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

What Christmas Is All About

a-charlie-brown-christmas“I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree,” said Charlie Brown. “Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I don’t really know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” said Linus.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were so afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

If your tree isn’t perfect and your meal isn’t amazing and your gifts don’t wow the recipients try to take comfort in the wisdom of Linus. My wish this year for Christmas is that we can be all be Linuses to the Charlie Browns in our lives.

Christmas peace,

Denis

 

 

 

Am I Ready For Christmas?

This time of year, I am often asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?” My polite answer is usually, “Gosh, I still have a few things to (do) (buy) (wrap), etc., etc.” What I’m often thinking is, “Hell no, I’m not ready, I need more (time) (patience) (quiet), etc., etc.!”

So in these final days before Christmas, I try to find the time, patience, and quiet that I desperately need to prepare myself for Christmas. I want to buy my loved ones the perfect gifts and wrap them beautifully. I want the house to be decorated with holiday charm. I want the food to be plentiful and delicious. I want to cue the music. I want to have lots of good cheer! I want my Christmas to be a Hallmark® Christmas with joyous celebrations and a happy ending.

Then I realize how wrong-headed I am. All I want, is what I want. I want the perfect gifts. I want the beautiful house. I want the food and drinks and cheer. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, except that I’ve put myself first. I want. I want. I want…

advent-candles-third-sunday-quizThe Advent Season is a blessing for me. It gives me the opportunity to set aside my needs and my wants, and to instead focus on the love of a God who sent his Son to be with us. It is a good time for me to reflect how loving (or unloving) I have been. It’s an opportunity for me to reach out to others; to become vulnerable; to stop worrying about perfection and to become perfected in Christ’s love.

Advent is counter-cultural. Turn-off. Tune out. Time to prepare my heart and my soul for the celebration of the coming of Christ. That will require some time and some patience and some quiet, too.

So when next person asks, “Are you ready for Christmas?”, I’ll simply smile and say, “I’m getting there!”

Peace,

Denis

 

Mary Said Yes

Author Joelle Chase writes, “Mary is an archetype of the feminine in all of us—man or woman—sometimes hidden or subverted, but always present and available, inviting us to embrace what appears small, unimportant, embarrassing, weak. She knew her strength, the miracle of her body that would knit Life out of God’s seed.” 

That’s a powerful statement and it runs counter to the image of a helpless, hapless, teenage Mary who is poor, afraid, pregnant, unwed and uncertain. Mary said yes. Not because the angel told her that she should, but because she knew her own strength, her potential and her power.

mother and childMothers are powerful! Ask any woman who has cared for a sick child; wept for the loss of life; fought for her child’s acceptance; guarded her offspring without flinching; celebrated joy and comforted heartache; loved unconditionally. All while saying “yes”.

Ask any man who loves a woman and he will tell you that mothers are powerful. When men can’t – women do. When fathers fail and flail; mothers take charge. No one loves like a mother; fights like a mother for what is right; dreams beyond her own capabilities like a mother. All while saying “yes”.

God could have come to earth on cloud or from a lighting bolt. Jesus could have appeared “poof” out of nowhere. But instead he was born to a woman as an infant. God chose to be loved by a mother. Jesus shared in the joy of being truly human; of being cradled in a mother’s arms; to know her strength and her tenderness.

We can all learn from Mary’s “yes”. Women and men alike. Yes to truth. Yes to courage. Yes to strength. Yes to gentleness. Yes to peace. Yes to love. Yes to life. Yes to God.

Peace,

Denis

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38

When you hear somebody say somebody hits like a girl
How does that hit you?
Is that such a bad thing?
When you hear a song that they play saying you run the world
Do you believe it?
Will you live to see it?

Sister, shoulder
Daughter, lover
Healer, broken halo
Mother nature
Fire, suit of armor
Soul survivor, Holy Water
Secret keeper, fortune teller
Virgin Mary, scarlet letter
Technicolor river wild
Baby girl, women shine
Female

When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it
Just ’cause she was wearing a skirt
Oh is that how it works?
When somebody talks about how it was Adam first
Does that make you second best?
Or did He save the best for last?

