Penance, sacrifice, prayer, alms giving, crosses of ash smeared on our foreheads. The season of Lent is a rich and ancient Christian tradition which reminds us of our mortality, sinful nature, and dependence upon God as Lord and Savior.
And yet Lent is a season nearly forgotten. Dismissed as one of those stuffy “Catholic” traditions, Lent is ignored like Advent, or a secularized season of pseudo-pious dieting at best.
But it doesn’t have to be.
The 40-day season of Lent was originally reserved for new converts entering the ancient Church. After an initiation process which could last years, Lent was the final approach and a participation in the life of Christ as he entered the wilderness in preparation for his mission. The practice was so efficacious for these new converts that soon the whole Church got involved, so that now we include this part of the liturgical year as our journey in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
So how can we take full advantage of the spiritual benefits of Lent? Here are a few ideas.
1) Avoid Marti Gras
Known as “Fat Tuesday,” Marti Gras is a time of revelry and feasting in anticipation of the long and dry 40 days of Lent ahead. But why gorge yourself now? Isn’t stuffing ourselves with food, drink, and festivities like getting your fill of depravity the night before your wedding? Begin your discipline the moment you understand its need in your life, otherwise, Lent becomes another novelty.
2) Give One, Take One
Many people surrender a vice or habit for Lent, but forget that the entire purpose of Lent is to remove everything which stands between ourselves and a closer relationship with God. Giving up social media? Put a Scripture reading app on your phone instead and meditate on God’s word instead. Giving up a certain food? Donate a meal or volunteer at a shelter each week to take its place. Giving up foul language? Bless someone each time anger or frustration rises–especially your enemies. Remember, Lent is about allowing our hearts to swell more and more for God.
3) It’s Not About You
Not good at prayer? Aside from the rich prayer tradition of the Church (including the powerful rosary), think of one person to pray for each day. This could be a friend, family member, stranger you meet, co-worker, government figures, and enemies. Pray for them throughout the day, offering intentions for their good. This is great practice for Heaven, where the saint’s sole occupation is praising God and praying on our behalf.
4) Get Uncomfortable
Although Jesus was fully God, he also experienced the rigors of being human. Traveling the wilderness for 40 days was a throwback to the Israelites wandering the desert due to their sinfulness, and now Jesus shows us how to go into the breach of life, obeying God no matter what, and coming out the other side.
This Lent, step outside your comfort zone. Anti-social? Get involved in church functions or serve at a local community center. Sit with the unpopular, reconcile with an adversary (especially if you need to apologize), share your faith, volunteer, place yourself in situations where you are not the center of your world, but giving yourself completely for the good of another.
5) Into the Void
Our lives are filled with the static of life. We no longer understand silence, seclusion, and the traffic patterns of our own thoughts. Take time each day to sit in complete silence and simply be. God is a gentleman who will not compete for your attention, as it was in silence that Elijah heard the voice of God (1 Kings 19), and it is there that we must train ourselves to be still in his presence.
These are just a few ideas to get you started with Lent. Hopefully, many of these will carry on beyond Lent and become a regular part of your walk with Christ. God bless, and may your Lent be a fruitful experience as we anticipate the resurrection of our Lord.by
A new year has dawned and with it millions of resolutions. Better health, more travel, eliminate debt…everyone is talking about trimming their physical and financial waistlines, but what about resolutions for spiritual fitness?
St. Paul writes that the Christian life is not a timid one, but a battle against dark forces (Ephesians 6: 12), an obstacle race toward the great prize of Christ (Heb. 12: 1, 2 Tim 4: 7), and Jesus declares that only those who “endure until the end will be saved,” (Matt. 24: 13).
If prayer is the great battleground of the Christian life, then we require effective weapons. Here are a few ways the rosary serves as a great weapon of prayer and tool for our spiritual fitness.
1) Rosary: A Weapon of the Church
We, the Church, are described as Christ’s body (1 Corinth 12: 27), the “pillar and foundation of truth” built (1 Tim. 3: 15) upon the rock of Peter and the apostles (Matt. 16: 18), and sent into the world “as sheep among wolves (Matt. 10: 16).
