Blessed By Plans and By Failures

I really like to be prepared. I like game-plans, dry runs, agendas, vaccines, first aid kits, insurance and road maps (remember those?) I don’t like surprises. I like a certain amount of control. Okay honestly, I like total control. It just makes life easier.

Our sons were Boy Scouts, and their moto is/was “Be Prepared”. How wonderful is that? The year that we lived in England our friends taught us that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing”. We enjoyed every day outside, rain or shine, because we were prepared. Planning and preparation make perfect sense. My children can tell you that while they were growing up, I uttered this phrase ad nauseam: “Fail to plan; plan to fail”. It was often met with eye-rolling that was nearly audible. But we were ready for anything and everything! Until we weren’t.

When I look back on my life, I realize that most of my greatest blessings have occurred unplanned. My need for order and control has been upended in a heartbeat. Often literally. My wife and I lost our first baby in miscarriage at five months. All of our preparations were suddenly in vain. Not certain what the future might hold, our marriage and our life together suddenly seemed fragile and frightening. A year and a half later we heard another tiny heartbeat and prayed for our miracle baby. And he was and is. I’m convinced to this day, that we might never have loved our son Tyson as much as we do, had we not suffered that first loss. Five years later our family included our daughter Bess and our younger son Blake, and our love multiplied. Of course, after Blake was born, we realized we were outnumbered. We certainly hadn’t planned on that! Those of you who have raised children, know that God laughs at most of our plans. All the baby books and parenting classes end up being so much blah, blah, blah because your kid is special or weird or gifted or dull. So, we just did what we could to keep your heads above water. And somehow our non-plans worked out.

I’ve had job failures (epic ones) that at the time seemed like certain doom. Resumes and interviews and networking failed. I failed. Once during a very dark period, when employment was nowhere to be found, I met with our parish priest. I guess I was just looking for some kind of blessing or some inside “God help”. Instead, he just listened and then he assured me that our children would remain in school and tuition payments would resume only after I had secured employment. His words were a balm to my weary soul. Had I not lost my job, I would have never known his love and kindness.

I still like a plan. I still need a certain amount of control, but I’ve learned to cherish the unplanned. The surprises in life (the good ones and the bad ones) make us who we are. Many times, my certitude has been dashed in the blink of an eye. Plans fail. Stuff goes up in smoke. And in my exasperation, I pick up the pieces and start over. I believe these failures have taught me empathy. It’s easy to judge others when I perceive myself and my life as perfect. It’s in those wounded moments that I find my compassion.

I believe that I am able to carry the cross for others because so many have lifted the cross for me when I could no longer carry on.

Peace,

Denis

Thus says the LORD: When someone falls, do they not rise again? If they turn away, do they not turn back? Jeremiah 8:4

Community Matters

I am blessed with an abundance of family and friends but still at times I want to be left alone.

There is escape in being alone. Being aloof and noncommittal can feel like freedom. Freedom from obligations. Freedom to do what I want to do. Freedom from other people’s misery. And sometimes I desperately long for that freedom. But freedom can lead to apathy and avoidance, and then I risk becoming insensitive to others’ needs.

This is why I am blessed to be in a community. A community of family and friends; a community of believers; a community of people who witness to me on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded that I need community. And I am strengthened and nourished by community. Community also allows me to share my limited gifts with others. I am humbled in knowing that I can bring goodness (God) to others.

Recently I learned of a father in our parish who suffered a stroke. His wife and young sons seem bewildered and are no doubt suffering immensely. As I stumbled to find a few words of comfort to offer to the mother, I saw a tiny glimpse of (relief?) (appreciation?) cross her troubled face. A small kindness that I couldn’t have offered her if we were not in community.

Two other young families of our parish have recently had babies. One family had their third daughter and they are delighted. I told the Daddy, with a wink, that raising three girls means that he “will get to go straight to heaven”. The other family had a set of twins which brings their brood to a total of five. I greet them each week and share in their joy and their exhaustion. We’ve taken them an occasional meal to ease their burden. What a blessing to be in community with them. These young families give me hope for our future.

