The Unforgiving Servant

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.  . . .  We love, because he first loved us.  (1 John 4:10,19)

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“We cannot continue without mentioning the parable of the destitute servant (Mt 18:23-35)–and we are all destitute servants! A man owed the king a tremendous sum of money which we was unable to repay. So, he was to be sold into slavery together with his entire family. But the king was moved to put and forgave him his debt. No sooner had this servant gone out then he came upon another who owed him a small sum and fiercely grabbing him by the throat, he had him cast into prison. The master having heard this brought harsh justice upon him saying; ‘You wicked servant! I forgive you all that debt because you besought me; and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?

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We must carefully note the progression of the parable. It is not because I forgive the sins of those who are in my debt that God forgives my own. I cannot exact God’s forgiveness. It is because God forgives me and leads me back to Himself, because He enables me to exist, in freedom, in His grace and because I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that I then free others from my egocentric ways and let them live in the freedom of grace as well.

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We are constantly expecting something from others. They owe us their love, their attention, or their admiration. My interest is not in others but in my self-gratification, which they provide. The stuff of which I am made is vanity and irritability. And since others are a perpetual disappointment, since they cannot settle their debts with me, I pursue them out of spite and bear towards them dark and negative feelings, I get lost in a wilderness of ill defined ‘vendettas.’ Or else, nursing my offended dignity, I remove myself, taking on an air of proud indifference and pay myself for the offenses of others…in fool’s gold!”   (Olivier Clement, Three Prayers, pp. 33-34)

Be An Example

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Matthew 23:8-12)

“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘I am living with some brothers. Do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The elder said to him, ‘No. Do your own work first, and if they want to survive they will provide what is needed themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves who want me to be in charge of them.’ The elder said to him, ‘No. You must become their example, not their legislator.’”

An example like that does not draw attention to himself. Only those who wish will follow.

“A young man came to see an old ascetic to be instructed in the way of perfection. But the old man said not a word to him.

The other asked him the reason for his silence. ‘Am I your superior to give you orders? Do what you see me doing if you like.’ From then on the young man imitated the ascetic in everything and learned the meaning of silence.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 145-146).

 

Testing the Patience of the Lord

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?

How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.    (Matthew 16:5-12)

O Lord, though we wish to be Your disciples, and wish we could be just like Your Apostles, help us so that we will not imitate their wooden literalism!  How often they misunderstood You!  Open our hearts and minds to Your Gospel teachings.  We have the advantage that the Apostles did not have – we clearly know who You are, and we already know the lessons they had to learn.  You have revealed to us Your teachings through them.  We see their mistakes and what they learned from those errors and lessons. Their lack of perception becomes for us a lesson in enlightenment, and yet, how we are just like them in not understanding Your love.

Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!  You gathered us into the Church through your preaching.  We have you as examples of discipleship to emulate.  We have learned both from your correct teachings and your mistakes.  Ask God to take away from us the blindness of failing to see the deeper lessons He intended for you and us.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will heal our hard hearts, our stiff necks, our darkened minds, our failure to bend the knee, our closed hands, our eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, and our mouths that fail to give thanks or speak the truth.

Lord, forgive us when we don’t want to understand but instead want rules and regulations because we don’t want to love others as you love us.   We fear judgment and so want to bury the talents you give to us because we too often think you are a harsh judge rather than a loving God.   Do not abandon us to our blindness and desire for an easy way.  Let Your light shine even into the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Stay with us until we understand You!

Patience: Being Able to See Clearly

“Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”  (James 5:7-11)

“Patience is a virtue,” goes the saying.  It is indeed one oft mentioned in the New Testament but rarely in the Old Testament.  Patience needs other virtues to bear fruit, otherwise it can just be inaction, passive tolerance.  Patience needs to be coupled with the actions of love, kindness and mercy to be Christian virtue.

“Therefore the patient [people] should be told to study how to tolerate those whom it is necessary for them to love. For if love does not follow patience, the virtue on display will transform itself into the greater sin of wrath. Thus, when Paul says: ‘Love is patient,’ he immediately adds: ‘it is kind’ (1 Corinthians 13:4).  Clearly those who are tolerated in patience are also loved with unceasing kindness. And so, the same great teacher when he was persuading his disciples of the virtue of patience, was saying: ‘Let all bitterness, and wrath, and indignation, and clamor, and blasphemy be put away from you’ (Ephesians 4:31). And having put all outward matters in good order, [Paul] turned to the internal life when he added: ‘with all malice.’

