Invisible Man

I’m an usher at my church. Official title: Minister of Hospitality. Honoring that commitment, I attempt to be hospitable. I try to greet each person with a smile and a “hello” or “good morning”. As an usher our duties are pretty simple, which is why I qualify for the job:

  • Greet people.
  • Assist in finding seating.
  • Keep an eye out for those with special needs.
  • Be friendly and welcoming.
  • Try not to judge others (this is my own personally assigned duty and my biggest struggle).

Let me explain.

I believe most folks come to Mass with a open heart and an open mind. Of course, I realize that many also arrive with a heavy heart. Some people can barely put one foot in front of the other due to overwhelming grief or illness. Others also likely come due to some sense of obligation and perhaps with little thought of why we gather as community. Some enter our church angry with God, the Church, or our clergy. Others are carrying in the hearts any number of social, spiritual, emotional or economic ills. I too, sometimes fall into any and all of those categories.

I remind myself each Sunday of the words of the hymn “All Are Welcome”. And I try…

I try to greet each worshipper. I try to extend a hand of friendship and fellowship. I try to make people feel welcomed and loved. I often fail. Recently I was slightly bemused by the number of people who walk past me as if I don’t exist. They don’t acknowledge my greeting. Some barely glance in my direction. Some appear to go out of their way to avoid making eye contact. I have felt at those times like the “Invisible Man”. On Sundays when I am feeling particularly feisty, I try harder. I push myself in front of the disobliging and force them to look at me or at least nod some recognition of my existence. I realize now that that is a bigger failure.

Perhaps some poor souls are finding comfort in their anonymity. Perhaps their pain or anger is so great that they want to feel invisible. That way no one can touch them, hurt them or rebuke them in any way. In my blindness and self-importance, I was failing to offer them the space that they might so desperately need; the sanctuary, if you will. If they find comfort in entering this sacred space and becoming invisible, then who am I to invade that privacy. I can smile and I can nod and I can leave them alone to find their God.

I’m a slow learner but I have finally realized after many failures that “all are welcome in this place” means ALL, not just the ones who smile back at me.

Peace,

Denis

“Don’t tell me that guns aren’t the problem”

Those are not my words. Those are the words of Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. He continued, “I’m sick of hearing it.” So am I Bishop, so am I.

I cannot comprehend a hate so virulent in one individual that he would commit the most despicable crime against the most innocent of victims. And yet, in just two weeks time our country has endured two mass shootings perpetrated by eighteen-year-olds. Why in God’s name could someone so young be so filled with hate?

Amerie Garza, 10, celebrated being on the honor roll just hours before she was killed in yesterday’s school shooting.

As a parent and grandparent I am shaken and I am heartbroken. I want to hold on to my precious grandchildren and reassure them that this could NEVER HAPPEN to them. As a citizen I am outraged and fearful because I know that I cannot make that promise. This is the world in which we live. My emotions have bounced back and forth between sadness and anger since learning of this latest massacre.

Our United States Senators have the power to stem the horrific violence of guns in our nation but they remain silent; they remain beholden to the gun lobbyists and the NRA. They will ask for prayers for the victims and families and they will offer “moments of silence” and request that flags be flown at half-mast but they will do nothing to stop this madness.

Of course, I have friends and family who are gun owners. They are peaceful hunters and sportsmen and sportswomen. Some own weapons as a safeguard against possible intruders or persons intent on doing them harm. My friends and family are not the problem. But we are also not the solution. We sit quietly and respectfully (?) amidst the violence in our country. We do not challenge our elected representatives to put in place reasonable gun safety regulations. The proliferation of guns in our nation is deplorable. Within my own community there are frequent “guns shows” which allow the relatively easy purchase of weapons with little or no background check. You can carry concealed guns in my neighborhood legally. We need to stop the slaughter of innocent victims by enacting responsible gun control legislation.

Won’t you join me? Let’s pray for the victims and their families. Let’s pray for the grace to mend broken relationships. Let’s pray for the relief of the suffering and pain of others. But then, let’s get off our knees and ask our members of Congress to actively work on real gun control. Let’s vote for Senators and Representatives who will truly be PRO-LIFE and stop kowtowing to the gun lobbyists and the money they offer.

And please don’t tell me that guns aren’t the problem.

Peace,

Denis

Just Keep Swinging

I am often discouraged by the divisions in our church, in our local community, in our country, and in our world. At times it seems the chasms cannot be traversed. We stand at odds. There can be no compromises. No one wins.

Last weekend two of our granddaughters received sacraments of our Church, Eucharist and Confirmation respectively. Special days with special graces granted to these two beautiful children of God. Promises of a life with Christ; a life with a community of believers; a life everlasting. And yet, a shadow of division hangs over our heads. During this most sacred time we are reminded by some in our Church that women and girls are not equal to the task of preaching and ministering to others. What are we asking of our daughters and granddaughters? Blind obedience to a patriarchy that seems woefully out of touch?

This week (again) the political circus in our nation is on display. The right and left seem hell-bent on destroying one another and possibly democracy in the process. Abortion rights and the possible reversal of Roe vs. Wade is dominating our airwaves and social media. The ongoing January 6th Investigation paints many of our elected officials as little more that pawns in some power play for political dominance. Where are our statesmen and stateswomen? What example are we setting for our daughters and sons; our granddaughters and grandsons? Blind obedience to political affiliation at all costs?

