Noah

Today is our grandson Noah’s birthday.

Eleven years ago he stole my heart and conquered my world. He single-handedly restored my faith in God. He gives me hope for our future. It doesn’t hurt that he’s kind of my mini-me as well. We look a little bit alike (okay, more than a little bit). We laugh at the same jokes. We love the same folks. We like the same food. And we like being together.

I suppose that most men are just little boys at heart and with Noah, I can celebrate my inner 11-year-old. We both like to win at card games, contests, feats of strength, riddles, etc. No, I don’t let him win. Yes, he usually beats me.

Noah loves to point out our similarities: eye color (although his are bluer); hair color (although mine is whiter). We’re both color-blind (something that he thinks is sort of cool). Blue is our favorite color because it’s a color we can see. He looks up to me. And I’m his biggest fan.

There’s an awesome responsibility when someone sees you as a role model. What I say and do in his presence matters. My opinions, my actions are being observed and studied and often mimicked. If I act like a jerk, he might as well. If I behave with compassion, he might too. If I am patient and kind, loving and generous, he might follow that example as well. It’s tricky, this business of being a responsible adult.

Lately I find myself following his lead. He, in many ways, has become my role model. When we are together we share our stories – mine of days of old; his of school, soccer, baseball, robotics, and electronics beyond my understanding. We connect both physically and spiritually. He believes in God and I truly see God in him.

Noah has a habit of sitting next to me and taking my old arm and wrapping it around himself. That small gesture is sublime! It soothes my soul and calms my spirit. The fact that an 11-year-old boy still wants my embrace is a nothing short of miraculous. It’s my little bit heaven on earth and it will sustain me beyond the years when he no longer needs me. But I pray (selfishly) that he will always need me. Because Noah strengthens me. He makes me a better man.

Noah is eleven. He’s my boy. But in the blink of an eye he will be twenty-two. And thirty-three. And forty-four. And…

More selfish prayers – I hope that I am around to see the man that I know he is destined to become. I know that he will change our world. He’s already changed mine.

My birthday wish for him is that he will always know how much he is loved. And that he will always know I have felt his love and God’s presence whenever we are together.

Peace,

Denis

Hope

This has been a tough couple of weeks. A dear friend died unexpectedly. Controversy at work and school has been brewing over Covid-19 mandates. Family members have been displaced from New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida. Our friends’ son underwent emergency heart surgery. Everywhere I turn there is something else to worry about; pray about; ask God “WTF?!!” about. Not to mention the 24-hour news cycles of Afghanistan, Texas’ abortion laws, the January 6th insurgency investigation and subsequent political wrangling, flooding in New York and New Jersey and the seemingly endless fires in California.

Hopelessness has come crashing in around me. My prayers seem shallow. My worry keeps me awake at night. And my questions remain unanswered. While praying my feeble “why?, why?, why?” prayer last night, I remembered Anne Lamott’s book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. In it she writes: “Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.”

That sentence reminded of a time many years ago when when we were living in Wisconsin and I was feeling hopeless. Battles with our then teenage son Blake were at times cataclysmic. Raising any teenager can make you feel hopeless and completely inept. This one managed to really push all my buttons. As with many teenagers, there were the usual sullen and angry moments. Life was unfair. His teachers were unfair. We were unfair. There was a lot of unfairness. I grew tired of his sulking and decided that I should show him some real unfairness up close and personal. Back then I occasionally volunteered at a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen in one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. He would come with me the next time that I volunteered at the soup kitchen. We’d see if his bitching about how unfair life was would be silenced for a day or two and my hopelessness about being an ill-equipped parent would be eased for a little while longer than that.

When we arrived at the church we joined the other volunteers, some from our own suburban parish, and others from city parishes, and still others from rural parishes. We were all there to do God’s work – to serve the poor; to feed the hungry. We began with prayer and then were given our assignments. I was to dole out a (not too generous) spoonful of green beans to each person; Blake was to clear and wipe tables.

As our “clients” came through the food line and settled into the battered folding chairs and worn cafeteria tables in the humble church hall, I realized that Blake was also sitting down. What was he doing??? He was supposed to be serving the poor! He had an assignment to clean the tables. I asked another volunteer to take over my bean-serving job for a moment so that I could have a word with my son. How dare he? I was going to set things straight! I was going to make this kid understand he was there to serve others; to stop thinking solely of himself for a change!!!

