Jesus’ 3 life stages/phases to reaching the Kingdom

I’m convinced that one can easily find three basic phases or stages in the Gospels that reflect our general spiritual journey to heaven, which are loosely grounded on Jesus’ life. Using Jesus’ mission as our guide and model – that He was sent and willfully came to die, that we might have life in the Kingdom – what are these three missionary stages?

I see them in the following manner: the first stage or phase is Jesus’s hidden life, the second is his public ministry and the third is His passion, death and resurrection.  I believe many but not all of us, will generally follow this same path that Jesus travelled in our journey to the Kingdom. Lets examine each stage of this journey a bit closer.

In the first stage of Jesus’ life– and ours – much is often hidden about our origins and the context surrounding our birth! As literal babes, we have to rely on the stories shared by others to find out about our birth and earliest life.  From these stories, we come to know and understand much about our own hidden parts: like from what kind of relationship we were created, how we were originally perceived and eventually received by our parents, family, the larger world, etc..

Like Jesus’ life as presented in the Gospels, our hidden life also contains gaps, missing historical sections and strange memories which are all grafted into an existing family narrative that can paint a very accurate picture outlining what life was really like when we were born.  And just like Jesus’ life, sometimes truths hidden in these narratives will resurface later in our life, giving us a new meaning, truth and mission.   Grappling with these painful memories and hard core truths is tough stuff and may require professional help.

Without getting into those arguments regarding what Jesus definitively did or did not ‘remember’ as a baby – we do know for sure that his parents certainly shared this history – and their reflections on its meaning – with him later!!!  Their sharing of these events certainly shaped and prepared Jesus to first understand and ultimately to face and defeat those same forces of death that initially surfaced at his birth.

Similarly, often the seeds that eventually grow into both the wood of our personal crosses and the contexts of our life missions can be found in these earliest and often hidden parts of our lives. In conjunction with a growing and integrated prayer life, professional help, the prayers of our friends and prayer warriors, etc. we can uncover and learn how deal with and then offer to God these real life crosses in a grace filled manner.

This early hidden life education about our unique crosses and contextual challenges, often yields and becomes the ground from which many of our specific gifts and character traits surface and are developed.

The second phase or stage is Jesus’ life is His public ministry.  This three year period in the Gospels often starts when we leave home through and continues into the period of establishing of our families and vocations – the basic ministries of our lives.  The family is the first church, where both parents exercise an actual and practical spiritual priesthood in the family of modeling and imbuing the family in Christian character. All work and vocations are extra community invitations in which believers are sent out to serve and love, through one’s gifts and in Jesus’ name.

Like Jesus’ second stage of public life and ministry, we too must leave our family to find, build and to live out our unique ‘mission’ in life.  For most of us, the path to our mission is found through the exploration and development of our personal gifts. For others, the path to their mission may come through a unique opportunity to work, to live in a different area, or through the meeting a specific person – all examples of new life possibilities that will deepen our spiritual journey.

Like in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, we too often undergo some kind of baptism – a public declaration of and witnessing to our gifts and/or calling.  This baptism is often coupled with a public acknowledgment of our gifts which correspond to our specific calling.  After finding and initially responding to our call, many experience a kind of ‘forty day fast and preparation in the desert’ – (college, training, mentoring, etc.) – which prepares us to answer God’s call more effectively.  Finally, often successfully passing ‘tests in the desert,’ we are able to break free, going forth to begin our specific ministries of serving and loving with our gifts.

I believe this second missionary stage of our lives,  our public ministry, is by far the most extensive and can be the longest.  It includes the vocational work that we do, the friendships and loves that we build and live commitments to, the families and children that we parent and the greater communities/nation/world better served with our specific gifts.  This period in our lives, which can span from the late teens to our sixties or even later, is analogous to Jesus’ three year ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and saving.

Whereas the challenges of the second phase are often more exterior, public and relationship based as we work to ‘give ourselves away’ in the community as we grow in holiness and love, the third phase reflects a deeper, more interior spiritual challenge and work. It often includes a very real ‘stripping away’ of the very gifts, ministries, families, etc. – all that we have seemingly built – as we return to a simple dependency on the Spirit to make Its final preparations for us to enter the Kingdom

Finally, often in the last stage of our missionary life is that of our passion, death and resurrection.   I could be dead wrong (ok – bad joke), however I have come to believe that for many people, God saves this last stage of passion and suffering for the end of one’s journey.  Why?  Only God knows… but by faith I am certain, that God indeed knows what is best for each of us.  For those like myself who are not yet (as far as we know) on Calvary’s final Road to the Cross, the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ suffering reveals some powerful insights about this final stage.

For instance, a prayerful reading of scriptures will reveal that it was notthe three year ministry that saved us, but it was what Jesus did in this last stage  – suffering His passion and death – which saved us!!! As a chaplain, I have been blessed to witness many holy men and women follow Jesus’ model – after showing others how to live in love, serve and give themselves away, they then go on to stage three showing others how to suffer and die in faith as they hope in God’s Kingdom.  These people are following Jesus’ example, and showing others how to live for God and how to die for Him.

In fact, modeling how to fearlessly confront death in a holy manner is one of the greatest gifts we can leave to our first church and family – how to die in faith and with hope. By following Jesus’ example, our witness of faith and hope to the end can, by grace, empowering others to fearlessly stand on God’s Word until the end.

