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

Transfigured

Merriam-Webster tells us that to be transfigured means, “to change a thing into a different thing.” In today’s Gospel we hear of Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James and John witnessed with astonishment Jesus together with Moses and Elijah. It’s fitting that this reading comes to us during Lent. This is our time to be transfigured.

I don’t suppose my clothes (or yours for that matter) will become dazzling white. I also don’t expect you or I to be seated with Moses or Elijah. But we can be transfigured. We can change into something different, into someone different. I can use this time during Lent to change my heart.

My dear friend Mary sent me a simple but beautiful message this past week: “Fast from anger, and be filled with patience”. Simple and profound but not easy. Not easy for me because I like to hold on to my anger. I need my indignation. That anger can sustain me; it can justify my intolerance. That anger can empower me; it can make my hatred seem righteous.

But that anger can also destroy me; it can steal my soul; it can sap my spirit. It can become part of who I am.

The story of the Transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But did his disciples really have any clue about what they had witnessed? Were they as confused about Jesus’s impact on their lives as I often find myself? Jesus is a good guy and he’s all about love and forgiveness. I love his parables. I am amazed by the miracles he performed. I am in awe of his acceptance of everyone, even sinners like me. But he’s also God. When I meditate on the Transfiguration of Jesus, I realize that my future is in his hands and I need to surrender. I need to let go of my pride and anger and hate. I need to be different. I need to be transfigured. I need to be a better man.

So during this Lenten journey I will try to change into someone different. I will try to “fast from anger”. And when I fail (which is likely), I will try again because my God is the God of second chances. And third and fourth and…

Peace,

Denis

Jesus took Peter, James, and John 
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them, 
and his clothes became dazzling white.
Mark 9:2-3

Running On Empty

Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent. Most years I try to “give something up” to honor the sacrifice that Christ made for all of us. This year I’m struggling more than ever. Somehow the usual desserts or alcohol or cussing that I try (and fail) to refrain from just seems like more than I can handle. Because of the pandemic I have given up too much this past year. I just don’t think I can afford to give up one more thing. I miss seeing my Dad at his assisted living facility. I miss sons who live out of state. I miss my daughter-in-law. I miss my granddaughters and most especially kissing their sweet faces. I miss hugging my friends – somehow the elbow taps or fist bumps or “air hugs” just don’t cut it.

So here it is, Lent. Time for my Lenten journey. Time to “take up my cross” and make my sacrifices. I just want to say no! No more. Nothing left to give. I’m completely empty. I’m out. Try me next year.

Maybe I really won’t give up anything. Because you know poor me, who has sacrificed so much, really deserves a year off.

And then I am met by angels. Friends who humble me by their prayer and devotion. Family members who inspire me by their spirituality and love of God and all creation. Grandchildren who love me unconditionally and who offer me glimpses of heaven. My wife who has the patience of a saint and should be canonized one day just for the miracle of putting up with me for decades.

What can a poor, sorry, selfish sinner do? Well, first I can leave the pity party. Then I can start praying. And then I can try that again because I feel like bitching and moaning during prayer doesn’t accomplish much. And then I can remember something a new friend shared with me this week. It’s okay to bring all the noise with you into your prayer. All the distractions. All the discomforts. All the sadness. All the pain. And just hand it over to God.

So that’s what I’ve decided to give up for Lent this year (and hopefully forever), trying to be holy and focused and perfect in my prayer. I’m giving it up because I give up. And maybe when I’m completely empty my soul can be filled with the love of God.

And a drink and a dessert and cussword or two this Lenten season will just be as it should be.

Peace,

Denis

Letting Go

Have you ever had to retrace your steps?

Maybe it’s a senior moment because it happens more often as I get older. I start to walk into a room for some reason and then almost immediately I can’t remember why. So I stop and return to where I started, hoping to trigger whatever thought it was that made me enter into that room to begin with. I suppose it’s good exercise but not really all that productive . Or perhaps I’ve lost something and I return to where I remember last seeing it. I literally retrace my steps to see if I might discover where the item was misplaced. “Where did I put my glasses?” is a common theme for me.

It’s human nature, I suppose, to want to hang on to those necessary thoughts and those necessary things. I need to know where I’m going and why. And I need my glasses to see whatever it is I’m going to be doing when I get there.