When I approached him full of arrogance and self-righteousness (after all I had been serving the poor for months now) I was determined to teach him a lesson in love and compassion. Instead I came upon Blake and an elderly gentleman having a conversation. Blake was talking to this man; really talking and listening to him as well. It occurred to me that while I had been dutifully dispensing food all these months, I had never taken the time to speak with anyone. I barely looked folks in the eye. Was it my embarrassment because I believed that I had so much more than they? Or was it my shame because I couldn’t face the reality of living in a world where so many have so little?

Now I was the one being humbled. I was the one learning about God’s love. My son, my beautiful son, taught me that I had been missing the point. I had been feeding bodies but he fed this man’s soul. He showed he cared. He gave this gentleman dignity. He loved him.

And I’m still thankful for the lesson he taught me that day and how he restored my hope in us. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s the grace of God through others that sustains us and gives us hope.

Peace,

Denis

Then and now (he still gives me hope)


Back to School

Our daughter is a second grade teacher. She loves to teach. And I suppose unless you love it, you shouldn’t do it. The pay is meager and the challenges are plentiful. Still, she is a joy-giver and has an indefatigable spirit and those kiddos will someday remember her as someone who mattered. Because in her classroom they matter. She makes learning fun but she reminds her students that what they do and how they do it is important. School is important and so are they.

Truth is, she’s been teaching her entire life. She taught me how to be the dad of a daughter – which can be pretty daunting for us slow-learners. She taught her brothers a thing or two along the way. And of course her husband and children are devoted followers. She teaches; we learn.

Seeing her welcome her second graders this year brings back thoughts of classrooms long ago. Remembering my apprehension each school year of who my teacher might be and worrying that I might have forgotten EVERYTHING during my summer of freedom from the classroom. What would I do if I couldn’t remember arithmetic or names of the state capitols or something? I remember I would pray to Saint Jude, patron of hopeless cases, for a day or two before school started and somehow miraculously I could write my name in cursive after my summer hiatus.

As an adult I fondly remember favorite teachers; Miss Boerding, my second grade teacher who had a beautiful smile and always smelled nice and was patient and loving. Sister Leandra, who insisted on good grammar and penmanship and told amazing stories, which may or may not have actually been true. Miss Pfaff, geography teacher who instilled in me my love of travel at an early age. Sister Thecla, my high school drafting and graphic arts teacher who was a hoot and made her classes fun while we worked our tails off trying to meet her standards of excellence. Sister Fidesta, high school algebra and geometry teacher who was a force to be reckoned with but always had a twinkle of kindness in her eye.

I’m thankful for my many teachers. When I correct someone’s grammar (in my head) while they’re speaking or become frustrated with their improper sentence structure and lack of punctuation in an email I thank Sister Leandra. As I cringe while someone says, “I’m going down to Wisconsin” (and they’re not coming from Canada) I thank Miss Pfaff. When I study architectural drawings and work on designs for my job I thank Sister Thecla. When I have to be tough but remember to also be kind I thank Sister Fidesta.

Of course, I’ve had countless teachers outside of the classroom as well. My wife is a tireless teacher who has yet to give up on me. My Mom taught me how to pray. I have a workmate who leads me through the perilous journeys of our data system whenever I am lost. I have friends who teach me by their love and devotion and our shared experiences. My grandkids teach me how to operate some of these gadgets in our house that are apparently necessary for survival today. How many remote control devices must one have?

In or out of the classroom I’m always learning. And most days it’s good to get back to school.

Peace,

Denis

Saints and Angels

Below is a text exchange I had today with our teenage granddaughter. “Teenage granddaughter”. I still hold my breath a little when I say those words. That tiny baby girl who I held in my arms just moments ago is a teenager. But today I got a glimpse of the woman she is becoming: strong and smart and loving and faithful.

Here’s our exchange:

Me: We honor Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, as saints. We celebrate the joint feast day of Jesus’ grandparents on July 26th. Their love for one another and for Mary is an example to us of how God calls us to live. They also remind us to honor our own grandparents and to thank them for the blessings they have passed down to us in love. Happy Feast Day Anna! (I have to admit that part about honoring your grandparents was blatantly self-serving but I sent it anyway.)

She: I am greatly blessed to have you and Nana as my grandparents and today I am especially reminded of that. I love you.

Those words: I am greatly blessed… and I love you.

Just when the world seems to be too much to bear. Just when I’m not sure if I’m even fit for humanity. Just when I can’t seem to find a kind word or a kind thought, there she is. My girl. My teenager. She softens my roughness. She calms my restlessness. She looks past my ugliness. She ignores my mean-spiritedness. She digs deep and finds the love and beauty and truth that I sometimes keep buried deep under the angst of everyday living. But she finds it! She lifts my spirit and she soothes my soul.

And I am greatly blessed. And I am loved.

