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The Lenten Journey: Reflection on Personal Finance

Research conducted by the Gallup organization shows that financial security has nearly three times the impact of income alone on employees’ overall wellbeing. Essentially, this means that it isn’t just the amount of money that a person has that influences their wellbeing; rather, it is the perception of how secure they are that has the larger impact on wellbeing and quality of life.

What $10 million gets in San Francisco

The concept of security is an interesting one. There was a time in my life when I thought I needed to own a home worth at least $10 million, have a chauffeured limousine, and fly first class everywhere I went with no regard for the cost. In fact, I even made a deal with one of my best friends from Notre Dame that, as soon as I made my first million in cash, I would fly him first class to visit me from wherever he was at the time. He made a reciprocal offer. Now, while I was fortunate to have successful parents who could provide for all of my needs growing up, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth by any means. As such, by establishing goals of this nature, I was really just setting myself up to feel consistently unsuccessful. I’m certainly “wealthier” now than I was when I graduated from college 8 years ago, but I’m far from that dream. If I were still so focused on security as having magnificent material possessions, I would wake up each morning and be constantly disappointed that I wasn’t in my mansion yet. (Though, $10 million doesn’t go quite as far in San Francisco as it does in Utah where I was still living when i started telling people about my goal.)

My family gave me everything I needed

I can’t pinpoint a specific time that it happened, but at some point in the last 5-10 years, I considerably shifted my focus. No longer does financial security look to me to simply be the accumulation of wealth; rather, financial security for me is knowing that I am simply making enough money to not have to worry about money. I hope one day to have a family, and I would like to be able to raise my children similar to the way my parents raised me – providing all of those things that they need to be happy, healthy, and successful, but also providing them with opportunities to learn the value of money and showing them how to make good, informed decisions about the things they buy.

They say that money is one of the most common points of contention in the married life. Having a low sense of financial wellbeing is linked not only with tension in the married life, but also with a host of other issues, including stress, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and depression. It is sad to think that many of these issues could be avoided if people spent more time being thankful for what they had than focusing on the things that they wanted but didn’t or couldn’t have. Granted, if you’re not able to put food on the table or keep a roof over your head you have a real, serious grievance; however, for those people that have all of their basic needs met, I would strongly encourage you to spend more time being grateful for the good things in your life.

Running my own business and being self-employed, I’m in a unique position. Unlike most people who have jobs, in the good times, I have a greater degree of control over how much I get paid, but there are also bad times where I’m at much higher risk for not getting paid anything at all if we have a slow month or a slow year. Despite this added risk, I still do my best to maintain a sense of financial security. Part of this is accomplished by closely examining how I spend the money I do have. There are so many businesses and opportunities competing for our hard-earned money, and it is important to be very conscious of the choices we are making in where we spend those dollars. When I worked for UC Berkeley, my boss there, Michael, was fond of saying, “people vote with their feet.” And Fr. Xavier, the Pastor at St. Dominic’s, often says, “you can tell what is important to a person by looking at two books – their checkbook and their datebook.” I’ll examine the Lenten discipline of Almsgiving in greater detail in my post on Fiduciary Duty, but during this Lent, I would encourage to take a close look at the “vote” that you’re casting and then making sure you have your priorities in order. Controlling spending is one of the most important things people can do to improve their financial wellbeing, but it is even more important for those people who have seriously a limited income.

Again, I’ll address this in greater detail in the next post, but the Gallup organization also found that people can improve their wellbeing by spending on others or giving to charities instead of spending only on themselves! This may seem strange at first, but I have seen this in action time and time again. Those people who are the most giving and the most generous tend to be the happiest with their lives. Even those who seem to have very little, but who nonetheless give from what they do have, can be extremely happy because they aren’t placing all of their value on the amount of money they have; rather, they are looking to make sure that they have some level of security, and they make every effort to see to it that others can also enjoy the same or a similar level of security.

This is the third in a series of Lenten essays exploring different areas of the human experience. For more information, see the introduction.

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The Lenten Journey: Reflections on Relationships

The original theme of this post was going to be “Friends and Family,” but over the past two weeks, I decided that that phrase didn’t really do justice to the human person. Certainly friends and family present the most obvious relationships in our lives, but the human experience goes well beyond interactions with such people. We are often – maybe even daily – confronted with any number of other relationships. We are “in relationship” with each person we come into contact with every day. A cashier at the local grocery store, a bus driver, co-workers, the random person you pass as you’re running down the Great Highway, other drivers on the road, the thief that breaks into your car, members of an opposing team, the person next to you on an airplane, etc. Some of these relationships are fleeting, true, but the human experience would be vastly different without them. Since it is my goal to explore the human experience during Lent, then, and since Lent is a time to grow in our own relationship with God, it made sense to me to take a different approach.