Because clearly, it is useless for indignation, clamor, and blasphemy to be endured externally, if internally malice, which is the mother of all the vices, dominates. In vain is wickedness cut from the outer branches if it survives at the root internally, only to grow again in many forms. Thus, the Truth well says in person: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and speak falsely of you’ (Luke 6:27).  For it is a virtue before men to endure adversaries, but it is a virtue before God to love them. Because the only sacrifice that God accepts before his eyes on the altar of good works is the flame kindled by charity. Hence, to those who were patient but did not love, he says: ‘And why do you see the particle in your brother’s eye but not see the beam in your own?’ (Matthew 7:3)

 For the disturbance of impatience is the particle, while malice in the heart is the beam in the eye. For the breeze of temptation blows the former, but consummated iniquity makes the beam nearly immobile. Rightly, then, was it added: ‘You hypocrite, first remove the beam from your own eye and then you will be able to see so that you can clear the particle from your brother’s eye’ (Matthew 7:5).  It is as if it were being said to a wicked mind, which grieved inwardly but feigned patiences externally: ‘First, cast off the beam of malice and then correct others for their mere impatience; otherwise, if you do not even attempt to conquer your own pretences, you will suffer much more than simply bearing the faults of others.'”

(St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, pp. 104-106)

St. Photius: On the Essence of Icons

St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, preached a sermon on the day the icon of the Theotokos was dedicated in Hagia Sophia, 29 March 867.  In the notes introducing the English translation of the sermon, we find this comment:

“In the eyes of Photius, painting is the most direct form of instruction, for a picture that is in agreement with religious truth contains the eidos, or essence, of the prototype, which is in turn apprehended by the faculty of sight and indelibly imprinted upon the mind. A painter is guided by divine inspiration, so that his work is not merely mimetic, but contains an actual share of the prototype. One would look in vain for a better expression of Byzantine art theory.”  (Cyril Mango, THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE, pp 282-283)

For the Byzantine Christians, the icon was even more powerful/truthful than the written texts because the icon shares in the prototype.  It is hard for us to imagine a time when the presuppositions and perspective of the people are different than our own.  There was a time when people heard the phrase, “the word of God”, it was not the Bible that came to mind,  instead they would have thought, Jesus Christ.

Living in the literary culture of the 21st Century, and being shaped by the literary tradition of recent centuries, it is hard to imagine that at one time Christians, like Photius, thought the pictured icon to be “truer” than the written text – a more certain witness to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Our modern penchant for scholarship has increased this idolization of the text, which, when combined with cultural literalism, proves to be deadly, as St. Paul says. Just read 2 Corinthians 3 in the light of Photius’ idea that the painted text shares in the prototype. Christian don’t have to rely only on a printed text, we have icons – we are icons of God, created in God’s image!

2 Corinthians 3 –

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  . . .  God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.

St. Paul says the Christian, the disciple is the true scripture because God’s Holy Spirit has written on our hearts.  In the beginning, humans were created in God’s image and likeness – we were created in the image and likeness of the Word of God.  Now God’s spirit writes on our heart, making us visible images of the Word.

Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?  . . .  Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

When we turn to the Lord . . . . which we can really do when we turn to look at an icon, we see the splendor of God.  Most miraculous of all is that we can look upon Christ in an icon and we do not have to put on a veil, as Moses did to protect the Israelites from the glory of God shining forth in his face.  And, we are changed by looking at the icon of Christ into His likeness.  This is how the icon serves a better purpose than the scriptures themselves.  The incarnation of Christ our God has changed the very nature of the world.

Trust God

 

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”

 

“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? . .  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-27,34)

 

“If you believe firmly that God cares for you, then you do not need to worry about the body, nor need you be concerned about discovering ways how to conduct your life. If, however, you doubt God’s care, and want to look after yourself without God, then you are the most miserable person imaginable.”  (The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p. 6)

(II) Whom Do You Seek?

Sermon notes for 16 July 2017

See previous post: (I) Whom Do You Seek?

This Gospel lesson begins with some folk seeking Jesus – to bring him a paralytic.  The lesson doesn’t say what the people coming to Jesus were looking for, but Jesus sees their faith and pardons the paralytic of his sins.  We might infer from this that this is exactly what these folk were seeking from Jesus.  They will by the end of the story get even more – the paralytic will be healed.  But it is possible that the man wanted forgiveness more than anything else and Jesus correctly discerned this.

Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
So Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

Why did Jesus heal this man?  To prove he was not blaspheming, and that He really did have the power to forgive sins.   Jesus’ initial and prime response to their faith is to forgive the sins of the paralytic.  Jesus heals the man only as the afterthought, to prove that his words about forgiveness are real.

We often love miracles of all sorts, but in Christianity they are supposed to be signs pointing to the Kingdom of God.  They are not the main attraction.  Yet the attraction of miracles, and even magical events captures the attraction of many Christians.  In loving the miracle, they can lose sight of its importance and meaning.