That sounds serious, and dangerous, but as the deposit and protector of the Faith, the Holy Spirit has helped the Church develop “weapons of war” in the struggle against Satan. The rosary, which is a meditation on the life of Christ via Scripture, is one of its most potent tools because it is a constant study and witness of the Gospel.
In this way, we can ensure as Christ promised, that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it [the Church]” (Matt. 16:18).
2) Isn’t the Rosary a Catholic Invention? Where is it in the Bible?
This is a common objection, but it makes about as much sense as saying that the United States shouldn’t use modern weapons because those weapons were not used by the Continental Army of the Revolutionary War. In addition, the rosary is a meditation on the entire life of Christ using Scripture, so there is no separation between the Bible and the rosary.
The rosary is but one weapon and tool developed by the Church in a 2,000 year-long research and development campaign against the dark forces around us.
3) The Rosary Develops Spiritual Endurance
St. Paul writes that we must “pray unceasingly” (1 Thess. 5: 17). To do something unceasingly requires endurance, but how do we train?
Physical endurance training gives an athlete patience, mental and physical longevity, and is achieved through the repetition of sets of exercises which challenge cardio-respiratory and muscular groups over time.
Similarly, praying the rosary is endurance training for spiritual combat.
The introduction of an exercise (the announcement of a “mystery” in the life of Christ”), a set of repetitions for that exercise (10 Hail Marys which petition her prayerful intercession), followed by recovery (Our Father and Glory Be). A rosary is a five-set (Mystery) workout with 10 reps (Hail Mary) for each exercise. Each bead is an challenge of endurance as we pray and hold ourselves up against the life of Jesus.
4) The Rosary Conforms us to Christ
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” –Aristotle
With each day, the rosary reflects a different part of Jesus’ life and mission, from His birth, teachings, death, to His resurrection like exercising a new spiritual muscle group each day. In this way, by hearing and hearing the Word (Rom. 10: 17) and meditating on Christ’s life, we conform ourselves more and more with Jesus (Rom. 9: 29), that we might go into the world confident in grace, knowing the way of the Master.
5) The Rosary Teaches us to Call for Reinforcements
In Christian combat we work more effectively as a fighting unit, not as individuals. The account of the early Church in Acts tells us:
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” –Acts 2: 42
One of the most conspicuous parts of the rosary is the “Hail Mary” series between each Mystery. The Hail Mary is actually a combination of the angel Gabriel’s greeting, and her cousin Elizabeth’s proclamation during Mary’s visit following the Annunciation. We then ask Mary to pray for us, just as we would ask anyone to join us in supplication to the Lord.
In this way, we are reminded of our communal struggle and that while we can certainly pray on our own, the Bible encourages us to recognize that we are far more effective as a Body instead as independent operatives (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12, 1 Tim 2: 1, Eph. 6: 18).
Part of the genius of Christ’s Catholic Church is the treasury of tools and avenues of grace which segue us ever closer to heaven. If this life is truly a race and battle as St. Paul observed, then it is one of endurance, and there is no better training to “conform our lives to Christ” than the rosary which transforms His very life, bead by bead, rep by rep, into a meditation and prayer, with Mary beside us like a personal trainer as we fix our eyes on the goal: Jesus.
“However great may be the temptation, if we know how to use the weapon of prayer well we shall come off conquerors at last, for prayer is more powerful than all the devils.” — St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Are you training for the race toward Christ? Are you ready to begin spiritual fitness training? Pick up a rosary and find a group or friend to pray with today.by
One of my greatest struggles (which persists to this day) as I entered the Church is that Christianity was never primarily about my personal relationship with Christ, but the Church’s union with Christ.
…just as Christ is head of the church, he himself savior of the body.” –Ephesians 5: 23
The context of this verse and many like it is that of a marital relationship between man and woman, husband and bride, Lord and Church. Verse after verse speaks of us collectively, to be one in spirit, function, faith, and hope (Ephesians 4:4, Col. 1: 18, 24,).
That we should love one another (Romans 12:10).
Pray for one another (1 Timothy 2: 1-4).
