Wisdom Shouts In The Street

Every year I try to prepare myself for Christmas by embracing the Advent Season. Perhaps Advent should be a time of quiet reflection. A time for meditation and prayer. A time to quiet my soul and prepare the way for Christ’s coming into my life. But Jesus is already here. I just don’t always take the time to meet Him or possess the ability to notice anything besides myself or my needs. So, for me, Advent must be a wake-up call.

Sure, quiet, peaceful reflection is beautiful, but I sometimes need a “kick in the pants”. What better way to focus on what is important, what is necessary, than to encounter God shouting at me. “Hey, Denis!” “Pay attention!” “This message is for you!”

I need to let go of what I think is important. I need to look across the table; across the aisle; across the street; across the ocean. When I can find God in everyone and everything around me and beyond me, then I will be ready for Christmas. It’s a worthy goal. And completely overwhelming. But I can start small.

I can light a flame inside my soul. I can share that light with others through kindness and understanding. I can take time to listen, hold a hand, dry a tear, share a laugh, tend a wound or mend a broken heart.

And when I get caught up in my selfishness and lack of empathy for others, I will listen for God’s voice shouting for me. I imagine God, as my Mom, all those years ago when I was boy out playing with my friends, shouting for me to come home.

Wisdom shouts in the street,
She lifts her voice in the square;
At the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings.
 Proverbs 1:20-2
1

Come home! And then I can light the Advent wreath. One flame at a time…

Peace,

Denis

We Are Family

In his book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic and Beyond, Matthew Fox quotes Julian, a 14th century mystic: “Those who were Jesus’ friends suffered because they loved Him”. Fox then adds in his own words, “It hurts to be with the pain of others, of loved ones. But it also grows the soul.”

This week we celebrated the life of my cousin Michelle who passed away on October 7th. Michelle was a gentle soul who accepted every one of us as we were. I never heard her speak ill of anyone. She dearly loved animals because the love they returned to her was unconditional. Her life was not always easy but she carried joy in her heart and she shared that joy with all who encountered her, especially her furry and feathered friends.

When I think of Michelle I am reminded that Saint Francis, who also had a gentle nature, believed that humans and animals could live in loving harmony. Francis is attributed as saying, “My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator, and love Him always. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air so that though you neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Michelle’s service was beautiful and spending time with her siblings and her mother “grew my soul” this week. Our family, of which 4 or 5 generations have lived in the same town, is now spread throughout the rest of the world like many families today. There was comfort in being in our hometown and laying Michelle to rest next to her father, with those other 4 generations nearby. Knowing that we belong to those who came before us is comforting and grounding. Knowing that we belong to those who remain with us gives me strength. We shared our grief and our heartache on Monday but we shared our joy and our love for one another as well. This is our tribe and we carry one another when necessary. I held my cousin Kim’s hand as we prayed and watched Michelle’s remains be interred. That simple gestured calmed my soul and lifted my spirit. We are family and we belong to one another in a way no one else can.

Michelle had many gifts. She was a talented artist. She was generous to a fault. She didn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. She never met a stranger and welcomed all strays (even the two legged kind). But most importantly, to me, the greatest gift she possessed was simply this: every time I saw her I always left feeling better. Tomorrow when I am giving thanks, I will thank God for Michelle and for allowing my soul to grow. And I pray that she is flying in the purity of the air in heaven and smiling down on all of us.

Peace,

Denis

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” ~ Saint Francis

Falling Leaves

Working from home can be a blessing but it can be challenging as well. Today as I sit in my office working (or trying to) the leaves keep blowing out of our maple tree. 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 we must endure another winter. Another dying. Waiting for the warmth to return. Another opportunity to learn patience and embrace hopefulness.

I have another distraction today, too. After 20 years of faithful service; 20 years of accepting our cars coming and going, we are having our driveway replaced. The cracks were becoming unsightly and possibly a tripping hazard. Still, the old driveway was dependable and serviceable and welcomed us (or at least our vehicles) home on our many returns. I suppose it’s strange to consider our old driveway with such anthropomorphism but there were times when I felt like that driveway hugged us on our return home. Today begins a new chapter in our lives. A new driveway – straight and clean and ready (in 7-10 days) to welcome our vehicles (and us). More hopefulness for many more years of happy returns to this home that I love.

My mind is occupied with the leaves falling, the workmen outside, the temperatures dropping because I don’t want to think about what is really happening. My Dad is 95 years old and resides in an assisted-living retirement community, which is a euphemism for “old folks home”. He is in declining health. He has fallen a lot lately and he just returned to his apartment after nearly 2 weeks in the hospital because of pain from his latest fall. He was badly bruised but fortunately nothing was broken. While in the hospital he had pneumonia brought on by pulmonary aspiration. He’s back home for now but no one knows what lies ahead. More hopefulness is required. But I am struggling. Dad has always been a big man – literally and figuratively. 6 feet tall and still strong but growing weaker each day. Dad, always quick with a joke, the teller of tales and the life of the party is now often confused and his thoughts are getting cloudier, as his needs, both physically and emotionally, grow greater.

