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.

On Using Old School Methods for reaching New Year’s Resolutions

digital_resolutions-100019466-largeWhat will be new for you this New Years? New Years Day is the day and week where many begin their chosen New Year’s resolutions for the year. I, like many others, have outlined my resolutions in terms of the goals I hope to achieve this coming year. Irregardless of the form that one’s resolutions may take, each one of us knows in our hearts that the “boot camp” starts this week!!! For this secular equivalent of our Catholic Lent to be successful, we must some how tap into and use those tried and true “old school methods” if we are really gonna, by God’s grace, reach the goals we have set for ourselves this New Year.

 

 

One old school method useful for creating the new you in 2016 is the practice of planning how we are going to meet these goals. Now that you have identified your goals, take this week to research and plan how you will achieve them this year; a week of good planning can help one avoid the potholes and mistakes the other fifty-one week of this year. Planning will break your goals into bite-size chunks that can easily be integrated into and worked on each day. With planning, the vision and hope of our goals becomes piecemeal; our vision is shifted and we can begin to focus on the daily tasks at hand, worrying less about our list goals. Common examples include planning how to save $50 a week on food by couponing, catching sales, shopping multiple store, planning meals for the week, making bag lunches, etc.. The concrete work of implementing the nuts and bolts of our plan creates a new perspective, experience and vision in our lives that somehow and in a sneaky kind of way, replaces what was once there.

 

 

Another old school method applicable for reaching our 2016 New Year’s resolutions is that of making and accepting some willful sacrifice in order to make these dreams a reality. Any intrinsically good and graced goal that we have ever dreamt of, from family and career to our financial goals, has only been achieved when we have willfully crossed that the bridge of sacrifice. Making “the sacrifices” does not guarantee us success; there are many who have made the “worthy sacrifice” but have fallen short… Yet, even most of these will still agree that to hope for true love, a viable career or a loving family – without making and accepting the sacrifices these realities calls for, is simply to truly dream and guarantee its deferment! By taking a week to plan how you will attack your resolutions for this year, you will find that it will clearly identify and uncover exactly what you will have to sacrifice in order to reach your goals for this year. Knowing, having and living with an, “ its time to suck it up and tighten my belt” attitude is necessary if our 2017 goals are going to be different than this year’s.

 

 

A final old school tool useful for creating the new you and reaching your 2016 goals is that of constantly praying over and for your 2016 resolutions. Even though we know that prayer is the most fundamental of all the spiritual exercises, how often do we employ it as a long-term method for reaching our New Year’s resolutions?   If the power of prayer can change the world, what can it do for our resolutions? Over the years, I have found that by consistently praying over my New Year’s resolutions, miracles can happen… By prayer, my selfish, misguided and outright bad resolutions have been identified, changed and/or adjusted in the light of grace… By prayer, many selfish motivations that I have had for good New Year’s resolutions were eventually identified, purified and transformed by God’s grace… In my morning prayer over the years, I have had to both remember and humbly share/bare my failed/ignored/tough New Year’s resolutions to God, Who graciously renewed my faith in, strengthened and restored my fractured hope in and deepened my love in this yearly practice as a Strugglin’Catholic who is prayerfully seeking daily growth in holiness. Yes, prayer can and does make not only a difference, but often it is the difference!

 

 

As we begin 2016 this week, let’s first thank and praise God for the gift of seeing another New Year! As we, in gratitude for this gift, make our final considerations for New Year’s resolutions this week, the Strugglin’Catholic prays that by God’s grace, your resolutions are in accordance with God’s will. Please pray with us, that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us in the choosing, planning, sacrificing for and praying about our specific New Year’s resolutions for this year.

God’s Fundamental Principal of Gift Giving

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From our earliest age, we clearly understood that Christmas was and is about gift giving and receiving…as young kids most of us enjoyed both the making of cards and gifts for our parents and, of course, the anticipating and receiving of gifts chosen specially for us. Yes, we have always known that Christmas is about gift giving and receiving… which leads Strugglin’Catholic.com to wonder, is it possible to find and live by one fundamental principle to generally guide one’s Christmas gift giving each year?

 

If there is such a principle, it can surely be found in the scripture stories of the First Christmas. In turning to these Gospel stories of Jesus’s birth, both symbols and signs make it clear that God’s gift to humanity is the Gift of God’s Self – given as His only begotten Son! We find God giving the Gift of God’s Self to us here at the beginning of the gospels, as Jesus Christ, to save and redeem us from sin…and then once again after the Ascension at the Pentecost when God sent Jesus’ promised Gift of God’s Self to us via baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Gift of the Holy Spirit guides us in continuing Jesus’ mission here on earth while also sanctifying us on the journey in preparation for heaven.