Encourage one another (1 Thess. 5: 10-11).
Endure for sake of the faith (Romans 15: 5-6).
And bear each other’s burdens (Gal 6: 2).
Love, pray, encourage, endure, bear…all for the sake of Christ and his Church, because just as we do not merely wed our spouse, but join a family, when we unite ourselves with Christ it is also with his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
In fact, Jesus qualifies our entry into Paradise not by faith alone, but how we’ve applied that faith in our thoughts, words, and deeds by grace. (Matthew 25: 31-46, James 2: 14-17).
I am a private, quiet, selfish man by nature. I wanted an exclusive faith and discipline, not a family with which to participate in the great struggle toward holiness by grace.
Not my will, Father, but yours.
And so as I entered the Church, I’ve increasingly immersed in a life of service and prayer, although my body and mind scream against the effort. God also places gifts within us, given in trust, that we might use them for the glory of God and the good of humanity. In my recently discovered love of endurance racing and a life wrought with trials of patience, I’ve come to understand that these gifts are not for my exclusive enjoyment, but for the benefit of the faithful.
I can endure where others might falter, and so I must, by His grace, and for His glory.
In fact it was during a recent 26.2 mile ruck through the mountains with a 25 lbs pack that I discovered the efficacy of intercessory prayer, because I could have rucked that marathon for myself, but instead–knowing my pride–I offered any suffering I might endure, the entire trial, as a prayer of petition for the salvation of a young man.
I prayed as if the outcome of the prayer depended upon God, but I hiked as if it depended upon me, thus “joining my suffering with Christ” (Col. 1: 24) for the sake of the Kingdom. Six hours and 6,000 feet later, I fell to me knees and understood that I could not have performed such a feat on my own, but prayed aloud for that young man until my voice and legs failed.
Thus, the saint is perfected in finding joy in his suffering on behalf of God and Church, that like Christ he finds no shame in his cross, but bears it as the path to Paradise in union with his beloved Lord.
And so I know I am meant for endurance, called to the rugged road of prayer. As an endurance athlete, I spend a lot of time and miles on trails and roads, often hours at a time, and because God has given me the joy of the run, I would like to return that gift in service to Him and His Church.
If you need prayer, I want to pray for and with you “without ceasing” during my weekly run training and race events. I will call to our Lord for the duration of the run, presenting your petition in a spirit of unity.
This is my resolution for 2016: that I might further decrease so that Christ might increase, and join you in your burdens. Allow me to join you in storming heaven with prayer. If you want me to join you in prayer, please email me at contactandrewbowen[at]gmail.com or message me on Facebook.by
Happy New Year!
Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God (“God-Bearer” or Theotokos in Greek), a title recognized since the early Church and an official dogma since the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. It is important to note that the pronouncement of Mary as Theotokos was not a late invention of the Church, but rather a ratification by Church authority (given by Christ) of ancient belief which was under threat by heretical teachings of individuals such of Nestorius.
Declaring Mary as Mother of God indeed points to the divinity of Christ, and therefore enriches our experience of the mystery of the Incarnation. With Jesus as Messiah and the heir to the Davidic Kingdom, Mary becomes the Queen Mother, as it was in David’s royal court.
But why should we honor and celebrate Mary? Isn’t that stealing focus from Jesus? Here are a few ways Mary actually helps us become better disciples of our Lord and Savior.
1) Mary is the Great Yes
When Eve disobeyed God in the garden and took the forbidden fruit, pride–the root of all sin–entered the human heart, and separated us from God’s grace. This separation is visualized when Adam and Eve hide themselves in shame as God seeks them in the garden. Adam and Eve’s collective “No” echoed throughout the human race, ripping a gulf between God and humanity.
In contrast, when God visits Mary with the angel Gabriel, she does not hide, but humbly welcomes the messenger. Gabriel announces God’s plan to which Mary, after some pious inquiry, says:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” –Luke 1: 38
This great “Yes” by Mary is perhaps the greatest formula of faith ever uttered by humanity. Mary teaches us how to acknowledge God and acquiesce to His will, thus becoming disciples of Christ.