God also reveals in Jesus’ resurrection, that despite all the very real sin and suffering surrounding each human life and natural death, God can and will continue to proven what is witnessed to in the Gospel: that He will ‘write straight’ with the crookedness of our lives leading us to His Kingdom.  He will teach and save others via our sufferings, while leading all of us to His Kingdom.

In our personal passion and through our unique cross, we are by grace, finally able to imitate Jesus by making a sacrifice and gift of love to the Father which is complete, reflecting Jesus’ total surrender and giving back of His very Self.  Whereas Jesus gave all from the beginning, I believe that through obedience, grace, faith and the Crosses given – we grow via these 3 stages to imitate Jesus’ total sacrifice by the end of our lives.

What the Prodigal Son’s Dad Most Desired for Both Sons

Like any good parent, the Prodigal Son son’s dad wanted what was best for both of his sons.  Despite growing up in the same home, both sons had unique gifts and ultimately chose different paths early on.  Despite their age differences, the wise father understood that both sons still needed him in their lives, but in different ways.

He knew that they still needed his words, presence and touch close by to continue guiding them towards maturation. And since kids often do what parents do rather than what parents say, the wise father also knew that he needed to model that which each son spiritually and morally needed.  Only in this way could they benefit now from his wisdom and also later as they continued to grow and mature into spiritually mature men.

What did each son spiritually lack?  What did the Prodigal son’s dad want most for both sons?  That each would grow to have, the Heart of God.

He for whom the parable was named, seems to be the prototypical youngest (spoiled) sibling: outspoken, demanding and unashamedly immature.  He was blissfully ignorant – about his own ignorance and the great blessings he had received in life – having always benefited from the work and sacrifices of the family. His young pride filled heart failed to realize that it desired to flee from the very source of its blessings: God and family.

It is very possible that the young son’s heart simply became inflated first by his family’s wealth and social power and also by his own youthful ignorance(s) – including an ignorance of what family had sheltered him from as a child: the world’s harshness and evil.

After falling into abject poverty and experiencing “the ‘REAL’ world”  – which takes no prisoners – the prodigal son began to mature as he reflected on his choices in life. Perhaps, Ssmewhere during this process while on the road home, he may have even took some ownership for his decisions…

While journeying home, the prodigal son probably also noticed that his heart was now a bit different! His once hardened heart – which had been kicked and pounded – now found itself much more humble, grateful and truly more open to listening than ever before.

He was now, more prepared for the heart lessons that the father would teach and model for him. Like how to truly win in life’s struggle to live for God and family and how notlose by making false gods like money, power, fame, pleasure, etc. that are offered by the world.

Like how to willingly sacrifice and contribute to the family’s well being…  Like understanding his brother’s anger, honestly acknowledging and accepting it as real, without meeting or returning it in kind but choosing to love him anyway…  Like living with a graced filled heart that is big enough to live in hope and faith as it waits for his brother’s heart to change over time – however long that may be…

The oldest son was obviously more than just a tad bit older than his younger brother, and had displayed throughout his young adult life both disciplined hard work and respect for family and societal norms.  Despite regularly fulfilling every letter of the religious law – attending every religious ritual and meeting all the commandments like not to lie, steal, kill, etc. – somehow his heart still became (or remained) hardened.

Many of us have friends or coworkers like this… They can tax us and sometimes make us ask, “…Now, why am I her/his friend again?”  Even in our families we may be able to find one who seems to fulfill every letter of the law, but who struggles mightily to smile, express and to show love and joy daily – the Spirit of the Law!  Unfortunately, some families with BOTH parents like this rarely experience the true, simple Spirit of Christian love in family life, since from both barrels/parents they are getting the Christian drill Sargent/Judge enforcing the letter of God’s law…

Its tough to say what may prompt one’s heart to become hardened… However, from studying Bowen Family System Theory in residency and seeing its teachings play out in families at the hospital, I do know there is some truth to the reality of the oldest child resenting/hating the youngest in the family – for any number of reasons.  Sometimes this sibling resentment and/or hate is acknowledged, discussed and intentionally acted on as in the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers, but at other times it can lurk undercover in the background of one’s heart as it influences one’s decisions unconsciously.

Despite being the oldest who had always obediently followed the letter of the law, this son also needed his father’s guidance and modeling like younger son did.  In fact, because of his age, some might argue that his heart actually needed it more and that he was the most immature! Apparently, like a holiday turkey, his heart had been slowly basting with hidden and unspoken resentments over time…  Over the years his quiet, steady self-basting produced a nearly formed and hardened, pride smathered crust that was trying to form a perfect me-myself-and I-shell around his still immature heart. But the father was quietly watching and waiting for this son too…

When the older son used his history to contrast and argue against his brother, the dad knew the depths of his oldest son’s real problems. His comparison did not reflect the natural pride of immaturity like his brother’s did, but that quiet, deep and often unspoken spiritual pride found in many older folks. These kind of people devalue others for struggling or outright failing to ‘make the mark and/or meet expectations’ that they, because of their own giftedness, etc. have been able to meet relatively easily. They elevate themselves and debase others based on their perceptions of one’s personal achievement, success, etc.

At best, the parable leaves unanswered the question as to whether this son’s heart actually changed. However, knowing the father’s great love for his sons and his continued presence in their lives, we can hope and have faith that the oldest son’s heart did eventually change.  Despite going away upset and refusing the invitation to celebrate his brother’s return, there is still hope for the oldest son as long as the father is present.