At my parish here in San Francisco we are using a program developed, in part, by the Gallup Organization called Strengths Finder. For those of you not familiar with the program, it is an online inventory that you take and upon completion your answers are used to rank 34 broad themes. You get the top five for the cost of the book, and the rest are locked away on Gallup’s servers. Number three on my list is Relator. The Relator theme is described as follows, “You derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around your close friends. You are comfortable with intimacy. Once the initial connection has been made, you deliberately encourage a deepening of the relationship. You want to understand their feelings, their goals, their fears, and their dreams; and you want them to understand yours. You know that this kind of closeness implies a certain amount of risk — you might be taken advantage of — but you are willing to accept that risk. For you a relationship has value only if it is genuine. And the only way to know that is to entrust yourself to the other person. The more you share with each other, the more you risk together. The more you risk together, the more each of you proves your caring is genuine. These are your steps toward real friendship, and you take them willingly.”

This description seems to fit me perfectly. I am, in general, a very trusting person. In fact, some people have told me that I am too trusting in some areas of my life. The idea of being “too trusting” is foreign to me, though. I understand the need to be cautious when someone has a history of bad behavior, or when there is evidence of ill intent, but I tend to believe that the vast majority of the people I encounter day to day are good people trying to live their lives in the best way they know how. Consequently, I have a number of very important relationships with people with whom I may have very little in common. By taking the time to understand why people are the way they are, and helping them see the same about me, I am able to connect with them on a much deeper level, and that is important to me. In my life, I see several different categories of relationships. Since I was born into a particular set of relationships, I will first consider family.

Lance and his dad

My dad & me

You don’t get to choose your family is something that you’ve probably heard before. Individually, we have no control over whether or not we’re even born*, let alone control over who our biological parents are. I didn’t choose Roger and Kathy as my parents, and they, likewise, didn’t choose their parents. I didn’t choose Amber as my sister and she likewise didn’t choose me as her brother. I was fortunate to grow up in a loving home where I was well provided for, and where there was never any threat to my welfare. And it’s a good thing that my family loved me as much as they did – I was an absolutely awful child. I was diagnosed at a young age with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Read the list of symptoms at the National Library of Medicine. You could put a tick mark next to virtually every one of those for me as a young child. I could write an entire book describing my misdeeds, but I’ll spare you the details for the time being. But despite my consistently bad behavior, my family still loved and supported me. Someone should really get the cause for canonization of my parents started. I know they’re not eligible, given that they’re still living, but there is not other explanation for how they managed to deal with me than a grace which enabled them to love in even the most trying circumstances. Looking back, I can see what a challenge I was a child, and it is something for which I have great remorse. But more than remorse, I am thankful – thankful for my family and thankful that I have been able to share my story with others, most of whom don’t believe it when I start a story with, “I was an absolutely awful child.”

But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from you mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
- Colossians 3:8-10

Respect my authoritaaahSo how do we grow in our family relationships this Lent? I would suggest, first and foremost, that we can grow through the practice of humility. Isn’t it pride that causes so much strife between family members? When I was growing up, I was always right. To be clear, I was probably wrong much of the time, but I was convinced that I was always right, and I would fight tooth and nail against anyone who challenged my “authoritaaah.” When we strive for humility, we will start to shed with those things that St. Paul calls us to put away. Why? Humility and truth are cousins, and it is the truth that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and that even when we are in conflict, our family members deserve to be treated like kings (because they are kings). And so, in our humility, we put away malice, we put away foul talk, we put away slander. Instead of these, I encourage you to enter into an open dialogue with your family. Come to understand why they feel the way they feel. Bear with them in love, and rather than try to win the argument, ask yourself, “how can I help this person that I love, how can I lift their burdens, how can I help lighten their load?” Can you imagine if everyone began to act this way in their family? Divorce rates would plummet, abuse would decline, families would eat dinner together again!

Limo ride with friends

Limo ride with Daniel, Adam, Keith, and Amber

But relationships don’t start and end at the family. In fact, we probably have more relationships outside the family. Think back to your earliest memories of school. How many lessons can you remember from pre-school or Kindergarten? If you’re like me, your mom kept everything you ever created as a child and you might be able to look back and see what you did, but do you actually remember the class? More likely, you remember people. There are some people from my childhood that I have very fond memories of – Daniel Winfield, Heather Japlit, Carrie Pace, Keith Gardner, Adam Acosta, Dan Owens, Lesli Mozaffari, Raeanin Simpson, Travis Leaf. These are all people that I met before I was even a teenager, and while some of them I knew through high school and beyond, a number of them I haven’t seen since I was 10 or 11 years old, but I still remember them because those relationships were important to me. Friendships are important. They teach us how to love other people that we don’t “have to love.” Sometimes, friendships blossom into romances, and romances into marriages, and marriages into new families, but more often, friendships are just those special relationships in which we encounter others with whom we share at least some mutual interests. Friendship is the main reason that I left the film industry to move back to San Francisco. While working on the film version of RENT, I made so many wonderful friends at St. Dominic’s that it was hard to leave. I did, though, and I moved to New York to work on another film, Across the Universe. When that ended, I went back to Los Angeles, and I found myself missing my friends and the community at St. Dominic’s so much that, without a job or a permanent home, I up and moved back to the Bay Area. And I haven’t regretted it for a moment. My life wouldn’t be the same had I stayed in New York or Los Angeles.