2) Mary Shows Us How to Trust God
Despite Mary’s inquiry, it is clear that she did not have a full understanding of her mission as Mother of God. This is evident when the shepherds shared their heavenly vision with the Blessed Family, “And Mary kept these things, reflecting on them in her heart (Luke 2: 19).” We also witness her surprise when Jesus goes missing and Mary and Joseph find him three days later attending the affairs of the Father.
Indeed, although Mary remained faithful to God, her faith in the full implications and mission of her Son grow as she walked with him to the very end. Such is the model of the Christian life. We may not know why we are in a particular situation. God’s will may confuse or place us in uncomfortable situations. We may experience great loss, but Mary’s life is a story of supreme trust in God despite all odds.
3) Mary Shows Us How to Share Jesus
As the first and greatest disciple of Christ, Mary wastes no time in executing her mission as the Mother of God. Indeed, she “makes haste (Luke 1: 39)” following Gabriel’s Annunciation and visits her cousin, Elizabeth, to tell her the news, for as Mary declared,
“The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”–Luke 1: 49
From Christ’s birth and placement in a manger (a feeding trough) to his death on the cross, Mary gradually understood that her Son was not a treasure to horde, but to share, even though it often pained her greatly. Too often we Christians personalize our relationship with Christ to the point that we forget that we receive Christ–especially in the Eucharist–so that we, like Mary, might let him grow in our hearts and then offer him to a lost and hurting world in need of the Savior.
Through these examples, Mary demonstrates that humility, trust, hope, and love are the hallmarks of discipleship. Mary teaches us how to give our lives away to God, despite our previous plans. We also see that our “Yes” or “No” to God does not just affect our life, but echoes throughout the human family. Little did Mary know what her “Yes” would mean when God called upon her, but had she fully known, would her response truly been an act of faith?
And so it is with us, that we might not know the full implications of our little daily surrenders to God’s will, but as Mary shows, a small “Yes” to God can change the course of history and transform countless lives.by
Advent ends with the Feast of the Nativity on the eve of December 24th, however nothing can truly prepare us for this grand celebration: the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
Although Jesus arrived as the heir to the Davidic kingdom, is the Lord of creation and Messiah, he was born in a lowly manger (feeding trough) in the small town of Bethlehem (“city of bread”), with Mary and his adoptive father, Joseph, as poor, humble parents. His advent confounds us with its simplicity, humility, and vulnerability (1 Corinthians 1: 27).
The King of Creation, born in relative obscurity. The Savior of humanity, a helpless babe.
It’s difficult to imagine the moment God entered human history, however Christ’s birth was not a private event. As we celebrate Christ’s Mass (Christmas), try and find yourself in the persons described below who witnessed his blessed Nativity.
Joseph: he not only shares with us the newly minted fear of fatherhood, but of adopted fatherhood. He would help raise and protect a child not his own, to preserve in trust the instrument of humanity’s salvation.
No pressure, Joe.
You may arrive at the celebration of Christ’s Nativity confused, fearful, and overwhelmed with the prospect of holding this faith in trust, knowing that it is not only yours, but to be shared with others. Perhaps you are struggling with God’s will for your life. Understand that it may not be a life in the limelight, but one of support and protection of others in their journey. You are Joseph. You are an honored guest as we celebrate the arrival of Christ.
Shepherds were some of the lowliest folk in 1st century Palestine. A rough, poor, ragged people, no one would ever include them in a celebration as important as the birth of a king.
And yet the host of heaven appeared to such as these, offering a personal invitation to see the King of Kings.
Perhaps you have a dark past. Perhaps you struggle deeply from physical and emotional scars. You were born in the wrong class, to the wrong family, and while others flourish on your labor, you are left with crumbs. You’re never invited to important events.
Until today, the greatest of all. Welcome. Take your place among us in adoration of the King.
Scripture tells us that these magi traveled from the east and followed a star to Bethlehem. These magi were by most accounts Zoroastrian priests from Persia who recognized a great event taking place.
With their arrival to “prostrate and pay him homage, offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2: 11),” they represent that Christ’s arrival fulfills the humanity’s collective reach toward God found in all religion, that he is the finality of that search when God himself reaches back in the Incarnation.