Why? Because his dad will continue to hope, pray, work and model for the oldest son – even though it may seem hopeless – in the same way he hoped, prayed and awaited the return of the youngest son.  God the Father simply never gives up on us, his children!!!

Whether our heart is young or old, ignorant or hardened, God is present and waiting, inviting and begging for us to ‘come to the shop and get our hearts fixed!”

God the Father, like the Prodigal Son’s Dad, simply wants each of our hearts to become like His: full of love and willing to serve others with our gifts!!!

God sent his Son, Jesus to save us AND modeled for us how to grow and develop a Heart of God. God has also given us the Holy Spirit via baptism to lead, guide and to transform our hearts from within.

May all that you encounter these Spring days – the good/bad, the sun/rain and the common/everyday – by grace, work to transform your life and your heart!!!   May your heart grow to be more like  God’s this Spring, sharing God’s joy through your gifts, and letting His  joy spill forth from your heart both at home and at work.  Amen.

What to Sacrifice in our Prayer Lives this Lent

Once again, it is Lent and many of us are still considering what our Lenten “sacrifice” is going to be for this year…  Recently after listening to friends joke about giving up  “…marriage, eating healthy, children, moderate drinking, certain family members, paying bills, Sunday Mass and yes, of course, prayer– for Lent,” I began reflecting on that last point – prayer. In my half pondering/half self reflection, I considered “…the sacrifices I have tried and now need to continue making in my prayer life…”

Let’s be honest: just attempting to build and trying to keep a daily prayer life is BOTH a time sacrifice and a self sacrifice of discipline and obedience, only made possible by God’s grace!!!   Since prayer is often a sacrifice of praise – in the morning, to work and back home through the music of our hands and hearts – you might be asking, “What or how can one sacrifice in their personal prayer life to improve it?

Prayer is the first and most fundamental of all spiritual exercises.  At its core, prayer is simply communication – the being with, sharing, giving and receiving between God and us, His children.  Prayer can take many different forms, and like human communication we can grow by experimenting with new prayer devotions or practices.

By grace, we can empower and ground our prayer and spirituality more effectively, efficiently and powerfully in the Holy Spirit simply by making a few sacrifices in it.  For example, many of the saints have written about and modeled how almost any prayer can be empowered  with a simple, 24 hour bread and water (if that) food fast linked to it…

In regards to empowering prayer with willful sacrifice, I stand in deference to and witness with  the saint’s testimony.  Since, thank God, we have to eat (can you tell that I love to?), what other ways are there to make a healthy sacrifice in our prayer and spirituality?

Here are four of different sacrifices that I have, by grace, made and need to continue tweaking in my prayer life and spirituality. Please eat this list like fish: savor any meat found and spit out all the bones!!!

I.  Sacrifice, give up and stop praying in monologues and begin to explore a richer Christian prayer grounded in dialogue with God.

We all know that person who talks a mile a minute and never allows others to get a single word or thought in the conversation. I suspect that many people are or can be like myself – ‘that person’ – in my prayer life with God!!!

My prayers can be filled with interceding for others, meditating on various Scriptures, praising the Lord for His many blessings, venting and sharing my feelings with the Lord about different topics, etc.  Despite leaving these prayer times sometimes feeling like “I really got my praise and prayer on…” the reality and truth is actually closer to the opposite, especially if prayer at its core, is an open communication with another, aka a dialogue and not a monologue!

A great Lenten goal aimed at eliminating our monologues is to try giving God equal time every time we pray.   Simply remembering to REGULARLY give God any time to speak can be a great challenge for most, and can  probably take the whole Lenten season to become a normal practice for some. Give God either the first half or the second half of your prayer time – but do seek and try to give God half!!!!  This act of spiritually shutting up is both a great prayer sacrifice and challenge; it will have a  profound impact on your prayer life and also in each human relationship you are in.

II.  Sacrifice and give up your need to always talk during prayer and begin learning how to hear and to listen to God when in prayer.                                                                                    

Since it is hard for most of us to shut up, even in human conversations where others will interrupt us, I know from experience that it’s even harder to shut up and to actively listen to God in our daily prayer lives, especially since God is the ultimate respecter of our freedom!   God won’t force us to shut up or interrupt us; God will simply patiently wait for us to listen….

Since our personal prayer lives can often start with prayerful monologues, many of us have to sometimes retrain ourselves, strugglin’ to  shut up before  finally, by grace, arriving at the one or two moments when we are able to actually hear and listen to God’s responses.

Learning how to first hear God’s responses and then, eventually  how to really listen to God in our heart and mind during prayer takes time.  It’s a unique training in prayer that only the Holy Spirit can give us…and yes it is very humbling.

God will speak to us in a myriad of ways: in remembered images and memories, in scriptures that pop into our minds or hearts, in words or phrases that we must examine to find their true meaning, in pictures and images and of course feelings and emotions.

In your prayer time it will be helpful to have a pen and paper handy, where you can jot down in summary form the ideas and images that God will give you. Briefly record these spiritual gifts and come back to them later in the day to prayerfully reflect on them. However, during your prayer time don’t focus on examining them just yet, simply record them and continue learning how to hear, listen to and to wait on God prayerfully during His time.

III.     Sacrifice and offer your private devotional time – secretly and intentionally –  for another in need, who cannot pay you back.

