The Word of God

The Language of Absence

three senior males laughing together

“You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” ~Paulo Coelho

Hospice work is certainly not for everyone. In fact, it’s been my experience that it’s only actually a handful of people who can take the worst of situations and turn it into the almost joyful anticipation of a trip never taken before.

Take for example, a client-patient-friend that was on his last train ride. I knew something was wrong from the very beginning because he would always cry when he saw me. I’m not sure if it was because seeing that hospice caregiver meant the end was near or was there something else. And after more than a handful of visits, it was clear: there was something else.

Apparently, I reminded him of someone in his life many years ago, and his whole family told me as much. After I felt that I had gained his confidence, I began to gently prod, and politely ask, and carefully dig into his soul until he was ready to tell me everything. One breezy afternoon, after a sudden rain which made the ground both soft and smelling like the garden of Eden, he told me the story.

More than fifty years ago, he and his best friend had a huge falling out. It was over a relationship whose name they probably couldn’t remember. But he felt betrayed, and he responded by an equally painful and ugly betrayal as well. He hurt his friend deeply and it was definitely overkill. Things were never the same,  and although they spent the first twenty years of their life together practically as brothers, all that came crashing to an end over their affections for the same woman. They both moved on with their lives, but they would tell each other through other friends that they were sorry that things happened the way they did, but there was never reconciliation or resolution, and most certainly no closure.

My patient was dying a miserable death and I knew what precipitated most of it. Horrible, uncontrollable,  irreconcilable guilt. I knew what I had to do. He told me the name of his friend and where he last knew where he was living, so I did some digging, more digging, and actually found him and his family. Unfortunately, his lifelong friend had died but many of his family members were still alive, specifically a twenty-eight-year-old grandson. I reached out gently to them and asked if perhaps they’d be open to a moment of forgiveness. The young man, the grandson, literally jumped at the opportunity because his grandfather had often spoken about the destruction of a great friendship and practical brotherhood. He longed to do something to honor his grandfather’s wishes to finally have peace and forgiveness. When I asked to see a picture of his grandfather, I thought he had given me his own. They were like spitting images.

The day finally came, and I met the young man in a local gas station and led him to the place where his grandfather’s old friend was dying. The minute he walked in, both began to cry almost uncontrollably. After some time and settling them both down, we talked. It was one of the most beautiful conversations I have ever witnessed. They said things that perhaps should’ve been said earlier, but, as we all know, it’s never too late. There was finally peace and comfort and certainly a lot of joy. Both men thanked me profusely for this opportunity and I couldn’t be more grateful to even be a part of that moment.

Later that night with tears in his eyes my patient quietly passed gently to the other side of life. I may have cried a little bit, but it was reasonable and appropriate. I realized then that all our lives are about saying hello and goodbye and facing the unexpected twists and turns like a great novel. Everyone has at least one or two regrets that, although are unspoken, are still visibly seen on the face and deep in the eyes of those who wish things could have been better. Of course, I became very grateful for my own life and for all that God has given me and all that I want to pay back to him.

“Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.”  ~Jamaica Cascio

Of course, I began to reflect on getting older. I realized that I am happier these days than I have been at any time in my life. I have real, true, glorious friends, and I’ve been able to do really good for the things I care about such as homeless shelters, saving peoples’ mortgages, counseling, distributing Bibles, writing, and helping people die with dignity. Of course, like everyone else, I miss more than a handful of friends who have died, but then, I’m glad for the time we had together, to make quality space in my heart for them, even for a while.

I wish the time hadn’t gone so fast, though. And sometimes I wish I’d enjoyed it more on the way, and worried about it less. But then again, I still have today to make it last and enjoy the moments I still have. The nest of my memories still has a few leftover feathers here and there to remind me of the miracles I helped create to make this life amazing. I think that’s wonderful.

“And we who loved the world must learn the language of absence: days foreshortened, empty rooms, the irrevocable distance between the goodbye and the letting go.” ~Joe Bolton

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A Life-saving Skill

male swimmer in pool arms stretched out

I guess you could say there is a right way and a wrong way when it comes to getting older. As I’m nearing the age of sixty-five, that concern seems to dominate at least sixty-five percent of my life. As part of a full disclosure, what I fear the most is getting older and becoming a bitter, cranky, and even revengeful old man and basically just waiting to die. This description, by the way, does adequately describe a whole lot of people I meet from day to day. But more about that later. 

My closest friends tell me that there’s no way that’s going to happen knowing my propensity for hope and optimism and finding joy in the simplest things, especially cooking and, of course by extension, eating. So, when I overheard someone say that there was a senior Olympics for 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m so glad I did. In the last five months I’ve met so many wonderful people that I would not have otherwise known and these people have one thing in common: they are brave. They see the end of life coming slowly but surely, but it doesn’t make them sad or listless or even negative. It just makes them hover over every single moment that they have and never, ever, giving up. I met a man named David while I was swimming laps who then invited me to start swimming with some seriousness as he was preparing to pole vault for the games in San Antonio Texas. I could never see myself pole vaulting at the age of eighteen. At age seventy-five? Respect.

What followed next was something I never expected on so many different levels. Training with other people my own age at 5:00 am in an outdoor, heated pool did wonders for my attitude and the rest of the day. I actually got used to going to bed by 8:30 pm and having everything packed and ready to go in the morning with the expectation that rising so early I might forget something, like my wallet or phone. We must have looked like a band of military veterans, gathering at the gates of a pool reminiscing and reconnecting alongside others much younger and apparently in much better shape. But they didn’t laugh as loud as we did!

Something really wonderful was happening within my soul these past few months, and I truly enjoyed it. I think it was all the time being in the water, facing a challenge head-on, and literally being submersed in nature. I heard that Michael Phelps said that swimming was quite normal for him, bringing him to a state of peace and comfort. He once wrote, “I know my surroundings. It’s my home.”

My first ever athletic competition took place on Palm Sunday this year. And when I say “ever,” I mean EVER! Thankfully, I made the two-and-a-half-hour drive alone, stayed with really great friends, and showed up to the natatorium by myself and about three hours early. It was a truly amazing experience and a memory I think I will choose to hold on to for quite a while. All this time, especially in the early morning hours, I had a chance to truly reflect on my life and all the memories, scars, and the truly wonderful diamonds in my life. I also began to miss a whole slew of people who died, some as many as twenty years ago. You could say that grief is like the ocean coming in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. And no matter what, in the final analysis, all anyone can do is learn to swim.

By the end of the competition, I swam away with a bronze medal in one event and the gold in an another. No one was more surprised and happier than me. Gratefully, there was sufficient time to think and reflect on what had just happened and I am still celebrating, not to the point of wearing my medals to work or to bed, but they are always close by.

 These past few months I thought about the most difficult times of my life with the hidden hope that I had already sailed through the worst of turbulent seas. I kept hearing an age-old question: What do you do when you find yourself face-to-face with all the worst possible scenarios that you would’ve ever imagined appearing all at once and then challenged to the degree you would never have expected, to follow your own advice, your own counsel and to live what you have told so many others to do in the face of remarkable despair and trial? You keep walking and wondering and asking God how all this happened so quickly. And while you face microcosmic episodes of death, separation and rejection every day, you also find new and amazing opportunities to learn, to cope and to reveal something remarkable about God, the world, love and yourself. And you don’t ever stop because you know if you do, the villains of self-pity and rage will swallow you whole.

 This is my story. And this is why I love Easter. Jesus makes all things new again, even the life of a sixty-something year-old. I hope you can come to a point in your life that surprises you, whether it be through swimming, or sailing, or sewing, or simply finding joy in the tedious, most boring parts of life. It’ll be worth it.

“Swimming is a life-saving skill, so just the fact that the sport that I love can give so much back to other people – and inspire them to join something that they never thought they could do or go after their dreams – is something that is really special to me.” ~Simone Manuel

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Finish The Masterpiece

woman's hand with multi-color paint holding up artist's paint brushes

There is too much selfishness and pettiness in this world. Oftentimes it takes an amazing example of selfless love and tender care for another to remind us to remove everything from our lives that is not of God to finish the masterpiece that He began in all of us.

Listen to this week’s insightful message of hope and clarity accompanied by original piano music.

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In Your Hands

white dove bird on a human hand eating

The passage from childhood into adulthood is not only critical to maturity, it is also necessary for clear and insightful wisdom to help see the path to Heaven with clarity and courage. While we are challenged to keep child-like hearts, we must have adult-sized faith to see good and evil wherever we go.

Listen to this week’s insightful message of hope and clarity accompanied by original piano music.

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Chocolate Crossroads

little boy looking eagerly at a chocolate bar in his hand

Faith without practice becomes lifeless, empty, and hardly life-giving. Carrying our cross can be difficult if we complain, but joyous if we realize that there is always a miracle waiting for us.

Listen to this week’s insightful message of hope and clarity accompanied by original piano music. 

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The Hidden Self

hood-covered black monk in forrest

Very often we rush to offer and show our clean, pretty, manicured, beautified, Facebook self. But God will have none of that. Only a real, transparent, open and strong relationship with God will produce miracles.

Listen to this week’s insightful message of hope and clarity accompanied by original piano music.

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The Truth Always Surfaces

man wearing dirty clothes pushing against wall

Whatever is inside us always finds its way to the surface. It is that which is within us that makes us wise or defiled. Sometimes it takes a little reminder to invite Jesus to live deep within us so that whenever we speak or act, He will find His way into our lives and those we meet. Listen to this week’s insightful message of hope and clarity accompanied by original piano music. 

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Letting Go

male sitting on pier at sunset over water

Oftentimes we hold on to things that really do not matter in the big picture. Sometimes it takes a little reminder to place all of our lives into perspective. Your faith in Jesus is of ultimate importance. Hold on to it daily and watch the miracles unfold.

Listen to this week’s insightful message of hope and clarity accompanied by original piano music.

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My Little Ballerina

little girl on stage as ballerina holding point shoes

His resume looked like a spreadsheet for at least ten different people who had lived at least three full lives. He had come across it as he was preparing to pack from his last job before the strange new world of retirement. He laughed quietly to himself realizing that he had been employed by everything from dog walking to telemarketing, from teaching to counseling, from cleaning to writing. The day had finally come where he could hopefully rest from a long career of a smorgasbord of life works and activity, which produced at least another lifetime of memories.

Just when he came to the last box of papers and discarded letters, he realized that he had not opened this particular movable crate of remembrance ever since he packed it forty years ago. That was when he worked for a medical delivery company, transporting everything from specimens to records all over the area in a three-hundred-mile radius and visiting as many as twenty-five different hospitals and medical facilities. This was the moment he found them. Neatly wrapped in that light tissue paper that people often put inside those big gift bags as a splash of color temporarily hiding the surprise gift for the recipient, there they were: a pair of soft pink silk ballet shoes that appeared never to have been worn or even presented to anyone. He drew a deep breath and quickly realized that his eyes began to moisten with a warm but sad memory that he placed away for safe keeping. In his hands, he softly held those two pristine fit pointe shoes (as they are known within ballet circles) while bending over quickly to retrieve the invoice and receipt probably undisturbed since the day he first opened the small delivery box in which they had arrived.

This particular memory had taken several months to begin, develop, and conclude while he was delivering medical items to a children’s hospital in San Antonio, Texas. He loved going there and speaking with the nurses on the different floors, most of whom knew him by name and vice-versa. Holidays were especially memorable for him because he never forgot to provide seasonal cards, post cards, candy, and maybe even a potted plant for the front desks. That was perhaps why they always asked for him by name for deliveries and why his company was always to assign him, for one, to keep their clients happy, and second, to help ease the disappointment and frustration when a particular shipment was late or even worse, lost.

This touching story, all these forty years later, began at the beginning of November during one of the worst rainstorms in the area. Freeways and overpasses were dangerously drenched while police cars and ambulances were heard and spotted every mile or so. Of course, that meant that he was equally drenched from head to toe. Gratefully, he had several spare changes of clothes in the mobile delivery van, and on this memorable day, he ran into the hospital, and after a quick dry-and-change maneuver, he was back on the floors checking in with his anxiously awaiting customers.

That’s when he met her. It was perhaps one of the most strangely curious and yet darling memories that would always be accessible throughout his years. She was a little girl about seven years old, with the brightest smile, the most delicate of expressions, and clearly a cancer patient. He found himself in the front admitting room of the oncology wing patiently waiting for someone to come and certify his delivery and sign the invoice. What he noticed was more than curious. This little girl wore a bright petty-coat kind of dress that looked like she was about to start square-dancing, deterred perhaps by the IV-drip suspended high above her head hanging by a silver pole on wheels which she pushed as if it were her own private tricycle or elaborate wagon. She was as bald as a bowling ball with a cute red ribbon apparently scotch-taped to her head to complete the ensemble. She was going from patient to patient asking their name, occupation, and reason for being there as if she worked there or was part of the welcoming committee of the hospital.

When she finally arrived at our delivery man, she was taken back by his uniform, name tag, and stack of unusually marked boxes which comprised his delivery for that day and floor.

“What are you?” she asked rather brusquely.

“I’m from FedEx, little girl, and I am here bearing gifts!” came his quick and smile-laden response.

“Oh, hello, Mr. FedEx,” came the retort. “Welcome to my hospital.”

The next few minutes or so began the most endearing of passing friendships that would warm anyone’s heart. The next questions were all about their homes and families, their favorite things to do, and of course, about why this little precious soul was even here at the hospital.

“Well, Mr. FedEx, you see that bag hanging there? That’s for me. They say that I have “lookeemia,” or something like that. But look! I figured out a little dance I can perform for you right here even though I got this ‘bag-pole’ stuck to me.”

And with that innocent and inviting introduction, she proceeded to provide a jig and some rather fancy foot work while humming some melody which escaped the scope of the delivery man’s repertoire.

“That’s pretty good little girl! By the way, what’s your name?” asked Mr. FedEx.

“My name is Sally. I am happy to meet you, but I think it’s time for my nap. I will see you later, I hope real soon, OK?”

Even though it was 9:30 in the morning and perhaps an odd hour for napping, our delivery man continued his way forward with his deliveries and collection of signatures before braving the elements outside once again and praying that he could make it back home in one piece.

One month passed and it was time for yet another delivery to that same oncology wing. He was secretly hoping he would see Sally again, and although at his first visit to the floor, he did not see her, he did return to the waiting room and waited for as long as he could. Sure enough, after about twenty minutes, there she entered the area, different dress, different shoes, but same smile and scotch-taped bow on her shiny little head.

“Hey, Mr. FedEx! I am happy to see you again!” she blurted out, approaching him slowly.

“And I am happy to see you, too, Sally. Tell me, what have you been up to?” came the quick reply.

The two continued their conversation as if they had known each other forever. She went on to tell him what new treatments they were going to try with her, while he spoke to her of the ever-expanding routes they were planning to assign to him, maybe as far away as Austin and Dallas, and that he hoped that he would still be on the same schedule to bring him by the hospitals in the San Antonio area.

“That would be really nice, Mr. FedEx. I hope you keep coming,” reassured Sally.

“Me, too, Sally, me too. Hey, before I forget, next month is Christmas and I’ll bet you’ve got a long wish ready to share, don’t you,” continued her new friend.

“Yes, I do. What I would really like to do for Christmas is dance, a special dance that I create and perform here for families who come to see my friends here. And of course, I’d like to dance for my family. But I’ve got this ‘bag-pole’ with my medicine, but with the right shoes, anything is possible, right?,” she said with a smile that filled the room with the love and dreams of a dying girl with undying hope.

It was at that moment that our Mr. FedEx knew exactly what he was going to do. He was going to go to one of those ballet studios and purchase a small pair of tall pointe shoes and wrap them exactly right for Sally for Christmas. He was so excited and knew that it would make her face light up like all the Christmas trees he could imagine. Immediately he found the place, purchased the gift, and placed it in safe keeping inside his delivery van hoping that he would see that familiar address of the hospital on his list of stops.

The Christmas rush that year was merciless, however. There were new delivery locations everywhere and,  although the San Antonio children’s hospital was always on the list, there was a slew of new drivers that had to be hired on to fill the demanding order for Christmas fare all over Central Texas. The young delivery man seemed to have gone everywhere else except that children’s hospital in San Antonio, but he never went anywhere without his special package tucked safely away in one of the storage compartments of his van.

Christmas, New Year’s, and January all came and went and the rush for packages seemed to have abated substantially. One dark and cloudy morning, at around 6:00, he received his list of deliveries for the next three days. He brandished a great big smile when he read that the children’s hospital was on the list. He could not wait.  And the rainstorm would not wait either. The weather was as dark and torrential as the day he first met his little ballerina. However, nothing was going to stop him from this last delivery of the week.

It was a little before three o’clock in the afternoon when he arrived at the hospital and yet it seemed as if it was much later. He brought the dolly that carried about five or six heavy boxes of everything from small oxygen tanks to latex gloves and finally made his way to the oncology wing. Surprisingly, it was empty. He thought the visiting hours were either over, or there was just a lull in the flow of families coming to see their young ones. He was also taken back with how quiet it all was. As he looked up at the large clock on the wall, he began to hear the soft but determined raindrops hitting the windows facing the city below. He was also determined to make this last delivery, and after a full hour that seemed like a day, he rang for the on-duty nurses. Two incredibly young and serious-looking women dressed in bright blue scrubs came to the desk.

“May I help you, sir?” one of them asked.

“I’m looking for Sally. Could you please tell her that Mr. FedEx, her friend is here to see her?”

The two nurses glanced at each other with a strange expression that was a mix of distress and awkwardness. One of them went to the file cabinet while the other was about to reach for the phone but not before our delivery man assertively intervened:

“Which one of you is going to tell me?”

The older nurse who had tried to deflect what she was sure to be a most difficult and yet common conversation, spoke up:

“Well, sir, you know this is a hospital and the kids here are very sick.”

The young man impatiently interrupted with, “Where is Sally?”

She continued, “Sally died Christmas Eve shortly before midnight. I am sorry. We all miss her very much.”

He would later say that he felt as if all the air in that room became so thin and he felt as if he was going to faint or something. He walked out slowly, package in hand, into a well-known and frequented mercado-like plaza outside the hospital and just started walking. He was grateful that it was pouring down so that the rain and his tears comingled and very few, if any, noticed.

That was forty years ago and today, as he was getting all his papers and documents in order, he found those ballet shoes again. Sally would have been about forty-six or seven today and he often wondered what kind of life she would have led had she had the chance. However, that was not where he was going with this memory. He believed strongly that everyone had been placed upon this earth, and even more specifically, in each of our paths to achieve something worthy and noble that makes, or rather, should make a difference. Sally had done that for him, and he prayed that during these past four decades, he had done the same for others.

Have you?

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The Shadow of Your Smile

two adult men on grass smiling

“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received – only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.”  St. Francis of Assisi

“The shadow of your smile, when you are gone, will color all my dreams and light the dawn. Look into my eyes, my love and see all the lovely things you are to me.” Songwriters Johnny Mandel/Paul Webster, “The Shadow Of Your Smile” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management

His father was turning seventy and he was literally scrambling for the most clever and appropriate surprise to provide to mark this wonderful and yet overwhelming occasion. Theirs was a unique relationship, as so many are. They did not spend that much time together, yet, if you were to ask either of them, it was as if they talked every day, and perhaps they did, in a spiritual, almost mysterious sort of way. When they would gather for a quick lunch or an occasional steak dinner at one of their favorite “mom-and-pop” steak houses that looked more like an abandoned laundromat, they laughed quite often at the way they would finish each other’s sentences.

As a father of four himself, he had understood and accepted the awesome responsibilities of parenthood and on this particular day, he was walking into a dental office with his youngest son, who by far was the most extensive patient and costly of all his four children. Perhaps, he was also the least appreciative. As he stepped inside, the aroma of the office assaulted him. It was the smell of the toothpaste-cleansing materials, the sterilized dental equipment mixed in with the freshly washed floors and polished sinks which created that mysterious scent associated with all dental offices. Slowing down, he took a deep breath, clouded his eyes, and was transported back to his youth, to the first time he went to the dentist’s office with his dad. He did not know what braces were when he first heard the word, but he would never forget them after that. His teeth were in horrible need of costly work that already begun to inhibit him to hide the smile that was growing alongside the rest of his body. 

One thing was for sure, there was going to be a whole lot of sacrifices to be made to make this work. But he was still a kid and could not appreciate all the ups and downs of keeping a family financially afloat. Then came that one day after school that he came home early and walked down the hall in their modest house and heard his parents talking. His mother seemed a little upset with his dad, and then he heard his name mentioned. They were not really fighting but for a small kid, it just sounded like he was the reason for an argument. This dental expense was not “absolutely” necessary and because of struggling times, there was this thought floating between them that maybe he could get his own teeth worked on when he arrived into his adult years. But his dad would not hear of it. He was going to sell a few prized collector’s items, pick up a second job doing security work at the nearby mall, and that would be it.

Here was yet another example of what Mother Teresa meant when she said that we need to give until it hurts. That young man, wise beyond his years, realized the sacrifice his father was about to make made for him and he could still remember that night moistening his pillow with his tears, tears of pure joy that he had a father who loved him so much and would practically do anything for his happiness. He made a silent but powerful promise to God that he would never forget him for it. For the next couple of years or so, his dad would call out to him whether they were outside working on the yard, at the supper table, or maybe coming back from the gas station, and then flash this playful, Cheshire-cat type of wide-grin, and say the same thing each time: “You see, everything always works out!”

Now as an adult with his own growing family, he found that these were challenging days, maybe even a little on the dark side. Everything seemingly was falling apart for him as he began to witness some of his dreams go up in smoke. He just could not catch a break, and all the while he did not want to worry his father who was equally growing anxious about his son’s anxiety levels affecting everything from his marriage to his appreciation of the man he had become. However, the biggest test of faith and family was about to be served to both men. His father had asked him for a ride to the doctor’s office so they could grab a steak afterwards. There was an unusual quiet during the relatively short ride to the medical center, and it seemed that both had much weighing on their minds, first for themselves, then for the other.

After waiting almost an hour, he witnessed his dad step out of the doctor’s office as if he had just put gas in the sedan, with nothing seemingly out of the ordinary. He provided the copay and the two walked out of the clinic and got in the vehicle. Right away, there was something very wrong that made that deep aching pain in the stomach so much worse. “Let’s go,” his dad said and with that his son knew something was very wrong. They drove for a while in silence, and his son knew that his dad would tell him what was wrong in his own way. They took the long way to the little restaurant, and as they drove down past their old house, the baseball field where they made such wonderful memories, and of course, their old dentist’s office, the older of the pair started talking about life and the memories each place helped to create. That’s when the younger man knew his dad was dying. They looked at each other and nodded. No words, as usual, were needed. They understood.

And there it was again, that smile. The smile that says what words can hardly convey between the souls that truly have been placed on this earth for each other. Sometimes it is in marriage, sometimes great friends, and sometimes, in the most amazing of moments, between those who are called fathers and sons. Under the shadow of that smile, great things grow. And they grow into a gift that is not only hard to describe or put into words, but also impossible to share without breaking down in a pool of cathartic tears. This is the story of so many who live and move and have their being walking around us every day. Perhaps we know their stories and most likely, we do not. But they are there. And wouldn’t be just a little gift we could give to ourselves today, deserved or not, that at the end of our lives, when we open our eyes after this earthly journey is completed, we could hope to see the face of Jesus. Of course, he is smiling. And what do you think he’ll say?

“You see, everything always works out!”

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”  Erma Bombeck

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I Can’t Wait Till Morning

man looking out of airplane window

The flight from Dallas to Omaha was mercifully on time while the timing of this little trip could not have come any better. Although it had been a relatively smooth school year, there were the usual pressures and anxious moments ladled with deadlines, broken pipes, leaking roofs, and the occasional unhappy, complaining parent or unsatisfied bureaucrat from Central Office who had to “put their two cents in” and criticize some aspect of how his school was running. Still, he took it all in stride, and with a nod here and a slight smile there, he was able to muddle through it all somehow.

As a former teacher and now a principal of a relatively small but remarkably exciting campus, this man was an amazing example of resilience. Even when personal issues, heartache, or emotional disappointments beset him, he always seemed to have a smile, a quick, pithy remark, and a sincere compliment to offer from how wonderful the sun felt on his face to the “best cup of coffee” he had just enjoyed.

This spontaneous decision to visit old friends in the Midwest was not only welcomed, but it was also necessary. A spot of perspective was just what he needed, and as he began boarding the flight, he knew immediately that it was indeed the right choice. His body already began to relax and move ever so slowly into vacation mode as he found his seat, on the aisle, just as he had reserved, and took out a book on successfully carrying one’s cross in the modern world.

“Oh great,” he said under his breath, “it’s not going to be a full flight,” and then began to watch as the other passengers began to saunter onto the plane. One by one, he surveyed his two-hour companions on this somewhat short flight and began to wonder about the lift stories that each was carrying, just waiting to tell the world. Having dealt with every conceivable type of personality in his school and in his wonderfully full life, he could only imagine what was behind those somewhat hurried faces, some of which looked confused and harried, perhaps because they had just made it in time to make this flight. “And where are they all going?” he thought to himself, “and just what is waiting for them when they get there?”   

Although it was quite a pensive approach to travelling for anyone, it was this same creative imagination that helped him deal with so many kinds of people and situations. Perhaps it was his past that brought him to this way of being. He had not always been a teacher, or principal, or even in education. His first dream was to be a doctor and maybe he had what it took, and maybe he did not, but it simply did not materialize. One setback after another literally brought him to his knees one night when he realized it was not going to happen. Long nights crying in front of all his neatly stacked medical books in his small bedroom brought him only restlessness, high blood pressure, and staggering debt. It was clearly the end of this chapter of his life, but would there be another?

That stream of consciousness seemed to take only a blink of an eye, but it lasted about twenty minutes, just enough time for the last passenger to board and get this Nebraska-bound flight ready to depart. The final one to board was a man in his forties, kind of tall, glasses, and seemingly lost in his thoughts. He sat in the same row as the principal by the window and just began to stare out onto the tarmac, seemingly unconcerned about flight, his surroundings, including the only other person close to him. The flight finally left and achieved a cruising altitude. Most of the others onboard either attached themselves to their headphones, earbuds, or other listening devices so the cabin was generously quiet. The man in the window seat just kept staring out into the clouds emitting sounds ever so often that sounded like whimpering.

“Are you okay?” the principal asked.


He thought that perhaps the man just wanted to be left alone so he went back to his book. After about ten minutes, the somber gentleman slowly turned to his right and gently asked, “Do you believe in Heaven?”

“Well, I would have to answer with an overwhelming ‘yes,’ otherwise I don’t think I would have come this far and this much in peace,” came the reply.

The window passenger continued: “Two weeks ago, my six-year-old son didn’t want to go to school because he said he had a headache. My wife gave him a children’s’ aspirin and some cold orange juice and assured him it would be fine. Later in the day, the school called to report that he had a fever, so we brought him home. The next morning, he got worse and fainted in the bathroom. We rushed him to the hospital where after an awfully long day, the doctor informed us that he had an inoperable tumor in his head and there was nothing we could do but just make him comfortable as possible and wait for the end.”

The teacher/principal just listened intensely, feeling as if he and his companion were the only ones in that cabin. His friend continued:

“Finally, on a bright, sunny afternoon, I was with my son, holding his hand, watching him slip away. He weakly asked me, ‘Daddy, is it getting dark outside?’ The sun couldn’t have been shining any brighter at that moment, so I knew what was coming. I told him, ‘Yes, Son, the night is coming. Are you ready? ‘Yes, Daddy. I am. I will see you in the morning,’ and with that, I lost my son in this life.”

The principal fought hard to keep it together and decided that the best thing he could do is just nod in compassionate solidarity. After a brief but poignant moment of silence, the grieving father turned to his fellow passenger, with tears streaming down his face, and quietly uttered:

“I can’t wait till morning.”

“Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, ‘Did you bring joy?’ The second was, ‘Did you find joy?’”  – Leo Buscaglia

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The Shirt Off Your Back blog shirt off your back

“Life keeps throwing me stones. And I keep finding the diamonds.” Ana Claudia Antunes

“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Oscar Wilde

You hear people say over and over again that life is a mystery, but I think happiness is the real enigma. Just think about it for a minute. Why are some people just generally happy most of the time and why are others so miserable and see their life’s work to make others as miserable as they are, perhaps even more so? That is why I call happiness, or better said, the pursuit of happiness a mystery. Consider the following as an example or even a remedy to this mysterious movement to pursue a happy state in life:

It was said that a man had an only son whom he considered the light of his life and the joy of his heart. There was, however, one blatant and serious problem. His son was always unhappy. He would spend days on end at his window, staring into space.

Out of annoying and numbing desperation, his father kept asking him, “What is it that you lack, Son? For the life of me, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with you!”

And the answer, in more or less the same verbiage, was disappointingly the same with equal frustrating reaction: “I don’t know, Dad.”

His father took another tact: “Son, are you in love? If there is a woman that you genuinely want to be with; tell me, and your old man may have some advice about courting her. We can approach this together if you allow me.”

And again, the response was similar: “No, Dad, I am not in love.”

Because of his great love for his only son, this beleaguered father tried every way possible to find a way to bring happiness to his offspring. He took him to movies, sporting games, concerts, and every activity that he thought his son would appreciate, but they were all useless. And what was even worse, his son began to sink deeper and deeper into a pre-depressive state of mind.

Even more determined and yet losing hope, this father went everywhere he could imagine to find a solution. He went to counselors, psychologists, therapists, priests, doctors and professors for some answers and a solution. This also proved as useless as it was costly.

Interestingly enough, an old uncle heard of this troubling family drama and reached out to the father and son. Everyone had thought that he was always a little strange, distant, even weird to a disconcerting degree. Thus, when he finally called, there was some worry and doubt. The advice he gave was strange but somehow reasonable: “Look for a happy man, your son’s same age, a person who is completely and thoroughly happy, and then exchange your son’s shirt for his.” And with this bizarre piece of advice, the man showed himself out the door, and left them both, father and son, to consider his strange but oddly familiar unsolicited advice.

