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

Holding On and Letting Go

My daughter shared that on her family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon her 11-year-old son became concerned with her welfare on one of the trail hikes and took her hand. She’s not sure if he thought that the steep incline might be too challenging for her or if he was worried because she was battling allergies or perhaps, he thought she might be frightened of the heights. Regardless, he held her hand. This is something that this 11-year-old boy doesn’t normally do in public anymore. He’s too big now and too vulnerable to 5th grade peer pressure to be seen holding hands with Mom.

A few weeks ago at church a woman who I know needed some assistance. I know her in the “from church” sense of the word. I know her name and that she was recently widowed and that she had been a teacher years ago, but I don’t really know her well. Still, we’ve always spoken to one another in the polite ‘have a nice day’ kind of way that casual acquaintances do. Lately she has acquired a walker and on this particular Sunday, I helped her retrieve it after Mass. That simple gesture was repaid by a smile and a grasp of my hand and squeeze from her old bony hand. It was a sweet, warm encounter. I wondered as she scooted off how much she must miss the touch of her beloved late husband’s hand.

I lost my Mom nearly three years ago and there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Usually, they are happy thoughts and fond memories of the times we shared. Sometimes, I feel the ache of her absence profoundly; I feel her loss in my heart; in my soul; and in my physical being. On those days I am comforted by the memory of one of our last times together. A week before she died, I stopped by to visit, and Mom was on the sofa in the family room. Her pulmonary fibrosis had gotten the best of her that day and she was listless and breathless. We sat side by side on that sofa and she put her hand in mine and we sat there in silence. No words were needed. I remember feeling like a young boy once again being comforted and reassured that Mom was going to be okay. There I was trying to take of her and instead she was taking care of me.

Holding on and letting go.

My grandson held on to my daughter on that canyon hike as she was struggling to let go of the baby boy who is no longer there. He let go of his fear of being seen holding hands with Mom. She is comforted in knowing now he will always take care of her while is she busy also taking care of him.

My friend from church is holding on to her walker and letting go of some of her independence. She is forging ahead in a life without her spouse. And she is blessing those around her who offer her small kindnesses.

My Mom gave me a such a beautiful gift on that day on the sofa together. She gave me hope and peace. As we were holding on to one another she let me know without words that it was time to let go.

And here she, is still taking care of me…

Peace,

Denis

Trying To Be A Better Valentine

Full disclosure: I’m preaching to myself here. Valentine’s Day is a good day to love a little more. Hug those that are close to you just a little bit tighter. Kiss your wife (or husband) with a little more passion. Send a note to someone that you’ve neglected. Call a friend just to say hello. Help carry a load. Mend a quarrel. Make peace. And try to do it unconditionally.

Capture

Conditional love is love that is ‘earned’ on the basis of conscious or unconscious conditions. In other words, if you do what I want or behave in a manner that is pleasing to me, I will love you. If not, then my love will likely be withheld. Sadly this is often true. I’m not talking so much about romantic love here, although I suppose it works that way sometimes, too. I’m referring to my relationships with friends and colleagues. I’m thinking of work associates, neighbors, classmates, fellow parishioners, and friends. I often find myself questioning whether or not to spend time with someone because of something that was said or done that “rubbed me the wrong way”. There have been times when I judged someone simply because of who their friends are.  Worse yet, how about those people I avoid just because of their affiliations with certain political or religious groups? Not to mention the folks that I distance myself from simply because of age, race, ethnicity or income level. My justification – “I don’t hate them; I just don’t really like them.” or “I don’t have anything in common with these people.” or “I already have enough friends.” In truth: My love is conditional. And I own this. And it’s a shame.

So I’m   T  R  Y  I  N  G   to love unconditionally. But it’s not easy. Not for me anyway. Unconditional love – such an easy thing to say and such a hard thing to do. Loving without expecting to be loved in return. Kindness given without any expectation of kindness returned. I struggle with this every day. And yet, I have been loved unconditionally all my life. Strangers who welcomed me; teachers who guided me; friends and family who have loved me during some pretty un-lovable times.

I have a wife who loves me unconditionally. And I have friends and family who love me unconditionally, too. They’re not looking for anything from me (not that I can offer much anyway). My grandkids love me unconditionally. They just accept me as I am and they even seem to like me this way. Which makes me want to be a better person because of their love.

I think about 10 years ago when we lived in England. We were truly foreigners. We tentatively entered our little St. Peter Church in Cirencester for the first time not knowing what to expect. No proof of worthiness or commitment to financial support was required (or ever requested for that matter). Even with our funny American accents, we were loved by our priest “as we were” and embraced by our faith community “just because”.

So I’m going to keep trying to love unconditionally. Don’t be startled if I smile at you for no apparent reason. Don’t be surprised if I am kinder and gentler. Don’t be weirded-out if I give you a hug. Of course sometimes I’ll revert to being a jerk, and then if you still love me, I’ll know that your love is unconditional. And I will be blessed once more.