But Jesus asks us to let go. Lent is a usually thought of as time to give up something. This year, during this pandemic, even more so. What I really need to give up is my need for control. This is easier said than done. As I am struggling to wrap my head around Covid-19 and all of the repercussions of this deadly virus, I feel that I need whatever control I have left. During a normal Lenten Season surrendering to God’s plan is challenging. This year it is downright frightening. What is happening??!! Jesus, how can I let go??!!

In his book, “How Big Is Your God?”, Paul Coutinho writes “a consequence of my life with God is essentially a dying, a giving up, and a self-emptying.” He goes on to say, “Jesus promised to give us inner freedom, joy, and happiness that no one and nothing can take away from us, even in the midst of tremendous pain, suffering, sickness, and death.”

What holds me back? The challenge is thinking about what I need to leave behind.

Is it comfort? Is it fear? Is it pride? Is it hate? Is it anger? Is it anxiety? Is it my need for perfection? Is it my self-righteousness?

The frightening part is the actual leaving behind.

The strain of having to distance myself from my loved ones. Worry for our son who has lost his job in the restaurant industry. The constant concern for my 93 year-old father and 88 year-old father-in-law who are both at high risk. Dealing with the disappointment of cancelled events. Frustration with the lack of leadership in our state and in our nation. Struggling with the uncertainty of my employment. Trying to ignore the foreboding feeling of “who might be next?”. The nearly constant reassurances of “we’ll be fine”, that I both give and receive, which seem grossly inadequate.

And yet, I have to let it go. I have to leave it all behind. How else can I empty myself and wholly embrace the desert experience?

This is exactly why I need Lent. Especially this year. Maybe my journey is meant to be a struggle. A challenge. A reminder that God loves me as I am: worried; woefully unprepared; hopeless; helpless; vulnerable.

We are made in God’s image, but our humanity requires that we accept and even embrace our limitations and our sinfulness. We must accept the fact that because we have free will, we can choose to love God or not. Faith is a choice. Lent should be an opportunity not a burden.

Coutinho talks about how once we let go we are then free to swim in the ‘River of the Divine’. I love these words but I struggle to put this into action. Most days I feel pretty distant from anything divine.

Making sacrifices during Lent is not a bad thing. Giving to charity and serving others is certainly admirable. I read somewhere recently that we will need a “Letter of Recommendation” from the poor in order to get into heaven. I can pray for others during my isolation. Kindness costs nothing. Doing something positive can help combat these feelings of futility. If this time of trial helps me to get to the “desert” I should be thankful. Only there can I face my temptations and acknowledge my weaknesses. Then after I empty myself of pride, I can retrace my steps, jump into that ‘River of the Divine’ and be healed once more.

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

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. 

Peace,

Denis

Another Year – Another Lenten Journey

Lent begins a forty-day journey which commemorates Jesus’ forty days in the desert. As Christians we have an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God during Lent by sharing in Christ’s passion and suffering. This seems easier said than done.

In his book, “How Big Is Your God?”, Paul Coutinho writes “a consequence of my life with God is essentially a dying, a giving up, and a self-emptying.” He goes on to say, “Jesus promised to give us inner freedom, joy, and happiness that no one and nothing can take away from us, even in the midst of tremendous pain, suffering, sickness, and death.”

Pretty heavy stuff. Couldn’t I just get some ashes on my forehead and give up meat on Fridays during Lent? I could even pray extra hard. Because dying, giving up and self-emptying seems like a little more than I care to tackle. What to do? What to do? Coutinho talks about swimming in the ‘River of the Divine’. I love his words but I’m struggling to put this into action. Most days I feel pretty distant from anything divine.

desertPerhaps this is why I need Lent. Maybe my journey is meant to be a struggle. A challenge. A reminder that God loves me as I am, but I could do more. I am made in God’s image, but my humanity requires that I accept and even embrace my limitations and my sinfulness. I also must accept the fact that because I have free will, I can choose to love God or not. Faith is a choice. Lent should be an opportunity not a burden.

At times I’m angry and discouraged by the world in which we live. I must admit that I don’t always feel God’s loving presence. The injustice of poverty, racism and gender discrimination is heartbreaking. The ongoing sexual abuse by Catholic priests is appalling. Our president and our congress treat immigrants and asylum seekers as pawns in their political battles. As a society we seem to have become numb to the pain of others. I desperately need the inner freedom, joy, and happiness that Jesus has promised.