In my small faith community, I have dear friend who has just received the gift of remission from her battle with cancer. I thank God and share in her joy! She is a testament to hopefulness and faith. She inspires me.

The tragic news of deaths and destruction due to tornadoes this week has been heartbreaking. But once again, I see communities coming together to help each other. The horrific news of yet another school shooting leaves me shaken and frightened. I have a daughter who is a teacher and five school-age grandchildren. How can we continue to watch as our babies are slaughtered? Once again, community steps in. We grieve the losses and bury the tiny bodies. On the saddest of days, I often want to pull the shades and climb under the covers, but I must use my voice and my vote. My letters to my senators and congressman may likely fall on deaf ears but I will continue to write, and protest, and vote! Because that’s what community does.

When my parents died, my community surrounded me with love and concern. We shared laughter and tears, and I could not have made it through those dark days without their hands to hold. When I retired last year, my community helped me navigate the uncertainty of life without a career. When my granddaughter was recently chosen “Mission Model” for her freshman class, because “she uses her voice for good and promotes human dignity”, my community shared my joy and pride in her accomplishment.

I am blessed to be part of a community who will carry me when I cannot walk, guide me when I am lost, and exalt with me in my days of jubilation. Being alone might feel like freedom, but my life has meaning when shared with others. Community matters.

Peace,

Denis

Lost Civilizations

Recently we toured the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site. As the largest prehistoric Native American site north of Mexico it once covered about 4,000 acres and included 120 mounds. Today 2,200 acres and 70 of the remaining mounds are protected as a World Heritage Site. It is estimated that during years 1,050 to 1,200 A.D. there were between 10,000 to 20,000 people living in the area.

By the late 1,300s Cahokia was essentially abandoned. Much is lost to history of the peoples and why they left. Ironically the name Cahokia is even a misnomer. The Cahokia Tribe were late arrivals and did not build the mounds. The Mississippian Culture actually built and populated the site during its greatest peak of civilization.

But what of its demise? Why did the peoples leave? Where did they go? Depletion of natural resources; climate change; political unrest are all hypotheses.

Climbing Monks Mound, the largest manmade mound in the Americas (named after French Trappist monks from the 19th century who had absolutely nothing to do with its creation) one experiences the vastness of the site. I couldn’t help but be in awe of what the Mississippians had built. It’s beautiful and at the same time heartbreaking to think that this civilization which must have been so important during its existence has essentially vanished.

I couldn’t help but think about the year we lived in England and toured what seemed like countless abbeys, cathedrals and churches that were essentially abandoned. Most were tourist attractions with little or no worship taking place. Will our churches, mosques and synagogues someday become ruins that future peoples view with mixed feelings of confusion and curiosity?

It’s easy to discount the Mississippians as primitives who had no understanding of God (at least the God of my beliefs) but what of our (my) legacy? Empty churches? Grand buildings with no purpose? Icons and statues to a God who is removed from daily life?

I need to stop only looking for God in institutions and sanctuaries. I need to stop just searching for faith in buildings and books. I find comfort in my traditions and in those comfortable places and in those inspired writings but that is not enough. I must look at my neighbor with compassion. I must look at my loved ones with mercy and forgiveness. I must face myself and embrace my fears and my failures. And love. Above all I must love.

Peace,

Denis

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

Do Something

This morning at Ash Wednesday mass, Monsignor challenged us to do something during Lent this year. Something for others. Fasting and abstaining is all well and good, and self-reflection and self-improvement is always a good thing, but he suggested that doing something for others might make a difference in our homes, in our communities, in our world, but perhaps most importantly in our hearts.

I’m realizing that giving something up is much easier than doing something. Giving up chocolate or alcohol is admirable, but it’s an empty gesture if I remain unkind to others. Prayers are nice but are rendered meaningless if I don’t put a little action behind them.