As I watch the leaves fall, I think about Dad falling. As they tumble to the ground gracefully, effortlessly, I pray that Dad’s eventual decline is gentle and peaceful. I want him to live another 5 years or 10 years but I know that’s not likely. He misses Mom. He longs to be reunited with her but I’m selfish and I want to hold on. Perhaps it’s my own mortality I fear. I’m so much like Dad in so many ways that seeing him this way is like staring into my future. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of losing him. I’m afraid of what lies ahead for both of us. Dad’s always been a fixer, a problem solver, a make-things-better guy. But Dad can’t fix this. And neither can I. Things will change but spring will come as it always does. And new life will emerge because hope is eternal.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. Romans 8:24-25

So now I pray for endurance for Dad (and for me).

Peace,

Denis

Someone To Lean On

The last few weeks have held their share of joys and sorrows. Desperation and hope. Doubt and faith. This is life.

Our granddaughter had surgery to correct a bone disorder that she was born with but only discovered after a waterskiing accident this summer. This surgery will have to be repeated on her right arm after her left arm heals. The blessing is that this was discovered and can be corrected while she is still young. She’s a tough little girl who has a positive attitude but multiple surgeries and recovery is daunting for an active 13-year-old. And it is my prerogative to worry and pray. And pray and worry.

We hosted a dinner party for friends and it was so good to have a reunion of sorts after more than a year of social distancing and postponements. Much needed love and laughter and food and wine was shared. More prayers – those of thanksgiving!

My cousin Michelle passed away. Michelle was a gentle soul who managed to find the good in everyone and everything. She was a model of unconditional love. She loved humans, animals, nature, and me. I hope her mother and her siblings find comfort in knowing that we have another angel in heaven. And I hope that they are held up by the prayers being sent their way. Anne Lamott wrote, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

Our dear friends celebrated a 40th wedding anniversary. Joy, joy, joy! What a wonderful celebration of their journey that has touched so many lives. I thank God for their friendship and for their example of a faith-filled marriage.

My 95-year-old father is struggling with dementia and age-related health issues. I had a tough visit with him recently. I failed him because instead of showing compassion, I was more concerned with his forgetfulness. Instead of meeting his needs I was focused on his appearance and his behavior. Fortunately I was able to lean on my brother and sister who shared my concerns and forgave my short-sightedness.

Faith in God is not easy. What is easy is to explain away all of our hardships and struggles and sadness as random acts in a world full of chaos. What is easy is to accept that some folks will always have better luck/money/position than me. What is hard is to find solace in times of sorrow and desperation in a God who at times feels very distant. Sometimes it’s challenging to find joy in others’ happiness when you are feeling overwhelmed with your own difficulties. But this is the essence of faith. I learned long time ago through trial and error to stop looking for God in the stars. To stop praying to the clouds. God is in my friends. God is in my family. And when I look deeply (this is the really hard part) I can find God in me.

A good friend shared this truth with me: “The road to the empty tomb is rocky.”

I’ll keep stumbling along my way, but I may need to lean on some of you once in a while.

Peace,

Denis

Do Feast Days Really Matter?

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Denis. He is the patron Saint of Paris and France and headache sufferers. Feast days in the Church seem archaic and arcane. Perhaps that’s why I like celebrating them. They’re a reminder that our Church is ancient and mysterious and somehow still enduring.

St. Denis – Outside the Madeline in Paris (depicted with head intact)

I’ve always been happy to have Denis as my saint’s name because he’s kind of a maverick and a tough guy. According to legend Denis was Bishop of Paris in the third century and was martyred by beheading. He is said to have picked up his own head and walked six miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. Besides being the patron saint of headache sufferers (for obvious reasons), Denis is also the patron saint of people dealing with frenzy and strife. During this time of pandemic we might learn something from Denis and “keep on keepin’ on”.

Of course, I admire the “saintly” saints who prayed and fasted and gave up all worldly possessions to follow Jesus’ call. We all love the saints who lived simple lives and made tremendous sacrifices for their faith but there’s something about a guy who has Denis’s spunk. I mean even the biggies like Francis and Theresa and Patrick and Clare didn’t carry around their own heads postmortem. So, in my book Denis is a saint to emulate. Not only was he tough but he was cool. Let’s call it grace under pressure – extreme pressure.

My Aunt Gene Marie used to send me a ‘Saints Day’ card on Denis’s feat day and I will miss that again this year, but I believe she’s in heaven now discussing that fateful day in Paris with Saint Denis and still celebrating his feast day. She’s the one who first introduced me to the saint who shares my name. I have always taken a certain amount of pride (is that a sin?) in the fact that my patron saint was a badass who defied his Roman persecutors!

I’ll keep celebrating feast days amidst the growing uncertainty about the future of our Church. When we forget that love should be our guiding principal and we refuse to accept ALL of our brothers and sisters, I believe that we are turning our back on God. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, wrote, “God is all that is good. God has created all that is made. God loves all that he has created. And so anyone who, in loving God, loves all his (or her) fellow creatures.” Julian was a woman who lived during the bubonic plague and still found joy in all creation. I am comforted by the knowledge that our Church is ancient and universal and that Julian’s wisdom still speaks to me today. I wish all clerics would read her words. We continue to make mistakes; to exclude; to blame; to punish. How many times in history have men nearly undone the gift of Church that God has given us? I wish all Christians would remember that we are the Church. I believe that there is room at the table for all of us. We can honor those who have come before us and thank God for the wisdom they have shared. We can pray for those who will follow us and show them that love is never a mistake.

A feast day is as good a time as any to do both. Jesus loved saints and sinners. And He still does.

Peace,

Denis

A few years ago my grandson was Saint Denis at his school’s annual All Saints’ Day celebration. If pride really is a sin then I’m surely doomed.

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