“Wherever there is repentance, there is faith. Where there is no repentance, Jesus is rejected and His Church persecuted.”“One Bread, One Body” reflection on John 10:31-42
Over the past few weeks, a handful of lifechanging Confessions have been on my mind. Each resulted in a deepening of faith, but only after I humbled myself and turned once again to God and His Church:
A SECOND FIRST CONFESSION: Not long after Jodi and I started our family, I began to think about my dormant Catholicism. Aside from a brief period in grade school, I had grown up outside the Church and had a lot of questions, misunderstandings, and disagreements regarding Church teachings. Our priest in Michigan, Father Bill Zink, spent an hour or more allowing me to unload my spiritual baggage in his living room, then told me I should ask my questions from within the Church, after receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion again—in fact, he offered to hear my confession then and there. At first I refused; I said I didn’t remember how, but he offered to help me through it. I had to acknowledge the need for mercy and accept the invitation; to let go of my pride, humble myself, and return to God. That was the beginning of my reversion.
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
A few weeks back, I had a conversation with my sister Jill. Among other things, we talked about my distance from our folks in Michigan. I must have confessed my insecurity around being a good son and a good brother, and Jill called me on it. She told me she had heard me say that before and shared that while it may be true, I should be careful about repeating it too often, because we can’t progress if we stay tied to past problems, behaviors, sins, or weaknesses.
My mind has returned to the conversation numerous times since, and I believe she is right. My limp was becoming my crutch.
Let me say that again: My limp (insecurity, a problem I have that I struggle with) was becoming my crutch (something I lean on to help me excuse bad habits and get through the day).
Several years ago, when my spiritual director said I was insecure, I bristled immediately—a pretty sure sign. He warned me at the time that it would continue to surface, and that the important thing would be to acknowledge it and move on.
Somewhere along the way I forgot to move on. Instead, I lean into the limp: Instead of struggling against the insecurity, I resign myself to being insecure.
This post appeared in the Sunday, September 25, 2021, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.
I don’t know if this is typical for adult Christians as they try to follow Jesus more and more closely—but I often feel as though I am regressing spiritually.
It is certainly true that I don’t struggle with the more serious or habitual sins I did as a younger man, before my reversion to the faith—that is real progress. But most of sins I bring to Confession today are things any child or teen might share: short-temperedness, impatience, ingratitude, laziness, vulgarity, jealousy—smaller things deeply rooted in my heart and habits. I struggle to confess these sins, either because they are so frequent and reflexive as to defy counting, or so subtle and ingrained that I don’t perceive them at all without careful hindsight.
Many of these sins are rooted in vanity and insecurity: I become preoccupied with myself and my own needs at the expense of those around me. As a result, I am also a slave to sins of omission (good things not done), another category of wrongs it can be difficult count.
So I’ve been praying to God for an influx of charity—a stretching of my heart—so that I might better see and respond to the needs of others, when and where they exist.
Guess what? God is obliging…and it hurts.