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

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

Headache and Heartburn

I travel quite a bit for my job. It can sometimes be a humbling experience.

When I was a child I thought that business travel seemed glamorous and exotic. Fancy hotels with bellhops, jetliners with stewardesses and restaurants serving martinis at lunch were all depicted in the movies and television shows that I watched. I wanted to be Cary Grant or Sean Connery. Jet-setter. High-roller. Globe-trotter.

Instead I’m the schlub who lugs his bags into a discount hotel after spending painful hours cramped in an airplane seat so small that it seems to have been designed for pixies or driving a (less than clean) rental car for far too many miles while being equally frustrated and flummoxed by which side of the steering wheel the wipers are on and where the little button for the gas cap release is hiding. Cary Grant never had to deal with this crap.

Because I’m usually out-of-town for a few days in a row, I will on occasion buy groceries (you know – that already made stuff that can go in microwave) so as to avoid another dinner alone at Panera or Applebee’s or wherever. I will then “cook” in my rental suite while growling at the news of the day on television.

Recently after a long day, with a simmering headache, I decided to stop at the Kroger in Jeffersonville, Indiana and grab a few things. The checker’s name tag informed me that she was Delilah (although in all honesty, I was more interested in reading one of the messages tattooed across her neck). Delilah was big in all the wrong places and she had hair that was a color not found in nature. She proceeded to comment on every single item that I had purchased. Apparently Cokes have names on them now and she asked if my name was Landon because my Coke was named Landon. Of course because I had a headache and was tired and cranky I wanted to say, “Why yes, I make it a rule to only buy soft drinks with my name on them.” “You can imagine my delight in finding the rare ‘Landon’!” Instead I just grunted “no” and hoped she would shut up. Which she didn’t (or couldn’t). She went on to tell me that she had tried the salad that I bought and it wasn’t very good. In my self-righteous indignation, I wanted to sarcastically thank her for her culinary advice and compliment her neck tattoos and nose ring, but instead I just took my lousy salad and my ‘Landon’ Coke and left.

judginLater while getting into my rental car, I saw Delilah. She was hard to miss – neck tattoos, body piercings and all. She was patiently helping an old woman get into her car and then loaded her groceries in the trunk. She took time to speak to this woman and more importantly to listen to her. She absolutely refused to take a tip. She thanked the woman, wished her a good day and offered her blessings.

Wow. What a complete jackass I had been. Perhaps instead of judging my checker’s apperance, I should have been looking into her eyes. Instead being annoyed by her friendliness, I could have shared a kind word or smile. Maybe then I might have seen some of the beauty that the old woman had experienced. Cary Grant likely would have.

Instead I went to my economy hotel suite and ate dinner alone and realized that I missed another opportunity to love like Jesus. And in spite of my arrogance and heartlessness I realized then that I’m forgiven even when I struggle to forgive myself. It’s humbling to know that God still loves me in all my selfishness, vanity and absurdity.

And by the way, Delilah was right about my dinner choice. It wasn’t very good.

Peace,

Denis

Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Matthew 7:1-2  

 

 

The Apple (or whatever it was)

apple.jpgIf you ask most folks about the story of Adam and Eve, a likely image that they’ll recall is the apple. Eve offered Adam the apple after the serpent convinced her to eat it. It’s hard to blame the first couple for the whole apple ordeal because they had no one else to ask and the Internet hadn’t been invented so they couldn’t “Google” the serpent’s claim to see if it was accurate. I kind of get it. Who hasn’t received some lousy advice and made a few bad choices along the way?

Anyway, the thing is. It may not have been an apple at all. The Bible just says forbidden fruit. It doesn’t mention an apple by name. The poor apple is blamed for the whole Original Sin/Driven out of Paradise mess. Heck it could’ve been a pear. And I don’t even like pears but I still think of the apple as the culprit. Strange how images or ideas get stuck in our consciousness. It could have been a banana or a pomegranate or something we don’t even have a name for now.