Perhaps you are a Protestant, or not a Christian, and yet like the magi, you recognize and feel a draw to something more, something…complete. You sit in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist–the Bread of Life–and recognize the beginning of faith in Christ and his true, original Church. Bring whatever you have, the gift of your heart, and like the magi you will leave going “another way” you may not have expected.
Oh Mary, the new and restored Eve. The great “yes” to God that would usher grace, mercy, and salvation. Perhaps you are indeed faithful, but you struggle with the implications of your faith. What does your life mean? What must you do with the joy and responsibility of bearing Christ in your life?
The great lesson of Mary is that we must allow Christ to enter our lives completely: body, soul, blood, and divinity, and allow him to fully make us in the image of his Body, the Church. It was Mary’s flesh that Jesus took as the first, willing tabernacle of his full presence. Now, we look to Mary as that great example, for when we receive Christ in the Eucharist, consecrated by the Holy Spirit, our lives then become like the womb of Mary, that we might be the bearers of Christ, only to give him away in our love of others.
Herod was not present with the others, yet some of us may identify with him. In his slaughter of the innocents, he represents that old sin of pride, when Satan wanted to be God, and Adam and Eve wished to be like God. Herod, seeking to kill the newborn king, like us, wants to be sovereign, not subject, and therefore resists the arrival of the true King.
Perhaps you are Herod. Perhaps you’ve fought God’s calling, his will for your life. Perhaps you’ve walked away from the Church, seeking your own, more stylish, comfortable form of worship, and abandoned the Church Christ founded. Like Christ’s birth in a lowly manger, the celebration of the Mass may not be the hip praise and worship experience of the congregation down the street, but it’s what he designed, and it’s everything you need.
Come Together Now
Christ’s birth announces to the world that God has come to gather the nations: all peoples, all races, all faiths, all classes, all times to himself into one Body, the Church–his Bride. This is demonstrated beautifully in the diverse guest list of the Nativity. It is also a prefiguring of what would later become Eucharistic Adoration, where people from all walks of life come into the church, offering the gifts of their heart, and pay Christ homage in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.
This Christmas, we all belong in the Nativity. No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or where you come from, take the journey, and come let us truly adore him together as God intended.by
God Doesn’t Care What You Wear
“I mean, it’s not like this is a job interview, my wedding day, or meeting the president of the United States.” Ever notice how we typically go out of our way to present our best selves to another human, but adopt a casual, Laissez–faire disposition when it comes to an encounter with Christ?
Some will say, “But God loves me for me, not for what I wear.” That is very true, but it is our actions which communicate our attitudes. My wife also loves me for me, but when we go out for date night, I dress my best out of respect and to show her honor. The same could be said of a job interview. Your potential employer likely doesn’t care about your sense of style at home, but dressing well during the interview demonstrates your interior condition; it communicates your respect for him, the job, and the company he represents.
How much more that we offer our modest best (whether rich or poor, whatever that may be) when encountering the King of Kings?
Yeah, Except I Didn’t Come to Look Good, but to Worship
So you come in clothes you’d wear to hang out with friends? As an expressive species, our dress indicates our position or activity. A soccer uniform indicates that you are either an athlete or a fan. A comic character suit suggests a form of cosplay. Dress slacks and a dress shirt/jacket and a dress point to an important event.
Casual dress indicates an easy, familiar atmosphere with no real import.
The word “worship” comes from the Old English weorpscipe which means to show honor or recognize something’s worth.
If the object of our worship on Sunday is God, then doesn’t how we present ourselves communicate the worth we feel toward God? If we dress our absolute best and make careful preparations for a prom date or business dinner, but come to worship dressed as if watching a football game with friends, what does that say about how we view God?
Okay, but Casual Dress and Hip Worship Attracts Youth
So do video games, drugs, parties, movies, junk food, fast cars, and porn. Should we incorporate those into the church experience too?
Oh wait, some already have.
