When Doing Nothing Is Doing Something

These are strange times we’re living in. COVID-19 (the corona virus) has changed our world. For most of us there is a feeling of utter helplessness. Compound that with fear and anxiety about what is yet to come and a steady dose of misinformation and it’s a real recipe for disaster.

What can I do? What should I do? How long will this last? Is this just the beginning? What about my older friends and relatives? What about my kids and grandkids? Hell, what about me!!??

Depending on your news source, the information you receive may differ from your neighbor’s. Depending on your job and employer, you may be without work or you may be working remotely. Depending on your age and general physical condition, you may or may not be a serious health risk. But no one seems to know exactly what to do/who to believe/what to expect.

Here’s what we know:

  • Wash your hands.
  • Social distance – keep six feet apart from any other person.
  • Avoid being in groups greater than ten.
  • Stay home (if you can).
  • Be patient.

We also know:

  • Healthcare workers are our heroes.
  • Law enforcement and first responders CANNOT work from home.
  • Many people will be unemployed for an unforeseeable future.
  • Prayer helps (even if we’re just praying for patience).

I jokingly told my daughter earlier today that I’m in ‘Day Three’ of my captivity. And that’s really kind of how it feels. I’m more about action than contemplation. I’m restless and I need to be doing something. But right now doing nothing is doing something. I’m potentially saving lives by restricting my activities.

“hero of [covad-19]” Maxim Fomenko 2020 – Germany

There has been a tremendous amount of caring and love and creativity in our world during this pandemic. Folks are posting positive messages on social media to lighten our moods. Local grocery stores have established “seniors only” shopping hours to reduce traffic in their stores. Virtual prayer groups are being formed. Artists are creating works to honor heroes and provide beauty and light amidst our bleakness. Nothing can erase the heartache of those who have lost loved ones as a result of this deadly virus. No amount of good cheer and patience will completely relieve the suffering of those who are struggling with poor heath or financial disaster. And yet, kindness, compassion, and gentleness will ease the pain of those who are suffering.

Each of us can do something by doing nothing. Stay home. Stay healthy. Stay hopeful.

And when your self-imposed exile starts driving you a bit batty, read a book, write a letter, make a phone call, post a blog.

Peace,

Denis

Judging

I’ve heard friends say, “don’t judge me!” when they’re involved in some questionable activity or embarrassing behavior. Or I’m sometimes scolded with “stop judging others!” when I feel the need to assert my superiority/intelligence/breeding/better fashion sense over someone else.

The assumption here of course is that my opinion matters. Not likely.

Judgment, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m certain that judgment has saved me from a possible mugging or an obnoxious salesperson on occasion. God gave me reason for a reason. I try to know my surroundings, understand who I’m dealing with, and steer clear of dangerous situations or unwanted circumstances. But that’s not the kind of judgment that gets me into trouble.

I judge people who I perceive don’t share my views on politics, culture, religion, art, child-rearing, personal hygiene, etc. If folks would just realize that I’m pretty good at everything and smarter than the average person, life would be much easier. I know a lot and I like being in charge. And most of the time, I don’t even have to hear one word from the “judged”, I can judge them by what they look like, how old they are, the way they dress, the car they drive, where they live, what they eat and where they worship. I am really good at this!

I’m particularly good at judging myself. That voice in my head is often saying,“that was a stupid idea” or “you’re too old, too tired, too fat”. And don’t forget regret. Regret is the ‘Ghost of Judgment Past’. “What were you thinking when you bought that Pinto in 1977?” “Why didn’t you apply yourself in school?” “Why aren’t you better prepared for retirement? “Why weren’t you kinder, more loving, more everything?”

My beautiful wife Debbie often reminds me, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” or something like that from her Southern Baptist upbringing. Then I feel ashamed – which is sort of like self-judgment on steroids.

But here’s what I’ve learned (also from my beautiful wife): LOVE IS THE ANSWER. Love mitigates judgment. Love makes it possible to accept someone as they are. Love allows me to accept my own imperfections. Love allows me to be loved.