The search was on. The father sought out young men of equal age as his son’s and always had the same question: “What do you truly desire?” To the struggling engineer, he asked the familiar question, and the answer was, “I want to be more successful and famous.” Another businessman would answer, “I want to own my own company,” while another would answer, “I want to fall in love.” To all these he would respond, “You are useless! I am looking for a man who is happy just as he is, not one who’s dissatisfied and trying to reach for things unavailable or lofty.”

The plight of these two and the search for “the most happy man” gained notoriety and fame. People were texting each other, posting their ideas on Facebook, and creating memes and cartoons about the whole affair.

Things took a seemingly wonderful turn when, through social media, a number of people started mentioning a man whom everyone thought was the happiest of all. Apparently, he had a wife as good as she was beautiful and a house full of children, young and maturing, who loved him deeply. He had succeeded in everything he attempted, made lots of money, and believed that every day was a gift. The father sought him out and asked for an interview and the two men met at a restaurant in a smaller city nearby and began to talk passionately about their lives and loves. But at some point in their conversation, the alleged-happy-man began to explain: “Yes, indeed, I have everything anybody could possibly want. But at the same time, I worry because I’ll have to die one day and leave it all. I can’t sleep at night for sheer worry.” The desperate father had his hopes dashed in one fell swoop.

During his long drive back home, he needed to stop for gas. In a small town, a name of which he had never heard before or could even remember was on the map, he pulled into a station that was quite reminiscent of the old 1960s sitcoms. As he stepped out of his car, he heard a man singing a most joyful and optimistic refrain. The forlorn father thought to himself, “Whoever sings like that is bound to be happy!” He followed the voice to the garage adjacent to the main building and found a young man more or less the same age as his son. He began by stating, “I am from a large city about forty miles away and I would like to offer to buy your filling station.”

The response was as simple as it was quick. “That’s a very kind offer, but I could not even consider it. I am as happy as I have ever been in my short life and I know why. I am very happy here and want nothing more.”

The older man, the father of the distraught young man, was quick to counter: “Please, I must ask you for a most important favor. My son is dying! Only you can save him.”

“I don’t really understand what you are saying, but I see the tears in your eyes,” came the young mechanic’s response, “and if I can save another human soul, I am all about it. What can I do?”

“May I please have your shirt?” asked the man anxiously. And with that, almost, and as if on cue, the young man began to remove his outer work jacket while the forsaken father grimaced in painful disappointment, his arms dropping lifelessly to his side.  

The happy man wore no shirt.

“It is not in the pursuit of happiness that we find fulfillment, it is in the happiness of pursuit.” Denis Waitley

“There is no such thing as the pursuit of happiness, but there is the discovery of joy.” Joyce Grenfell

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Victor’s Fable

newborn being dressed

“Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.” G. K. Chesterton

A young woman gave birth to her first child just one month after her husband died in a tragic accident. The neighbors, deeply concerned over the plight of the poor young widow, held a shower for the baby. Each person brought a beautiful present to help the mother and child get started in life. When all of the gifts were opened, the mother wept. “Thank you for your wonderful support,” she said, brushing back her tears. “You have made a most difficult time easier. Next Sunday my son will be baptized. I have decided to name him Victor after his father.”

When all of the guests had left, the young widow heard a knock on the door. She opened it to find an old man who lived in the corner house by himself. Everyone called him Doc Burns, though he wasn’t really a doctor in the accepted, normal sense. Few people ever talked to the reclusive old man, though he often waved at the widow as she walked past his home.

“I have come to give you my gift for your young son,” he said softly. “Mine is a different kind of gift from the others you have received. I have come to offer you one wish for young Victor. It may be anything that you want. You must make the wish before the child is baptized on Sunday.” Having concluded, the little man bowed and walked back to his house on the corner.

The young mother was baffled by the words of her strange little friend. Did he really have the power to grant a wish?” What should she ask for? All week long she could not make up her mind. Finally, as they walked forward to the baptismal font, she whispered in the infant’s ear, “I wish that everyone in the world will love my Victor.”

And the wish came true. Victor grew up to be a handsome little boy. As a toddler, people could not resist hugging and touching him. Even when he was naughty, no one could believe that he had done anything wrong. As he grew older and much more handsome, Victor became known and loved throughout the little town in which he and his mother lived. He was always given food and toys by other children. If his mother scolded or punished him, the adults would insist that she was being too harsh to such a wonderful child. Victor would often respond to all this attention by treating people with scorn and contempt. Still, they seemed to adore him. Only in his occasional talks with Doc Burns did he listen to anyone.

When Victor graduated from high school, he was given a scholarship to a college far from his childhood home. At Christmas, when he retuned home for a visit for the first time, he drove up in a beautiful black expensive car. His trunks were filled with fine clothes, and he had plenty of spending money. He seldom saw his mother during vacation. He spent his nights out drinking at parties and bars.

After college Victor never worked but continued to live a life of ease. There was no pleasure he did not experience and there was no vice that did not have his name on it. Even though women smothered him with attention and friends raved about him, his heart grew empty and his soul sick and dark. He despised people who catered to him. He was disgusted with everything and everyone.

One night Victor decided to commit suicide. He withdrew to his bedroom where he mixed a powerful poison in a glass of wine and lifted it to his lips. Just as he was about to drink it, Doc Burns rushed through the door and knocked the glass from his hand.” Good evening, Victor. It has been a long time since we have had a chance to talk,” the old man said softly. “You seem to be overwhelmed by your life of comfort and thoughtlessness. I am sorry it has been such a meaningless existence for you. I suppose I am the one responsible for your misery. I fulfilled your mother’s wish on the day of your baptism, even though it was a foolish one. Suppose I now offer you a new wish? Make it anything you want, and I will fulfill it.”

“I don’t think you can give me anything that I haven’t already had,” Victor said sadly. “Think again, my son,” the wise old man gently whispered. “Make another wish for my sake, and for the sake of your aging mother.” Victor then closed his eyes and thought for several minutes. Finally, he spoke through his tears. “Take away the old magic and give me a new wish. Rather than being loved, I ask for the ability to love everyone in the world.” Now that was amazingly good and wonderful,” Doc Burns said, as he embraced the sobbing young man. “Now things will go much better for you.”

And, as if the old man had rightly predicted, life did turn around for Victor, but not right away. Without his great charm, he began to be abandoned by his friends. Several people retaliated against him for the past wrongs he had inflicted on them throughout these past years. He was thrown into jail for three months to pay for debts that he could no longer weasel his way out of payment. While he was there, no one came to visit him. When he was finally released, he was sick, lonely, and penniless. He returned home to nurse his dying mother. For the first time in his life, he was able to return the great love.

After his mother’s recovery, Victor took a job as a janitor in an elementary school in his old hometown. He not only cared for clean floors but for the children, particularly those who came from poor families and homes. To all the children, he became,” Mr. Victor,” their friend, companion and ever-present counselor.

Finally, he met a beautiful young widow who had two small children. They married and he gave all three of them the love that they so desperately needed. Poor in possession, Victor was one of the richest men in the world.

Do you know Victor?

“This is the secret of life: the self lives only by dying, finds its identity (and its happiness) only by self-forgetfulness, self-giving, self-sacrifice, and agape love.” Peter Kreeft

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The Scar

male child crying tears rolling from eyes down cheeks

“The most beautiful people I have ever met are the ones who always see life in full color. They are the ones who have been through hell and back and still stop to savor the parts of life that many seldom pay attention to. They will always use their past experiences as a guiding light to bring forth a more authentic way of life. These are the people I admire most because no matter how much they have suffered, they will always find a reason to make the best of this imperfect world.” Karen A. Baquiran  

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on everyone, but perhaps most dramatically upon young families who were just beginning the road to their dreams last year when the pandemic began to spread, only to find even the simplest and familiar elements of life evaporate like steam from a tea kettle. Existence itself has taken a new texture and format causing a new kind of pressure and resulting in a type of stress that few even today can fully understand or appreciate. 

Take for example the family in a small suburb outside of Miami, Florida. They had just purchased their first house, modest, quaint, and perfect for their budding little family of two boys, ages six and eight. Last summer, he was laid off from his electrician job and with schools shutting down, money and patience became understandably tight. His young wife was always the optimistic one of the couple and her deep belief that all would be well and all would somehow work out never tired. Perhaps it had to do with her upbringing and how she knew how to push through all kinds of adversity. They had both found part time work so as to balance the family budget and arranged their schedules so that at least one of them could be at home with the boys and help with online learning and remote classes until it was deemed safe and appropriate to return to the classroom.

That first summer was difficult as it was for so many families, not just around the country but around the world. Life had dramatically and drastically changed and not for the better. Friendships were strained, families became more and more distant, and the remote Zoom-ing, Skype-ing, and detached fragile efforts at communication were just becoming too old and unappealing. There was finally a break in the doldrums when the local school announced along with the other local campuses that in-class learning was to resume and, with all the social distancing measures in place, there would be safe, monitored, and carefully-orchestrated parent-teacher conferences for those who opted for such a dialogue. 

Most everyone was excited at such a gathering, mostly parents and their counterpart educators, many of whom had become close friends throughout the years. There were also a good handful of young students that were looking forward to these days of normalcy ahead as well, with the exception of one small, quite assuming member of our Florida family that we are highlighting today. The usual brightness and smile ran away from his face when he heard this his mother would be accompanying him to school the following week to try to inch toward the “way things used to be,” if only for a fraction of the life they were attempting to maintain.

There are, no doubt, many reasons why this little one would feel this way. Primarily, he was at that age when the common and expected motherly affection embarrassed him especially in front of the other little boys in his class. There may have been that old familiar inner pull of every growing little boy between the comforts of childhood and the not-so-distant calls to adolescence with a tint of manhood whistling away. But there was another reason for his consternation, and it was simple in size as it was complicated in scope. It was a scar. And it was not visible on his own innocent face, but on his mother’s otherwise pristine and smooth countenance. The mark was clearly visible beginning right above her left eye, travelling down diagonally across her Roman nose ending just slightly below her lower lip. Amazingly, no one in the family ever mentioned it or ever even referred to it or questioned its existence, that is, until this very moment in an incredibly young life when apparently, he was feeling some strange type of misplaced shame, perhaps confusing, angering, and perplexing him all at the same time. 

As the date and time for the socially-distant and emotionally-bonding parent-teacher-student moment arrived, the little one began to make all kinds of excuses why he could not, or rather, why he would not be there. First, his head ached, then his stomach, then he ran out of body parts to ail and finally said that he just did not want to go without giving any reasonable explanation. Perhaps this is where parental wisdom, which is sometimes only felt and fully understood at the time that it is needed, becomes ready and fit to launch. And so, it was about to do just that. After the meaningful glances between mother and father, the decision was made. “You are going.” And with that, the discussion ended. 

Young dread, especially noted on the face of a young child, must be especially painful but altogether necessary in the subline effort to prepare for all the other moments of painstaking remorse and anxiety that awaits any soul maturing along the path of life. This was a case in point with our young man. Quietly keeping to himself for most of the days leading up to the conference, the day finally arrived. Mother and son embarked on the twenty-minute drive to his school as if they were going to a funeral and as soon as they arrived and began to walk toward his classroom, he began to cry, softly but noticeably. As soon as they entered his classroom, he ran into the cloakroom apparently to hide or escape whatever encounter he had been fearing all these days. His teacher, a woman nearly the same age as his mother, appeared a little startled by his behavior but immediately launched into a lively dialogue with the boy’s mother and the two truly began their conference, happily and engaging.

After a few minutes, as if they both ignored their absent son and student from the mix, the teacher took what is possibly a bold but necessary step in asking the obvious question.

“Please forgive me, but I couldn’t help notice the scar on your face. May I please ask what happened?”

With the grace of a true liberated soul who has seen the best and the worst of life, she answered gingerly but not without enough volume so that her hidden offspring could hear and comprehend.

“Of course, I do not mind. It happened years ago when my son was newly born, perhaps only three months old. We were living in a ridiculously small apartment with one small bedroom and barely enough room to move around comfortably. One day a fire broke out in the complex and spread quickly through our section. It had spread to our bedroom where my son was sleeping in his crib. A burning beam had dislodged from the ceiling and was falling toward him, and the last thing I remember was rushing to his crib and blocking it from falling on top of him. I was knocked unconscious, and when I came to, I was in the ambulance, my baby was safe, and now I have this scar. Since that day, I have never, ever regretted what I did that day.” 

Not surprisingly, that little boy, having heard everything, ran out of that cloakroom straight toward his mother and hugged her as tightly as he could, and for the rest of the visit, and then some, he never left her side. 

“So I’m thankful for the scars, ’cause without them I wouldn’t know Your heart. And I know they’ll always tell of who You are. So forever I am thankful for the scars.” Song “Scars” by I Am They

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You Sound Familiar

tipped over basket of apples

He was running late, as usual, and immediately noticed the unattended stubble on his chin and cheeks as he stared at himself with exasperated eyes. These last ten years had been pretty rough on his soul, but as his family and friends often remarked, “he was the fighter who never gave up.” However, on this particular morning, he felt like abandoning whatever distant ideals he once spouted and lived. 

For a split second, he recalled, standing there with a loaded toothbrush and the sound of running water, the days that he thought he experienced total clarity about his life and his place in the world. It seemed like eternity ago, especially now with such a strange and even bizarre turn of events with COVID-19 and its subsequent divisive havoc upon the country and especially on his own circle of family and friends. He had not fully realized how disheartening things had spiraled out of control.

He wanted to start off the new year with just the right amounts of optimism laced carefully with a warm, not cold or stark, realistic approach to life so as to avoid any crushing embarrassment or feelings of abandonment or even worse, rejection. Unfortunately, the phrase he remembered from a poem he had read years earlier prevailed over his most sincere efforts which went something like, “the best made plans of mice and men often go awry.” And they most certainly did not even one week into 2021.

It started with family. Of course, he understood the cautionary approach to gatherings and how important it was to keep distance as a priority but still maintain closeness. But what he did not understand was how some members of his family still gathered and he was not included in their plans. Still, he remained positive. Then there was his old college roommate with whom he shared great times and memories who kept putting off their yearly visits with phrases like, “I’m just not ready,” and “things are simply not safe.” All the while, even amid these pronouncements, which seemed rational on the surface, there were still dinners, and parties, and other memories made even with some who had already contacted the virus and were still susceptible to it. Again, there were no harsh words spoken or blame games to be played. He just accepted how things were to be. For how long, was anyone’s guess.

The Ancient Romans had a theory of the events happening in threes. They called it “Omne trium perfectum.” (Three makes perfect.) This has interestingly trickled down to what some call “The Rule of Three” which is a principle in writing and literature that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers. As a life principle, no doubt debatable but not without merit, came to life for him right on the first day of January when he had hoped to begin things with a sincere and noble start. His best friend, who had an equally tumultuous 2020 with very little going according to plan, had suggested they have a “kick-off” to new beginnings with a long and meaningful lunch at one of their favorite haunts. Everything seemed posed to have that great start and they agreed on the time and place late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. He had arrived a little early to order a scrumptious appetizer and his own favorite pre-meal beverage of toasting the hopes and desires of the new year with his normal optimistic disposition and genuine expectation of the fruits of friendship. And he waited. And waited. And then some more. His darling waitress, probably a struggling college student herself, could not hold back the sympathetic glances and occasionally phrases of support. His friend never arrived and while the second drink had already been served, he decided to order, scarf down his lunch, and then return to the bold and promising hours of the new year, such as they were. So there it was: his family, his old college friend, and now this. Three for three.

He came to the obvious conclusion that it is probably and most likely easier to accept something like this happening to you when it is done by an unfriendly source or by even an enemy, but when a friend stands you up or just casually forgets you, it is so much harder. That was exactly what happened. “I simply forgot,” and with that explanation arrived a myriad of reasons, explanations, and begging for forgiveness, which, of course, as usual, was immediately delivered without any fanfare and with the promise that the incident would never be resurrected again, especially in the venturesome months ahead. However, it did still keep returning to his consciousness and back thoughts with numbing regularity. “How does anyone forget their friends, their family, and what they mean to them?” he would ponder with the same empty results each time. “And why is it always YOU who have to be understanding, forgiving, and patient?” This mantra had also produced the same vacuous response.

“Well, that was enough self-pity for the morning,” he thought, and with that, he finished his bathroom routine and made his way to the kitchen to collect a few things before rushing off to work, including lunch. It was at that moment that he clumsily spilled a basket of apples from the kitchen counter onto the floor. For a moment, time stood still as he was transported back about twenty years earlier while at his first job in Chicago. He was living in nearby Gary, Indiana, and would drive to the local carpool area to catch the Metro into the “Windy City” for work. This one particular morning of repressed and dislodged memory, his wife drove him there planning to return later that night after the arrival of the last train to pick him up and bring him back home for dinner. His entire day was full of successful sales and hard-pressing meetings, and he found himself running late to make the last train back home. He sped on foot as fast as possible and when he got down to the tracks of the station, his wildly swinging briefcase knocked over a strangely-positioned crate of apples which sent them flying in every direction. Even though he made it inside one of the cars, his conscience got the best of him and he decide to get off and help pick up the apples which were apparently being sold by a young boy by the tracks. He was glad he did. The boy was blind.

He slowly gathered the apples that he sent spinning all over the station, one by one, until he figured that he retrieved all of them. He slowly made his way to the young boy and reaching for his wallet, he pulled out three twenty-dollar bills and carefully made his way to the blind apple seller. A few tears welled up on his face as he softly placed the bills in the boy’s small hands and calmly said the following: “I am the one who knocked over your apples and I am very sorry. Here, I am placing sixty dollars in your hands. These are twenty-dollar bills, sixty dollars, so don’t let anyone take them from you or tell you otherwise. I hope I haven’t ruined your day.” And with that, he began to walk away, and he may have forever left that blind boy’s life except for the fact that the young man wistfully called out: ”Sir?! Sir?! Are you Jesus?” This simple question froze him in his tracks, and he was never the same again.

Perhaps the moment had become buried deep down in his soul after twenty years of ups and downs, disappointments and other life moments that may or may not have taken the joy and reason out of his life. However, this morning, it came back with just an innocent kitchen accident that sent apples rolling and his memory engaged. It was precisely at this profound moment that he renewed his desire to be the man he believed God had created him to be, a man who reflects Jesus His Son in every opportunity possible. He wondered where that blind boy was right now, a man of about thirty or so. However, it did not matter. Today, he would approach his family, his friends, and all the people God had placed in his life with the same tireless, noble effort.

And wiping a few tears that had formed, he turned and began his day and the rest of his life, again.

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered; Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you’ve got anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God; It was never between you and them anyway.  St. Teresa of Calcutta

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I Knew You’d Be Here

I knew you'd be here

Something tells me that I am not the only one who is unhardened and maybe a tad more than elated to see 2020 go by the wayside and usher in a new year with promise, resolution, and perhaps even a little amnesia. I write this with a healthy amount of caution because, as some of you may already be thinking, 2021 could be worse, while others, siding with the more-or-less optimistic stoics among us, would be counter-offering a glib, “how could it be?!” Whatever the case may be, we can all agree that new opportunities await all of us just as they have every year, and now is the time to learn from the more immediate past and project going forward whether or not the new year is going to be better than the last one.

Let me suggest one possible positive starting point to begin 2021: is there anything already significant about the upcoming year that we could find so as to set the stage for good things to celebrate rather than ruminate? We would seek these out to somehow counteract the events over which we have no control with items that, whether it is a great or terrible year, will come and go whether we like it or not, with of course the normal caveat about dying or some other unforeseen cataclysmic occurrence. I found one.

Sometime within the first few days of our new adventure, I will have outlived my grandfather. The rationale of this observation has nothing to do with competition and everything to do with admiration which should be made noticeably clear in a few lines. To declare without embarrassment that I will have been blessed by this landmark in 2021 only serves to remind and challenge me to live up to the standards and nobility that he left my family over forty-five years ago when he died. If there was anyone in my world who could make you feel as if you were the only one in the room, it was Grandpa. I am very happy to discover in sharing this intent to write about him with my other relatives, mostly cousins, that I was not the only one who felt this way or to this day still remember the intense joy and expression of pure delight when we walked into his home, expressing as he would with some little nickname he had for each one of us. Mine was “Little Googy,” which I have come to discover is an Australian term of endearment spoken to children when they are about to be fed their morning egg.

Of all the memories amassed during high school, of all the choices and decisions that a young man makes during that tumultuous season of human development, I am most happy of the one I made, almost intuitively, to begin to ask my Grandpa about as many memories he had to share whenever we went to visit. Had these days been accompanied with clever and smart phones that could have recorded and photographed any given moments of time, my rendition of those short but meaningful conversations may have been very different today. Still, I am grateful for what we had and for what I remember, even more than forty years ago.

One memory that always comes back to my heart, especially around these times of Thanksgiving and Christmas, is the very tender account my Grandpa telling me about a little lamb he was once given. I can’t remember why or how he came across a baby lamb, but I do remember what happened after a few months. My Grandpa has created a little pen to the side of their home into a makeshift corral and every day went out to feed the animal and to make sure that it was protected and safe from any wild animals that may have been passing through. Over the next couple of months, the lamb grew pretty large and by this time had already had a name. Then came Thanksgiving. As a father of a family of six mouths to feed, he had one obligation and it will not take an exceedingly long stretch of the imagination to figure out what happened next. The last element of this memory that I remember is what my father told me years later after my Grandpa died. He said that he could remember approaching the table quite hungry and as he was enjoying one of his favorite meals with his brothers and sister, he looked up and saw his father walking up and down the dining room with just a piece of bread and some coffee. He just couldn’t eat the main course that day, understandably.  

I think it was early in my Senior Year of high school that I had what was probably the last conversation I would have with Grandpa just weeks before he died. Our nation was still swelling from the divisive nature of the Vietnam War/Conflict and as a young man nearing the age of the draft, I had some important questions for him concerning the nature of battle and war itself knowing the time of life that he had lived and observed. “Why do we have war, Grandpa?” was something along those lines that I recall placing before him outside his home, probably near the same area of his make-shift lamb pen. I wish I could say that I could restate the exact words he used, but what I do remember was that he said that war really did not create valor or heroism, rather, it revealed it in the most unobvious of places.

Then he went on to share a most profound detail that he was told by those, older than him, returning from World War II. It involved a situation involving two buddies from Texas who fought side by side in the trenches of France. Apparently, the two had become separated in the fierce battles in the trenches in southern France. When the gunfire had ceased for a few merciful minutes, the one could hear the other crying out clearly wounded and even perhaps dying and began to implore his commanding officer for permission to crawl over to reach his friend, to offer comfort and encouragement and to help him in any way possible. The officer in charge, however, refused to let him leave the trench but before he knew it, the young soldier was already over the top, ignoring the smell of gunpowder in the air, the concussion of incoming rounds, and the frenetic pounding of his heart deep within his chest. Miraculously, he made it to his friend hoisting him on his back and then repeated the amazing rescue effort only to discover that when they both returned to the safe area of their platoon, it was too late. His friend was gone. And even in the face of remarkable love translated into pristine bravery, the officer in charge chided the young soldier and cynically asked if it had been “worth the risk.” Without hesitation, he quickly and with tears in his eyes, gently responded, “It truly was worth it, sir. My buddy’s last words made it more than worth it. He looked up at me before he died and said, ‘I knew you would come.’” Not too much longer after that priceless conversation, my Grandpa leaped into eternity waiting for all of us, but not without leaving us all at least a few morsels of wisdom to propel us forward into the trenches of life. I remember recalling that story as they carried his body to the cemetery with all my family watching with a heaviness caused by the realization that things would probably not be the same anymore, and they were right.

Amazingly, some thirty years later, I found myself presented with a situation which made me think of these elements of life and love and loyalty from yet another unique perspective. I guess you could say that I have been blessed with both a sense of loyalty and reciprocally loyal friends, so when one of them called me to tell me that his older brother was found dead in his living room, a man I knew and considered a friend, and then quickly ended the conversation to start planning the funeral, I knew what I was going to do. It was the week of Thanksgiving and I had not spoken with my friend who lived in the Midwest and I remember answering my mom who asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving. I answered, “I’ll be in Iowa.” Calling on favors from everyone from Omaha to Sioux City, I arranged the flight, a car, and a place to stay, including a ride to the funeral home where I knew the family would be gathering. I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye. I was sitting alone in the back of the chapel watching as my friend and his grieving family filed in to pay the last respects, many of them who only saw the body of my friend’s brother laying in state, tears and sad shouts emanating throughout those brief shocking, terrible moments. And that’s when it happened. My friend casually or maybe instinctively looked back toward the last pew of the chapel and spotted me. He slowly sauntered toward me, approached, and said those immortal words, “I knew you’d come.”

Grateful to my ever-smiling and constant welcoming Grandpa, I am ever-so-thankful to my Sweet Jesus who has never left my side no matter how dark it has been, or rather how dark it appeared to be. Therefore, I’d like to share with you what I have learned going forward:

  1. The fear of death is more dreaded than death itself. Fear is the enemy, and we cannot negotiate with it. I choose to live in freedom. The only failure is losing God and that is not going to happen.
  2. Because I choose to envision the sheer magnitude of my dreams and blessings, I can appreciate and accept the intensity of my life’s battles. As long as there is breath in my body, I will never give up.
  3. Problems are messages. I realize now that until I fully receive and grasp the messages, they are poised to repeat themselves.

I know very well how valuable time is and how wonderful it is when it is spent doing good things and spending it with great people. Thank you, Grandpa. I know you did all you could for all of us and genuinely believe that you are at peace now. To all who are reading this, I wish you peace in this brave new year.

There is no doubt there are many among our readership who call themselves “dog lovers.” I mention this as a sort of disclaimer because as we begin to launch another brave new, and a conceivably better world in 2021, I want to close with the last line from an awesome book and movie simply entitled, “A Dog’s Purpose.” After taking some of us on an emotional roller-coaster, the ending reveals what the title suggests. The purpose of those wonderful canine companions is simple. “Be Here Now.” What a great way to preface the new year! Just be here, wherever you are, whatever the circumstance, whatever the scenario. Then, just maybe, you’ll hear the words that everyone should hear at least once in their lives: “I knew you would come.”

“Love is Love no matter how old you are, and I knew if I gave you enough time, you’d come back to me.”  ~Nicholas Sparks

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Meet Carl, Christmas Class of 2020

senior man in graduation robe shouting for joy with arms up in air

She had always wanted to be a nurse and why she chose the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to graduate and start work will remain a mystery only to be unveiled hopefully in her lifetime. But maybe she won’t have to wait too long to unravel that personal enigma.

Carl was her very first patient on the floor and no one could have asked for a more cooperative, compliant, and friendly man who, with his lovely wife, were so good to her.

She came to work on this mid-December week just a little perturbed because of the wreck on the freeway, more rude drivers, and the fact that her stomach was growling louder than a den of bears about to wake from hibernation caused by the unavoidable lack of time for breakfast. She rushed into the breakroom where most of the other nurses gathered and tried to start that first cup of cinnamon spice coffee that always seemed to jumpstart the morning for her while she shot a glance over to the bulletin board where people posted cars for sale, apartments for rent, and other sundry items including newspaper clippings featuring obituaries of the famous and not-so-famous, among them, at times, some of the former patients on their floor. Her eyes panned the selections and with a little shock in a gentle gasp, she spotted the obituary for her friend and patient Carl:

“The Angels came on December 1, 2020 to escort Carl to the Gates of Heaven to be with his Lord and Savior. He will be remembered for always having a smile on his face and looking for ways to make people laugh.  He never met a stranger and is loved by everyone who met him.”

“‘Yup,’ she thought, that’s right on. I wonder how his wife is doing.” Her thoughts catapulted her back just ten days earlier when, on her day off, with a few other nurse friends who were involved with hospice, decided to drop by the RV Community Park to visit with Carl and his wife. She remembered the scene quite well and recalled how everything was decorated for Christmas especially the comfortable and well illuminated bedroom where Carl lay with Christmas lights and decorations everywhere. There was literally no corner without something flashing, glowing, or shouting, “Merry Christmas!” She recalled a comment she heard in reference to how one of her teachers loved this season and made it clear by the way he adorned every nook and cranny with festive adornment: “If Santa Clause had a house, this is what it would look like!” She also recalled that one white Christmas tree strewn with red lights and all-red ornaments that looked like a giant peppermint cane. Carl was profoundly and keenly proud of the ornament that lay atop the tree: a large, red bulb with his and his wife’s name on it with the name JESUS in large glittered- applique right in the middle of them.

She also recalled one of her last conversations with Carl. She remembered how he was afraid to die understandably as anyone would have some trepidation about what the next few seconds will present after we take our last breath. For some strange reason, at least in her thinking, Carl was actually doubting his welcome into Paradise. Was there something he needed to reveal, confess, or otherwise release from his heart before it was time to go? From what he told her and the others, which was clearly corroborated by his family and closest friends, Carl had lived a very full, generous, and happy life. Perhaps he was just scared of the unknown and so the kind nurse said what instinctively came into her heart: “The good news is, Carl, is that you passed everything. You passed! Did you hear me? All you have to do now is wait for graduation. Just think of it!” He seemed to find great solace in those words and never asked about it again.

A few days later, she went to see him on a windy, sunny, Sunday afternoon and it was clear that the end was near. “What day is it?’ he asked her. “It’s Sunday, Carl,” she responded. “Can you read some Scripture for me? What is the Gospel for today?” he implored.

The young nurse scrambled with her phone and remembered how her parish priest had published the readings for each day of the year and she quickly found the ones for Sunday. She read slowly and deliberately from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

“Jesus told this parable to his disciples: ‘A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one– to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’”

It would be the last sermon Carl would ever hear on this earth. He motioned to his wife that he wanted to sit up one last time and with the help of the other visiting nurses, he did, ever so delicately and gingerly to give his wife one last hug before lowering himself with their help back down into his bed where he took a nap and never woke up again. He had understood and had finally graduated into Eternal Life.

At his wake service, the kind nurses and the staff at his wife’s workplace put together a different kind of eulogy. They wanted everyone to hear/read the last sermon Carl had so passionately requested concerning the five talents distributed to all by God. Here is what they dispersed:

Talent One 

EYES – the gift of sight.
Think of the ability to see and comprehend the world around us and God’s presence in it.