The goals of this Lenten practice is to both concretize our prayer life by focusing it on a specific person in need and also to bolster our active prayer of service by responding to the needs of others in the community.  In the same way that Jesus both prayed from the heart and in the Spirit as he also prayerfully responded to the concrete needs of others (the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy), we are called to imitate Jesus in our lives.

I personally like choosing a homeless person on the way to or from work whom I can bless regularly and in concrete ways.  Not only do I try to actively respond to their need  by proving for a meal, I respond to their real human need to be loved and respected when I remember their names,   look them directly in their eyes as I talk and truly inquire about their day or their health – as I do with others at work – in that 1 minute at the red light. I have found that often, what is really needed and craved is simply to be treated with simple human respect and dignity!!!

We all have brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, friends and acquaintances whom we are invited to both regularly pray for and to regularly assist in concrete and practical ways – without judging.  The real sacrifice here is in learning to silence and to ignore the inner critic and Pharisee within each of us, who wants to question, blame or judge others for why they are now in need. Use this Lent to take advantage of these saints, who are most in need of our mercy and try to see them as invitations to grow in holiness by sacrificing your inner critiques when thinking or talking about them…

IV.  Sacrifice your devotional status quo and add or explore a new prayer devotion to possibly add to your spiritual armory, like the Rosary. Choose a devotion or spiritual practice and use this Lenten season to begin exploring and learning about its spiritual benefits and history as you try to  pray it regularly.

Let’s use as an example, simply learning about and struggling to begin praying the Rosary.  Many of us have at least 30 good minutes on our drive to work in the morning and if we are willing, we can use 20 minutes of it as devotional time for spiritual growth.

First, purchase or find a rosary that you can carry on your person: since many of us carry smart phones, we can download the rosary as an app on it (if we are tech savvy enough).  Second, go on Amazon and find a good devotional book which explains the devotion: the history surrounding the Rosary, how to pray it correctly and finally the many blessings    that are associated with it.  Buy this book – or find and read it online for free!!!

Third, begin praying that rosary – one decade daily as you go to or return home from work – and begin prayerfully reading the book that you purchased about it at night. Use the remainder of the Lenten season to experiment praying the Rosary and to spend time learning about it.

Go to YouTube and listen to the testimonies of others who have prayed and experienced miracles using the Rosary – or whatever devotion you are trying, for in listening to the testimony of others we are encouraged and can find many answers to our own specific questions regarding it.  Journal about your new prayer experience/devotion and at the end of Lent, prayerfully reflect on what you have learned about yourself and our Lord from praying it…

__________

Whatever you do this Lent, my prayer is that it will deepen your prayer life and your loving response to those whom you share your world with.

Also please remember that sometimes the greatest sacrifice is not that which we give up, but that which we add to the mix of our lives.  Every Lent intention can be expressed either negatively or positively.  For instance, we can state our Lenten goal as giving up red meat or we can state it as seeking to truly eat balanced, by limiting red meat and adding fruits, vegetables and water daily. I suggest prayerfully framing your Lenten intention in both ways, so you can begin to discern and live out of the deeper and richer spiritual meanings of these choices.

Whatever you do this Lent, be intentional about it. May you have a Blessed & Prayerful Lent!

A Universal 2019 New Year’s Resolution & Proposal

With the shadow of last year now cast, and the New Year’s first day upon us, I sit here prayerfully pondering what could be an American, if not a worldwide, New Year’s resolution for this coming year?

If I’m seeking to be consistent with our previous essays and the stated mission here at Strugglin’Catholic.com, the New Year’s resolution proposed here should be practical, spiritual and easily accessible to all readers, yet prompting a bit of prayerful reflection and or growth in the hearts and minds of readers…

It should be firmly grounded in the Gospel, seeking God’s grace and will for those we love: our selves, families and  the greater communities that we live and work in including the whole world!

Perhaps, and ideally – as a Gospel oriented resolution – it should also be one that can ALSO be understood, because of our human contexts, as one that seeks God’s grace and will ALSO for our enemies or perhaps a stated enemy.

In a perfect worldthat resolution would somehow be able to also impact all of those who are in most need of God’s mercy.  We are now talking about individuals, families and communities caught up in poverty, sub standard housing and employment issues… those living with violence or in/with drug infested communities/issues or with poor schools and inadequate healthcare…

And those of all backgrounds and ages who are living with and in despair, hopelessness, homelessness and in the agony or constant pain, whether of physical or other origin…  Since we all know this is not a perfect world, please forgive me when I fail in my attempt to offer such catch all New Year’s resolution…

Somehow it would also NOT forget the many seniors, veterans, children and the physically or mentally challenged – those who are rarely acknowledged…  … Or those who are willfully forgotten, like the myriads who are ‘enslaved’ in contemporary America’s sex market, illegal business practices, etc.

Hopefully and by God’s grace, it can be one that will positively impact our current world’s social and political developments, just as it can also positively impact our individual prayer and spiritual life, prompting both to grow in accordance with God’s will.

In short, we are talking about a resolution that can bless our lives as it touches American from every background, lifestyle and tradition…

Finally it should also be concrete and focused enough to be able to address current events,  yet also open and having the width and breadth to be able to anticipate even the unprecedented – which always await us each year…

What personal and individual New Year’s resolution can possibly ever fulfill and address all of these realties?  Its kind of funny, even though comedy is not my intent… And being  far from perfect,  please forgive me, despite being very serious

But it is…

To spend three good morning minutes each day – actively, willfully and passionately praying simply, that…

May God’s will be done, regarding President Trump!