Peace,

Denis

What, why, when, where, how?

We have two of our granddaughters, aged 5 and 7, staying with us for three weeks this summer. It has been a lot. A lot of fun. A lot of laughs. A lot of ice cream. A lot of laundry. A lot of love. A lot of questions.

You forget sometimes when you are an adult to ask questions. I mean we already know everything anyway, right? What is there to learn? We’ve been there and done that. We stand by our convictions and our restrictions and God help anyone who tries to get us to open our eyes (or minds) to new ideas or experiences. And please don’t make me learn anything new. My brain is old and tired and full.

Sadly, there is a loss of fascination and wonder as you age. And I am guilty of not-wanting-to-know-anything-else! Ignorance is bliss. I don’t have to be responsible for anything if I don’t know how my irresponsibility contributes to the pain or suffering in our world. I believe in God (most days) but there was a long stretch during the Trump administration that made me doubt His (Her) existence. So much hate. So much darkness. So much divisiveness.

But my granddaughters are full of wonder. They ask questions about EVERYTHING. They force me to think about the whys and wherefores. They force me to take off my blinders. Their innocence and joyfulness and energy reminds me that I need to be more mindful of my responsibility as a human being. Their curiosity rekindles my need to better understand what is happening in my neighborhood, my church, my country and my world. I cannot afford to be a silent bystander when there is so much to be done. There is such a need for compassion and love in this world and I can do my small part.

On those days when I curse my fellow humans and stick my head in the sand I will try to remember that my granddaughters desire a better future. I must stay hopeful and faithful. I must keep asking questions. What can I do to help others? Why is there so much hate in our world? When will we learn to love one another? Where can I find hope and strength? How do I improve myself, my neighborhood, my church, my country and my world?

Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a prayer that includes: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the inclination that we do not have evil in our hearts. Deliver us from religious and national exceptionalism. Deliver us from addiction and depression. Deliver us from self-loathing. Deliver us from self-righteousness. Deliver us from high fructose corn syrup. Deliver us from a complete lack of imagination about where you are in our lives and how you might already be showing up. Deliver us from complacency. Deliver us from complicity.

As I read her prayer I realize that I too need to be delivered. I need to be delivered from my self-assuredness and pride and I need to start asking some questions. I need to ask the ones that are especially hard to ask – like where is God in my life? I need to learn to be patient with myself as I search for those answers. I also need to let go. I need to stop carrying the weight of anger and resentment. I need to unload those obstacles that consume so much of my energy and brain activity. Then perhaps I can wonder and wander. And maybe even carry someone else’s load for awhile. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

Peace,

Denis

The link below will take you to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s complete prayer

https://thecorners.substack.com/p/sunday-prayers-october-25th-2020

What Did Your Mother Say?

As our kids were growing up I was often challenged with requests. Kids learn pretty early on that they can divide and concur. “Dad, can I have…?” “Dad, can I get…?” “Dad, will you…?” My standard response was, “What did your mother say?” I wasn’t going to get trapped in the, “But Dad said...” hoo-ha. That’s a zero-sum game.

Today I’ve been thinking about listening to my own mother. My sister and I were talking just the other day about all the Mom-isms. Things Mom said that we will never forget! And we hear it in her voice. The funny thing is we often say the same things Mom said (in exactly the same way). So, we were definitely listening to what our mother said.

This is just a sampling of the things Mom routinely said to us:

 “If you look better; you’ll feel better! – The idea here is that if you’re sick (or near death) just clean yourself up; dress up a little bit and everyone (yourself included) will ‘think’ you’re feeling just fine.

“Don’t worry about it; half the things you worry about won’t happen and other half won’t be as bad as you imagine!” – Unless of course it was happening to her.

“If it weren’t for me… followed by any number of successes due to sacrifices she had made. Yes – this is now often my mantra, too!

“Put a little elbow grease into it.” – Which always meant try harder; work harder; get it done! Usually this was a direction not a suggestion.

“What must the neighbors think?” – In Mom’s generation propriety and appearance meant something. The house and yard were always kept up and she would never have gone shopping (even to the A&P) without dressing up a little bit. Maybe those folks at Walmart in their pajamas could take a page out of her playbook.

“If you think you have it so bad here maybe we should go visit Children’s Hospital!” – This was a sure-fire guilt trip to get us to stop our complaining. After all, we were convinced that those poor kids would have given anything to live in our lap of suburban luxury. I often wondered what the mothers of the kids at Children’s Hospital held over their heads.

“Boys are so much easier to raise than girls!” – My sister especially loved this one. He he!