Talent Two 

EARS – the gift of listening.
Think of the ability to remain quiet in front of a sunrise or sunset, a friend who is telling us about their day and life, and before God in prayer.

Talent Three 

NOSE – the gift of smell.
Think of the ability to appreciate the fragrance of this created world and be soothed by the texture of nature’s aroma.

Talent Four 

MOUTH – the gift of speech.
Think of the ability to communicate and heal with words that are formed in your mind and expressed with your heart.

Talent Five 

TOUCH – our effect on others.
Think of how wonderful it is to be held, to accept the congratulatory handshake or the firm and reassuring pat on the back. Good touches warm the heart.

Before everyone went their separate ways, Carl’s wife of forty-five years unexpectedly and uncharacteristically stood up to say a few closing words. She explained that none of us can bury these talents any more than we can hide from the expectations that are thrust upon us. The lessons are irrefutable. Success, especially when reflected upon at the end of one’s life, is a product of our work. God always gives us everything we need to do what He has called us to do. In the mystery of this awesome human life, we are not all created equally with the same gifts and talents. None of us can render judgment on another. We work for the Master, not our own selfish purposes, and because of that fundamental and critical reason, we will all be held accountable.

“Merry Christmas, everybody! “she called out with tears in her eyes. “It’s time to finish the masterpiece!”

Carl had in fact graduated and it was time to celebrate into silent nights of comfort and joy.

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The Guest Bedroom blog the guest bedroom

Driving through the lush hill country outside of San Antonio was both refreshing and nostalgic. It had been to this very beautiful part of their beloved State of Texas where they used to take those long drives when they first met over forty years ago and where they had embarked on one of the most memorable and exciting honeymoons ever recorded. This was not because of anything sensual or particularly steamy, but because one simple act on the part of complete strangers, a typical Texan thunderstorm with hurricane force winds, and a surprise that had in fact shaped their married life together, and, by extension, their children and at least their approach to marriage itself with grandchildren to hear the story over and over again.

Large clusters of sprawling bluebonnets blanketed the country side over a particular rolling hill and the couple decided that they would pull over for just a bit, take a few pictures, pop open their YETI of fresh hot coffee they just purchased at a nearby truck stop and make a moment of this afternoon. It was more than hard to say or to even think that they had been married for generation and now celebrating their fortieth anniversary with many happy and insightful lessons of life and love.

It had not always been happy. Within the first ten years of the married life, they had lost a baby in childbirth, he was abruptly fired from a lucrative job, losing their dream home months later, and she her parents within weeks of each other to a heart attack and then subsequently a broken heart. However, time after time, as they held on to each other through the dark valleys of tears and disappointments, they always seemed to have found the sunshine of hopeful rays glowing all around them always remembering that “this too shall pass.” 

It was that certain time in the afternoon when the sun made its last blazing attempt to warm the air right before that coolness of evening began to soothe the land when he turned to ask an insightful question with a clearly warm and tender response from his spouse of forty years: “What is the greatest thing you’ve learned from our marriage?”

“That’s easy!’ she quickly retorted. “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

Her husband smiled and added, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

And there were many good reasons why he said that and they both knew why. Perhaps the sequence of events from their very first night as a married couple had something to do with it. You see, it was a typical, happy, and otherwise ordinary wedding and reception for them in the summer of 1980. The only concern the families had about the wedding had nothing to do with the bride and groom but the weather. There was a Category 2 Hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico and although there was some talk as they neared the date of postponing the vows or even exchanging their vows privately and coming back for the reception after the storms season had passed. However, the decision was made to go full-speed ahead and proceed, which is exactly what they did. At first it seemed like the best decision made since the two would be travelling soon after the wedding reception sight up into the hill country for a nice, romantic getaway before getting back to work and starting their lives.

But you know the old, wise saying: “We make plans and God laughs,” and He must have been chuckling quite a bit that night because the storm surged unexpectedly three hours before the wedding was to begin. Although the wedding and the reception following might have to be rushed a little bit, it would still go on and no one none the sadder for it.

Dark clouds amassed in the distance even while the afternoon sun shone quite bright on the other side of the Texas landscape. There may have been a few who noticed the disparity of weather conditions, and if they did, they kept their observations to themselves. So much happiness filled those afternoon hours that no one seemed to notice the wind picking up, the temperatures dropping a little, or the distinct flashes of lightning that were about to add to the music of the nuptials. By the time the last toasts were made in the reception hall, there were raindrops dotting all the cars in the parking lot. The best man, a long-time childhood friend of the groom, and still to this day, by the way, came to whisper to his buddy in a serious but impending voice, “You need to get going, “ and he was definitely right.

Then with groom in tux and bride in a simply elegant long flowing wedding dress, they both waved everyone good bye and drove off, safely but with some urgency, into the night to start their long-awaited honeymoon and their dream life together.

Perhaps the quickness and the unseasonably severe, massively earthbound storm would be a metaphor for their lives together, not because of the fierceness of the rain but the resilience of the newlyweds. They were about to face their first crisis in marriage, and they were going to confront it head-on, together. Apparently, another outer band of the huge storm system wrapped its way ahead of them leaving the roads drenched, and the low-lying areas nearly flooded. The young groom had not been very schooled in driving in conditions like this so he may have been a bit too impetuous. There was too much stalling, too much water, too much gunning the engine and there was excessive fuel injected into the combustion chamber and that’s when it happened: the carburetor flooded and ignition was just not going to take place, at least for the rest of the night which was looking more and more ominous as they both sat in the car staring out the window wondering what was going to be their next step in this very unusual and unexpected turn of honeymoon events. Their car had stalled about a thirty-minute walk to a distant farmhouse that appeared to brandish a front porch light glowing and at least one other light shining from the house.

“Look,” the anxious groom firmly told his listless bride, “you stay here, and I’ll walk up to that house and see if I can get some help.”

His bride’s answer was quick and decisive. “Absolutely not!” she retorted. “I’m now your wife, so looks like we’re in this together!” (What do you say to that, and on your honeymoon?)

Still in their traditional marriage attire, hand in hand, shivering a bit, they walked toward the farmhouse stumbling a bit on the caliche ground under their feet. They reached the door of the farmhouse and knocked a couple of times hearing what they thought sounded like a radio or something in the background.

“Knock harder,” she insisted. He complied, hesitatingly. It worked. They both heard stirring from within then a tall, slender figure coming toward the window then to the door. Apparently unlocked, he just pulled his side of the door open and then clapped eyes on the couple. What a sight that must have been! There they were: two young people, a man in a crisp, tailored suit that had apparently begun to shrink on him making him look like a malnourished penguin, and his bride wearing a laced, satin gleaming wedding dress, equally drenched with mascara running down her tired, sporting a worried face with mud dotting up and down her skirt presenting more of a picture of a Halloween costume than a bridal gown.   

The farmer tried to fight back laughter as he called out to his own bride probably of more than forty years, “Martha, you gotta come see this!” Within seconds, the queen of the farm emerged dressed in blue gingham house dress with over-sized night slippers that looked quite comfortable with her pepper-gray hair pulled up into a cute bun atop her head.  “Yep, “ she said, “looks like we got us a pair of real winners right here!” and with that, all four of them burst into a relieving laughter dispelling whatever awkwardness might have accrued  as the newlyweds were ushered into the home to explain this tale-telling scene and how they arrived, late-night, inundated, and all dressed up with apparently somewhere to go.

With a couple of cups of savory brewed hot coffee warming their bodies and soon after their car was towed close to the farmhouse thanks to a trusted tractor parked and ready to go, the next event was set to be pivotal. “Well, Martha,” began the seasoned farmer, “looks like our friends here aren’t going anywhere soon, and it is their honeymoon. What do you say, we invite them to stay in the guest bedroom?” His wife, with a small gleam in her eye and great compassion in her heart, nodded definitive approval. Soon two newly purchased suitcases were ushered into a genuinely quaint, well-decorated, ranch-stylish bedroom with pictures of memories lived most likely at that same location.  Soon the house grew dark and hosts and guests retired for the evening after what easily could be described as a most remarkable day.

Even before the roosters began their morning wake-up, organic “arise and shine” alarm routines, the newlyweds arose and began ever-so-quietly collecting their belongings and began to carefully make their way to their vehicle so as not to disturb the famers after what was probably a very long night, pleasant as it was, but tiring nonetheless. The young groom placed a crisp fifty-dollar bill on top of the dresser as a way of giving thanks and penned a quick note of sincere musings. They remembered the location of the front door and the living room where they were first introduced to these fine and generous souls and that’s when they realized how truly generous they were. The farmer’s wife was sprawled out on the long, soft but somewhat uneven couch which most likely had seen the life of several generations of parents and children while her husband was neatly sandwiched between cushions atop the recliner which barely unfolded completely. That was when they realized the grand, heart-warming truth: there was no guest bedroom. The newlyweds had slept in the old couple’s own bedroom, a fruit of their lovely generous spirits clearly forged from a lifetime of giving and loving and sharing. The bride dropped her purse, woke up the self-giving couple which lit the fire of a good cry, a great laugh, and all the wonderful emotions found in between. After a wonderfully refreshing glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade, no doubt, they said their good byes and then over the years, whenever the couple was in the area, passing by on their way to which ever event brought them through the hill country, they would stop for a friendly, inspiring visit. Their oldest son had the rich opportunity of meeting the farmers a couple of times, taking pictures, and listening to their shared marvelous story up until the time that they moved on to their eternal reward.

Now, nearly a generation later, the recipients of the kindest gestures of all were moving into that same time of life of their new-found friends they met years before. And, as if by perfect happenstance and on some divine cue, their oldest called them wondering how they were doing on the “anniversary tour.” When his parents told him where they were, he laughed. “Did you guys get stuck again?” he joked. “No, Son,” his dad remarked. “It’s all good.”

Some days I feel like I have lived a couple of lives since I was born but that may be part misperception and perhaps part arrogance. Regardless of the source, however, this is what I’ve learned. The pain of each chapter of our lives is soon forgotten by the joy and the hope of new beginnings. Deep pain and sorrow as harsh as they are, almost bring a kind of euphoria and ecstatic feeling when they are finally relieved if even for just a moment. Imagine that multiplied one billion times when we finally get to leave this planet and walk into heaven with thunderous applause from all the angels and saints screaming, “You made It! You made it!” Then there will be that one singular sound of one Man clapping –who happens to have holes in His hands, applauding your entrance into your eternal home precisely because you understood what it meant to be generous with your soul that could only grow when it is shared in love.  Caro Vanni

If this story has moved you in some way to consider the larger picture, and if the Christmas Spirit has taken a hold of a part of your soul, please be open to making a donation to CityofAgape Charitable Foundation so that we might be able to provide more Bibles to waiting people across the country.

“Do things for people not because who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.”  Harold S. Kushner

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A Panda Bear Thanksgiving in 2020

family with grandpa around table at Thanksgiving dinner

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Two years ago, there were multiple births of children that curtailed travel and the usual Thanksgiving dinner at Grandpa’s. Last year, kids had the flu and this year, well, this year it’s COVID-19 that’s preventing this family from all parts to gather in Phoenix and share the turkey (and all the fixings) with the virtual patriarch of the family. Of course, there will be Zoom-ing, Skype-ing, and FaceTime-ing, but they all knew that it would simply not be the same. Well, at least to be a tad optimistic, Grandpa will not be alone because his youngest daughter and her family will join him and although it’ll be considerably smaller than most years of happy memory, it will be a Thanksgiving nonetheless giving God all the gratitude they could muster.

Grandpa was happy enough and if he was disappointed with just his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, whom he adored, as the only attendees, you couldn’t tell. Once the little family entered his home, they were greeted with a comforting gush of aromas that catapulted them all into another existence. The house smelled so good and comforting that signaled that this would be memorable Thanksgiving for more reasons than they were prepared to experience.

Perhaps the emotional worries that have accompanied many American families this year, with the virus and everything associated with it, may have slowly and silently built tension and worry. Remembering that our children see and hear everything we say and do, the little granddaughter seemed just a little out of sorts and perhaps a little needy and rambunctious, to a surprising degree, even to her parents, but not to this wise grandfather who had lived several generations than most and who knew anxiety in children when he saw it. He had already set part of the table with the items that he was best able to provide: mashed potatoes, delicious brown gravy, and of course, dinner rolls, that although he had not prepared from scratch, the fact that he bought them and presented them, made the bread that more delicious and nourishing. And this is when it happened. As her parents brought in the turkey, well packed and bountiful, their daughter immediately bypassed the traditional greeting and hug for Grandpa, went straight to the table, grabbed a roll and proceeded to plunge it into the gravy like Shamu at SeaWorld, and slam it into her mouth. Her parents were understandably horrified, and the yelling soon began but before any further knee-jerk dressing-down reaction could further be employed, Grandpa lovingly intervened. After directing the rest of the meal to be put on hold, he called everyone to the living room and with the portrait of his late wife and their loving grandmother smiling in the background, he started.

“Look,” he began. “I want to tell you all a story before we eat. We’re all we have in this world and I cannot let this moment turn into a family disaster that separates us more than we already are.”

Then he began with his little granddaughter on his lap:

“A Tibetan legend of the panda states that many, many years ago, when these bears lived in the Himalayas, they were completely white in color. They must have resembled polar bears more than any other creature at that time and they were very playful. They lived, as it were, in a type of wintery-Eden of seemingly pure innocence and peace. They were also friends with a certain shepherdess who would watch over the flocks and fields and seemed to be a type of protective yet, maternal figure for the cubs. And just like in the Garden of Eden, there was present in this snowy playground, mortal danger always lurking nearby.  It was the angry leopard, ravenous and envious of the sweet laughter and love of these child-like and guiltless souls.”

“Late one afternoon, as the sun began to drop behind the majestic snow-capped mountains, the shepherdess began to herd all the bears home after a long day when she spotted a cub playing near the brush covering the base of the mountain. Suddenly, without warning, the leopard seized upon his wicked moment, leapt out in front of his young prey with only one deadly intention. The shepherdess ran with all her might toward them both and threw herself in front of the cub and, after a mighty struggle, remained lifeless and silent upon the earth which stood hard as iron. She was simply no match for the vicious claws and fangs of the evil predator and its barbarous intentions and died protecting innocence upon the frozen ground. The horrific sounds of the battle mixed with the cries of the panda cub echoed throughout the valley and brought the remaining den of bears quickly to the scene. They arrived utterly stunned in disbelief at the sight of such carnage and butchery, the pristine snow-covered ground now drenched in layers of bright red casualty.”

“The next day they gathered for the funeral of the brave girl who risked everything to save one of their own. With broken hearts and tear-soaked faces they approached the place of burial where, as was their custom, they would gather and throw black ashes upon the neatly shrouded body as it was made ready for its final resting ground. But it was too much for them. One after the other, they could not contain their cries of pain and anguish. With ashes still in their paws, they wiped their eyes, held each other tightly, arm upon arm, and then held their ears shut so as to block the sounds of their grieving pain while they sat miserably in the remaining heaps of the dark, cold cinders. The once ivory-white fur of these pandas was now blackened like the night as their guardian and friend was laid to rest.”

And then Grandpa concluded, “To this day, it is said, that those markings have remained to remind all of nature and all of humanity of that certain bravery and love until death, and to say, ‘Thank You.’”

After a healthy paused laced with a few cleansing, cathartic tears, this relieved microcosm of the universe returned to the table. One by one, with the magnificent Phoenix sunset as an almost literary backdrop, each detailed the people and things in this world for which they were most grateful. Little Granddaughter was last: “And I want to thank God for Grandpa!”

Grandpa acknowledged the youthful tribute with, “And I love you, too, Light of my Life!” After the prayerful grace and without instruction, the little girl lifted the breadbasket and offered a nice roll to everyone at the table, serving herself last. Crisis averted. Family intact and no worse for the wear.

Many who lived enough years have remarked in recent memory that by now we should have learned the obvious lesson that Thanksgiving should not be just a day, but truly a way of life. If there is anything to be learned by the strain placed upon our lives this year, especially by COVID-19, it is to be thankful each and every day for our existence. Why should we have to wait for just one day a year to tell those we love and treasure how much they mean to us?

What are you waiting for?

Always direct your thoughts to those truths that will give you confidence, hope, joy, love, thanksgiving, and turn away your mind from those that inspire you with fear, sadness, depression.  Caro Vanni

But see, in our open clearings, how golden the melons lie; Enrich them with sweets and spices, and give us the pumpkin pie!  Margaret Junkin Preston

“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”  Erma Bombeck

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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

field of red poppy near railroad tracks

“One man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars; and the world will be better for this.” Miguel de Cervantes

The U.S. Midwest may be the only place on the planet where you can get a sunburn and frostbite all in the same week. In a place like that, remarkably strong and resilient people often surface and give new meaning to the depth of character one can reach. These moments occur daily and all around us, but we may be living such a fast-paced and frenetic life that we miss them. And this is to our detriment. This is why we must, from time to time, move about in our thoughts, and open the doors to the limitless possibilities of the wide spectrum of being human and maybe, just maybe, begin to make soft and tender changes in our daily demeanors.

Take for instance what happened during a powerful snowstorm outside of Wichita, Kansas around the first week of December in 2007. After an unusually fierce and protracted freezing rainfall, some parts of the surrounding areas were coated with two to four inches of ice. In addition to extensive damage to trees, power lines, and poles, travel was understandably treacherous and nearly came to a complete standstill, save for emergency vehicles. Massive power outages affected more than 250,000 people, most of whom were without power for up to two weeks. The long-term damage to the electrical infrastructure alone was later estimated at $136M, making this the costliest ice storm in all of Kansas. As amazing and simultaneously miraculous as this may sound, there were no fatalities, but there was an astounding event that happened late one night in the very thick of the storm and likely during the darkest of all nights.

We start with a small, regional hospital located about twenty miles west of the city. Emergency power generators were in full force keeping all the life-saving equipment up and running, especially for those most critically in need of medical care. A small staff of medical professionals was on duty with some of them being allowed to place their families into some of the vacant hospital rooms in order to avoid what could be literally a killer cold. The most seriously ill patients were situated in the Intensive Care Unit where nurses kept struggling to keep everything working in order and medications administered in a timely fashion. While most patients, their families, and the courageous medical staff were outstandingly kind and cooperative, in the west end of the ICU, there were serious problems emerging with frayed nerves and listless depraved people at their wits’ end.

The man in Bed 8 was totally incorrigible, which was more than problematic, because, in addition to being horribly rude and disgusting with the nurses, he was literally at death’s door. He was not even expected to survive another twenty-four hours, but it seemed that the closer he got to Judgment Day, the more abhorrent he became. Close to one o’clock in the morning, the nurses huddled in the nearby breakroom, totally exasperated. All their options of action seemed to be either out of reach or just not feasible. Perhaps the most tested of all the staff there came forward with an amazing solution.

“I believe I know who could help us right now. He may be our only hope,” she said calmly but seriously.

“But who in the world is going to come out here in the middle of the night during this mini Ice Age?” came the immediate reaction from one of the younger nurses.

“It’s my parish priest and I know if we call him, he will come,” came the wondrous retort. “I will contact him now,” said the head nurse, and with that, she went for the phone.

Father Terry was indeed a truly profound man with a comforting and peaceful spirit about him. His words always settled the restless heart, and his Masses were both uplifting and healing. If anyone could help them in this difficult situation, it would be him. His response to the nurse on the phone was both predictable and quick:

“I’ll be right there. Just give me some time to brave through this storm,” came the words of this respected and deeply loved cleric.

The storm was fierce but no match for the determination of this priest who slowly started his car carefully pulled out of the rectory and made his way at a snail’s pace toward the medical facility. Once there, he was met warmly and even offered something hot to drink to warm his shivering body. However, he wanted to go straight to the bedside of this apparently lost, hateful, suffering man and do what he was put on the earth to do, to hopefully save a soul.

Their first and last encounter was immediately brutal. As soon as the priest walked into the ICU stall, the angry patient hurled a bedpan at him. The priest, perhaps in his mid-thirties who also used to run marathons, was agile enough to dodge the incoming metal container and very calmly stand his ground.

“I am not leaving until you talk to me. Besides, there’s nowhere else to go. Talk to me. What is wrong with you? Let me help you!” said Father Terry.  

“I am beyond help!” yelled the man in bed now obviously losing strength and color, “just leave me alone and let me die!”

The priest continued, “No one is beyond saving. Every soul is precious in God’s eyes. Talk to me. Offer me your confession and die in peace.”

It was at this moment when most likely the presence of the Holy Spirit filled not only that ICU area, but maybe even the entire hospital and beyond. This is where the tide was about to turn. And this was when that extremely sick and dying man may have delivered the most important speech of his life, which was coming quickly to a tragic and atrocious end.

“Look at me! Do you know who I am, Father? he started.

The priest remained silent, still, and focused on the words of this tormented shell of a man.

“Over twenty-five years ago, Father, I worked on the railroad there at the station downtown. You know the place.”

The priest nodded.

“Well, I was the one who was supposed to throw and redirect the tracks as different trains came in and out. It was my job to make sure that the right trains were on the right tracks. I was also a drunk, Father, and one night, I came to the station completely wasted. But there I was, pretending I knew what I was doing, and that is when it happened. I steered one very full and fast train into the wrong lane, and my mistake killed a father, mother, baby girl, and injured a young boy who only survived because he was thrown from the car upon impact. After that, I lost everything. I lost my job, my family, my home and most importantly, I lost complete respect for myself. I have been trying to die for nearly three decades now. Get out and let me die. Keep your sympathy and your sacraments and your caring eyes for someone else!”

Father Terry just remained as calm and as quiet as the falling snow outside. He took a long, deep-cleansing breath and then answered this phenomenal life story with this:

“Look at me! Do you know who I am? Look carefully. Those people you killed that night were my parents and my baby sister. I lost them all in one night. And if I can forgive you, you can certainly forgive yourself! Offer me your confession, while there is still time.”

And he did. And he died.

Never, ever underestimate the power of God’s love and forgiveness. In the end, it will be all we have and if we have lived a life that has fully embraced and welcomed such a wondrous love, it will change the way we look at life, death, friendship, and eternity. 

What are you waiting for? Give the Lord your heart right now, wherever you are, forgiving all the ones you need to forgive. Please, do this now, while there is still time.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17

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The Last Laugh

parked white funeral hearse

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them.”  Ephesians 2:10

The slices of life pared up in any given funeral home are like no other. Apart from being a terribly misplaced oxymoron, one still can ask: why they call them, “homes?”

Perhaps it is because so much drama takes place there just like our own home, but there is probably more to it than that. Consider the life of Mr. Jenkins who managed Bucktrout of Williamsburg, Virginia which is considered by some to be the oldest funeral home in America. Opened in 1759, it began as a cabinetmaker shoppe and to this very day boasts of remarkable service and client care.  For Mr. Jenkins, the funeral home was his home, at least emotionally as he poured out his soul to grieving families and always seemed to act that it was his loss as much as it was theirs.

It was the last funeral service of the day and the week. It was also the final amount of paperwork that the aged and wise director would ever have to complete before his long-awaited retirement. He had done well for himself and his family. His hope was that he might recapture all those moments that he seemed to miss because of the emergencies of so many others. He thought he would get a head start of all the packing of thirty years of memories by going room by room to collect the relics of his past service as an “undertaker” as his wife would often remind him, and to wipe clean the layers of memories accumulated like dust upon the shelves of unread books.

In one particular area of his large and specious office, amidst the couches and sofas that held grieving families and their tears and their stories all these years, there were little spots and interesting gifts from people that would always hold a special place in his heart as he began to pack up and leave that building for the last time, alive, anyway. Some brought sadness to his heart like the teddy bear of the child he helped bury who died of a rare heart disease or the framed high school diploma of the young student who was killed in a car crash just days after graduation, a gift from his parents with the undying hope that he would never forget their son and the family and friends he left behind. It was successful.

One of the last things he had to either pack or throw away was an old set of car keys. At first, he couldn’t seem to remember where they belonged because it had apparently not been used for quite some time. He could tell by the key chain that it had to belong to a vehicle not in use for more than forty years, if then. And then it hit him. It was not from his time as director at the funeral home, but from a time when he first started, and what an overwhelming memory that was. He had to sit down and smile. As he held the keys in his hands, he began to replay that remarkable moment that had become a kind of a fabled urban legend in the area. “What a great life this has been,” he whispered under his breath, and with that small phrase, he was immediately mentally catapulted to his late teen years looking for a job upon graduation. It didn’t have to be much, but something to pay the bills, help him through school, and be respectable. And, of course, to help him move out of his parents’ home to start his new life and the dreams of his youth.

He had appeared at the front office of Bucktrout’s hoping to not only catch a glimpse of the manager but to boldly ask for work. He had put on the only suit he owned, a black one, with a clean, white, well-pressed shirt and the shiniest shoes he could have mastered. He was kind of a tall young man, at least comparatively speaking with the others in his community and so the jet-black hair along with the matching suit made him stand out and was actually quite impressive. It took him more than a couple of tries to get in front of the middle-aged manager and when the chance finally presented itself, he jumped at it like one of the hungry squirrels on the fallen acorns that seemed to teem the park-like surroundings of the funeral home. 

“Sir, sir, may I please have a moment of your time?” was the best phrase he could utter with the limited and quickly closing window of opportunity he had.

“Uh-huh,” came the stereotypically expected response from one whom had garnered the reputation of the classic undertaker as they were traditionally called back then. Solemn, stayed, and certainly no-nonsense are some of the descriptions that could best paint the picture of the scene right about now. 

After seconds of very uncomfortable moments of silence and intense glares, the manager sternly and directly asked, “Can you drive a hearse?”

With lightning speed, the answer came quickly. “Yes sir! I can also wash and wax and clean them inside and out!”

“Allright, Son. We’ll give you a chance. Let’s see what you got,” was the closest sentence that would be offered anywhere close to “You got the job,” that Jenkins would hear and it was certainly enough. In fact, it was sufficient for him to be able to start right then, right there. 

And so the career began. He turned out to be the most energetic and accomplished worker they had seen there in quite a while. Jenkins always arrived early, stayed late, and made sure that the expectations placed upon him were more than adequately met. There was not a whole lot of smiles or laughter around that place, but it did not matter. His paycheck was healthy enough and he was happy to get his life started.

About six months into his new employment, there came one of those big services of a local “big-wig,” as his boss would call them, and all hands were to be on deck and every eye focused on even the most infinitesimally nondescript detail. That included Jenkins.

His orders could not have been any less clear: “Make sure the hearse is filled with gas.” For emphasis sake, this particular instruction had been repeated at least three times and at first it appeared that it had registered. However, the bevy of young ladies who were attending the evening wake services may have played a part in this probably expected scenario. Jenkins found himself the topic of their adulations and attention and as fate would have it, and probably most of our readers suspicions, he forgot to fill the hearse with gas.

The Funeral Mass was as long as it was packed. People from all over were in attendance and finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, it was time to make the arduous trek from the church to the cemetery which in this case was located at least forty minutes driving toward the west. There were at least forty cars in the procession and of course it was one of the hottest days of the summer. Going about fifteen miles an hour, with police escort and many faces drenched with sweat and tears, the nightmare of every funeral director was about to ensue. The hearse ran out of gas. Jenkins who was behind the wheel, turned the palest pale he had every mustered. He immediately sprung into action and was able to enlist a buddy of his, a friend of the bereaved family, to take him as quickly as possible to the nearest gas station to obtain some fuel to complete the journey. That took a painful half hour or so. However, it was not the success he needed. The carburetor had flooded and was not starting the engine. The only recourse they had was to call for a tow truck and after forty-five minutes of waiting in the blistering sun, it finally arrived, and for the first time in funeral history, and probably the last, the hearse was latched up by the portable crane from the back of the truck and slowly pulled into the cemetery followed by a load of very hot, angry and very frustrated mourners.

The usually simple and uncomplicated graveside service started and ended with little fanfare except for the very nervous and even forlorn hearse driver who was literally shaking in his now sweat-drenched black suit. His manager very stealthily and deliberately approached: “That woman soaked in tears and embarrassment sitting over there under the pantheon (tent) is the deceased’s widow. Go, let her know that this was all your fault; you better hope she won’t sue us!”

And there he went, sheepishly oozing his way to the bereaved woman with a suit that looked liked it had been shrink-wrapped around his body and a face that screamed “humiliation” within a tri-county area.

“Ma’am? Ma’am?, excuse me. I am so sorry. All this was my fault. Please forgive me,” were the only words that he could emit with any semblance of dignified comprehension.

The widow looked up at him and appeared to be in a strange daze with an even stranger smile running across her face.

The young Jenkins continued: “I am sorry, Ma’am, all this was my fault. I, I,” was all he could say before breaking down with a soft, sniffling, crying sound.

Apparently the widow had raised a quiver of children herself with her departed husband, strong-willed and well-adjusted men who were also pall bearers that day, which became the needed backdrop and impetus for her most timely response to the young hearse driver:

“Oh, Son, don’t worry. You didn’t know my husband. He was an amazing man, was always in the best of health, and never spent a day in the hospital. He would always tell us, ‘I am so strong, they’re going to have to drag me to the cemetery!”

The elderly Jenkins must have been sitting at the old desk for about an hour replaying that scene and thanking God that he had not been fired. And that was it. Everything was ready to close one chapter and begin another, perhaps the last and he was ready. He laid all of keys on his desk, made one last cup of coffee from the new-fangled Keurig coffee maker that had taken him months to figure out, and shook the hands of the new manager whom he had hired and trained and mentored with this very day in mind. It was late in the afternoon and cars were beginning to line up for a wake service within the hour. He would be home by the time it would start. He started his car but before he could back out of the same space he had occupied for more than thirty years, he spotted a young man spiffy and quite sharply dressed in a dark gray coat with black pants and shoes that probably needed some polishing. At first he thought that it might be one of the pall bearers or family members related to the service set to start, and then placed his car in park and stepped out of his vehicle to see what it was this young man wanted.

“Mr. Jenkins?” the young man inquired.

“Yes, that’s me. What can I do for you?” came the quick response from the nearly fully-retired funeral director as he noticed the beige colored file his visitor was carrying. 

“Mr. Jenkins, I lived here all my life and all my grandparents and even my father have been buried out of this funeral home. I’m starting out my life, sir, and I’m a good worker. Can you give me chance and give me a job, here?”

