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The best way to spend the final week before Christmas is making a solo 1,370 mile drive with two dogs in the backseat. At least this is what I told myself when I set out to create an unforgettable Christmas experience for my family. I didn’t factor in the relationship my puppy wanted to develop with the dog staying across the hall at the hotel. She “talked” to our neighbor all night long, which contributed to a delightful sleeping experience along the way.

The thing is, I can justify almost any complication of an event if I am certain that making “it” happen will bring guaranteed delight to my kids. And everyone knows that puppies make Christmas extra magical. The way I have approached the holiday season (if I’m honest, it’s the way I approach my life) is to figure out what is possible. Can I somehow make it happen through grit, hard work, and perseverance? Then the juice is worth the squeeze! Until it isn’t.

I don’t know how you are approaching these final days before Christmas, but I would guess that most of you are starting to feel a little panicky over the things you have left to do, and as a result, you’ve got a creeping sense that you are going to be disappointed by the end result. Which just might be motivating you to run even faster and try even harder. At least that’s the way I have lived for decades.

But I am trying to make a change, and although I still justified the drive with the dogs, I can see some glimmers of transformation. Instead of asking myself, “Is this possible? Can I somehow make this happen?” I am asking myself, “What’s the simplest option here?” I am growing in my appreciation for the simple, and it’s not just because I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book. It’s the result of realizing that nothing satisfies me like a quiet and still heart. I’ve learned that in order to encounter the Lord, everything in my life needs to slow down. It’s not about getting everything done and then giving myself permission to stop. I need to set a goal of doing less, so I can create space for Him.

When there’s a little space, I have the chance to ponder what I’m going to offer Jesus as a gift for His birthday. Typically, I offer Him a nicely decorated house, bulging Christmas stockings, loads of food, and Christmas presents spilling over the floor in front of the tree. But when I stop to think about it, none of these things are for Him. They are for my family. And while I know Jesus feels loved when I love well, I am kidding myself when I ignore the fact that any thoughts of Him are pretty far away when I’m doing all of that prep.

What gifts were given to Jesus when He came to earth and was born in a manger? It was simply the gift of people’s presence. In the midst of the mess of the stable, the noises of the animals, and the emotions that accompany things when they don’t go according to plan, Mary and Joseph let the rest of the world fade away and just welcomed their baby. Their hands were empty, which meant there was room for Him.

Instead of patting myself on the back when I can present Jesus with a picture-perfect Christmas, I have come to see the value in offering Him a calmed and quieted soul (Psalm 131:1). Instead of feeling like I need to come with all my to-do’s wrapped up in my hands, I’ve learned that the gift He likes best is my empty hands, upturned in humble worship.

Padre Pio has been ministering to me these months with these words,

Live simply. Eat simply. Love one another simply. Do not complicate matters unnecessarily. How do you live simply? You remove activities that are not necessary or that pull you away from duty…Apostles of Jesus Christ must set an example of service and obedience but not hectic service. There should be calm and if there is not calm in your life, change your life and keep changing it until you find calm.[1]

There is still time to do what matters most this Christmas season. I’m not talking about the gifts, the cookies, the decorations, or the parties. What matters most is finding a pocket of calm, emptying your hands, and upturning them to offer thanks. A humble thank you to the God of the universe because He stepped into our mess as Emmanuel, God with us. Take a deep breath, my friends. Your peaceful presence is more important than the perfect present. That’s what is remembered most.

So offer Jesus your empty, upturned hands this Christmas. There’s no better gift.

With you on the journey,
Lisa

[1] http://messages-from-heaven.org/Stress/m2.htm

It’s Advent. My favorite time of year. Every morning in December, I get to wake up before the entire house and pray by a Christmas tree. It’s glorious. For four weeks, I get to meditate on the mystery of God becoming man, and I love it. I love it because I love God, I love Christmas trees, and I love history. And while all of these things make me feel good, I rarely allow these delightful moments to transform the way I live.

Advent is a season for preparation. During this time, we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming, but that preparation should not only affect our hearts and minds. The work we allow God to do in us during Advent should leave a mark that makes us different during the rest of the year. But how? How should praying through old prophecies and thinking about Jesus’ being born in a manger change us? It should change us because, when we meditate on them, they tether us to reality, and when we live in reality, we will live more joyful and ordered lives.

Frank Sheed, a Catholic theologian, said in his book, Theology and Sanity, “Seeing what the Church sees means seeing what is there.”[1] When we see the world as it really is and interact with it how it actually works, our behavior harmonizes with truth, which brings on peace and guards against anxiety.

The issue is that this is easier said than done. It is not easy to live grounded in reality because we are surrounded by illusion. Our society is a marketing machine that is constantly telling us what should make us happy, sad, or afraid. It sends the message that life is about our comfort, our preferences, and our happiness at the cost of humility and sacrifice. If we do not deliberately hold on to the truth, we will eventually live as though the world revolves around us—even if we don’t believe it in our hearts. Meditating on God’s promises during Advent can break us out of the cultural narrative because it draws us out of our daily grind and into the broader story of God’s faithfulness throughout history. It reminds us of our role in the story.

