Men’s Ministry Lenten Breakfast Talk: How Do Men Observe Lent?

Last night, I was in church for the Living Stations.  The junior high kids were leading it and they did an awesome job.  They even got me to shed a few tears along the way.  I’m half Italian: we just do that!  But what was it that got to me and caused those tears:

  1. 1. That the kids took it seriously and were very reverent and prayerful?
  2. 2. Was it the story of salvation, in awe and wonder that God would send his Son to die that horrible death for me?
  3. 3. Or was it that I was hoping and praying those kids are being touched by the meaning of what they were doing?

And the answer is yes, all of that:  As the father of this big family, my heart is moved in all of those ways and more.  That’s what fathers do.  And so I’ve been reflecting on Lent and what that means for men.  How is it that we men observe Lent?

Maybe I should ask, how is it that we men should observe Lent?  Because I know that we live busy lives, and we can scarcely give Lent a second thought if we’re not careful.  But that does nobody any good: not us, not our families, not our communities or workplaces.  If we want to be the best we can for all of them, we have to let Lent permeate who we are and what we do.

And it’s a quandary with which I’m familiar.  When I worked in my pre-seminary days, if I didn’t put prayer on my to-do list – literally – there would be no prayer.  And when there was no prayer, I was not at my best at work, I was not at my best with anyone.  Lent gives us the opportunity to take stock of this and turn it all around.

Reading: Isaiah 64:4-7

I probably don’t have to pound home that point from Isaiah: we have become like unclean men.  The opportunities to go wrong abound, don’t they?  We intend to be men of integrity, but business is complicated.  We intend to love our families into heaven, but we’re tired, we’re busy, and we just don’t always have the patience.  Our sins abound, and we don’t intend that – we so wish we could turn back to God once and for all.  Would that he might meet us doing right.  Maybe that can happen this Lent.

Here’s a question to think about – we will discuss it later, but for now, just think:  have you ever had a really significant Lent: a time when you felt a new springtime in your faith, a time when you grew as a man and really came to know the plans God had for you?  If so, when was that, and what was it that got to you?

(Pause a minute or two.)

I think Lent encourages at least five manly traits, and I want to reflect on those a bit.  Then I want to take a look at the three habits that Lent demands of us.  Finally, without stomping too much on Dr. Muir’s presentation coming up, I want to take a brief look at three men of Lent and reflect on what they model for us.

So first: five manly traits that Lent encourages.

First, Lent encourages us to be men of prayer.  Yes, men of prayer are men who pray, but not just men who say prayers.  Men of prayer are men who:

  • • pray first and often
  • • look around them and see God’s hand at work
  • • are grateful for their gifts
  • • look for an opportunity to worship
  • • experience the sacraments
  • • teach their families how to pray, how to have a relationship with Jesus
    • o We never go alone to the kingdom … we are supposed to take everyone with us, especially our families!

Second, Lent encourages us to be men of faith.  Men of faith know that God is with them in good times and bad.  Men of faith have that relationship with Jesus that helps them to relate well with others.  Men of faith are courageous, and tenacious, and confident, but they are never arrogant.  Humility marks men of faith because they know the source of their strength.  This is not a false humility that makes them doormats for everyone who wishes to take them on.

Third, Lent encourages us to be men of charity.  This might not mean what you think it does.  It’s not primarily about giving money to the poor, or even doing good things for other people.  Yes, these are acts of charity, but what I mean by being men of charity takes us to the Latin root of the word, caritas.  Caritas is a kind of self-giving love, a love that looks for the good of others, a love that sometimes finds its expression in works of charity, but is always characterized by putting the other one first.  Men of charity are men who have a strong, burning love for God that translates into the way they love their families, spouses, children, co-workers, employees, everyone God puts in their path.  Men who exhibit this charity certainly do not overlook another’s faults, but gently and firmly corrects them because he knows that setting the person right is what is best for them.  Charity sometimes means saying no, or not yet; it means saying do this even though you don’t think you want to.  Think how often God does that to us!

  • • Example from my life: my parents urging me to go on a retreat or be part of a group.

Fourth, Lent encourages us to be men of integrity.  Men of integrity exhibit what we generally refer to as “character.”  These are men who do the right thing even though someone isn’t breathing down their neck or micromanaging them.  Integrity is what we all want to say that we have.  But integrity is definitely difficult to always achieve.  Because integrity means walking away from a lucrative business deal because it doesn’t feel right.  Integrity means setting priorities for yourself and your family that are probably counter-cultural, like saying no to sports or activities that make it impossible to go to Mass or to spend adequate time with our families.  Integrity means we are as good as our word, that we can always be relied on to do the right thing.  God does not want to be a micromanager: he wants to set us on the right path and have us walk it every day.  Men of integrity do that.