For a split second, the wise and perhaps most compassionate of most directors you would ever want to meet, did not know whether he should laugh, cry, or just remain fixed on the moment. However, there was really only one thing he could say to fit the moment:

“Can you drive a hearse?”

Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.” Elbert Hubbard

A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” William Arthur Ward

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The Longest Drive

football player ready to run

“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.”  2 Timothy 4:7-8

Life is an amazing adventure and every single day brings forth endless possibilities in shaping us into the miracles that we are. If we wait too long to finally realize that, we just might discover the beauty we have been missing. Sometimes those lessons are learned early while others quite late in life, but the bottom line is simple. Learn all you can while you can when you can. 

Take Jerry for instance. He grew up in rural Oklahoma, raised on rodeos, grilled hamburgers, and football, lots of it. He loved the game and was quite talented at it with all the God-given talent that he nurtured and fostered keeping two strong feet planted on the ground and never ever getting “too big for his britches,” as his mom would say as often as she could and as often as he needed to hear it. 

However, his biggest fan was his father who realized from a very early age that being a sports fan required more than just casual dedication. Having a son who loved the game and worked hard at it made him more than proud. It made him devoted. He realized that no team wins it each and every year and this means there are ups and downs constantly. Sticking with his son and his teammates through thick and thin is exactly what being a fan is all about. 

Struggling as they were to keep afloat financially in raising a family, Jerry’s family rejoiced when  upon graduation from high school, he received a full, four-year football scholarship to the prestigious University of Oklahoma. Although things would still be tight, it was all right because they were used to hard sacrifices and loving returns. Their family was so close and yet as generous as they were industrious. Jerry’s teammates found another in his own father and the dedicated biggest fan was never a stranger, especially at home-sponsored games and even during the team’s long, protracted and grueling practices. All the coaches knew at least two things about Jerry: he was the most polite, respectful, and loyal member of the team, and he was close to his dad and never had to apologize for it. This father-son relationship actually gave spirit to the team and encouraged other families to work at unity and mutual love and support for their sons on the field. 

In his senior year, getting ready to head out to the world to pursue his dream of being a Chemical  Engineer in nearby Tulsa after graduation, the team made it to the playoffs. What an amazing time to be alive. The final year for many of his teammates to ever pick up the pigskin collegiately or professionally was coming to an end along with an array of wonderful and profound memories that would take them all into adulthood and to their places in the world. Practices were brutal in preparation for the big day. Of course, as the excitement mounted, there were two clearly and totally expected sights: Jerry would be at every practice and his dad would be in the stands quietly and majestically supporting his son and his team on the path to a prized victory. 

As the days grew closer to the championship that was to be played in Dallas, the pressure was definitely at a frenetic level. The campus was buzzing and the student body stood squarely behind their team and the hopes for the future of the Senior Class poised to graduate just days after the game. But a week before the buses were to leave for Texas, shocking news reached the locker room. Jerry’s dad had died suddenly from a massive heart attack. The team was thrown into a heartbreak mode of existence and prayers poured in from seemingly everywhere. The coaches took up a special collection to help the family with funeral arrangements and a grieving family buried their loving father with six rather large and strapping pallbearers, among them, a forlorn, devastated, but very grateful son. 

Life, as it usually does, went on, and the university community continued moving forward to thoughts of greatness in Dallas, although tempered by a severe loss, it was business as usual. However, there were two missing lights at the practice field. Jerry and his dad were painfully missing but a make-shift wreath made of football gear stood at the entrance of the locker room. Then it was time to pack and get ready for the journey south. The Head Coach was the last one in the sports complex having overseen the final preparation for the game, and just as he was ready to turn out the lights and close down, a shadow of a figure loomed at his opaque glass paned door. A slight knock ensued upon the large plate glass enclosed within the coach’s office door. It was Jerry, looking a little worn and obviously deeply affected by the loss of his mentor, paternal coach, and light of his life. Quickly the coach invited him in and pulled up a chair. After a few minutes of outreach and the expressions of hope and condolences, Jerry had one favor to ask.

“Hey, Coach. I never missed a practice these past four years except when my father died. Can I please start tomorrow in Dallas?”

As remarkable as such a request sounds, it was a moment of conflict for the coach who knew of Jerry’s dedication but also of his abilities. He was a good player but maybe not the kind of lineman who would start a championship, but what could he do? Something deep inside echoed the only answer he could give.

“Sure, Jerry! Bus leaves at 5:00 am.”

During that short night of sleep, the coach kept tossing and turning. He could envision starting this outstanding mountain of a man, he could see the coin toss, his team would have to receive, he heard the kickoff, the ball coming to Jerry and he fumbling the ball only for the opposing team to score on the first play of the game. Should he go back on his word? Should he risk the championship? Before he could even give any real thought to these burning questions, the alarm went off and it was time to start the wheels in motion. After having quickly showered and dressed, he and his wife arrived at the university sports complex about two hours before departure only to see a tall, excited, and anxious student waiting by the bus pacing about as if he had been there forever.

“You haven’t changed your mind, have you Coach?!,” came that familiar voice. 

His deeply respected coach had only one thing to say: “No, Son. You’re in. Get on the bus.” 

But even on the way down to Texas, the coach kept having flashbacks of his semi-contentious nightmares of losing the toss, fumbling the ball and losing the championship, but then again, as a man of his word, he stayed the course and remained resolute. 

The sunrise could not have been more spectacular. The day was clear and sharp and the stadium was packed with wild enthusiastic voices with marching bands, the smell of popcorn, and the rush of adrenaline on both sides of the football field. Both teams made their way to their assigned sides while a colorful honor guard began the pledge of allegiance, the anthem, and special dedications and announcements were made over the booming speakers. Perhaps the two most anxious men in that whole stadium had to have been Jerry and his coach, but that was inconsequential now as the moment of truth finally arrived.

Jerry’s team lost the toss and the opposing team chose to kick. The starting gun was fired, the cheering rose to fever pitch, the ball sailed into that magnificent blue sky heading straight for Jerry. The coach found it altogether too much to watch. He turned his gaze downward as if to pick something up from the ground, squinching and scrunching as if he were preparing for a devastating blow; but the roar of the crowd from his side of the stadium told him everything he needed and wanted to know. Jerry had caught the ball, ran fifteen yards for the first down. With an immense spurt of synergy whirling around the team like a bolt of lightning, they left him in the game and within fifteen minutes they scored. And they kept on scoring even until the end and a championship for the books. Even the opposing team was in awe. So were both men.

After the traditional handshakes, presentation of trophies with a field teeming with bursts of wild joy and relief, the coach began to look for Jerry. He couldn’t find him among the “stars” of the game, the more notable names, or the favorites. Finally, he was found deep in the recesses of the locker room, with a uniform practically in shreds, covered in mud and probably some blood as well. And he was crying softly, this giant of a man on several meaningful levels.  

The coach gently asked, “Hey man, what happened out there. That was awesome! I would never have imagined you had that in you.”

“Hey Coach, you know my father died, right?,” came the carefully uttered response. 

“Of course, Jerry. We know how much you’ve hurt, but we are hurting too, for you and your family,” continued the wise teacher. 

Jerry slowly lifted his head, wiped away the tears mixed with grime and blood and then uttered effortlessly and profoundly, “What you didn’t know was that my father was blind, and this was the first time he got to see me play.” 

Ours is a magnificent life filled with the stuff of legends, sagas, and epics being written all around us, every day. We simply cannot afford to miss a moment to cry, to forgive, to sing out loud in praise of what the Lord Jesus has done for us even in the most dark and desolate of moments because it is precisely in these human passages of time and space that we come to discover the beauty that has made us His sons and daughters whom He loves eternally. 

Your Father sees you. Always has. Always will. 

“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.”  Matthew 6:6

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black & white photo of young man pensively looking into camera

“Love transforms one into what one loves.” St. Catherine of Siena

The human heart has to be ranked high on the list of the greatest mysteries of the world. Just think about that for a while. Do you know of anything else so mysterious, wonderful, painful, imaginative, creative, warm and cold, mean and loving, and sometimes all in the same day? 

According to most online internet-for-wanna-be medical experts like me, the heart beats about 100,000 times every day, pumping close to 1,900 gallons of blood to every cell in the body. This adds up to about 36.5 million beats a year, nearly 700,000 gallons of blood yearly, and 2.5 billion beats in an average lifetime. Some heart surgeons liken  every contraction to the effort it would take for us to hold a tennis ball in our palm and give it a good hard squeeze. Yet as incredibly marvelous as our heart is, it is only one of many examples in this universe of ours that is designed to tell us something about our Creator. This is the idea behind the story of a man named Matthew.

Matthew was a bright, clever, and witty young man who caught the eyes of his elementary school teachers early on. Most of the time, he was extremely helpful, courteous, and kind, but like with all of us, there was a not-so-bright side. Don’t get me wrong, please. We are not talking about some latent criminal in the making, at least not at first. You see, he loved comic books, all kinds, all of the genres. When he had the chance to accompany his mom to the grocery store, when grocery stores still had rows and rows of magazines and comic books for sale, Matthew would wait there until she was finished shopping. She always knew exactly where to find him, patiently and safely waiting to carry some of the bags of food and other items back to the car. Once in a while, he was rewarded with a comic book of his choice, normally plastering a huge smile on Matthew’s face.  

Somewhere along the way, Matthew developed a troubling habit of stealing his comic treasures from the grocery store. There was not always time and money to purchase a couple of them after their regular visit to supply their home with necessities and perhaps because it seemed easier than just asking and being told “no,” Matthew began to steal his favorite commodity. One or two at first, then several, placing them under his shirt so that he wouldn’t be noticed or that his sweat wouldn’t ruin the bright-colored ink off the pages. 

The first time he was caught, his father decided that he would not overreact as his own father had done with him on some, not the same kinds of infractions, but similar in scope regarding the deceit that it took to cover up the disobedience. His wife had found two comic books hidden under the pillow case, not with other “legally” purchased items. His father very calmly collected them and then drove his pre-teenage son back to the grocery where he had him return the heist, ask forgiveness, then pay for them out of his allowance. Upon returning home, he would engage in a stern and thoughtful lecture about stealing. 

Perhaps prematurely, Matthew’s dad had secretly patted himself on the back for having successfully averted a major crisis. Thinking that he may even call his own dad to brag a little, he began to set his sights on helping his son prepare for the wiles of high school, not too far away in the distance. This, however, was about the time that it happened again. Believing in his own mind and self-critically posturing himself as the one who definitely will NOT be receiving the “Father of the Year” award, this time he was angry. He yelled a bit, only to find that the louder he got, the more stoned-faced Matthew appeared to be. He was motivated by a sense of failure mixed with disappointment and laced with worry, he knew something had to be done and no idle threat would do. “Matthew,” he continued, “No son of mine is going to grow up and be a thief. It’s a comic today but it’ll be a car tomorrow. If this happens again, I warn you, I will have to spank you.”  

[Now here is when we need to break away a little from the telling of this story to enter a small but worthwhile disclaimer. We are not advocating corporal punishment nor are we criticizing it. Every parent must come to their own decision about their child’s discipline.] 

That having been said, things crept back to normal but there was clearly something different. Father and son were not talking as much anymore. Simple acts of affection and playful nudges were no longer accepted by the growing Matthew. He was either too old for his parents’ doting or he was still mad about the threat and did not know how to process all of this while testosterone, and the emptiness about fitting in and looking cool, beset his psyche. 

Perhaps a family vacation miles away in the midst of nature would be perfect for all of them. There was a state park about three hours from their home, far from the maddening crowds and looming changes. No TV or other distractions, just family time would be great. There would be no huge grocery store, just a little trading post for sodas and bait, and those camping sort-of necessities. But Matthew was at that age where he had one foot in childhood and one perious toe in his perceived notion of being a man. Things were changing fast and it was overwhelming. But he did not put up a fight, nor did he act excited. He was successful at curbing his enthusiasm and remained quiet during the entire travel to the vacation spot and even when they arrived. And as quickly as they had spent this time together, it was over, and life, such that it was, returned to normal. 

The week before school was about to start, the silence in the house began to grow heavy. Eye contact between parents and son increased with alarming regularity. While Matthew was polite and civil enough, especially around dinner, there was something quite not right and soon the mystery would be revealed. It was a pleasant enough day outside as one discovery led to another event reaching a watershed moment. Dad was at work and Matthew was at a friend’s house while Mom was cleaning the house and getting ready for dinner. That’s when she found them. Three brand new comic books, two of which were still in plastic covers hidden very cleverly between the towels over his dresser. Her heart sank for she knew this was going to ignite a firestorm that had been building up all these months. And she was right. 

She had called her husband at work and had already summoned Matthew back home where he was waiting in his room for his dad’s return. He was clearly upset while Matthew tried to keep calm and unfocused. When his father asked him where these particular comic books were from, Matthew did not hide anything. In a characteristically adolescent tone of voice, he quickly admitted that he stole them. He somehow thought that he would be somewhat in the clear since he stole these comic books while they were away on vacation and all but tried to lessen the consequences since they couldn’t drive all the way back to return them as he had previously been forced to do at the local grocery store. 

This pivotal encounter between father and son had begun with this: “Matthew, I told you what was going to happen if this should ever happen again, that I would have to spank you.” “But why, Dad? We can’t return them so they’re mine,” came the feebly concocted response. “I’ll do better than that, Matthew.” And with that, his dad took the comic books with his son outside where he quickly fired up the bar-b-que pit and with one fell swoop, tossed theme into the flames where they seemed to burst into a fireball, no doubt because of the richly entrenched colorful ink that characteristically displays the comic genre. After the last piece of charred ash ended its freefall into the wind, his dad continued: “Matthew, go to your room and wait for me.” 

For both father and son, the waiting couldn’t have seemed any less than a prolonged eternity. Matthew knew he was in the wrong and tried desperately to come to grips with this fascination of stealing something he could have easily just asked for. His father, however, was far beyond agonizing. His threat of a spanking was probably too impetuous but he, too, had painted himself into a corner. If he did not follow through with this, he would lose his son, he thought. If he was too brutal, again, he thought he would alienate his spitting image for years to come. What would it be, then? With as much resolution and love that he could muster, he walked in. The two met eye to eye with the weight of remarkable honesty mixed with fear and anxiety clearly filling the room, transforming it from a young boy’s refuge to the starting point of real manhood. Three stiff wallops would be sufficient, he thought, and within seconds, it was done. The silence was deafening, and the air in that modest bedroom seemed to have been drawn out like some huge vacuum in space. The reactions were somewhat predictable but not altogether simple. Matthew’s upper lip began to quiver which signaled to his dad that he should leave and allow his son to maintain a bit of dignity intact. But when he left, he barely sauntered into the hallway and, upon seeing his perplexed and worried wife, slid downward against the wall onto the floor weeping miserably. “I can’t believe I just did that! I’m a beast! I can’t believe I hit him!” Now she had two children to deal with. 

We must now fast forward this particular slice of life we have just described to a couple of handful of years when Matthew is now a tall, strapping young man driving his mom around town for various sundry errands. They stop at a busy red light near the center of town when she notices a familiar place of family lore. “Look, Matthew,” as she points to the old grocery store, “the scene of the crime.”  Her attempt at humor was not too successful and was accompanied by the changing of the light to green and a very pensive young driver poised to say something deep and meaningful. 

“You know, Mom, after that last time I got in trouble, I never stole another comic book again. In fact, do you know that I never stole anything ever?” 

“Wow!,” she responded, “that must have been quite a spanking!” 

“No, Mom, that’s not it, “ he said, pausing and taking in a deep breath. “I never stole ever again because I made my daddy cry.” 

So what can we learn from the complexity of this hardworking muscle, the heart? The message may be similar to the sound of waves caressing the shore and stars quietly shining in the night sky. Deep within its chambers and pockets of incredible power and wisdom, we find billions of reasons to trust the One who created us believing that love changes everything.  

Human hearts weigh less than one pound, have about 60,000 miles worth of blood vessels, and about 2,000 of them are transplanted every year. But most importantly, they are the centers of our personality, the engines of our life’s dreams, and are completely restless until they rest in God (St. Augustine). 

And when they love at their fullest potential, the world stands still.

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Pass Your Plate

“Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.” Romans 5:7

I love happy people. 

These souls help take the edge off an otherwise completely miserable existence caused, in no small part, by the grueling mantras of the pessimistic, cold, among us who brood and blame like there’s no tomorrow.  The happiest people in the world have at least one thing in common. They not only know how to forgive; they also seem to be creative about it. Conversely, some of the most unpleasant, mean-spirited, and revengeful people are those who mistakenly believe that retaliation and revenge are spiritual acts of mercy. It seems we have stumbled onto a new definition of insanity, or maybe just an expanded version of the more famous (or infamous) one, “doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” 

From most circles these days, especially as we hopefully and gratefully approach post-pandemic panic and political posturing, all these attitudes about love and life, and yes, forgiveness stem from our most early experiences with the world that do in fact resonate with our parents and those significant as great as those figures in life.  It is nothing short of amazing how happy a person can be when they can joyfully accept their faults, failings, and the unsweetness of life while practicing forgiveness at every possible juncture, especially with one’s closest friends and family. 

Take the remarkable example of a young father with a group of rambunctious and promising adults-in-the-making that we bring here today. His youngest of three is an eight-year-old whirling, remarkably sociable for his age, and very active, to say the least. Justin is an amazing young man today, but in the turbulent but joyous days of childhood leading up to adulthood, there were a few bumps along the way. One of the more famous and pivotal concerns was Justin’s bicycle, a lack of appreciation for time, and amazing consequences. 

Justin was a very happy child who made friends as often as he made his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And he loved to ride his bike all around the neighborhood, check in with all his friends and acquaintances, which were many,  and very often arrived late for the family dinner. Time and time again, Dad would chastise him, every so gently, in front of his older sisters and mom, and for a while it would work, maybe even for two weeks, but soon it was back to the same late for dinner, sweaty little boy rushing in to grab what was left on the table with a frustrated father staring at him. It wasn’t working, apparently. Dad and the family had reached their patience threshold and it was time for drastic measures. 

Justin knew he was in trouble when his father called him into the kitchen. It seemed as if all the real serious conversions took place there. And he was right. It was hard enough for his dad to make the necessary expectations on his pre-teen and teenage daughters, but if he couldn’t even control his son, then this whole parenting adventure would end in a miserable flop. So here’s what happened: 

The rule was simple. Justin was to arrive back from his afternoon tour de chance, after finishing his homework previously. He had to be at the table, hands washed, appetite engaged, and ready for grace or, and here was the ominous not-so-veiled threat: He would sit at the table and go without supper  while everyone else enjoyed Mom’s home-cooked delights. “Piece of cake, Dad!,” Justin retorted. It seemed  easy enough. 

The new approach to discipline and daily family time seemed to have worked for about ten days and the family continued to move forward along with school, work, and keeping happy. But as little boys’ minds tend to drift and lose track of time, so did the inevitable moment saunter into the collective and individual memories of all who would sit at that table. It was one of those cool October early evenings when the sky turned a dark burnt orange with scatter clouds accenting the horizon. The cool breeze definitely heralded the end of that long, dry summer and there was new life in the step of those who looked forward to the typical feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas not too far away. Who could possibly remember what time it was with this magnificent backdrop. Certainly not Justin. Realizing that all his friends had already retreated to their homes for supper, and finding himself alone on his bike, it hit him: “I am late!” Yes, he was. 

Pedaling as fast as his little legs could push, and hoping against hope that they had started later than usual, or there were unexpected guests, or Mom was just taking longer to prepare everything, he knew this night was not going to be good. He was right. He rushed in and everyone was at the table staring at him. He quickly washed his hands, grabbed his place at the table, and waited for the prayer before meals. Tonight was not the night to do this. Mom had prepared his favorite: pot roast with mashed potatoes and fresh dinner rolls, butter rolling down the silky-smooth domes of each portion. The smell was amazing. He dared not look up lest the harsh lecture would ensue. His father served each plate, making an obvious overplay at the sights and smells of such a great meal. Everyone was served except Justin. He stared longingly at his empty white plate and wondered how he could forget about coming home on time. He sighed and took a sip of the glass of water by his empty plate. He then looked up hoping to offer some words of sorrow to buy him dinner when something amazing happened. 

He watched his father rise from the table without taking his eyes off of his son. He took his own plate of food and lovingly exchanged it with his son’s. Someone would have to pay for this infraction and his dad did not want Justin to go to bed hungry. He went hungry that night so that his son would never starve from God’s infinite love. As awkward as it was beautiful, the rest of the family ate and slowly began conversation as if nothing had happened. But something wonderful did happen and none of them would ever forget it. 

Love shows itself in so many and mysterious ways. It is the nature of our God who loves us in such a manner. The beauty of life is to appreciate that mystery, celebrate the love we have in this world, and realize that without sacrifice, we could never understand the wonders of what we have. God is love and when we love, and forgive, and carry the burdens of others, we can taste what Jesus has accomplished for the world and each one of us. What would you do for the ones you love? 

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Mahatma Gandhi

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Dance With Me

senior couple dancing together

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” August Wilson

The first person who ever uttered the phrase, “no good deed goes unpunished,” must have been quite an interesting character and someone you would have liked to have sat down with over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day and how many nerves you have left at any given juncture. The meaning of this all-too-familiar phrase is fortunately or unfortunately played out in all our lives, one way or another. 

So consider for a moment the harrowing days of Junior High, or, more readily accessed today as Middle School, which, according to some, cannot compare to anything harder in life. Although that may or may not be debatable, we might all agree that it is an amazing, truly extraordinary time. Friendship, and how to master it for the rest of one’s life is probably one of the hardest lessons during this remarkable time. Maybe it should be a separate subject? 

Two almost-men, struggling with all the changes inside and out, trying to make sense of their feelings and place in the world, still embarking on a journey of life and pre-teenage, are good friends and have been as long as they could remember. The older boy, by about two months, always considered his friend as the little brother he never had, and the other, well, by extension, saw in his friend not only the brother he never had but also the only real semblance of family that he knew, another statistic of a broken, dysfunctional, and literally lost family, some of whom he didn’t even know their whereabouts. What his big brother knew was that this year he was going to have the best birthday ever, at least up to that point in time. 

This spectacular (his word of the week) birthday was all that was on his mind, dominating his thoughts and imaginations, during class, PE, even to the point of keeping a little red notebook with special ideas, invitation list, and party favors. He would, however, have to raise at least half the funds, his father had said, in order to make this a real sacrifice on his part, a condition he gladly accepted although it would take him years to fully comprehend. Some say that pleasure is not found in doing something but rather in planning it and certainly this was true for our young party planner. Soon the day would be upon them all, friends and food alike, and so he waited with the anticipation often described by Dr. Seuss: “Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.”

The party day could not have been more beautiful. The boys’ friends had all arrived early, some bearing gifts, although that was not required, and some even bringing parents to help watch over the festivities. The games were flawless, laughter abounded every other minute, and all their favorite foods were plenty in abundance. Then came time for the cake and ice cream and the familiar traditional birthday song and maybe a few tears. This is about the time that things took a strange but very significant turn, one that has played over and over again in a certain man’s mind. 

Perhaps it was just the thought that anyone considered the birthday boy even deserving of a party and food was just a little too overwhelming. Maybe it was the excitement of feeling wanted and loved. Maybe it was all the sugar. As the gifts were brought out, the big brother sat in awe and a little self-satisfaction watching everyone having a great time at the hands of his planning and intent. Although he was never really looking for appreciation, or even thanks for that matter, when the guest of honor came to a certain gift given by a more-than-average, well-to-do schoolmate, something did take a turn. He got tennis shoes! And not just any tennis shoes for it was a pair of some famous, collector-brand that everyone was talking about and fewer who would ever clap their eyes on, let alone even wear. All the attention went to the gift and then quickly to the expression of that recipient. His face was glowing brighter than the candles on the cake and the oohs and aahs out-rivaled the birthday song. 

That was good because no one seemed to notice the effect this had on the birthday organizer. It was as if all the anticipation of this moment was swallowed up by this one, harmless, unintentional act of thunder-robbery. No one, that is, except his father. It may have been at that very point that this humble, loving and lovable dad in his mid-forties, came to understand, at least in part, a little of the ingrained and slowly growing resentment that festers between some, but not all, thankfully, parents and their adult children. The zenith of this revelation arrived when he witnessed first hand the hard sacrifice of one who wanted nothing but great things for the birthday celebrant. But all the expense of time and money were no match for a silly, unnecessary gift presented to him by one who is foolish not only with his money but with life itself. It was a sad, disconcerting moment to watch all his sacrifice be tossed away into a fire of meaningless empty talk of what really matters and what status we can achieve. He was, of course, projecting so many layers of past guilt and memory almost bringing him to an unusually quiet and stone-still stance holding multicolored balloons before they flew away. But there was so much happiness in that backyard that the strange tunnel of unrequited generosity bordering on animosity was completely lost on everyone, at least for now.

Days would pass and meanwhile, the party of the century was the talk of the school, and just as described by the three words that can and do describe what most people learn after walking this planet for more than fifty years or so, life went on. And so it did until one late Friday evening.

Our budding maître d’ was outside in the dusk hours of the close of one of those mystical October evenings putzing around with his bike or something when his dad spotted him from the garage, a man who also tended to spend time aimlessly. “What’s going on, Son?,” he asked gently. 

“You know, Dad. I saw you looking at me at the party. Did I do something wrong?,” came the sweet but slightly tormented retort. 

It was at this point that the relationship between this father and son would never be the same. It was the moment they both realized they shared more than DNA. It was a tender but brave world view. Of course his dad had been in Middle School too, and had his share of memories which he was about to impart.

Apparently, thirty years ago, somewhere, there was this tradition at the after school assemblies called the “block dance.” It was the practice of the coaches to teach young men how to be polite and ask girls to dance which, although was a simple enough task to achieve, was quite humiliating in many ways, perspectives we will not even venture to explore at this juncture. Small blocks of wood, such as the kindergarten toys of old, were placed in a row and girls were asked to stand behind them while the boys would select their dancing partner and politely, and very courteously ask them to dance. His father would remark how sad it was for some of the not-so-popular students who were left to the end, some never ever having a chance at the floor. It was this one particular afternoon that one of the coaches had forever changed his thinking about relationships and respect when he said to him, “You are going to ask Emily to dance.”

Emily was clearly not the most attractive of all the middle school girls. She was frumpy, a little shy, perhaps even lonely. She walked with a limp, he thought. 

“I can still see that day,” his father continued as his son’s eyes kept glued to each falling word. 

He remembered the anger at the coach when he was first ordered to ask Emily out on the dance floor and he knew that “no” was not going to be accepted. His own dad and the coach were best friends. All that melted away when he approached the girl who didn’t seem to realize what was happening at first. Slowly, he moved toward her and, stopping like the young gentleman he was, he quietly uttered the phrase embedded in the gathering cloud of treasured memories, “Emily, will you please dance with me?”

Never before has such an unmerited attitude been so richly rewarded. 

Emily acted as if she had been waiting forever for this invitation. She rose gingerly to her feet, smiled with a tint of embarrassment, took his hand and followed him out in front of the eyes of many who had as many different interpretations of the moment as there were students. She looked as if there was not going to be any more pain or ridicule. She literally floated on air with her gingham blue dress swaying as briskly as it could given the amount of starch it contained. The song ended, there was light applause, and Emily and her four-minute dance partner returned to the seats for a Styrofoam cup of punch or whatever they were serving. “I don’t know where Emily is now, Son,” his father continued, “and I don’t know if she even remembers that dance. I know I do.” 

He went on to explain that you don’t do good things because you want reward or praise or even because you feel sorry about someone and act out of guilt. You look for kind, selfless, wonderful ways to make memories and build up treasures in Heaven because “your heart will always be where your riches are.” (Matthew 6:21) 

For the one who lives by the belief that no good deed goes unpunished, and that it is better to go through life only taking care of yourself and guarding your heart from pain and sorrow, don’t ever say you weren’t warned.  It’s not going to happen. As Vivien Greene brilliantly wrote, Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.

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Never Really Alone

lit carousel at night

“But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.” Wisdom 3:1

The loneliness was so intense it was simultaneously choking her very ability to breathe while removing all the colors from the world she once loved to greet every time she stepped into her universe. Her young husband’s funeral was nice if such a word could be used to describe that kind of experience, and everyone seemed so helpful and supportive, but it was just overwhelming to face the awful truth that he was gone. In painful hindsight at the very raw and present moment, perhaps they should have adopted children, since they were unable to have their own, but just their ongoing discussions about that possibility seemed to bring them closer and closer together even up to that fateful afternoon in the doctor’s office when they heard that vicious and mind-drilling word together. Cancer. 

It was more than aggressive and the only optimistic vantage point they could muster was that he was not going to last very long with all the obvious and expected treatments out of the question. And they were right, the specialists that is, with their kind but seemingly detached manner. “It’ll be important to keep him comfortable,” she kept playing over and over in her mind like a distant, wistful echo that sounded like a lost dog never to be recovered by its owners.

People were very good to her, mostly at the beginning. She loved their visits and the soothing tones of consolation in their voices but everyone has lives to live and after a handful of weeks, they slowly got back to those routines leaving her to deal with this burden the best she knew how. Her doctors wanted to prescribe anti-depression medication and while she may or may not have been entirely averse to the idea, she was getting very tired of the looks of pity and endless droopy eyes that seemed to be softly saying, “poor girl.” She had lived a full and great life, by all acceptable standards all the way around and perhaps that was part of the problem, that it had been without major issues or crises. Everything always seemed to fall into place except this new season of lost meaning. 

Then, after the longest month she could remember, the anger began to set a hold on her heart and nothing was going to relieve this new darkness that previously escaped her personality and approach to life. Why wasn’t anyone else upset? Don’t they know how horrible this is? She just wanted to scream, and, on some occasions, she would, as long as she could into the dusty pillow that still retained faint aromas of his cologne.

“On this mountain, the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  Isaiah 25:6

She never fancied herself as the kind of person who would go to the cemetery thinking that it was reserved for a much older, perhaps even wiser generation that must have known something that she did not. At first, she was going every morning, “such a long and empty trip,” she used to think and then they became less and less with even more anger and resentment building in her because according to her, no one cared that her entire life had been torn asunder and she was the only one who remembered. “What a miserable existence!,” she would think while catching herself agreeing with that nihilistic delusional teacher she once knew way back who believed that everyone loved life and hated death because, in his words, “life was a beautiful lie and death a painful truth.”