One of these promises does just that. These words remind us of who God is and who we are in His plan of salvation: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them, light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy” (Isaiah 9:2–3).

Notice where the people are. They are in darkness. Notice that it doesn’t say, “The people in darkness have themselves walked out of the darkness and into the light.” No, the people were pretty helpless, and it was while they were still in darkness, the Light began to shine. The hero in the story is God, the Light, that saved the people. The people themselves did very little. They may have responded to the Light, but it was God who did all of the work.

Dear sister, this Advent season, as I pray through Isaiah 9, I am declaring over and over again that the world does not revolve around me. I am not the point of the story; God is. I don’t believe it in my heart, but I often live as though I am the center of the universe. How do I know? Because I am easily inconvenienced and offended. I’m also quick to believe that I am pretty amazing, and if others don’t verbally recognize my greatness, I am overcome with discouragement.

What about you? I bet that you know that the world does not revolve around you, but how do you live? What are your knee-jerk reactions? Examine your thought life. What do you think other people owe you? Answer these questions, and you will quickly find out whether you act as though life is about you or God.

During these weeks of Advent, if you let Him, God will gently but boldly put you back into your place. He will remind you of what is real—that all of history is about His goodness. We are the ones in the darkness, and He is the light. We needed a savior, and He did the saving. He is meant to be served and glorified, not us.

The season of Advent is ultimately about freedom. God became a man to set us free from sin, and in doing so, saved us from ourselves. He is the center of everything. When we live our lives according to this truth, wonder becomes attainable and joy becomes common. We become free of the burden that comes from trying to be the star on a stage that was never meant to be ours in the first place.

So, as we approach Christmas, let this season change you. Let it change how you respond when others upset you or fail to notice you. Let it free you from the tyranny of self-love so that your life reflects the reality that it is all about the One who is Love itself.

Come Lord Jesus, set us free from ourselves so all that is left is love of you.

[1] Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity (Ignatius Press: 1993), 22

Do you want your life to change?

This was the question that Dynamic Catholic Founder, Matthew Kelly, posed to a packed church parish hall ten years ago. I can’t speak for the other attendees’ responses at the retreat that day, but I can share mine. It was a solid yes.

The solution Kelly offered wasn’t anything that I was expecting and certainly didn’t align with the solutions the world offers. He didn’t tell me to go to therapy, practice mindfulness, walk in the grass barefoot, or lose weight. (Which, for the record, are not bad things. In fact, I’ve done them all.) He simply suggested, “If you want your life to change, go to daily Mass every day for two weeks.” He followed up with, “Some of you will, and some of you won’t.”

As for me? I did.
And he was right.
My life radically and profoundly changed because of the Mass.

But please do not mistake “changed” for “eliminated trial and tribulation.” My active participation in the holy sacrifice does not serve as a magic pill that makes troubles melt away. (If it did, the churches would be filled.) Dare I say, some troubles have seemingly gotten worse. The “change” goes deeper than external and current circumstances. It is an ongoing stretching and pulling of the heart. An interior transformation. It is hard to explain the mystery of it all, but I have narrowed my own experience of how the Mass has changed my life down to three significant, yet super simple points that might help you to better understand; and, if you so desire, can apply to your own life.

1. Start every day with God’s Word. Do you realize that when you reach for your phone before you get out of bed you have just given every voice in your feed permission to shape your heart and steer where you stare? What we allow to daily enter our minds has the power to bring us peace or unrest. Life or death. Scott Hahn said, “If we do not fill our mind with prayer, it will fill itself with anxieties, worries, temptations, resentments, and unwelcome memories.”[1] And maybe you are thinking, I do pray every morning. I do not have to physically go to a church to pray. And you are correct. Sort of. Because…

2. The Mass is an invincible weapon. We are in a daily battle. In the Book of Revelation, we read how “the huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it” (Revelation 12:9). And “when the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to the earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child...then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring” (Revelation 12:13, 17). Sweet friends, I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are the offspring. We have an accuser who accuses us “day and night” (Revelation 12:10). I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a terrifying and losing battle!

However, Ephesians 6:13 offers a plan: “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” How much armor are you wearing? Because I want to wear the full armor. I want the armor of personal prayer, but I also want the armor of the holy sacrifice of the Mass! The Eucharist! Christ present on the altar in flesh and blood! I cannot rely on my own strength, and so I need to literally consume the strength of Christ. Where do we find this strength? In the Eucharist. The Eucharist strengthens us in charity, preserves us from future mortal sins, and unites us more closely to Christ.[2] And speaking of being united with Christ…

3. The Mass rightly orders our worship. Here’s the truth we don’t want to hear: we are all addicts. Everyone is addicted to something. As the saying goes, “Addiction is giving up everything for one thing. Recovery is giving up one thing for everything.” Jesus is everything, and yet so many worldly addictions compete with Him. What is the one thing that you drop everything (Jesus) for? On the days I skip time with Jesus present at the daily Mass, it is my addiction to self-reliance that has taken God’s place. The moment I start to look at everything piled on my plate and start to imagine all of the things that I will accomplish with that extra hour is the moment I give up everything that Jesus wants to give me. Truly, it’s the work of the enemy. Because there is nothing on my to-do list—not even those things I can do for my children—that will ever be more important than hearing the Mass. I know…every parent reading this thinks I have lost my mind. But hear me out. Our children, no matter their age, are watching us. They see what matters to us and what does not. In his book, Parents of the Saints, author Patrick O’Hearn writes that “these devout parents show us that there is no greater gift a parent can pass on to their sons and daughters than the Holy Eucharist. Other gifts will never satisfy or last—toys will be abandoned, clothes will be outgrown, cars will break down, and sports teams will disappoint, but the Holy Eucharist is the gift that never stops giving and always satisfies.”[3]

