop of Myra, and Hermas, presbyter (1st c.). Ven. Mercurius, faster of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:1-18
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We saw last week that we are naturally attracted to goodness. This why in the moments of their greatest need, both Jarius and the woman with the issue of blood reach out to Jesus. Goodness is naturally attractive to us. This is all the more true in the moments of our greatest need.

It is however not enough to be attracted to the Good. Loving what is good is only possible to the degree that I become good myself. This is why St Paul tells us that “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Jesus has called each of us personally to be both gentle and effective in our love for others. We are each of us called, personally and by name, to become good.

It is easy to correct someone else. But whether we do it bruskly or, as Paul tells us, gently if we don’t do it in a way that helps lift the burden of error from another, then we are no better then the scribes and the Pharisees who Jesus condemns for “bind[ing] heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on men’s shoulders; but … not mov[ing] them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4, NKJV).

Too frequently, as one of my youth ministry students pointed out this week, Christians–and this includes Orthodox Christians–are better know for what we are against than what we are for. If I’m not careful, and sometimes even when I am, I can slip into merely criticizing others. It is easy to tell others they’re wrong; it’s much harder to help liberate them of whatever error is constraining their freedom.

Recently, I was asked to sign a public letter written by a friend of mine who pastors a large, Evangelical church. In the letter, my friend criticizes a proposed change in public policy.

I won’t be signing because as I read it, I realized three things about it.

First, I share my friend’s concerns. Whatever our theological differences, I think morally his concerns are legitimate. Public officials are pursuing a fundamentally unjust policy.

Second, as I read the letter, I also realized that it offered no practical way forward. The letter failed to acknowledge that while the policy was immoral, the underlying concern was legitimate. The policy was pursuing a morally good goal but with morally dubious means.

Third, the takeaway from the letter is that “we” are right and “you” are wrong. True after a fashion but in any case, not helpful.

Jesus Christ has called us not only to love what is good but to be good ourselves. To be good means to help others become themselves good. We are called to help lift from people the burdens that bind them and to heal the wounds that make goodness elusive for them.

Some of these burdens are moral, others material or social. Whatever the burden, our task is to lighten it, to help others become free from what constrains them.

In this process, God has given us among other things the sacrament of confession. When I notice in myself an indifference to what is good or an inclination to criticize rather than help I need to bring these things to confession.

Loving the good makes me good but becoming good means repenting and rooting out my own sinfulness. let me go back to my student’s observation. If I am to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for me to condemn sin in myself or others.

I must also free myself from my own sin so that I can, in turn, help others free themselves from theirs. In this, the sacrament of confession holds pride of place.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us not only love the good but become good ourselves!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wisconsin Take Aim at Confession

Earlier this year, Wi State Representative Melissa Sargent of Madison, explained to a pastor what it REALLY meant to listen to Jesus. Now together with Reps. Chris Taylor and Sen. Lena Taylor, Sargent is presuming to intrude on the relationship between priest and penitent by requiring priests report allegations of child abuse that are heard in confession (see below).

There are a number of potential problems with the proposed legislation (which I haven’t read and can’t find on the Wisconsin statehouse website).

First, it’s an intrusion into the internal life of a religious community. The legislation re-defines for its own purposes the nature of confession.

Second, and following from this, the loss of confidentiality has a potential chilling effect on the priest/penitent relationship. In a global sense, if people think that the priest might reveal the content of their confessions to law enforcement they will likely be guarded in what they say to him.

Undermining priest/penitent can also harm the very people the bill seeks to protects: victims of sexual abuse. Requiring clergy to report what we hear in confession means that we would be legally obligated to violate the confidentiality of victims.  Under these circumstances, it would not be unreasonable for a person who has been abuse to forgo speaking to his or her parish priest because of the credible fear that the priest would report the conversation to the State.

Third and finally, the bill seeks to punish clergy who have not violated our pastoral and moral responsibilities. Worse, innocent clergy AND penitents (including victims of sexual abuse) would have their rights curtailed because of the actions of others.

You can read more about the latest swipe at religious liberty here.

Learning to Be Made New

As the Church grew and went from being an outlawed sect to a religion favored by the Empire, a problem arose. What was the Church going to do with those Christians who apostatized during the recently ended persecutions?

Added to this was the challenge that emerged as the Church began to baptized more and more people. While many of the newly baptized were sincere in their faith it also became clear that more than a few became Christian to gain a social advantage. As result, there were Christian who after baptism committed very serious sins such as fornication, adultery, and even murder.

So like with those who apostatized the question arose: What is the Church to do with those Christians who fell into very serious sins?

One approach was simply to say that those who fell from grace were condemned and could not be reconciled. This was based on a text in St John’s First Epistle:

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that (1 John 5:16).

Since reconciliation wasn’t possible if they committed serious sin, many catechumens (maybe most famously, St Augustine) would wait until late in life before being baptized. The thinking was as the person got older he or she was less likely to fall into serious sin. Or more cynical view was that we ought to have our fun when we were young and repent when it was time to settle down.

There is a parallel here with how we see young adults falling away from the Church is clear. “Don’t worry, they’ll come back when they want to get married and start a family.”

But delaying baptism so that people would sin in their youth with the expectation that when they were older they could repent and go to heaven isn’t the Gospel. As you can imagine, this resulted in the faithful becoming laxer as a group. So rather than solving the problem, not reconciling those who fell into serious sin actually made the problem worse!

Again, we see this with our tolerance of young adults dropping out of the church of a season. It signals that the Gospel is optional. But if the Gospel is optional, it isn’t true so, why bother coming back? Not surprisingly, more and more young adults are NOT coming back as the ranks of those with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) continues to grow.

Reflecting on the power the apostles received on Pascha to forgive sins (see John 20:19-25), the Church slowly came to the awareness that even serious committed after baptism sins could be forgiven. It was from this awareness that the sacrament of confession (or penance) develops.

Most of us, thank God, don’t commit “sins unto death.” This, however, doesn’t mean we don’t commit other less serious sins. And all of us have bad habits and tendencies that if left unchecked will lead us to fall away from Christ and the Church.

Like a failed marriage, our relationship with Christ doesn’t just end out the blue. Our friendship with Christ fades away from neglect. Very few of the “Nones” are hostile to Christianity. They are simply indifferent.

This is where confession becomes important.

Confession is the sacrament that strengthen us. Like all the sacraments of the Church, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. And, like all the other works of the Holy Spirit, confession transform us, helps us become more fully the person God has created us to be.

But our transformation doesn’t happen overnight but slowly over time.

This is why I stress with penitents that we need to think about confession as a skill. It’s something we need to learn how to do and this takes time and practice.

Not only does the penitent need to learn how to examine his or her conscience and make a good confession, the priest needs to get to know us, know our strengths and weakness, or natural talent and spiritual gifts, the ways in which we typically stumble and how we respond to failure as well as success.

In other words, I say to people, you need to learn how to go to confession and I need to learn how to hear your confession. And we can only do this together.

This means that in confession priest and penitent need to get to know and, more importantly, to trust each other. Above all, they need to learn how to stand together before Christ and ask for His wisdom and mercy.

This means, and this has been my experience as a priest, confession doesn’t just change the penitent, it changes the priest.

This is what makes confession a great adventure! Just as the priest has an important role to play in helping us follow Christ as His disciple and witness, we have a role to play in helping the priest become a more faithful disciple and witness.

Confession, in other words, is never simply about my sin. It is rather part of our shared journey as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, we each have our own role. But priest and penitent need each other and neither can be who they are called to be in Christ without the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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