Refrain

She’s the heart of life
She’s the dreamer’s dream
She’s the hands of time
She’s the queen of kings

Refrain

Finding Peace in a Frenzied World

In these weeks of Advent we are encouraged to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

However, like most of us, I am in a fevered frenzy to ‘prepare the way of Christmas’. The gifts, the decorating, the planning, the gatherings, the family, etc., etc, etc. Oh, and just in case I wasn’t feeling pressured enough, let’s add the additional (burden/guilt?) of countless charities asking for some of my already-stretched-too-thin budget!

I’m sure somewhere in this mountain of shopping lists, Christmas cocktail recipes, gift wrap, garland, Christmas cards, tangled lights, cookie ingredients, and other ABSOLUTE CHRISTMAS NECESSITIES, Baby Jesus is buried under there somewhere. Surely that old Nativity Set is in one of these boxes. Maybe I’ll find Him tomorrow. But first I’ve got to get that tree decorated and put those lights up. Then I’ll clean the house, wrap some gifts, plan some meals and have one of those much-deserved Christmas cocktails. I’ll definitely look for Baby Jesus tomorrow. Surely He didn’t get tossed out with the trash last year. I’ll make a new list and add ‘look for Baby Jesus’.

On-The-Second-Sunday-In-Advent-The-Peace-Candles-Is-LitEach year my Advent is about the same. Frenzy followed by peace. Blissful peace. Some years it sneaks up on me (like when a grandchild crawls up on my lap and gives me an undeserved hug or when my cousin’s Christmas card arrives in the mail and I can relive all those joyful memories of Christmases long ago). Most years it kind of hits me right between the eyes (like reuniting with a friend with whom too much time has passed and realizing immediately that time hasn’t diminished the love we share). The thing is, I never find peace on my own. Someone always brings it to me.

So I needn’t spend anymore time searching for Baby Jesus in that box somewhere in the basement. Real Christmas is here in my soul. It’s in the hearts of those that I love. It’s in the laughter of children. It’s in the kindness of strangers. Without fail, it comes to me by way of a messenger each year.

I hope that you will open your door and your heart when your messenger arrives this Advent season.

Peace,

Denis

“Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.” Mark 1:2

 

 

Let It Be

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Often this passage from Luke’s Gospel conjures images of a submissive Mary. A young woman who is overwhelmed and helpless to understand what is being asked of her. Certainly Mary would have not expected a visit from an angel and she probably was startled by the announcement. But to me, her response is not that of a weak or frightened child but instead that of a strong woman who appears steadfast in her convictions. Mary believed in God. Mary allowed God to work through her without hesitation. Perhaps she understood more than the Gospel tells us.

mary_baby_jesus2_342184954Any mother will tell you that the love of her child is primal and inexplicable. Mary’s love would have been no less than that of any mother. She would likely have been concerned about bringing a child into the politically turbulent world in which she lived, not to mention the very unconventional way that she found herself with child. And yet her love overshadowed any insecurities she may have had. Mary is a model for all of us. Mary took an active role in God’s plan. She wasn’t just a vessel. She didn’t just submit. She stood tall at His cradle and at His cross. And proved that love conquers all!

Christmas comes with hope of renewal. Christmas raises our expectations of peace and goodwill. Friends and families unite. Celebrations take place. Joy is proclaimed throughout the world.

But Christmas itself doesn’t end hunger, or war, or poverty, or terrorism, or racism, or homophobia or violence, or human trafficking, or all other injustices. Still, Christ comes at Christmas and we are reminded by Mary that if we believe in God and take an active role in His plan, we can bring peace to our world. Let it be me who takes a stand; performs a small act of kindness; who makes a small sacrifice for another. Let it be me who shares a smile; who speaks a kind word; gives a gentle touch. These things multiplied by the millions as we proclaim our Christmas joy will transform our world.

And so I ask God, “Let it be” me who helps make a difference this year. Will you join me?

