Holding On and Letting Go

My daughter shared that on her family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon her 11-year-old son became concerned with her welfare on one of the trail hikes and took her hand. She’s not sure if he thought that the steep incline might be too challenging for her or if he was worried because she was battling allergies or perhaps, he thought she might be frightened of the heights. Regardless, he held her hand. This is something that this 11-year-old boy doesn’t normally do in public anymore. He’s too big now and too vulnerable to 5th grade peer pressure to be seen holding hands with Mom.

A few weeks ago at church a woman who I know needed some assistance. I know her in the “from church” sense of the word. I know her name and that she was recently widowed and that she had been a teacher years ago, but I don’t really know her well. Still, we’ve always spoken to one another in the polite ‘have a nice day’ kind of way that casual acquaintances do. Lately she has acquired a walker and on this particular Sunday, I helped her retrieve it after Mass. That simple gesture was repaid by a smile and a grasp of my hand and squeeze from her old bony hand. It was a sweet, warm encounter. I wondered as she scooted off how much she must miss the touch of her beloved late husband’s hand.

I lost my Mom nearly three years ago and there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Usually, they are happy thoughts and fond memories of the times we shared. Sometimes, I feel the ache of her absence profoundly; I feel her loss in my heart; in my soul; and in my physical being. On those days I am comforted by the memory of one of our last times together. A week before she died, I stopped by to visit, and Mom was on the sofa in the family room. Her pulmonary fibrosis had gotten the best of her that day and she was listless and breathless. We sat side by side on that sofa and she put her hand in mine and we sat there in silence. No words were needed. I remember feeling like a young boy once again being comforted and reassured that Mom was going to be okay. There I was trying to take of her and instead she was taking care of me.

Holding on and letting go.

My grandson held on to my daughter on that canyon hike as she was struggling to let go of the baby boy who is no longer there. He let go of his fear of being seen holding hands with Mom. She is comforted in knowing now he will always take care of her while is she busy also taking care of him.

My friend from church is holding on to her walker and letting go of some of her independence. She is forging ahead in a life without her spouse. And she is blessing those around her who offer her small kindnesses.

My Mom gave me a such a beautiful gift on that day on the sofa together. She gave me hope and peace. As we were holding on to one another she let me know without words that it was time to let go.

And here she, is still taking care of me…

Peace,

Denis

Do-overs

Have you ever wanted a “do-over”? A chance to re-take a test? Wriggle out of some obligation? Get back your “non-refundable” deposit? Or choose a different color you’ve painted a wall or dyed your hair?

For me, most of my do-overs involve wishing I hadn’t said something or behaved a certain way. Or wishing I had stood up and spoken up when I was too frightened or apathetic. I regret the times when I was angry and spewed hateful and hurtful words. I am sorry for the times when I stood silently while others made racist, sexist or homophobic remarks and I was too “polite” to call them out. I am ashamed of the times I have laughed at others’ misfortune. I feel guilty for gossiping about others’ trials and tribulations and in finding some perverse pleasure in my superiority. Shame on me!

I think Lent is a time of do-overs. It’s an opportunity for me to shut up or speak up as the case may be. And seek forgiveness.

Lent is a time to reflect on my life and on how my life is entwined with others. What I do (or don’t do) has an impact on my relationship with both the people that I love and know intimately and those I don’t know and may never meet. What I do affects others; in my home, in my neighborhood, in my workplace, and in my world. And most importantly in my relationship with God.

But here’s the good news: God has given me do-overs. A chance to make a new beginning!

Humbled by own my mistakes I can be more considerate of others failings. I can learn to be more patient with myself. Often, I’m reminded by my failures that I am a ‘work in progress’. Sometimes it’s just a subtle reminder that I’m not really in charge of anything other than how I react to the circumstances of my life. Other times I’m slapped in the face with the reality that I just really screwed up! It’s those ‘screwing up’ times that resonate with me. I spend way too much time and energy on the coulda-shoulda-woulda stuff.

Instead, I will thank God for the do-overs. For the second (or third or fourth, etc., etc.) chance(s) I’m given.

And I will humbly accept forgiveness and try again.

Peace,

Denis

Lent (and perhaps relent)

For millions of Catholics and other Christians, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. In observance of Christ’s death and resurrection, forty days are set aside in the Church calendar. During these forty days, many people make personal sacrifices as part of their Lenten journey.

Some folks feel tremendous pressure to “give up” something to honor Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Or to “do something” honorable or charitable or extra-holy. It doesn’t do me much good to have ashes smeared on my forehead at mass and then act like a complete asshole in the church parking lot. I must admit that I have struggled with Lenten sacrifices through years. Sometimes the sacrifice has had the effect of putting me in a foul mood.

That year without caffeine was painful and probably unhealthy. I was hardly honoring Jesus by snapping at someone because I wanted their coffee and wanted them to shut the hell up. So, I think it might be time to relent and give myself a break. If my Lenten sacrifice falls short of my expectations, I can forgive myself and try something else. Besides, my bad behavior or bad habits or good behavior or good habits will not change the fact that Jesus died for my sins. His gift of love is not earned by my worthiness. Likewise, it is not withheld because of my lack of fortitude.