Some of you will read this and feel inspired to attend daily Mass. Others will find my suggestion highly inconvenient and logistically unrealistic. Others will think how strict and outdated the rules of the Catholic Church are that, in today’s busy day and age, church attendance is even a requirement. “But the true state of the case is that the law of the Church is so strict because Christ is present in the Mass.”[4] Of course, we know that God is everywhere. “But it is in the Holy Mass alone that He offers Himself to His Father as the Lamb that was slain. How can we forego that sweet and solemn action?”[5]

This Advent, I made a vow to give up my worship of self-reliance and to get back to “the works I did at first” (Revelation 2:5). Namely, worshiping God at daily Holy Mass. And in just one short week, the fruits and rewards are undeniable. The bottom line is that wherever this lands on your heart, I want you to know this: Ten years ago, I wanted my life to change, and it did...because of the Mass.

Do you want your life to change?
If so, go to daily Mass every day for two weeks.
Some of you will and some of you won’t.

I pray that you all will.

[1] Scott Hahn, Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots (2009), p.91.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, p.352, 1394, 1395, 1396
[3] Patrick O’Hearn, Parents of the Saints:The Hidden Heroes Behind Our Favorite Saints (Tan Books, 2020), p.30-31.
[4] Father Lasance, The New Roman Missal (Christian Book Club of America, 1993), p.40.
[5] Father Lasance, The New Roman Missal (Christian Book Club of America, 1993), p.40.
Bible Study

Deep abiding joy—the kind that helps us to rejoice even when weary—wouldn’t that be the most amazing Christmas gift? This is what we long for, but for many, it’s difficult to hope because 2020 has held many disappointments. Plans haven’t gone the way they should. Words have been spoken that have pierced many hearts. Much is broken, and we aren’t sure how to put it all back together again. In the midst of a Christmas with more chaos and confusion than we’d like, does the night of our dear Savior’s birth still make a difference?

The ancient words of St. John Chrysostom give me food for thought…

“On this day of Christmas, the Word of God, being truly God, appeared in the form of a man, and turned all adoration to himself and away from competing claims for our attention. To him, then, who through the forest of lies has beaten a clear path for us, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever.”

Could it be that experiencing deep abiding joy is connected to what we adore? Is it possible that some competing claims for our attention have gained our primary focus this year? Has our gaze shifted, and have our bodies followed our eyes into a forest of lies?

I’ve discovered some things about myself this year. All the changes that COVID has brought have made it clear that I adore the following: My comfort. My well-laid plans. Experiences that give me something to look forward to and a burst of joy when I’m in the midst of them. These aren’t the only things that I adore, but when they are taken away, I wilt a little bit.

Since all three of those things have been hard to rely on this year, I can see competing claims for my attention at work. When I lose control on a macro level (hello, pandemic), I try to control things on a micro level. I do this without even thinking about it. I push the dig deeper button, get to work, and rely on grit. My ability to control something as small as my to-do list competes for my attention with “the better part” that God offers me—the invitation to come away and rest a while.

When I ignore His invitation to rest, I’m led into a forest of lies—lies like:
“It’s all up to me.”
“It doesn’t matter how I feel.”
“Things will never get better.” 

One thing is for sure—I’d better get out of that forest of lies if I want to have the kind of Christmas that includes rejoicing despite weariness. And here’s the good news: Jesus has beaten a clear path through the forest of lies to bring me to the Father. He’s cleared that path for you, too.

When I say, “It’s all up to me,” Jesus says, “No, my sweet sister. It was all up to me. And I did for you that which you couldn’t do for yourself. So lay down your burden (Psalm 55:22). The earthly work will never be done. I invite you to rest in my all-sufficiency and let me take care of the things that you didn’t finish.”

When I say, “It doesn’t matter how I feel,” Jesus says, “No, you’re wrong on that point. The heart of the Father is always turned toward you with tenderness, and He has put your tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He cares deeply about what’s going on inside you. He is listening. He is paying attention. He neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).”

When I say, “Things will never get better,” Jesus says, “Don’t you remember what I said in Revelation 21:5, ‘I make all things new?’ I am at work, I promise! Don’t forget the truth of Isaiah 43:19, ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’”

When we feel too weary to rejoice, we can receive God’s joy as a gift—as a present—delivered by the Word of God incarnate through the Word of God inspired. So let’s declare truth as we leave the forest of lies and journey to the manger in Bethlehem.

For I declare that God gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength (Isaiah 40:29).

I declare that God will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul He will replenish (Jeremiah 31:25).

I declare that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).

I declare that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

I declare that my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever (Psalm 73:26).

