Leveraging Tech to Have an Awesome Lent

As we speed along toward Ash Wednesday, I’m continuing my efforts to be more mindful of the presence of God, and to reach out to Him more frequently in prayer. With no monastic schedule to follow, four kids running around the house, and a lot of travel for work, this can be really hard, but leveraging technology has really helped me to start (and most importantly, continue!) various prayer practices. Here are a few of the different tricks I use:

  1. ToDo Cloud: This is a simple organization and to-do list style app that syncs between phone and web browser. There is a small subscription fee each month (about $1.50), but for me, it is worth it. I use this for everything from reminding me when to get the oil changed on our van to when to pray. Since my wife and I are a part of Teams of Our Lady, one of my spiritual commitments is to pray the Magnificat twice a day. I set this up as a daily reminder on ToDo Cloud, and a tiny chime sounds in the morning and evening, reminding me to pray. This Lent, I want to start a daily examination of conscience, so I’ll put a daily reminder around bedtime.
  2. Phone Alarms: I stole this one from my lovely wife, who has set a daily alarm at 3:00 p.m. on her iPhone. She named the alarm, “Jesus, I trust in You. Help me to trust You more!” and the alarm even plays a Matt Maher song. It’s an easy way to be reminded of the Hour of Mercy.
  3. Web Browser Startup: Now every modern web browser has a setting that allows you to go to a particular page or set of pages upon startup. I have Google Chrome set up on my work computer to go right to  this URL: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings, which means that M-F, the first thing I do at work is meditate upon the Mass readings for the day.
  4. Laudate: This amazing app, available for Android and iPhone, has prayers, readings, links to blogs, podcasts, and articles about the saints. It’s really the clearing house for all things a Catholic might need to look up for prayer or reference. Also, the basic version is free!
  5. Best Lent Ever: This is more seasonal, but if you pass your email address along to Matthew Kelly, Executive Director of Dynamic Catholic, he will send you a daily video and prayer reflection this Lent. Handy!

These are just a few basic ways that I leverage technology to stay rooted in prayer and focused on God throughout the day. Got any to share in the comments?

Three Dogs North, Being a Son or Daughter of God

Okay, so the wife and I took a wee little trip to Mexico in mid-January. I stocked up on some much needed Vitamin D and came back rested, relaxed, and focused. Since then, I’ve joined a men’s prayer group at church; we’re going through the That Man is You! program right now, which is awesome. And since I’m generally trying to orient myself toward worthy endeavors that please God, I thought I’d broaden my podcast horizons by listening to Three Dogs North, a truly edifying podcast about the Catholic faith and spirituality, recorded with some regularity by two seminarians and a priest at Mundelein Seminary. This is not a podcast about apologetics, but a serious discussion about living a life of prayer and virtue with some genuine humor thrown in.

Listening to their most recent episode, I was really struck by this thought: we do not have to do anything to be counted as a son or daughter of God. So often the spiritual life becomes a “to-do” list, where we become very concerned with how often or how correctly we are praying. This is all well and good…to a point. But, as St. Ignatius reminds us, there are times where we simply must still our hearts and remind ourselves: God is here. He is here regardless of how much time I took to speak to Him or recognize Him today. My prayer does not make Him appear. Regardless of how much or how little I prayed today, He has always, and will always, see me as His child.

This, I think, is what a lot of Catholics struggle with. Some people identify it as the lack of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Matthew Kelly has devoted an entire book to this topic. The more I contemplate it, however, I think my personal problem has been this: I have rarely realized that, no matter my choices, I am God’s child. In my own heart, there have been many times where I have intuited (wrongly!) that mortal sin has somehow caused me to lose my identity as God’s child. To be fair, mortal sin damages that relationship to the point where I might be incapable of receiving the grace that God wants to give me, but it’s not as though my baptism has been somehow revoked.

