Perfecting Christmas

I grew up with images of Sweet Baby Jesus being born on Christmas day. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for those days of innocence: Jesus’ and mine. In the comfort of my suburban home, I imagined all good girls and boys had the same kind of Christmas to which I was entitled. I was taught that Jesus was born poor and in a stable but, I had no real understanding of poverty or homelessness. Our Christmases were gloriously predictable: Santa would come; cookies would be baked; dinner would be plentiful; family would gather. And plaster Baby Jesus was perfectly happy to stay tucked away in his manger with Mary and Joseph dutifully at his side while we opened our presents.

While playing with my new toys, I would give an occasional nod to Jesus. We would attend Mass and sing our carols and I knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. But my world was small and my understanding of life beyond my family, my neighborhood, and my parish was limited. And I liked it that way. There was security in the bubble that was my young life. Mom and Dad and my brothers and baby sister were all I needed. The messy stuff; the scary stuff; the life outside; was more than my little mind could (or would) comprehend.

Then it happened. I grew up. Life got messy and sometimes scary, but I held on tight to my need for perfect Christmases. I wanted everyone to be happy. “Jingle Bells” would be blaring from my cassette tape player. Reality would be put on hold. As a newlywed I found Christmas to be another opportunity to share our love but with the added stress of finding (and affording) that perfect gift. When our children came along, I tried desperately to give them the Christmas of my youth: warm, secure, loving, with plenty of gifts and a dash of Baby Jesus thrown in for good measure. And we would routinely go in debt to make darn sure that happened. Because no one could be disappointed with a less than perfect Christmas!

They say with age comes wisdom. I’m not sure if that’s true. I think more accurately “with age comes the same mistakes over and over”. And sometimes if we’re paying attention or we get kicked in the head we might actually learn from those mistakes. You can call that wisdom, I guess. At least that’s my wisdom experience.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who needs the image of Baby Jesus at Christmas. I love babies and I think it’s remarkable that our Savior was born an infant. However, Jesus’ humble birth sends a message that for most of my life escaped me. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to the realization that Christmas comes to everyone, not just the happy little families gathered around their tree. I will always cherish my childhood experience of Christmas, but as Christians we are called to have a preference for the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten. “As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’—to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor”. I have some work to do.

But here’s the good news: Jesus comes for all of us! What I need to constantly remind myself is that Christmas comes whether we’re celebrating a beautiful Christmas liturgy or working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. Christmas comes whether the gifts under our tree are beautifully wrapped and plentiful or if they are being given to us by a volunteer at the Salvation Army. Christmas comes if we’re enjoying a sumptuous feast with family gathered or sitting alone at a soup kitchen. Christmas comes while we’re holding our sweet-cheeked grandchild on our lap or holding the hand of a loved who has just received a devastating diagnosis. Christmas comes whether we are celebrating new love or mourning the loss of our lifetime companion. Christmas comes with giggles and joy and with tears and heartache. Christmas comes.

I still strive for those perfect Christmases. The ones where everyone is happy and well fed and sufficiently gifted and loved beyond measure. But now I know to also look for Jesus in the less fortunate circumstances. I try to find Christmas in the hurried shoppers, the beleaguered parents, the refugees searching for a home, the lonely neighbor, the recovering alcoholic, the estranged family member, and that old man that I see in the mirror.

So, my prayer this year is that wherever we find ourselves, we are still able to shout the Good News. Jesus is born! Our salvation is at hand. Whether you’re in a high holy place with a glorious choir singing Alleluia or handing out “Toys for Tots” to children in need; if you are “on top of world” or find yourself lost in despair, hoping for better days to come or pining for days gone by, I hope that Jesus (or whatever/wherever you find comfort at Christmas) touches your heart and lifts your spirits.

May your Christmas this year be perfected by His love.

Denis

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today a savior has been born for you.”

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

Sanctified

I’m an usher at my church; officially a minister of hospitality. My responsibilities include greeting people, finding parishioners a seat, keeping an eye out for anyone in need, opening and closing doors as needed, sending people home with a bulletin and a wish for a good week. Simple job for a simple man. I’m qualified.

Most Sundays, things are pretty predictable: same friendly faces, same unfriendly faces, same older folks with their assorted accessories – walkers, canes, etc.; same crying newborns; same sweet-faced babies; same ill-behaved toddlers; same angelic school children; same skulking teenagers; same off-key singers; same beleaguered families doing their best to be there on time (or to not arrive too late). As the hymn reminds me: “All Are Welcome In This Place”

The truth of the matter is that I usually go about my “duties” pretty mindlessly. Oh, I try to be welcoming and accommodating, but often it all seems pretty perfunctory. A cardboard cutout with a “WELCOME” caption might be as effective. I must admit that often my heart and my soul aren’t in the right place even if my body is. My anger or disenchantment or apathy towards the Church (the capital “C” Church – the hierarchy; the dudes who are calling the shots) keeps me distant from the faith community in my midst. Many times, I dig in and refuse to even listen to the preaching. My failure, my loss I suppose. But sometimes self-righteousness feels so damned good!