 

If there was or is one fundamental principle to guide our Christian gift giving during this holy season, we here at Strugglin’Catholic.com vote for the principle of truly giving yourself away in the gifts you give. Examples abound both in the scriptures and in our own graced histories: the giving of our time or our talents – especially when if one has a very busy life… or the sacrificing of one’s time and energy by making an enduring commitment as a gift… giving a loved one another chance or the light of hope to keep strugglin’ or continued faith in tough times… the gift to your church of becoming a prayer warrior and spending time daily to pray for those in your life… giving your child that instrument which will ruin your home’s silence or that pet that will probably disrupt your home life… giving hope plus couple of hundred dollars to the nephew/niece living in the aftermath of a bad decision or two, etc. All these examples of giving ourselves away reveal that our gift giving can, with prayer, be prayerfully tailored for each person in our lives…

 

Which gifts of self we choose to present to our loved ones each year can be figured out by simply bringing all of our children’s/loved one’s/personal ideals for presents this year to God in prayer… It is an interesting exercise to pray over one’s gift list each year, hoping in faith that one’s gifts reflect God’s principle of giving one’s self away in the gift. Prayerfully reflecting on our gift giving teaches us as much about ourselves and lives as it does about God and Christmas – especially when these reflections are prayerfully linked to the Gospel.

 

Here at Strugglin’Catholic.com we invite you to follow God’s example by seeking to give the gift of yourself away this Christmas! Just as God gave the gift of God’s self: God’s only begotten Son – Jesus, our prayer for all is that by the promised Holy Spirit, we may all imitate God this year and give ourselves away, thus, truly bringing Christmas love and joy to all.

 

Reviewing Our Prayer Lives as the New Year Approaches

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AT the end of the year many systematically review a number of key life areas: from one’s finances to one’s health, from one’s relationships to one’s vocational choices.   Many who do not have such major decisions often review the past year’s success and failures, often in preparation for making some kind of New Year’s resolution. Whether this Christmas finds you contemplating large decisions or simply reviewing the past year, let us here at the Strugglin’ Catholic.com offer you one more point to reflect on in preparation for the New Year, that is your prayer life.

 

When was the last time, if ever, did you complete an end of the year systematic review of your prayer life? It is an interesting question to ask, given the spiritual and holy nature of the season. Advent is a season when Catholics are invited to prepare our hearts that we may receive our God and King anew this year. For Catholics as with all people of faith, prayer is one of the fundamental core spiritual practices that supports and deepens both our relationship with God and love for others. Knowing this, regularly evaluating our prayer life in some manner seems to make sense if we are planning to spiritually grow in the coming year. Away of preparing our hearts to receive the Lord anew this year is simply to do an honest review one’s prayer life.

 

Evaluating one’s prayer life can be as easy as examining when and what times one pray: upon waking? During the morning drive or commute… in the bathroom while dressing… before breakfast…. at night reviewing the day in light of our blessings and sins, etc.… The Strugglin’ Catholic.com suggests linking prayer to daily tasks in order to integrate prayer throughout one’s day. One can also evaluate what and how one prays: what do I pray for? …who do I pray for? …do I pray orally with traditional prayers or do I also talk to God using my own words? …do I talk all the time or do I also give God equal time by listening? …do I pray using the scriptures? …when praying in/with the community, what helps and what challenges my prayer experience?

 

Evaluating both what and how one prays and when and what times one prays can help uncover the various prayer routines, themes, agendas and habits that we have formed. By prayerfully and honestly evaluating this knowledge of ourselves and our prayer life, we will not only be preparing our hearts to better receive and worship the gift of Jesus that God seeks to give this Christmas, but also to share God’s love more fully with others this new year.

 

On the Struggle to make Christmas a Season and not just a day…

IMG_1467Our secular holiday celebrations and understanding of Christmas leaves a lot to be desired when contrasted with the traditional Catholic celebrations and understandings. As maturing Catholics, we are called to struggle at discerning and living out Christmas in a Gospel manner rather than a secular manner. Major differences regarding time, specifically when and how long to celebrate Christmas can seemingly complicate one’s goal of trying to live a holy and Catholic holiday season.

 

For some, in reality Christmas only lasts a single day; the notion of it being a season is simply foreign. Those of this mindset may dismiss or deem unimportant the preparation for and build up to Christmas and its afterglow as mere formalities in light of the real celebration on Christmas Day. Many Catholics, despite appreciating and acknowledging the pre and post Christmas periods of Advent and the Christmas Season found in the Church, for whatever reason – work, family, bereavement, etc. – still find themselves in real time “living out” Christmas as if the celebration is only about that single day. What can a Strugglin’ Catholic do to stretch their sense of time?

 

One strugglin’ to appreciate Christmas time as a season needs to look no further than her own memories of childhood and the great Christmas’ of her past to prayerfully stretch and lengthen her present sense of the season. By prayerfully and re-imagining and re-experiencing these memories anew she can, by grace, draw out and on her past experiences of faith and advent hope to transform and empower her present holiday struggle regarding time….

 

Another tool for the Strugglin’ Catholic is to prayerfully reflect on one’s life and its hurriedness in light of the holy Family’s hurriedness, poverty and instability: unexpectedly giving birth out of town while at a census, becoming refugees and fleeing to Egypt in response to Joseph’s dream and not returning home after the census, eventually returning home to settle in Nazareth a few years later… In light of the holy Family, we may by grace, arrive a place of gratitude and praise for the current Strugglin’ Christmas season and stop one’s complaining about it in one’s prayer…

 

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas time, our prayer for you here at the Strugglin’Catholic.com is that by God’s grace, your preparations, celebrations and post Christmas afterglow will draw forth from your heart an extended appreciation and celebration of this sacred season. Our prayer is that you may give the specific graces needed to empower others on their journey this Christmas season and that you may receive the graces needed to start 2016 as God desires.