A few years ago, I was struggling with the issue of sin and how my choices made me feel unworthy or incapable of being loved. In what I can only describe as a quiet but incredibly powerful moment of grace, I was praying about it and received this gentle vision of Christ (and Mary!) doing nothing but putting their arms around me and bringing me into a loving, familial embrace. It was the same kind of physical comfort that I’ve offered to one of my children when he or she is sick, scared, or just plain worn out from a tantrum. It’s the kind of embrace that says, “No matter what you do, you are my child, and I love you.”

Every week I fall into the trap of thinking I am unworthy or incapable of being loved by God. But I return to that moment and remember: God loves me. I am His son. Nothing can change that. Nothing.


Are You Ready to Conquer?

I’ve really been enjoying the readings we’ve been getting in the daily liturgy from the First Letter of John. Today, this verse struck me like a ton of bricks:

For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
–1 Jn 5:3-4

(Earlier, in verse 1, he explains the person that is begotten by God is one who “…believes Jesus is the Christ.”)

I read it this morning, right after breakfast, and it fit perfectly into some thinking and planning I’ve been doing…just a few weeks ago, I was able to kick a 27 year bad habit: biting my nails. It took months to get to this point, and a lot of Mavala Stop, but I’ve finally managed to go a few weeks without finding my nails in between my teeth. Truth be told, it took more than just weird chemicals on my nails and willpower. I’m not ashamed to admit it took putting the problem before God and meekly asking, “Help me conquer this. I cannot do it alone” to get to where I’m at. And I know I may fall, but I’ve gotten this far because I’ve acknowledged my situation: I am weak, I am sinful, and I need help. I am not the master of my own destiny–to put it in other words, I am not the anointed one, the Christ. I need the true anointed one, the true God-Man, to lend me His strength, if I am able to accomplish anything.

Later on in the morning, I was driving to a work function and listening to the Catholic Answers Focus podcast. It was an interview with Ryan Foley of Covenant Eyes (and holy cow, he’s done a lot professionally). He mentioned that the reason so few people are successful in developing good habits is because “the soil of our hearts is too shallow” for Jesus’ message to take root. He was speaking particularly of pornography addiction, but I think it really applies to all areas of virtue and vice. When we surround ourselves with banality, the soil of our heart becomes too thin for the Word to truly take root. We cease to realize we are begotten sons and daughters of God, and we can conquer…well nothing.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I’ll do a Year of Mercy resolution; this year, I resolve to lean into Jesus’ love, and there find an inexhaustible well of strength on which to draw.

Now…time to seek and destroy another bad habit!

Christmas – The Ground War Against Satan Begins

A couple links for this holiday weekend reading… on Christmas and Spiritual warfare.

First, a heckuva reflection on that first Silent Night, 2000+ years ago, not through the eyes of our Christmas Carols and the Gospels, but as seen by John the Apostle on Isle of Patmos and written as the book of Revelation… and its a scene of war.

My oldest children, like John’s, got to enjoy a rendition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe over Christmas break, though the silver screen version. As I was watching with them, I was impressed at how Lewis opened up in Narnia something akin to what is probably more like the reality of that which plays out in the spiritual realm but we are blind to here on Earth.  Msgr. Pope lays this out quickly and concisely in his reflection on Christmas and Revelation. I highly recommend reading this short reflection.

And finally, I’ve sat down to read Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s Into the Breach, an apostolic exhortation that seeks to serve as a battle cry for men to step into the “gaping hole in Christ’s battle lines” and “defend women, children, and others against the wickedness and snares of the devil!” This too is very accessible. Men, read it. Women, read it and then have your husbands, boyfriends, sons, and fathers read it.

In the meantime, remember that you still get to celebrate Christmas at least until Epiphany. You could even milk it all the way to the Baptism of the Lord, so enjoy!

And of course, have a blessed Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God…which is simply a Catholic way of saying, “Happy New Year!”