Deb, Jesus and others keep giving me second chances. Everyday I have new opportunities to be more loving and less judgmental. Every encounter is a new chance to be a reconciling presence in this world. Okay, so maybe I’m not really the smartest guy out there but I am loved. And that’s a good place to start.

Peace,

Denis

Mercy

This week we attended a three-night talk by a Jesuit priest named Joe Laramie. On the first evening, Father Laramie asked each of us to place a hand on our heart and to keep it there for thirty beats. We were asked to consider both our physical and emotional state. Am I happy, sad…? And then to tell Jesus about it. “Lord, right now I feel…”

All I could think was, “Lord, I am tired.” I’m tired of trying to adapt to the restructuring in my workplace. I’m tired of trying to please my customers and my co-workers. I’m tired of listening to the lies of our president. I’m tired of the mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers. I’m tired of the abuse of women and children. I’m tired of seeing my father’s health continue to decline. I’m tired of fighting with doctors and insurance companies. I’m tired of being surrounded by perceived enemies.

And I’m angry. I’m very angry.

So here I am sitting in church, listening to this Jesuit talk to us about giving and receiving forgiveness and I can’t possibly begin to forgive anyone. Least of all myself.

In her book “Hallelujah Anyway”, Anne Lamott wrote, “Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves – our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice.

During this Lenten season I am once again reminded that mercy is freely given by God and that even in my fatigue and anger I am an unworthy recipient of that grace. I don’t earn mercy by giving up something for Lent. I don’t gain forgiveness by praying extra hard. I am not afforded compassion because I am holy and pious. So therefore I mustn’t expect others to earn my forgiveness by meeting some standard of worthiness.

I guess I should start by forgiving myself for being so obtuse. That seems like a good place to start.

Peace (and mercy),

Denis

I Rise Again From Ashes

Traditionally most Catholic Christians go to Mass today and have a cross smudged on their foreheads with ashes – an outward sign of our mortality. Ironically at Ash Wednesday Mass we hear Matthew’s Gospel tell us, “Do not look gloomy like hypocrites” “wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting”. I’ve always found this somewhat puzzling. Matthew tells us, “your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” but we dutiful Catholics march off proudly showing our ashes to all who can see.

I usually give up something for Lent. Often I am grumbling as loud as my stomach – I need a hamburger! Still, to do without some nonessential that I love seems like a reasonable sacrifice and it might help put me in a more prayerful frame of mind. And yet, skipping desert or giving up my favorite cocktail is hardly ‘suffering as Christ suffered’. I’d prefer to think that fasting and abstaining from food and luxuries will give me a physical emptiness that might make me more keenly aware of my spiritual emptiness.

I need to stop talking. I need to stop feeding my mind with endless noise. I need to stop over-thinking. Once I’m empty, truly empty and once I’m quiet, truly quiet then perhaps I can be filled with the Holy Spirit. During that nano-second of time when I finally let go of EVERYTHING, God can reach me. God is always there but I am rarely available. Letting go and letting God. This is scary territory. I like to be a man of action. Sitting around and waiting for God to touch me in some simple or profound way is very unsettling. I don’t usually think that I have time for that!

As a father, I’ve always prayed that my children (and grandchildren) would have a humbling experience. A reminder that they are not always going to get their way or have their say. Nothing that would crush their spirits but some setback or disappointment that would make them realize that they need others; that they need God. And that they will rise again to do great things with great love.

For me Lent is my humbling experience. I realize that I need this time each year to reflect on my weakness; my sinfulness; my need for forgiveness; my need for others and my need for God. So, during this Lenten season I need to be still. I need to be present. I need to open my heart and my soul. And wear my ashes humbly.

It would be much easier to give up that hamburger. 

Peace,

Denis

This Little Light of Mine

On Saturday as I was watching our granddaughter Anna play basketball I marveled at her spirit. She is the smallest player on her team. Most of the girls that she encounters on opposing teams are much bigger than she. Some seem twice her size. And yet, there she was giving it her all. She has such grace and determination.

