Proceeding when “sick days” are not allowed for our Crosses…

Scripture Reflection: Luke 9: 22-25              Year A   Cycle 1

23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

The Lenten season reminds us of – and even makes holy by culminating with – Jesus’ Cross before His Resurrection. In today’s gospel, Jesus clearly uses and presents his own suffering and death in the Paschal mystery as a model for all who would follow after him. Here are three quick points to ponder and imitate regarding Christ’s example…

            We must imitate Jesus’s courage and look squarely at our crosses without sugarcoating them – and then faithfully choose to enter into the pain and suffering they offer by engaging, addressing and experiencing them in the light of Christ.

            We must begin the day with prayer, so that we may clearly see our crosses in the light of God – as challenges and blessings – and to not be blinded by them, which can easily stop us from  seeing, walking with and being used by God throughout the day.

            We must engage our crosses both truthfully and also hopefully, that by faith, we will come to know and experience that somehow, God’s love is being spread through them and also that somehow, our love will be further refined and made holy through them.

May God’s Holy Spirit guide and inspire us as we begin this Lent, gracing us with the willingness to engage and address our Crosses, seeing in them both blessings and challenges on our journey.

When Lent is Boot Camp…

There are many ways to envision the Lenten journey… Over the years, one of the most consistent images I have encountered to describe the Lenten journey is that of something akin to Boot Camp. If the majority of people reading this are like the author, a civilian, then most of us have no real experience of what Boot Camp is really like. Fraternity and sorority members have pledged their fraternities and sororities, yet pledging is a far cry from boot camp. In the face of such ignorance, my best guess is that the goals of Boot Camp are twofold: 1) to learn and become proficient at the basic military skills necessary to be a soldier 2) to learn about and adopt as one’s own, the military life as a soldier. If I’m even close to correct, then I believe the common image of the Lenten journey as Boot Camp is very much correct!!!

As Lenten boot camps go, I guess you can break them down into generally two categories: spiritual boot camps or moral boot camps.

In the standard moral Lenten boot camp, the focus is generally on giving up a specific sin or bad habit – something that we shouldn’t be doing anyway – like eating sweets, cursing or making unnecessary purchases, watching excessive t.v,, etc.. Unfortunately with this Lenten program, it is often too easy to forget to replace our sinful sacrifice with a healthy alternative! Thus, we find ourselves overly focusing on the loss and suffering (which some say is very Catholic ha, ha!) without refocusing that energy into creating a healthy alternative. Without a healthy alternative to build new virtue/character that replaces the old vice, moral Lents can often be in danger of either ending in an eventual failure or with one just “holding out until crossing the Easter finish line,” eagerly ready to return to old ways. However…please, don’t be dismayed if you are attempting this kind of Lent! Consider adding a healthy alternative to balance your sinful sacrifice. By the power of God’s grace coupled with both individual human grit and the prayers of Christians worldwide, people have been miraculously blessed during this holy time of the year!!! Remember, we simply can’t out work God when it comes to our salvation!

In spiritual Lenten boot camps, the focus is generally on things like increasing or integrating prayer throughout the day, reading more Scripture, attending an extra Mass or two throughout the week, daily spiritual reading or journaling, etc. One positive aspect of this kind of boot camp is that is seems to focus more on adding and building virtue/character than on the negative like eradicating bad habits and vices. On the surface this does appears much easier than the moral boot camp, yet upon further reflection I beg to differ…

…Ask anyone who has ever tried to regularly get up forty minutes early to pray daily how easy that was and how long it lasted… Even those who have established the practice for decades and can testify to its benefits, will share how they STILL sometimes find those initial waking moments barraged with arguments about why they should not pray, this morning, or what’s worse, that d e e p anti God feeling… Anyone who has started to consistently, humbly and prayerfully read the Bible knows, or has found out that, they will be changed –it is impossible not be! Grappling with these changes can be very difficult, maybe even life changing… imagine hearing God’s invitation to do the unthinkable like dropping all and going into a ministry?   If you still want to say the spiritual boot camp is easier, okay, let’s just agree to disagree. But at least let us agree that the spiritual boot camp has the potential to be much scarier!

Some Lenten programs can easily fall into both categories, for instance, a Lent focusing specifically on performing concrete acts of charity and service in the community, especially if it is performed in a prayerful spirit and real time and economic sacrifices are required. If we really examine it closely, most Lenten programs will force us to integrate and utilize aspects of both boot camps if we are to really “do Lent right.” Both boot camps have long histories among the saints, whose lives as models reveal to us how God will eventually lead us, by grace, to travel both roads in this journey.

