Perfection Reconsidered

This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, March 20, 2022, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

Last Saturday, my bride and I went to morning Mass together. In the gospel, Jesus admonishes His disciples, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

I’ve always taken this to be a tall order—impossible, in fact, for anyone but God alone. It almost always makes me feel small, weak, and inadequate to the task. These feelings may be true, but do not seem particularly helpful when it comes to striving for sainthood.

But Father Joe tweaked my thinking with his homily Saturday morning.

“Notice,” he said, “that the Lord doesn’t say, ‘Do everything perfectly,’ but ‘Be perfect.’”

He went on to explain that, with our fallen nature, we cannot expect never to make mistakes—but that we should do the best we can in every circumstance, striving to love as God loves.

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Building Spiritual Strength This Lent

My friend Jeremy and I met with our ninth-grade D-group last week to talk about Lent. The turnout was light that night, and with Ash Wednesday just a few days away, I thought I’d share some of what we discussed in hopes that others might benefit. Here are five tips for building spiritual strength this Lent:

  1. Prepare Yourself. If you haven’t already, spend some quiet time in prayer. Ask the Lord what He wants for you this Lent. If we don’t take time to prepare, we often default to the same old things we are comfortable with or we have struggled to keep in the past. Ask Him specifically about each of the three Lenten disciplines—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—and listen for His reply in the movements of your heart. How does He want you to grow in prayer? What good thing does He want you to give up for the next several weeks? How is He asking you to love your neighbor this year?
  2. Challenge Yourself. When you ask God what He wants from you, be prepared for an answer that might push you a bit. The Lord wants us to grow in holiness, but He does not challenge us beyond our abilities. I remember the teens in our Michigan youth group saying, “I could never give up such-and such!” and immediately seeking something else to sacrifice. If the Lord challenges you to do something difficult, lean into it—ask Him how to go about it, rather than steering the conversation to a more comfortable conclusion.
  3. Pace Yourself. Don’t be afraid to start small. When we lean into a challenge and talk with God about it, He helps us come up with small ways to build our spiritual strength. For example, if the Lord calls you to step away from your smartphone, and you’re not sure you can do that for all of Lent, maybe pick one day a week to be device-free—the Lord’s Day, perhaps, or Friday. On the flip side, sometimes we enter Lent with big ideas about the sacrifices we are ready to endure, but unless we’ve been practicing small sacrifices throughout the rest of the year, we may not be ready. Self-control takes practice, but even small sacrifices made with love are pleasing to God.
  4. Push Yourself. If you start small this Lent and feel called to do more, answer that call! My bride, Jodi, often adds to her Lenten commitments each week, building spiritual strength and momentum as she gets closer to Easter. It’s a great way to push yourself, grow in holiness, and learn your limitations.
  5. Be Gentle With Yourself. If you are challenging or pushing yourself as Lent goes on, there’s a good chance you’ll slip up or fall down—and that’s okay. I have found myself at both ends of the Lenten spectrum:  either throwing up my hands and giving up entirely when I’m not perfect or trying to do too much and white-knuckling it through Lent while those around me suffer my ill temper and frustration. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to start again, always in prayer. Growth is the goal, not instant perfection.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which is this Wednesday, March 2. Mass times are 7:45 AM (school Mass; open to all), 5:00 PM, and 7:00 PM—and don’t forget to fast and abstain from meat that day. Lenten guidelines are online at usccb.org/prayer-worship/liturgical-year/lent. Have a blessed Lent!

This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, February 27, 2022, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

A Long Time Comfortable

This post appeared as a column in the January 16 bulletin for St. Michael Catholic Church. It was written during the cold snap the week before.

As I write this morning, it’s -24 outdoors. That people work outdoors in this weather—expanding our church facilities, for example—is amazing. That people sleep and starve outdoors in this weather while I sit comfortably typing away is tragic and humbling.

The daily readings for the week after Epiphany focus on the love of God, in concept (Saint John’s first letter, explaining that God is love, and all that implies) and in deed (examples of Jesus’ teaching, feeding, healing, and other miracles from Saints Mark and Luke.

The gospel for January 5 was Mark’s story of the feeding of the 5,000, followed by Jesus walking on water and calming the sea. Once Jesus joins His disciples in the boat, Mark ends with this:

They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.

Mark 6:52

My first thought reading this was, “What’s not to understand? How could Jesus miraculously feeding 5,000-plus people harden the hearts of His followers?”

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You’re at the Right Address

Note: This column is based loosely on a talk my second son Gabe and I gave to parents and teens at a nearby parish on Wednesday evening. You can watch the video here.

Often, I have wondered why God entrusted my five children to me. At times, they seem so grounded and confident that my fatherly advice seems more hindrance than help; other times they are such a mystery to me that I wonder how we could possibly be related. I am exasperated when my brokenness shows forth in their behavior, and overwhelmed when some small seed I buried and forgot about suddenly blooms in them.

This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.

Mark 4:26-27
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Love Is Necessary

It’s still dark outside, early Monday morning, and I’ve just read today’s gospel. Jesus once again performs a healing miracle on the sabbath, for a woman who has been crippled and unable to straighten her back for 18 years. Once again, the synagogue leader is outraged that the Lord is “working” on the Sabbath, and once again, He sets him straight:

Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering?  This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?

Luke 13:15-16

I close my eyes to reflect: He’s telling them they take time to certain things, even on the Sabbath. They do what they need to do so their animals don’t die. They do what is necessary—but they won’t help this woman. They won’t love this woman, so He calls them hypocrites.

What is He telling them? What is He telling me?

Love IS necessary.

In our current culture, we are less inclined to strictly observe the Lord’s Day by resting from work. But might we abstain from love?

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