Star Gazing

We read in Scripture that magi from the east arrive in Jerusalem. Magi are understood to be astrologers and it was a common belief in ancient times that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. Scripture does not call them kings. Scripture doesn’t say they were men but, considering the time in history when most women were at home trying to not get stoned to death for some infraction, it’s likely they were. Scripture doesn’t say there were three of them, although there were three gifts mentioned. So, it appears that legend and tradition have colored this story for many of us.

I for one, love the idea of The Three Kings. Royalty (men) humbling themselves. Offering their finest treasures. Following that Star in search of a greater treasure. I have fond memories of “our magi” being placed amongst the nativity crowd as a child. My own children would place them at our nativity (and sometimes throw in a statue of Santa for good measure). Our oldest son came bounding in the house once after a kindergarten religion class and proudly told us the story of the “Three Wise Guys”. Those are all warm, happy memories.

But what’s the relevance of the magi in my life today?

Am I searching for the true treasure? Am I able to surrender my comfort and security for the unknown? Am I capable of humbling myself? What gifts do I have to offer?

The story of the magi challenges me. I just retired after fifty years of working, and I have a feeling of uncertainty about my own future, but I can let go of my need for control and accept whatever changes life has to offer. And I have the freedom now to be a bit of a star gazer. I can search for new opportunities. I can serve God by serving others. I can humble myself by serving the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, the imprisoned. The gifts I can give are dignity, respect and love. And I’m not traveling alone. The magi in my midst today (my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends) are carrying me as I stumble along my way. When I lose my focus, they will help me find that Star.

And my journey continues…

Peace,

Denis

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, 
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures 
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew 2:9-11

Perfecting Christmas

I grew up with images of Sweet Baby Jesus being born on Christmas day. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for those days of innocence: Jesus’ and mine. In the comfort of my suburban home, I imagined all good girls and boys had the same kind of Christmas to which I was entitled. I was taught that Jesus was born poor and in a stable but, I had no real understanding of poverty or homelessness. Our Christmases were gloriously predictable: Santa would come; cookies would be baked; dinner would be plentiful; family would gather. And plaster Baby Jesus was perfectly happy to stay tucked away in his manger with Mary and Joseph dutifully at his side while we opened our presents.

While playing with my new toys, I would give an occasional nod to Jesus. We would attend Mass and sing our carols and I knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. But my world was small and my understanding of life beyond my family, my neighborhood, and my parish was limited. And I liked it that way. There was security in the bubble that was my young life. Mom and Dad and my brothers and baby sister were all I needed. The messy stuff; the scary stuff; the life outside; was more than my little mind could (or would) comprehend.

Then it happened. I grew up. Life got messy and sometimes scary, but I held on tight to my need for perfect Christmases. I wanted everyone to be happy. “Jingle Bells” would be blaring from my cassette tape player. Reality would be put on hold. As a newlywed I found Christmas to be another opportunity to share our love but with the added stress of finding (and affording) that perfect gift. When our children came along, I tried desperately to give them the Christmas of my youth: warm, secure, loving, with plenty of gifts and a dash of Baby Jesus thrown in for good measure. And we would routinely go in debt to make darn sure that happened. Because no one could be disappointed with a less than perfect Christmas!

They say with age comes wisdom. I’m not sure if that’s true. I think more accurately “with age comes the same mistakes over and over”. And sometimes if we’re paying attention or we get kicked in the head we might actually learn from those mistakes. You can call that wisdom, I guess. At least that’s my wisdom experience.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who needs the image of Baby Jesus at Christmas. I love babies and I think it’s remarkable that our Savior was born an infant. However, Jesus’ humble birth sends a message that for most of my life escaped me. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to the realization that Christmas comes to everyone, not just the happy little families gathered around their tree. I will always cherish my childhood experience of Christmas, but as Christians we are called to have a preference for the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten. “As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’—to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor”. I have some work to do.

But here’s the good news: Jesus comes for all of us! What I need to constantly remind myself is that Christmas comes whether we’re celebrating a beautiful Christmas liturgy or working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. Christmas comes whether the gifts under our tree are beautifully wrapped and plentiful or if they are being given to us by a volunteer at the Salvation Army. Christmas comes if we’re enjoying a sumptuous feast with family gathered or sitting alone at a soup kitchen. Christmas comes while we’re holding our sweet-cheeked grandchild on our lap or holding the hand of a loved who has just received a devastating diagnosis. Christmas comes whether we are celebrating new love or mourning the loss of our lifetime companion. Christmas comes with giggles and joy and with tears and heartache. Christmas comes.