So, in this Lenten season, how do we grow in our friendships? One thing that I would recommend is to let your friends know how important they are to you. Take some time to affirm your friends, to tell them how much you appreciate their friendship. In his homily on New Year’s Day, Fr. Garry Cappleman offered this advice, “We can, with love, mirror back God’s love for others in our acts of affirmation. Do you realize how much people are starving today for one simple kind word. One word of encouragement. One compliment. We ration that out, like we’re in the desert, we have only one drop of water. Acts of affirmation, acts of encouragement, and sometimes, yes, even a simple smile, but a smile that comes deep within, that says you’re accepted, you’re valued, I love you.” Read those words again and ask yourself if it isn’t true. How many times have we been so caught up in our world, in our own lives, in our own problems, that we have failed to affirm even those who are closest to us? I know I’ve missed those opportunities before. During this Lenten season, then, I am trying to focus in a very particular way on the affirmation of my friends. I encourage you to consider some way that you can affirm your friends, as well. You could call a friend each day and tell them a way they’ve touched you, host a dinner party for your friends to say thanks, or offer a friend each day at daily Mass and send them a Mass card to let them know.

What about those people with whom we have very contentious or even negative relationships? I’m fortunate that I don’t have many of these, though there have been a few. For instance, each on a separate occasion, I have had two people e-mail me telling me that we couldn’t be friends for various reasons. While I understand where both of these people were coming from, I do feel that their reactions were a bit over the top, and I believe that there are deeper issues at play in both cases. The easiest way I have found to deal with people like this is to simply act with extreme kindness towards them and to pray for them.

Of course, we’re also in relationship with many other people, on a day to day basis, even if those relationships are only fleeting. Fleeting or not, though, all people that we encounter have equal dignity which deserves our utmost respect. I think that then-Fr. Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said it well when he wrote:

Being a Christian means essentially changing over from being for oneself to being for one another… Accordingly, the basic Christian decision signifies the assent to being a Christian, the abandonment of self-centeredness and accession to Jesus Christ’s existence with its concentration on the whole.
- From Introduction to Christianity

This concept of being “for” others is crucial when we think of relationships. In fact, isn’t this really what I’ve recommended above, already? Thinking about how we can bear the burdens of our family, acknowledging and affirming our friends, greeting those who hate us with a smile – these are all things that are done “for” the other. Fr. Ratzinger also wrote, “Christ’s existence, as exemplary existence, is fulfilled and perfected in being opened on the Cross.” If Christ opened and gave himself to us on the cross, and if we are called to follow Christ and to love one another, are we not also called, then, to open ourselves, to live lives “for” the other?

Today the Church commemorate St. Frances of Rome. In the optional Office of Readings for the day, we read this:

God had not chosen her to be holy merely for her own advantage. Rather, the gifts he conferred upon her were to be for the spiritual and physical advantage of her neighbour. For this reason he made her so lovable that anyone with whom she spoke would immediately feel captivated by love for her and ready to help her in everything she wanted. Divine power was present and working in her words, so that in a few sentences she could bring consolation to the afflicted and the anxious, calm the restless, pacify the angry, reconcile enemies and extinguish long-standing hatreds and animosities. Again and again she would prevent a planned revenge from being carried out. She seemed able to subdue the passions of every type of person with a single word and lead them to do whatever she asked.
- From the Life of Saint Frances of Rome by Mary Magdalene Anguillaria, superior of the Oblates of Tor di Specchi

St. Frances truly lived a life for others, and I think that there is something that each of us an learn from her example. Recall the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Chapter 16 of the Gospel according to Luke. Read the story carefully and notice that Luke never actually writes that the rich man did anything specifically wrong; rather, it seems that the rich man’s sin was primarily in what he did not do for Lazarus. Let us not be like the rich man, then. Let us always act for others, that, at the end of time, we may find ourselves enjoying the beatific vision together with our family, our friends, and all other people with whom we are in relationship.

This is the second in a series of Lenten essays exploring different areas of the human experience. For more information, see the introduction.

* The idea that God sends us into the world without our consent has been a topic of many discussions that I’ve had with one of my friends, but that deserves its own article.

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The Lenten Journey: Reflections on Faith

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home –
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene — one step enough for me.
- John Henry Newman

Today we explore the concept of faith. What do you think of when you hear this word? For many Catholics, I suspect that the Creed, or Profession of Faith, comes to mind relatively quickly, if not right away. But is this faith – a series of statements about the things I believe?

