Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How To Be Successful At Lent

If I had to list my most "successful" Lents I would probably say the following ranked as the top three:
  1. The year I gave up shopping and did really well except for the pair of shoes that I bought and hid in my desk at work until Easter so my husband wouldn't notice them.  I sure did save a lot of money that year!  
  2. The year that I gave up coffee and no one at work wanted to speak to me before Noon.  Boy did that one require perseverance-especially on the part of  my co-workers. I did kick that nasty caffeine habit, though!
  3. Finally, there was the year I gave up grated parmesan cheese - what a major sacrifice for this Italian girl.  I practically top brownies with that stuff.  Talk about HOLY!!!  Plus, I lost a few pounds that year as well!  
Epic successes, all of them. Well done, Debbie. 

The problem is, Lent isn't about being successful.  Or about saving money. Or about losing weight. Lent is a matter of the heart. The celebration of Ash Wednesday begins with a reading from the book of Joel in which the Lord, speaking through the prophet Joel exhorts us to:

"Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting weeping and mourning. 
Rend your hearts and not your garments. (Joel 2:12-13

In the Psalm for Ash Wednesday, we read David's cries to the Lord, begging Him for his mercy after he has been caught in the grievous sin of arranging to have his lover's husband killed.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God." (Psalm 51:10)

Within the Daytime Prayer of the Liturgy of the House we read from Ezekiel:

"Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, 
and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit." (Exekiel 18:31)

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? In all of these readings, we are being urged to seek the Lord with our heart first. Furthermore, the condition our heart is in is also important: our hearts must be clean, pure, new, and whole. God doesn't want half of our heart. He doesn't want a heart intent on performing religious actions with an ulterior, self-serving motive. The Lord wants all of our heart and he wants us to surrender it to Him freely and  for the right reasons - out of love, thanksgiving and adoration.  The common failure of all my Lenten "successes" was that I had not given the Lord my heart. My resolutions focused on what the fasting would do for me. I was successful because I achieved my goals, but success was not what God was asking of me.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that fasting during Lent isn't important. Fasting is a key element of the three-fold practice of Lent which also includes prayer and alsmgiving. In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday Jesus warns of having the right motives when you fast, when you pray and when you give alms. (Matthew 6:2-16). The implication in his use of the word when is that all three of these practices will be observed. Jesus' warning is about the motive behind these practices. He is looking at the heart.

My prayer in the trenches of everyday life during this Lenten season is not that I am successful at fasting, prayer or almsgiving, but rather that, through the Lord's grace, Lent truly becomes a matter of the heart.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Life Lessons From Saint Peter

I LOVE St. Peter. The Scriptural accounts of the missteps of this outspoken, hot-tempered, passionate first Pope reveal a man who is flawed and weak. I can relate. Equally, the Scriptures reveal to us  a man whose life has been thoroughly transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit - his flaws are remade into his greatest strengths. I can relate.

St. Peter's life, like that of all the Saints, opens up to us a litany of examples that we can both meditate upon and imitate in our own striving for the heights of holiness in the trenches of everyday life.

Let's look at seven life lessons that we can draw from St. Peter. 

Grace builds on nature.
Boldness was a gift that Peter possessed in abundance - a gift that made him a natural born leader. The problem with natural gifts is that they are not always directed to the right ends or exercised in the right manner. Time and time again, Peter's natural gift of boldness landed him in hot water with the Lord. See Mt 16:22-23 and Jn 13: 6-11 for two examples.

Natural gifts need supernatural grace to purify them and build upon them. After Pentecost, Peter's natural gifts had been anointed by the Holy Spirit and we see his propensity for bold statements now transformed into his ability to preach the core Gospel message (the kerygma) in power. (Acts 2:14-37) Like Peter, we too need to ask the Lord for the anointing of the Holy Spirit to transform our natural gifts and talents into ones that will bear supernatural fruit.