I still strive for those perfect Christmases. The ones where everyone is happy and well fed and sufficiently gifted and loved beyond measure. But now I know to also look for Jesus in the less fortunate circumstances. I try to find Christmas in the hurried shoppers, the beleaguered parents, the refugees searching for a home, the lonely neighbor, the recovering alcoholic, the estranged family member, and that old man that I see in the mirror.

So, my prayer this year is that wherever we find ourselves, we are still able to shout the Good News. Jesus is born! Our salvation is at hand. Whether you’re in a high holy place with a glorious choir singing Alleluia or handing out “Toys for Tots” to children in need; if you are “on top of world” or find yourself lost in despair, hoping for better days to come or pining for days gone by, I hope that Jesus (or whatever/wherever you find comfort at Christmas) touches your heart and lifts your spirits.

May your Christmas this year be perfected by His love.

Denis

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today a savior has been born for you.”

The Only One

Sometimes I feel like I’m the ONLY ONE. The only one who gets the joke; who knows the score; who sees the absurdity in a given situation; who uses correct grammar and knows the meaning and proper use of the word exacerbated, which is often how I feel. Being the ‘only one’ can be a lonely place. Why isn’t everyone as intelligent, well-informed, and confident? 

Of course, when I think about it (and pray about it) I realize how self-important and misguided I am. At times I choose solitude because I really want to be left alone; to not be bothered by the opinions and needs of others. It’s easy to be uncaring when you remain aloof.

Do you suppose that John the Baptist (the crazy, animal skin wearing, locust eating, hermit) thought that he was the ‘only one’? The only one who knew what was coming? Was he skulking around in the desert because he was disgusted with the callous disregard of others? Maybe. Or did he think that wandering around alone in the desert was a great way to get his message out? I don’t know. But as we prepare for the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas, John the Baptist reminds us that there is something else coming. We must prepare for the change that Jesus creates; in our world; in our church; in ourselves. While I may feel like ‘the only one’ that is exactly the opposite of the message of hope, peace, love and connectedness that Christ brings to us. I am admonished by the Gospel message.

I need to join humanity. Get dirty. Pay attention. Get involved. Make a difference. Lend a hand. Carry a load. Love. These are not things that I can do alone.

I believe that when I open my heart to others, Christmas will come. In the meantime, I have some valleys to fill and some mountains to tumble. I know that my own arrogance, pride and ‘only one-ness’ need to be made low. And my heart and spirit could use some filling up and straightening out right now.

Then and only then, will I be truly worthy to hold the Christ-Child and be able to encounter Jesus in everyone I meet.

Peace,

Denis

A voice of one crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew 3:3

Waiting (impatiently)

Waiting. Always waiting. Still waiting.

Waiting seems to be the story of my life. Waiting for the end the school year as a boy. Waiting to get my driver’s license as a teenager. Waiting for my bride to come down the aisle. Waiting for our first child to be born and our second and our third. Waiting for promotions and raises. Waiting for grandchildren. And now I’m waiting for retirement.

I’ve been thinking lately about waiting and my impatience. During Advent we are reminded to slow down and be patient. We are expected to wait. We are told to be hopeful. Impatient people like me, try to “gird our loins” and tough it out so that we can get through these weeks of waiting. We prove our worth by being watchful and ready to embrace the impending joy of the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.

But waiting alone is not enough. Being hopeful about the good things to come isn’t the complete answer either. It misses the point. The beauty is the waiting. The joy is in embracing the longing. Peace comes when I surrender myself to God’s plan. True patience is actively living in the present. It requires that I let go of my need to finish the game; win the race; get to the prize. The true joy of Advent is acceptance. Accepting my here and now; for better or for worse. I live with the hope of better things to come but I must love and treasure what I have now if I am to truly be fulfilled in the future. Baby Jesus at Christmas won’t mean much if I don’t find Christ in everyone I see TODAY.

So, I try to be patient and I try to live in the moment but realistically my impatience is not going away any time soon (or ever). Waiting for my wife to be ready to go somewhere or for the weekend to get here or my coffee to finish brewing will always make me tap my foot and wonder, “How much longer must I wait?”

Anna and me (back in the day)

Today I ran across a text message my daughter sent me years ago when her daughter was only six or seven years old. It reads:

Tonight, at Girl Scouts, we decorated bags that will eventually be used to carry food to the homeless. The girls have nothing to do with the food portion, but were asked to decorate the bags with drawings, stickers, etc, and they could feel free to write a nice Christmas sentiment on them. I did three of Anna’s 5 bags because she’s slow as molasses and I wanted to leave early. And then she showed me her long-awaited 2nd bag (how could it have taken so long?) and her sweet message simply said, “God is love.” Those three words brought me so much joy. She gets it. She’s been paying attention. And she’s sharing that simple message with a stranger. And with me.