The Year of Mercy and King Edmund the Just

On Monday night I attend Open Window Theatre’s production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with my wife and two oldest daughters. (Amazing production, and we had a great time, by the way!) During and after the play, I was particularly struck by the character of Edmund, the second Pevensie brother, especially that he is given the title “the Just” at the end of the story.

If you’ve read the entire Chronicles of Narnia, you know that after he begs Aslan for forgiveness, Edmund distinguishes himself in battle against the White Witch and her forces, but that he ever after is known for his good counsel and his ability to judge fairly in difficult situations. (Hence, “King Edmund the Just”.) What is it, though, that makes him able to untangle difficult situations? According to the Deep Magic, his betrayal of his fellow human beings means that he deserves death, a tit for tat notion of justice that Paul sums up nicely in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

But Aslan’s notion of justice is that he should freely ask for forgiveness and then resolve to do better, which is summed up in Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery: “Then neither do I condemn you…Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Left to our own devices and living under the reign of sin, we will always choose retributive justice, that is, we will always punish wrongdoing without any thought of rehabilitation for the offender. But when we open ourselves to God’s reign of grace, we will give thought to restorative justice, through which true reconciliation with God and neighbor can be found.


The reason Edmund becomes “the Just” is because he has experienced true justice, God’s justice, the kind of justice that restores broken relationships and put things back in order. And, since he has been truly touched and renewed by Aslan’s grace, he then changes his life. Edmund commits himself, body and soul, to righting wrongs and bringing about reconciliation wherever possible.

We’re only a month into the Year of Mercy, and it was a perfect time for me to see Edmund’s conversion play out onstage. “How many times,” I have thought to myself over the past few days, “have I had a chance to be truly just, restore relationships, and offer other people my mercy? How many times have I chosen mercy? How many times have I, in large and small ways, decided that others ‘deserve death,’ or a kind of death?” Throughout the next eleven months, I’m going to choose Edmund as my model: once he sought out forgiveness, he let it lift him up, and he became known for restoring relationships, freely giving of the mercy that he was given as a child.


All Sons of Adam

We here at Man Fully Alive wish you all a very merry Christmas. May God grace your family with peace and joy this holiday. And when Our Lord returns, may he find us all in prayer and service to our fellow man, ready to go home to heaven with Him.

And now, one of my favorite carols of the season:

All sons of Adam rise up with me,
Go lov the blissed Trinitie.
Sing we nowell, nowell, nowell,
Cry Kyrie with hosanna,
Sing Sabaoth, sing alleluja,
Now save us all Emanuel.
Then spak archangel Gabriel,
Said Ave Mary mild,
The Lord of Lordis is with thee,
Now sall thou go with child.
Ecce ancilla Domini.
Then said the virgin young:
As thou hes said so mot it be.
Welcom be heavin's king.
There cam a ship fair sailland then,
Sanct Michael was the stieresman,
Sanct John sat in the horn.
Our Lord harpit, our Lady sang
And all the bells of heav'n they rang
On Christsonday at morn.
Then sang the angels all and sum:
Lauda Jerusalem, Dominum,
Lauda Deum tuum, Sion.
The sons of Adam answered them:
Sing glore be to thee God and man,
The Father and the Sprit also,
With honor and perpetual jo.

Holidays, Hope and Hockey

Twenty-five years ago I was in the first grade at Father James B. Hay Elementary School in Alamogordo, New Mexico. New Mexico, because my dad was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico – he was (and still is, for that matter) a sheet metal mechanic in the US Air Force. At that time, Dad was in a squadron of sheet metal mechanics who could deploy worldwide in short notice to build mobile bases in support of military operations at airfields with little to no infrastructure.