This whole thing makes me think about how often I have been the apple. How many times have I been the misidentified fruit? You know, the guy that gets the blame (or shame) for something that he really didn’t do. Or worse, how often have I assigned blame to an innocent person? Assuming that because of circumstances or associations or appearances someone “who could be an apple” is guilty of something.

When my kids were teenagers I used to say, “If you look like a duck, and quack like a duck, and hang out with ducks, people will assume you too are a duck.” The intent was to have them choose friends wisely and avoid troublemakers. I realize now that I was only reinforcing negative stereotypes and sending mixed messages as I constantly implored them to also “think for yourselves” and “stop following the pack”. My parental failures are epic…

The point is: I need to seek the truth. I need to stop calling out the “apples” in my life. After all the “apples” might not even be the offenders. I need to make my decisions based on love and faith and honesty, not on fear and rumor and prejudice. Not everything is black and white. My world is many shades of gray (and thankfully lots of color, too). While on this journey of life I will make some mistakes and break some hearts and do some irreparable damage. I hope that God will forgive me when I have judged too harshly; when I have failed to see the good in others; when half-truths have clouded my ability to reason. I pray that those I have offended will understand my ignorance and excuse it even if they cannot forgive me.

Peace,

Denis

“It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’”

 

 

Relax. It’s Just Lent.

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. I must admit that I have found myself feeling the need to do more (or less) some years. Sometimes the sacrifice(s) will have the result of putting me in a foul mood (that year without caffeine was painful and probably unhealthy). I’m hardly honoring Jesus by snapping at someone because I want their coffee and I want them to shut the hell up. So I think it might be time to give myself a break. 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.

So this 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 show public outrage at injustice or public displays of affection. 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.

It’s just Lent. Somehow that seems too easy. I can give up ham sandwiches on Fridays. And stop drinking caffeine or alcohol for forty days. I can volunteer at some charity for a few weeks. Perhaps pray a little more or get to church more often. But what’s the point of doing all those things for Lent and then remaining an asshole all year-long?

I think I need to look at the whole year. I will try to smile more, listen better, remain calmer, forgive more, judge less, care more, and love more deeply. And not just for these forty days. Everyday. Always.

So if you’re like me and not a shining example of Lenten sacrifice, perhaps this is the year to forgive yourself and just try to do your best. I suppose that I could give up cursing for Lent. But what the hell?

Peace,

Denis

Second Chances and then some…

We all fail. Some of us catastrophically. Some of us daily. But trying again – ‘getting back up on that horse’, ‘picking ourselves up and shaking off the dust’, ‘going back to the drawing board’ – however you want to say it. It’s worthwhile. (Hopefully) we all learn from our failures. If nothing else we can learn humility. And God knows this world could use a bit more of that.

A second chance can change everything.

Even jerks can be forgiven

Even jerks get second chances (I should know)

Humbled by my mistakes I might be more considerate of others failings. Or I might 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 with the reality that I just really screwed up! It’s those ‘screwing up’ times that resonate with me. I try not to spend too much time or energy on the coulda-shoulda-woulda stuff. Instead I thank God for the second (or third or fourth, etc., etc.) chance I’m being given and promise to do better.

I marvel as I watch my grandkids learning things for the first time. I am amazed at how hard they try to succeed – in school; in sports; in life. I cherish sharing some of the adventures that shape their young lives. And I pray that they will be afforded as many second chances as this old mistake-maker has been given. I have said “I am sorry” more times than I could count but I have heard “you are forgiven” even more.

During Lent I am reminded that it is a time to share my sorrow. And a time to be forgiven. And be gifted with yet another second chance.

Peace,

Denis

There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future’. Luke 13:6-9

 

 

Thankful

Yesterday our granddaughter Anna brought home a worksheet from Kindergarten. It had a picture of pumpkins and a turkey which she carefully colored and a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ that stated:

thanful for NoahNoah is Anna’s 3 year-old little brother. At times he can be a pest. He will sometimes destroy a work of art or un-puzzle a puzzle or disrupt a tea party or throw a baby doll across the room or otherwise torment her. His behavior will likely produce a shrill “Noah!” But Anna loves Noah and Noah loves Anna. And she readily forgives him.