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
I believe in the Holy Spirit
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church

Certainly these are components of faith, but during this Lent I want to look even deeper than this. It is not enough to simply “believe” to say that I have faith. I believe in gravity. I believe that I need to drink water to survive. I believe that friends are important. These are things that I believe, but I wouldn’t say that these are things in which I have faith. Why? Because faith goes beyond mere belief. Faith is defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as, “the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God” (II-II, Q. iv, a. 2). Look closely at this definition. Faith is actually an act, something we do. It is the willful act by which we say “yes” to the truth of God. To assent to this truth, though, is beyond our natural capacity; we rely on the gift of God’s grace to move us and enable us to give this response. So, I believe in gravity, water, and the merits of friendship because these are things I can observe, test, and understand through solely natural means. Faith, though, is supernatural, and is, ultimately, an act of total trust.

Faith requires such complete trust that sometimes it might mean placing our trust in something that we aren’t even certain we truly believe. Do you recall the story of the boy possessed by a demon that the the disciples of Jesus were not able to cast out? When Jesus asks the boys father about the child the father says, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And what is Jesus’ response to this? “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Here the man’s father is not certain of the power of Jesus – he doesn’t necessarily believe that Jesus has the power to heal his son, but then he cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24, emphasis mine) These are truly words of faith – words of trust!

When we trust, though, we do make ourselves vulnerable. We leave ourselves open to being hurt, taken advantage of, or even just disappointed. Trust can be a scary thing, even when we place that trust in God. While we know that God wills only the best for us – his adopted sons and daughters – we also know that God’s will is not always the same as our own. It would be easy to trust God fully if we knew that God wanted for us the things we want for ourselves, wouldn’t it? Maybe we want a better job, a nicer car, a bigger house, more money, a husband or a wife, children, a vacation to Hawaii, or another hour of sleep. But that’s where the trust of faith becomes risky – while these things might be what we want as humans, they might not be what God knows we need. By placing trust in God, we may not actually get the things that we ask for. The result, of course, is that so many people decide to place their trust – their faith – in themselves and in worldly things. They might think to themselves, “if God won’t do this for me, I’ll do it on my own.”

I have known many smart, religious people who do not have a firm grasp on this issue of faith, of trust. They get so caught up on the things that they think they need to do or to provide for themselves that they forget to trust in God. These people often start sentences with something like, “As soon as I…” Don’t get me wrong, planning for the future is prudent, but as soon as that planning gets in the way of letting God’s will be done we have a problem. Jesus tells us, “do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides” (Luke 12:29-31, emphasis mine). This is hard, though! It is natural for us to want to be in control. This desire for control is not unique to the modern age – we see it all through salvation history. Adam and Even grasped the forbidden fruit to “become like God,” King David sent Uriah to the front-line of battle so he would be killed, King Zedekiah refused to heed the words of the prophets and ended up in exile in Babylon, Peter wouldn’t believe that Jesus had to suffer, St. Paul persecuted the early Christians…

All of these people wanted something that seemed good to them. They had plans for the future. They had hope and dreams. But they forgot (or just ignored) God and the message of love that he had for them. They were so busy looking ahead that they forgot to focus on taking that next single step. This post starts with the first stanza of the poem “The Pillar of Cloud” by John Henry Newman and I think it provides a very powerful image of faith and trust. We are a people often wandering in the dark, but we know that God provides us with light so that we might see where we are going. God may not show us the whole future, but he will always provide us with the light we need to see the next step.

This coming Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent, we will hear Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. In this story, we hear how Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray when suddenly Jesus is transfigured before them, becoming dazzling white, as Moses and Elijah appear and speak to him. This story appears in the three synoptic Gospels, but Luke adds this, “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him” (Luke 9:32). This concept of being “overcome” is important, and it is not the first time we see good things happening when total control is in the hands of the Lord. Adam falls into a deep sleep, and when he awakens God has given him Eve (Genesis 2:21-23); Abram falls into a deep sleep and is covered by a cloud at the time the Lord establishes the covenant (Genesis 15:12-21); Samuel was sleeping in the Temple of the Lord when he was called by name and appointed a prophet (1 Samuel 3:1-18); Mary submits herself fully at the words of the Angel Gabriel and Jesus, the Messiah, is born into the world for our salvation (Luke 1:26-38). Giving up control is not bad – it’s a good thing!

This Lent, I would encourage you to look at your own faith. How much do you trust God? Are you so busy worrying and thinking about “what you are to eat and what you are to drink” that you are missing that kindly light which is showing you the next step in God’s divine plan for you? What are the things that you are grasping for? Where are some areas of your life that you are trying to plan, to control, to become totally self-reliant? Think about these areas – pray about them. Visit the Lord in the blessed Sacrament, and cry out to the Him like the possessed boy’s father saying, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

Remember, God loves you, and when you trust in God you will find only love. It may not always be easy – God the Father loved Jesus, God the Son, who suffered – but it will always be full of grace. Turn yourself over to God this Lent. Trust in His divine plan for you. Listen to His voice and answer His call. Look for His kindly light and take that next step.

This is the first in a series of Lenten essays exploring different areas of the human experience. For more information, see the introduction.