This attitude betrays a tragic flaw in church dynamics today, especially within “emergent” Protestant communities. From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church was set apart from the world as a “light upon a hill.” Non-Christians knew us by our conduct, how we presented ourselves: with love, dignity, and modesty.
When our youth are in the fragile position of discovering themselves in Christ, how are we supposed to help them understand their dignity as children of God, purposed for more than the world can provide, when we are desperately trying to make the Church attractive by the world’s own standards?
When Church looks identical in worship (the worship experience is no different than attending a popular music concert) and teaching (sermons are delivered by “hip” pastors who act and speak no differently than a motivational speaker) to what they can find in the world, Church is reduced so a semi-pious social club.
The Root of the Matter
It isn’t that the Church should make demands upon the faithful on rules of apparel. But what if we had something in the worship experience that would inspire the deep, careful reverence which God deserves?
The problem is that this modern, emergent, reactionist “church” doesn’t have it. Take away the cool music, the lights and effects. Take away the cool pastor and the hipster atmosphere. Remove the emotions, the “feels,” the buzz and surge of an exciting concert or movie and what do you have?
An empty building. In fact, if a non-Christian walked in on a praise and worship experience, would they know that it was a service, or just a Christian rock band concert? Is the sermon really any different than a speaker at a conference? At what point can you really say that you’ve separated the Sabbath and kept it holy (literally meaning “other”)?
There is no Substitute for Christ
But what happens when Christ is truly present in body and spirit? The presence of the Eucharist, Christ truly present in Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, inspires mature worship which requires nothing but itself. No flashy music or impassioned sermons. No cool youth programs or special effects. No need to constantly reinvent the wheel and stay hip and relevant to attract people. Christ does it himself in the majesty and celebration of the Mass, the full and proper worship of God.
That is what people crave when they wish to truly worship, but many of the faithful are consuming the fast food of worship instead of partaking in the real food of Christ, the real and wholesome banquet of the Mass (Jn. 6: 55-57).
Try as he may, your pastor and praise and worship team will never have what only Christ can offer. So, are you ready to leave the dollar menu meal behind and attend the Supper of the Lamb?by
Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. –Galatians 6:2
In a world of rampant self promotion and the individualized pursuit of some vague enlightenment, the ethos of Christian community and accountability stands at odds, even among its own. We have forgotten that in becoming children of God, reborn via Baptism, adopted through the Son-ship of Christ, redeemed by his holy sacrifice, we united ourselves not with a private relationship with God, but with a family–the Church–with a shared hope in the destiny of heaven.
Of all the theology, of all the articles of faith, out of everything requisite in the Christian life, this was the most difficult for me to accept.
The truth is, we are not separate vessels traversing the sea of life toward the shores of heaven, but one ark–the Church.
…Remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter [the Church] has weathered because it has Christ on board. –St. Thomas Becket
Therefore nothing of our struggles or triumphs of faith are exclusive to our own experience, but a shared reality, all of which lends to the health, progress, or detriment of the Church. In this way all hands must be present for the work of salvation, which is why Jesus, who was given all authority in heaven, passed that authority to His apostles to forgive sins in the name of Jesus (Mt. 20: 21-23) via the Sacraments for the health, nourishment, and strengthening of God’s people.
For this reason, Christ gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, because our sins are not subject to a selfish guilt as was demonstrated in the Garden when Adam and Eve hid from God. Instead, like a wound which festers in the dark, we must expose sin to the light of forgiveness and absolution. Reconciliation reunites us with God and Church with the priest acting as an “ambassador” (2 Corinthians 5:20) of Christ’s forgiving grace and his Body, the Church.
Only in bearing one another’s burdens, only in recognizing that our sins affect not only ourselves, but the Body of Christ, can the “pilgrim Church” thrive. Sin separates us from grace, and so inhibits our ability to operate effectively as constituent members of the Body. If Christ is the “True Vine,” then a branch infected with sin compromises the system. Reconciliation is the necessary restoration, that the wayward child might return to the table of Communion where Christ provides life–Himself in the Eucharist–where He abides in us, and We in Him (Jn 6: 52-56).
Remember above all that we are in this together, and only together–united and graced by Jesus–will we thrive in the work of the vineyard.
