I Rise Again From Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

It would be much easier to give up that hamburger. 



Drenched In Love

Recently one of the members of our small faith group shared this insight: When dealing with our enemies, we should try to “drench them with love”.

dancin_in_the_rainFor me the imagery is almost overwhelming. The thought of torrents of water descending upon me is easy to envision. While walking in a warm spring rain, initially I will attempt to stay dry under an umbrella, or run, as if I can somehow elude the raindrops. Ultimately my efforts become futile. I finally embrace the rain and the idea of being completely saturated. I stop fighting it. I stop running. I put away the umbrella. I accept the downpour. I surrender. I am drenched.

And it’s exhilarating.

So much more is true of love. I am drenched in love. Every day, in countless ways, I am drenched by the love of others as they freely pour their love over me. What a blessing. What a gift. To be loved. To be drenched in love. And it has changed me. I am a better husband because of the love of my wife. I am a better father because of the love of my children. I am a better man because of the love of my friends.

What if some of my enemies are loving me?  Perhaps I am blessed to be loved by someone who I have determined to be unlovable or unworthy of my time or attention. Maybe it’s time for me to truly listen to the words of my friend and try to “drench my enemies with love”.

As with most challenges in my life, I know my limitations. I’m not going to start by trying to “drench” ISIS or Ann Coulter with love. I’ll start small. I’ll try to “drench” that annoying co-worker and the smart-ass kid down the street who drives too fast. I’ll attempt to “drench” the guy at the gym who hogs the equipment. I’ll “drench” the lady at the dry cleaners who assumes that we share the same political views (we don’t). And I’ll try to “drench” our associate pastor who I can barely stand to be in the same church with on most Sundays.

Sister Viola Marie, loving our enemies is a tough call. Drenching them with love will definitely be an uphill climb. But I’m going to try. And I know that God will be laughing at my weak attempts when I fail. And I know that you’ll keep pouring your love over me even when I’m a failure.




Things I’ve Done For Money…

I started working as a kid. I had a newspaper route when I was 12 or 13 years-old. I rode my bicycle and threw newspapers, ideally on to front porches, but more often into shrubberies or the occasional gutter. I think I earned about $30.00 a month and because this was a daily paper, I suppose I was making about $1.00 a day. I had several other part-time jobs while in high school which according to my parents would build character and net some savings. No real savings were ever realized and as for the character, well let’s just say that I met a few characters along the way.

As an adult, I’ve had some less than stellar jobs but the absolute worst job was as the T.V. man at our local hospital. Deb and I had just had our second child and her part-time job became more part-time. Because we had a new baby and a not quite two year-old I decided to take a second job and work a few evenings a week to make some additional money. I found a job in the ‘Help-Wanted’ ads and the “no experience necessary but a clean appearance and a good personality, a plus” seemed tailor-made for me.

Because our local Catholic hospital didn’t have the funds to equip rooms with televisions, there was a company that provided this service for a fee. My job was to “sell” television to the patients. Let me explain: for $2.00 a night I would turn the television on in the patient’s room with a special key. It was the 1980’s and this was not cable television just the 4 or 5 local channels. Maybe 6 channels if you counted UHF. The lady that owned the television business was scary (think Cruella Deville) and because this was a CASH ONLY business I was responsible for any shortages which would ultimately be deducted from my paltry paycheck. Further humiliation resulted from the gold blazer that I was forced to wear which was 2 sizes too big. This blazer made me look a theater page but identified me as THE T.V. GUY. Many of my customers in fact looked forward to seeing me. I suppose recovering alone in the hospital without your soap operas or “Price Is Right” or “Dallas” would have been a struggle. Of course there were some sad nights, like when someone didn’t have the $2.00 and my ‘magic key’ would have to darken their room. Or any night in the ‘Psych’ ward. Truth be told, I sometimes turned on T.V.’s for folks that couldn’t afford the fee.