I need to do something. So here I am, telling myself to get up, get out, and get going! This isn’t easy. And to make it an even greater challenge, today’s Gospel comes with a warning label: Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; when you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you. What the heck*? (also trying to give up swearing for Lent or at least tone it down a bit) So, I should do something good or give to the poor but do it on the down low? Christianity is hard. Lent makes it even harder.

For me Lent is about trying to try – if that makes sense. I’ll try to DO SOMETHING. I’ll try to GIVE SOMETHING. I’ll try to quit swearing (that’s where the trying to try really comes in).

I used to think that Lent was a time to fix me. But when Holy Week comes, I may not have a spiritual awakening. When Lent is over, I may not feel like a changed man. Perhaps God is just waiting for me to figure that out. My only hope is that God will save me and that I will have the courage and humility to allow it.

And it the meantime, I need to do something.

Peace,

Denis

Stuff

My resolution for 2023 is to get rid of some stuff. I started with my home office, got out the shredder and emptied the file cabinet and desk drawers of accumulated, outdated, unnecessary paperwork. Next came the spare bedroom with a closet chockfull of clothes that have “shrunken” or gone out of style in the 10+ years they have been hanging patiently waiting for another outing. On to the basement wasteland of abandoned but once-loved stuff. I’m trying desperately to take a clinical approach with my purging. If we haven’t used it or needed it in the past year or so, it can be sold, donated, trashed or otherwise disposed of. My mantra: “When it doubt – toss it out”.

Turns out that’s easier said than done.

At Christmastime when our grown children were in the house, I encouraged them to remove their treasures. I mean seriously, the Teddy Ruxpin Bear has been waiting to be loved once again for decades. What about all those scouting badges and dozens of neckerchiefs? What about the countless middle-school volleyball and basketball trophies? Even our grandkids have outgrown any interest in their parents’ old toys, dolls and games. Apparently, our kids were insincere years ago when they begged us to never get rid of whatever is in all those boxes of mystery lining our basement walls. I’ve been told that the landfills might be spared the dollhouse furniture, He-Man figures, and Teenage Ninja Turtles via Ebay but that seems like too much effort for too little return. Why won’t my grown children stake their claims on Ebay?

Now in fairness, not all of the mess is the kid’s stuff, but my stuff has more intrinsic value. My three old hammers: one came from my dad, one came from my father-in-law, and the third one is a mystery. My conundrum is that I don’t know which one of the three came from Dad or Pop, and only God knows where the third one came from, so I have no choice but to cherish all three. My wife has similar challenges with some old china, glassware and a trove of “home decor” accessories. So, separating the wheat from the chaff is painstakingly slow. But it’s just stuff.

Letting go of stuff is not easy but it is necessary unless your goal is to be featured on an episode of “Hoarders”. Is that show still on television? I’m usually too busy watching stuff saved in my DVR to watch anything currently being aired – ugh, more saved stuff!

As hard as it is to let go of the physical stuff, letting go of the emotional stuff is even harder. But it’s time to unload that baggage, too. I find I often pack up resentments, disappointments and heartaches in neat little boxes so that I can haul them out, unpack them and fuel my grudges and prejudices. Never forgiving or forgetting any injustice (actual or imagined) that has been inflicted upon me gives me another opportunity for self-righteousness and indignation. Sometimes it so satisfying to be the victim. And nursing those wounds of others’ wrongdoing only serves to make me feel correct and superior momentarily. In the end it just feeds my sadness. It’s exhausting carrying all that crap around.

Jesus invites us to be reconcilers. It’s impossible to be a reconciling presence in my world, my community, my family if I’m angry or resentful. Carrying boxes of hate in my heart just clutters my mind and burdens my soul. So, I have some unloading to do. I have stuff to get rid of. And it’s just stuff.

So, I’ll keep trying to unpack and let go.

Peace,

Denis

The Only One

Sometimes I feel like I’m the ONLY ONE. The only one who gets the joke; who knows the score; who sees the absurdity in a given situation; who uses correct grammar and knows the meaning and proper use of the word exacerbated, which is often how I feel. Being the ‘only one’ can be a lonely place. Why isn’t everyone as intelligent, well-informed, and confident? 