Finally, Lent calls us to be men of grace.  This doesn’t mean we are able to burn up the dance floor, it means rather that we are aware of God’s action in our life, that we live by that action, and that we spread it on to others.  Grace says that everything we have is a gift, no matter how hard we think we’ve worked for it.  Grace says that we are sinners, men who have committed sins and are guilty of every possible offense against God, but even so we are loved and forgiven and called and blessed.  Grace says that God is infinitely greater than our sins, that there is no way that we can fall so far that God can’t reach us, that he longs to pull us up out of the waters of death and give us life that lasts forever.

The truth of grace is this:  on one day in time, let’s call it December 25, of the year zero… (footnote Fr. Larry Hennessy).

Men of grace are aware of their sinfulness and bring it to the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis; they are grateful for the gift of forgiveness and celebrate it at the table of the Eucharist.  Men of grace enthusiastically pass the faith on to their families, keenly aware of their vocational responsibility to help their spouse and their children get to heaven.  Men of grace witness to others by being men of prayer, men of faith, men of charity and men of integrity!

Another question to think about – of the five manly traits, which do you find most present in your life?  What do you think got you there?  Which do you find least present in your life?  What do you need to do to pursue it?

So now, three Lenten habits: fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Fasting helps us to:

  • • give up what we truly do not need
  • • let go of things that keep us tethered to the world, to our own self-interest
  • • find in our hunger that there is nothing we hunger for that God can’t provide.

Almsgiving helps us to:

  • • realize that we are not the center of the universe, and also we are not alone
  • • see other people as God sees them and love them as God does.

Prayer helps us to:

  • • find God in the midst of our business, brokenness, despair
  • • have a relationship with God that sees us through good times and bad
  • o Joke about the guy who was going through a hard time and looked at the Bible randomly for some help
  • • see God’s work in our lives

A question to think about:  What’s your Lenten plan?  How will you implement fasting, almsgiving and prayer in your life?

Men of Lent

Peter: Matthew 14:22-33

  • o A man of fledgling faith
    • ♣ courageous, tenacious
  • o A man of grace
    • ♣ fallen and forgiven

Paul:  Philippians 1:19-26

  • o A man of converted faith (his past)
  • o A man of grace (knows who is in charge, where he is being led)
  • o A man of charity (is concerned about others, and fruitful labor)

A question to think about:  Which of these men inspires you most?  Why?  What can you take from his life to create a powerful life-changing Lent?

CREEDS Retreat Conference I: Advent and the Incarnation of Christ

Readings:  Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 3:1-7

Godspell:  “Prepare Ye” and “Save the People”

One of the single greatest mysteries of our faith is the Incarnation of Christ.  When you stop to think about it, who are we that the Author of all Life should take on our own corrupt and broken form and become one of us?  It has been called the “marvelous exchange:” God became human so that humans could become more like God.  When I was in seminary, it was explained to us by a simple, yet divinely complex rule: Whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.  So God assumed our human nature, taking on all of our frailty and weakness, all of our sorrows and frustrations, all of the things that make being human difficult at times.  As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it, he became “one like us in all things but sin.”

This belief in the doctrine of the Incarnation is essential for our Catholic faith, even our Christian religion.  One cannot not believe in the Incarnation and call oneself Christian.  It’s part of our Creed: “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  This doctrine is so important, so holy to us, that at the mention of it in the creed, we are instructed to bow during those words, and on Christmas, we are called to genuflect at that time.  There is always a reason for any movement in the Liturgy, and the reason for our bowing or genuflecting is that the taking on of our flesh by our God is an occasion of extreme grace, unparalleled in any religion in the world.  If the Incarnation had not taken place, there never would have been a Cross and Resurrection.  First things are always first!

And so it seems that it’s appropriate as we being our reflections on Matthew’s Gospel to begin with the Incarnation.  It’s even more appropriate that we do that during this season of Advent, whose very name means “coming.”  During Advent, we begin this wonderful period of waiting with the cry of St. John the Baptist,

“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.’”