Anna knows she is tiny. Anna understands her physical limitations. Anna realizes that she can be out-distanced and out-played by most other sixth graders. Recently she told me that she knows she’s not a great basketball player but that she loves to play and she loves her teammates. It touched my heart to hear this. I wanted to tell she was a great player – the best! I wanted to hold her and tell her that she was a superstar. But there was no need. Anna is a realist and much smarter than I. Anna knows herself.

So on Saturday she was undaunted and joyful and just loving the game. There she was making rebounds and fighting for jump balls and letting her light shine through it all.

It occurred to me (again) that Anna has a light that shines through in everything that she does. Her beauty emanates from deep within her soul. That I am allowed to experience God’s loving embrace through Anna is part of why I marvel when I am in her presence. What a gift!

So this is my hope and prayer:

Anna never be diminished by your size. Know that God has great things in store for you and will expect great things from you. Remember to only measure yourself against yourself. Always be the best that you can be. If you need examples of strength and beauty and love you needn’t look further than your mother and grandmothers.

Anna never let your light stop shining! You are my superstar.

Your light must shine before others ~ Matthew 5:16

Peace,

Denis

Take My Hand

“Take my hand.” It’s such a simple phrase. It can be delivered as a command. Many times with my children and grandchildren it is imperative that they must ‘take my hand’. It guards against danger – traffic or crowds or unfamiliar surroundings. It can be offered as a gesture of kindness or friendship. Please ‘take my hand’ and I will help you along the way over rough terrain or an uncertain future. It can be a request. ‘Take my hand’ and help me, steady me, hold me, give me strength and the courage to continue on.

For me, it has mostly been an expression of love. ‘Take my hand’ and join our souls. Walk with me on this journey of life.

I have been blessed beyond measure. I have a wife of 45 years who is still the light and love of my life. I have three grown children who amaze me and challenge me and love me as much as I love them. I have five grandchildren who fill my life with love and joy and laughter; they give me hope for the future. I have friends and family who give tirelessly of themselves and bring balance to my life.

Each of them – all of them, have held my hand; have strengthened me; have pulled me up from the depths of despair. They have held my hand in times of joy and sorrow. We have clasped hands in times of immeasurable happiness. I have felt their heartbeats pulsing through my own veins. They have rescued me from mundane annoyance and incomprehensible pain. All of this by simply ‘taking my hand’.

As a child I held my parents hands. Whether crossing the street or being consoled, I felt protection in that hand. I was rescued from fear and uncertainty with the simple gesture of having my hand held. Now with aged fathers, Deb and I often find ourselves holding their hands. The roles have reversed in a way. The protection that our Dads’ afforded us is now being returned by steadying old hands that need support, tenderness and guidance.

I believe in a higher power. I believe in a God who has brought these loved ones into my life. I know when they ‘take my hand’ it is God’s hand holding mine. Each of these people is bringing Christ to me.

My prayer is that I can be allowed to be Christ to them as well. God rescues each of us; sometimes we just need a hand.

Peace,

Denis

The Perfect Gift

Through the years, I have tried to find the “perfect gift” at Christmas. Countless hours have been spent searching for the one thing that will make the recipient completely overjoyed – the one thing that would make their Christmas complete.

Truth be known, I’ve had mixed results. Reactions have ranged from “oh my goodness!” to “you shouldn’t have spent so much!” to “thanks, but I already have one.” to “oh, this isn’t really what I wanted.”

Exchanging gifts at Christmas can be exhausting – physically, mentally and financially. Exchanging gifts at Christmas can be disappointing – for both for the giver and the receiver. A few years ago my lovely wife learned from some wise sage (or someone on Pinterest) that when purchasing gifts you should follow the ‘Four Gifts’ rule: Something they want; something they need; something to wear; something to read. This has served us well with our grandchildren. Usually amongst the four gifts is something wonderful but still not the “perfect gift’.