Peace & Happy Saint Valentine’s Day,

Denis

Finding God In All The Right Places

I’m an usher at my church. Which means I stand at the back of the place like sort of a friendly sentry, making sure everyone has a seat, and keeping the doors open and closed at the appropriate times, always ready to jump in when someone needs something. Mostly it’s just standing and watching. Of course I’m there to worship as well, but my worship is often distracted by the goings-on of others. God and I have a deal – I pay as much attention as I can. As an adult with attention deficit disorder, being an usher is a blessing. And I’m exactly where I should be.

I’m often entertained by rambunctious children and their beleaguered parents. I silently chuckle when the parents have reached their breaking point. Given the opportunity I thank them and their dapple-cheeked delinquents for the distraction, particularly during a dry and dull sermon.

Yesterday was no exception. The Gospel reading was the Wedding Feast at Cana. A beautiful story of Jesus’ first public miracle. A tender moment between mother and son. A lovely reminder that weddings and marriages should be celebrated. Instead our associate pastor took the opportunity to drone on about his command of biblical scholarship or something. I honestly don’t know because his message was completely unrelatable and I mentally checked out. I admit I could have tried harder to listen but it was BORING and so my attention quickly turned to the two young families sitting nearby.

Our little miscreants back in the day

The first family had too many children. They were up and down, in and out and looked completely miserable. Had they asked, I could have told them that after our third child was born we realized we were out-numbered and henceforth out-maneuvered. I’m not saying couples shouldn’t have more than two children but they should be informed that somebody’s hand is not going to get held. And those “STOP IT RIGHT NOW” silent stares in church are less effective if you can’t squeeze the aforementioned sweet little hand. I know this from experience. Our three knew how to make the most of church time by poking each other or fighting over a book about how much Jesus loved them or feigning some discomfort and lying on the pew. Not to mention that their tiny little bladders needed to be continuously emptied. If I had a dollar for every trip to the bathroom during mass I could start my own church.

The second family had two boys (perfect number) and were especially well behaved. Not perfect however as the younger boy had a moment or two where he ‘went all limp’ as if the bones in his body had temporarily been removed. But here is the remarkable thing: The Mom kept her composure. The Dad stayed calm and only slightly noticed limp-boy and recognized Mom had things under control. The older brother, who is also very young, either ignored little brother or chose to tolerate his behavior. Not a perfect family but a family in perfect harmony. Simple and profound. And there for me was the Wedding Feast in Cana. A mother devoted to her son and accepting and supporting his behavior. A marriage of two people who complemented one another. A family who by their love and devotion to one another witnessed to this old usher and gave me a sweet journey down memory lane.

I’d like to think all those years ago that we behaved more like the second family most Sundays but the reality is that we were probably more like the first family. Still, on those rare occasions when we were in harmony I hope someone saw God in our tiny family and realized that we were trying our best and I hope they were blessed by our distractions.

Peace,

Denis

There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
John 2:1,5

Always and Forever

Today is our wedding anniversary. So please forgive me, but I needed to write this message to my bride:

Deb,

It was always you. And it will be forever.

Whether it was divine intervention or fate or good luck, somehow we were meant to be together. I am the happiest man alive. You bring grace each day to this journey that we’re on. Thank you for the years of hard work and devotion. Thank you for the years of love and the laughter. Thank you being the center of all that is good in my life and for being the heart of our home.

So, here we are, 47 years and still counting. Three children. Five grandchildren. Six homes. Two continents. Multiple jobs and careers. Countless friends. And one love.

It was always you. And it will be forever.

Love,

D

Making Christmas Past Present

This Christmas feels more nostalgic than most Christmases. My wife and I both lost our Dads this year.

Deb’s Dad was quieter, more thoughtful in his approach to family celebrations. He often took a backseat to the festivities. He was an observer; cherishing the love and joy from a slight distance and holding it all in his heart. Still, he knew more about what was going on than most because he watched; he listened; he paid attention to the details. And he loved us.

My Dad liked to be front and center. He was always in the mix (sometimes in the way). He was bold and loud and he loved the spotlight. He sometimes missed the subtlety of a situation because he was way too busy trying to get his point across; tell his joke; make his mark. But he loved Christmas and loved being being surrounded by his family. And he loved us.

Two very different men. Two very different ways of celebrating Christmas.

So here we are, celebrating Christmas without our patriarchs. I know that both would want a happy Christmas for us all. This year I will try to make Christmas past present.

I will step back when I can (realizing of course for me this is a struggle) and breathe in the spirit of it all. I will try to be the astute observer that my dear father-in-law was. I will try to cherish those quiet moments and pay attention to the often overlooked details of our gatherings. I will keep an eye out for the forgotten; the weary; the under-served in our family, community and world. That’s what Pop would do.