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Introduction to the Lenten Journey

Lance on Ash WednesdayHappy Ash Wednesday! Today marks the first day of Lent, 2012, a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that will last until Easter Sunday, April 8. This post is the first in a Lenten series that will invite my readers to explore various aspects of their daily lives with an eye towards improving themselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

So often we think of Lent as simply that time before Easter where we give up the things that we enjoy, like candy, television, coffee, or even Facebook. What is this season really about, though? Certainly sacrifice is a significant part of good Lenten discipline, but if we stop there, I think we miss out of the much deeper, richer treasures that Lent has to offer us.

Sometimes we might find that there are certain luxuries to which we have formed attachments and that these attachments are impeding our relationship with God or are preventing us from living up to our full potential. I know this has been the case for me – more than once I have found myself wasting away time watching Netflix, time that could be better spent on a myriad of more productive endeavors. If you find yourself in a similar situation, giving up Netflix for Lent might be a great idea… as long as you don’t just replace Netflix with Hulu, that is. But what about other things that aren’t necessarily preventing you from living up to your full potential? I have several good friends that love chocolate, but I wouldn’t say that any of them are controlled by it or that it is in the way of their success, yet there may still be great value in giving it up for Lent. Why? It all comes down to intent.

As one of the priests at St. Dominic’s, Fr. Stephen Maria, said in his homily today, “Why do people seem to be repulsed by the idea of giving something up during Lent? We are never repulsed when we see sacrifices being made for children, parents, friends, and the people we love. So we should make our sacrifices during Lent out of love for God.” I found this to be a particularly powerful idea. I’ve heard people say, “you can’t give up something you really love – you’ll just be miserable.” Perhaps this is true if you’re giving it up because you feel there is some social obligation. After all, how many times do you hear the question, “what are giving up for Lent?” But if we see our sacrifice as something we do out of love, it takes on a whole new meaning – we are uniting ourselves more closely to the sufferings of Christ, yes, but we are also preparing ourselves to share more fully in the new life of His resurrection.

But this series is not going to be solely about sacrifice. At its core, Lent is a time for spiritual renewal, a true springtime for all people. While there are many ways that we can approach Lent, over the next 40 days, I want to focus primarily on two very important questions:

  • What is getting in the way of my relationship with God?
  • What is preventing me from being the person I am called to be?

In addressing these questions throughout the series, we will definitely see sacrifice come up several times, but more so we will see that Lent really offers us a chance to become new people, to transform our lives in a meaningful way. I hope to show one way that this is possible through an exploration of eight key areas of our lives that we can develop during Lent.

  1. Faith
  2. Relationships
  3. Personal Finance
  4. Fiduciary Duty
  5. Maintenance
  6. Fitness
  7. Hobbies
  8. Vocation

In the coming weeks, I will explore each of these eight areas separately, beginning with a reflection on the role I see each playing in my own life, and then exploring ways in which we can work to improve these areas during the Lenten season. At the end of the series, I will look at four overarching themes:

  1. Spiritual
  2. Emotional
  3. Physical
  4. Intellectual

Taken together, these four overarching themes contain the eight key areas and make up the picture of a complete human being. And since Lent really is a time to transform ourselves, what better way to end the series than to wrap it all up with a look at the whole person?

I am excited to embark on this Lenten journey with you, and I hope that these topics that I will be exploring can help your own experience of Lent be much more positive.

NB: I would be remiss if I failed to thank M.M. for inspiring me to write this series of articles. Over breakfast this past Sunday we got to talking about Lenten disciplines, and he suggested that there was a lot of potential in these eight areas and four overarching themes. I decided to write this series, then, as part of my Lenten discipline so that I could not only explore these topics myself, but also maybe help others on their own journey. For what it’s worth, I made a suggestion of my own to M.M. for something I thought he might consider incorporating as part of his Lenten discipline and I really hope he decides to take on the challenge.

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Red Chinos and Saints

It would seem that red chinos are currently a very fashionable item. That is, at least, if the analytics for this site are any indication. Over the past month, the most common search term that ended up displaying Lance’s World in the search results was, in fact, red chinos. Why would my site appear so frequently in these results? Apparently, it has to do with this post about red chinos that I wrote several years ago. Far be it from me to actually write anything useful about chinos for men, though! The only thing interesting about that post is that it demonstrates the fact that at some point in my life I had the delusion that a pair of red pants for men was a good idea.

This seems a fitting post for today, Valentine’s Day, given that the color red is of such great importance on this (choose one: romantic, mushy, depressing, uplifting, frivolous, commercial) holiday. Red roses, red candy boxes, even red chinos for men! And of course, one other thing that’s red today – the word Memorial in the Liturgy of the Hours. While the history of Valentine’s Day is actually rooted in the Christian tradition, as my friend Mike Liliedahl points out in his Valentine’s Day blog (which is free of all reference to red chinos, I promise), today is no longer celebrated on the Roman Calendar as the Feast of St. Valentine. Instead, today is celebrated as the Memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Saints Cyril and MethodiusThese two Saints are honored in a very special way in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. In fact another friend of mine, also a Michael, who is an Eastern Rite Catholic, shared this Wikipedia entry link about Saints Cyril and Methodius with me today. Michael went on to say, “We are all called to be Saints… Saints are normal everyday people living the lives God calls them to live.” It sounds like he may have been at one of my talks over the past few weeks at St. Dominic’s where we explored the lives of the Saints and how those lives reveal to us just that – that we, too, are to live the lives we have been given in the best way possible. Saints Cyril and Methodius are part of the Church Triumphant, but we, too, are members of the Communion of Saints as part of the Church Militant.