She would laugh to herself when she remembered her favorite comedian Robin Williams, who once said on The Johnny Carson Show that death was nature’s way of saying that “your table is ready.” Then there were twilight moments when after a nice cup of cinnamon tea, she would stare out into space with a blank look and a hint of a smile as she remembered their last vacation in London together. With tears still in her eyes, she would reflectively pause, thinking about an incident after dinner one night after they ran across a quote painted on a wall near Trafalgar Square which said something like “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” 

She had just crossed that bridge when depression turns to anger, then to denial and then back to depression again, with intermittent stops at self-pity and harsh, biting comments along the way.  She was alone, she was always going to be alone, and no one, not even her closest friends who heard her cries for attention and meaning and comfort, seemingly did not even give it a second thought. Didn’t they love him? Don’t they care? How could they even laugh out loud, even at a good joke!?

Time began to slow at a death march pace and she was becoming sick and tired of being sick and tired. Her mind would drift in and out of happy memories coupled with the recollections of those last hours in hospice. “It must be true,” she thought. “We are born alone, we live alone, we die alone.” “At least, that’s how it feels,” she would mumble while wondering if she was going crazy talking to herself.

“Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.”  Romans 5:1

Then completely without warning came that night, which may have been the last time she would ever lose a total sleep cycle under the moonlight wide awake as if she was in a theater with the anguish of emptiness sitting upon her chest like an elephant. She would push herself to shower, get dressed, and make the first few minutes of the dawn her stage for a dutiful sad cemetery visit. She would make his favorite french toast sandwich, wrapping it in a soft blue napkin that had been left over from a birthday party or something with the childlike hope that maybe a rabbit or squirrel would have it for lunch rather than be the meal and just leave it there. Her plan was brilliant and actually made her feel useful for a change as she turned down the flame from the stovetop and began to slowly wrap her breakfast creation. “Wow, this smells pretty good. I bet he’d like this,” she thought as she caught herself tearing up but then making haste to get to the car and drive those increasingly familiar miles to his grave. 

The new day could not have been more than thirty minutes old and by the time she arrived, there was a fine, moist dew that spread across the beautifully manicured areas. “How silent, how picturesque, and yet how so horribly sad,” she thought. She was sure she was alone although there was a feeling as if someone else was there but she quickly dismissed the idea lest she begin to think the worst about the silent occupants of the graveyard. She retrieved her breakfast delight whose aroma had already filled her small sedan and heroically prepared herself for this visit while she could sense a blanket of peace and real acceptance finally and gently folding over her soul. The soft subtle colors of pre-dawn made everything so kind to her as if to warmly welcome her to a new life. It was then that she noticed a distinct other set of footprints in the dew-covered grass actually leading to and from the area where her husband was buried. Before unleashing her imagination, she spotted his temporary marker of a tombstone with something dangling from it. It was a sign with a flower attached. She read it deliberately but very gently and smiled.

“I miss him, too.”

“Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us and conspires only to give the best to those who dream and work.”  Abdul Kalam

True loneliness cannot exist as long as there is just one person left who can sift through the dark tears of emptiness and unveil the world for what it truly is, a place of hope and adventure, an ongoing novel with beginnings and endings in perpetual motion. It is like a colorful, vintage carousel that keeps revolving and turning, revealing with each rotational pass different creatures, colors, and music until, at the very end of a full and wonderful orbit of life, all the characters, and riders, and songs leave the trappings of time and make their way into the starlit sky of eternity like Elijah’s chariot of fire or the quintessential Christmas sleigh led by eight (or nine) lovely reindeer.

We don’t need to fear death because we don’t have to live forever. We just have to live.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.”  John 14:1-4

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Epiphany on the Back Patio

An adult hipster son and senior father sitting on sofa indoors at home, talking with coffee mug in hand

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17

Moving back into his dad’s house was humiliating enough but to add further ego injury to self-pitying insult, the old family pet, perhaps on its last proverbial leg, just chewed up his favorite running shoes. This was a “double-whammy” because he loved those shoes and while they literally took him everywhere their tattered remains reminded him how shredded and lifeless his life had become. He just couldn’t get it together and get his life off the ground especially with layoffs, constant cutbacks, and the collapse of his dreams and ambitions. His meager savings only went so far and although he was grateful, he had to face harsh reality and come back home where those dreams first took shape and give it another shot. His best bet, he thought, was to enroll in a local trade school and recreate himself. His father seemed to have been living in a parallel universe with similar but not equal issues brewing overhead like a threatening thunderstorm. “So close but so far” was the way he described his situation to the lifetime neighbors who would still listen. After raising two strong boys and a beautiful, talented daughter who had all moved out of that spacious homestead years before, he and his wife were just two years away from paying off the house and enjoying the future of retirement they had often discussed, even while they were dating. All that evaporated in a seemingly horrible flash of tragedy when she suffered a burst aneurysm. He had to refinance the home to help pay for the uncovered medical expenses and of course, her sad funeral which comprised, in his heart and soul, the longest day of his life.

Living together under the same roof was at times awkward and yet strangely comfortable. Both men were stubborn in their own way and didn’t really talk about their problems and struggles much. Their relationship was good at the present moment, but not great. It had been so wonderful growing up because it was like they were best friends. But at some tender, delicate point in the history of their family, the young son at sixteen suddenly discovered that he knew everything while his dad at midlife never seemed to receive enough thanks and gratitude for all the sacrifices he endured. These two men, who actually began to look a bit alike in these later years, drifted apart a bit which became painfully obvious when their wife and mother abruptly left them. And yet, as God would have it, they were a family again.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:9-10

One night, in two different bedrooms of that lonely old house, two different self-conversations were taking place. The father longed to help his son but did not want to hurt his pride or back hand insult him in any way, shape or form. His son counted the situation as unfair for his dad to have to work so hard all over again after a very full life of tireless dedication accompanied by a loving heart that just would not stop giving. They both decided to do something quite heroic and selfless, like father – like son, but behind the scenes so as not to disrupt their father-son relationship which was slowly regaining ground and depth.

The local grocery chain needed graveyard employees to stock the shelves overnight to be ready for the onslaught of customers for the following day. They also needed early morning drivers to haul inventory to and from the warehouse right before the stores would open. Over the next seven months, the son would wait for his dad to get to bed, early as was his custom, then carefully leave to start the graveyard shift to stock the shelves. And like clockwork, an hour or so after he returned and tried to get some sleep before training school, his father quietly got up, made his coffee, pet and fed the dog, and drove away to haul inventory for about five hours every day except Sunday. 

Midst this amazing scenario were at least two fascinating marvels: the first was how their little secret was so carefully guarded by them for each other, and how they never quite figured out how each month, the bank never called about the missing mortgage payment and the school never said anything about the expected mounting tuition and computer fees that had yet to be paid. It was funny in a way because both men had worked at that same location as teenagers and there they were again, many years apart, and traveling under the moonlit sky like two ships passing in the night.  Even the familiar, uniform, loose-fitting, bright blue company shirts had not been altered over the years.

“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14

As the seasons began their predictable moments of change and color, startling weather patterns emerged and brought unexpected bursts of thunderstorms one particular week. Although those who had called this place “home” were most accustomed to these dramatic climate mood swings, there were at least two who were not prepared. One particular gusting downpour caused momentary havoc at the store. The shelf-stocking son had been delayed and several trucks had been damaged by hail. This placed him much later than he realized to get home and get ready for school this time with no nap to revive him for the day ahead. “Thank God,” he thought, as there was a full moon to light up the drenched streets. His dad was right on time as he prepared for his day, perhaps unlike any other, and wondered why his son’s truck was already gone. And that’s when it happened. Out on the back patio, they met, one dry, one wet, both in loving astonishment for when they clapped eyes on each other, wearing that familiar uniform albeit cheaply embroidered with the store’s logo, they both immediately and simultaneously realized what had been going on for months. And with the gentle moonlight blessing their love and admiration for each other, they embraced and cried with any relatable words escaping them only to let the dawn slowly envelop them with the greatest discovery of this powerful force of wisdom and courage that would, from that moment on, ever shape their worldview, and respect that most fathers and sons could only imagine. Sometimes the hardest lesson to realize in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn. Both men decided to cross the bridge to each other and seek always to be at peace. Imagine a world where this is the rule and not the exception.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born and knows God.” John 4:7

Years have passed and the father has gone to meet his wife in their heavenly reward. Today that young man who finally got his act together has begun his own legacy of life and limb and with a wife and two young sons, his hands will be full. When they first bought their new home, miles away from his childhood neighborhood, he insisted on building an outdoor attached patio in the backyard. His wife and children understand what the back patio means and why their dad spends much-needed quiet time out there. Unquestionably, he insists on having all his most important conversations and moments outside on the back patio. It is almost a shrine and when anyone ever asks him why it’s so important, he loves to retell the story of how he found the greatest discovery under the moonlit sky after a refreshing rain.  His new dog just stares and wonders why he keeps hiding his running shoes.

He loves to say that everyone needs a back patio.

Maybe he’s right. 

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7

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Freedom at 5:11

wine glass tipped over with spilled wine surrounded by pills and full ashtray

As her perception of life as she knew it felt, the tiny bed was hard. It was one of those awful moments when the question races through the mind like a lizard on a hot sidewalk, “How did I even get here?” No one wants to have those nights and hardly anyone is ready for them. Neither was she. While the people at the rehab facility were nice enough, she did not want to be there, but she had no choice. To say that her whole world fell apart is to put it mercifully succinct. Not only her world, but her universe, and those closest to her, were taken up in the firestorm of the familiar mantra of alcohol, drugs, and rocky, opulent luxury, leaving an unhealthy and tragic pile of discarded casualties, including her husband, children, business, and bank account. 

“Out of the depths, I call to you, Lord; Lord, hear my cry!”

After a few hours of the most horrible and sickening nausea she could ever recall, with both an empty stomach and a soul that felt as if she was in free fall through a bottomless pit, she knew it was time. It was time to make the decision that was nestled deep within her tortured existence, and call out to God for whatever was left in their torn relationship. That wondrous moment arrived when as soon as she called out his name, a powerful, yet gentle aura of peace spread over her like morning dew and she knew that home would be rehab for at least three months of intense therapy and that this same person living in a tireless and meaningless cloud of ruthless storms worse than darkness, would emerge victoriously. She gently turned on her side and in the bleak, painful, and murky shadows, and saw the bright orange numbers of the digital alarm clock that looked as if it was purchased in the eighties. It seemed to burn the actual time into her brain, which houses memories that were about to be reconfigured and renewed in these final minutes before the dawn. 

It was 5:11.

The next couple of months, as she imagined, were the “best of times and the worst of times,” to quote Dickens. They were horrible because she had in fact lost everything that helped define her life thus far. She had burned every bridge imaginable, and left little than the clothes in the Hefty bag outside her door, and her driver’s license sporting a picture that screamed, “Help me!” through a forced smile that attempted to portray a life well lived when that was the farthest from the truth. 

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and I hope for his word.” 

One thing about herself that she liked the most was that she saw herself to be remarkably tenacious and resilient, especially after those first twenty-eight days of seeing life through sober eyes. She had done remarkably well in therapy and responded in a real, and at times, overwhelmingly honest fashion that helped her recovery, to an amazing degree, but also assisted those around her who were as lost and desolate as she was upon arrival. However, another real breakthrough and access to full recovery were to meet her after her time at the facility, upon her “graduation.” She had literally fallen off the face of the planet and nothing would or could ever be the same. However, as attached and stubbornly addicted as she was to the poisons of the soul which had earlier nearly destroyed her, she was equally poised and ready to begin again, from the very start. She had no home, no family, and no livelihood to speak of, so she began where everyone starts again: at the bottom. She would later say that hitting rock bottom had at least two wonderful aspects and comforting issues: it was bottom and the Rock was Jesus. 

“My soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak.”  

Thanks to many, most of which had been in the same proverbial boat, she had help. It was going to be a long road but she was convinced that the journey would be life-giving as well as life-changing. She remembered reading John Stenbeck in college who wrote that “people don’t take trips, but rather trips take people,” and she fully agreed with that now on several levels. 

Her story continues to be re-written even at the publication of this post. People who meet her today feel a sudden gush of optimism and hope even without her saying a word. She is a walking miracle and never overlooks the chance to tell others about this “dramatic novel on two feet,” as she likes to kid without adding one more fascinating detail about the whole experience. 

Before applying for and receiving funding for a degree to recreate her professional life, one that required much sacrifice on many levels, she had to produce her birth certificate required to obtain a passport for an overseas practicum. She had learned to be patient and she knew how to teach it as well. The process of obtaining this document seemed so much trouble, but in the end, it would be worth it on at least two different accounts. The first, of course, would allow her to move forward and here is the second:

The long-awaited text finally reached her smartphone with the message that her certificate was ready but that she had the option, since she was still living in the same city, to go in person to actually sign for it or pay some bizarre amount of money to have it sent to her by some special courier arrangement. Being quite thrifty these days, having squandered so many funds on things that never truly satisfied, she decided to make a morning of it, and retrieve this timely document and meet up for lunch with her sponsor with whom she had maintained a healthy friendship. It was all so providential. Her birth certificate was ready for her and all she had to do was sign! 

The following scene was almost magical, as if time actually slowed down as she stepped outside into the bright sunlight with a cool, whispering wind caressing her ever so gently. She carefully opened the envelope and reviewed all the information. As she read the names of her parents, she sighed a little remembering them fondly, long ago passed from this life to the next, and shedding a tiny tear of longing but hope as well. In retrospect, this was to help moisten the very groundwork of her soul for what was to happen next. She read the actual time of her birth:

It was 5:11.

It would be over dramatic to say that she stood paralyzed. No, it was more like a slice of heaven raining down upon her, filling her entire being with such an innate amount of joy that clearly defied definition or, at least at that particular moment, explanation. You see, as she tells people today, the time of her rebirth in this life corresponded directly to the time of her physical birth on the planet. This coincidence was not lost on her and most likely will never be. She found her own life and freedom at 5:11, discovering that it was as precious and priceless as life itself, fresh out of the womb as it were, and she was never, ever going to lose it. 

“More than sentinels for daybreak, let Israel hope in the Lord. For with the Lord is mercy, with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem them from all their sins.” 

Every day you and I have myriads of opportunities to find the greatest treasures that exist within and all around us. This is why deep, abiding friendships are so necessary for the journey. More than that, we must encounter the Lord Jesus, who like for our friend who found life and freedom at 5:11, stands ready to hold us and mold us and prepare us for a journey that oftentimes escapes sufficient explanation. Open up the Bible today to any page and let the Word of God just permeate and touch you. Talk to Jesus. Let him know how you are feeling right here, right now. This is the stuff that makes of a miraculous, breathtaking, and wondrous life. This is the kind of life that Jesus truly wants for us, to thrive and not just survive. It is a life that continues to grow deeper with the passing of each day. It becomes a life where you can’t wait to get up in the morning to see what is waiting for you and feel a little tinge of sadness when it’s time to go to bed. 

Everyone has a 5:11. What is yours?

“Live life to the fullest. You have to color outside the lines once in a while if you want to make your life a masterpiece. Laugh some every day. Keep growing, keep dreaming, keep following your heart. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein

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The New COVID Catacombs

“Moses said to the people: ‘Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments.'”


Can you keep a secret?

I’m practicing my faith!   

Every day and week that passes from the apex and summit of the COVID-19 pandemic in which we found ourselves immersed and almost overwhelmed at times, we discover that there are more and more insights and reflections to be had and digested. While there is always a risk of alienating and even angering some of any given position on the spectrum of opinions about the whole matter, we should still be confident enough to express our thoughts and ideas, especially in a forum such as this. So here we go.

Although it may not be apparent or obvious to some, there does seem to be a level of inequality, or at least disparity, about how the pandemic has shut some aspects of our lives, and compartmentalized them in an unusual fashion, which has caused even more to question what the motivation was or the rationale behind such moves. Here we are talking about the closure, even the prolonged cessation of places of worship, no matter what the alliance or persuasion. While many other types of businesses were allowed to remain open with some similar amounts of clientele and consumers, churches were somehow held to a different and questionable standard. To help better situate our position, let’s take a look at two interesting comments that reveal a certain analysis and narrative about the subject at hand. In two very different parts of the country, the following kinds of conversations took place. The first one had to do with the lack of outrage or disappointment with the inability to worship and be with others at prayer. 

Friend 1: “A couple of us are trying to get together for prayer.”

Friend 2: “Oh no way! It’s too dangerous.”

Friend 1: “You don’t want to join us?”

Friend 2: “Absolutely not, and you better think twice!”

Friend 1: “Aren’t you still going to the packed grocery store?”

Friend 2: “I gotta eat!” 

Then there is this official announcement about the partial reopening of some churches in another part of the country that caused many to remain scratching their heads and the sheer puzzlement of it all: “All citizens are cautioned about engaging in any religious ceremonies over the weekend. A list of worship locations has been posted but please note there will be no reciting of prayers or other communal group activities such as singing.” 

No one is or should be disputing the great care one must take in the wake of any spread of infectious diseases. There is clearly no discussion about the proper care we must take to safeguard life for the safety of individuals and for society at-large. The problem is that it has not been consistent. It is almost as if a certain segment of the population was singled out for a more rigid, even draconian approach to safety for the sake of all.

In an analogous way, the same could be said of the rationale used by several Roman emperors and other authorities in our human history. Praying and gathering in prayer was seen as dangerous to the welfare of the larger mass of people. Not for the disease aspect but because it represented a detachment from the control and management of the powerful and wealthy. This could, and might, explain the rich phenomenon of the catacombs, still venerated in Rome, reminding the world of the extent that those who believed would go to gather and worship and be with their God, yes, even in community, even though it was in secret, (and also with the threat of discovery and certain death). Thank God Almighty that we do not have to, nor will we even attempt this part of the discussion. Let others do that. And believe me, they are already fully engaged. Our focus is quite different. While we have not real control over the outcome of any of this, we do have a tremendous amount of responsibility as to the process. How else to say that? What are we to do? 

“Do not forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.”

First and foremost, we cannot forget who we are and whom we worship. The Lord God has done everything for us and has continually shown us His great love for each and every one of us. Every good gift comes from His hand, especially the many healings that have taken place during this awfully frightening time. 

“He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.”

Perspective, dear, perspective. Here is a difficult point to convey: at the end of all our worlds, we are all going to die of something. How do you want to die? In fear? In cowardly, relinquishing everything that you hold dear and important? What will it take for us to surrender our very character and identity? Before we allow this piece to be detoured by a tangent of rights and demands, first think about the place of faith and the Word of God. If, for whatever reason, we were kept from practicing our faith in public, what kept us from practicing and praying in private? This is similar to the classic response of those who say that they do not need to go to church to worship God because they can do that at home, or even in their backyard. But does that even happen? 

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

Now that life seems to be inching back to normal, the traditional gathering places such as grocery stores, hardware, and DIY locales, restaurants, beaches, and parks are beginning to fill up once again in huge and record numbers. However, the same is not true with places of worship. It seems that many are still in the catacombs as a result of the fear and dictates of those around them. And the realistic fear on the part of some church leaders is that this will become the norm even as the same folks are marching forward to other places in droves as if nothing ever happened. 

“This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  

One more migration must take place, and all this is quite Biblical both in meaning and in proportion: from the catacomb to the Upper Room. When we mention the Upper Room, we are referring to that place which was first mentioned in 1 Chronicles when King David gave his son Solomon the plans for the temple which contained a unique place of quiet and prayer. It was more than just that, really. It was a place where the expectation was clear and definite to have an intimate moment with God and allow that time to feed and instruct and empower the Christian for the road and the life ahead. Of course, the most famous and critical important location is where the Apostle stayed when they were in Jerusalem. This is the place where the Last Supper took place and amidst that moment there included the quintessential act of loving service where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. It is also the same room where Jesus appeared, both before and after the Resurrection, at which point He made his wounds visible and accessible to be seen and touched. This was also the place of Pentecost and the birth of the Church as we know it. 

So instead of hiding and staying away from others who love the Lord Jesus, this has become a time to move from the catacombs-way-of-living to the Upper Room-way-of-acting. This time must be a complete renewal of each one of us to create and develop those intimate moments and those special times and places with Jesus and then, as His Mother told us, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) The implications of all of this are simply remarkable. What we are suggesting is an entirely new structuring of one’s day. This would necessarily begin with a complete and honest assessment of how we are currently spending our days. How much time are we actually quiet and by quiet we mean unattached from social media and other devices that fill our hearts and minds with such mental dribble that we are exhausted even though we’ve never left the sofa. It means declaring to ourselves the desire to be patient and wait upon the Lord to respond in His good time when it is fitting and right. That will be difficult but not impossible. It will mean that we become accountable to each other in the settings in which we find our lives. For some, this could be family members. For others, close friends and still for others, a kind of community where truth and honesty have the chance to grow into something worthwhile and life-changing. Sounds like the early Church, doesn’t it? 

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven, says the Lord; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

If anything deep and meaningful will surface because of what we are experiencing with viral diseases and this modern-day pestilence, it must reconfigure our ideals about life and what we want to do with them. What is clear is that something has to change before the next crisis. Life is to be lived fully and with a gaze toward our place in Heaven. Just think about it. What will any of this matter if we gain the whole world and lose eternal happiness? And it must start with me. What have I done during this time and what would I have done differently? What do I want to teach my children and express to those closest to me? These are great questions that beg for real answers. Social distancing created a needed distance from the world and a closeness to the world of faith. This is where Jesus lives. I desperately want to live there also.

“The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.”  Victor Hugo

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Behind The Coronavirus Mask

face of young man wearing blue surgical mask facing camera

Everyone was on edge. It was the height of pandemic panic and the tension had an unusually eerie feel as it spread throughout the large, mid-city grocery store, previously a hustling yet comfortable place where people greeted each other warmly and loudly with the excitement of a family reunion. But today was different. The first death in the area had just been reported and although unspoken, the question on some minds was definitely, “who would be next?” However, on the other souls of circumspect shoppers was, “are you going to infect me?” 

The next scenario is most likely not that unusual, but still troubling. About forty percent of the consumers were sporting surgical masks while others were not. And, as if an other-worldly cloud of mist descended upon the floors like an alien invasion worthy of the Syfy TV Channel, something almost sinister began to happen. The people behind their mask began to act differently, as if protected by some aura of anonymity. The people behind the mask began to sport a superiority complex that for most was completely out of character, that is, without the mask. Overbearing stares and intrusive moves with their mighty shopping baskets began to rule the day. And then there were the condescending hand gestures that treated others as if they had leprosy or worse. 

It could happen to anybody these days. And perhaps, it has always been happening but not to such an alarming degree. In some sectors of our country, surgical antiviral masks are becoming a fixture in shopping centers, gas stations and grocery stores and with this surge, there seems to be a shift in behavior. Some have reported a marked turn in rudeness, ugliness and a flair of dominance especially directed to those who, for whatever reason, are not donning the mask. In Japanese culture, there is a well-known application to all of this. It is said that we each possess three faces. The first we show to the world, the second we show to our close friends and family, and a third face we never show anyone. It is this one that is the truest reflection of who we are. 

“God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart.”  1 Samuel 16:7

Let’s approach this scenario from two very near but different perspectives: facing the one in the mask and encountering others with our own mask. Remembering that behind every mask there is an entire human life with a story and that each and every encounter we have in this life involves the meeting of hearts and minds and souls with all kinds of rich and amazing episodes. It would be great to remember that everyone we meet is afraid of something, has lost someone, and has a story to tell and share. In some ways, venturing out into the world as we do can be likened to going to a movie for which we have been waiting for with exciting anxiousness and expectation. Wouldn’t you want to know about each of the main characters as the film develops? Don’t you want to know who wins in the end? Isn’t there a sense of accomplishment and finished purpose when, after sitting for a couple of hours, we feel it was time well spent? This, in many ways, is a metaphor for life. Everyone we meet, whether it’s someone close to us or just a passing stranger, has a world that they are protecting and sharing at the level that they choose and are able.

“There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.”  Luke 12:2

If we are to learn anything from the pandemic and the accompanying panic, we must start now in our dealings with one another in as unassuming and unpretentious places like the grocery store, gas stations and yes, even at the workplace. If we are truly to understand our own humanity along with our mental acknowledgement and emotional feedback, effective and/or otherwise, to life’s most compelling and complex challenges, then perhaps the time has come to explore and practice mindfulness in front of and behind the mask.

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different. [It is] enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will) and being present with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” James Baraz

To walk amid the panic-ridden pretense of the world with all its masks and self-righteous behavioral quirks and not be defeated will take practice. Everything good does. I guess you could say that everyone wears at least one mask during this journey, some more than others. The trick is how to keep connection with each other and ourselves to live the miracle of being alive. And for that and in conclusion, just consider the purpose of a dog. Yes, a dog. Our best friend. W. Bruce Cameron summed it up quite beautifully:

“Have fun, obviously. Whenever possible, find someone to save and save them. Don’t get all sad faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could. Just be here now. Be. Here. Now. That’s a dog’s purpose.” 

Sounds good to me.

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8-9

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No Doctors Just Patients

world globe in sky with coronavirus chains

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

The thunder-like pounding of heavy, angry feet created the illusion in the office that morning as if an 18-wheeler carrying enough wood to build a city of log cabins was passing dangerously close at high speed. The other secretaries in the cubicle-laden area knew better, however. “She” was in another terrible mood and no one was going to get out alive, or at least, without needing a strong sedative, a bottle of Motrin, a deep skin massage or all of the above. Someone must have contradicted her, called her out on the condescending tones and thinly veiled insults, or finally just yelled back. But that’s all it took to unleash the Kraken and a new level of their hostile work environment that made a pack of hungry, feeding hyenas look like a quilting bee. 

Unfortunately, the scenario is not rare and exists in various dimensions and situations wherever the darkness of compulsive, judgmentally-challenged people, usually in some tier of authority, is allowed to run loose and unchecked. The problem is multifold. If we start from the beginning, you know, when the dinosaurs died, etc., we will find the genesis of this quagmire, well, in Genesis! The blame game as it is played all around the world had its origins in that famous garden where there was too much finger-pointing to go around. And when the layers of this petty pastime were uncovered, it led to one source. What was it? How about a hint? It was crawling on its stomach. It should not surprise anyone the very first mention of evil and the demonic from the earliest texts we have, took a strange adjective: accuser. Accusing anyone of everything from taking your parking spot to poisoning your cat, takes on bizarre power and effects. The accused are always caught off guard, placed in humiliating and even a position of defensive weakness, always looking to explain and nearly in an uncomfortable, uneasy manner giving some to believe that the accusation is actually accurate. 

This is the goal of the accuser. Knock us down, kick us while struggling to get up and then gaslight us to believe that maybe, just maybe, the blame has been rightfully and justifiably placed. At times, these struggles place us uncomfortably too close to shrew-like individuals that take all kinds of shapes and sizes. One example is the termagant who can surface at home, at work or even in high-profile positions of authority existing in nearly all professions. Termagants are always in a bad mood, whining and complaining, and generally making life miserable for everyone around them. Perhaps, we could also think that from time to time, we, too, may be counted among that number if we are not careful and practice self-awareness. Here is the problem and the justification for our Biblical reference above which warned against trying to pull out a splinter from another’s eye when we have a forest growing in our own. 

You see, this is truly deep darkness of the soul that negatively impacts everyone who must face a highly, self-righteous and judgmental person. Hypocrisy, hateful speech, condescending attitudes, distort all perceptions and poison the heart like a noxious gas. To point all the faults of another while hiding behind a thin and tattered curtain of self-made perfection ignores the obvious. Modern-day Pharisees have to strain to see everyone they dislike because they imagine seeing the beams of weakness everywhere, whereas the only real beam is the one lodged in their own eye socket. 

Among the many deep spiritual lessons that can be discovered during the virus pandemic and other life challenge is the call on all of us to valiantly struggle against this tendency to assume that our own worldview, often very limited, is the only unbiased, open minded and uncolored norm of judgment, that only we possess clear, unhampered sight. In other words, thinking and acting as if we are the “doctor” in the hospital of life and everybody else is the “patient.” This sickness, affecting the soul much like the actual COVID-19 weakens and destroys the lungs, can be cured only by putting on the mind and heart of Jesus Christ; by seeing my brothers and sisters through His eyes which always radiate love and forgiveness. You and I are called to beg every day to adopt and develop a healthy, realistic worldview where no one is better than anyone else and that forgiveness, if we truly want it at the end of our lives, must be practiced today and right now before yet another minute passes. Life, as it is, clearly remains as fragile as it has ever been noted. We will be able to live what we read in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “only then will you see clearly.” 

Let us be open to change our view of the world, or at least, amend it a little. We are all patients and equally in need of help and cure. When seen through these patient, loving eyes, we will have a deep-seated change of heart and find life beautiful instead of heartless. And while there still may be pounding from time-to-time, it will not be the angry stampedes of the maladjusted and hateful. It will be His heart beating for you because that is who He is and that is why He came. 

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The Virus, the Victims and the Victory

corona virus cells image on green background

With numbing regularity we have witnessed the complete and utter validation of the truth that adversity and problems do not create character. They reveal it. Like any personal crisis, the world-wide pandemic, now infamously known as COVID-19, is chock-full of life lessons dovetailed by the rich and cleansing Season of Lent that hopefully will never be forgotten, especially in our lifetime going forward. Let us take a look at a few.

Clearly, the timing of all this is certainly providential and substantiated by the Scriptures which we allow into our daily diet of news and catastrophic updates. “Thus says the LORD: Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God; you have collapsed through your guilt.” (Hosea 14:1) When we stop and think about it for a while, Lent has been consumed with remembering the most important things in life and realizing how at times our guilt and fear can be so paralyzing. That is why we sacrificed (gave up) mundane things which we really do not need so that we can focus on the things in this world that we truly need. This is supported by the underlying meaning from the eighty-sixth Psalm: “Teach me, Lord, your way that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name. I will praise you with all my heart, glorify your name forever, Lord my God.” 