Don’t pray for what you want regarding President Trump – whether an impeachment, a second term, etc. – just simply pray that May God’s will be done regarding President Trump!

If I can promise you nothing else, I can promise you this: that by praying this prayer daily as a New year’s resolution, both your prayer and prayer life will be transformed!!!

As a New Year’s spiritual resolution to pray a specific prayer for a whole year, you are dedicating and training yourself, as both a Christian and an American, to bring and extend your specific prayers and prayer life toward focusing on the community as a whole, not just your life and concerns.

This resolution can also train us to hone and direct our prayer and prayer life towards its proper goal, which is God’s will.  I believe this can be especially hard regarding persons or realities for which or whom we have very strong emotions/feelings – and for most, President Trump fits this bill to a tee!!!

On an every-day-change-your-life-in-a-powerful-way manner, regularly praying this emotionally charged, yet concrete and political New Year’s resolution after a month or two, may even lead you – by grace – to begin to creatively ponder and to actively seek, instead of sitting back and passively awaiting, God’s will to manifest in your life…

“Whoa, now!!” you say? “Sounds kinda scary…” I say, “Yea! … but in a scary good kinda way!!!”

Whether you choose to use and add our Strugglin’Catholic’s New Year’s resolution to your other resolutions is up to you…

However, whatever the resolution(s) you finally settle on and choose this year, I simply ask that you prayerfully bring them before God before starting them…

For even in the perennial common sense New Year’s resolutions like beginning to workout, diet, budget and tithe, visit Aunty Jane each month, or to limit drinking, etc., prayer can infuse a grace that can make this year’s attempt different than those in the past, allowing you to -this time – find that illusive success.

Also, I ask that whatever your resolution is, after bringing it to God in prayer, to please end your prayer with the following:  “…that in and with this resolution, may Your will be done. Amen.”

 

Have a Blessed and Grace Filled New Year!!!

 

 

 

On Christmas Peace & Joy

My prayer for every person reading this is that at some point during this Christmas season, you will  ‘find yourself’ experiencing and resting in the joy and peace of Christmas…

Experiencing Christmas peace and joy is a grace that comes from and rests in God alone – there is nothing one can do to earn or acquire it…   It is a divine gift that may or may not be experienced each year, for any number of reasons…

Unfortunately, these ‘reasons’ are because the adages that life ‘happens and takes no prisoners’ are often true: unforeseeable realities do occur which can steal or seemingly make impossible realizing the promises of experiencing Christmas peace and joy in any given year…

Either way, whether graced with Christmas peace and joy or not, all are STILL called to praise and thank God, for He is the Reason for this season…

By God’s grace, I have received and am STILL tasting Christmas peace and joy in my life this year – And in a nuanced manner unlike ever received before…  I know I am not alone…

Overwhelmed by and in gratitude for this gift, my heart now prayerfully ponders – yet already knowing – how this graced peace and joy has come to us this year…

How?

I suspect, simply as a loving response from a God who simply refuses to be out loved by His children… Perhaps, for some each year who’ve accepted Advent’s invitation to somehow and in some way prepare for Christmas, God allows their reservoir of insights and reflections to gracefully build up and fermented during Advent…

Can it be that just sometimes, all the – interior work in love of heart & mind – devotional prayers, reflections, resting and being with His Presence, extra or well prayed rosaries and Masses, etc., may actually move God’s Infinite Heart to sometimes simply love us back?   If only and so as to show us that, God responds to and can not be out loved!!!  

Can it be that sometimes God pours His inebriating gift of fine divine wine into chosen souls as Christmas joy and peace, simply as a “I love you back” gift moment?

How?

I believe many simply have been pregnant with God’s peace and joy this whole year…  Think about your year of Angelic Annunciations and invitations to ‘bear and bring Christ to others’ that you have – sometimes agonizingly and reluctantly said ‘yes’ to by grace – since last Christmastime…  Each tiny ‘yes’ nurtured that timely and holy, natural and spiritual gift that was growing within all year… a gift that was finally born now, during this season…

Like the first Christmas which ended Mary’s nine month pregnancy with the birth of Jesus, for many parents with children Christmas day is the end to an exhaustive year long period of physical, economic, domestic, religious, emotional, academic, etc. preparation and work. Parents, students and children are among those for whom this imagery is especially apt.

Christmastime can give birth to graced periods of rest and peaceful joy to these and for all who have travelled the year long roads of faith, struggle and sacrifice to grow. For many, I believe receiving this anticipated Christmas Peace is simply the holy fruit of their year’s faith filled and obedient labor.

However we may come to prayerfully and in gratitude, come to ascertain why God gifted us with Christmas peace and joy this specific year, one thing is for certain: this gift is not for us to hoard but to share!!

We know from the scriptures, that all of God’s gifts are given for the good of the community…

We also know and see, as revealed in the actual Gospel story of the Annuciation – when the  Angel came to Mary and she accepted God’s invitation to bear Jesus – that when accepting God’s gifts, we are often given opportunities to bringshare and give them to others during the Christmas season.