HumilityBecause this was the local hospital in my hometown I often encountered people who I knew. Trying to explain why I had sunk to such a lowly position in life could be quite humiliating. One particularly awkward evening was when I encountered my best friend’s wife in labor (the fathers-to-be were always good customers – they looked forward to any distraction from the business at hand). I will always remember the night my friend’s son was born with a smile.

I only kept that job for a few months. We figured out how to better manage our meager incomes and I got to spend more time with our little boy and our infant daughter. Thinking back, I believe that the greatest benefit of that job was the lesson in humility that I learned. Certainly we needed the money but that was soon gone. The lesson in humility remains to this day.




Truthful, Kind and Necessary

Our priest’s message to us on Sunday was simple and yet profound:

  • Speak the truth.
  • Speak kindly.
  • And only say what is necessary.

Telling the truth – that’s not too hard. Speaking kindly – a little harder perhaps but doable. Only saying what is necessary – there’s the real challenge!

wordsHow often have I wished that I had kept my mouth shut? How many times have I pontificated about some issue or some perceived injustice (to me) only to feel foolish later? How often have I felt the overwhelming need to be correct and to drive my point home? Why? To make someone else feel foolish? To assert my superiority? Only later do I regret my arrogance and need for control.

And the worst? Gossip! Mean-spirited, nasty comments that are only designed to inflict pain or sustain hatred. The lowest form of communication. And yet why do I sometimes delight in hearing gossip (and passing it on)?

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Matthew 5:37

Father Craig has given me much to think about. And I can’t shake the idea that I am an unnecessary talker (blogger?). Thankfully God forgives us our sins. It’s those whom I have hurt that I must now seek forgiveness.

    • Truth.
    • Kindness.
    • Necessity.

Truly words to live by…




Trying To Be A Servant

Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. When he had washed their feet and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  John 13:5, 12-15

In our Catholic tradition we celebrate Holy Thursday with foot-washing during the Eucharist. Last night I was honored (humbled actually) to be a part of our parish’s celebration. We are reminded by Jesus’ example that to truly serve God we must become servants to one another. This seems counter cultural in our society today.

Here in the United States we pride ourselves on being a nation of ‘movers and shakers’; of innovators; of doers; of deciders. We don’t just strive – we achieve. We outlast. We outwit. We out-perform. WE ARE NUMBER ONE!

Nothing says “success” quite like hiring out our mundane tasks. I have a very financially successful friend that frequently says, “I have a guy.” Which means he hires someone to do EVERYTHING while he can devote himself to more important tasks (like amassing more wealth so he can hire more guys). I admit I’m often envious. I can only imagine the sheer joy of handing unpleasant jobs off to another.

community_handsBut Jesus challenges me. How can I be a servant when I so desperately want to be served? This will require some prayer and some much-needed humility. I tried “serving” some people in my office today – offering to get someone a cup of coffee and bringing another their copies from the print room. Their reactions were very revealing. “Why are you doing this?” There was a sense of mistrust and confusion. “Are you joking; what do you really want?” Clearly I need to practice being a servant. I am ashamed that no one was comfortable with me in that role. Perhaps my own discomfort showed through in my weak attempt as a servant. What if my self-confidence is just thinly veiled arrogance and elitism? How will I ever really serve others?

On this Good Friday as I thank Jesus for his ultimate sacrifice, I am keenly aware of how much I still need His forgiveness.



Lessons Learned

Years ago when we were living in Wisconsin I occasionally volunteered at a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen in one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. During that time our younger son Blake was a teenager, and as with many teenagers, there were the usual sullen and angry moments. Life was unfair. His teachers were unfair. We were unfair. There was a lot of unfairness. I grew tired of his sulking and decided that I should show him some real unfairness up close and personal. He would come with me the next time that I volunteered at the soup kitchen.

When we arrived at the church we joined the other volunteers, some from our own suburban parish, and others from city parishes, and still others from rural parishes. We were all there to do God’s work – to serve the poor; to feed the hungry. We began with prayer and then were given our assignments. I was to dole out a (not too generous) spoonful of green beans to each person; Blake was to clear and wipe tables.