If this year’s Lent will be a boot camp experience for you, may the Saints hold you in their prayers, as we will hear at Strugglin’catholic.com.

Applying the military boot camp’s goals to your present quest, we pray that in your spiritual boot camp… 1) You learn about and become proficient at the basic spiritual skills of prayer, mortification/asceticism, worship, etc. that are necessary for you now to grow in accordance with God’s will and in holiness   2) You will learn anew and/or re-adopt and recommit to life as a Christian disciple and the Jesus’ Cross. As a civilian is transformed into a soldier, may your boot camp continue and jumpstart, by grace, your transformation from a good person into a truly holy saint of God.

Ash Wednesday: Returning Home to Peace and Grace

This weekend my 16 month old puppy, Jay, accidentally got out of the yard and was lost for over 36 hours. During this time my wife and daughter were emotionally upset and noticeably disturbed by his absence. After wandering off, Jay was picked up by a young man and kept overnight at his apartment. The next day he brought Jay outside and allowed him to lead the way back to our home (actually our neighbors house), which is how he was returned. In the immediate 24 – 36 hours after his return, Jay was not quite his “bounce-off-the-wall-with-energy” self…

…He walked and ate his food just a little bit slower and was generally less hi strung, even though still a 16 month old puppy. My wife commented how he did not pull/tug as normal on his walk and happily turned into the drive when returning from it. Initially I thought his lethargy was simply a response to his night away plus an unexpected four hour puppy play date he enjoyed with a neighbor’s dog on the day of his return, but on day two of his return as Jay returned to his normal self, I began to sense that it was not lethargy but something different.

I now believe what was initially thought to be lethargy was actually Jay’s way of slowly and gratefully relishing that peace of finding and returning home…

The deep peace found “in a return home” can be unexpected and surprising, especially if we have taken that peace for granted and left home anticipating greater joys by exercising our freedom abroad. Jay’s 36 hour excursion into the world probably tempered his urge to explore and run free as much as it also helped him appreciate the gifts already present here at home. Jay’s experience is not an isolated one; college students who return home and mature seniors returning to towns left decades ago are often surprised to experience that quiet joy and peace of “returning home.”

For some, this week’s distribution of Ashes and start of Lent will be a kind of “return home” to God, religion, church, faith, prayer, scripture, sacrifice and mortification, etc.. Unbeknownst to some returnees, they will find that it is also accompanied by an unexpected grace and deep peace in their hearts and souls. This gift of Divine peace and grace will often accompany the humble heart as repents and return home from its free willed (and often prodigal) wanderings abroad… For those now in this holy space, we at Strugglin’Catholic.com are inviting you to simply and prayerfully rest with and in this experience of peace and grace as long as you can…

…Try to remember, if ever, when and where you last felt God’s       presence, peace and grace…

… At meal times or at night, briefly examine how and what your mind dwelt on that day in this time of being showered with God’s grace and peace…

…Take note of the feelings that emerge from your heart and also the way that you engage your loved ones when God’s peace and grace is active and present to you.

…Knowing that this gift and experience has a message, receive it in prayer and experience God’s welcome, invitation and “thank you” for coming home to Love again.

 

May the Lord Bless, Keep & Guide us in our return home this Lent. Let us pray together for that day when we will always walk in the grace and peace of God with others.

                                                                                                                                    Amen.

What Lent is All About: Goin’ from Ashy to Classy!!!

Last week, at my good friend Ed’s new apartment, the guys had our first dart tournament. After the first four games, Ed found himself consistently in last place with Carl and myself splitting the first four victories with two apiece. Ed, recognizing the situation, paused at the end of the fourth game and took a few moments to regroup. Refocused, he turned around – looked both of us dead in the eyes and boldly declared, “I’m makin’ a change and goin’ from ashy to classy, winning the next game!!” His bold public proclamation was immediately verbally challenged and met with an unholy barrage of words and epithets that could only come from close friends having great fun…. The next game started with Carl and myself confidently talking as Ed quietly backed up his plan with the kind of steady and consistent play that resulted in a thorough butt whuppin’ for us and the first place finish as Ed had predicted. What does this story have to do with Ash Wednesday and our Lenten journey?

Ed’s honest assessment of and active response to the situation at hand – honestly evaluating his game play, reevaluating what changes needs to take place, making a plan and proclaiming it publicly, then quietly setting forth to complete and work that plan – models in the nutshell what Ash Wednesday and our Lenten journey is all about.