In Luke’s Gospel, the angel also shared with Mary that her elderly Aunt Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. The Living Gift of Love in her womb, Jesus, prompted Mary by charity – who was in her first trimester – to travel almost 3 days to both spend three months caring for her elderly aunt and also to celebrate the birth of the coming Messiah, Jesus…  We, like Mary,  must also be attentive to opportunities this season to be and to  share our Christmas gifts with others…

In some cases, sharing God’s Christmas gift may mean actively proclaiming and celebrating it with others – as in forcing ourself to go to THAT GOOD holiday party (ha, ha)!!!  In other instances it can and will also mean slowing down to quietly share it peacefully with others…

These are the cases where or when we are called to patiently be with or listen to others who are still seeking or are without Christmas peace and joy this year.  In these instances, we have to learn how to be and bring peace to others in our person/persona/presence and actions, and not always by using our word if we are to truly give them, by grace, a sense of our gifted peace…

I am almost certain that there may be an instance or two, when the Gift of Christmas Peace and Joy will prompt you to an unexpected and unprecedented act of kindness and charity – whooa now, you say!!!! It’s okay, go on, give that homeless person that $5 or $10 dollar bill or step up and give that relative what they DON’T expect but really need and want!!!!

Don’t be surprised if Christmas peace and joy in your soul creates gospel opportunities, like at THAT aforementioned Christmas party, when UNEXPECTEDLY your heart prompts you to converse with, befriend and maybe even mend fences with/offer forgiveness to someone from the past… You may even be so very tempted, to actually accept that 10+ year standing-but-never-acted-on family member’s party invitation this season…

In short, if you have been gifted with God’s Peace and Joy this season, please, please, please pass it on! Share it NOW, with others, while you got it…

Only in this way can…

…Christmas truly become a season for  ALL in our communities…

…God be truly given the glory, as the gift will grow and spread to other’s lives….

…The holy intent of the gift really be met: which is for it to flow freely to and through others before returning back to God its source…

Only in this way, can we authentically proclaim God as our Savior, walking as witnesses and disciples who are testifying to the reality of His Peace & Joy…

Let all receiving Christmas peace and joy this year, step forward to proclaim in word and deed, “…how even in a year like this, when  (fill in the ____________) happened to me… God has still walked with, carried and granted me His Peace…”

And so once again, my prayer for every person reading this is that at some point during this Christmas season, you will  ‘find yourself’ experiencing and resting in the joy and peace of Christmas…  By grace, when and if you do, please don’t hoard it, but be proactive and pass it on!

 

On Getting God’s Special Gift this Christmas!!!

Advent can be a very special time of the year for Catholics.  It is that brief time allocated each December for us to reflect on the past year as we simultaneously prepare ourselves to receive – in some way – God anew!  

Each year, God’s Christmas Gifts will come to us in a myriad of different ways over the course of our lives: from finding new or restoring broken relationships with family and friends, to getting that grade or job that we wanted, etc.   At every age and stage of our journey, whatever  gift God  gives or allows to manifest in our lives, we can truly rest assured that 1) they are the best gifts available for us…  2) they are given to be used in and for the community.

If you think about it, the best gifts are almost always those that will somehow address bothwhat we needand also what we want in life!!!  I believe that God, knowing our hearts and the journeys that we are currently on, seeks to give each one of us just such a gift each year – one that will address boththe desires of our hearts and the needs for our lives… 

Unfortunately, I also believe that each year some of us will fail to receive God’s Gift simply because we did not take or make the time in Advent to prepare for it…  To dream of and to see it… To hope for it…  To name, pray and to ask for it, even with that molecular sized faith of ours…

In Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet found in Matthew Chapter 22, it is at verse 11 where we find out that the one who did not adequately prepare and dress for the Banquet was thrown out!!!  

In the same manner, I believe many Christians are thrown out of God’s Christmas Gift line each year simply because they have refused to adequately prepare to receive it…   

Who knows, maybe they think that they DON’T need to prepare to receive God’s gifts…  Perhaps they are simply spiritually unaware and ignorant of God’s desires to actually give them gifts each year (really?)… Or, can it possibly be, like our own first-world-spoiled kids and grand kids, that they simply believe that they deserve and should be given these gifts, without preparation…

How God Graceful Jolted Me From Meditation to Prayer

          In my early twenties I began rising early to spend morning ‘quiet time’ in meditation and prayer before starting my day. In reflecting on these initial years of morning prayer and meditation, I can see now how God led me through a series of H U G E ‘baby steps’ that formed the foundation for and set the table regarding the real prayer and spirituality that was to come later in my life.

Perhaps the first ‘baby step’ that God graced me with was creating the desire to pray daily in my heart! In my early twenties prayer for me was simply a discrete activity that happened only when I was scared, in trouble or very, very ill!!! Of course I also prayed when I went to Church, the problem was that I only went to church on Easter and Christmas at the time!!! The idea that prayer could be a dialogue and become a constant reality in my life was foreign to me.   I knew nothing about the power of prayer, the various kinds of prayers one can offer or of the many blessings that comes with developing an active prayer life, despite growing up with a mother and grandmother who were prayer warriors. Like many other fundamentals in life, gaining a REAL knowledge about what works in this area will only come by committing to and doing it yourself…

When I first started rising early for ‘quiet time,’ my focus was not on prayer at all but actually on meditation.  Believing that I could wrestle spiritual truth and power from heaven by force and hard work [a common Pelagian and heretical belief], my initial early morning spiritual forays were decidedly not Catholic or even Christian! Prayer was simply a twenty – second ‘intro into and exit out of’ my morning meditations, which focused on tapping into latent occult powers rather than getting to know God or growing in holiness. My primary motivations for prayer were Santa Clausian or Big Brotherish at best: to either get what I wanted or to cover and protect my ass! I was blissfully ignorant and completely indifferent to what prayer actually was, and especially what it could do to and for me…

However all this changed after experiencing some initial success in dabbling with the occult.  It was a series of   G R A C E D  events – realizing that my experiences of occult ‘gifts’ were actually ‘demonic contacts and portals to hell,’ beginning to lose control of my newly found ‘inner’ life, seeing what happened when I called out Jesus’ name during an occult meditation or when one had gone awry, etc. – that basically scared me straight back to Jesus and flipped my morning spirituality from meditation to prayer!!!   I immediately dropped those occult/new age meditations and refocused my spirituality – both my spiritual reading and my morning quiet times – back to Catholic practices centered on scripture and prayer.