Remembering the most important things in life is perhaps at the top tier of must-do items on the proverbial “bucket list.” All of what we have experienced and lived must form the fabric of the wisdom and the philosophy of life as we move into the future, which is all in the mind of God who cares and loves us with an everlasting and even reckless, overwhelming love. During this awesome Season of Lent accompanied with the constant drumming of COVID-19 news ad nauseum, we are called and pulled toward memory and freedom. Guilt and anxiety and worry hurt the soul at first but if it motivates us to change and reform our lives according to Christ, then we will, in fact, remember how it is that we can find our way to Heaven by following the Lord God with every fiber of our being. In turn, we are compelled to pass that on to those we love, especially our children. May we remember the name of the one who has saved us!

Unfortunately, the pandemic of fear which, according to many, is worse than the viral infection itself, has produced victims and victimizers in this amazing viral Lenten season. Everywhere from price-gougers, to hoarders and thieves, over-zealous pontificators who railed against everyone who spent time outside and did not measure up to their own standards of quarantine, to those who are ready to cry conspiracy on every corner, we certainly have been served the entire gambit at play. This has been compounded in daily wear and tear on the soul with the worries about losing one’s job, retirement, elderly relatives and friends fueled by the daily, if not hourly, dose of bad news at the laptop or on the phone. How are we to address all of this and still stay sane?

A man once wrote to his teenage son: “God is the reason why even in pain, I smile, in confusion I understand, in betrayal I trust and in fear I continue to fight.” These are not just words if they are put into practice and lived as best as possible. Long after this particular Lenten Season and after the current health crisis is over, we must remember that our children, students, and friends will not follow our advice—they will indeed follow and remember our example. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34)

It’s times like these, facing great uncertainties, that it’s clear that we don’t realize our own strength until we come face-to-face with our greatest weakness. You see, courage isn’t having the strength and stamina to keep going, but rather it’s more like going forward even when we think we’ve got nothing left. This is exactly what Jesus taught us, among many other things, such as the truth that there is nothing so terrible or panic-driven that we cannot make some good out of it. Every problem has within it the seeds of opportunity to practice virtuous living. It should also be clear by now that the self-serving, egocentric lifestyle is truly the enemy. Pride tends to create vicious souls and dangerous behavior: “For pride is spiritual cancer as it eats up the very possibility of love and common sense.” (C. S. Lewis) With so many of us homebound for a time, perhaps we could all agree that mindfulness and stillness is the key that unlocks the truth that we can speed up by slowing down. Now has been the time to learn how to pray intensely, focus, and find that deep personal happiness that no one can remove,  to see life clearly, free from the frenetic and melodramatic life scripts shoved down our throats by so many who seemingly love to upset the most number of people as possible.

Easter is a glorious time to remember the one who defeated death and darkness forever and has forever freed us from being a victim of panic and fear. By the time this piece is published and hopefully read by you, our faithful readers, we will be in the throes of the Easter Season and hopefully entering a whole new way of believing, acting and living our lives. We can begin by making conscious and firm resolutions to forgive everyone who may have disjointed us during this time, from leaders who either did too much or too little, too quickly or too late, to the people who locked up the toilet paper or turned social distancing into social rudeness. This is the time to renew our time-honored aspirations for a happy life and to make commitments to overcome the forces within and outside of us that keep us from achieving our dreams. Let this historic Lenten Season bring us to an entirely wonderful Easter existence and move forward with renewed hope and energy to be ready for anything.

Keep your faith close and your fear, well, at least six feet away!

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Nobody Makes the Journey Alone

hiker helping another up a hill

A mouse looked through the crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife opening a package. “What food might this contain?” He was devastated to discover it was a mousetrap. Retreating to the farmyard, the mouse proclaimed the warning, “There is a mousetrap in the house! There’s a mousetrap in the house!” The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.” The mouse turned to the pig and told him, “There is a mousetrap in the house.” The pig sympathized but said, “I am very sorry Mr. Mouse, but there is nothing I can do about it except pray; be assured that you are in my prayers.” The mouse turned to the cow, who said, “Wow, Mr. Mouse, I’m sorry for you, but it’s no skin off my nose.”

The mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s mousetrap alone. That very night a sound was heard throughout the house like the sound of a mousetrap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness she did not see that it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital and she returned home with a fever. Now everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup’s main ingredient. But his wife’s sickness continued, so friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig. The farmer’s wife did not get well. She died; many people came for her funeral, so the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide enough meat for all of them.

The next time you hear that someone is facing a problem and think that it doesn’t concern you, remember that when one of us is threatened, we are all at risk. We are all involved in this journey called life. We must keep an eye out for one another and be willing to make that extra effort to encourage one another.

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One Foot in Christmas, One Foot in Easter

Imagine sitting down at dinner with an extremely eclectic and gregarious group of people, such as family members from all over, neighbors of neighbors, friends of friends, you know, the hodgepodge that usually gathers over a free meal and free-flowing bottles of wine. What could you possibly talk about to keep things interesting and yet avoid a major social catastrophe? Well, I guess you could talk about current movies (good and flops), food, clothes and fashion, music and even a little about what you do for a living. So far so good? Okay, let’s change gears a bit. Now ask who you’re going to vote for. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is something quite wonderful at work here as the title of this piece might suggest to you. We are about to open a can of, well, not worms, but simply a starting point to explore where we are right now, sandwiched in-between the Merry Christmas and Happy Easter of our commonly-shared yearly bookends. Could there be something wildly mystical about this space after Epiphany and before Ash Wednesday? No doubt you know the answer to that.

The Christmas story is largely non-threatening to the casual, once-in-a-while, and nonbeliever. Jesus is in the manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph and the adoring shepherds, even the later visit of the Magi is easy to take. For some, it is a charming story about the birth of a great teacher, a holy man, a historical figure. By amazing contrast, Easter is more than a silent night or eight tiny graceful reindeer. We could easily say that the Easter story is both absorbingly terrible and astonishingly overwhelming with despicable betrayal by a close friend, the three-course meal of denial served by a trusted brother, the most insanely brutal execution by any standards and then the exhaustive resolution of this entire complexity of humanity in only three days. The cute rabbits and pastel-colored-hollowed egg shells simply don’t do the trick and most people know that, which would probably explain why Easter decorations come down as quickly as they surface in stores and window fronts, interestingly enough, like rabbits.

It is clear that without Christmas we couldn’t have Easter and without Easter, Christmas is just another excuse to shop, overeat and watch children make forever memories. So what are we to make of these fifty days or so of rumblings beneath our souls’ surface? How can we link these two stunning realities and make sense of it all? The fifty days shouldn’t be wasted on returning to the routine that we all say we dislike and end up restarting with gobs of regret and complaints. Something very wonderful is at play here and unless we stop for a while, we are going to miss it, again.

A great notion to introduce right about now has to do with the mystery of our existence which nobody can deny. We are all born and we all die while the real quality and overwhelming meaning of each of them lies in what happens in the middle. What have we done with all the seconds and minutes and hours that we have been given and apportioned? This is the time to ask and answer these life-altering and enriching questions. What are we to do to make this life qualitatively magnificent and wonderful?

If what we do with this great gift of life between birth and death has everything to do with success or failure, then let’s take a look at what lies before us between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Two moments, Presentation and Valentines, come to mind.

Now I can die, now I can love.

On February 2, fifty days after the celebration of Christmas, there is a spiritual spectacle of the presentation, when Jesus is presented in the Temple according to the prescripts of the Law. Of course his parents, Mary and Joseph are there, but there are yet two other persons who are present for the presentation who have remarkable stories and loads to teach us. It’s all about waiting for good things, the greater the good, the more patience necessary. Anna was “advanced in years” and waited in the Temple for something remarkable many years after the untimely death of her young husband.

To underscore this timely notion that he also serves who sits and waits, the second of these two wonderful reminders of the mystery of life and death appears. His name is Simeon. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” And today was the day. Once he saw the Christ child, his time had come, and he exclaimed, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”

You see, after that one moment of fulfillment had arrived, it was time to place everything on the table and meet the Lord face-to-face. That moment is so different for each one of us that it can take billions of forms and situations which defy the imagination. But make no mistake, it is coming and it is a good idea to begin the dress rehearsal whenever possible, say, during this special interim of Christmas and Easter. What would I do right here, today, if I could see Jesus face-to-face?

About two weeks later, every year, we come upon another interesting pause along the journey of life and love. It is Valentine’s Day. Flowers, candy, red hearts and romance. That’s what Valentine’s day is all about, right? Well, maybe not. The origin of this holiday for the expression of love really isn’t romantic at all—at least not in the traditional sense. St. Valentine was a Roman Priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudius who prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on this monarch’s skewed thinking that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because the married soldiers might be preoccupied about their wives or families if they died. Obviously the Church thought that marriage was sacred for their life and that it was to be encouraged. He then secretly began conducting secret Sacramental marriages despite the edict and the imminent danger to his life. That sad day did arrive as Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned, tortured and executed for performing marriage ceremonies against the direct command of the Emperor.

Valentines are red today precisely because this priest shed his blood in the name of the sanctity and freedom it takes to love and be loved. This day has the deep potential of reminding us that there comes a time where we have to lay our life upon the line for what we believe. With the power of the Holy Spirit, we absolutely can achieve this—even to the point of death. We can even state more broadly that before we enter into any friendship that we hold valuable, especially romantic and marital love, we express wholeheartedly our dependence on God in order that we can love and love with the heart of Christ which will take us all the way into Heaven. Love—human love and sexuality is wonderful, and blessed by God—but it also exists under the shadow of the cross to remind us that unless we know what it means to sacrifice, we will never know what it means to love.

So here we are back at that eclectic dinner table of our lives with everyone we invited and some of those who surprised us. Between birth and death and new life, there is literally a trove of wisdom to be excavated. What are we going to do, now that we have found ourselves in this spiritual twilight zone of decision and being?

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Make a mental list of all that transpired during the 2019 Christmas Season, good and disappointing.
  2. Think about all the things you are still waiting for in 2020 and beyond, anything and everything.
  3. Remember those you love, near and far, here and gone.
  4. Consider what you are willing to sacrifice during Lent to achieve the longings of your heart.
  5. Envision the kind of person you wish to find staring at you in the mirror come Easter Sunday morning.
  6. Make a plan, share it with someone you trust, then monitor your progress together.

Everyone wants to be happy. But not everyone knows how to reach that reality or recognize the sufficient tools they need to achieve that place. What is clear is that unless we can empty ourselves of our selves, often petty and selfish, we might never catch that bus. Let’s avoid the safe and non-threatening topics of our conversations, especially with those whom we love.

If Christmas and Easter teach us anything, it is that they have become twin-portals to a new life with Jesus who is the perfect friend, ally, and Savior who is fully human and fully divine. Who knows why you are reading this right now. Perhaps it is the same Lord who wants to be closer friends with you. Can’t you see Him inviting you on this journey?

Live in such a way that those who know you, but don’t know God, will come to know God because they know you. Say all your prayers with one foot in Christmas and one foot in Easter.

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Epiphany 2020

epiphany bread with plates and cups on table

One of the reasons that I love Christmas so much partly lies in the fact that every year it takes on a certain hue, texture, or flavor based on what is happening around me both internally and externally. Epiphany is that crowning moment (pun intended) where I ask God to show me what He wants me to learn and experience from the recent weeks and from the past year. Some would say, rightly, that hindsight is 2020, but I want to believe that foresight must be more than that, even crystal-clear, if we are going to walk boldly with our good Jesus.

Whereas life often separates meaning from emotion, the spiritual life brings them together to create remarkable epiphanies that harmonize all life to give us a heightened awareness of our place in this world. This is what I believe happened to the Magi after following the star in the East that took them to places they had never dreamed of going and were, by extension, never the same again.

My prayer for you and me today is that we remain true to ourselves in order to rise to greater consciousness, awareness, and love; to be thankful for the scars and for the insight we’ve been given, moving forward so that everything that rises must converge and lift us to a higher possession of our own existence. Because after today, we begin to follow the East Star all the way to Easter where we find an empty grave, where all of our fears die in the hands of a man who was born in a lonely manger so that we may never be alone.

“Waking up to a new sunrise
Looking back from the other side
I can see now with open eyes
Darkest water and deepest pain
I wouldn’t trade it for anything
‘Cause my brokenness brought me to You
And these wounds are a story You’ll use

So I’m thankful for the scars
‘Cause without them I wouldn’t know Your heart
And I know they’ll always tell of who You are
So forever I am thankful for the scars” – Scars (I Am They)

Foresight is 2020

closeup of open eye staring

It was New Year’s Eve-eve if such a phrase really exists, but for some mysterious reason, something kept me in bed longer than I have been for quite a while. It was a different kind of fatigue, one that seemed to start in the very center of my being, like a nagging case of indigestion or that queasy experience when you realize you forgot something important such as a passport or your wallet. A few minutes later, it became obvious to me that the feeling was caused by silly, petty and pesky-irritating anxiety. Gratefully, this emotional boomerang hadn’t reappeared for quite some time and I surmise it surfaced this morning because, not only have we come to the end of the quarter, the month, the year but also to the end of a decade, and by most intelligent accounts, beginning of a new one. Perhaps that was why it hit me with the suddenness of a car wreck. I knew it was kind-of-serious because, unlike 99.4% of my mornings, I was not hungry, at all.

At first, I was angry because these last two months had been excellent. Lots of fun, excitement, creativity, conversations, a healthy share of drama, physical achievements such as individual accomplishments at swimming, weight loss, and intense cardio thresholds, not to mention two of the finest, choicest Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations that I could remember. For much of those hallmark memorable goals, I had some very close friends to thank. Anyone looking in on my life from any vantage point could probably comment that given all the slings and arrows of more than outrageous fortune and power-driven meanness thrust my way, I have done rather well. And for that, I have my Jesus to thank! But this all-too-familiar pain-in-the-impasse wasn’t going anywhere for a while and I knew I had to do something. In keeping with the good news of this glorious Christmas Season, I will share what was done and what worked.

I stopped. Plain and simple. I made sure I was sure of my self-diagnosis and begged God for help. I then went for a long walk and let the air run through my hair and just started thinking about how many wonderful blessings I have and how happy I’ve been. I then welcomed the anxious feelings and made peace with them. You see, this little bout of troubling worry and uneasiness is helpful if it doesn’t last too long, which it shouldn’t, if I simply face it, walk with it, talk it through, celebrate it, then send it on its merry way.

It was right about this time that I began to think about our CityofAgape Foundation readers and supporters, and everything that has led us to the current moments of our lives. We are very blessed and joyful for having the awesome ability to distribute the Word of God.

It is no accident that the 2020 new year has been referred to as hindsight. I think 2020 should also be boldly applied to looking ahead into the depths of the future still waiting for us.

If anxious feelings and sleepless nights have any value whatsoever, they at least have the potential of drawing us out of ourselves, inviting us to take stock in all we have and give us the hope and the desire to keep going into tomorrow and calling out the Lord’s name for the help that He is always wanting and waiting to give.

That’s why anxiety, in healthy doses, is an old friend.

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Peace on Earth, Peace in Me

nativity scene of baby Jesus in stable

There is something quite marvelous that has happened every Christmas Eve in Finland since the early 14th Century: it is simply known as the Declaration of Peace. It is accompanied by all kinds of musical instruments including drums, choral singing and even symphonic strings. What is it? It is basically a highly anticipated announcement made in the old capital that attests and demands everyone to act with peace and love during the Christmas Season. Here is the actual text:

“Tomorrow, God willing, is the graceful celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior; and thus is declared a peaceful Christmas time to all, by advising devotion and to behave otherwise quietly and peacefully, because he who breaks this peace and violates the peace of Christmas by any illegal or improper behavior shall under aggravating circumstances be guilty and punished according to what the law and statutes prescribe for each and every offense separately. Finally, a joyous Christmas feast is wished to all inhabitants of the city.”

At Christmas, we are called to be people of peace and comfort for each other. We are to be people of faith and hope that call upon the name of Christ in every situation. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Let us, you and I, declare peace tonight as we enjoy beautiful Christmas music. The time is right. How do we accomplish this? Here is one way…

Many years ago, a young innocent child whom today we call Aaron,  virtually fell in love with Christmas and wanted nothing more than anything in his life than to play the pivotal role of St. Joseph in the huge Christmas play in his local small town at a time when the real meaning of Christmas was not an issue. However, this year would turn out to be something marvelous for him, his family, classmates, and everyone involved for years to come.

This particular year, little Aaron, all grown up and in the third grade came home as excited as ever announcing to his parents that auditions were about to begin for the town’s annual Christmas Play and he of course already had lines from the role of his Holy Patron and needed his parents’ help to practice. This went on for days and when the day arrived for the auditions, his parents were just a little worried and with reason. Aaron returned very sad and disappointed because some Senior in High School  received the role over him. All was not totally lost for Aaron did get a part,  but even that did not comfort him. It was the simple role of the Innkeeper in Bethlehem whose only line would be uttered after high school students playing Mary and Joseph would ask if there was any room in the Inn: “NO!! THERE IS NO ROOM HERE!” and then he would slam the door shut very loudly in the face of the Holy Family. Clearly, he was not impressed!

But his parents had a great love for their son and enough sense that they needed to act and act quickly here in this situation otherwise this young child would lose the excitement and reverence for the most wonderful time of the year. His father immediately began: “Well, if you are going to be the innkeeper in this play, you are going to have the best and most elegant Inn in all the land!” (You see, Aaron’s dad was an experienced carpenter)  Aaron’s Mom was not too far behind: “And on top of that, you are going to be the best-dressed innkeeper in all of Christmas Play history!” (You see, Aaron’s mom was an experienced seamstress) The next two months of rehearsals were just wonderful! While Dad was carefully constructing an amazing background set with an elaborate inn with lights and mechanical details, Aaron’s costume was prize-worthy. And all the while, that little boy was getting more and more and more excited!

Finally, the day arrived and it seemed the entire town was ready for it. The auditorium at City Hall was packed to the brim and the choirs and music and decorations were all to the max. Aaron peeked through the curtain and saw not only all his relatives, including grandparents, but all his friends and their families from the neighborhood. Then the lights dimmed and the music began. There was Mary and Joseph entering the stage accompanied by a real donkey! You could see our little innkeeper all dressed up looking more like Aladdin than a precious third-grader beaming through the actual window of the Inn. Mary and Joseph slowly made their way to the door while their special song began and the stars started to blink in the background.

Then it happened. Becoming completely lost in the moment, Aaron could hear nothing else except his little heart beating. He had been transported to Bethlehem, and as Mary and Joseph neared the door, his eyes became large with wonder and love. Then Joseph stopped, turned to the audience and called out, “Please, please Mr. Innkeeper! Is there any room for me and my wife so she can give birth to Jesus?” At that moment, Aaron could no longer contain himself. He burst through the door of the Inn and shouted with all his might: “Of course there’s plenty of room! Come on in! There’s plenty of room!”

Well, the audience started to engage in a tender laugh for a while and that little special boy caught himself and his innocent error. The stage director approached him from a safe distance to whisper emphatically, “NO! NO! You’re supposed to say ‘there’s no room!'” Stunned and embarrassed, Aaron  turned to Mary and Joseph and shouted out his original lines with all he had left, “NO!! There is no room here!” then he slammed the door and fell to the ground crying almost uncontrollably.

Well now, that young man playing Joseph, a senior in high school and clearly raised with a lot of little brothers and sisters, had the right sense to go back in that Inn, pick up the Innkeeper and hug him assuring him that everything would be okay. And then, for the first time in Christmas Play history, that Innkeeper joined the Holy Family to kneel at the manger to welcome the birth of Jesus the Christ and our Messiah!

Wherever you are right now, we invite you to open your heart amidst the songs and readings and make a place for Jesus this Christmas. Perhaps you could shout to God that there’s plenty of room in your heart while making sure that you invite others to join you as well. You see, “It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.”

We welcome you to another Christmas Season and thank you for sharing this memory with us. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

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Thanksgiving Chaos of Unpredictable Joy

little skier with helmet and goggles

I know, I know. So many Christmas decorations appeared looming in most stores even before the pumpkins and ghosts arrived– and yes, even before the poor turkey was running for its life. However, have no fear or trepidation, nor any real despair about these assaults on our budgets and nerves because, quite frankly, there is something marvelous happening here: it is all about the deep and endearing love God has for all of us as He reaches into our souls to stir the memories and joys of childhood, even if they were marred or torched, because in fact, you and I were created for joy and celebration. We ponder and present today the possibility how Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas can still touch our deepest being with the vocation we all have to joy. This is because we are not human beings who have, to varying degrees depending on our situations and places in life, spiritual experiences, rather, we are, as Pierre de Chardin wrote, “spiritual beings who have human experiences.”

Hopefully the next couple of weeks will usher in more good memories and create new ones. Where there is fullness of life, joy will naturally overflow. After a certain point, the two concepts of “life” and “joy” naturally blur into each other and the fulfilled person is the one who cannot tell the difference between them. Our focal point for our attitudes and strengths will have to come from the Lord. Wherever we turn we find that Jesus “answers” all the unrelenting hostility around him, mainly from the Pharisees, by offering them and us yet parable after parable. The fact that Jesus replies with parables to the attacks coming at him from all sides and to the unspoken murderous thoughts seething against him is a most incisive commentary on the sort of person Jesus is and on how he intends to fulfill his mission. 

If most every one of our readers has close friends and relatives, then that same number of us have also had many, if not uncountable, opportunities to forgive and ask forgiveness. That is just the human situation which none of us can escape. What does the Lord teach us as we near the Thanksgiving table, the Advent wreath and the Christmas tree? Jesus never retaliates in kind. Every new insult and rejection seems only to stimulate his creativity and desire to persuade. And it is not just any parable he shares with the world, but stories that soar high above the turmoil of base human passions and appeal to our deepest instinct for happiness and thirst for joy. As we move forward toward the end of the year, which, as we all know very well will arrive before we know it, let us consider this time of giving thanks as a rich time of fulfillment and the invitation to joyful living. Consider this amazing opportunity of real grace in real time: 

It was the usual situation of a high school teacher trying to get across to her class a very difficult new math concept. Each day the more she tried, the more plainly students were becoming not only more frustrated, but quite edgy. Sensing a high degree of anxiety one Friday, the teacher said, “Look, put away your books. Everybody take out a piece of paper and list each of the other students’ names on that paper, and write something nice about each one.” 

So that’s what they did for the entire class. She collected the papers, went home, and over the weekend she listed the names of all the students and all of the nice things that people had to say about them. On Monday morning, she gave the papers out to each one. And immediately the tenor of the class changed. She even overheard one of the pupils whisper to another that “I never knew that anybody thought anything nice about me.” And so they were able to progress. 

The years went by, students came and went, and eventually they had one of those necessary class reunions. When they gathered around Helen, their old teacher, one of the fellows opened up his wallet and pulled out a ragged piece of paper that obviously had been folded and refolded many times. Immediately, Helen recognized it as the list she had given to this young man and the others many, many years ago. Another student told her how she had kept that list in her bedroom dresser drawer all these years. Another volunteered that she had this list pasted in her wedding album. Another young pulled out his wallet and showed that he, too, had carried his all this time. 

The teacher was quite overwhelmed to think that a minor gesture to settle down a class many, many years ago had meant this much to these students. Someone had said something nice about them, and during the years when they were feeling low they would pull out this piece of paper and remember that they were of value, that they mattered, and that there was something good in their life.  

Helen never realized that she was planting a small seed; she certainly was not intending a grand gesture. But it was a situation that Jesus would appreciate and say, “The Kingdom of God is like this.” It is a place where the chaos of the holidays and the seemingly endless parade of deadlines and wish lists keep creating a continual stream of consciousness. We must find the joy both in the chaos and in a total acceptance of joy as our vocation, even in the pressure-filled days yet to come—especially in these days beginning today by making these thoughts as part of our “core beliefs.” 

When we believe in something negative or pessimistic so strongly, we tend to look for evidence to support those core beliefs. Unfortunately, when this happens, we see the world through heavily-filtered goggles. In the process, we collect evidence that supports our (usually negative) core beliefs, and fail to recognize any evidence that could contradict these beliefs. We often collect this evidence from people. So ensues the vicious, self-serving, self-fulfilling prophecy cycle, and we now see the world through the eyes of our core beliefs. But just think of the opportunities and possibilities if our core beliefs included the acceptance and adherence to the simple truth that I have been called to a full life full of joy and that every single day of my life I can and will find evidence to support that? The joy and peace in life would be totally and wonderfully unpredictable. We could and should call this the quintessential “abundant life.”

Start your engines.

Find joy in everything you choose to do. Every job, relationship, home, everything! It’s your responsibility to love it or change it.  ~Chuck Palahniuk

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A Midsummer Night’s Narrative

sunset on water in fishing boat

What is it about the month of August that sets it apart from the other months of our lives? I guess you could say that every month has its own character and shades of emotion like individual children that came from the same family. But, August is now upon us and it may be calling us to something deeper and most challenging as we begin to see the end of 2019 not too far in sight.

First, let us take a look at the name of this summer month: “August” comes from the Latin word “augustus” meaning “consecrated” or “venerable.” This rendering is very close to the word, “augur” which refers to a person or a thing which is considered as “consecrated by augury, that is, an omen” or “auspicious.” In 8 BC the Roman Senate honored Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, by changing the name of their month “Sextilis” to “Augustus.” In the English language, this name became August and then began to refer to someone with imperial qualities.

What makes a person “regal?” Is it the way they walk, or talk. Is it their  mannerism or comportment. Maybe it is the way they handle life and the way they address problems over which they may or not have ultimate control or say so? Here are two very different examples for this August discussion:

A very good friend of mine was forced out of his home because of a whimsical decision on the part of a stereotypical landowner who part-times as Time Magazine’s Vindictive Man of the Year, every year, apparently. In the last three weeks of this month initially named for a Roman Emperor, my friend showed remarkable clarity, insight and most especially, forgiveness. He keeps telling me that there is a very good God watching everything and everyone and he has no doubt that everything is going to work out the way it is supposed to. Amazing. If this had been me or the majority of the people I know, things would look a whole lot differently, I can assure you. I am simply overwhelmed with the ease my evicted friend has just taken everything in stride, planned the move out of his home and serenely looking at all the options he has, moving out and forward with his life. He has become a noble man in my estimation and I am so glad to be called on as his trusted friend.

This weekend I, along with many who love him, will help him pack and move to a temporary location until something more permanent arises. Something tells me it is going to be a celebration of an August life that wakes up every morning with a growing sense of gratitude for life’s little hills and valleys and is committed to turn every moment of disappointment, disillusion and death into a fighting chance to live.

Here is our second August example, which in comparison is quite different but in essence not really:

It seems that one day a terrible fire broke out in a huge woodlands area and within hours the entire forest was suddenly engulfed by this unforgiving and menacing wild fire. Understandably frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird.

This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, “Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.”

As the animals stood around disparaging and criticizing the hummingbird’s efforts, there appeared a hopeless and forlorn scene. It was pathetic by any measure. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, “What do you think you are doing?” And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, “I am doing what I can.” And so he was in such an august fashion.

Perhaps the month of August is calling each of us to take new stock of our lives and make deep and significant decisions to do something that will impact the rest of the year and the rest of our lives. If we were to interpret the meaning of this month that will somehow determine or set the stage for things to come, we have even a greater motivation to review and reflect on life itself and make positive, albeit even small changes to make the rest of the year the best of the year. One could argue then that every month has that invigorating character but we are preoccupied by the very name of this month — August! It by its own nature makes for a very different existence that delivers on the promise of the name. Start and end your days with silence, hold your head high, forgive as often as you can and laugh whenever possible. And don’t delay, it’ll be September before you know it.

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Foul Balls And A Father’s Love

baseball batter swing at game

In a most dramatic example of how baseball imitates life, there was an emotional and heart-stopping scene at Minute Maid Park during the Cubs-Astros game last Thursday (5/29) during the last inning. Albert Almora Jr. of the Cubs hit a hard line-drive foul into the stands that hit a young child. He was extremely and visibly affected and shaken by the accident and had to be consoled by security personnel right on the field. According to the latest reports available, the young child was awake, responsive and taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons and is expected to be fine with an amazingly unique baseball memory afforded to few.

“Right now I’m just praying and I’m speechless,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m at loss of words. Being a father, two boys… but God willing I’ll be able to have a relationship with this little girl for the rest of my life. But just prayers right now and that’s all I really can control. It really puts life in perspective.” To watch this great athlete crumble before audiences everywhere spoke volumes of his deep paternal compassion and care. He inadvertently hurt a child and as a father of two, he felt the pain perhaps even more severely.

There is something quite telling in this remarkable slice of life that was witnessed by tens of thousands of people, mostly baseball fans. As we move into yet another month of this, what-seemed-so recently as the “brand new year,” it really has become a call to sit back for a second, take stock in life and consider what is really important and why.

You will no doubt hear that June is the month of Dads and Grads and perhaps that is partly our cue to ask a very important question. What does this amazing occurrence at the stadium in Houston reveal to us about what a father does, acts or feels? Here are a few ideas:

He heals.

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:22-28)

A father attempts to stay deeply connected to compassion, always acting what is within his power to do, approaching life with all his heart.

He loves.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the laws and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:35-40)

A father shows mercy no matter what the circumstances and extends forgiveness without limits, loving the other as his own expression of his love for God.

He prays.

“But when you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

A father prays alone, persistently, with others and simply especially when life deals a hard knock of sorts.

He focuses on his treasure in heaven.

“And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

A father detaches himself from possessions, believes that God has blessed him abundantly and seeks to act justly in all things with all people, especially his own family.

He seeks God’s will.

“So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’” (John 8:27-29)

A father relies on the example of Jesus, maintains a sense of urgency by seeking to always be in the state of grace, focus daily on God’s will, and sees all his responsibilities as acts of love by looking upon his own sacrifice as gain for others.

He sees children as precious.

“The children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray,. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands upon them.”  (Matthew 19:13-15)

A father protects children while welcoming them into a safe and loving world while at the same time seeking to have the innocent heart of a child.

He lives with humility.

“And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them,’ If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9:33-35)

A father lives in God’s mercy and not on his own merit, presumes the lowest place of consideration and sacrifice his ego for the greater good, especially for his family and neighbors.