As our “clients” came through the food line and settled into the battered folding chairs and worn cafeteria tables in the humble church hall, I realized that Blake was also sitting down. What was he doing??? He was supposed to be serving the poor! He had an assignment to clean the tables. I asked another volunteer to take over my bean-serving job for a moment so that I could have a word with my son. How dare he? I was going to set things straight! I was going to make this kid understand he was there to serve others; to stop thinking solely of himself for a change!!!

When I approached him full of arrogance and self-righteousness (after all I had been serving the poor for months now) I was determined to teach him a lesson in love and compassion. Instead I came upon Blake and an elderly gentleman having a conversation. Blake was talking to this man; really talking and listening to him as well. It occurred to me that while I had been dutifully dispensing food all these months, I had never taken the time to speak with anyone. I barely looked folks in the eye. Was it my embarrassment because I believed that I had so much more than they? Or was it my shame because I couldn’t face the reality of living in a world where so many have so little?

Now I was the one being humbled. I was the one learning about God’s love. My son, my beautiful son, taught me that I had been missing the point. I had been feeding bodies but he fed this man’s soul. He showed he cared. He gave him dignity. He loved.

Beneath his snarky teenage exterior beat the heart of a true Christian. Blake was being Christ to others in a way I had never considered.

All grown up now (Blake, tto)
All grown up now (Blake, too)

And I’m still thankful for the lesson he taught me that day.



Bill, Silent Guy, and Dumb-Dumb

Last week I was at a Macy’s Store in Milwaukee for a Designer Accessories Shop installation.  That’s what I do or I should say that’s what the company that I work for does.  We manufacture and install custom retail store fixtures.  As the V.P. of Operations I have project managers that are working all over the country (and sometimes internationally) setting up new stores or handling remodels.  Often our customers’ shops are inside a department store – we call those ‘shop in shops’ (don’t blame me – I didn’t make up that name).  Occasionally when my project management teams are spread too thin I will go to installations to meet with a customer rep or just to make certain everything is completed correctly. 

That’s what I was doing this past week.  I usually don’t announce to the installation crew that I’m a V.P. because it tends to make people nervous.  I’m just Denis.  Last week the crew that was at the Macy’s store was ‘contracted out’ – meaning that are not employees but instead they are hired for a specific location.  We may or may not ever work together again. 

I was told by the Installation Company that Mike would be the supervisor of the crew.  When I arrived and asked for Mike I was greeted by Bill who explained that Mike was not there.  Bill seemed okay so I wasn’t too concerned.  His ‘crew’ consisted of two others that I nicknamed ‘Silent Guy’ and ‘Dumb-Dumb’.  Let me explain:  First of all, I know that it’s not nice to call people names but for the record I only called them names in my head (or behind their backs – I have manners).  Secondly, ‘Silent Guy’ never spoke – he only sort of grunted.  And thirdly, well – we’ll get to ‘Dumb-Dumb’ later.

Initially things went well.  Our truck was on time.  The dock was available.  The store personnel were friendly and cooperative.  But as the morning progressed it became painfully obvious that Bill and his crew were  S   L   O   W !  I couldn’t have lit a fire under their asses with a blowtorch.  And time was slipping away!  Plus I discovered Dumb-Dumb down in the stockroom arguing with the ‘Trash Lady’ about why he should have to “breakdown” cardboard boxes!  Really Dumb-Dumb, you’re going to argue with the 80 year old lady who is kind enough to help you?  Taking care of your trash is not her job!  The store was scheduled to open at 10:00AM and after 2-1/2 hours of slowly dragging stuff to the sales floor, unpacking fixtures and wiping things down “at a snail’s pace” I finally (kind of) lost my cool.  We had 30 minutes to clear the aisles, remove all the debris, and make the space ready for the store opening.  Concerned that the store managers as well as my customer contact would “flip out” because everything was in complete disarray – I yelled at Bill and crew.  I told them to stop what they were doing (whatever that was) and to get EVERYTHING cleaned up, cleared out, and ready for merchandise.  Bill explained that they didn’t usually do things that way and I responded that “today is a new day – we’re doing it MY WAY”.  I went into full V.P. mode!