I declare that God’s presence will go with me, and He will give me rest (Exodus 33:14).

I declare that I will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety (Psalm 4:8).

I declare that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5).

Oh that we would rejoice despite our weariness, celebrating the One who has led us out of the forest and into a place of true rest for our souls.

Praying for a merry and refreshing Christmas for you.
With love,
Lisa

 

Are you worried about how everyone is going to get along this Christmas? Is there a pit in your stomach because you are dreading the interpersonal dynamics that are about to engulf your family? Does it seem like your family members revert back to childhood roles and behaviors when they get together? Is the cloistered life sounding pretty good to you right now? If this is how you are feeling, you are not alone.

Your family is a mess? Jesus’ family was dysfunctional, too. Just take a look at His family tree. Matthew 1:1-16 lays out His genealogy, and in it we find a liar, a cheat, a woman who slept with her father-in-law, a prostitute, a refugee, an adulterer, and a murderer. I’m not making this up. It’s all in there. These are some messed up people, my friends. God’s Word is meant for flawed families with real baggage and problems.

Could it be that God chose this particular family line for Jesus in order to teach us how He can redeem even the most broken families? What was amazing about the Holy Family is that they allowed God to write a new narrative with their lives, despite what had happened before. Instead of continuing in the same old patterns, they chose to sacrificially love in the hard places. They didn’t shrink back when love became costly. They leaned in. As a result, the pain and wounds weren’t transmitted—they were redeemed.

It’s been said that friends are the family you choose. In the words of Beth Moore:

We form most friendships out of personal preferences, but we’re not automatically the better for it…Many of us have distanced ourselves from extended family because we’ve replaced them with people we prefer. Though some elements of the transition are justified and godly, others are selfish. Let’s face it. Family is more trouble than friendship, and the fear that we might share similarities with some of our members also carries an indictment too strong to face on a regular basis. For one thing, we can drop friends more easily when the relationship becomes inconvenient. Here’s the rub and maybe the help: God chose our family even if we didn’t. Even the challenges they pose can be effective motivation to seek His throne, His help, and His healing (AKA deal with our stuff). [1]

Jesus has factored the dysfunction of your family into His plan for your good. All the garbage, the aggravating habits, the opposing political views, the childhood hurts, the unkind words, the unspoken judgments, the laziness of one and the workaholic nature of the other, the mental illness (yes, even that)… God can use all of it to benefit you and yours. It’s through the rub of our closest relationships that God chisels our hearts to better resemble His.

While friendships we can choose and discard at will may be easier, easy does not always equal good. Very often, good = hard. Nowhere is this truer than with families.

What might change if in addition to issuing gifts to our family this Christmas, we issued a challenge? What if we challenged one another to press in when we want to disengage from each other? What if we challenged each other to stay and love in the hard places, to have honest conversations, to face our demons, and to hold each other during the process? What if we committed to each other that home would be a safe place to let it all unravel… to follow the thread of tears and hurts… inviting the Lord to heal and redeem us each step of the way?

I know this isn’t easy and that most of us would rather numb out or distance ourselves from the dysfunction. But perhaps a better choice would be to encourage each other to go to counseling—calling out any shame under the surface and firmly rejecting it. Maybe things would change if instead of shutting down or being distracted, we said, “Tell me more.” What watershed moment might come if we had the courage to ask for or offer forgiveness?

There is no perfect family here on earth. We all have flaws galore, no matter how well we can pull it together when the neighbors come by. Jesus doesn’t ask us to come to Him when we’re cleaned up. He asks us to invite Him into the mess. Isn’t this the message of the manger? That’s where He first showed up, to the manure, animals, smells, and discomfort. Invite Him into your home and family this Christmas. I promise you—He will come.

Praying for you and yours,

Lisa

[1] Beth Moore, Stepping Up: a Journey Through the Psalms of Ascent (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Publishing, 2007), 155.

Walking with Purpose

Hello Sisters in Christ! The below is one of my early blog posts, published in 2012. I enjoyed re-reading it and I pray it resonates with you this Advent. – Lisa

ALL GOOD GIVING AND EVERY PERFECT GIFT IS FROM ABOVE, COMING DOWN FROM THE FATHER. – JAMES 1:17

As Christmas approaches, I’m freshly inspired to create the perfect Advent setting in my home. I picture beautiful arrangements of greenery and berries by my front door, a lovely tree by the roaring fire, homemade cookies, and peace and harmony wafting through the house like a scent of cinnamon, cloves, and orange. I want everything on my Christmas Pinterest board to magically appear in my house. Regardless of my good intentions, my reality never seems to match my ideal. Take for example the Advent calendar that I always forget to fill until mid-December. Why on earth I bought the Advent house that has little tiny openings that hardly any candy actually fits in is beyond me. But now it’s a tradition (although an empty one, literally), so each year I bring it out and hope that I’ll get my act together a little earlier. And then there’s the nativity set with no baby Jesus. This isn’t because we’re waiting to put him in the manger on December 24th. It’s because we lost him, and every time I buy a new nativity set, I manage to lose that baby Jesus, too.