Again, this year I will try to follow the example of friends and family members who, by their quiet example of love and devotion to God, are models of Christianity. I am thankful for a wife who always shows me how to live a Christ-like life. Deb is never afraid to express her outrage at injustice or display her affection publicly. She loves completely. I’m not her equal when it comes to kindness. I’m polite; she’s loving. I’m accepting; she’s forgiving. I try; she does.

I will try again this year to be kinder, listen better, remain calmer, forgive more, judge less, care more, and love more deeply. And not just for these forty days; for the whole year.  I suppose that I could give up cursing for Lent.

But what the …?

Peace,

Denis

Trying To Be A Better Valentine

Full disclosure: I’m preaching to myself here. Valentine’s Day is a good day to love a little more. Hug those that are close to you just a little bit tighter. Kiss your wife (or husband) with a little more passion. Send a note to someone that you’ve neglected. Call a friend just to say hello. Help carry a load. Mend a quarrel. Make peace. And try to do it unconditionally.

Capture

Conditional love is love that is ‘earned’ on the basis of conscious or unconscious conditions. In other words, if you do what I want or behave in a manner that is pleasing to me, I will love you. If not, then my love will likely be withheld. Sadly this is often true. I’m not talking so much about romantic love here, although I suppose it works that way sometimes, too. I’m referring to my relationships with friends and colleagues. I’m thinking of work associates, neighbors, classmates, fellow parishioners, and friends. I often find myself questioning whether or not to spend time with someone because of something that was said or done that “rubbed me the wrong way”. There have been times when I judged someone simply because of who their friends are.  Worse yet, how about those people I avoid just because of their affiliations with certain political or religious groups? Not to mention the folks that I distance myself from simply because of age, race, ethnicity or income level. My justification – “I don’t hate them; I just don’t really like them.” or “I don’t have anything in common with these people.” or “I already have enough friends.” In truth: My love is conditional. And I own this. And it’s a shame.

So I’m   T  R  Y  I  N  G   to love unconditionally. But it’s not easy. Not for me anyway. Unconditional love – such an easy thing to say and such a hard thing to do. Loving without expecting to be loved in return. Kindness given without any expectation of kindness returned. I struggle with this every day. And yet, I have been loved unconditionally all my life. Strangers who welcomed me; teachers who guided me; friends and family who have loved me during some pretty un-lovable times.

I have a wife who loves me unconditionally. And I have friends and family who love me unconditionally, too. They’re not looking for anything from me (not that I can offer much anyway). My grandkids love me unconditionally. They just accept me as I am and they even seem to like me this way. Which makes me want to be a better person because of their love.

I think about 10 years ago when we lived in England. We were truly foreigners. We tentatively entered our little St. Peter Church in Cirencester for the first time not knowing what to expect. No proof of worthiness or commitment to financial support was required (or ever requested for that matter). Even with our funny American accents, we were loved by our priest “as we were” and embraced by our faith community “just because”.

So I’m going to keep trying to love unconditionally. Don’t be startled if I smile at you for no apparent reason. Don’t be surprised if I am kinder and gentler. Don’t be weirded-out if I give you a hug. Of course sometimes I’ll revert to being a jerk, and then if you still love me, I’ll know that your love is unconditional. And I will be blessed once more.

Peace & Happy Saint Valentine’s Day,

Denis

Changed

Change is inevitable. Everything changes. Our bodies. Our minds. Our spirit. Our entire existence is dependent upon change. We are meant to evolve, to grow, to transform. But change can be a scary thing. For me the challenge is choosing whether to be a part of the change or fighting with all my might to avoid any change.

My head tells me that change, although at times extremely difficult, is necessary. My heart tells me that I’m comfortable with things the way they are. I like my routine, my favorite coffee cup, my opinions, my comfortable chair, my way of doing things. Why must I change?

And then I read scripture:

Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:-17-18

Dang it! I’m a new creation??? And I have to minister reconciliation to others? Can’t somebody else do it? I’ll just stay here in my chair, with my cup of coffee, comfortably out-of-the-way. Surely ANYONE else is better equipped, better prepared, better suited to do this sort of thing. It just feels way too Jesus-y for me.

But then I am reminded that I took a pledge to walk in faith with The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. Theirs is the charism of reconciliation; to be the reconciling presence of Christ to others. So here I am forced out of my comfortable chair once again. Here I am trying to change my mind and change my heart. Here I am trying let go of hurts and prejudices. Here I am trying to be a “new creation” – a better man.

I pray. But sometimes my prayers seem weak and pointless – so much, blah, blah, blah. Oftentimes my prayers feel like a Fellini film – chaotic and hard to follow and struggling to make a point. Usually I’m distracted when I pray and just hope that God knows I’m trying. But sometimes in the quiet of my thoughts when I stop trying so hard, I hear God (and remarkably God’s voice sounds like my wife) reassuring me; comforting me; telling me to keep on trying; that I’ve got this. God assures me that I am a “new creation” and that I can carry that peace to others.

And I am reconciled. And I am changed.

Peace,

Denis

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

Peace,

Denis