Are you struggling with sin, are you hiding from grace? I encourage you to seek the touch of Christ’s healing power in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Come home to the table of the Lord. Let us work for the union of our Lord’s prayer, that we all might be one, as He and the Father are one (Jn 17: 17-23).by
The summation of the Christian life is struggle. St. Paul goes so far as to describe the virtues of the spiritual life as battle equipment, driving home the reality that our Christian reality is indeed a war of souls, waged upon countless fronts within ourselves and in the wider world (Ephesian 6: 10-18).
“Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.” –1 Peter 4: 12
The struggle is relentless. The pain and wounds run deep. Rest and relief seems like a mirage in the distance.
And that is the enemy’s great lie.
I ran in the BattleFrog Carolina 8K obstacle course last weekend and I finished the race with a strained IT band (I limped through half the race), sore muscles and joints, and cuts from head to toe. My body is worn and beaten, but I want to continue training; I want to push myself even harder, but just as the body requires rest in order to heal and recover, so does the soul.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” –Matthew 11: 28
There is no way I could have finished the course given the extent of pain in my knee, but then I was never alone.
And neither are we in the Christian life.
The lie is that everything depends upon us: our ideas, our sweat, our blood, our effort, God’s Kingdom will crumble unless I pray, I volunteer for this committee, I initiate this program, I win this person for Christ…
Our intentions are good, but the devil knows that we have no power independent of God’s grace to achieve anything. One of Satan’s most clever tactics is having us busy ourselves with the pious chores of Martha, while ignoring the holy respite of Mary at the feet of Christ.
Our body will fail if we forego recovery and nutrition. Our faith and spirit will falter if we do not rely upon and rest in Christ. We cannot forget that while we are called to do our part in building God’s Kingdom, it is his grace and spirit which moves and works through us which brings this reality to fruition.
“I [Jesus] am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” –John 15: 5
My friends, you may be strong enough for battle, but are you wise enough for nourishment and recovery? Here are a few ways we can secure our spiritual health:
Remain in Community
Christ did not build a Church of strictly individual and independent relationships with himself, but an interconnected, interdependent communion which spans time and space: the Communion of Saints, a Body which prays, struggles, gives praise, and works together (Romans 12: 4-5). This mystery fully expresses itself in the Mass, where together with the priest we lift our supplications and praise to God, joined with Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Being Christian means you didn’t just espouse yourself to Christ, but the entire family of faith. It means allowing Christ to touch you, in the person of someone in the community, and heal your wounds. It means removing all the armor and exposing your heart to those who care.
Our bodies take time to heal and do not fight the process; neither should we within the Body of Christ.
Partake in the Supper of the Lamb
The body requires healthy food for energy and repair, and so does our soul.
“This bread of the Strong gives me all the strength I need to carry on my mission and the courage to do whatever the Lord asks of me. The courage and strength that are in me are not of me, but of Him who lives in me – it is the Eucharist.” — St. Faustina
Jesus knows what he is asking when he says, “Come, follow me.” He runs headlong into danger in order to rescue every precious soul, and if he is the Head and we are his Body, we must do the same. That is why we must be properly nourished for the mission, and there is only one food with the power to sustain us during this war: the Eucharist.
This is why Jesus spent so much time expressing the importance of the Eucharist (John 6, 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17, Luke 24: 30-31, etc.), because he is the Bread of Life, that without this bread “there is no life within us.” Without the Eucharist we do not have the spiritual calories required for the Christian life. Jesus is our nourishment as Word and Eucharist.
The fog of war clouds the senses and veils the battlefield. Our struggle in the Christian life too stirs a cloud of dust in the spirit which threatens our view of Christ and the mission. The only solution is a controlled retreat from the fray. As Christians, this means surrendering pride, our illusion of control, and resting in the grace and mercy of God.
“Be still, and know that I am God.” — Psalm 46:10
The only way to still a pool filled with ripples is to still yourself. So it is with our hearts. We will never see ourselves clearly if we constantly struggle with our own understanding of mission and purpose. Jesus said that the “Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27), that we might reconnect and find our proper place in him. Only when we are still in Christ will we see ourselves truly reflected as the image of God.
