Finding Peace by Candlelight

On Ash Wednesday this year, Archbishop Hebda visited our parish and school and presided over the school Mass. During his homily, he asked the school children to give examples of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. One boy suggested that you could fast from lights, “like, with an oil lamp or something.”

Archbishop chuckled and said he had never thought of that before. But I have.

Years ago, I ran across an article by Catholic convert, blogger, and speaker Jennifer Fulwiler entitled “8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights During Lent.” Her experience captured my imagination, and I pitched it to my own family and those in faith formation at the time as “Firelight Fridays.”

The premise is simple—no electrical lights or screens of any kind after sundown on Fridays during Lent. The results were profound: we found ourselves congregating as a family around the candlelit kitchen table or living room, playing board games, listening to music, or just talking and laughing together as a family. It a couple hours, we would begin to feel snoozy; eventually we would, by common consensus, snuff the candles and go to bed early, sleep soundly, and rise refreshed on Saturday morning.

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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.

Distraction Is the Enemy

This post appeared as a column in the August 29, 2021, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

In my role as communications manager for the parish, I am technically a contractor. Even before the pandemic I was working primarily from home, setting my own schedule, and providing freelance support to a handful of other Catholic clients.

As many of us have learned over the past 18 months or so, working from home can be a challenge. Distractions abound: kids and pets, music and media, food and other comforts, are constantly beckoning, particularly if you don’t have set hours.

Make no mistake, even good distractions (like my daughter Lily wanting me to watch an episode of Nature about giant pandas with her) can be from the Enemy. When we succumb to distraction, little by little, we weaken our resolve and our self-control. For me, it often looks like this: I’m working away on my laptop when a message comes in that reminds me of something that need doing on the home front. I leave my desk to address it while it’s fresh in my mind, and our Airedale Bruno greets me at the top of the stairs, hoping for a walk.

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Wednesday Witness: Business as Usual

It has been almost a month since Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis were dispensed of our Sunday obligation to attend Mass, and even less time since public Masses were suspended and we were told by state officials to stay home for two weeks. It seems longer, doesn’t it? It appears likely we will be asked to persist in this relative isolation awhile longer.

People are rightly concerned about the health of their loved ones, the most vulnerable among us and healthcare workers (among other “essential” employees). They are also rightly concerned about their livelihoods and the economy, their family’s mental and spiritual health, and how much freedom and control we are willing to sacrifice based on what evidence.

That’s a great deal of concern. It’s exhausting to carry, and people everywhere are asking, “When will things get back to normal?”

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Wednesday Witness: Little Mistakes and the Big Picture

Yesterday I got my first look at our parish’s new monthly newsletter, DISCIPLE, which should go into the mail tomorrow. It looks great, and I am truly excited to share it with you.

It also took less than two minutes to find two small but obvious errors in the final printed version: a typo and a small oversight in layout.

Those two small blunders nearly derailed me from enjoying a good day yesterday. I kept churning it over and over in my mind: How can I review something so many times, and still let two mistakes slip through? Especially mistakes that are so easy to see after the fact? How many people will notice? What will they think?

But the more important question occurred to me this morning: Why I am so upset and impatient with myself over two honest oversights, but always ready to excuse and forget my countless actual sins?

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