 “It hurts me more than it hurts you.” This was an all-purpose remedy meant to show compassion. It could be used for physical or emotional pain but often as a child I received it with a certain amount of resentment. “Mom, I’m pretty sure my pain hurts me more than it hurts you.” Years later as a father and grandfather I know what she meant. I would gladly take on the pain to spare my child.

“Say a prayer to Saint Anthony” – Patron saint of lost articles. Somehow this dude could help us find something that we had misplaced. In her wisdom, invoking Saint Anthony was a way of sending the message – you lost it; you find it. Time to take responsibility for your carelessness. And it usually worked.

“I love you.” – Simple, sincere, timeless. “I love you too Mom!”

I still listen to my Mom even though it’s been two years since she’s been gone, I still hear her voice just as clearly as if she were sitting here with me.

To those of you who still have your mothers: take the time to listen – really listen. And to those of us who have lost our mothers: I imagine that you can still hear your Mom talking to you, too.

And to all you mothers out there: even when you think that your kids are not listening, they are – especially when you think that they’re not listening.

Our moms give us life and I suppose that they just need to make certain that we cherish and make the most of it. Mothers have this profound (albeit sometimes frightening) influence on their children. How we choose to channel “our inner mother” is entirely up to us. We can view it as brainwashing or mentoring or life-lessons. I take a certain amount of pride in knowing that Mom is still with me in my thoughts and actions.

My own kids listen to my wife and (I think for the most part) take her advice as well. Their relationship with her is one of mutual love and respect. They value her input and look forward to her involvement in their lives. But I’m certain that there must be times when they disregard what she has to say.

Still, I hear her voice in their determination to do the right thing and in the way they speak lovingly and thoughtfully to others, especially their own children. Because after all, “What did their Mother say?”

Peace,

Denis

Happy Mother’s Day

Creation and Rebirth

Recently my 13 year-old granddaughter Anna and I were having a discussion about the Earth and about creation. I listened and marveled at her wisdom and her intelligence, as she told me that all the water on the Earth has been here since the Earth began. She explained that all life begins in water. Rain that falls on us now and fills our oceans, lakes and rivers is absorbed into the atmosphere and returns to us again as rain or snow. The rain that falls on my garden today is the same rain that nourished my grandfather’s farmland and replenished the oceans that carried my forbearers to this country. These are same oceans where life began which allowed creatures to evolve and crawl onto the land. These oceans created the same rain that ultimately fell on the first man and the first woman. Such is the majesty of creation.

We also talked about how humans have only been on this Earth a small fraction of the time that the planet has existed. She told me that the Creation Story in the Bible is not necessarily a literal interpretation of how life began. Our Creator’s “days” should not be measured in human days. When I asked her how she became so wise at such a tender age, she reminded that I had once explained our Creator’s “days” to her when she was younger and that it makes sense to her now not to limit God in human terms. All those years ago she listened and remembered. I am humbled.

She is concerned about humankind’s harm to our environment and I share that concern. Global warming which is caused mainly from human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation and farming should not have to weigh on a precious 13 year-old’s psyche but unfortunately it does. Still, she is a positive, energetic teenager who sees possibilities where others only see hopelessness. I am inspired.

I love this time of year when flowers begin blooming and trees and lawns turn green again. This year I am thinking about rebirth. Not just in the little buds and blossoms. Not only in the songs of the birds and the scampering of the bunnies in our garden. But in the rebirth of Creation. We are stewards of this Earth. Where I have failed, my hope is that Anna will prevail. So to honor my granddaughter I will tend my gardens without pollutants, I will recycle, I will repurpose, I will vote for pro-environment candidates.

Whether you believe in a Creator Being or you believe that our planet is a cosmic phenomenon, it shouldn’t diminish your wonder at the majesty of the Earth. The next time you’re caught in the rain think about your ancestors being bathed in the same downpour. And pray that your great-great-great grandchildren can dance in that same rain.

Peace,

Denis

God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed. Genesis 1:31

Still Waters Run Deep

My father-in-law was a thoughtful and loving man. He was more comfortable as an observer than a participant in most situations, but when he spoke it was always worth my while to listen. I’m more of doer and a talker (too much of a talker, according to some) and I was often humbled by his quiet wisdom.

We lost him last week. And I’m certain that the angels welcomed him to heaven.

Pop was a father, grandfather, great grandfather and father-in-law. Nothing made him happier than being surrounded by family. We are all better persons for having had him in our lives.

He grew up poor in Southeast Missouri. He lived a hard life as a kid. He earned pocket money killing rats in the cotton and watermelon fields as young boy. He lived in his grandparents’ home when his mother couldn’t afford a place of their own but he never complained about his upbringing. He never voiced any regrets. He was grateful for all that he had in life.