And the movie and play Godspell famously does this with the wonderful refrain “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”  You notice in the movie that this song accompanied the liturgical action of the players being baptized by the Baptist.  Their dancing after pledging repentance of the sins of their past life signifies the joy that we all share being on the precipice of something new this Advent.  They received the forerunner of our sacramental Baptism by the one who was the forerunner of Christ.  This baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins like ours, but unlike ours, did not convey the Holy Spirit.  That would come later, after the death and Resurrection of Christ.  He had to return to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit.

But, as the song suggests, that baptism was essential to prepare the way for Christ.  The Benedictus, the Gospel canticle from the Church’s Morning Prayer, which is based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke, speaks of that baptism and the significance of the Baptist’s ministry:  “You my child will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before him to prepare his way.  To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  Indeed, if our sins had never been forgiven, we would know nothing of salvation, indeed there really would be no salvation.  But that baptism of St. John literally prepared the way of the Lord by helping the people to know that God was doing something significant among them.  That was the reason for them dancing and splashing around in all that water: they too were on the precipice of something new, something incredibly, amazingly, wonderfully new.

Now in Matthew’s Gospel, we have an infancy narrative – a story of the birth of Christ.  “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about,” the Gospel begins.  Mary is found with child through the Holy Spirit, and Joseph doesn’t know what to believe.  But in Matthew, Joseph is the one who gets a visit from an angel, not Mary.  And he is the first one to hear a key phrase in Matthew’s Gospel: “do not be afraid” – “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”  Fear, for Matthew, is the cardinal sin, because it is fear that keeps us from responding in love to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Apparently Mary had no such fear, because the beginning of the Gospel “finds” her already with child through the Holy Spirit.  The child is born to the couple and at the instruction of the angel, he is named Jesus, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In the movie, there is no infancy.  Christ comes at the end of John’s baptism sequence, and instructs John to baptize him because, as Jesus tells him, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  As he is baptized, Jesus sings, “God save the people,” a prayer that is of course already being accomplished as he speaks.  The play seems to be a bit more pessimistic than the actual Gospel, because Jesus practically pleads for God’s mercy on his people, implying a relationship that was not nearly as close as the Gospels proclaim and our faith believes.  This is one of the little grains of salt we need to take from the movie; in fact it does seem to be an expression of the author’s take on the Jesus event.  So I’d just say don’t take Godspell as Gospel, if you know what I mean!

And so the advent and Incarnation narratives give us some pause in these Advent days.  We have the opportunity to think about our own birth, or rebirth, in faith.  We get to make the paths straight and the way smooth for the coming of our Lord yet again.  Maybe these days find us struggling to come to a new place in our faith, a higher stage, a bold move.  We might tremble a bit at where God seems to be leading us through our study of Scripture.  But Matthew begs us to hear those all-important words – “be not afraid” – be not afraid to go where God and Scripture lead you.  Be not afraid to take the next step.  Be not afraid to ascend to that higher place God longs for you to be in right now.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel we find out that Jesus is not above asking a trick question or two to get people’s attention. He asks today, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” And any shepherd worth his salt would say, “Of course not!” There is no way the shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep unprotected to look for one who was lost. It wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Jesus is saying that God would do what no one else would even think of in order to bring back one of his children gone astray. There is no limit to God’s extravagance in reaching out to get us back. God’s wisdom in calling his children back to him is far beyond what we would think of as common sense. God does what nobody would do because we are just that important to him.

I can think of a couple of times in my own life where God has reached out to me in extraordinary ways. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be standing here today, and honestly, who knows where I would be. God pursues us relentlessly because he cannot bear to live without us for all eternity.

All we have to do is respond. And we have those opportunities. One is our Advent Reconciliation service, tonight at 7:00pm. We all have need to come to the Sacrament of Penance so that our God can reach out to us in mercy. The Sacrament is not about what we’ve done wrong, but rather about the way that God wants to pour out his forgiveness and grace with extravagance. Maybe we haven’t been like the lost sheep and gone totally away from God, but we know on a daily basis, we often take a step or two off the path. I hope you’ll all let the shepherd who is our God bring you back tonight. This is a great way for us to create a highway for our God to enter our hearts this Christmas.

Isaiah proclaims today, “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” Praise God today for his extravagant grace.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The thing is, you know, the Pharisee was quite right. His righteousness was beyond reproach. He has been innocent of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He has been more pious than even the law requires. Fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but he fasts twice a week. Tithes were only required to be paid on one’s earnings, but he pays them not only on his earnings, but also on all of his possessions, basically, he paid the tithe on his total net worth. He was probably quite right about his own righteousness, and he may well have been right about the failures of righteousness in the tax collector as well.