On the morning of August 2, 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein put into action a course of events that would interrupt my childhood halfway across the world when he ordered the invasion of Kuwait, a tiny neighboring country on the Persian Gulf. Within hours, my dad’s unit was put on alert and their bags were packed for a flight to the Mid East at a moment’s notice. I don’t remember the exact date when he left, but I remember going to base, waiting around for a transport, it not coming and us returning home as a family, left wondering when Dad had to leave. This happened a few days in a row, so when we finally dropped him off at his hangar and shared hugs, it didn’t seem like he’d be gone for long.

His unit loaded their plane and left; he’d be back by Thanksgiving, we were told. Thanksgiving 1990 came and went. He’d be back by Christmas, we were told. Christmas 1990 came and went. The whole time, my dad and his unit were flying in and out of airfields all across the Arab Peninsula. We’d get to visit with him every now and then on the phone, but all I knew was that he was near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and we had no idea when he was coming home.

On January 16, 1991, I came home from school to find the TV on and neighbors in the house. The United States and Coalition forces had begun bombing Baghdad. Too young to fully understand the implications, I found the green grainy footage of Baghdad on the TV to be mesmerizing. Within hours Baghdad launched the first of its nearly 90 retaliatory SCUD missile attacks. The air war continued for a full month and on February 24, 1991, Coalition ground forces invaded Kuwait. After 100 hours of ground war, the Iraqi forces were in full retreat and on February 28, 1991, ceasefire was declared and Kuwait liberated.

The war was short – just over a month – but for me, it was 9 long months of uncertainty, fear and separation from my father. In the days after the war began, my classmates told me repeatedly that my dad either had died, or would die from SCUD missile attacks. Since Riyadh was within SCUD range I worried every time another SCUD attack was launched on Saudi Arabia; I repeatedly asked my mom if Dad had died or would die. She once told me, “if God decides that He needs Daddy more than we do, then He will bring Dad to be with Him in Heaven.” My response was, “If God decides he needs Daddy, then I guess he can take him. But I hope that God knows we need Daddy more.”

I worried and wondered; I wrote letters to him. I still have a letter I sent to him dated “Nov-3-1990- PM 1:58” that reads: “Dear Daddy, I would like you to come home soon…I love you Daddy, I miss you.” You get the picture. I got to talk to him in tin-can sounding conversations with a long delay between our words. But it wasn’t until the visual images of the war streamed into my living room that I felt anywhere close to my dad in those nine months. His world was right there, in front of me… and it was scary.

One of the best days of my life will forever be the last day of March, 1991 when he flew into El Paso, TX on a chartered flight and we met him at the airport terminal. We convoyed to Holloman AFB with his fellow returning airmen and were met at the gates with a police escort and led to the NCO Club where base honor guard stood in full dress uniform in the middle of the night, swords drawn creating an archway illuminated by the flashing red and blue strobes from the police cars for the men and their families to walk under into the welcoming ceremony.

A little over ten years later my dad and I stood side by side on a bright fall morning watching the Twin Towers collapse and the Pentagon smolder on TV, unsure of what was to come. I tried not to pay attention to the war during his deployment to Iraq in 2005, tried to act like I’d been there and done that and I didn’t want to pay attention to war again. I followed stories of Taliban and al-Qaeda advances and battles during his time in Afghanistan in 2012 but, by then, war was such old news it was buried deep in the papers or the TV news cycles, if covered at all. Nobody seemed to care anymore.

What does all this have to do with hope and hockey?

The past Tuesday, I got to see my dad’s world once again through the lens of the television camera. This time he was in St. Paul, Minnesota, standing on a red carpet on the ice at the Xcel Energy Center in full Air Force dress blues. Twelve of the world’s best hockey players stood facing him while he was announced as the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota National Guard’s “Guardian of the Game.” The public address announcer recited his military history and the crowd cheered; the players tapped their sticks on the ice in appreciation of his service and welcomed him as a representative of all Minnesotans who serve and have served. As the Star Spangled Banner was sung, Dad stood at attention and snapped a salute. During the game, numerous fans thanked him for his service and afterward they met the team’s star defenseman Ryan Suter – whose own Father wore a different uniform for our country as a member of  the famed 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic team – who also thanked my dad for his service.