Thankfully, a meaningful Advent season isn’t dependent on a perfectly decorated house, consistent traditions, homemade cookies or Christmas cards sent out on time. What is Advent all about? It’s about getting ready, spiritually preparing, for the coming of Christ. As we wait to celebrate Christ’s birth, we remember the long wait the Israelites had as they anticipated the coming of their Rescuer – the Messiah. During their wait, God stretched out a long Advent calendar where, from time to time, they were able to “open” a gift that reminded them they were drawing closer to the realization of His promise. These gifts were prophecies that pointed to Christ, and glimpses of God’s plan of redemption. Literally hundreds of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus.

He continues to fill up a very personal Advent calendar for each one of us. Every day. Jesus (who is the giver of all good gifts) sends us reminders of His love that are handpicked for His precious daughters. Pope Benedict described this in his Apostolic letter, Porta Fidei, dated October 11, 2011. He wrote, “Faith grows when it’s lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” When we see God’s love at work in our lives, our faith grows. Unfortunately, these graces often go unnoticed by us as we dash around, always busy, slaves to our lists of to-do’s. Perhaps this Advent season can be different. Look for His unexpected gifts. How is God helping you to experience His love today? Did you listen to a beautiful piece of music? Did you receive an unexpected kindness? Did a piece of Scripture speak to your heart and encourage you? Did your child give you an unexpected hug? What reminder of His love did He send you today? God knows what delights you. It blesses His heart when we recognize what He’s sent. I encourage you to make an Advent list, recording what He has given. We can forget and take things for granted so quickly.

For a reminder of how much God adores you and loves to lavish you with the things that delight, take a look at the Opening Your Heart Connect Coffee Talk “Priority #2: Your Heart – You Are Captivating!”

Wishing you an Advent season with time to pause and be filled with Christ’s sweet love.

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

Walking with Purpose

And just like that, the Advent season is among us. Before you know it, Christmas will be here. Of course, by the looks of the house across the street (the house that never took their Christmas decorations down from last year), one might think that every day was Christmas! And don’t get me started on retail. Santa was at the mall before the Halloween candy was digested. It appears the rush to get into the Christmas spirit is happening earlier and earlier, sooner and sooner, faster and faster.

And I am not a fan of this.

It’s not that I don’t have any Christmas spirit, or that I have a problem with premature Christmas decorating. I really don’t. If pulling out a box of vintage ornaments in November makes you happy, by all means, go for it. What I do have a problem with is approaching Advent as if it were a 24 day countdown, running ourselves ragged as we run from store to store, party to party. What bothers me is how easily we’ve turned Advent into a season of stress and anxiety; worrying about all the things that need to get done and how on earth are we going to afford it all. What was once a prayerful journey through darkness to light has now become a marathon sprint to the finish line with a peppermint martini in hand. Is it just me, or have we forgotten what Advent is all about?

I don’t know exactly when this happened, but somewhere along the line we got it all mixed up. We took the peaceful days that lead up to the birth of our Savior, and replaced its simplicity with chaos. Then we took the 12 days of Christmas, and reduced it to a single day by packing up the ornaments, taking down the tree, and boxing up the nativity all on the 26th. See ya next Christmas, baby Jesus!

In his book, Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Mary, Father Mark Toups reminds us what Advent is all about.

"The secular Christmas season we find ourselves in is anything but small, simple, and slow. In fact, for many of us, the pace of life accelerates as Christmas nears. There are presents to buy, parties to attend, and holidays to plan. As the world around us sprints into frenzy, Advent actually invites us to slow down. Just as Nazareth’s pace formed the heart of the Mother of God, Mary wants to slow us down so that we can receive as she did. So, slow down. Get quiet. Listen. After all, what’s the rush?"(1)

I want to slow down. I want to take off my Christmas running shoes and walk through this Advent peacefully, with Mary, away from Target and towards the stable. I want to trade anxiety for simplicity. Chaos for calm. I want to prepare my heart and make it a manger, ready to receive the infant Christ.

But how?

If a peaceful heart and home is what we desire this Advent, we need to rightly order our days. In his Magnificat reflection, Bishop Baron writes, “Whenever God is given highest value, order is established both within the worshiper and in the society that surrounds him or her...Consequently, trouble comes from incorrectly directed praise...if you want peace, get your worship rightly ordered.”(2)

Makes you wonder. What am I worshiping?

It’s as simple as asking yourself that question. Personally, I am tired of waking up Christmas morning, exhausted because I just spent the last 24 days worshiping all the wrong things, only to feel like once again, I missed it. If you can relate to any of this at all, I want you to know...I am reclaiming Advent. The world can have its secular holiday celebration with its Elf on the Shelf and Pinterest charcuterie boards.

I am putting things in their right place and taking back this holy season. Here’s how:

  1. I will protect my daily Mass/quiet prayer time. It is amazing how easily I can convince myself during Advent that there is way too much to get done, and I work best first thing in the morning, so clearly, Mass and/or prayer has got to go! Listen up: God first. Christmas errands second. PERIOD.
  2. I will not stress about fitting in every holiday tradition during Advent, and instead, I will take advantage of the 12 days of Christmas. If I want to gather friends over for a toast to Jesus, we can do that after Christmas day! If I want to enjoy sitting down and writing out Christmas cards with a pot of coffee, I can do that after Christmas day! We can party all the way to the Epiphany, folks!
  3. I will embrace the darkness. For too long I thought that a good Christmas was a perfect Christmas, and perfect meant no troubles, no problems, no sorrow. But now I know that’s not true. Peace is possible despite our circumstances, and nothing proves that truth better than the manger. Remember, you need the darkness to see the light.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation—not celebration. It’s time we get our worship rightly ordered. There’s a baby about to be born: The King of Peace. You won’t want to miss him.