Back in my early twenties I was like so many in the world today – I knew God existed and atheism was not my problem…   My problem was accepting all that came along with that belief in God – beliefs like…   …I should commit to and work at living morallyinstead of primarily getting paid in life, or that I should serve others with my gifts and talents instead of focusing on constant pleasure or becoming rich, etc..   As a child I had learned of God’s goodness, His expectations for us to love others and, via grace, that each can embody and live out of God’s love through our unique gifts to love and serve others. My problem was accepting as true the consequences rejecting God’s offer….

You see, despite growing up on Chicago’s South Side and accepting as ‘fact’ all forms of violence and evil against myself, people and community, I had somehow bought completely that secular and New Age teaching of universal salvation! This is the belief that God’s love is so great, that in the end it even overcomes God’s justice, effectively eliminating for us any and all moral, spiritual and communal requirements to love as God loves in order to be saved. In acknowledging the world’s evil as real, grace led me to also consider and acknowledge its source – Satan – as real. After dabbling in the occult confirmed both Satan’s existence and that the ongoing war for my soul was real, the reality scared the living #@$%&! out of me!!! Now accepting these spiritual realities as truths, by grace I refocused and flipped my morning spiritual script, elevating prayer to a place of prominence over meditation. From that time on, I have limited all meditations to classic Christian meditations which focuses on Christian themes and the Life of Christ.

I believe many good hearted people today are following the same path and making the same mistakes that I initially made – dabbling in occult meditations to unlock latent spiritual potentials so as to gain success in the natural world, instead of choosing the hard walk of faith.  This hard path of following Jesus and walking by grace and faith, transforms our spirituality and its goals to that of serving, giving oneself away and growing in holiness – by grace and in imitation of Christ.

Unfortunately, many Catholics erroneously believe as I once did: that they can – free of any risks because God is all good and all love – develop their own ‘blended spiritualities, which combine traditional Catholic spirituality and the New Age.’   In doing so, I believe many experience what I have discussed above: a subtle refocusing on what a specific meditation can grant one as a spiritual gift versusthe real growth in one’s understanding of and deepening life of prayer.  Please note how this New Age spirituality almost always focuses on gaining or developing some ‘spiritual gift’ in hopes of doing some future good.  It does not require ‘faith in  God’ or present moral requirements like loving others in our relationships or ‘using our gifts in a holy way’ as prerequisites for receiving these gifts.

In working to develop and created an adult Christian spirituality, please, please, pleeeeeeeease do not be fooled by the empty New Age promises of some special spiritual knowledge or of some special spiritual gift that one can receive via meditation!!!!  Please reject these empty promises of acquiring and using either special spiritual knowledge(s) or special spiritual gifts to gain ‘wordly’ success in exchange for loosing your soul!  In your spiritual reading, please select readings that examine what growth in prayer really looks and feels like instead of how you can ‘unlock and develop’ latent potentials [I suggest the Doctors of the Church].

In your meditations, always keep a scriptural focus and remember that Jesus’ life and the Gospels are unparalleled meditation material for the believer. Finally in your spirituality, please remember that you are NOT ALONE on the path, that you are ACTIVELY IN A WAR and that winning both our daily battles and the war only requires PRAYER! Without a doubt, prayer alone is the greatest spiritual tool in our spiritual toolbox, not meditation. It is prayer, not meditation, which opens, transforms by grace and frees our hearts to love and serve as God’s only Son has modeled for us… So, focus on growing in prayer during your spiritual quiet times and, continue to pray on my fellow Christian soldiers…

On St. Paul’s Invitation to Pray Always

 

In chapter five of the New Testament’s Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul invites the believer to ‘pray without ceasing.’  Have you ever considered taking this invitation seriously? As a Christian adult with an active spirituality and deepening prayer life, has learning how to pray without ceasingever been  – a real spiritual goal for you?   If not, don’t feel too bad or beat yourself up about it, because you are not alone!!! Many – erroneously – believe that it would be easier getting a PH.D in a foreign language than learning how to pray constantly!!!!  When seeing Paul’s invitation, unfortunately many Christians are all too ready to dismiss it as just ‘another one of those scriptural impossibilities,” like loving our enemies.

However, just like that ‘impossible’ commandment’s call ‘to love always,’ this is one of those Gospel invitations that, over time, can pick and nag at one’s soul…  Why is this so?  My belief is that as we spiritually mature, the Holy Spirit empowers and leads each soul to that place where, by faith and grace, the impossible now becomes very plausible, possible, and doable – like loving one’s enemies!!!  While most realize that loving our enemies will not beeasyto achieve or always enjoyable, most also come to understand that it [loving our enemies] is something we can grow in and come to live out by grace!