Of course, when I think about it (and pray about it) I realize how self-important and misguided I am. At times I choose solitude because I really want to be left alone; to not be bothered by the opinions and needs of others. It’s easy to be uncaring when you remain aloof.

Do you suppose that John the Baptist (the crazy, animal skin wearing, locust eating, hermit) thought that he was the ‘only one’? The only one who knew what was coming? Was he skulking around in the desert because he was disgusted with the callous disregard of others? Maybe. Or did he think that wandering around alone in the desert was a great way to get his message out? I don’t know. But as we prepare for the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas, John the Baptist reminds us that there is something else coming. We must prepare for the change that Jesus creates; in our world; in our church; in ourselves. While I may feel like ‘the only one’ that is exactly the opposite of the message of hope, peace, love and connectedness that Christ brings to us. I am admonished by the Gospel message.

I need to join humanity. Get dirty. Pay attention. Get involved. Make a difference. Lend a hand. Carry a load. Love. These are not things that I can do alone.

I believe that when I open my heart to others, Christmas will come. In the meantime, I have some valleys to fill and some mountains to tumble. I know that my own arrogance, pride and ‘only one-ness’ need to be made low. And my heart and spirit could use some filling up and straightening out right now.

Then and only then, will I be truly worthy to hold the Christ-Child and be able to encounter Jesus in everyone I meet.

Peace,

Denis

A voice of one crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew 3:3

Waiting (impatiently)

Waiting. Always waiting. Still waiting.

Waiting seems to be the story of my life. Waiting for the end the school year as a boy. Waiting to get my driver’s license as a teenager. Waiting for my bride to come down the aisle. Waiting for our first child to be born and our second and our third. Waiting for promotions and raises. Waiting for grandchildren. And now I’m waiting for retirement.

I’ve been thinking lately about waiting and my impatience. During Advent we are reminded to slow down and be patient. We are expected to wait. We are told to be hopeful. Impatient people like me, try to “gird our loins” and tough it out so that we can get through these weeks of waiting. We prove our worth by being watchful and ready to embrace the impending joy of the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.

But waiting alone is not enough. Being hopeful about the good things to come isn’t the complete answer either. It misses the point. The beauty is the waiting. The joy is in embracing the longing. Peace comes when I surrender myself to God’s plan. True patience is actively living in the present. It requires that I let go of my need to finish the game; win the race; get to the prize. The true joy of Advent is acceptance. Accepting my here and now; for better or for worse. I live with the hope of better things to come but I must love and treasure what I have now if I am to truly be fulfilled in the future. Baby Jesus at Christmas won’t mean much if I don’t find Christ in everyone I see TODAY.

So, I try to be patient and I try to live in the moment but realistically my impatience is not going away any time soon (or ever). Waiting for my wife to be ready to go somewhere or for the weekend to get here or my coffee to finish brewing will always make me tap my foot and wonder, “How much longer must I wait?”

Anna and me (back in the day)

Today I ran across a text message my daughter sent me years ago when her daughter was only six or seven years old. It reads:

Tonight, at Girl Scouts, we decorated bags that will eventually be used to carry food to the homeless. The girls have nothing to do with the food portion, but were asked to decorate the bags with drawings, stickers, etc, and they could feel free to write a nice Christmas sentiment on them. I did three of Anna’s 5 bags because she’s slow as molasses and I wanted to leave early. And then she showed me her long-awaited 2nd bag (how could it have taken so long?) and her sweet message simply said, “God is love.” Those three words brought me so much joy. She gets it. She’s been paying attention. And she’s sharing that simple message with a stranger. And with me.

Now that’s a testament to patience. For both mother and daughter. And granddad, too. Anna is in high school now, and she’s still slow but patient (especially with granddad) and she lives in the moment. She challenges me to try (again) for patience during Advent and to embrace my waiting. Even if it means an occasional foot tapping.

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

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

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