Note:  In the Gospel lesson, the people marveled, not that the man was healed, but that Christ has the power to heal!  They actually are on to something important and aren’t being distracted by the miracle.

The Gospel lesson begins with some faithful people seeking Jesus out.  In response to their faith, Jesus forgives.

Last week, I asked you to think about, “What is my question for Jesus?”  The paralytic’s question may well have been, “Can you forgive me?”

Today, I ask you something Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?”

We might think that seeking Jesus is always a good thing, and it is, except that sometimes people do seek Him for wrong reasons.  We can think back to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he;  . . . So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him. (John 18:4-11)

The men coming to arrest Jesus were seeking Him!  And note that Jesus does not disseminate or obfuscate in His answer.  He plainly and truthfully says that He is Jesus.  He accepts all who seek Him!  He is not worried about their motives.  If they are seeking Him, they are on a right path, even if they don’t know it.  He doesn’t try to avoid them or escape them.

But some do seek Jesus to be rid of him.

Sometimes people are seeking Him and yet can’t see Him even when He is right in front of them

Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).   (John 20:15-16)

Why couldn’t she see Him?  She was looking for a dead man.  She didn’t understand yet who He is.  So her wrong understanding prevented her from seeing Him exactly as He is.

This can happen to any of us if we fail to seek out the risen Lord, but rather only want a miracle worker or a magician or a slave to clean up our messes and our lives.  If we aren’t looking for the risen Lord, we will miss Him entirely even if he stands right before our eyes.

This is also how sometimes our desire for and love miracles can blind us, for we seek the magic and the power but not He who is empowered to save us.  The Magi of Matthew 2 were able to find the Messiah, even if He was still but a young baby because they were looking for the King of the Jews – they were looking for who Jesus is rather than whom they imagine Him to be.  The stars and the angels guided them right to Jesus.

If we seek Jesus for who He is, we will find Him and be able to see Him.

A final thought based upon today’s Epistle lesson – Romans 12:6-14 –

Brothers and sisters, having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Seeking Jesus requires effort and emotion, energy and enthusiasm on our part.  Look at the Epistle – it emphasizes diligence, fervor, strength, steadfastness as well as affection, rejoicing and cheerfulness.  Seeking Jesus is not for the half-hearted or double-minded.

Note as well what St. Paul says we are to do – provide for the saints and practice hospitality.  I actually think we do these two things well.    The last point comes much harder to us –  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse!

 

Nature As Images of Spirituality

There are many images and metaphors of the spiritual life, some more poetic than others.  Sometimes we find even among non-Christians descriptions of the spiritual life that show that indeed God distributes His words to all people on earth.

Mevlana, who lived in the thirteenth century writes:

“Become like the sun in your compassion and generosity;

Like the night, cover up the shortcomings of others;

As the rushing waters, reach out to the entire world;

During moments of anger, at times of rage, become like a dead man;

Become like the earth (humus) so people can stand firm on your foundation;

And either become that whom you manifest, or manifest who you really are.”

(Mevlana Rumi, from Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 95).

Sojourning on the Way: Roadblocks

“Those who follow the path of God often experience times when the holy peace, that glorious inner seclusion of calm detachment, and the freedom they love are interrupted-when, in fact, they withdraw. Sometimes movements within the heart raise such clouds of dust within that one cannot see the path one must follow.

When we happen to experience something like this, we must realize and recognize that God allows it to happen for our own good. This is precisely the warfare for which God has rewarded his saints with radiant crowns. Remembering this, then, let us not lose courage in the trials we face. As in any other trouble, we may look to the Lord and say to Him from our heart, ‘O Lord my God, take care of Your servant, and let Your will be done in me. I know and confess that Your words and promise are true. I put my trust in them and stand firmly upon Your path.’ Blessed is the soul that surrenders to the Lord each time it experiences trouble and hardship.

If, in spite of this, the struggle persists and we are unable to attune and unite our will with the will of God as quickly as we wish, let us not mourn or lose heart, but continue to surrender ourselves to God, bowing willingly to His decisions. Through this we will gain victory. Remember the battle our Lord Jesus Christ had to fight in the garden of Gethsemane, when he cried, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.’ But he immediately added, ‘Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’ (Matthew 26:39). For He indeed faced all we have to face.

When we are faced with difficulties, it is best not to take any step til we raise our eyes to the crucified Christ our Lord. There we will see written in large letters how we too should behave in the hardships which face us. So let us copy it for ourselves – not in letters and words, but in actions. That is, when we feel attacks of self-loving, self-pity, we must not pay attention to them nor crawl down from our cross. Let us rather resort to prayer and endure with humility – striving to conquer our will and to stand firmly in the determination to desire God’s will to be done in us.