I will also be cheerful (even when I might feel a bit melancholy) and try to lift the spirits of those around me. I will eat a little too much, laugh a little too loud and tell some of the same old jokes a little too often. I will compliment everyone on everything and truly be thankful for what I receive. I will remind us all how lucky we are to be part of this family, community and world. That’s what Dad would do.

We are blessed this year. Our children and grandchildren are with us to celebrate Christmas. We are healthy. We are fed. We have shelter. We have faith. We have hope. And even though two great men have left us this year, they remain present in our love for one another.

May you and those you love find peace this Christmas,

Denis

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful. Isaiah 9:5-6



The Greatest Gift

They say the greatest gift a father can give their children is to love their mother. Our Dad gave us that greatest gift! Dad was an example of a loving and devoted husband. Dad worshiped Mom.

He talked his way into their first date by playing on her sympathy because he had just returned home from the Pacific after World War II and he spent the next 72 years talking her into other various situations. Thank goodness, because I might not be here otherwise. In truth, Mom took care of Dad more than the other way around but Dad was still her hero and her protector. And their love story is one for the ages.

We lost Dad yesterday. He was 95 years old. In the 2-1/2 years since Mom passed away Dad has lived in an assisted-living community. No visit was complete without hearing how much he loved and missed Mom. He disliked the fact that she had died before him and often wondered aloud why God would have done that. He couldn’t change it and he couldn’t understand why it happened that way. He couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t negotiate a better deal. He couldn’t talk his way out of it.

And Dad was a talker. And a dealer maker. And a fixer. But he couldn’t fix the fact that he was alone after a lifetime with Mom. So, he adapted and learned to live without her physical presence but she remained always with him.

Dad was always quick with a joke and looked at life as a glass half-full. He never met a stranger. He made friends everywhere he went. As a kid I used to be embarrassed by his knack (or annoying habit) of striking up conversations with anyone he encountered. He was the kind of guy that could ask an amputee how they lost their limb and somehow not be offensive. He talked his way into places, jobs, relationships and talked his way out of jambs and traffic tickets (and probably some jobs as well). He adjusted pretty well to life at his assisted-living community. The other residents and the staff at his complex loved him and he was sometimes the life of the party or the instigator of some mischief. Always smiling. Always talking. Always making the best of it.

Lately he seemed to be missing Mom more than usual. He died on what would have been her 93rd birthday. It was his last gift to her, that they be united once again. The greatest gift Dad gave me will live in my heart forever. His loving devotion to Mom eases my pain and lessens my grief. And I pray that I can give my children that same gift.

I have a great example to follow.

Peace,

Denis

In word and deed honor your father that his blessing may come upon you;  For a father’s blessing gives a family firm roots.  Sirach 3:8-9

We Are Family

In his book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic and Beyond, Matthew Fox quotes Julian, a 14th century mystic: “Those who were Jesus’ friends suffered because they loved Him”. Fox then adds in his own words, “It hurts to be with the pain of others, of loved ones. But it also grows the soul.”

This week we celebrated the life of my cousin Michelle who passed away on October 7th. Michelle was a gentle soul who accepted every one of us as we were. I never heard her speak ill of anyone. She dearly loved animals because the love they returned to her was unconditional. Her life was not always easy but she carried joy in her heart and she shared that joy with all who encountered her, especially her furry and feathered friends.

When I think of Michelle I am reminded that Saint Francis, who also had a gentle nature, believed that humans and animals could live in loving harmony. Francis is attributed as saying, “My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator, and love Him always. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air so that though you neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Michelle’s service was beautiful and spending time with her siblings and her mother “grew my soul” this week. Our family, of which 4 or 5 generations have lived in the same town, is now spread throughout the rest of the world like many families today. There was comfort in being in our hometown and laying Michelle to rest next to her father, with those other 4 generations nearby. Knowing that we belong to those who came before us is comforting and grounding. Knowing that we belong to those who remain with us gives me strength. We shared our grief and our heartache on Monday but we shared our joy and our love for one another as well. This is our tribe and we carry one another when necessary. I held my cousin Kim’s hand as we prayed and watched Michelle’s remains be interred. That simple gestured calmed my soul and lifted my spirit. We are family and we belong to one another in a way no one else can.

Michelle had many gifts. She was a talented artist. She was generous to a fault. She didn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. She never met a stranger and welcomed all strays (even the two legged kind). But most importantly, to me, the greatest gift she possessed was simply this: every time I saw her I always left feeling better. Tomorrow when I am giving thanks, I will thank God for Michelle and for allowing my soul to grow. And I pray that she is flying in the purity of the air in heaven and smiling down on all of us.

Peace,

Denis

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” ~ Saint Francis

Do Feast Days Really Matter?