Now that’s a testament to patience. For both mother and daughter. And granddad, too. Anna is in high school now, and she’s still slow but patient (especially with granddad) and she lives in the moment. She challenges me to try (again) for patience during Advent and to embrace my waiting. Even if it means an occasional foot tapping.

Peace,

Denis

Misty Water-Color Memory

First of all, sorry for the cheesy title which harkens the schmaltzy lyrics from the title song of “The Way We Were”, a 1973 hit movie starring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford. My wife and I were dating when that movie/song came out. I suppose I looked a lot like Robert Redford back then and I guess she was just spellbound. That story (almost believable) is for another time. I really hope the song’s not playing in your head now.

My actual misty water-color memory is from Thanksgiving fifteen years ago. Seven adults and one child made the whirlwind 10-day trip from the U.S. to Germany to England and back to Germany before returning home to the U.S. We spent Thanksgiving in London that year and had to forego our traditional turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Instead, we dined on fish and chips at a quaint pub in London. It was lovely.

Because Thanksgiving is not a holiday in the U.K., we were able to tour Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is truly awe-inspiring. This place is steeped in history, and one can’t help but imagine all of the kings and queens who have processed through that space. As an Anglophile, I could have spent days there. I’m sure for our three-year-old granddaughter Charlise it might have seemed that we had. I imagine from her perspective it was dull, but she was an angel the entire time. 

The River Thames is within walking distance, so after we finally left the Abbey, we decided to walk across the Thames. I was pushing Charlise’s stroller, and I could hear her speaking very excitedly. I stopped; walked around the front of her stroller and bent down to ask her what it was that she wanted. Her response: “Look Pawpaw, water!” After spending hours in Westminster Abbey where her point of reference was everyone’s kneecaps (or rear-ends); she finally saw something that she could recognize – WATER:  How beautiful. How simple. How wonderful! 

Charlise and I looked at the river together and I too felt like a three-year-old. We were transfixed by the sheer beauty of the water swirling under the bridge and I realized, then and there, that ancient artifacts and significant historical places could never take the place of my granddaughter’s enthusiasm for that moment.

I’ve misplaced most of souvenirs and the photos of all the majestic and important places we toured on our trip, but the treasure that remains in my heart is the memory of the time when Charlise and I looked at the water in the Thames. It transcends time and space. And I remain grateful to have been blessed by that experience. 

I have so much for which to be thankful. This year we will again have our usual feast in the comfort of our own home. We will be surrounded by all the familiar sights and sounds and smells and tastes of our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The comforting embrace of the laughter, love and good food will fill my soul and new memories will be made. But sometime during the day I know that I will have a fleeting memory of water swirling under the Westminster Bridge.

And, once again, I will give thanks!

Peace,

Denis

Now for a little schmaltz…

Sanctified

I’m an usher at my church; officially a minister of hospitality. My responsibilities include greeting people, finding parishioners a seat, keeping an eye out for anyone in need, opening and closing doors as needed, sending people home with a bulletin and a wish for a good week. Simple job for a simple man. I’m qualified.

Most Sundays, things are pretty predictable: same friendly faces, same unfriendly faces, same older folks with their assorted accessories – walkers, canes, etc.; same crying newborns; same sweet-faced babies; same ill-behaved toddlers; same angelic school children; same skulking teenagers; same off-key singers; same beleaguered families doing their best to be there on time (or to not arrive too late). As the hymn reminds me: “All Are Welcome In This Place”

The truth of the matter is that I usually go about my “duties” pretty mindlessly. Oh, I try to be welcoming and accommodating, but often it all seems pretty perfunctory. A cardboard cutout with a “WELCOME” caption might be as effective. I must admit that often my heart and my soul aren’t in the right place even if my body is. My anger or disenchantment or apathy towards the Church (the capital “C” Church – the hierarchy; the dudes who are calling the shots) keeps me distant from the faith community in my midst. Many times, I dig in and refuse to even listen to the preaching. My failure, my loss I suppose. But sometimes self-righteousness feels so damned good!

Yesterday was different. As families were arriving, I noticed one particular family entering single-file. It appeared to be a mother, father, three or four children and perhaps a grandmother. Rather abruptly, a boy of about 5 or 6 years-old stopped, stepped out of the family line and turned around to wait for his grandmother. When she was next to him, he took her hand, and they walked in together. Simple, honest and, humbling. With his loving gesture, that small boy brought Christ to me at that moment. Suddenly the choir sounded more beautiful. Later the Gospel held more meaning. The prayers had greater depth. All because of witnessing this simple act of love. I realized (again) that God needn’t only be found in the piety of churches, and mosques, and synagogues, nor through intense prayer nor profound worship, but in the love of a small boy towards his grandmother. I just need to put down my sword of anger and pick up my plowshare of compassion in order to witness it.