Because tax collectors were despicable human beings. They worked for the Romans, were in league with the foreign occupation. They were not paid by the Romans for their work. They were told what they had to collect, and whatever the collected over and above that was theirs to keep. Now certainly, they were entitled to some income, so a modest markup would have been understandable. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and bordered on extortion. Often, the border was crossed. The tax collector in our parable today does not deny that he has participated in those activities. He does not even pray about anything he has done except for one thing: he has sinned. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

Both of these men were right in what they said about themselves. From an objective point of view, they have presented themselves honestly before God and everyone. So what is the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector end up justified?

It’s pretty easy to see what went wrong when we step back and look at the nature of their prayers. The Pharisee uses the word “I” four times. It’s all about him. The tax collector does not use the word “I” at all; he uses the word “me.” What’s the difference? Grammar lesson here: “I” is the subject, “me” is the object. So, for the Pharisee, it was all about what he had done through his own righteousness, and not about what God had done or could do. For the tax collector, it wasn’t about him at all. He acknowledges his sinfulness and asked God to have mercy. And that’s the second difference. The tax collector asks for something, namely mercy, and receives it: he goes home justified. The Pharisee asks for nothing, and that’s just what he gets: nothing.

The trouble here is that the Pharisee doesn’t need God; he can do the whole righteousness thing all by himself, thank you very much. This is known in theology as the heresy of Pelagianism: a belief that we are responsible for our own salvation, and that salvation is achievable through our own efforts. The tax collector knows this is false, and is quite convinced that he needs God and needs God’s mercy. He is also quite convinced that God can be trusted to come to his aid. The bottom line on this parable is that we are all sinners, we are all incapable of any kind of real righteousness on our own efforts, and we all need a Savior.

Someone once told me that it must be so hard for me to listen to all those confessions; that it must be discouraging to hear about all that sin. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Because the truth is, I am quite aware of my own sinfulness, and am encouraged by those who come to the Sacrament to receive God’s mercy. I don’t worry so much about those who confess their sins, because I trust in the grace of the Sacrament of Penance and I trust in the God who is mercy itself. I worry more about those who have not confessed or will not confess, or are too embarrassed to confess. I worry about those who think they can fix their problems all by themselves. I worry about those who don’t think they need a Savior.

This week I noticed how beautiful some of the trees are becoming. I felt the nip in the air and have noticed the shortness of the daylight. It all reminded me that our year is coming to a close. And our Church year is coming to a close even sooner than that: in just four weeks we will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last day of our Church year, and the following week we will begin a new Church year with the season of Advent. Where has the time gone? These are the days that have me thinking about my life this past year. Maybe you are too. How have we grown this year, especially in our faith? Have we made progress in Christian life, attacked sin and vice, and grown in virtue? These are the questions we need to put up at the front of our prayer in these weeks.

The Liturgy today is framing all that around one question: have you been more aware this year of your need for a Savior? Because sin is exhausting. Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in their lives can tell you that. Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christian men and women and flourish in the world. That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who suddenly became aware of and ashamed of their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, and to St. Paul who prayed over and over to get rid of his “thorn in the flesh.” So when we are exhausted by sin, we should not be surprised. That’s just the way sin works.

But today’s Liturgy gives us very good news indeed. Sirach says in today’s first reading that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” We see that very clearly in the parable in today’s Gospel. The lowly tax collector can not even bring himself to raise his eyes to heaven. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says. It is the perfect Act of Contrition. He acknowledges his sin, he prays for God’s mercy. And God responds. He can go home justified.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this temple, this church, to pray today. What is our prayer like? What is it that we have been trying to work on this year? What sins have become a pattern for us? Do we have addictions that need to be worked out? Have we failed in some way in our daily life? What dark corners of our lives desperately need God’s light and God’s mercy? In what ways do we need a Savior? Have we asked for God’s mercy, or have we been like the Pharisee, asking for nothing and receiving exactly that?

Our Psalmist is clear today: The Lord hears the cry of the poor. He’s not talking about simple poverty of riches. He’s talking more about the more complex poverty of spirit that we must all work toward. “God is close to the brokenhearted,” he says, and “those who are crushed in spirit, he saves. The Lord redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.” We don’t have to work hard to achieve our own righteousness. But we may have to work hard to achieve our own poverty of spirit.

God is God, and we are not. Pray it after me: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”