Within a few minutes the space was much more to my liking.  Lots of clearing, cleaning and straightening was happening.  The merchandise specialist arrived and began arranging handbags.  While Bill and his ‘crew’ were still sulking, I was strutting around quite pleased with my command of the situation.  Then it happened…

The Operations Manager for Macy’s came by to ask if everything would be ready to go by 10:00AM.  I was certain I was ready for a verbal “beat down” because of my installation crew’s lack of efficiency and orderliness.  Instead her reply was:  SUPER-DEE-DUPER!  And then she proceeded to tell me how much she enjoyed working with Bill and “The Boys” – what great guys they were; how they made each install easy because they were so relaxed in their approach. That it was ALWAYS a stress-free experience for all involved.  That all the store personnel LOVED working with them, etc. etc.  And that I was really smart to have hired them because she wouldn’t want anyone else working in her store.  I sheepishly thanked her knowing full well that Bill and his ‘crew’ heard every word she had said.

In my uptight and reactionary way, I had forgotten where I was.  This was Wisconsin not New York.  Not L.A.  These folks at this Macy’s loved ‘shooting the breeze’ with the installers.  They were more interested in knowing about the fish that Bill had caught at his cabin up north than whether or not everything was perfect in the shop at 10:00AM.  The Packers upcoming football season took precedence over the placement of fixtures.  In Wisconsin Aaron Rodgers is way more important than Michael Kors.

I had forgotten the most important rule of customer service – Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated – Treat them the way they want to be treated.  Bill and his ‘crew’ remembered that.

So who’s the Dumb-Dumb now? 




Two years ago I was diagnosed with Zoster (Shingles).  It’s a strain of the Chicken Pox virus that attacks your nervous system.  Often Zoster presents itself around a person’s torso; in my case it was the right side of my head.  At the onset, the pain was excruciating and my face became swollen and slightly disfigured.  It felt as if someone was sticking needles through my head from the inside out.  Even my hair hurt!  It lasted for several weeks and finally localized in my jaw/ear and became manageable.  After a couple of months it was completely gone.  Now the only reminder is a scar on my chin and some tenderness around my temple. 

At the time, Deb suggested (after a day of me feeling particularly sorry for myself) that maybe this was a “humbling experience” that I needed.  She reminded me that there are many people that live in constant misery and have no hope of comfort or recovery.  She felt that perhaps it was an opportunity for me to be more compassionate towards others and more understanding of those who are suffering in our world.  I’m trying really hard to forget what I muttered under my breath to her at that moment!

But you know what?  She was right.

I’m afraid too often I take for granted the blessings God has bestowed on me.  I somehow feel that I’ve earned what I have or that I’m responsible for my own success.  I sometimes forget that God’s hand is active in everything that I do (or don’t do).  I’ve heard it said that the problem with “self-made men” is that often they begin to worship their maker.  I’ve been guilty of that.  Time and again, it’s all about me!

And I find myself judging others without understanding their struggle.  I see sadness and injustice everywhere but it’s too easy to turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to the real causes.  When I encounter profound suffering, I often find myself wanting to run from it – to ‘bury my head in the sand’ so to speak.  At times I lack any real empathy.  Do I really believe that others somehow deserve their suffering?  God, forgive me!

Having my painful episode with Zoster did help me become compassionate, if only briefly.  From time to time I have to recall that pain when dealing with others’ hardships.  I need to remind myself that I am not the master of my destiny.  I need to be reminded that not everyone’s misfortune is their own doing.  And that while it is easy to sometimes look down on others, it is important to remember that God is ALWAYS looking down on all of us.

This is what Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel: 

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this tax collector.

I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I thank God for “my humbling experience” and for a wife whose love and devotion helped me to see it.