Laura

(1) Father Mark Toups, Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Mary, (Ascension Press, 2018), 7.
(2) Bishop Baron, “A Light Unto My Path,” Magnificat, December 2019, 22.

Bible Study

I received the call halfway through my drive from Florida to Maine. With the dog in the backseat and the car full of Christmas presents, my world stopped for a moment with the news that Amy, our oldest, was in labor. We were about to welcome little Luke Anthony into the world, I was becoming “Nana,” and I couldn't get on a plane to them fast enough. Since I was in Philadelphia visiting my son (who couldn't hide the dog in his dorm room), I had to re-work plans and meet another son at the airport in Boston to pass off the dog, car, and gifts. Slight aside-this son met me curbside with his blonde hair dyed red; never a dull moment. But I digress.

Knowing how Amy's life was about to change, wanting to comfort her during any pain, desperate to hold this new precious life… I told every person I encountered that I was becoming a grandmother. Someone told me once that when you have a grandchild, all the love you have for your own child just multiplies and passes to the new baby. It's a chance to do motherhood again, but without the heaviness of responsibility. I'm allowed to just enjoy little Luke, to kiss his little cheeks and enjoy his snuggles, and know that while my prayers for him will be powerful, the disciplining is someone else's job. My husband, Leo, and I were able to enjoy a taste of this delicious experience this weekend, and it was the supreme gift.

When we were driving back to the airport, Leo talked about the effect little Luke had on him. “When I just held him, sleeping on my chest, all the things I've been worried about just faded away. There was a power in that little baby. He commanded all the attention in the room, simply by being there.”

It makes me think of a night thousands of years ago when another baby was born. It was the night that changed everything. Hope was ushered in, just because of His presence. Suddenly, everything else faded in importance. The door between heaven and earth was opened, and a baby entered. In the words of Ann Voskamp, Jesus came “as the most vulnerable imaginable. Because He wants unimaginable intimacy with you. What religion ever had a god that wanted such intimacy with us that He came with such vulnerability to us? What God ever came so tender we could touch Him? So fragile that we could break Him? So vulnerable that His bare, beating heart could be hurt? Only the One who loves you to death.”

Mingled with this outpouring of love is death. The incarnation and the Cross. This self-giving is the price of true intimacy. It's always demanding and brings with it a feeling of vulnerability.

I wonder where this Christmas Eve finds your heart. Is it weary from giving? Is it apprehensive, wondering how family dynamics will play out over the next few days? Are you feeling tempted to self-protect, to draw back, to fall into old coping mechanisms? Stress does that to the best of us.

So my prayer for you is that you can pause and feel the power of the baby in your midst. The Christ child comes and reminds us that all else can fade in importance, if we will focus on Him. It's His birthday, but He comes to offer gifts to us. He offers us kindness, hopeful that we will use it to offer forgiveness to those who don't seem to deserve it. He offers us patience, hopeful that we will use it to listen to the relative's story that we have already heard a million times. He offers us goodness, hopeful that we will do small things with great love for the people who are sitting in their chairs when we think they should be helping us. He offers us gentleness, hopeful that we'll be the balm between frustrated loved ones. He offers us self-control so that we close our mouths when the quick retort is on the tip of our tongues.

Just as being a grandmother offers a fresh opportunity to love again and perhaps love differently, the advent of Jesus gives us a chance to chart a new course in our relationships. So we pray…Oh come, oh come Emmanuel, and breathe new life into our families and homes. This Christmas Eve, we welcome you.

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

Dear Friend -- I just had to share this post with you, written this time last year, as it is one of my all-time favorites. -- Love, Lisa

It's such an interesting message the world sends us this time of year, and by interesting, I mean flat-out ridiculous. Get your shopping done, wrap those gifts, mail those Christmas cards and photos (the ones you took back in August), bake those cookies, host those parties, assemble the gingerbread houses, deck the halls. And that's just the first week of December.

I INSIST THAT THIS IS THE YEAR CHRISTMAS WILL NOT BE REDUCED TO THE TO-DO LIST THE WORLD WRITES FOR ME, BUT RATHER, IT WILL BE A PERIOD OF INTENTIONAL WAITING, AN ADVENT SEASON WHERE MY GAZE IS TRULY FIXATED ON THE EMPTY MANGER, PREGNANT IN THE ANTICIPATION OF BEING FILLED WITH THE COMPLETE AND AWESOME WONDER OF A NEWBORN KING.

I might have dropped dead on my floor yesterday morning when I saw how a friend on Instagram had finished her Christmas preparations over Thanksgiving weekend. FINISHED. Didn't help that our Thanksgiving decorations were still sitting out on the counter, next to the rotted Halloween pumpkin, when I came upon her post. And she planned it this way so that she could actually enjoy the month of December. Which I suppose, is a brilliant idea, if you have that kind of motivation. I, however, am the kind of woman who still has a stack of half-written and never sent Christmas cards from last year, stuffed into my china cabinet drawer. If you're lucky, maybe I will send you one…in time for Easter.