So, no matter your relationship status on this Memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius, remember that the most important relationship is your relationship with God. Follow the example of all of those great Saints that have gone before us and lead a good, holy life. I promise you that such a life will bring you greater joy and happiness than any pair of red pants.

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Entering the Fourth Decade

Today marks my 30th birthday, and so I enter into my fourth decade of life. I have to say, my first 30 years have been pretty amazing. When I reflect back on the things I have accomplished and the places I have been, I am truly grateful for all of the opportunities that have been made available to me. It hasn’t been a cake walk, but I have been a very fortunate individual. I have been blessed with an amazing family, good friends, good food, WINE, a fantastic education, and a magnificent world to explore.

Looking back on my life, I realize that there are still a lot of things that I want to accomplish. While I’ve never been one to pay much attention to my age – each individual day is much like the one before it – in the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about things that I would like to do in the next 10 years of life. Here are some of the goals that I’ve set for my 30s.

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Categories: A Day in the Life, Faith | 4 Comments

The Translation of Our Holy Father Dominic

Today is the memorial of the Translation of St. Dominic, which took place May 24, 1233. I didn’t even know that this memorial existed until it was remembered during the Divine Office and Morning Prayer at St. Dominic’s Church this morning. The proper reading for the day was too wonderful not to share, thus this entry. The following text comes from the Supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours for the Order of Preachers.

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But now I live!

I once was lost, but now I’m found.
I once was blind, but now I see.
I once was dead, but now I live.
Now my life to you I give!

Last night I was reading and listening to some music, when a song came on with these lyrics. I found the song particularly fitting for several reasons. First, yesterday’s Gospel reading dealt with precisely this topic. In yesterday’s Gospel, we heard the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. In fact, the final line of the Gospel was:

But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.

I found these words particularly poignant, as well, because of what I was reading when the song came on. Without going into too much detail, the book I was reading is a book that is meant to bring hope to people in great darkness – the darkness of sin. We are all sinners, and we all need healing that only Jesus Christ can bring. The passage I was reading said this, “As we glimpse the true nature of our spiritual and moral bankruptcy, we can only wonder what kind of God this is who can not only stand to see and know it all, but who patiently and mercifully works in us and with us toward turning these dreadful liabilities into song.” I couldn’t keep myself from crying!

Listen to these words from the second reading at mass yesterday, from the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy:

Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant,
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Isn’t this amazing? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners! I am a sinner, which means that Jesus came into the world to save me! So here I am reading about the boundless mercies of God – reading words that bring hope into my life, hope that I can be saved, hope that the sins of my past won’t weigh me down forever because God can take those sins and change them into song. As I read these words, it was as if I was relieved of a great strain, and it truly felt as if my eyes had been opened anew, as if I had found the right path, and as if I had been filled with new life in the Spirit. And what should happen at that precise moment but a song that embodies everything I was feeling should begin to play. I couldn’t keep myself from crying!

What a grace filled moment that was. My dear friends, our God is a merciful God and we are called to sacrifice our lives to serve Him. We must surrender ourselves completely and take up our very own cross. Let me make it clear, though, that this call to sacrifice our lives to God is not a call to lose our lives. Quite the contrary, when we are able to sacrifice ourselves to God, we FIND NEW LIFE AT EVERY TURN! Far from draining our lives of meaning, self-sacrifice is what gives our every action true importance.

To be frank, previously, my self-sacrifice was done for the wrong reasons; usually because I had fallen into the trap of mortal sin and I regretted it. “God forgive me,” I would pray, “and take this sin from me. I give myself to you. May I discern and follow your will from now on.” My mistake, of course, is that I offered this sacrifice after I had already committed the sin. For the past three weeks, though, under the advice of a priest in Confession, I have been practicing a new form of self-surrender. Rather than simply hope that God will interfere with all temptations that I may face, I have started PRAYING MY TEMPTATIONS. Whenever I find temptation creeping up on me, I immediately offer this prayer, “Jesus, I surrender myself to you at this moment.” This prayer, of course, hasn’t kept me from all sin – none of us can be perfect – but it has been extremely effective. When I turn myself over to God in this way, I find remarkable graces flowing within me.

We are all sinners, but remember, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Jesus came into this world to save each one of us, and He continues to offer Himself on the cross for each of us! Don’t be afraid to cry out to Jesus when you are confronted with temptation. He will hear your cry and He will be there alongside you.