Ed’s honest assessment of his dart game was the important starting point for his transformation from ashy to classy. Ashy skin is an unhealthy condition where the tissue, because it lacks or is unable to retain moisture, flakes and scales. On our earthly journeys, we are each afflicted with a variety of physical, moral, social and spiritually unhealthy conditions that we sometimes just learn to accept and live with. Along the spiritual journey, we are invited to recognize and take responsibility for our part in staying ashy, acknowledging not only that we have fallen short and missed that mark set for us by God, but also that there is much we can still do to change in order to become classy, holy and more responsive to God’s call and grace.

Ash Wednesday calls us not only to honestly assess of our spiritual game but also to recognize our role and responsibility to actively grow in holiness and grace. Ed’s active response to his losing situation was initially boldly proclaimed, but then his plan was quietly implemented and carried out in the routine play of the dart game. I believe this is how our Lenten plans are also called to be: publically witnessed to and but quietly lived out in the community. Our Lenten plan will vary and change with age and context…  …but plan we must! Real (graced) plans coupled with (graced) hard work results in real, holy rewards and victories, both here in this life and for eternity!!! Don’t let the recognition of a common skin condition blind you to the real beauty that God beholds in you each day! See it and work to realize it! Don’t miss this year’s Lenten invitation to re-evaluate, change and jump start your spiritual life this year!!!

Seeing & Finding the New Life and Fruits of Our Lenten Journey

God's Handiwork Yields New Life for Easter!
God’s Handiwork Yields New Life for Easter!

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Lent draws towards an end, we at the Strugglin’Catholic.com wanted to remind our readers to make the time to reflect on this year’s Lenten journey and experiences. Hopefully, between now and Palm Sunday, you will be able to prayerfully reflect on what this year’s Lenten experience has been for you.

Since many of our Lenten journeys often begin with choosing something to give up, one can start -but definitely not end- with an evaluation of whatever one’s specific Lenten sacrifice(s) were for the year. These kinds of evaluations can take a myriad of forms: from what one’s daily struggle has taught or revealed about oneself, to whether or not this year’s Lenten challenges has really touched and changed one’s hearts. One can examine and quantify how one has grown regarding the development of a specific virtue/goal or how one has learned to better fight and control a specific vice/problem. In whatever form one’s review may take, it is very important not to get caught up in trying to identify and label whether this Lent was a success or not, but rather to prayerfully uncover the various ways that one has grown, changed and has been empowered by the Spirit via one’s Lenten journey.

 

The Strugglin’ Catholic.com also suggests an examination of this year’s Lenten journey in light of the three Lenten disciplines: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Because most of us are novices at them, it is important to identify and catalogue any growth we have been gifted with in these three core areas of the spiritual life. Important points to note include how one’s prayer may have changed – length, depth, breadth, form(s), times, etc…. Regarding almsgiving, has God called you to a new ministry, inviting you to give yourself away to a new community or has God made specific requests of your gifts and talents? Finally, do we have a clearer picture of what God desires us to fast from and why? Have we deepened our understanding of what fasting is and how it can empower one’s body, mind and prayer lives, etc.?

 

 

Seeing and understanding the bigger picture of how the Holy Spirit is changing and empowering us can be difficult and elusive, especially when we have been busily strugglin’ on the Lenten path. Here at the Strugglin’Catholic.com, we are encouraging all to slow down a bit more that normal as Holy Week approaches, and to prayerfully reflect on the Lenten journey to date. Our prayer is that in your reflection, the Holy Spirit will lead you past any memories of Lenten failures and struggles and will open your hearts and minds to see and experience the blossoming of God’s handiwork and New Life both in your life and those with whom you live.

What To Do When Easter Comes Early!

wallpaper-crocus-flower-buds-violet-primrose-snow-spring-flowers

Upon entering this second week of Lent, we at the Strugglin’Catholic wanted to slow down a bit to address an uncanny and often rare Lenten challenge that some can attest to: living/doing Lent when Easter has already come for you that year!    Occasionally, as the Strugglin’ Catholic strives to live and do Lent over the years, she may encounter a break from the Lenten routine of suffering and discipline, as God’s grace blesses her with an early Easter and an apparent “holy waiver for Lent” that year… As we enter the dog days winter and Lent, let’s remind ourselves of these rare occasions and also how we can better respond to them in our lives.   What are some ‘common examples’ of an Early Easter event in the lives of our family and friends?

 

Examples abound, including the birth of a new child, being restored to health after years of suffering, getting the financial aid/grants/scholarships to go to school, a new job, getting married, finding one’s first home or the right retirement community, changing a career path, finding new love, celebrating birthday parties, etc.