Fear blocks faith. 
Perhaps one of the best-loved stories from the scriptures is that of Peter walking on the water. Here we see Peter, walking across the stormy sea at Jesus' command. This courageous act of faith is quickly overcome by the paralyzing grip of fear when Peter's eyes drift from Jesus to the wind and the waves which surround him. He begins to sink. (Mt 14:27-33)

Like Peter, I too have had moments in my relationship with Jesus where my faith and trust has led me to "walk on water". Similarly, I can recall far too many episodes in my own life where my focus has been on the wind and the waves around me and I have hit bottom like a lead brick. This Gospel account teaches us so many lessons, but perhaps the one that strikes me the most is that fear is a block to faith. When we allow our fears of "what could happen" or even "what should happen" to block our faith, we effectively block the power of grace. The Lord knows this and the words "Be not afraid" are one of the most often-repeated phrases in all of the Scriptures. In moments of conflict between fear and faith, let us ask St. Peter for his intercession to help us keep our eyes on Jesus and continue to walk on water.

No sin too great for the Lord's mercy.
Denying the Lord is a grave sin. Jesus, in a discourse directed to the Apostles, warns them of the consequences of such a denial: "But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father" .(Mt. 10:33)  He directly foretells Peter's denial to him. (Lk 22:34) In spite of these warnings, Peter does indeed succumb to his own weakness and vehemently denies that he knows Jesus three times. (Lk 22: 54-62)

Luke's Gospel relates to us that immediately after his denials, the "Lord turned and looked at Peter." (Lk 22:61). I can only imagine that look of love and mercy - of sheer compassion that Jesus gave to Peter in that moment. A look which expressed his desire to forgive Peter and his knowledge of the great potential inside Peter in spite of his outward failings. No sin is above the mercy of the Lord. When we sin, we have only to seek that look of love from Jesus in the sacrament of Confession to be restored to his grace.

Discipleship sometimes requires a career change.
Peter's encounter with the Lord led him to abandon his fishing career to follow Jesus as his disciple. After only a few short years in training, he made a post-Pentecost career change to preacher, healer, foreign missionary and head of the budding universal church. None of these changes came up after reading What Color is Your Parachute? and meeting with a career counselor.

Encounters with Jesus still lead to career changes today. Not long after I experienced a powerful conversion in the year 2000, I was led to quit my six-figure job and trade my successful career for a life of service as a stay at home Mom. Nearly two decades later, I am homeschooling, studying theology, writing, speaking and still in awe of all the Lord has done in my life.

Not all disciples are required to make such dramatic career changes. What is required of all disciples is that we submit our career to the Lordship of Jesus and allow him to direct our path, trusting that his plans for our lives are far better than any that we could conceive for ourselves.

Try not to fall asleep in the chapel.
One of my favorite accounts from the Gospels is that of the Lord rebuking Peter, James and John for falling asleep while he was praying in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus says to Peter: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." (Mk 14:37-38)

Why do I love this account?  Because more often than not, I too find myself  giving in to the weakness of my own flesh. It is a comfort to me to know that I am not alone in my struggles. Prayer can sometimes be difficult. Every time I sit down to pray I battle distractions, fatigue, and the temptation to insert my own agenda into my prayer time. Far from being discouraging, Jesus' words spurn me on to continue to persevere in prayer in spite of the obstacles - asking the Holy Spirit to "come to the aid of our weakness". (Rom 8:26)

Share what you have been given.
In Acts Chapter 3 we read about the crippled beggar asking Peter and John for money. Here is Peter's reply: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk.” (Acts 3:6) The crippled beggar was intermediately healed.

Peter gave the beggar a far greater gift than the alms that he was asking for. He gave him the gift of healing which he had received through the power of the Holy Spirit sent to the church by the Risen Lord Jesus at Pentecost. All of us, by virtue of our Baptism, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and like Peter, we too need to share that gift with others. 

The sharing of what we have received may not always take the form of physical healing, but we must be open to opportunities to see through what people are asking for to what they really need. Our world is filled with people who are crippled in many ways - let us imitate Peter and boldly share the gift of hope and salvation in Jesus that we have received. 

Prepare your testimony.
Peter writes in one of his letters a directive that applies to us today as much as it did to his readers nearly 2000 years ago: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..." (1 Pet 3:15) Our testimony is simply that: a witness of what Jesus has done for us which is the foundation of our hope. Peter goes on to describe the way this testimony should be delivered: "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pet 3:16)

When we follow Jesus, people will be curious about our beliefs and our lives. Not all of us have dramatic conversion stories, but all faithful disciples of Jesus have moments of encounter with the Lord that can serve a lifeline to those walking in darkness. It is helpful to intentionally reflect on those special moments in prayer  - perhaps even writing them down in a journal. In this way, we too will be ready to give this "explanation" to anyone who asks.

St. Peter, pray for us.

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