And you know, every year I say the same thing. “I am not going to miss it.”  The purpose. The meaning. The reason. The incredible build up of the immense weight of glory that is about to be born. I insist that this is the year Christmas will not be reduced to the to-do list the world writes for me, but rather, it will be a period of intentional waiting, an Advent season where my gaze is truly fixated on the empty manger, pregnant in the anticipation of being filled with the complete and awesome wonder of a newborn King; a King I so desperately need to come, to be born, and to rescue me, again and again. And then suddenly there I am, tearing at rolls of gift wrap with my teeth like a great white shark, and cursing out the stupid scotch tape dispenser like a full-on crazy woman, ordering my poor husband to go back out to Petco on Christmas Eve to purchase the third guinea pig that week, because the first two I brought home were not longhaired enough, and insisting that he must go back to Costco for more cheese and a larger ham, because I mean really, what on earth was he thinking buying so little cheese and such a small ham? It's CHRISTMAS people…you get the mother lode of cheese and you bring home the giant freaking ham!!!!!

Because that is exactly what Mary did the night before she gave birth to the Son of God. She scrambled like a lunatic for last minute gifts and sent Joseph to Costco, because the birth of her Son just wasn't enough.

And this pierces my heart as I write it…that the newborn baby Jesus…He just isn't enough. And sure, maybe we don't really mean that, but I think that maybe, we can surely act like that. When we stress over perfect menus and the matching kids' clothes, and spend more time worrying about will we have enough money to grant everyone's wishes, and will we be able to provide a good Christmas for our friends and family…well…I think when we do this, it is as if we are saying that baby Jesus, being born and with us, is not enough.

And I don't believe we do this intentionally. I do not believe we push Him aside, promising to get right back to Him, just as soon we complete all of our preparations, on purpose. I think it just happens. I think we so easily get caught up in the race, and dragged into the malls, and busy with the online shopping that is all too easy, and before you know it, we are getting pulled into Petco (OK, so maybe that last one is just me) because we actually have really good intentions. We want the kids to be happy on Christmas morning.  We want our holiday guests to feel at home.  We want our feast to be delicious. We want to eat our body weight in cheese.  We want to do all of these things because we want to have a beautiful Christmas. We are all about the baby Jesus, it is just that sometimes? Sometimes we just go about it the wrong way. Sometimes we get pulled in the wrong direction. I know I do. And when I do? I miss it.

There is a balance in all of this, isn't there, and for those of you who have mastered it, please share. Because it is not easy to do and I think no matter how many of us try, we often fail. I do believe that we can have the baking, and we can have the gifts, and we can do all of our traditionally fun and expected things, if in fact…they are still fun and not just something we feel we ought to do because that one perfect lady we follow on social media does it, and look at how happy her family looks! But, how can you tell? How do you know what should stay, and what ought to go, this Advent? Well, before hitting your Christmas to-do list, might I suggest, you pray over it. Seriously. Take that list to prayer. Ask God what He would like to see you do for Him this Advent season. Because my guess is that God's way of preparing might look slightly different from the world's way of preparing. So it is wise to check in with Him, and ask….will doing this bring me closer to Your Son? Will this task, next on my list, deepen my love for You? How can I offer up this activity as praise and glory to You? Will this third guinea pig fill our home with the true joy of the birth of Jesus Christ?

And the answer to that last one is a resounding NO. The three guinea pigs have only brought true smell to my daughter's bedroom. Zero Jesus. If you are considering that Santa bring a live pet this year, come on over to my house first, and smell my upstairs.

You know, when I really meditate on the nativity, when I truly take some quiet time alone, escaping the chaos and the anxiety that without fail, washes over me this time of year, I can not help but find my tired mind taking me back to that one Christmas, five years ago; that one Christmas, that followed after the shooting at my children's elementary school. That one Christmas, where my community felt the groaning labor pains of the birth of unspeakable and devastating loss. That one Christmas, where we suffered such sorrow and disbelief, and couldn't imagine, for the life of us, how Christmas would come. Should Christmas come? And the miracle? Not only did Christmas come, but it came powerfully. It came beautifully. It came just as it promised. Because when you are reminded with what this life is all about, and you are slapped in the face of the reality that we need God like never before, guess what happens to that to-do list? Guess how much you care about the cookies and the parties and the wrapping? Everything takes on new meaning. Suddenly, you long for real presence, not presents. That Advent was like no other Advent I have ever lived through before. It was truly what Advent is supposed to be. A holy waiting period. A sacred preparation. A stripping away, a pulling apart, and a re-focusing. An awakening to the undeniable truth that the only thing we need, the very best gift we can ever hope for, is that swaddled baby boy, that newborn King. His presence is the only present. And until that sorrowful Christmas, I never knew how badly I wanted, how crazy much I needed, that gift. That baby.