Last week I was watching my grandson’s little league team playing baseball on a rainy, cool evening. The boys were struggling with the weather and it was certainly not their best performance to-date. But they were undaunted. They kept swinging. They left the game as losers but their spirits were not diminished. And they remained good sports and respectful rivals. Once again, I was reminded of what Jesus said: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

So there remains hope. I have a dear friend who is working to help immigrants that have recently arrived in our community. He doesn’t ask how they got here. He doesn’t judge their worthiness. He is not expecting them to share his political views. He is simply being the eyes, the hands, and the feet of Christ.

And I have another friend who is arranging for housing for a young woman who is homeless with a baby. She doesn’t ask how she found herself in this situation. She doesn’t judge her decisions. Instead she offers love, kindness and generosity. She too, is being the eyes, the hands and the feet of Christ.

My friends have overcome the weariness many of us (me) possess with our dysfunctional political processes and lack of understanding by those “in charge”. They are like my grandson and his team mates. Facing what might seem like insurmountable odds, they just keep swinging. In the process they are helping heal the divisions in our church, in our local community, in our country, and in our world.

And once again my soul is renewed.

Peace,

Denis

Women Proclaim!

On Holy Thursday during his homily one of the priests of our parish made it clear that women have no place in the priesthood. He stated that Jesus gave us a “model” to follow. Jesus gathered 12 men for dinner – no women were invited. Although I would guess that there were women serving the meal. This particular priest seems committed to the exclusion of women from ordained ministry. The irony is that at Holy Thursday services this priest had to wash the feet of several women and girls. I pray that washing their feet humbled him. I don’t know if he’s afraid of women or just insecure in his own vocation. Either way, in my opinion this is his great loss. As the father of a daughter and the grandfather of four granddaughters, I am often troubled by the idea that women (girls) must continue to take a backseat in our Church.

But Jesus also gave us another “model”.

Father James Martin, a Jesuit Priest, wrote this today: Today’s Gospel reminds us that in the time between her encounter with the Risen Christ and when she shared the news of the Resurrection with the other disciples, Mary Magdalene was, in a sense, the church on earth (John 20). Because only to her had been revealed the full Paschal Mystery. Only she, for a time, was able to understand the suffering, death and rising of Jesus Christ. Any discussion of women’s roles in the church must begin with these two facts: First, it was to a woman, not a man, to whom the Risen Christ first chose to appear. And second, it was a woman who, for a time, was the sole recipient, carrier and proclaimer, of the Good News of the Resurrection.

I reflect on my own spirituality. It was my mother who first taught me how to pray. It was her model of faith that I continue to follow to this day. It was my Godmother whose hand I held on my way to receive Jesus at my First Holy Communion. It was my three Aunts, who were Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, who modeled compassion for those in need and service to God through service to others. It is my wife who models patience, love and social awareness. It is my daughter who teaches me to show kindness to children by her example as a Catholic Educator. And it is my granddaughters who model unconditional love by loving me, a cranky, opinionated, old feminist. These women and girls proclaim The Good News to me each day. They don’t need vestments or ordination to prove their worth, regardless of how deserving they may be.

Peace,

Denis

Holy Week for the Unholy

This week is Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. I always find myself a little out step with the truly holy this week or at least my perception of what qualifies as holiness. I believe in the Creator and the Redeemer, but I just don’t pray enough or sacrifice enough or give enough. I do however have a lot of Catholic guilt if that counts for anything.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, is a favorite day of mine. I love watching the folks come to church and take their palm branches. There are those among us who hold on to them reverently like some ancient relic; and those who grab them absent-mindedly with a sort-of “oh right, it’s that day” look on their faces; there are the creative ones who braid them in to crosses and what-not; and of course the kids who use them to “sword fight” when bored during Mass. Please understand, I’m not demeaning the ritual. I love all the sights, sounds and smells of Holy Week. I especially like the fact that it makes people (me) pay better attention to what’s going on. This is different – this is not your usual ‘phone-it-in’ Sunday mass. This is Holy Week.

When I am feeling particularly unholy, Holy Week comes along and rescues me from my complacency. Truth be told, I usually find Jesus in the congregation more often than in any Gospel reading or prayer or ritual. I look at the father of the severely disabled child who shows so much compassion and tenderness. I find myself exhausted just watching this family but the father remains steadfast in his love. I look at the mother of three very young children who deals with the screams and tantrums in what seems like an endless merry-go-round of trips to the ‘Gathering Space’ to comfort or discipline one of her tiny delinquents. Her composure is of epic proportions. I look at the elderly man who often occupies one of the last pews. He seems to pray so fervently. I wonder if he is alone (or lonely). I pray that his prayers are being answered. In my own feeble way, I try to extent some holiness to each of them. A smile; a friendly nod; a kind word. And I thank God for their presence.

So, again this Holy Week I will pray that the examples of the truly holy will lift me up and remind me that God invites sinners to the table as well. And I will be transformed from an unholy participant to a grateful recipient.

Peace,

Denis

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