That my friends, in a very friendly nutshell, is our reflection for and about fathers today. And to think that it surfaced out of a baseball foul ball in a tight game watched by hundreds of thousands of people, especially the remarkable and memorable foul ball. Baseball does in fact imitate life in several ways and we will close with these interesting comparisons:

In the game of baseball, there is no time limit or “sudden death” overtime. Everyone knows that there is an end to the game, but never exactly when. Just like life. In this great game, players get several chances to win and succeed. During nine innings you should get four at bats, and you get four balls and three strikes and whole bunch of foul balls. As in life, we often have many more failures than successes. But in baseball, like life, it’s those failures that make us better and stronger to be a better competitor the next day. In the game of life and baseball, you and I are sometimes asked to make sacrifices for the good of the team.

Fatherhood is amazing, isn’t? Whether it’s foul ball or a home run, just staying in the game is more than half the victory.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

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Ears – A Mother’s Day Tribute

young boy covering both ears with hands

Like any young couple in the 80s, Jimmy and Deborah struggled with great difficulty to start and raise a family and maintain their love for each other as expectantly as they could. This was compounded with increasing difficulty as they were considered a military family moving every two years from place to place. But soon, all that would change when a promising business opportunity opened up for the young couple and they decided to settle down in Albany, New York. Things were moving right along quite well for them and then the news over which they were waiting so patiently finally arrived. They were expecting their first child!

The excitement of this new life within their family was almost too overwhelming as they received much support and encouragement from all their family across the U.S. and their new-found life-long friends in the Albany area. This effusion of joy, however, was to be met with immediate horror, then sadness, then remarkable resilience, as they witnessed something terribly wrong with the birth of their first born son, Jeremy. Something was terribly wrong with their baby even though all the internal organs and expected mental and intellectual standards were met. It was then that the family and friends of the newborn were introduced to a bizarre condition known as anotia. Anotia is a rare birth defect where the external ear is completely missing. While Jimmy and Deborah breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that all little Jeremy’s vital organs were in perfect order, and that there would be no learning or other physical impairment to his future, they both knew instinctively that he would have a tough time socially with other children and the not-so-subtle stares he would receive in whatever life he pursued. And they were absolutely correct.

During little Jeremy’s early life, his parents, for that matter, his entire extended family tried the very best they could to protect him and build confidence in himself devoid of his appearance. They cleverly looked for all kinds of activities, especially sports that would involve moments that would not involve a whole lot of interaction and socialization and found that amazingly he was quite adept at swimming and running. Still the inevitable would not be avoided and his first day of school provided the most expected of all reactions to his appearance.

“They called me a freak!” he wailed out to his mother who was waiting for such a reaction. “I never want to go back to school, ever!” he continued. And even though he seemed inconsolable, his wise mother knew differently.

“You’re not a freak, Jeremy. You’re mine.” This became her go-to mantra for the next twenty years or so. It was a phrase which he never forgot and often repeated deep within his soul. It helped him sail through and face the rest of elementary and junior high school bullies and insensitive morons who could or would never fully understand the impact of harsh words layered upon someone so wonderful and lovable inside, even though there were no outer ears to complete the expectations of most, if not all, of a full facial composition.

His father was also a most profound and steady support to his loving son. He continued to help develop his swimming and running skills and found that Jeremy had a natural proclivity for these sports which was evidenced by the number of ribbons and trophies he was amassing from these two athletic competitions. Still, there were those painful moments of exclusion and mockery and it may or may not have impeded Jeremy’s desire to ask girls out on dates or just develop his social life. For that he just plunged deeper and deeper into his studies and his cross-country running skills, both of which grew remarkably in depth and accomplishment. Midway through his junior year in high school, however, he received two amazing bits of news.

First, it looked as if he was going to be valedictorian of his highly-competitive school and with that honorary and well-deserved distinction, he was going to have his own basic and personal choice of any university in the nation. Second, a distant cousin made the bold and stunning declaration that before Jeremy would step out on his own, he would actually donate his own outer ears to his relative to ensure a much better and smooth sail into his future destinations. What a spectacular pair of overwhelmingly great events to happen so close to each other and to such a deserving young man.

But before we get ahead of ourselves here, life, as we all know, has a strange way of surprising us even when it has just surprised us. The news of Jeremy’s special condition spread quickly after the announcement of his first place spot on the list of graduates all the way to Washington, DC where he was offered a fast-track and full scholarship to a top diplomatic and political science university to prepare his way for a career to serve his country in one of the many embassies around the world. The second installment of surprise was not as joyful, at first. You see, the cousin of young Jeremy at the last minute backed out of his offer citing fear and the great unknown as to the aftermath of the surgery. While the scholarship news filled everyone with hope, the second was painful to hear. However, there must have been an angel constantly hovering over Jeremy because within a week of the disappointing news came yet another offer of an astounding donation of outer ears, this time, moreover from an anonymous source. The only condition that was placed before the family was that Jeremy would never know the donor.

It did not take the family that long to decide to accept this kind offer and after much consultation with doctors and surgeons, the procedure was to take place during the Christmas break of Jeremy’s Senior year, and with that announcement, the flood of prayers and well-wishes flowed in like a tsunami. What seemed like an impossible dream was about to show itself as the greatest gift and moment not only for Jeremy but for all those who knew him and loved him very much. Over the years, Jeremy had become a loving, compassionate and trusted friend to everyone, his personality and character sculpted, as it were, over the years of carrying this strange deformity. People were desperately waiting for the news of the surgery and of course to see Jeremy with his “new” look and their time would come close to New Year’s Day when Jeremy walked out with his new appendages. Tears and laughter and more tears were not in short supply that day and the rest of his impressive Senior Year, including his inspiring Valedictory address which immediately became historic and deeply embedded in the memories of both family and friends.

After all this, not much else can truly compare with the dramatic unfolding of these events. People all around the family, as is the normal case, began to move on with their lives as Jeremy was accepted to his prize university and then continued to excel both professionally and spiritually. He met the woman of his dreams and they married as soon as his new post in Paris was announced. They began to talk about starting a family, and, with the normal hesitation and worry if history would repeat itself with the condition that had earlier plagued Jeremy, both of their sons, born within three years of each other, entered this world both wonderfully and healthy.

Over the course of raising their growing family, receiving a baby girl a few years later, Jeremy and his wife began to talk about settling down back in the U.S. after considering consulting work either for the Pentagon or the State Department. They had just decided on making those professional moves for themselves and their family, when sad news appeared on their doorstep in the form of news that never seems to be properly expected nor welcomed. Jeremy’s dad called to announce that his mother had died. While she was not ailing from any known ailment, she went rather quickly in her sleep. Jeremy began the immediate preparations to fly home with all his family to attend her funeral.

As expected with any unexpected travel, there were delays after delays and Jeremy and his young family arrived very late the night before the Funeral Mass long after the Wake Service had been completed. Since the family was very well known and loved, and there were so many who came to pay their respects, the Rosary was held in the Church and the body was to remain overnight. As soon as his father picked them up at the airport, he drove them straight to the parish where the priest met them at the front door close to midnight. While Jeremy’s wife stayed in the car to watch over their sleeping children, he and his dad made their way with the pastor into the nave and slowly approached the coffin.

As their solemn footsteps echoed through the empty, slightly darkened church, Jeremy could still hear his mother’s voice that had made that lasting impression into his soul, “You’re not a freak, Jeremy. You’re mine.” Slowly the casket was opened and Jeremy cried instinctively with deep loving tears rolling down his cheeks as he gazed downward to the serene face of his mother’s body lying so peacefully in repose.

“Jeremy?” his dad whispered to his son.

“Yes, dad. What is it?” came the subtle reply.

“Jeremy, your mother loved you very much and would do anything for you. I want you never to forget that, Son.” And with that, Jeremy’s dad reached gingerly and tenderly into the casket and slowly moved away his mother’s hair revealing that she had no outer ears. She had been the anonymous donor.

“She made me promise,” continued his dad, “never to tell you until this sad day. She said she hoped it would help carry you through this difficult moment.”

And it did

“A Mother’s love is something that no one can explain. It is made of deep devotion and of sacrifice and pain. It is endless and unselfish and enduring come what may. For nothing can destroy it or take that love away.” ~Helen Steiner Rice

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The Best, The Rest And The Greatest Easter

It must be more than twenty-five years ago now and I still remember that wonderful coffee cup given to me for Easter one year. I recall it vividly for two distinct reasons: the first is functional because the ceramic cup actually came with a lid to keep the fresh coffee hot for those of us who forget to take constant sips of the brew and are left with the insipid taste of semi-cold coffee. But the second reason was much more deep and meaningful. I can still see the cup in my mind’s eye. It had a painting of a beach scene with the simple words, “I do my best and give the rest to God.”

So where is that cup now? Oh well, it has a very sad but perhaps significant end that might help shine some light on our character as Easter people. Allow me to explain.

Not too long ago, I was leading my life at what most would call a frenetic pace. Although by any accounts there was much achieved and accomplished, but the toll on calm days and peaceful nights was evident. And you know, I can still recall that fateful morning when I was rushing to get from Point A to Point X in twelve minutes when I grabbed my favorite mug, my keys and whatever papers I was supposed to have for whatever important, critical meeting looming and made for my car. Because I was literally juggling all these things with one fell swoop I did what many of our readers might have been guilty of at least one or two times in their lives: I placed the coffee on top of my car to get it in a split second but unfortunately for the mug that split second never came and I drove off with the cup atop my vehicle.

Either I am a very steady driver or the streets around my office were pretty smooth because I actually traveled quite a distance before I realized that I had forgotten something. In the middle of traffic on a very busy street at a busy time of the day, I braked a little too suddenly only to see my windshield dripping with cold coffee and the infamous mug rolling down the back of the trunk onto the street where I could still hear a subtle but unmistakable crash of a ceramic mug hitting the pavement. I could see the broken pieces through my rear view mirror as I moved along with the flow of traffic. By the time I was able to drive to the next intersection and turn around, there was only what appeared to be ceramic powder from all the pummeling that the pieces endured. Later that afternoon, running yet another frenetic errand, I passed by the same spot and saw there was  nothing left, not even a clue.

As I write this Easter reflection it becomes almost surreal to realize that this short but significant episode occurred over twenty years ago. Easily to say, there have been literally hundreds of coffee cups nestled in my hand with everything from happy panting dogs to cartoon figures to pithy comments about the state of life, love and all things in between, but I never forgot that one obliterated mug. I wonder why?

While the obvious reason of unforgetability (is that even a word?) lies in plain sight, the more deep and meaningful reason lies in wait. I am elated to report that leaving my coffee atop my car or anything else for that matter has never repeated itself. That would certainly be the first fruit of the experience: Lesson learned. Just the sheer image of fellow drivers all around me laughing uncontrollably and getting their phones ready to capture the moment so it can go viral is just enough to keep me from making that mistake again. We will see.

The second lesson is so much more precious and one that I pray I will never forget even if I revert to leaving things on top of my car. To discover this wonderful lesson we don’t have to go too much further than to remember what that annihilated mug actually said: “I do my best and leave the rest to God.” What does that really mean and how can we factor that message into our souls to make this the greatest Easter ever?

We can start with the very life of Jesus and the events that immediately preceded his arrest, his death on the cross and His most stupendous gift to us by rising from the dead. I believe that God truly expects us to do all we can do in any given situation so that then and only then will He accomplish what we cannot. When Jesus performed the pre-Easter miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, He commanded those around Him, “Take the stone away!” (John 11:39) One of the obvious conclusions that we could make today is that the Lord really did not need their help to bring about this awesome moment. If the Lord had wanted, his old friend Lazarus could have as easily walked right through the huge stone itself adding to the marvel of the miracle. But you see, the people there, like us, could not have raised this man from death but they could roll the stone away which is precisely what they did. Then Jesus did the rest.

The application is simply brilliant: God is not always going to do everything for us when we can do it for ourselves. Remember what God said to Moses when he was going through a difficult time with the Israelites who would not listen to him:

“So the Lord asked him, ‘What are you holding?’” “A walking stick, ‘he answered.’” Then the Lord asked Moses to throw it on the ground and immediately it turned into a snake. It was this amazing moment that won the approval of the Israelites “that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” had indeed appeared to Moses. (Exodus 4: 1-5)

This very enlightening point is re-echoed in the New Testament as well in the Gospel of Matthew: “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive, and anyone who seeks will find, and the door will be opened to those who knock.” (7:7-8)

In other words, we do what we can do, understandably our best effort, then leave the rest of the situation to the Lord who will then decide what to do next. And here are the real Easter challenging questions: Do we do our best? Do we leave the rest? Do we leave that portion to God or something else? And do we trust Him enough to do the rest?

Well, if it is any consolation, and believe me, it is, look what He did with the body of His Son, Jesus: Resurrection from the dead! It looks like God allows us to do what we can do and when we surrender our wills to that truth, He does the rest.

After so many cups of coffee since that rushed morning over twenty years ago, there has never been another mug that made such a lasting impression. I believe that if we embrace the mystery that was etched upon that cup, about the Lord and His great universal love for us, this could be the greatest Easter we have ever experienced.

Remember this the next time you have a cup of coffee.

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Ashes-to-Ashes, Love-to-Love

burning logs in fire

In this amazing life we sometimes live unforgetfully, there can be found, close to the surface of our comings and goings, unique and altogether lovely gifts in the form of archetypal moments. These are recurrent symbols, motifs and patterns nestled carefully within soul-enriching experiences that actually mold us and fashion even as we struggle or celebrate through them. These are replete in literature, art, and mythology and a list of the most famous could easily start right here, right now. However, today we make yet another bold claim: in everyone’s life, there is an archetypal Ash Wednesday and a Good Friday, perhaps several days like these, that is to say, there are those days of going without, emptiness, distance, silence and the pain of separation through death or some other terrible loss. They rarely fall on the day assigned for any given year, but make no mistake, they are always there, placed strategically on our life’s calendar and appearing at the least expected moment, often with all rage and fury of a mid-western tornado leaving nothing but emotional darkness and mental debris in its wake. What do you do when you find yourself face-to-face with all the worst possible scenarios that you would have ever imagined appearing all at once and then challenged to the degree you would never have expected, to follow your own advice, your own counsel and to live what you have told so many others to do in the face of remarkable despair and trial?

You keep walking and wondering and asking God how all this happened so quickly. And while you face microcosmic episodes of death, separation and rejection every day, you also find new and amazing opportunities to learn, to cope and to reveal something remarkable about God, the world, love and yourself. And you don’t ever stop because you know if you do, the villains of self-pity and rage will swallow you whole.

These moments will face every human being at one time or another. The goal is to find the greatest amount of emotional and spiritual maturity throughout it all before we get too old not to care enough about anything. This is precisely why the Season of Lent is such a powerful series of days and nights that can and will determine our experience of Easter, the rest of the year but truly, my friends, the rest of our lives—and beyond. Notice the words that accompany the distribution of ashes: “Remember! You are dust and unto dust you shall return.” We might add, for the sake of our present reflection before you today, the following : “Remember! You were made for love and unto love you must return!” Thus we will return to the amazing, remarkable, and incredible plethora of uses for ashes. Let us compare the natural use of ashes in nature and home care with the spiritual value that ashes may have on our spiritual lives if we truly allow them to take root and substance. Prepare for a journey like no other that has the potential of reaping eternal fruit!

In the natural world, a few logs of firewood can produce as much as fifty pounds of ashes—a formidable heap of soot but also a great source for mineral-rich dust that has practical and supernatural purposes. Here are some of the most noteworthy:

  1. De-skunk pets and neutralize evil.  In those areas of the world where humans and skunks must share space, it is helpful to know that just a handful of ashes rubbed on your dog’s or cat’s coat neutralizes the lingering odor of a most unfortunate encounter with Pepé Le Pew. This Lent, let us name at least one very unhealthy and destructive habit or attachment that is nagging our peace of mind and spiritual aroma. Everyone can. As we move forward in this great season, claim victory over that persistent sin remembering that we are made for love and not for selfishness. When we pray, remember to call out the name of Jesus in our lifted words to heaven.
  1. Block garden pests and tireless temptations.  Amazingly, firewood ashes evenly spread in garden beds actually repel slugs, snails and a variety of nasty garden pests.  Fasting from sugar or meat or alcohol have the real ability to strengthen our resolve against the temptations that bring us down and cause us to doubt God. Declare Lent as a time for real renewal and never give up the fight to resist what we know is wrong, unhealthy and unholy. Victory belongs to the most persevering.
  1. Melt ice and cold hearts.  In many parts of the world, wood ashes are thrown over walkways and sidewalks to add traction and de-ice the surface without hurting soil or concrete underneath. The human heart cannot survive without a healthy mixture of justice and mercy, integrity and compassion. Just because you look down on someone does not mean that somehow, even magically, they are going to get up and surprise you. Practicing real and daily compassion makes our faith in Jesus very real because that is how He treats each one of us with divine and endless mercy. An attitude of compassion is a little thing that makes a huge difference.
  1. Control pond algae and unhealthy attitudes.  As little as one tablespoon of dried ashes in a medium-sized pond adds enough potassium to strengthen other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth allowing for the moral floral and decorative life to flourish. Grudges, unforgiveness, hateful judgmental attitudes can easily creep into the soul especially if we have opened ourselves to the harsh words and actions of others close around us. This Lent, make a serious and honest inventory of what is in your heart as often as you can, remembering that an unreflective life is not worth living. If you find something unhealthy, expose it to Jesus the Light of the World in your prayers and thoughts and make slow but serious changes to move forward. More prayer, more power.
  1. Enliven tomatoes and spiritual fruit.  For the benefit of most calcium-loving plants, experienced gardeners place about a quarter cup of ashes right in the hole before placing saplings or seeds in the ground. This can actually increase the size and tastiness of the fruit by twenty percent according to some estimates. In the forty days of Lenten Journey, make every effort to spend just a little more time with God every day, which has the potential of making all the difference in the world. You make time for everyone and everything that is important to you in this life. Make time for God and keep your special appointment with the one who has never forgotten you. Like a rudder on a ship, this small, seemingly insignificant detail can position the difference between merely surviving to thriving.
  1. Shine silver and the soul.  A paste of ash and water makes a surprisingly nontoxic metal polisher that makes the best pieces of the cabinet glimmer and shine. A real and honest intention to keep our Lenten promises with the hope of becoming more and more like Christ will allow us to shine before even the more skeptical in our world. Every night before going to bed during these forty days of transformation, reflect on what you have done with what was presented to you. Celebrate when it was great and re-commit for another day should it be His most holy will for you.

In everyone’s life there are days that feel just like Christmas and as gloriously, personally triumphant as Easter and just like the other two famous archetypal dates, these bright moments actually come much more often, although, while we are in the midst of fasting and grieving, it does not always feel that way. The truth for all of us today, however, is simple. It is precisely how we handle going without, self-denial, painful self-awareness and courageous wishes to change internally that determines how we experience and employ feasting, friendship and life to its very fullest, the way God intended for us to live it.

I can’t believe that I would want it any other way.

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Life’s Bouquet Of Love

bouquets of red tulips

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; For Love is strong as Death, longing is fierce as Sheol. Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine.” Song of Songs 8:6

After a very long and tedious day at work, a man slowly but surely made his way back home when he took the opportunity to rest by the side of the road. An elderly woman equally slowly passed by the place where he had stopped arduously pushing a cart full of flowers. The compelling aroma of her blossoms was remarkably perfuming the air with sweet tenderness that it truly seemed to take away the weariness in his bones and to lighten his spirits. He had never experienced such wonder from any collection of flowers even from his own garden.

“I wonder how much are these exquisite flowers,” he asked the friendly woman.

“They are yours for the taking, my brother,” she replied. “Your thanks is quite enough.”

So the man filled his arms with these beautiful flowers and hurried joyfully home. He and his wife and his children rejoiced with him over the remarkable flowers, for they, too, discovered that the sight of them was a delight and the smell of them refreshed the soul.

So as not to lose his treasure, the man planted the blossoms in a small plot of land behind his house. Sunlight and water kept them amazingly beautiful, still performing their marvelous, miraculous effect on all who encountered them. When children came to play in the yard, the man cautioned them against carelessness and wild play lest they trample the flowers and damage them. However, even with all the hustle and bustle of life passing through like heady gusts of winds, these wonderful flowers remained hardy and strong so long as there was enough sun and moisture to nourish them. Nowhere else could the man or his wife or children find such remarkable solace from weariness, such comfort in sadness, such spiritual nourishment as those remarkable flowers provided. Here was a treasure beyond value.

As the family and the surrounding neighborhoods grew, more children came to play in the garden and the number of visitors increased while the man became even more concerned over his remarkable flowers. He was determined to protect them, and so he built a huge greenhouse around them. In time, because of his numerous children, he would allow them entrance to the small sanctuary only sparingly and with the utmost care.

However this effort to protect this great gift seemed to begin to backfire. Problems and needless tension began to emerge. The man began to “weaponize” the gift of the lovely floral miracles of love in order to control and keep a mere semblance of peace. If the children caused their father stress or anguish, he would refuse them access to the flowers. If the neighbors were too loud or unruly in his own estimation or if they even appeared to be ungrateful for all that they had seen and appreciated, he kept them away from their beauty. Eventually he set up a large number of rules and regulations as to who may enter the greenhouse, how they must enter, and what they must do while they spent time in there. All the while, he continued to see that his treasure received enough sunlight and water so that the flowers continued to perform their wondrous outcome on the shrinking amount of folks who were allowed to view them.

As grandchildren began to appear and fame spread about these magnificent flowers, the man felt even greater need to safeguard his treasure. Access to the flowers was open to all members of his family and visitors who seemed friendly enough, but not without certain precautions. Requirements were to be met and standards upheld. Offices were established to judge worthiness and to determine accessibility. It became necessary to have lawyers to defend and judges to weigh and guards to safeguard and caretakers to upkeep, and on and on and on.

However the inevitable occurred after all this smothering of the miracle. Everyone who had ever seen and experienced such a gift eventually saw less and less of the flowers and some even simply forgot about them and their marvelous power to transform and shine light into the soul. Eventually, people thought it was just a myth, a magnificent story, even a legend. But those who dared to dream and believe in the power of transformation and complete change from the inside out, began their own intrepid search for the flower lady, and to everyone’s amazement, there she was, still out there, still giving away her amazing flowers. Love was indeed real and had not died.

The meteoric celebration within a 24-hour period of frantic rushing and purchasing of flowers in commemoration of St. Valentine will no doubt bring different meanings and connotation to every person you will meet during this time. At the center of it all, however, is the same element with which we opened our reflection. Is love a myth? Is it really possible? Is it dead? All gifts are freely given but none so precious as the gift of love. We can, and many do, cling to the gift that has been given to us and never share or pass on the goodness that has been shown to us. We can either slowly but systematically destroy the possibility of a love-filled life by allowing ourselves to be possessed by our possessions and threatened by the illusion of loneliness, or we can learn how to embrace all that is good in our lives, especially the gift of love, starting for God then others and then ourselves, with a habitually relaxed grasp striving to share with others what has made our lives so blessed and worth living.

The lesson is as simple as it it is timeless. Love is not static but alive and always in need of sharing and surrounded by a heart of gratitude otherwise it will be lost. We must admit at the same time that it is very easy to find ourselves caught off guard and distracted by forces of selfishness and egoism and thereby lose right perspective, constricting ourselves and others with rigid rules made by well-meaning caretakers. One thing is clear: love is stronger than death and as long as we long to be loving, giving, forgiving and prayerful people the way we long for air, we will find all that we have been destined to find in this short but amazing life.

“Deep waters cannot quench love, nor rivers sweep it away. Were one to offer all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly despised.” Song of Songs 8:7

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Christmas And The Homeless Baby

swaddled baby in mother's arms with father looking

My recently acquired membership in the sixty-plus club comes with some surprising benefits among my family and friends. It is definitely true that time seems to travel much faster as once remembered and good memories seem closer while bad ones appear further and further away. Other benefits include an apparent increase of loving patience from those who have recently joined the forty-plus club, more enjoyment of peace and quiet, and because the body has also fallen captive of this time change, this same peace and quiet both seem easier to find. Such was the moment a few weeks ago as I was sipping my coffee and thanking God while simultaneously begging Him for much more help and understanding with a number of impending issues ahead. An indifferent cold wind outside painted the perfect backdrop to be still and stay warm, acutely and highly useful in contributing to the main task of preparing mental notes of what had to get done, what could wait and tracking down those other nagging chores and concerns that escaped the grasp of my memory.

Out of the blue, as if to break in with a flashing news alert, I received a call from my nephew spiced with a tone of fear and restlessness of which I was not accustomed to hearing from him. “Please,” said he, “I’ve got to see you. I have news. I have sad news. I must tell you in person.” Without a doubt, this was truly the best way to get someone’s attention. Unquestionably it worked that morning and soon I found myself driving anxiously to my home to discover the painful yet unrevealed news. While in my car, with my imaginations in overdrive, I thought about the last fifteen years or so since I have watched my nephew grow into a man. It seemed like just yesterday that he was in middle school. Where had the years gone? How did I miss all the in-between growing spurts and pains? Well, I was about to have a front seat to a dramatic turn of events that has since helped shape how I will approach Christmas this year with those closest to me.

“I lost my home,” he staggered through hushed sounds of tears and shallow breaths. “You lost your what?” I followed. I wasn’t sure I heard right. Did he say he lost his comb? Wait, that wouldn’t make any sense so I just sat down to listen more carefully. Seeing as I am not well versed in these financial matters, let us agree to state here for the sake of time and interest, that because of a series of missteps and inaction, he did in fact lose the home he had been dreaming of buying and settling down and now within one excruciating week that dream was about to be boxed into cardboard containers and carried away with the sobering knowledge that anything he would leave behind would be sold, given away or just trashed. Not a pretty sight, for sure. What further surprised me was how much weight he placed in my opinion of him and how I was going to think of him going forth. “Nothing has changed between us,” I said while trying to wrap my mind around all that was transpiring before me. “Now you’ve got to keep moving and find a new home.”

A new home? Those few simple words started to echo curiously in my mind as if I had said something remarkably deep and resilient. Then I looked at my watch. It was less than a month away from Christmas and the whole idea of moving and finding a home made perfect sense. It was the real-life experience of Jesus in the first few minutes of post-birth life on this planet with parents who were probably as forlorn and worried as my nephew. In those few moments of the most difficult unfolding truth for a thirty-year-old to hear, we both realized a sobering, troublesome truth that he was homeless. Maybe not for long, certainly not forever, but right then and there, he was homeless and all of a sudden I felt incredibly helpless and sad, perhaps yet another throwback of emotions finding their roots in the first Christmas.

Jesus was a homeless baby. Not surprisingly, we do not normally have the opportunity to think about this revealing truth inundated as we are every year with all the wonderfully crafted and awe-inspiring Christmas cards, memes, photoshopped pictures and our very nice and serene Nativity Scenes popping up all around us. Yet, the first Christmas, if we think about it in quiet reflection, was hardly full of silent nights and warm cheer, but rather and more accurately painful and even empty, certainly not our modern idea of a merry Christmas. This gut-wrenching aspect of these days are not without great merit and can actually deepen our care and awareness about the reality of this time and actually create in us a spirit that makes life around us so much better and more beautifully significant.

This is not an attempt to guilt people into an over-gushing of temporary charitable acts that start and end in one day. That is self-absorbed guilt-relief and unsustainable. This aspect of homelessness has to be something much deeper and much more significant. You and I are, in essence, homeless because our final home is in heaven and everywhere we live today, no matter what city or state, home or apartment, cave or tent, is, by definition, temporary. If this is true, then how could it shape Christmas and the brave new year we are all about to enter into? Here are a few thoughts:

If we truly understand this Christmas mystery, wrapped not-so-tenderly in stark homelessness, then I believe it will truly change the way we treat each other. Instead of over-reacting when someone offers us a cross word or an ugly, condescending look, remembering that we are all trying to find our way home with varying degrees of success might take the edge off the ferociousness that sometimes characterizes human interaction, especially during this highly overrated buying season to get all the right gifts for all the right people with not enough money to go around or enough time to accomplish it all.

It will also reveal a new way to understand anger and harried frustration, both inside of each of us and the seemingly endless display from others around us. Everyone has lost something. Everyone is afraid of something. And yes, everyone misses someone. Gone unchecked, these subtle realities of being human can create exasperated resentment and pathetic posturing that creates more of the same in other family members and co-workers. Knowing that the first Christmas was about a homeless baby struggling for the basic human needs of food, water and shelter, could very well usher in a new sense of patience and love and certainly forgiveness beginning with a most sincere sense of gratitude of what we do have rather than focusing on what we do not. We would then be invited to approach every life situation from now on with the poignant thought, “How can I make things better?”

Finally, the plight of Jesus and Mary and Joseph could also remind us about our perceived value of possessions. Imagine what they were able to carry. Can you see a bag of toys and the latest electronic-cyber gadgets strapped over the donkey carrying the holy family to and from the manger moment? Hardly. We all know and accept that there is a readily and perennially explosive amount of attention placed on buying and purchasing and getting and receiving gifts around this time. Things. Things. Things. It would not be a hard stretch to remember that this homeless baby would grow up into an awesome human being, the quintessential man, who would then remind us that although the world teaches us to love things and use people, His message would be the opposite, even sealing it with his own final selfless act on the cross.

In a few short weeks, Christmas will be upon us and the comfort and joy that is potentially ours will be waiting once again when we gather around the God-made-Man who was not only born homeless but who also died homeless. Whether you belong to the twenty-plus, thirty-plus, forty-plus clubs or beyond, it’s time to make a brand new memory and relive a timeless one. It is the time to remember to thank God that we have a home waiting for us with all those we miss and remember with great fondness and perhaps even with sad longing. The time has come once again to make room in our souls for the one who was homeless and yet gave each of us an eternal home.

Don’t you want a real Christmas rather than a silly, expensive and self-indulgent one? I know I do. I will try very hard to convince my nephew that he has been given a unique and wonderful chance to experience a phenomenal Christmas that will not only shape the rest of his new year, but recalibrate and reformat the rest of his life.