And that is what the Advent season needs to be about. And I know it is hard. It took my being stripped away of everything, in the most hideous way, to see where I actually needed to be. It took giving up on my idea of what our Christmas was supposed to look like, and surrendering to God and His idea of what Christmas needed to be. It took my handing over my list…LITERALLY...and allowing friends to swoop on in and do what I was too sad to do. And guess what? Christmas still came that year. Sure, it looked different. It carried a weight of sorrow. But if you were to kneel next to Mary right now…right there in the stable…get on up close next to her, with the hay and the animals and the smell of the stable…and if you were to reach out and pick up that sweet babe, swaddled up tight, and gently kiss his head, and press His heart close into yours…would you not feel a tinge of sorrow?  Yes, the birth of our savior is a joyful occasion, but because we know His mission, because we know His sacrifice, because we know that the same baby we reach for in the manger is the same man we hung on the wood of the cross, how can we not weep?

And so maybe this Advent season, if you feel that earthly pull, if you feel that building anxiety and the stress of the world's to-do list, maybe it is a good idea to just stop. To be still. To give your list over to the Lord. And then, go on into the stable. Kneel down next to Mary. Close your eyes. And in joyful expectation, wait with her by the empty manger. Just wait.

He will soon be born, sweet friends. The hope we wait for. The grace we need. The Christmas presence that is beyond compare to any other present on our list. And He is more than enough.

So let's prepare wisely. Let's not miss it.

Laura

Laura Phelps author bio

 

Feast of Christ the King

Everyone worships something. Whether or not we issue an intentional invitation, something or someone sits on the throne of hearts. Whatever we consider most important, worthy of sacrifice, and critical to our happiness and well-being is given that place of importance. We get to choose what we worship, and what we pick will determine the trajectory of our lives.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King and in our first reading, Daniel receives a vision of Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven. It must have taken his breath away and I'm sure he was never the same again. This is what he recorded afterwards:

As the visions during the night continued,
I saw one like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven;
when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him,
the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

What a gift Daniel received. For the rest of his life, this image remained in his mind and filled it. By contrast, most of our field of vision is full of the things that our culture says have the highest value. Our eyes constantly are fed airbrushed images of celebrities that tempt us to think that nothing is more important than outward appearance. The news cycle would lead us to believe that the well-being of our nation isn't dependent on our morality; it's measured by the Dow, NASDAQ and S&P.  We seek security, significance, fulfillment and purpose and bow down to whatever promises to supply it.

We were made to worship. We'll worship whatever we decide we can't live without.  What can't you live without? Is it a child or a husband? Is it a thin body? How about financial security? How about a good reputation or social status? How about fruitful ministry for Christ? The things we worship can be good things. This is where it gets tricky. We check our motives, and think that what we're pursuing is good, or really for our families or other people, or really isn't harmful. And we continue down the path to nowhere.

What we believe we cannot live without we will make the supreme good in our lives. We'll pursue it with all we've got. We'll panic at the thought of losing it. Sometimes we'll compromise and break the rules if we're afraid that it's going to be taken away.

Whether we're doing it consciously or not, we have placed something on the throne of our hearts, and we're worshipping it with all we've got.

This issue isn't anything new. God talked about this to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and described it as “idols in our hearts.”(1) Anything that we love more than God is an idol. We think of an idol as a statue and picture people bowing in front of it. An idol can be that, but more often, it's not something physical that we can hold in our hands. But we hold them in our hearts, and that's just as dangerous.

So what do we do? How can we stop wanting these things so badly? How can we want God more?

The vision of God has got to so fill our minds and hearts that there isn't room for competing gods. They try to get in, but we're already full of God. We're feasting on what really, truly satisfies. The things the world offers to entice us - the pursuit of beauty, prosperity at any cost, self-made security - feel like too much cake for breakfast. We can see that there's an appeal, but we also recognize that filling up on those offerings will make us sick.

It was my longing for a fresh vision of God that led me to write the nine-week Bible study, Beholding Your King. I was tired of cake and wanted meat. Do you feel the same? Are you longing for something more? Do you look ahead to the Advent season and wonder how you are going to keep your focus in the right place? If that's where you find yourself, this Bible study is just for you. I wrote it to help fill the void left by superficial living, replacing it with a fuller view of God and His glory.

In the pages of Beholding Your King, we're reminded that God sits on the throne as the supreme authority.  There is no one higher. As the Creator of all, the One who sustains our every breath just because He feels like it, He is the One in charge. We can choose to ignore it in the same way that children sometimes act as if they can get away with anything, but the truth remains. We can fight against it all we want, but God sits on His throne, the authority over gravity, tsunamis, fire, water, the ground beneath our feet, and the air we breathe.

There is no law greater than Him. There is no love more powerful than Him. He says it best in Isaiah 46: 9, 10: “I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. At the beginning I declare the outcome; from of old, things not yet done.  I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every desire.”

What do we think would be a better authority to bow to? Ourselves? Another imperfect person? Money that can be gone in an instant? Beauty that is guaranteed to fade?  

Nothing but God is worthy of our worship, and He should take our breath away.

May the vision of His glory fill our hearts this Advent season,

Lisa

PS: If you're ready to let Christ fill your mind and heart this Advent, shop our store for Beholding Your King.

1. Ezekiel 14:3

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

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