In many ways he was ahead of his time. Unlike many men of his generation men he wasn’t afraid to do what was considered “woman’s work” and he often did the grocery shopping, would clean the house on occasion, do laundry and could prepare a meal if necessary.

He enlisted in the Air Force and then had a 40 year career with American Airlines but he never forgot his humble beginnings. What I remember most is that he never uttered an unkind word about anyone. He never looked down on anyone. It didn’t matter where you lived or what you looked like, he accepted you as you were. I never once heard a racist or anti-Semitic word or phrase pass his lips. He truly believed that all men and women were created equally. And he lived his life that way.

He taught my wife how to be a person of dignity and more importantly how to afford dignity to others. Since his passing she has wished that she had asked him more questions – about his life as a boy; his time in Korea in the Air Force; his love affair with her mother; his career; his grandparents and great grandparents; his hopes and his dreams. But if she had been able to ask all those questions, I know in my heart that he would have likely shrugged and said, “I have no regrets. I’ve lived my best life. And as a bonus I got you as my daughter.”

Pop would have done anything for any of us, but he didn’t like being fussed over himself. The night he died we let him get some rest. His health had been declining rapidly and he had had a fitful time the night before. We went into another room and reminisced about happier times. When we went to check on him the second or third time, we realized he had found his way home.

Our son commented later about Grandpa not wanting to be hovered over. He said, “It was just like him to sneak off while no one was watching.”

And so it was…

Peace,

Denis

I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7

Saint Joseph

As a father, I have a strong devotion to Saint Joseph – the patron saint of all fathers. I have been blessed with three incredible children. I realize that I’m not in their league in terms of intelligence, ability, and achievement. And yet, God decided to bless me with these three.

I rely on Saint Joseph to help me. He knew the overwhelming responsibility of fatherhood. He understood the love of a father that is so strong and at the same time so tender it cannot be described in mere words. He certainly must have felt ill-equipped, at times, to deal with Jesus. I could write volumes about my ineptitude as a father. I take for granted that my children understand that they are in my heart so deeply that everyday I am blessed by their very existence. But I’m not sure I always show them by my actions. Sometimes no matter how hard I try – I fail. I do the wrong thing. Or I behave unkindly. Or forget to say “I love you”. God gave me Saint Joseph to reach out to when I make a mess of things.

We know little about Joseph. We know that he had doubts. We also know that he said yes. He protected Mary and Jesus. Joseph is often depicted as an old man. But I believe Joseph was young when Jesus was born like I was when my kids came along. A worker. A teacher. A companion. A dad. Frightened but courageous. Ill prepared but undaunted. Beleaguered but unrelenting.

My prayers always include my children and my grandchildren but while asking God to protect them, I sometimes forget to thank God. So thank you God! You did a great job creating these beautiful humans. And God, thanks for letting me have a hand in it, too. And thanks especially for giving me St. Joseph as a model of fatherly love, patience, and devotion. Today I also pray for my son and son-in-law as they chart their course through the waters of fatherhood. I ask St. Joseph to be by their side.

Peace,

Denis

Saint Joseph, pray for us!

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Matthew 2:13

Looking for God in the Darkness

Come Be My Light, a book that collected many of Mother Teresa’s most personal and private correspondence, was published ten years after her death. Her letters revealed that for the last 50 years of her life she had been afflicted with a deep sense of God’s absence; her “dark night”. The revelation that Saint Teresa of Calcutta suffered in her spirituality is startling but I find some comfort in it.

How many times have I felt abandoned by God? How many times have I prayed for God’s strength and felt powerless?  How many times have I faced hardship, disappointment, loss or pain and felt completely alone; my own “dark night”? How often have I wondered if God hears my prayers at all? If Jesus really exists why does He not answer my pleas? 

Contemplating Teresa’s inability to feel God’s presence in her life is an opportunity for me to model her faith during my most desperate times. When I am adrift in my desert of doubt and loneliness, when I question God’s very existence, I can look to Teresa’s example of faith and know that God is with me; even in my darkest hours.

I know that when I can’t pray; when I can’t feel Christ’s presence I have family and friends that are praying on my behalf.  We are called to be the Body of Christ; to be Christ to one another. I know that I’m going to continue to struggle through my own “dark night” from time to time. But even when I feel abandoned, I try to remember that I have each of you lighting my way. So to those of you who pray for me, have prayed for me, or will pray for me – thank you for leading me through the darkness to His holy night.

Peace,

Denis