Later I thought about my own grandchildren and how just being with them lifts my spirits and brings balance to my life. And once again, I am reminded of my blessings.

Peace,

Denis

Saints and souls and celebration

Yesterday was Halloween. Some historians will tell you that Halloween’s origin is in ancient festivals honoring the moon or stars or the end (the death) of the growing season. Some Christians believe that All-Hallow’s Eve is a time that early Christians dressed in costume and bestowed gifts and blessings on those in need in an effort to honor the Saints. Nowadays children dress in costume (trick) and go door to door to collect candy (treats). Costumes often convey themes of death or the macabre but just as likely they might be pop stars or something cute and cuddly. Still, you won’t find any saints on parade bestowing gifts or blessings. As a kid, I can assure you that my “trick or treating” was a completely unholy experience. We ran like a pack of wild dogs and grabbed as much candy from as many houses as we could in three or so hours. Those who refused to play along and kept their houses dark risked smashed pumpkins or worse. My friends and I were tiny terrorists demanding candy! Nothing particularly saintly about that experience.

Today is All Saints’ Day, and tomorrow is Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, also known as All Souls’ Day.

All Saints’ Day is a big deal in the Catholic Church. It’s an official holy day. There are countless saints in heaven, but All Saints’ Day observances tend to focus on those recognized in the Canon of the Saints. So, the biggies like Peter and Paul and Mary (not to be confused with the folk trio from the ’60s) get most of the attention. Of course, sometimes the more obscure guys like Sixtus and Phileas get a shout out or perhaps the newbies like Artemide Zatti or Giovanni Battista Scalabrini but not your grandmother nor your uncle, regardless of how saintly they may have lived their lives.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. celebrates All Souls’ Day on November 2nd but few folks outside of the church really pay much attention to this day. It’s a day to remember those who have died and who are not (yet?) saints. I guess this is where your grandmother fits in. However, in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a major feast day and a national holiday as well. The dead are honored with special meals, including their favorite foods and drink. Whole families gather in the celebration and the mood is light, with the emphasis on remembering and honoring the lives of the deceased.

So why all the fascination with death? I suppose that in order to fully live we must be able to accept death, too. Death is not what defines us. Eternal life, that which we so desperately seek, is never definite; never final. There is much hope for life beyond. For some it is the promise of life with God. And whether that means heaven or remaining in the spirit of those we leave behind, it’s comforting to know that we are more than just a mass of human cells. I believe with all my heart that we exist beyond our last breath. The love we give is multiplied by those we have loved and then divided amongst those we leave behind.

So, our lives matter.

And death, well we can dress it up and “trick or treat” or we can solemnly honor it on a high holy day. I just hope that someday my family will be at my graveside dining on some of my favorite foods and drinking some good wine and laughing and crying and allowing my spirit to live on. And then I will truly rest in peace.

Denis

In the time of their visitation, they shall shine and shall dart about as sparks through stubble. Wisdom 3:7

Autumnal Thoughts

Unlike many people (and it seems as if it’s everyone that I know) I don’t love autumn. I’m not a fan of cold weather. I don’t relish watching leaves fall (they will have to be raked up). I like my coffee without pumpkin spice. And picnics, baseball, swimming pools, and snow cones will have to wait until next year.

In addition, Autumn makes me realize that I am in the autumn of my life. And winter is coming – hard and fast!

As I often do, I try to look for the positive in each situation. Fall colors are beautiful. The “gravy season” brings comfort foods that fill my body and my soul. My favorite sweater wraps me in warmth and familiarity. I enjoy watching my grandson playing soccer. And I look forward to the upcoming holiday season with family and friends gathering to share love and laughter.

I strive to find role models to emulate. Some of my favorite humans are embracing their advanced years with a joy and an energy that belies their age. As I groan about my aches and pains, I remember my older friends (some 20-30 years my senior) who embrace each day with purpose and hopefulness. If they can “keep on keeping on” surely, I can do the same.

I also find Autumn a good time to reminisce. I carry a lot of things in my heart on this journey through life. This time of year, as things slow down and this time of life, as I slow down, it seems an appropriate time to pull out those memories and embrace them. I can use this time to let go of hurt. I can offer and accept forgiveness. I can bask in the joy of love’s presence in my life and honor the lives of those I have loved and lost.