In the same manner, the Holy Spirit confirms that  – by grace and faith – it is also some how possible for us to comfortably and to constantly ‘walk, talk and live in communion with God.’  The lives of the Saints testify to both God’s willingness andour human ability to, by grace, eventually live and walk in union with God.

Even in acknowledging the power of faith and grace, you may still be asking yourself, “How is thispossible or even achievable? Can I reallyspiritually pull this off – with bills, relationships, school, kids, family-work & health issues plus my money sometimes being funnier than a stand up comic? Where or how do I even start?  How can I grow my present spirituality of sporadic and occasional prayer experiences to that of finding it as the living continuum and background to my daily life?”

I apologize for NOT having a ‘one size fit all’ answer to that question… …I sure wish that I did!!!  However, what I can offer to you now is the onespiritual practice and method that God gave me as I first pondered this question years ago.  God’s response to my question was the following: just repeat – throughout the day– the two fundamental ‘first steps’ of any basic prayer: a) remembering God and then b) being with/sitting in God’s Presence. My response to God’s answer led me to begin linking these two stepsto ‘specific daily activities,’ like eating, using the bathroom, walking to and from the car, etc..

In reality, many ‘do these steps naturally’ when walking into a church, preparing to read scripture or to pray before a meal, etc.. They allow us to ‘slow down and turn off’ to both the world’s exterior and our own, inner noise.   Now, with inner stillness and quietness restored, we are able to turn within and to prepare our hearts and souls to both ‘return to and to receive God’s Presence.’  Most of us start prayer with this ‘returning to and remembering of God’because unfortunately, we generally find ourselves in thatplace where we have forgotten or even outright abandoned God, as we busied ourselves throughout the day.

These steps are arguably, the two most elementary required for any real prayer. As such, despite each being a profoundly simple spiritual exercise, each one can also be astonishingly difficult or even impossible to achieve on any given day. For a variety of reasons, any given day it can be very difficult finding and taking that 3-4 minutes to quiet our minds and to still our hearts. It can also be equally as hard simply to remember and think about God on some days…

Some argue that they are simply too busy at work and in life to even tryintegrating prayer into and throughout their day…  Okay, I get it – kids, work, social life, family, health issues, etc. – your life is very full!!!  So… just use the dead & in-between-times of your day to pray!!!! Link these two basic prayer steps – remembering God and placing yourself in God’s Presence – to a variety of simple activities performed daily.  Over time, the practice will eventually train and make ‘normal to you’ both returning to and remembering God throughout your day…

As you learn how to remember Godand to be with God throughout the day, your ‘discrete acts of prayer’ will gradually morph into a constant dialogue, feeling, turning to and ongoing REAL LIFE experience of God!!!  You will look up one day, to find that somehow, you are now – by grace – living an experience of God, prayer and your spiritual life in/as a living continuum!

What could this practice look like in real life? Well, by linking these two steps to simple activities, [like walking to/from your car at work, before and at the end of every meal, when using the restroom and when walking down a specific corridor/staircase, etc.] your spiritually really begins to adds up!!!   Using these ‘dead times’ to remember God is like throwing spare change into a huge coffee can over the course of decades…  Here’s the math: add 2 (to and from the car just once) + 6 (3 meals a day x 2) + 2 (using the bathroom 2x) = ten + times you will find yourself practicing ‘returning to and placing yourself in God’s Presence’ each day.  Wow!!! For many, I bet that’s a heck of a lot more  ‘turning to and remembering God’ than they are presently doing!!!!!

In the good 2 or 3 month struggle (at the minimum) it will take to transform these dead times into regular ‘periods for prayer,’ you will find out more about yourself and your faith life than even you might reallywant to know!!!!  For instance, you will find out that you have more time than you thought available for prayer…  you will also come to find that your inner world (mind and heart) are actually much so more undisciplined than you E  V  E R  thought they were!!!

You will also come to see and know much better those topics which are most difficult for you to stop ‘thinking about’ or ‘feeling in your heart.’  As you experience the frustration of finding out how undisciplined your mind is you will also come to know – in a new way – the joy of KNOWING that you are soooo much more than just, your mind – as many think today!!!

I have not even begun to mention the insights, feelings, blessings and joys that God will lavish on you – simply because God won’t let you out give or out loveHim!!!!  It is simply impossible to ‘out work’ Jesus in trying to develop and deepen our prayer lives with God…

I am not going to mention the personal benefits and transformations – at work, home and in one’s relationships – that you will begin to experience, simply because nowyour mind and heart is spiritually growing (exponentially) as it becomes so much more disciplined and grounded in God’s love than it E V E R was before!!!

The fact is, that we are often ignorant of just how undisciplinedour minds and hearts actually are – until we try establishing a simple spiritual practice like this – remembering and sitting in God’s Presence seven to ten times daily.  With this practice, we will come to realize the importance of learning how to listen to God and for God in our lives…

…And, as we develop our spiritual ears to hear and to listen to God throughout the day – in nature, strangers, family members, in our feelings and through our random thoughts/ memories – somehow by grace, we slowly begin to believe in and experience that which we once thought, was impossible. Only by taking a leap of faith to hope, believe and work at creating that which St. Paul said was possible by grace – of praying unceasingly – will it become a reality in our lives.  May the Lord grant you the grace to consider making St. Paul’s invitation your spiritual goal for this year.