This love that they share is fostered in the love that their parents have for one another. Caring for each other is what my daughter and son-in-law do; it’s what my son and daughter-in-law do; what they model; what they teach. And the lesson is being learned. Loving parents create loving children. And somehow I think that Deb and I started this love fest.

I am thankful, too! Not just for Anna and Noah but for parents that are teaching their children to love one another. Thankful for forgiveness and second chances. Thankful for constant reminders that this life is precious and we are gifts to one another. Thankful that childish squabbles and petty differences can be resolved when we remember that our love for one another triumphs over all. Thankful that anger and resentment will cease when we forgive those who have wronged us (and when we forgive ourselves, too).

I am humbled by the profound and simple love that Anna and Noah share. For me they reflect God’s grace and beauty. To me they are examples of what is to come in heaven.

12-1-X2

Love! Joy! Peace!

The challenge for me of course is loving and forgiving my brothers and sisters. Not just my siblings – that’s easy. But this belief in God is troublesome. If we are all God’s children then we are all sisters and brothers. Ugh! That means that I have to love and forgive all the jerks and losers in my life. Not only that, but I have to love and forgive all the jerks and losers in all of creation! I suppose I could begin by not referring to them as jerks and losers. And of course I desperately need to receive some love and forgiveness, too.

So this Thanksgiving I will thank God for the honor of witnessing the love between a five year-old sister and her three year-old brother. I’ll try to learn from their beautiful example and attempt to be thankful for EVERYONE. And I will thank God for the forgiveness received when I mostly fail. I suppose I might learn to love someone previously deemed unworthy of my affection. Or better yet I might be loved by someone who finds me unlovable.

I’m happy to take my miracles in small doses…

Peace,

Denis

Smoke and Mirrors

Recently I was in a meeting with some Sales and Marketing people. I’m the Operations guy so I have the task of actually producing the stuff that the sales people are selling – on time, on budget, etc. During this particular meeting with a potential new customer there was lots jargon and business terminology being thrown about but mostly (it seemed to me) to be a contest of who could come up with the ‘best turn of phrase’. We talked about having “boots on the ground” and “the right DNA”and there was talk of “paradigm shifting” and “proof of concept”. My favorite was when someone stated, “remember, we don’t have to build the church for Easter Sunday”. Wow – I was clearly out of my league! All this became sort of  a game of one-upmanship. For awhile all I heard was, “wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah”. I had little to add, except for the occasional nod to their collective brilliance.

It occurred to me that for some folks there is a tremendous need to “play the part”. They feel driven to look and sound the way that their audience expects them to behave. This is exactly why I’m not in Sales. I suppose that I’m too transparent. But at least I’m true to myself (I think?).

I thought later about how many of us feel compelled to behave a certain way. We may not even believe what we espouse but we carry on as if we do. Perhaps if you repeat something often enough you will begin to believe it. “I be will kind.” “I will be kind.” “I will be kind.” Or maybe not.

There’s a guy that I know who is very pious. He carries himself with a certain air of holiness that is quite convincing if not in fact true. He puts on quite a show of prayer and solemnity at Mass. He approaches the altar for Eucharist with great care and much bowing and reverence. He holds himself up as the epitome of righteousness. But at the end of day, he’s still an asshole.

Now I know that God alone knows his heart and soul. And perhaps when he’s approaching the altar he’s asking God to forgive his unkindness. Or maybe not. I for one would be much happier if this guy spent a little more energy on being loving than on being pious.

But now of course it’s my turn: “I will not judge.” “I will not judge.” “I will not judge.” Or maybe I will. Being honest is hard, especially being honest with yourself.  So maybe I’m more of a “Sales Person” than I think – perhaps I’m trying to convince myself that I’m ALWAYS the good guy.

I’ll bet God is laughing at that. Thankfully I know that God is forgiving me as well.

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-4)

Peace,

Denis