I’m blessed to be lay member (a Partner) of the Sisters of The Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri. As Partners, we join the Sisters in trying to bring Christ’s reconciling presence to those we encounter in our daily lives. Because 2020 is the 175th anniversary of the founding of the order, “All is Gift” was chosen as the theme for this milestone year. It reflects the Sisters’ openness to accept all with a grateful heart. I’m trying to learn to do that as well.

I recently read something that Pope Francis wrote, “The true gift to us is Jesus, and like him we seek to be gifts to others. It means becoming daily a gift freely given to those we meet on our own path.” You don’t have to be a pope or a nun or a priest or even remotely holy to do that. Even a knucklehead like me can give himself to others.

Take time. Listen. Love. That might just be the perfect gift. And I won’t even have to wrap it.

Blessings on your journey to Christmas.

Peace,

Denis

Patience

Advent is counter-cultural. We’re encouraged to slow down and be patient. While advertising suggests that we must “hurry up while supplies last” our Church recommends that we take these weeks before Christmas to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus. In our waiting we are encouraged to be still.

Be still and wait! These attributes are not my strong suit. I’m usually loud and in a hurry. Quiet reflection often just annoys me. I hear the ringing in my ears. I become easily distracted. My mind jumps around to the various and assorted IMPORTANT THINGS that need to be done. You know, like when will I ever get those Christmas decorations up? Did we buy that other gift for our granddaughter that we had discussed? How much have we spent so far this year? Is it more than what my first new car cost? How much did that Pinto cost, anyway? What was that salesman’s name? I can remember his face. What am I supposed reflecting on? Something Jesus-y? Oh, Christ! I mean: Oh Christ, help me find patience. Some patience. Any patience. But please hurry!

I pray. In my clumsy, free-range sort of way. My prayers are more like fleeting thoughts – never fully formed or well-articulated. I believe that God listens to my prayers – poorly formed and selfish as they may be. I pray and God listens. I cry and God hears me. I try and God accepts my humble efforts.

So I may not be patient or even slightly non-manic but I try. And I will try again. I will slow down whenever possible. I will read and listen to music when afforded the opportunity. I will listen (really listen) to others, albeit my attention span is often that of a 3 year-old. I know my weaknesses but I am also aware of God’s strength.

I will prepare my heart for Christmas but I know it won’t be easy. I’ll let go of what I can. I’ll unplug whenever I can.

I will S L O W D O W N and trust that Christmas can be perfect even if I’m not.

And on Sunday I’ll light the pink Advent candle which symbolizes hope. And I hope to find patience.

Peace,

Denis

O Come O Come Emmanuel

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent; the beginning of our preparation for the Christ-Child. Last night, my wife was playing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ on the piano. That beautiful, haunting and hopeful hymn that has always been part of my life touched my heart again this year.

O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear

Lonely exile. These two words keep playing in head. I can’t help but think of the immigrants and asylum seekers that Deb served at our southern border earlier this year. I’m sure many of them felt lonely during their exile. The stories that she has shared of her experience are heart breaking and yet somehow still hopeful. Our hymn, though mournful, reminds us that God is coming to set us free. In our longing and waiting we have hope. These desperate souls, that were welcomed in McAllen, Texas had hope: Hope of a better life; hope of safety; home of a new home. What my wife and the other volunteers offered was kindness and dignity.

Make safe the way that leads on high; And close the path to misery.

I pray that these less fortunate souls have found their respite. I pray that they have continued to be welcomed by strangers and have found HOME. The people that my wife served didn’t want to leave their homelands but had no choice. The violence and persecution they endured was unimaginable. And still they endured. They needed an end to their misery. Hope was all many of them had left.

To us the path of knowledge show; And teach us in her ways to go

It’s easy for me to turn a blind eye to the suffering in our world. I cozy up to my comforts and toss a few coins in the Salvation Army can at my local grocery store. I pray for those less fortunate because I know that there is immense suffering in our world, our nation, our state, our community but I fail to take the time learn the systemic causes of this injustice. I make a few donations and I shed a tear for the atrocities I see on the television or read about in the news but that isn’t enough. During Advent I will recommit myself to knowledge. As someone living with privilege because of my race and gender I must recommit myself to social justice for all.