All in all, it was a far cry from Advent and Christmas twenty-five years ago. The biggest concern on Tuesday night was safe travels home before the snow hit. Instead of uncertainty and fear, there was pride and gratitude. Instead of being halfway across the world from his family, he got to enjoy a Minnesota Wild victory with his youngest daughter in tow, while the rest of us followed the game on TV or computer. To be sure, the game would’ve gone on regardless of if my dad was there and the world remains just as dangerous as when my dad took an oath to protect our country thirty years ago; at the same time as the game, CNN was broadcasting a presidential debate focusing on national security. But for me and my family, there was something redeeming and hopeful in getting to watch him, his world, on TV once again on Tuesday night.  It was a small, celebratory reward for a career of sacrifice and service and a moment our whole family relished.

Instead of grainy green images of a Christmas past, or presidential candidates trying to outdo each other in responding to the dangers our nation faces, the screen we watched last night was a world of joy and peace, however momentary. And if we can take a break from the fear and darkness to find joy in a game of hockey, then there is still hope after all. Hope in the One who orders all things to work for Good. Yes, even hockey.

Wishing you all a blessed Christmas next week.

Advent, in flux

I usually like to think of advent as a season of winding down. Silent nights illumined by the soft glow of purple candles or white lights. A time of getting things in order, trimming the hearth and setting the table; and though we all dread the hustle and bustle of the secular consumer shopping season, its nice to see smiles and cheer out and about, and even better to return home to the peace of quiet expectation.

Not this year though – we’re in the midst of a basement remodel. We’ve cleaned out our basement living and bed rooms, shoving everything that we can into the downstairs utility room, bathroom and every closet, nook and cranny on the main floor. After burying them, I realized last weekend that my Christmas lights were under everything I had just moved into the utility room. Rearranging that disaster, I made another mess only to discover half the lights work. Naturally.

The nativity set was recently rediscovered, but since we have no arts and craft area in the basement, the Nativity still sits in a box under the buffet on which we normally display it while the same buffet is covered with arts and crafts projects. Its not Christmas yet, we keeping the kids when they ask why we have no lights or ornaments on our tree or our house.

And yet, there is a blessing in all this – the first Sunday of Advent we were treated to a sermon by the priest who reminded us that, indeed, it is not yet Christmas and we Christians should mark a noticeable change in our observance of Advent and celebration of Christmas. There once was a time (pre-Dickens and his masterpiece A Christmas Carol) when Christmas was celebrated for at least 12 days. Now we celebrate Advent like its Christmas and maybe give passing due to the Octave or the 12 days up to Epiphany… This year due to the rapid transition of our basement (electricians late this week; insulation next week; sheetrock hopefully by New Years…) we’re being forced in a lot of ways to hold off on going into Christmas too early, but I’m looking forward to getting past “all this” so that we can make Christmas a real celebration.

One last thought: Maybe I’m attempting to justify my sorry state of preparation – but the flux, the chaos of the home being turned upside down, the feeling like we’re in flight, all that may be closer to what the first Advent was like.  Mary and Joseph hurrying to Bethlehem before Mary has the baby, making do with what they had in a stable, and then fleeing to Egypt out of fear for the child’s life. Romantic comedies portray Christmas as the most romantic time of the year; we want peace and calm because we imagine that’s what Christmas was like. But really, in our hustle and bustle, the grind that we all complain about, the senselessness of the news in the headlines – instead of wishing for some fantasy sort of Christmas that most likely was not, I’ve decided not to necessarily embrace the frenzied pace, but to make room for the newborn King to enter into the insanity with me.

By focusing on this one little thing, inviting the King to enter into the daily grind with me, I feel a bit more solidarity with Joseph and Mary in that first Advent, and it takes a load off to realize my house, our tree, the decorations, the gifts, and the world don’t need to be perfect this Advent or Christmas. If they were all perfect, there would have been no need for Christ to have come in the first place.