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Sin & the Infinite Love of God

I believe that Catholics focus too much on sin and the detrimental effects that sin has on our lives. This is not to say that human beings should not avoid sin – of course we should – rather, it is to say that we should not put ourselves into a situation where we allow sin and guilt to control our lives. Catholics seem to believe that God expects His people to be perfect. This is not the case! God does call each of us to strive for sainthood in our lives, but He never expects that we will be perfect. God knows all and He knows that for a human being to be perfect and without sin is impossible (except in the case of Christ and Mary, both of whom were conceived without Original Sin).

As Catholics, we should focus more on salvation than on sin! Remember that God is our Father, the ultimate parent of all who live on this earth. Does any parent you know expect their child to be perfect? Does any parent you know turn their back on their child when the child makes a mistake? Earthly parents realize that children will make mistakes – and that’s OK! It is through our mistakes that we learn to be better people and to lead better lives. When a child makes a mistake, the parent doesn’t turn away from the child and leave it to solve its own problems; rather, the parent comes to the aid of the child, corrects it, sets it on a right path and then lets it explore on its own again.

So, too, does God treat us, his eternal and precious children. When we sin, God doesn’t turn his back on us. God doesn’t call any of us to sin, but he realizes that we will. He expects that we will. He knows that we will. Just as any parent knows that their child will make mistakes, God knows that we will sin in this world. And this is where God’s infinite grace comes into play – when we sin, God doesn’t disappear from our lives. Instead, God rushes to us with open arms, picks us up and says, “My precious, precious child! Look how far you have come! Look what you have learned! Take this lesson out into the world and be a better person. I will save you from this sin! Take that forgiveness out into the world and be Christ for others.”

God demands nothing more of us than we are able to give. Some of us may be called to save an entire nation of people through service in Africa, whereas other may be called to make a single person on this earth smile. Only God knows for sure what His plan is for His people. It is up to us as human beings to discern God’s will in our lives and act accordingly. None of us should be worried if we feel that we are being called to make only one person happy, just as we should not be worried if we discern a call to serve a poor African nation. If we listen to God’s will and follow through with it, God will be well pleased with us. God will be just as pleased with the person who makes one person happy as He will be with the person who saves an African nation if that is what we are called to. God’s love is endless, and He fills each of us with a love so great that our bodies would never be able to maintain it if God wasn’t still with us holding it together.

It is because of this that God has given us a gift greater than any gift we could ever repay. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that we may believe in Him and have eternal life! God has given humanity the gift of salvation through the suffering and death of his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ! Christ gave His very life to save us from our sins! Christ did not come to save the righteous – He came to save the sinner. Christ’s gift of His very life for our salvation is a gift beyond any gift that we could ever give back to the Lord. And yet, God does call us to give something back – we are called to a life of worship of the Lord through service to those around us. If we truly listen to the call of God in our lives and we follow through with that call, we will please God and he will shower us with his Grace.

But what about those who do not believe? What about those who do not accept Christ as their Savior? Are these people damned forever? Most certainly not! God is right beside even the worst sinner among us, calling them to a life of holiness. God is a loving parent. Just as no parent would want to see their child despair, God does not want to see His children end up in Hell. God calls out to each of us, raining down His graces upons every man, woman and child. All we must do is open our hearts to the graces of the Lord. Once we receive one blessing, another will follow, and another until it would seem that there are no blessings left. But the moment we think that God’s grace has expired, it starts again, this time even more fully and at a level we will never understand. This is because God’s love is Infinite. If we simply open our hearts to His love, we embrace the gift of His Son for our salvation. And if we accept Christ, we accepts the Spirit, and if we accept the Spirit, we accept God, and if we accept God, we accept Love. And it is Love that binds all things together in this world. If we live a life full of Love, we will truly find it impossilble to sin, for Love can know no Sin.

Importantly, we must always remember that we are human and that we WILL sin. There is nothing we can do about the fact that sin is simply an area in our lives where we must struggle. But rather than focus on our sin and the pain it causes us in our lives, we must focus on the SALVATION THAT CHRIST HAS ALREADY WON FOR US! Rather than feel guilty about sin, we should embrace our sin, knowing that CHRIST HAS SAVED US FROM IT ALREADY! When we Sin, God picks us up, sets us on our feet and says, “Child, I have given you my very own Son, that you may have eternal life in Me!” We must embrace this Love of Christ. For if we could love with even a part of God’s Love, we would find that there is more than enough Love to feed all the world several times over.

May God bless you all and keep you always safe! And may the protection of Christ’s death and resurrection keep us always beautiful in the Eyes of the Father.

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On Faith, Marriage & Sexuality

Modern America is perhaps one of the worst cultures when it comes to sexuality. Not only has the culture become more accepting of overt sexuality over the past several years, it now seems that a promiscuous sexuality is being promoted, encouraged and celebrated as something to strive for. Parents dress their young girls in clothes that are clearly intended to provoke a sexual reaction, and they don’t even think twice about it. America is exploiting its children to advance the immoral concept of sexuality as something to be shared with the world. This sickens me to no end.