O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all humankind; Bid thou our sad divisions cease, And be thyself our Prince of Peace.

The problems in our world can feel overwhelming at times, but the words of this hymn give me hope. During this busy holiday season, when I feel overwrought, I can slow down and listen and re-listen to ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. Our salvation is at hand. Rejoice! Rejoice! All humankind can be changed. All humankind can find peace. I’m going to begin with me. It may not be easy but most things worth having are not easily obtained. I must fight for justice, pray for wisdom, work for peace, and love beyond measure.

And cheer us by your drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night; And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

May you find love, joy, comfort, but mostly peace in this Advent season.

Peace,

Denis

Saints Among Us

On September 8, 1845 a small group of young women from Baden, Germany journeyed to Steinerberg, Switzerland due to government oppression of religious orders. There they formed a community, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. The early years were not easy. Ultimately the Sisters were forced to leave Switzerland because of the Swiss government’s hostility towards them. In 1848 they found a home in French Alsace. In 1857 a request for teachers came from Gurtweil, Germany, and so back to Germany they went. Once again, a hostile German government forced the Sisters to seek refuge. This time a group of sisters from the Gurtweil foundation traveled to America. In 1870, nine Sisters arrived in Belle Prairie, Illinois. In 1873 the Sisters temporarily moved to St. Louis, and in 1875 they established the motherhouse in O’Fallon, Missouri.

175 years later, their goal is straightforward. To love God and to be the reconciling presence of Jesus in the communities they serve. Often when I’m feeling spiritually bankrupt, I think of the Sisters and their determination to bring Christ to others. And I know that I am living among saints.

With my Aunts ~ circa 1958

As a Catholic, I know that we are the Church, not the Pope nor the bishops nor the priests but we, the ordinary, everyday, sinful, struggling, prayerful, bored, loving, argumentative, forgiving, messy, mass of humanity. We are the Church. I just occasionally struggle with being part of “We”. Sometimes my prayer life is what I can best describe as anemic. “Hey God, you know what I need, and I’ll try to do better about ‘that thing’ we’ve discussed, and oh by the way, you know what I’m thankful for, too. So, thank you – bla, bla, bla – the end.”

During some of those “desert days”, when I struggle to find God in my life, I am blessed with faithful friends who lift me up and humble me by their love and devotion.

Today in addition to the professed Sisters, a group of lay people known as “Partners in Mission” have joined to help bring peace to our world. Fortunately for me, I have been accepted as a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. As Partners, we stand in solidarity with the Sisters in their commitment to social justice. Together, we join in prayer and worship. We are offered Spiritual guidance and renewal. In a world full of chaos and uncertainty we find refuge with these women who have devoted themselves to bringing the the love of Jesus to our world.

With my Partners in Mission ~ circa 2019

I’m honored to be a part of this mission. Sometimes it’s as simple as offering a kind word or a friendly smile. Which sounds simple unless I’m carrying too much anger, mistrust or heartache. Sometimes it means being involved in service to others in our community. Which can present its own challenges when I’m feeling particularly lazy or selfish.

Mostly for me it’s just being PRESENT. Giving myself to others with no expectation of anything in return. Listening to stories. Sharing joy. Making memories. Being loved. The best part is that there is no test of worthiness or holiness required – which I would almost certainly fail. No financial obligation or talent is necessary – again I am lacking in both regards.

When I am bereft of enlightenment or clarity or purpose, I am reminded that alone my journey is not easy, but I am never alone. I know that I am being carried along on this journey of love and faith and joy by the Sisters and the other Partners in Mission.

And I am part of “We”.

Peace,

Denis

If you would like to learn more about Partners in Mission, click the link: http://cpps-ofallon.org/partners-in-mission/