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Denis. He is the patron Saint of Paris and France and headache sufferers. Feast days in the Church seem archaic and arcane. Perhaps that’s why I like celebrating them. They’re a reminder that our Church is ancient and mysterious and somehow still enduring.

St. Denis – Outside the Madeline in Paris (depicted with head intact)

I’ve always been happy to have Denis as my saint’s name because he’s kind of a maverick and a tough guy. According to legend Denis was Bishop of Paris in the third century and was martyred by beheading. He is said to have picked up his own head and walked six miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. Besides being the patron saint of headache sufferers (for obvious reasons), Denis is also the patron saint of people dealing with frenzy and strife. During this time of pandemic we might learn something from Denis and “keep on keepin’ on”.

Of course, I admire the “saintly” saints who prayed and fasted and gave up all worldly possessions to follow Jesus’ call. We all love the saints who lived simple lives and made tremendous sacrifices for their faith but there’s something about a guy who has Denis’s spunk. I mean even the biggies like Francis and Theresa and Patrick and Clare didn’t carry around their own heads postmortem. So, in my book Denis is a saint to emulate. Not only was he tough but he was cool. Let’s call it grace under pressure – extreme pressure.

My Aunt Gene Marie used to send me a ‘Saints Day’ card on Denis’s feat day and I will miss that again this year, but I believe she’s in heaven now discussing that fateful day in Paris with Saint Denis and still celebrating his feast day. She’s the one who first introduced me to the saint who shares my name. I have always taken a certain amount of pride (is that a sin?) in the fact that my patron saint was a badass who defied his Roman persecutors!

I’ll keep celebrating feast days amidst the growing uncertainty about the future of our Church. When we forget that love should be our guiding principal and we refuse to accept ALL of our brothers and sisters, I believe that we are turning our back on God. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, wrote, “God is all that is good. God has created all that is made. God loves all that he has created. And so anyone who, in loving God, loves all his (or her) fellow creatures.” Julian was a woman who lived during the bubonic plague and still found joy in all creation. I am comforted by the knowledge that our Church is ancient and universal and that Julian’s wisdom still speaks to me today. I wish all clerics would read her words. We continue to make mistakes; to exclude; to blame; to punish. How many times in history have men nearly undone the gift of Church that God has given us? I wish all Christians would remember that we are the Church. I believe that there is room at the table for all of us. We can honor those who have come before us and thank God for the wisdom they have shared. We can pray for those who will follow us and show them that love is never a mistake.

A feast day is as good a time as any to do both. Jesus loved saints and sinners. And He still does.

Peace,

Denis

A few years ago my grandson was Saint Denis at his school’s annual All Saints’ Day celebration. If pride really is a sin then I’m surely doomed.

Noah

Today is our grandson Noah’s birthday.

Eleven years ago he stole my heart and conquered my world. He single-handedly restored my faith in God. He gives me hope for our future. It doesn’t hurt that he’s kind of my mini-me as well. We look a little bit alike (okay, more than a little bit). We laugh at the same jokes. We love the same folks. We like the same food. And we like being together.

I suppose that most men are just little boys at heart and with Noah, I can celebrate my inner 11-year-old. We both like to win at card games, contests, feats of strength, riddles, etc. No, I don’t let him win. Yes, he usually beats me.

Noah loves to point out our similarities: eye color (although his are bluer); hair color (although mine is whiter). We’re both color-blind (something that he thinks is sort of cool). Blue is our favorite color because it’s a color we can see. He looks up to me. And I’m his biggest fan.

There’s an awesome responsibility when someone sees you as a role model. What I say and do in his presence matters. My opinions, my actions are being observed and studied and often mimicked. If I act like a jerk, he might as well. If I behave with compassion, he might too. If I am patient and kind, loving and generous, he might follow that example as well. It’s tricky, this business of being a responsible adult.

Lately I find myself following his lead. He, in many ways, has become my role model. When we are together we share our stories – mine of days of old; his of school, soccer, baseball, robotics, and electronics beyond my understanding. We connect both physically and spiritually. He believes in God and I truly see God in him.

Noah has a habit of sitting next to me and taking my old arm and wrapping it around himself. That small gesture is sublime! It soothes my soul and calms my spirit. The fact that an 11-year-old boy still wants my embrace is a nothing short of miraculous. It’s my little bit heaven on earth and it will sustain me beyond the years when he no longer needs me. But I pray (selfishly) that he will always need me. Because Noah strengthens me. He makes me a better man.

Noah is eleven. He’s my boy. But in the blink of an eye he will be twenty-two. And thirty-three. And forty-four. And…

More selfish prayers – I hope that I am around to see the man that I know he is destined to become. I know that he will change our world. He’s already changed mine.

My birthday wish for him is that he will always know how much he is loved. And that he will always know I have felt his love and God’s presence whenever we are together.

Peace,

Denis