So today I ask, are you at your limits? Are you crumbling from the fight? Has your pride blocked you from proper rest and nourishment in Christ? I urge you, stop before you break, because Jesus does not want you in this battle alone, but to rely upon him for your strength and your brothers and sisters in the Body as your encouragement and support.by
On Praising God During Loss and Failure: How Pride Cost me a Race and Humility Won a Relationship with Christ
I trained nearly a year for this race–for the entire season–and now the time has come. Several BeachBody exercise programs, along with running, chiseled me into an obstacle course race war machine. And I praised God, giving him the glory for it all along the way.
Through exercise and discipline, I went from this:
And then, God took it all away.
What went wrong? Did I not promise to give him glory with every victory, with every medal, with every sweat, mud, and blood-drenched triumph? Was I not designing a ministry out of racing and fitness, a philosophy of spiritual and physical health?
Was I not…I. I, I, me, me, my, my.
The signs manifested all around me, the warnings along the road as I pummeled toward a cliff with arrogance like NOS burning through my engine.
“Andrew, you’re losing too much weight.”
“Andrew be careful, pride can disguise itself as anything, even a ministry.”
“Who are you really doing all this for? God or yourself?”
“What you’re doing is no longer healthy. Exercise has taken over your life.”
“SHUT UP! I know what I’m doing!”
Pride and arrogance wear many disguises…and so do the messages of God. We ask him to speak to us, to guide us, but how often do we gaze beyond the brother or sister in Christ before us because we’re expecting a blazing angel or burning bush?
The warnings continued for weeks, but I ignored them, I removed myself from Church–the Body of Christ–I removed myself from the assembly of God’s Kingdom because I was building my own. No one understood me. I had surpassed them all. How could ants possibly comprehend the giant among them? I was on the war path for God. I would win souls for heaven by facing OCR giants on the field and claiming victory in the name of Jesus.
You were either with me or against me. My ally or my enemy.
Then, God had enough.
One morning, while in the midst of a 10-mile run, a pain like hot coals burned inside my knee. I was brought low and could not run any longer. But this would not defeat me, so I waited a few days and resumed weight training. Then, an old hip injury flared.
I fell to the ground, wounded, immobilized on the battlefield. Little did I know that it was God I had wrestled with all along.
And I had been defeated.
For weeks he tried to reach me through friends, family–the Church, but like a child hell-bent on destruction, there was only one way to stop the juggernaut. God had to bring me to my knees so I would have no other choice than to stop and look up.
“My son, do not despise the Lord‘s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” -Proverbs 3: 11-12
This injury cost me nearly two months of training. I lashed out in anger, even succumbed to emotional overeating, but God did not wrestle me any further; he simply let me burn until I lay in my own ashes, exhausted.
I missed my first Spartan Race and lost most of my endurance. I strained and wounded many relationships, most of which had guided me into the Church. Pride, not hatred, is the opposing force to love, because pride has us fold in on ourselves like a black hole, whereas we were created to be like stars which glow and reach out with warmth and light.
Forced to slow down–to stop–I regained perspective. The fog and dust of war settled around me and the damage was great. I finally saw how much pride and arrogance lay beneath the surface of my life, and now my heart was flayed upon, ready for repair. I confessed my sins to Church and friends, because our sins are not private affairs, for our hearts are like water wells for the community of faith, and poison in one poisons all.
I now understand my weakness, I’ve identified the thorn in my side; the enemy has one less place to hide.
Now, I prepare for a BattleFrog Race in Winnsboro, South Carolina. I am not ready. I am not fit for battle. I am in no shape to win. There is no chance for the victory I had prepared for.
And I thank God.
In falling God is slowly and patiently teaching me how to walk, only this time with stronger legs, surely footed in him and his Church. This will take time, for I have many wounds which require healing and many lessons ahead, but perhaps one day I will run again, perhaps one day I will fight for victory, but only by God’s will. Because I would rather be a servant in God’s court, where slaves become the sons of God, than the ruler of my own life, where kings fade into dust.by