 

If one prayerfully reviews their life of spring times, most will surely find that a planned or unexpected early Easter Gift has been received at some point in one’s life. The Grace and Joy of these sacred periods can make living out a repentant Lenten spirit all but impossible, as one is all aglow with Resurrected Life!

 

For those who are now strugglin’ with the rare challenge of an Early Easter (lol), the Strugglin’ Catholic suggests the following:

… It is okay!!!!! Even though it is Lent, you can go ahead, celebrate and start living in and out of this Rare Gift and New Life!!! But do so moderately and in a manner so as to not hinder or challenge the ongoing spiritual journeys of others for whom Easter is still far off.

… If you feel this Early Easter Gift was long “over due” and has been accomplished by long suffering and perseverance in prayer, that you now commit yourself to pray and live with the same or even greater humility that colored your journey leading up this year’s Easter Gift!

… That you do not abandon this year’s Lenten discipline’s because of the Early Easter Gift received, but rather, after a brief and moderate celebration, that you press the “reset button” and return to some form of Lenten discipline, but now with a renewed focus, attitude or motivation: i.e. returning to morning prayer or daily psalm reading, but now with a new focus on praising or simply being with God, etc. or finding creative ways to tithe with the time, money or talents received from your Early Easter Gift…

 

For the majority of Catholics, who are still journeying towards Easter and New Life this year, the Strugglin’ Catholic suggests…

… That on our Lenten journey, we allow ourselves to see, attend to and celebrate the Early Easters given to us through the lives of our family and friends! It is often easy, during Lent, to miss common opportunities to taste the Easter New Life awaiting us, like at birthday gatherings or reunions (especially if the weather is bad)! Let us anticipate our Easter New Life by strugglin’ to get up and get out, accepting those invitations to gather in God’s Spirit this Lent! In so doing, we will be opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and letting Its New Life draw us forward to that Easter New Life that is awaiting us.

Tweaking A Common Lenten Plan of Focusing Only On Our Sins…

shutterstock_170948234How does one plan out a Lenten program and decide what disciplines or sacrifices to undertake? In over two decades of teaching high school religion, most of the students and adults that I encountered generally approached this very personal and touchy topic simply by first identifying their repeated sins and then often plotting a Lenten course of action to tackle them. This method seems both easy and practical, but upon further reflection and when compared to our planning in other important areas of our lives, we may find that it is wanting and can use some tweaking…

For instance, many have constructed and are currently living out some financial plan in their lives: long term for retirement or short term like for getting a new car or for summer travel plans or for paying off an outstanding debt, etc. Whether that financial plan is for a long or a short term financial goal, the important point to take away is that the plan/budget starts with a goal: some positive concrete outcome, item or achievement which guides, give hope and focuses that plan. While this plan should and must take into account our personal financial challenges (sins), it does not start with them or use them as an end and vision to guide our plan!

It is clear from this analogy, that what the aforementioned easy and practical, Western style point-and-shoot-your sin-away Lent plan lacks is a positive, hopeful and motivating Gospel centered goal that can focus us. Don’t get me wrong here – yes, Lent IS about acknowledging and repenting of our sins and bearing our crosses, but this is not ALL that it is about! At its core, Lent is about the vision of what, by grace and sacrifice, we can become here and now – this year, on our journey towards the Kingdom. Lent takes this Kingdom vision and, working backwards, concretizes it like a budget, identifying the areas we must discipline and what we must sacrifice in order to eventually live out that deeper and more authentic Christian life we have prayerfully envisioned. Restating the obvious, your Lenten goal is NOT TO GIVE UP X, Y OR Z, but to become more ________ as a person? To be able to do or be ________________ in a more Gospel centered way?

Trying to “bear the cross” without an appropriate Kingdom centered vision to sustain and support us may result in burnout or failure on the Lenten journey, as it surely can in life. A lack of or poor vision can lead us to loose focus or to give up hope when the going gets tough. With the right vision, we can literally post a picture or simply close our eyes and remember our dreams, imagining the possibilities to come and drawing from that Grace which is their source, to find the where-with-all to keep strugglin’ on the journey. In short, just as baptism invites us into a lifetime of bearing the Cross and continuing Christ’s mission to love via sacrifice by setting before us the vision of the Kingdom as our eternal goal, it is very helpful to also prayerfully envision exactly what our Gospel centered moral/spiritual goals are for Lent each year.

