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)


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

Creation and Rebirth

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Denis

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

Saint Joseph

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Denis

Saint Joseph, pray for us!

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

Looking for God in the Darkness

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Denis

Heartbreak and Hope

Last week we had the mundane task of shopping at a big box store. You know the place, where you can get toilet paper and toys and t-shirts and televisions. We had time to kill so went spent more time than usual and dawdled at the barbeque grills, smokers, and outdoor grills – fascinating stuff they sell for the backyard these days. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience. That is until we paid for our “necessities” and headed toward the door.

There was a young couple just in front of us with a baby in their shopping cart who was greeted by a woman in a tie-dyed t-shirt. I thought at first it must have been a friend waiting for them but then I realized she had a police officer at her side. She greeted the couple with, “I’m store security. I need you turn around and go back into the store with me now.”

My heart sank. The young woman turned beet red. The young man looked clueless (was he? or was it an act?) And the baby? Sweet innocence. There was no protest. They just turned and walked back into the store sullenly and shamefully. The dad in me had the urge to yell out, “I’ll pay for whatever it was!” But I didn’t. Perhaps I was afraid. Maybe I figured that it wouldn’t solve their problem. Besides the undercover security officer and the cop didn’t really look like they were the negotiating types. Regardless we walked out of the store as they walked back in. And I kept thinking that could be my daughter or my son.

I haven’t been able to shake that encounter out of my mind. The young couple. The baby. I have a million questions. Were they so desperate that shoplifting was their only hope of survival? Was it just a kick – some kind of thrill perhaps? Were they feeding an addiction or just trying to feed their baby? What would become of them and their baby? I can’t (and won’t) judge them. I know that stealing is wrong. I realize it is crime to take what is not yours. But how is one’s self-esteem brought so low that this happens? How has society (that includes me) failed them? I’ve been praying for them since.

I hope that the courts show mercy. I hope that this a wake-up call for the young parents. I hope that the baby retains no memory of that shameful experience. I hope and I pray for all those who are desperate and in need of compassion.

During Lent we are encouraged to repent. The word we translate as ‘repent’ – metanoia – means ‘change of heart’ or to live life with your belief in the Good News of the Gospel. Nice sentiment and easy to say but where is the Good News for those in trouble? Where is the Good News for those on the fringe of society? Where is the Good News for the hopeless ? The hungry? The prisoner? The outcast?

I’ll start by trying to refrain from judgement of others. Mercy is a gift that I can freely give. Kindness can be shown to everyone I encounter. That’s a first step towards my change of heart. And I will continue to pray for that young couple and ask God to forgive me for my blindness to others’ pain. I pray that there is always hope even amidst heartbreak.

Peace,

Denis