Peace,

Denis

 

 

“All I Want For Christmas”

On Christmas Eve 1985 our daughter Bess was 5 years old. Everything was ready for Christmas – cookies baked, meals planned, tree trimmed, gifts wrapped (or hidden until Santa could deliver them). We were having breakfast, we five: Deb, Tyson 7, Bess 5, Blake 2, and me. It was a quiet, peaceful morning before the onslaught of Christmas-palooza. A calm breakfast was just what our little family needed. We could ease into the day. Or so I thought. It was then that Bess (with her sweet little sleepy-voice) said, “I don’t care if Santa doesn’t bring me anything else, as long as I get REAL BABY® WITH HER EYES OPEN”! Real Baby® was the Hatchimal® of 1985!

With that announcement, everything changed! WHAT??? When did she ever mention ‘Real Baby’ before this moment? If she had, how did we miss it? Did she tell Santa but not us? Were we awful parents???

Of course, I knew immediately what had to be done. Every daddy knows that you must find ‘THE GIFT’ or risk destroying your little girl’s Christmas dreams. And so, the search began…

real-baby
Hasbro® Real Baby (eyes open)

I know this sounds like a sitcom, but it really happened and it wasn’t funny. The morning of December 24, 1985 became panic-filled. I jumped into my 1977 Ford Pinto (also not funny) and away I went. This was before the days of cell phones, so I took a handful of change to call home from phones booths. I started out looking in the stores nearby – Venture (remember those?), Target, Sears, and then I fanned out to – more Venture Stores, more Targets, Toys-R-Us, Wal-Mart, Dillard’s, Famous-Barr, JC Penney, Woolworth’s – you name it; I tried. I could find ‘Real Baby With Her Eyes Closed’ (which was kind of scary because she could never wake up) but EVERYONE was sold out of ‘Real Baby With Her Eyes Open’. After each failed attempt to find her, I called home with the grim news – no baby. What was I going to do? How was I going to deal with disappointing our little girl on Christmas morning?

After spending nearly the entire day searching for a doll, that I was certain could not be found, I finally admitted defeat. I was heading home around 5:00 pm when I decided to give it one last try. There was a K-Mart Store west of where we lived and I thought “what the heck” it’s worth a chance. Still in my heart I knew it was foolish.

But as I walked into the Toy Department, there she was – perched on the shelf like an angel. I really thought that the fatigue had gotten to me and that I was just seeing things, but there she was, all by herself, ‘Real Baby With Her Eyes Open’! Only God knows why the most popular doll of 1985 would still be sitting alone on K-Mart’s shelf on Christmas Eve. Maybe it was just my own little Christmas miracle. I’m sure that I had tears in my eyes walking to the checkout counter – again maybe that was just the fatigue.

Needless to say, Bess was very excited the next morning and she literally jumped for joy as she exclaimed, “I knew that Santa would bring her to me!” More tears…

I  think that the doll is still in a box in our basement today. Her hair is a little ‘jacked-up’ because she was loved so much. Bess carried her around like a real baby for years (hence the name) and I have never regretted nor will I ever forget that crazy Christmas Eve.

My hope is that each of you is blessed with your own Christmas miracle this year.

Peace,

Denis

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Advent is supposed to be a time of anticipation, preparation and reflection. Sometimes in my busy life I need to slow down and listen to my heart. I need Advent. I need to stop running. Stop shopping. Stop planning. Just stop. And listen.

How often do I ask someone, “How are you?”, only to be told, “I’m fine.” And I’m off and running. Rarely does anyone tell me how they really are and sadly, if they do, chances are I really don’t want to hear the details. “Fine” is just fine. Putting on my brakes and listening, really listening takes time and requires me to engage; to be present; to care. This is not always convenient. And it’s definitely not easy.

At a time when everyone else is running around getting ready for Christmas, I need to sit quietly and think and perhaps pray but certainly LISTEN. My lovely wife sometimes asks, “Did you hear me?” “Huh?” is often my response. I hear stuff all the time but listening is different than hearing. Hearing is just the act of perceiving sounds, but listening is something that I must consciously choose to do. Listening requires patience, thoughtfulness and commitment – these are things that are often in short supply.

adventcandlesOf course the hardest person to listen to is myself. I’m a man of action. I like to get stuff done. Sitting and contemplating what needs to be done is a challenge for me. Give me a task and I’m on it. Put up the tree; decorate the house; wrap the gifts; hang the lights – easy stuff. I guess thinking about Jesus coming 2,000 years ago is easy enough. And I can slow down long enough to listen to some Christmas hymns and get my head and heart in the right place. But that’s not what Advent is about. It’s not just the anticipation of His coming as an infant in Bethlehem and His final coming at the end of time but it’s also about Jesus coming to me, right now, right here – and that gets a little messy and scary.