Yesterday was different. As families were arriving, I noticed one particular family entering single-file. It appeared to be a mother, father, three or four children and perhaps a grandmother. Rather abruptly, a boy of about 5 or 6 years-old stopped, stepped out of the family line and turned around to wait for his grandmother. When she was next to him, he took her hand, and they walked in together. Simple, honest and, humbling. With his loving gesture, that small boy brought Christ to me at that moment. Suddenly the choir sounded more beautiful. Later the Gospel held more meaning. The prayers had greater depth. All because of witnessing this simple act of love. I realized (again) that God needn’t only be found in the piety of churches, and mosques, and synagogues, nor through intense prayer nor profound worship, but in the love of a small boy towards his grandmother. I just need to put down my sword of anger and pick up my plowshare of compassion in order to witness it.

Later I thought about my own grandchildren and how just being with them lifts my spirits and brings balance to my life. And once again, I am reminded of my blessings.

Peace,

Denis

Perfectly Mismatched

My beautiful wife Debbie is 4′-11″ tall. I’m 6′-1″. Height differences have been challenging at times to say the least. Disagreements about where things should be placed (top shelf or bottom shelf; overhead or underneath) have been a source of conflict through the years. Also purchasing furniture, cabinets, and automobiles that fit both of us can be quite challenging. Our daily lives have been consumed with readjusting mirrors, car seats, step stools, computer monitors, and anything else that will allow height accommodations. We are simply physically mismatched.

Of course, our physical differences are just part of the challenge. I’m all – hurry, hurry; come on let’s go! She’s all – take it easy; slow down; calm down. I need a well-thought-out plan. She runs on feelings and often laughs at my plans. I’m an early bird that loves to rise and shine. She’s a night owl who requires silence and coffee in the morning. I’m very linear. She usually colors outside the lines.

Through the years we have learned that differences are not detrimental to a successful relationship. In fact, just the opposite. My wife and I complement one another. We fill in each other’s voids. We carry one another when necessary. And don’t be fooled by her size. Deb is larger than life. Her circle of influence is boundless. She dreams big. She has more class in her little finger than most folks have in their entire body. And she has more friends today than I have had in my entire life.

If you are in need, she’s the friend/sister/mother/grandmother to call on. If you need a laugh, she will always deliver. If you need someone to hold or if you need to be held, her arms are always open wide. If you need to cry, she will cry, too. Debbie has this incredible gift of making you know that when she’s with you, no one else is more important or more needed at that moment than you. You have her complete undivided attention. She gives her entire self. She is the heart of our family; friendships are lifelong; her word is her bond; her love for others is boundless.

I’m the luckiest man on earth. Somehow God decided that I was the one who got to share this life with her. Through the good and bad; through the joys and sorrows; I’ve had this beautiful hand to hold. And I’ll never let go.

Happy Birthday Deb.

I love you,

D

Fingerprints

When my kids were small, I was a maniac about trying to keep the house clean and orderly. I’m sure that they’re all emotionally scarred (but seriously, was it too much trouble to wipe their feet and pick up their book bags?). At times I wish I could turn back the clock and let go of my need for control. Too much time was spent keeping things on schedule; in order; squeaky clean. To much effort was put into finishing dinner; getting somewhere on time; making lists; completing tasks. It must have been exhausting.

Today when one of my grandkids leaves a fingerprint on a mirror or window, I’m hesitant to clean it. I want to save all those precious prints. I’ve mellowed with age.

I realize now that those babies who were entrusted into my care left fingerprints on my heart. No one can ever wipe those away. I became a father at twenty-three. To say that I was clueless would be the understatement of the century. When we left the hospital with our newborn son, whom the nurse placed on my wife’s lap in the front seat of our 1977 Ford Pinto, we drove away not knowing what adventures, heartache, joys, and love lie ahead.

There have been proud moments, important milestones, and great honors bestowed upon my progeny. They are three amazing humans. But the things that I carry in my heart on this wonderous ride called Fatherhood are those tiny “finger prints”. They are with me wherever I go. And will be forever.

Tyson’s baby belly-laughs still ring in my memory’s ears and remind me that laughter is truly the best medicine. Bess’s bedtime ritual, complete with “Dad, I’m glad you’re my Dad” still warms this old heart of mine: “Peeper, I’m glad you’re my Peeper”. Remembering Blake standing on our front porch waving goodbye until my car was out of sight, on one of my too many business trips, still makes me yearn for one more hug and one more kiss.

Back in the day, while I was busy cleaning and wiping away those fingerprints, little did I know that they were being imprinted on my heart. What a gift! What a life! What a love!

Happy Father’s Day!

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

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