Refraining from meat and making other sacrifices during Lent is not a bad thing. Giving to charity and serving others is certainly admirable. But I’m also going to try to get to the “desert” this year. After I face my temptations; after I acknowledge my weaknesses; after I empty myself of pride; I hope to jump into that ‘River of the Divine’. And if I’ve eaten a few meatless meals and served some folks who are less fortunate, while on my journey, so much the better.

Peace,

Denis

Lenten Struggles

Growing up Catholic, Lent was mAsh Wednesday 2ostly a time of sacrifice and sinfulness for me. Promising to give up candy or soda or dessert and then not being able to keep the promise. So much pressure to be extra holy and sacrificial and so much guilt when I failed. I was sure that Jesus was very disappointed in me. After all, he suffered and died on the cross for my sins, so the least I could do was live for 40 days without Bazooka Bubblegum®.

As an adult I still struggle with Lent. I’ve given up stuff faithfully through the years: cursing, chocolate, cursing when I could find no chocolate. And I’ve done the “positive” spin on Lent, too. You know, doing good deeds and giving to charity. Being kinder, less judgmental, and not voting for Trump. But somehow it never feels like it makes a real difference. Not deep down. Not permanent.

When Holy Week comes I don’t have a spiritual awakening. When Lent is over I don’t feel like a changed man. Spiritual renewal – easy words to say; much harder to put into practice. Where to start? What to do?

Today’s Gospel helps:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

So maybe if I pray in my inner room (my heart) I will be changed. And maybe I have been changed a little each Lenten season and God is just waiting for me to figure that out. Perhaps that’s the little secret that God and I share – spiritual renewal doesn’t come in a flash of lighting or crash of thunder but in infinitesimal ways like tiny droplets of rain that erode the hardest granite after countless drops and unending persistence.

What I have to remember is that Lent is not a time for me to fix me. My only hope is that God will save me and that I will have the courage and humility to allow it.

Peace,

Denis

Re-Lent

Relent:  1. to become less severe, harsh, or strict. 2. to cease resistance.

Perhaps it’s time for me to relent. Or “Re-Lent”, if you will. Because it’s Lent, some of my Catholic friends are giving up or doing without some of their favorite things again this year. But for me, it’s more about looking inward. I can give stuff up but I don’t think that will really fill me spiritually. I need to “fix” me. I need to become less severe, harsh and strict. And that can only happen if I cease my resistance. It’s much easier to fix other people; to point out their failings; to judge their misdeeds; to excuse their ignorance. But when it’s my turn – well that’s not so easy.

I struggle with the ultra-conservatives. The narrow-mindedness of certain Christians is nothing less than appalling. I feel that some folks cloak themselves in “churchiness” to excuse or justify their racism, sexism, and homophobia. It seems that sometimes faithfulness equals exclusivity and sectarianism. I recently read that “the resurgence of women wearing chapel veils at Catholic mass is an outward statement against modernity and its lies. A political statement against a society that tells us that men and women are the same and that gender is not important when people want to marry.” What a sad commentary on our Church today. I thought Jesus called us all.

acceptanceWhen I attend mass and the priest seems hell-bent on telling us that we’re hell-bound, I want to scream, “Hey I’m here! I’m trying to pray; to worship; to rejoice. But your message week-in and week-out seems to be that I’m not worthy enough; not pious enough; not sorry enough for my sins. Prayerful posturing, sing-songy recitations and chapel veils don’t really set my soul on fire. How about some peace? Some love? Some joy?”

I’m not looking for miracles. I just want to belong to a group of believers that will carry me for a while as I struggle to find my own way.

I want to re-lent. I need to cease my resistance. Not to the message of others but to the message of God. I need to be less severe; less judgmental. I can worship with and even love those with whom I can never agree. Why? Because Jesus told us to love one another. He didn’t tell us who to love. He just showed us how to love.

So I promise to carry you when you need it (and when I can). Because I want to feel something other than frustration and disappointment. I want to hear something besides condemnations and admonishments.

Love. It’s what’s for Lent. Won’t you join me?

Peace,

Denis

 

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