Each flutter of breeze brings another cascade of gold and red and orange leaves flying just outside my window. It’s as if they are waving goodbye. And I suppose they are. Next spring they will be replaced with green buds and leaves will sprout again. Until then I must endure another winter. Another dying. Waiting for the warmth to return.

This can be an opportunity to learn patience and embrace hopefulness. I’m praying for wisdom and the grace to accept it.

Peace,

Denis

God causes the changes of the times and seasons. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who understand. Daniel 2:21

“Whad’Ya Know”

My Dad used to say, “whad’ya know” a lot. Sometimes it was an exultation: “Whad’ya know!” after some discovery or realization or surprise. Often it was a question: “Hey Den, whad ‘ya know…?” about some random thing that I had little or no interest in. I’m afraid that I was often dismissive. “Dad, I have no idea…” was my standard response, all the while thinking, “what the hell…?”. Those were missed opportunities. I wish now I would have told him what I knew or more likely what I didn’t know. And listened (really listened) to what he knew. We lost Dad last year and those questions will never be asked again (nor answered, nor dismissed).

Grief is a funny thing. Sometimes it knocks you on your ass. You’re cruising along and everything is fine and suddenly a smell or song or leaf falling or a door closing will trigger a memory and you are immobilized. You feel frozen in time or thought and that undeniable ache crushes your entire spirit. More often though, grief gently taps you on the shoulder or hugs you around the neck and says, “slow down, whad’ya know, you’re going to be okay”. Grief can give you back those precious memories and allow your mind and spirit to simmer in those sweet moments, knowing they will never truly be lost.

What I do know is this: I’m a lot like my Dad. I probably say “what’ya know” more often than I realize. I know I’m always asking my kids and grandkids “what’ya know?” about random stuff and important stuff, too. They’re more tolerant than I am (or I’m oblivious to their dismissiveness). Either way, I’m fine.

I just want them to know what I do know: that I care about what they’re doing and that I love them. I’m often amazed at how brilliant they are: “What’d ya know, my oldest granddaughter is learning welding! What’d ya know, another granddaughter is learning French and has all A’s in her high school classes!”

I have a fun plaque in my home office that reads: “Ask Dad – he knows everything!” Well, I don’t, but I appreciate the sentiment. I don’t even know where I got the plaque. Or if it was a gift or something that I claimed from my Dad’s belongings. I doesn’t matter. I just hope my kids and grandkids occasionally ask me what I know (I might even have an answer worthy of their time) and I pray that they will continue to allow me to ask them what they know. Their wealth of knowledge is a treasure.

And as I continue to marvel at what I don’t know and exclaim, “What’d ya know!” at my discoveries I will rejoice in my newfound knowledge. I will thank God for new memories as I tuck them away for safe keeping with the old ones.

Peace,

Denis

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction. Proverbs 1:8

Entertaining Angels

Today the divisions in our country and in our churches and in our families are daunting. No time in my life have I experienced such anger and resentment; such righteousness and chauvinism. It seems that we are so busy drawing lines in the sand that we have forsaken our fellow humans. Gatherings are tenuous. Conversations are avoided. Neighbors are ignored. Friends and family are neglected.

As I often do, when confronted with things beyond my ken, I search for the wisdom of others. My friend Sherry always finds the good in others. She is an example of God’s never-ending love for us. She forgives completely. And I have been the humble recipient of her forgiveness. My grandchildren, aged 6 to 17, look at our world with such hopefulness. It is impossible not to share their joy and their dreams of a better world. I want to join them on that journey. I have close friends with which I share no political opinions nor affiliations (and we likely routinely cancel one another’s votes) yet we remain respectful, devoted and loving.

This summer I had the opportunity to serve at a food pantry alongside my teenage granddaughter and my pre-teen grandson. I was proud of them and their willingness to give to others. But what truly astounded me was their ease and comfort on that day. They truly gave of themselves – respectful and loving to all they encountered. Their enthusiasm and joy was contagious. On the drive home they recounted their day with thoughtfulness and wondered aloud why life was unfair for so many people. Never once did they judge any of the clientele. Never once did they gloat nor mention how fortunate they were to not be one in need. Instead they were thankful for having been given an opportunity to serve.

Those two saw the good in each person. And once again, they taught me a valuable lesson. I need to stop looking for the differences in others. I need to let go of my need to be on “the right side”. I need to look in the mirror and find that speck of goodness that my loved ones have found. And ask God to forgive me when I fail to share that goodness and miss another opportunity to entertain an angel.

Peace,

Denis

Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels. Hebrews 13:2