Keeping Advent…Advent

I was thinking of writing a post about the business of the secular Christmas season, but Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, a monk of St. John’s Abbey here in MN, did such a fine job over at his blog, A Monk’s Chronicle, I am just going to direct you there! (It’s not lazy, I swear; my to-do list is as long as my arm, and by posting a quick link, I’m scratching one item off my list: “Write a blog post this week.)

Happy Advent, all! Here is the link.

Have Mercy

It has become really hard for me to listen to the news lately. It is even difficult to scroll through my Facebook news feed, because it seems like tragedy is everywhere. The big-ticket ones: the Syrian refugee crisis, the recent rash of shootings in the United States… and the less visible ones: addiction and mental illness in the homeless population, the failings of the foster care system, the list goes on and on. Every day, everywhere, someone is hurting, and it breaks my heart.

But there has always been human suffering, and there have always been people trying to make it better. I believe that if everyone chooses a problem that is close to their heart and works to solve it, we will make real and lasting change in the world. In fact, we already have. We often think the world is a more dangerous place now than ever before in history, but the reality is that it is relatively safe and comfortable. We simply hear about everything now. For the first time in history, we have 24-hour global access to every tragedy that is happening in every country in the world. Yes, there is much suffering, but I long ago chose to not let the suffering in the world destroy my hope.

What I want to address is the new problem creeping into existence through social media: the dehumanization of people on the internet. It seems as though every time there is a new tragedy, the words start to fly like bullets, blaming the opposing political party, a different religion, the police force, this organization, that organization. And there is little kindness or grace in these accusations. On all sides of every issue, the loudest, angriest voices get the megaphone. Someone who attempts to voice an honest and humble opinion is mercilessly attacked. I’m sure many of you reading this will pinpoint someone you disagree with; we all tend to notice more when the “opposition” is doing something uncharitable, but it truly comes from all sides. Every issue.

So what to do? I have been thinking and praying and reflecting on this question for a long time. It is no secret, I have people very close to me who have polar-opposite views of nearly every issue that is dear to me. I think this gives me a unique perspective on the importance of seeing the human behind the opinion. It is so easy to forget that a person wrote the Facebook status update that made your face burn and your heart race. And it is likely that person has good intentions, however the words might hurt you.

Armchair activism isn’t going to go away, and I don’t actually think it should. I think it is important to voice our opinion on the current issues of the day. But there are two major changes I would love to see in the way our internet conversations happen. First, those who have a strong opinion about an issue should DO something about it. Are you heartbroken at the sight of young Syrian refugees shivering cold and wet on the shore? Find out how you can help them. Are you appalled at the frequency of mass shootings in our country? Get involved. If these issues are important to you, they should still be important after they are no longer in the news. The refugee crisis was a problem long before it entered our Facebook feeds, and it will be a problem long after we’ve forgotten about it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Don’t just talk about it.

Second, listen. Really listen. Listen with no agenda, without planning your response, with a completely open heart. The vast majority of people out there truly want what’s best for the world. Writing off an entire group of people because they stand for something you disagree with devastates our chances of making real progress. Sure, there are those who are out there just trying to make a buck, but it’s not our place to guess at the motivations of others. Maybe someone out there truly has completely selfish intentions, but most people just want to do what they think will make the world a better place for their children. If we could sit across from those with whom we disagree, no screens between us, we would discover that we have more in common than not. Don’t be so quick to vilify opposing voices. True villains only exist in fairy tales and the supernatural realm; no human being is pure evil.

Next Tuesday begin the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis has asked us to reflect on the great mercy that God pours out on us, and to in turn show that mercy to our neighbors.

Even if they don’t seem deserving.

Even if they make our blood boil.

Even if they stand for everything we stand against.

God is not picky, and neither can we be.