As you finalize your Lenten plans this year, the Strugglin’Catholic asks you to envision what you hope to achieve and who you want to become in and through our shared Lenten journey. Please, put a name on it, whatever it is… …and when the going gets tough, prayerfully let its vision draw you heart forward towards your Easter goal this Lent.

On Old Adages, the Examples of Prayer Warriors and the Lenten Season

planningIt’s almost time… The holidays have passed, the New Year – and its resolutions – has started, and we are now past a month into our shared 2016 journey. Once again, it is almost, time!!! “Time for what,” you may ask? If you guessed, “Tax season?” you are dead wrong but probably not too far off topic according to most American Catholics, for, in our liturgical world, it is the season for “o r d i n a r y t i m e” to end and for the inevitable – like death and taxes – to begin: our yearly observance of Lent. Yes, it IS, almost THAT time again…

Some bemoan, resist and fight this truth, holding on to “ordinary time” through Fat Tuesday until the very last second on Wednesday, when all are marked with the Cross of Ashes and reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return… Still, there are devoted prayer warriors among us, who spiritually plan for and prayerfully await Lent, knowing from experience, that a little graced planning for this season will yield great spiritual graces and blessings, in the same way as planned short periods of intense, financial or health disciplining can often transform, redirect and empower our natural lives.

I’m sure some reading this have found themselves in one camp or the other over the years…and some like myself, have found themselves repeatedly in the moaning and fighting camp and only rarely, in the other camp with the warriors who have planned for and are ready for the yearly challenges of the Catholic spiritual boot camp called Lent. No matter what our past histories regarding the Lenten Season has been or where we may presently find ourselves this year, most can agree with the old adage “that a little planning will go a long way.” If this is true for the natural aspects of our lives like money, taxes and health, how much more true is it for our moral and spiritual lives?

In order to shine a bit of light on this topic, the Strugglin’Catholic is pausing a moment – BEFORE LENT – to briefly identify and list three insights of these secret prayer warriors, who plan for the Lenten Season… What can they reveal or remind us today, as ordinary time wanes and Lent approaches? Why should we follow their lead and really prayerfully try to plan Lent?

They model for and remind us that:

1. We can plan for and achieve, by God’s grace, true moral and spiritual change and growth. It is not achieved accidentally and haphazardly; it is grounded in much struggle, failure and prayer that is linked to living love in the community. Prayerful planning is necessary because at different ages and stages, what one needs to focus on varies and only through prayerful planning and reflection can one come to know how, what and where to discipline oneself. Prayerful spiritual planning is integral to moral/spiritual growth in the same way that it is to academic, health or financial growth and development.

2. Prayerfully planned spiritual disciplines and sacrifices, when integrated into one’s daily life and coupled with prayer, will often yield much better results than unplanned spiritual disciplines and sacrifices. As one prayerfully plans, graced foresight often prepares one for and can limits the adverse effects of being caught unaware or being completely stymied by the common mistakes that catch the unprepared. In short, one is better prepared for both the journey itself and and achieving the moral and or spiritual goal(s) envisioned of their plan.

3. Planning allows one to free the mind from thinking and to completely bring one’s heart into the Lenten journey. With prayerful planning a path is laid and most of the fundamental questions are answered, allowing one to restfully move past the myriad of rational “questions and doubts” about success, etc. and to then enter into the daily task of opening one’s hearts to being led by the Holy Spirit. Planning releases our mind from worrying while allowing our hearts to hear, rest in and be led by the Holy Spirit on our journey. I liken this to the way “something clicks” in a well-prepared rookie athlete that may lead them to stop thinking and to begin playing naturally within the new system, thereby fitting in with the team and sharing their talents at some point during their first professional year.

Here at the Strugglin’Catholic.com, we hope that in this final week before Ash Wednesday, you will make the time to prayerfully plan out this year’s Lenten season. As you prayerfully plan, remember that the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving can be lived out many ways: from adding specific times or increased times of prayer, prayers for others and the world, daily scripture reading or an extra Mass during the week, to fasting from specific language, words, unhealthy ways of thinking, imagining and being entertained with media. We can give our time; even when it is short, as a listening ear and good friend, and we can always give our prayerful hearts to another’s causes when we can’t stop and chat. No person is so ungifted, that they have nothing to offer during Lent, for all can at least pray daily for others. Another old adage comes to mind as we end this reflection on planning for Lent… Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Whatever your Lenten plan and journey turns out to be this year, we pray that as you struggle, it will lead you to a deeper love of the Cross and the Mystery of God’s Love found in It.