Advent is counter-cultural. It forces me to stop and listen to my own heart. I need to turn off Holiday television specials and the 24-hour-a-day Christmas radio and walk away from the Black Friday Sales long enough to hear what I can hear.

And in the stillness He will come.

Peace,

Denis

 

 

Through The Eyes Of A Child

Do you remember the anticipation of Christmas as a child? For me it was always an exciting time. I tried to patiently wait through the Advent season for the miracle of Christmas.

There were some certainties: practical gifts wrapped in white tissue from my great-aunts (usually socks or underwear), Christmas cookies baked by Mom, Christmas Day gatherings at my grandparents where all my aunts and uncles and cousins would be together.

And of course there were uncertainties: would I get the Erector Set® that I so desperately wanted, and the transistor radio like my brother’s (the one that I not-so-secretly coveted)? Rarely was I disappointed.

St. NickI loved Christmas presents but I knew even as a child that Baby Jesus was always at the center of it. We were raised to believe he would come (again) each year at Christmas. We set our crèche under the tree with all the characters (except baby Jesus of course until Christmas morning). We lit our Advent candles each week. St. Nicholas would come on December 6th and fill our stockings with an orange and some nuts, a peppermint stick and one Hershey® bar (thanks Dad!). At school we would pray and sing carols, collect money for the missions and go to daily Mass. My little Catholic world was secure. And there was abundant joy!

It brings me great comfort in knowing that my wife and I carried on these traditions with our kids. Now our grandkids are celebrating Advent and Christmas in a similar way. Of course they are excited about potential new toys but they also focus on the mystery of Christ’s birth and they pray and sing carols and go to Mass. St. Nicholas paid a visit to them on Sunday morning. They light their Advent wreath and wait. They wait in hope and joy and love.

I still have uncertainties in my life: they are more adult now, more complex, more troubling. Often it is hard not to become overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel desperate.

But I have certainties, too. I have people who love me. I have friends who are making our world a better place each day. My children and grandchildren give me hope for our future. So I light my Advent wreath and I pray for change in our world, in our church, in our city, in our home, in my heart.

I know that Christ will come again this Christmas. I wait with my grandchildren in hope and joy and love. And for just a little while I can see Baby Jesus through the eyes of a child. And I am blessed.

Peace,

Denis

 

And Still He Comes!

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sadness and grief in life. There are days when all seems lost. Hopelessness clouds out any conceivable joy. Friends die. Jobs are lost. Misery prevails. Prayers go seemingly unanswered.Christ of the Breadlines

And I am not alone. Millions will go to bed hungry tonight. Millions more will have no place to lay their head. Others will be at war or surrounded by violence. Still others are imprisoned by drug addiction, domestic abuse, neglect or alcoholism.

And still Christmas comes.

While we welcome Baby Jesus with triumphant hymns and celebrations, somewhere a mother is mourning the loss of her own child. Disease, poverty, racism and injustice ravage our society.

And still Christmas comes.

God became man. But first he was a baby. Jesus was born a helpless infant. He was nurtured by his mother and grew into adulthood. He was truly human and walked among us. Jesus knew sorrow; felt hunger; endured pain. But He also knew love; experienced joy; found beauty in our world.

And so Christmas comes.

As I watched my grandchildren bubbling over with excitement in anticipation of Santa and shared laughter, love and good times with my family last night, I realized that we should rightly sing “Alleluia”. In the midst of our sadness and joy; feast and famine; desolation and beauty, we find our God walking with us. The sentimental image of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes is heartwarming but the reality of Jesus sharing our joy and carrying our burdens is what sustains me.

I hope you that you will find yourself embraced by Christ’s peace and love this Christmas and each day forward.

Denis

 “Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”       Luke 2:10-14