Finding God In All The Right Places

I’m an usher at my church. Which means I stand at the back of the place like sort of a friendly sentry, making sure everyone has a seat, and keeping the doors open and closed at the appropriate times, always ready to jump in when someone needs something. Mostly it’s just standing and watching. Of course I’m there to worship as well, but my worship is often distracted by the goings-on of others. God and I have a deal – I pay as much attention as I can. As an adult with attention deficit disorder, being an usher is a blessing. And I’m exactly where I should be.

I’m often entertained by rambunctious children and their beleaguered parents. I silently chuckle when the parents have reached their breaking point. Given the opportunity I thank them and their dapple-cheeked delinquents for the distraction, particularly during a dry and dull sermon.

Yesterday was no exception. The Gospel reading was the Wedding Feast at Cana. A beautiful story of Jesus’ first public miracle. A tender moment between mother and son. A lovely reminder that weddings and marriages should be celebrated. Instead our associate pastor took the opportunity to drone on about his command of biblical scholarship or something. I honestly don’t know because his message was completely unrelatable and I mentally checked out. I admit I could have tried harder to listen but it was BORING and so my attention quickly turned to the two young families sitting nearby.

Our little miscreants back in the day

The first family had too many children. They were up and down, in and out and looked completely miserable. Had they asked, I could have told them that after our third child was born we realized we were out-numbered and henceforth out-maneuvered. I’m not saying couples shouldn’t have more than two children but they should be informed that somebody’s hand is not going to get held. And those “STOP IT RIGHT NOW” silent stares in church are less effective if you can’t squeeze the aforementioned sweet little hand. I know this from experience. Our three knew how to make the most of church time by poking each other or fighting over a book about how much Jesus loved them or feigning some discomfort and lying on the pew. Not to mention that their tiny little bladders needed to be continuously emptied. If I had a dollar for every trip to the bathroom during mass I could start my own church.

The second family had two boys (perfect number) and were especially well behaved. Not perfect however as the younger boy had a moment or two where he ‘went all limp’ as if the bones in his body had temporarily been removed. But here is the remarkable thing: The Mom kept her composure. The Dad stayed calm and only slightly noticed limp-boy and recognized Mom had things under control. The older brother, who is also very young, either ignored little brother or chose to tolerate his behavior. Not a perfect family but a family in perfect harmony. Simple and profound. And there for me was the Wedding Feast in Cana. A mother devoted to her son and accepting and supporting his behavior. A marriage of two people who complemented one another. A family who by their love and devotion to one another witnessed to this old usher and gave me a sweet journey down memory lane.

I’d like to think all those years ago that we behaved more like the second family most Sundays but the reality is that we were probably more like the first family. Still, on those rare occasions when we were in harmony I hope someone saw God in our tiny family and realized that we were trying our best and I hope they were blessed by our distractions.

Peace,

Denis

There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
John 2:1,5

Always and Forever

Today is our wedding anniversary. So please forgive me, but I needed to write this message to my bride:

Deb,

It was always you. And it will be forever.

Whether it was divine intervention or fate or good luck, somehow we were meant to be together. I am the happiest man alive. You bring grace each day to this journey that we’re on. Thank you for the years of hard work and devotion. Thank you for the years of love and the laughter. Thank you being the center of all that is good in my life and for being the heart of our home.

So, here we are, 47 years and still counting. Three children. Five grandchildren. Six homes. Two continents. Multiple jobs and careers. Countless friends. And one love.

It was always you. And it will be forever.

Love,

D

Making Christmas Past Present

This Christmas feels more nostalgic than most Christmases. My wife and I both lost our Dads this year.

Deb’s Dad was quieter, more thoughtful in his approach to family celebrations. He often took a backseat to the festivities. He was an observer; cherishing the love and joy from a slight distance and holding it all in his heart. Still, he knew more about what was going on than most because he watched; he listened; he paid attention to the details. And he loved us.

My Dad liked to be front and center. He was always in the mix (sometimes in the way). He was bold and loud and he loved the spotlight. He sometimes missed the subtlety of a situation because he was way too busy trying to get his point across; tell his joke; make his mark. But he loved Christmas and loved being being surrounded by his family. And he loved us.

Two very different men. Two very different ways of celebrating Christmas.

So here we are, celebrating Christmas without our patriarchs. I know that both would want a happy Christmas for us all. This year I will try to make Christmas past present.

I will step back when I can (realizing of course for me this is a struggle) and breathe in the spirit of it all. I will try to be the astute observer that my dear father-in-law was. I will try to cherish those quiet moments and pay attention to the often overlooked details of our gatherings. I will keep an eye out for the forgotten; the weary; the under-served in our family, community and world. That’s what Pop would do.

I will also be cheerful (even when I might feel a bit melancholy) and try to lift the spirits of those around me. I will eat a little too much, laugh a little too loud and tell some of the same old jokes a little too often. I will compliment everyone on everything and truly be thankful for what I receive. I will remind us all how lucky we are to be part of this family, community and world. That’s what Dad would do.

We are blessed this year. Our children and grandchildren are with us to celebrate Christmas. We are healthy. We are fed. We have shelter. We have faith. We have hope. And even though two great men have left us this year, they remain present in our love for one another.

May you and those you love find peace this Christmas,

Denis

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful. Isaiah 9:5-6



The Greatest Gift

They say the greatest gift a father can give their children is to love their mother. Our Dad gave us that greatest gift! Dad was an example of a loving and devoted husband. Dad worshiped Mom.

He talked his way into their first date by playing on her sympathy because he had just returned home from the Pacific after World War II and he spent the next 72 years talking her into other various situations. Thank goodness, because I might not be here otherwise. In truth, Mom took care of Dad more than the other way around but Dad was still her hero and her protector. And their love story is one for the ages.

We lost Dad yesterday. He was 95 years old. In the 2-1/2 years since Mom passed away Dad has lived in an assisted-living community. No visit was complete without hearing how much he loved and missed Mom. He disliked the fact that she had died before him and often wondered aloud why God would have done that. He couldn’t change it and he couldn’t understand why it happened that way. He couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t negotiate a better deal. He couldn’t talk his way out of it.

And Dad was a talker. And a dealer maker. And a fixer. But he couldn’t fix the fact that he was alone after a lifetime with Mom. So, he adapted and learned to live without her physical presence but she remained always with him.

Dad was always quick with a joke and looked at life as a glass half-full. He never met a stranger. He made friends everywhere he went. As a kid I used to be embarrassed by his knack (or annoying habit) of striking up conversations with anyone he encountered. He was the kind of guy that could ask an amputee how they lost their limb and somehow not be offensive. He talked his way into places, jobs, relationships and talked his way out of jambs and traffic tickets (and probably some jobs as well). He adjusted pretty well to life at his assisted-living community. The other residents and the staff at his complex loved him and he was sometimes the life of the party or the instigator of some mischief. Always smiling. Always talking. Always making the best of it.

Lately he seemed to be missing Mom more than usual. He died on what would have been her 93rd birthday. It was his last gift to her, that they be united once again. The greatest gift Dad gave me will live in my heart forever. His loving devotion to Mom eases my pain and lessens my grief. And I pray that I can give my children that same gift.

I have a great example to follow.

Peace,

Denis

In word and deed honor your father that his blessing may come upon you;  For a father’s blessing gives a family firm roots.  Sirach 3:8-9

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