Men and women are, by nature, sexual beings. That is the way God created us; however, it was never the intention of God that human beings should flaunt their sexuality and turn it into a commodity. Human sexuality is sacred, and deserves to be treated as such. Several weeks ago, while working out at the gym, I happened to catch a few minutes of VH1′s Top 40 Music Videos of 2006. Of the 8 or so that I saw, all but one of them was extremely sexual in nature. They ranged from a man who was being unfaithful by having three girlfriends, hiding each from the others, to a woman using an ice cream cone as a proxy for the male phallus, to a woman basically performing oral sex on an unwilling (or all too willing?) guard. These are the best music videos of 2006? It wasn’t until I saw these that I realized how strongly I actually felt about the Culture of Sex that we are promoting in the modern western world. Our modern understanding of sex is that it is something that we should be free to share with whomever we please, whenever we please and for whatever reason we please. Sex has simply become something to do – it has lost its sacred significance, and this is shameful.

God gave humanity sex for two primary purposes: procreative and unitive. The modern conception of sex has removed BOTH of these elements, and turned sex into something purely about pleasure. I feel strongly that each of these two elements needs some discussion.

First, sex is meant to be a procreative act. That is, it is an act through which new life is to be brought into the world. Recall that God gave us the greatest gift of all – the life of His own Son, Jesus Christ. It is through this gift of Christ’s life for our salvation that we are saved. And Christ calls us all to share in this life by bringing new life into the world. There is but one natural mechanism by which life can be brought into this world and therefore share in the Life of Christ – sex. Many people claim that the Catholic Church is irresponsible for not teaching the use of condoms, birth control or other contraceptives. Individuals who argue this are misguided. The use of any artificial contraceptive device is intended to remove this procreative aspect of sex, that is, to prevent the woman from becoming pregnant. To remove this is to turn away from Christ and to tell God that you are unwilling to accept one of His most awesome blessings in this world – a child.

Second, sex is meant to be a unitive act. Sex is the single most intimate act that a man and woman can share. Intimacy of a greater scale can certainly be achieved spiritually and emotionally, but physically, sex is as intimate as it gets. This is the reason that sex is to be reserved for marriage – it is a holy bond shared by a husband and wife. When spouses come together in the most sacred act of sexual intercourse, they are celebrating their BONDED AND SINGULAR existence. No longer are they one man and one woman; rather, they are ONE BEING IN CHRIST. In marriage, they received the Holy Spirit and the two became one flesh. Sex is therefore a celebration of this One-ness. It is the ultimate gift of onesself to another person. It is for this reason that Christ calls all people to reserve sex for marriage. Sex as a unitive act is our most holy and awesome physical expression of love, committment and devotion. Sadly, modern society has destroyed this idea and turned sex into the next logical step of a relationship. No longer is sex the ultimate sacrifice for another person, no longer do we teach our children that sex is something so sacred and so holy that it must be reserved for our one and only spouse; rather, we encourage promiscuity through the media and by example. Mothers and fathers teach their children that sex outside of marriage is acceptable by providing them with birth control pills or condoms.

Our modern view of sexuality is appalling. America has convinced itself that sex is something that belongs to individuals. But it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God. Only with God and His Spirit does sex take on its true form, joining both the procreative and unitive aspects. When a husband and wife truly come together for this most intimate act, free of obstacles, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and turns their bed into an altar of the Lord. When celebrated for its true value, sex becomes the ultimate sacrifice that a husband and wife can make to the Will of the Lord. Sex, by its very nature, is meant to be an offering to God. Husbands and wives are called to cry out to the Lord, “HERE WE ARE, READY TO DO YOUR WILL. Bless us with a holy marriage, and if it be your will, send us children, that they may know the joys of sharing in Christ’s everlasting life.”

This is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine – one of God’s most awesome blessings! Christ calls all to a life of holiness. And married life is as much of a vocation as the religious life. Everyone called to marriage must realize that they are not called to marriage for their own sake, but for the sake of all humanity. Married couples are called to SERVE GOD with their marriage. In marriage, God truly joins two people and makes them one. Yes, they still exist as two separate phyisical forms, but their souls are forever joined as one. As such, every decision made by the husband is a decision made by the wife, and vice versa. Every sin committed by the husband is a sin committed by the wife, and vice versa. But the best part is that the married couple has the Spirit of the Lord and, if they discern and follow the Will of God, their marriage, their unity, will fill the world with Love, and Christ will be visible to all the world through them! Is this not truly amazing? And to bring children into the world only adds to the blessings God has already bestowed on a husband and a wife.

Most Americans, and sadly even most Catholics, have lost this understanding of just how sacred and special both marriage and sex are. Both are intimate gifts from God, and both create an everlasting bond between two people that can never be broken. Love is from God, sex is from God. These are not ours to give away; rather, they are gifts given to us by God to be shared infinitely with our spouse. I pray that this beautiful truth be made clear in the hearts of all men and women again soon!

May the Peace and Blessings of our Lord, Jesus Christ be with you always! Amen.

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