If we emerge from our prayer with this fruit, let us rejoice. If we fail to attain it, our soul will be left fasting, not having tasted its natural fruit.

We must try to let nothing dwell in our soul except God – even for a short time. In the meantime, do not mourn or be distressed by anything. Nor should we turn our eyes to look at the evil of others or to bad examples. Rather, let us learn to be like a little child, which, in its innocence, does not notice such things, but passes them by unharmed.” (Jack N. Sparks, Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pp. 111-112) 

What is My Question for Christ?

Sermon notes for Sunday, July 9, the 5th Sunday After Pentecost

When Hearts become flameA question that is suggested in the book WHEN HEARTS BECOME FLAME by Stephen Muse:  What is my question for Jesus?

The question I would ask tells a great deal about my relationship to Him, who I imagine He is, what role He plays in my life.

The Scripture readings for the day also have questions in them.  They however suggest wrong questions.  St. Paul (Romans 10:1-10) contrasting those who live by faith with those who try to attain righteousness through their own strict adherence to Torah suggests there are questions we should not ask because they are the wrong questions:

. . . But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 

The person who believes that they can attain God’s righteousness by their own ability perfectly to keep Torah imagines that he/she can ascend to heaven, and to bring the Christ to earth.  Or, they imagine by their own ritual and moral perfection that they could even raise the Messiah from the dead.

24049955810_33de354f96_mSt. Paul says the questions are wrong.  It is not by our own righteousness that we can accomplish God’s will.  We cannot by our good works ascend to heaven, nor would we by our own righteous behavior be able to escape the depth of hell.

The questions are wrong because they reflect a total misunderstanding of the Christ, of who He is, why we need Him, what He does for our salvation.  Christ does not come from heaven to earth because of the righteousness of some on earth.  Nor does Christ rise from the dead because of the goodness of God’s people.  It is while we are sinners and because we are sinners that Christ descends to earth and becomes incarnate and then descends into Hades and rises from the dead.

So, “What is my question for Christ?”

The Gospel lesson for the day is Matthew 8:28-9:1, Christ’s encounter with the Gergesene demoniacs.   They too have a question for Christ:

“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”

23977733249_1d881d6e9b_mSt. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this Gospel notes the real difference between Christ and the demons.  The demons are terrified of Christ – they have a real fear of God.  But it does them no good, for they aren’t motivated by their fear of God to do good.

Christ, for His part, is not but gentle with the demons.  He doesn’t threaten them, though they obviously feel threatened.  Christ does not torment them, but actually grants them their request.  They want out of His presence.  Obviously they don’t even have the power to flee from Christ.  They are powerless in His presence.  They have to ask His permission to leave.  This story is used in the prayers of exorcism at a baptism.  We remind Satan, even taunt him, that he has no power when Christ is present and can only do what Christ allows him to do. Satan cannot even flee without asking Christ’s permission!

Christ treats the demons with kindness and respect, as only their creator could do.  Christ is not threatened by them and clearly not afraid of them.

The demons might have recognized the even-keeled temperament of their Creator, but they don’t.  They don’t ask the right question.  They don’t ask Christ if they could serve Him.   They may represent some kind of chaotic, uncontrolled power and evil, but they also are shown to be powerless and inconsequential by Christ.

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Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; c.f. Psalm 111:10).   The demons have the fear of God as is shown in their attitude toward Christ.  It does them no good, as it doesn’t lead to wisdom.  They want to flee His presence rather than embrace His goodness.  Their question for Jesus doesn’t help as it doesn’t put them in a right relationship with Christ.  It is no doubt because their relationship to Christ is wrong that they ask the wrong question.

Each of us should think about what is my question for Christ?

If I say something like, “Will He help me?” – that is not a question directed to Christ but a question for our self to answer.  I need to change the question and ask it directly to Christ.  I need to talk to Him.  I need to orient my life so that I can so directly talk to Him.

If I ask, “Can you help me, Jesus?”   – the answer is yes, of course He could, but whether the help I want is in accordance with God’s will is another issue.  To ask that question seems to reflect some doubt in my heart about his ability/power or about His goodness and love.

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To ask the right question, I need to think about who Jesus is, what His will and intention is, what is He capable of?   And who am I in relationship to Him?   Depending on who I am in relationship to Him determines what I can ask of Him.

If I am His servant, and He really is my Lord, I can ask, “How can I serve You?”  “What is your will for me?”

My ability to hear His response will depend on my relationship to Him.  I need to know who He is before I can relate to Him, or ask the right question of Him.