That’s my hope and I’m sticking with it.

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Death, A Meal Best Served Live

Like any and most American families, in the given span of ten years or so you notice at least two things: you see less people at family gatherings and then you see more people at those same wonderful moments. The reason is simple. People die, people get married, and people are born. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well there’s a lot more to it. At a recent and quaint gathering of my cousins and me, all of whom have entered the 50+ Club, we spoke directly about this very observation and came up with an amazing idea. We decided that we’re going to create a generational cookbook of the best dishes new and old accompanied with stories and pictures that will bring all this to life. It sounds exciting especially to me who loves to eat. Everyone from each of the existing generations will contribute recipes, photos and lore which must all be shared while preparing and serving these dishes even for gatherings outside the family circle. And why not? Share the wealth! All this might sound like a lot of work producing an exponential amount of fun and family ties, but more importantly it’s absolutely necessary to understand death. By now you should be asking how does a cookbook help you understand death? Well, what stops when you die? Among many other things, you stop eating. But you don’t stop living. Because everyone who has lived and died is still alive, somewhere. And don’t we bring those people close to us again and again as we remember them?

Does this sound scary? Well it shouldn’t because all this brings us to a “trifecta” of annual and memory-making gems beginning with Halloween and concluding with Day of the Dead which in turn evolves into our social and spiritual cue to start our engines to enter the world of Thanksgiving and Christmas. When you get right down to it, it is all pretty exciting and marvelous in a way. Who doesn’t like to eat? But, on the other hand, who likes to say goodbye to loved ones who leave us in death? Whole new answers, right? Well, let’s take a look at this more carefully as we start by resurfacing our notion of the trifecta. We will continue with the assumption that all this life and death stuff, painful as it is for many of us to behold, less talk about it, is always a mystery that finds amazing expression when human beings express themselves with burning and sometimes inexplicable longing lodged deep within the human heart. We will speak here about the relationship between or among, Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, otherwise known as Day of the Dead. They all are fundamentally linked and inseparable and have been at least since the seventh century. To be clear, we are going to have to start from the middle and work our way from there because this is the best way to approach this mystery.

Halloween, October 31

The night before on the Eve of All Hallows, similarly marks those who ascended to celestial heights but from a very different and evolving perspective. I don’t seem to grow weary of telling and re-telling my friends and newly arrived family members about how exciting Halloween was for me as a child. My costume? Why, Yogi Bear, of course!! “I’m smarter than the average bear!” Either I’ve lost you on that reference or you’re sitting there with a huge grin on your face. I know I am. Halloween like so many of our holidays were engineered precisely for children. Whether it was birthdays, St. Valentine’s Day, Christmas or today’s enormous expression of color and calories, we either enjoyed the day and loved the pageantry of it all, or we lived through our own children and innocent ones and still kept happiness alive if only in some small way. Everything great and good begins small and unassuming like the mustard seed. And like the famous woman with a few measures of flour, it all needs our constant attention. It is just like our faith which must lead us and sustain us into adulthood. Especially into adulthood. This is where we learn that the most frightening things in our lives are often not wearing costumes or doling out candy, but are true monsters, large and little, that can rob of us of happiness, if we allow. And among those fear-mongering creatures lurks the face of death, the quintessential “trick.” Jesus loved children and especially all the children still inside each and every one of us. Go on, smile on Halloween. Say a prayer and ask the Lord for all the treats that He has promised especially eternal life and for protection against the wicked tricks that lie in wait.

All Saints Day, November 1

Colorful burning candles during All Saints Day at the cemetery

All Saints Day in the Church’s calendar celebrates all those who have made it into heaven. In many ways we could say that this is our day, a day of hope and encouragement where we chance a glimpse of a glorified existence after the earthly battles of stress and worries and disappointment have all passed, laced with so many great and awesome momentous chapters that helped keep our focus on heaven such as the birth of children, outstanding resolutions and breathtaking surprises. It is on this day as well as on others that we hear from the last book of the Bible, Revelation. I can’t think of another sacred book more controversial than this one; also known as the “Apocalypse.” This fascinating and mysterious text, ever since it was written, has been the topic of countless theories, teachings, movements, books, commentaries, and more recently, films and multimedia television series, episodes and documentaries. Unfortunately, most of them have strayed from the Theological and Scriptural meaning of the intent of the Apostle John and have clearly done much more harm than good. Because of these wild theories, it seems as if every ten years or so, people have been trying to predict the end of the world every time a certain number lines up in a particular order or because of the discovery of some ingenious mathematical equation that spells horrible and imminent destruction. Remember the Year 2000 scare? Or do you recall the December 21, 2012 prediction based on some data from an ancient calendar chiseled on some huge stone that would run out of days on that date? People, just get a new rock! To concentrate on the cataclysmic end of the world on All Saints Day or December 31, or some other arbitrary day that was arrived with some clever mathematician wand of expertise is to lose sight of all these days. Today is about our life today, how we live it and where we all hope to go with all the ones we have ever loved with all our hearts and souls. As God’s children now and joyfully anticipating our own resurrection, we reasonably ask, “what do we do and how do we act?” Just as Moses in the Old Testament came down the mountain with the Law in the form of the Ten Commandments, Jesus walked up the mountain and fulfilled what the great lawgiver started and mapped out the way to survive “the time of great distress” for each and everyone of us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and insulted. The Beatitudes create the blueprint of living a beautiful, Christian life. These eight blessings are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and respond to the natural desire that we all have for true and lasting happiness. This is how we become saints! The Beatitudes also proclaim the blessings and rewards that have already been secured for those who love Jesus. Just imagine, there’s a place in heaven for us and it has our name on it.

Day of The Dead November 2

Traditional Mexican Day of the Dead altar with sugar skulls and candles

Here is the final installment of our trifecta and no doubt the most difficult. It is the most challenging because we must at all costs avoid the extremes that many take with this episode. Either we under-state the effect that death has on us, thinking out of sight, out of mind, or we overdo it placing way too much attention on the dark, gloomy almost fatalistic view that although someone wonderful has died, everything has died including ourselves. All Souls Day is the moment when Jesus is literally taking our minds and hearts and gently walking with us to face our deepest and darkest fear, that of death itself, in very much the same way He did. In wonderfully typical Old Testament dramatic delivery, the Prophet Ezekiel begins the healing hope of this victory over death: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” But for a time, a seemingly endless amount of time for some, there is a veil of sadness which must be faced and we do that with our prayers for the dead, visits to the cemetery, private and public Altars of Remembrance with pictures and yes, more predominantly lately, with feasts and festivals that celebrate with food and party the most frightening aspect of life itself. Sounds very much alive, doesn’t it?

Strange and wonderful we human beings, wouldn’t you say? What have we learned from our trifecta of days and dramatic moments? It looks like the three days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls we have uncovered a pattern. What do we do with life?

  1. We get together
  2. We cook and eat together
  3. We remember together
  4. We laugh and cry together
  5. We repeat the cycle.

In the final analysis, Halloween, All Saints and Day of the Dead have everything to do with the living, family, eternity and memory. And when you think about it all those things have to do with the way each of us comes into this world, experiences love and acceptance and what truly brings us hope against all odds. And while we’re still on this planet, rituals and practices and yes, food not only nourish us but also bring us together for many significant moments that can never be repeated. Everyone who lives knows we’re going to die. Everyone who loves knows that we’re going to get hurt. And everyone who says goodbye knows we’re going to say hello again. So what we do in our own fashion as human beings is face whatever frightens us, symbolized at times with masks and crazy costumes, think and pray with all the holy ones whom we know have made it into heaven and then recall with unreserved and completely understandable and proportionate sadness all who have gone before us marked with sign of faith. This we do at times with smiles on our faces and yet tears in our eyes, to confront whatever scares us so we can keep going until there’s no more death, no more suffering and no more hunger. And that is why, my friends, death is a meal best served live because it simply has no more power over us.

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The Nicodemus Factor

Jesus sitting with Nicodemus at night

You know, it’s funny. This morning I received two strangely coincidental texts: one said that they could no longer speak to me for an indefinite amount of time, while the other was, “write the next post.” While I was stunned and hurt by the former, I knew I had to get started on the latter and so here it is. This post could be called the “Tale of Two Friends, “How to Deal with Remarkable Disappointment,” or “The Nicodemus Factor,” all of which should be made perfectly clear after about five minutes or so. Whichever the case, I’m not sure how to begin other than to say that my hunch is that there are many more people who have experienced what we are about to describe than first suspected, especially after having spoken with a few close friends before sitting down and pounding this out. For the sake of immense and hopeful clarity, the scenario is as follows: You are pacing through life at a nice clip and you think everything is going as well as expected when all of sudden your world falls apart. This could and does happen on several fronts, the first and perhaps most common is death, especially of someone who had the flexible challenge of keeping everyone together. I have seen this many times in not-so-successfully grieving families. Then there is the situation when someone gets fired from a company or workplace that may have taken on the semblance of an extended family or close community. Run-ins with the law, embarrassing divorces and horribly thriving gossip mongering tactics also create the scenario whereby, from one moment to the next, a human being becomes invisible. The phrase, “I don’t know you anymore” certainly comes to mind and with it, a previously undiscovered amount of pain and disappointment emerges. I guess we could also answer in the affirmative as to how this happens, but what about the “why?” And then of course, the “what now?” Let’s start with the how and what we shall call “The Nicodemus Factor.”

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin assembly who is particularly known for visiting Jesus at night. He couldn’t risk being seen with the Lord during the day because, well, he couldn’t be caught dead speaking with the “rabble-rouser.” Part of him really wanted to know and learn and actually spend time with someone he deeply admired but the pressure of public and private opinions came at too high a price that it was better to be covered safely by the dead of night than to be associated with such a man in bright sunlight. Time was to eventually change all this and bring both men in each other’s company in a most dramatic and memorable way. But what about all those friendships that we enter and leave with numbing regularity?

Here is where we might call, “The Tale of Two Friends,” or even better, a tale of two different kinds of friendships. I think that we live life quite unforgettably too often and perhaps over-depend on people in our lives for moral support, a few laughs here and there, and a shoulder to cry on. We better re-examine that quickly. The painful truth is that should we ever find ourselves in a precarious and dangerous position, not to mention an unpopular one and find that the people we most thought would be there, just might not be. The more I share these thoughts with others the more surprised I am. The more I discover how many “fair weather,” undependable, and fickle people we actually keep around us. Why should this hurt so much? I ask myself “why do I hurt so much?”

I believe it is because we all want and purposefully work for a happy, fulfilling life and we want and need good people in them to make this vision complete. I know I do. For me and those who will still talk to me, it is a genuine hunger and desire for God’s Kingdom which requires the right angle of perspectives to yield the right questions, then hopefully, the right answers. These are the results and conclusions that bring us peace to live in harmony with not just the world we can see, but truly in the mystical Kingdom of divine insights which has been purchased for us at such a high price. What does this mean in the here and now?

Expect rejection from the most unobvious and surprising of places. Jesus faced it and showed us how to sail right through it. He kept loving and serving. Don’t start licking silly, small wounds like these because this quickly becomes a habit and the wounds get bigger. Then we will really have problems. Express your disappointments to the ones you believe you can trust right here and right now. I am blessed with at least one voice in my life who has a knack of quickly summarizing key concepts in a small phrase and then puts music to it. Sound crazy? It is. The last approach is my favorite. Celebrate the people you love. Tell them how much they mean to you and recommit yourself to work hard at mending fences, asking forgiveness and praising God for the ones He has given you. You should also thank Him for the ones He exposed to you as unfriends, if that is actually a term today. I think it is.

In the end, you might discover, as Jesus did, that with all the thousands of people he taught and healed and fed, there was only a short-list, handful of folks left to help him die. Oh yes, and Nicodemus was one of them. Scripture reports that he was one of the ones who actually help take the body of Jesus off the cross. Not too concerned about who sees you there, were you Nicodemus? And that’s the solid point here. Love and friendship are such powerful gifts that there will no doubt be a cleansing and filtering at least a couple of times along the way. One of mine came this morning. Thank you, Jesus. Tonight, I will be reaching out to those who I hope are still there and I will praise God for them all. And remember, life isn’t quite over yet. You never know who might show up.

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essential oil bath salts aromatherapy items

Without a doubt, I have been richly blessed with friends who love to eat. In addition to our shared pastime and life-giving, life-sustaining hobby, my friends represent a number of different cultures to which they have remained faithful and attached. One evening a couple of weeks ago, we decided on an Italian-Indian night and made a veritable feast of the evening. What a night, and what a weight-gaining evening!

Obviously, there were many wonderful garlic and curry combinations that I couldn’t begin to pronounce much less list at this moment. Needless to say, the next day, I knew that I must return to the local gym to attempt, however feebly, to stave off the potential damage to my waist and calorie quota for the week and board the closest cardio stepping/walking/climbing apparatus in sight. My timing was stellar as I entered the local athletic facility and found my favorite torture machine readily available sandwiched (pardon the food comparison) between two others who, like me, were clearly not in the running as America’s Top Models or who had ever missed a meal. Immediately I climbed aboard and began the arduous entrance into athletic performance and much sweating, trying desperately to avoid all the strange noises or groans and mumbles as one tries to act twenty years less their actual age. I am not sure how many of our readers actually have an exercise code of behavior for the gym or are even aware of any such etiquette compilation, but I do not usually speak to people around me unless the occasion calls for it and on this particular day, I think it did. After about twenty minutes of pretty intense perspiration, I could tell something was different but was not exactly sure what it was. My fellow panter to the left then made it clear what I suspected. We caught each other’s glances quickly and then he innocently asked, “Are they having a pizza party here today? Sure smells good!” Realizing exactly what he meant and pretending to agree with his assessment, I turned toward the main entrance and sheepishly said, “Yeah, I think it’s someone’s birthday!”

By now, I believe you all know what happened: the rich seasonings of garlic and curry, among others, slowly and methodically seeped into my blood stream and eventually found their way to and through my sweat glands giving off an amazing aroma that must have suggested that yet another banquet was on the way. And for a second, maybe there was indeed a kind of enriching encounter about to begin that is played and replayed all day of our lives. Consider this Scripture passage as quite pertinent for our expanded time to consider who we are and where we are going:  “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2) Think about this for a second. Even before we leave the comfort of our homes, we begin to emit something, an aroma perhaps. This aroma could be in the form of an attitude, an aura or a general climate or attitude that just is very obvious especially to those who know and love us and even to those who do not. The minute we walk through the door, we bring something to the room, the conversation and to those we encounter. Imagine that we have just received horribly bad or discouraging news. Don’t you think people around us will notice? What if it is just one of those bright days full of clarity and hope? The same is true. People notice. We radiate. We give off a distinct aroma. And the more wonderful and mystical aspect to all this, is the fact we make the choice of which aroma or fragrance we wish to influence our surroundings.

Let’s take this one more step further: what if our aroma was actually a person? Could we say that we actually radiate and bring forth the spirit and life of another to our day? Absolutely, and you know where this is going: the Eucharist. When we say “yes” the Paschal Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we truly are empowered with the ability to emit and radiate the real person of Christ to everyone, even to ourselves. Could this be the beginning of a brand new way to live life? Today I want to experience Christ in my life and show Him to everyone as if I was introducing someone very close to me to everyone in my life who is near and dear to me. Imagine how different things would be if everyone had that same goal!

Perhaps a great step in that direction would be to consider this wonderful “aromatherpeutic” prayer composed by Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Pray it slowly now and see what happens. Devour its message, and order from this spiritual menu so that your aroma will surprise, comfort and heal your world. Nothing is impossible with God.

“Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance wherever I go. Flood my soul with your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly, that my life may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus! Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you; none of it will be mine. It will be you, shining on others through me. Let me thus praise you the way you love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you. AMEN.”

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Pave the Yellow Brick Road

Gold brick road on grass with sun and blue sky

Procrastination is a true human trait and proof of the existence of God with the promise of His most wonderful heaven. It clearly exhibits the hope and confidence in a better tomorrow and thereby, by extension, the rationale to put off today what can be done later. But in the meantime, before we reach heaven, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. What do I mean by that? Consider the following.

In a short period of time, a good friend of mine has lost three significant women in his life, all of which has made for a wall of grief to emerge. In addition to this clover of tears, he is, you could say, in-between jobs, and clearly repulsed by the full-time, in-between, low-paying, dignity-robbing employment that currently occupies his time while barely paying the bills. And he feels so alone. What makes this difficult is that he is one of those kind of people who tends to be accommodating, serving, and the one who is always there for others. It is not always as rewarding as it seems. You don’t need a degree in social media technology or nuclear physics to realize that the person I have described is not only an endangered species but also a walking target, standing around with a large sign in bright letters, “Hurt Me!” While you try to be there for everyone else, when you are at your most vulnerable, everyone is busy. And rightly so.

The solution is easy, really. Either he keeps the sign on his back, wallows in misery, and tries to wangle a few extra dollars per hour, or, he can remove and disassemble this ill-advised mantra and start something new. Even though he’s pushing sixty, I still believe there’s room for re-invention and a new road for my friend. Perhaps grief causes groaning that can open avenues to growth if the individual chooses to go in that direction. Therefore, I encouraged him to make a careful inspection of his life to date. This will involve manifesting a list of the things he likes in his life and the aspects he does not. He must invite the Lord Jesus to walk with this very “personal memory lane” before doing anything or hurting anyone. But it must be done and soon. But how does one re-invent anything? Is there really such a word? Yes, there is. It means to invent again without knowing that the invention already exists; to remake or make over, as in a different form; and to bring back, revive. Now let’s look at each part of the definition.

To invent again. The art of re-invention has already been fifty-two percent accomplished in most of us. We are who we are and the best description of life around us can be found in the little phrase, “it is what it is.” Before moving forward, I must realize this, that adversity and problems do not create character and strength, they reveal them. When you crush an olive, you get olive oil. When your crush a grape you get fine wine. When you crush a noble human being, the result is a holy life ready for anything and waiting upon the Lord. True enough, right? So why can’t we just stop there and go on our merry way? Because we will undoubtedly end up where we left off, like some revision of Groundhog Day where every twenty minutes or so, the plot starts all over again. Although we have been assured that the re-invented hope of our true self already exists, we must move forward.

To remake or make over. Something has to change. It has to look, feel and sound different. Although the essential items of life remain intact, there has to be solid, tangible changes that even if no one else can see, he knows he can.  Then all the change and attitude shifts can take hold.

To bring back, revive. I love the word, revival. You can almost see life being poured back into an empty canvass, scenario and most especially a heart-broken warrior and sojourner who simply will not stop until he wins. Stop with all the activity that drains energy and life. Cease listening to negative and judgmental rhetoric. Enough with enabling. Right. Now life starts pouring in like a sweet forest waterfall.

Well, my friend has made his lists, phone calls, resumes, and looks like he is ready to turn the page today. Most importantly, and to my great relief and joy, he has invited the Lord to be right with him because He is truly “my light and my salvation.” And I am truly excited about his prospects and liken him a little like those four wonderful and mythical characters from The Wizard of Oz.  I think what I like most about this classic American every man story is what actually happens throughout their journey. Unlike what the four seekers hoped for and expected, the Wizard does not tap them on the head with some wizardly wand and turn them into something they aren’t. No, his job is simply to reassure the foursome that they are not lacking anything, and he helps them recognize their own true talents and abilities. The Wizard’s job is to enable the seekers to see themselves more clearly by reminding them how smart, talented, and courageous they already are. Ours is the power of belief, the power of affirming what we really want, the power of claiming our heart’s desire according to the merciful will of our Heavenly Father, a far more comforting image than a crafty traveling salesman behind a curtain. Could this famous Wizard be an archetypal figure for Jesus?

My friend is doing very well these days, at least since the last time we spoke. His story mingled with that of Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and the Lion is the story of all who want to be happy and find fulfillment in our own lives. It is the battle, search and exciting journey to uncover and truly discover our true self. To develop our own intellect, heart, and courage and find our way to our true home, and to help others do the same. I can certainly live with that.

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The House You Build

two men looking at design plans

“Each man is the architect of his own fate.”  (Appius Claudius, Roman Statesman, 300 B.C.) There once was a brilliant architect who envisioned a world beyond shape and dimensions, efficient and inspiring places of business and homes that all could afford and live and reach their destiny and ultimate calling. With the soul of a poet and the mind of a genius, he continued to set forth design after design, project after project that continued to amaze and stir the imagination of young and old alike. But what was more profound about this man was his humility. Although he clearly towered over the competition in his field, he never gloated and boasted about his gift or his remarkable accomplishments. And because of this noble demeanor, he had the respect of so many, except one. Years earlier, the architect’s father was working as a contractor and had sacrificed years of long and hard hours to put his son through college and architectural graduate studies. Right after his son’s graduation, he fell ill stricken with lung cancer and was forced to quit working. He had a partner in his construction business, a mediocre man at best with the work ethic of a lotus-eater and the temperament of a Shakespearean character inflicted with “the green sickness” of envy. Because he could no longer work, he felt sorry for his hapless partner and kindly asked his artist-builder son to hire him. Having watched his dad laboring all these years for his education, the young architect could hardly deny the request and brought him on board. Perhaps, he thought, the man would change and see himself as an integral part of the firm’s success and reputation which would indeed spread throughout the country. It has been said that envy is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. Not only is an envious person rendered unhappy by their own envy, but that person also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Such was the case of this poor, afflicted contractor.

As years went by, the reputation and esteem for the architect grew and grew as did the anger and envy of his cunning contractor who was increasingly angry over the renowned success and adulation bursting right in front of him. He never believed that he rightly received the credit he deserved, the applause and compliments of builders and artists, the regard and notability of all, and was slowly yet powerfully driven by a dark force within him which sadly advanced with each celebrated project. Then one day, the architect announced: “I am going to design the most beautiful home in the world! People from all over will come and see its beauty, its comfort, its welcome for families to grow and cherish life – it will be my masterpiece.” The building began with much excitement and anticipation. But, his contractor and foreman, had other devious plans. “Let us use cheap materials, let us build this house with inferior product and intention – it will look magnificent, but after a few years, it will crumble into the ground. We will pocket the money and leave this dreamer and all his adoring fans behind in the ruins.”

The day of unveiling finally arrived. People came from all over, young and old, rich and poor, to see the gift of idea and inspiration from the mind and heart of this celebrated architect; all the time being, his contractor looking on with a strange look of disgust mixed with an almost sinister delight. By this time, what was once petty and unfortunate, became evil and criminal; his heart had completely darkened under the weight of such hellish hatred. No one was prepared for what happened next. Before the public would be ushered into this marvel of design, the architect spoke to all from his heart. “Many years ago, my father sacrificed for me so I could achieve my dreams for my family, my friends and for the world. Beside him those many years, was my contractor who began to work for me when my father could no longer lift even a hammer. I wish my dad could be here today to witness this moment. In his memory and to his honor, I want to publicly give this brand new home to my contractor!” With that, he handed him the keys to the house he had just built.

It is true that how we live influences the quality of our lives; our lives will be better if we do what is right, and our lives will be worse if we insist on doing what is wrong. (Proverbs 13:15).  “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Matthew 7:2)

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man holding open wallet

People don’t change. Their priorities do. There was a man named Michael, who was an outstanding chiropractor, a great father and husband, remarkable son and brother, a deep believer in Christ and a highly-respected fifth-degree black-belt. To say the least, he was an amazing man. One night, with little warning, he suffered a massive heart attack as he slept on his couch after watching the late night news. Hundreds gathered for the funeral, which was a mixture of deep hope and an unspoken sadness that defied words. The night before the burial, a beautiful wake was conducted by Michael’s brother who was a priest. His words were perfect and soothing, the piano music enchanting and comforting. After the Scripture readings and the priest’s reflection, there was an open invitation for anyone to come forward and render testimony about Michael and his impact upon their lives. One after another offered beautiful accounts describing encounters they had experienced with the deceased.

One man, in particular, stood out among the many. He seemed to be in his late forties, sad for the occasion but clearly a man who had been through quite a lot in his life. As he walked up to the altar to the pulpit to speak, he passed Michael’s coffin and with a gesture of pure faith, whispered something to him and with a simple, peaceful smile on his face, began to speak. He spoke about a very dark time in his life when, because of his demons and addictions, he lost everything and was on the verge of taking his own life in a lonely hotel room. He had finished writing his epitaph and letter of remorse to anyone who might find it later. It would have been a cruel end to a lost life had it not been for that one phone call. He let the phone buzz away, then stop, then there it buzzed again. It was Michael. “Hey, man!” was Michael’s opening line. “We’re having a karate competition over here, and, I haven’t seen you for a while, so why don’t you just get over here? We can go out afterwards for waffles at the Pancake House. I’m starving!” Needless to say, his plans to cut short his life were thwarted by the friendly insistence of his karate-brother, Michael. He made it down to the competition, ran into many old friends who expressed concern for him since he seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth, and cheered and laughed and felt alive again. Later, as promised, the two went out to eat. While they waited for their order, he went on explaining to Michael that his phone call literally saved his life, that he had reached the end of his rope and couldn’t go on any more. “I don’t know how to ever repay you for this, Michael.”

True to form, Michael surprised the lights out of him. “Show me your wallet” he asked. The man at the pulpit that evening had all the attendees enthralled about where he was going with all this. Michael took the man’s wallet, opened it up, and from one of the folds there, pulled out three items, a credit card, a holy card with the image of St. Michael the Archangel, and a picture of his family, in that specific order. “Here’s your problem, Buddy! Your priorities. You got them all turned around. Here, let me show you.” And with that, Michael re-shuffled the man’s wallet, and placed the holy card first, then the family photo, then the credit card and said, “See, you put God first, then your family, then money; after that, things should start looking up.” And they did. If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse.

“It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” ~Mary O’Connor

“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.” ~Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor (161-180 AD)

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34) “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

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Freedom’s Price

empty bird cage

One Sunday morning in a small town, a preacher named George Thomas, came to the Church carrying an old bird cage and set it on the pulpit. Eyebrows were raised and, as if in response, the preacher began to speak. I was walking home through town yesterday when I saw a young boy swinging this old bird cage. On the bottom of the cage were little wild birds, shivering with cold and fright. I stopped the lad and asked, “What you got there, son?” “Just some old birds,” came the reply.

“What are you gonna do with them?” I asked. “Take ’em home and have fun with ’em,” he answered. “I’m gonna tease ’em and pull out their feathers to make ’em fight. I’m gonna have a real good time.”

“But you’ll get tired of those birds sooner or later. What will you do?”

“Oh, I got some cats,” said the little boy. “They like birds. I’ll take ’em to them.”

George was silent for a moment. “How much do you want for those birds, son?”

“Huh?? Why, you don’t want them birds, mister. They’re just plain old field birds. They don’t sing. They ain’t even pretty!”

“How much?” George asked again. The boy sized up the preacher as if he were crazy and said, “Ten Dollars?”

Then George reached into his pocket and took out a ten dollar bill. He placed it in the boy’s hand. In a flash, the boy was gone. George picked up the cage and gently carried it to the end of the alley where there was a tree and a grassy spot. Setting the cage down, he opened the door, and by softly tapping the bars persuaded the birds out, setting them free. Well, that explained the empty bird cage on the pulpit, and then George began to tell this story.

One day Satan and Jesus were having a conversation. Satan had just come from the Garden of Eden, and he was gloating and boasting. “Yes, sir, I just caught the world full of people down there. Set me a trap, used bait I knew they couldn’t resist. Got ’em all!”

“What are you going to do with them?” Jesus asked. Satan replied, “Oh, I’m gonna have fun! I’m gonna teach them how to marry and divorce each other, how to hate and abuse each other, how to drink and smoke and curse. I’m gonna teach them how to invent guns and bombs and kill each other. I’m really gonna have fun!”

And what will you do when you get done with them?” Jesus asked. “Oh, I’ll kill ’em,” Satan glared proudly.

“How much do you want for them?” Jesus asked. “Oh, you don’t want those people. They ain’t no good. Why, you’ll take them and they’ll just hate you. They’ll spit on you, curse you and kill you. You don’t want those people!!”

“How much?” He asked again. Satan looked at Jesus and sneered, “All your blood, tears and your life.” Jesus said, “Done!” Then He paid the price.

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Truth is More Precious

down syndrome girl looking at flower closeup

Time Magazine ran a front-cover story that, as magazine covers go, simultaneously raised eyebrows and objections: “Why Mom Liked You Best: The Science of Favoritism.” I read the article this week and found myself, as the eldest born, not only of my parents but of all of my cousins and generation, to agree with most of it, was saddened after I was finished. The author, Jeffrey Kluger starts the article by stating that, “There’s a sweetness in the lies parents tell their kids, which is a very good thing, since they tell a lot of them.”

I wasn’t sure I really wanted to agree with that although, painfully, I knew he was probably right. Perhaps there exists in every person a character flaw which is basically and biologically narcissistic, but if that is true, it seems that we need to look at how this affects all of our relationships, not just the parental ones. After putting the article down, I sensed a deeper sadness that literally forced me to remain silent for a long while. Then I remembered something that happened over 20 years ago. A close friend of mine returned from a funeral and although most are sad, there was something deeply and doubly tragic about this one. I still remember how the story unraveled before me. Twenty-five years earlier, a daughter was born to a young, hard-working couple. There was much excitement as could be expected over a first-born and on that first day of the new arrival, there was concern. The child was born with Down Syndrome and in every way, a child of God. The entire family rallied behind the young couple with support and encouragement and although her father tried as he could, there was disappointment in his walk and talk.

Three years later, another child was on the way and this time there was more excitement laced with anxiety and worry. Would she be OK? Would it be the same as before? The day arrived and it was apparent from the first moment this child would indeed be different. As the years progressed this second daughter showed as much vibrancy and extroverted talent as her older sister showed kindness and gentle love, as most children exhibit who have Down Syndrome. The difference between these two sisters grew exponentially as did their ages. While the younger sibling would dance and sing and compete in every possible venue, something else was happening. Their father wanted to say that he had no favorite, that he loved both his daughters equally, however, it simply wasn’t the case. He cheered and raved every time his younger star brought home a trophy or a ribbon, cutting every newspaper clipping and picture he could find, filling scrapbooks and memorabilia shelves to their absolute limit. All this, while his older child looked on, sometimes with a tear about to surface before she would quickly wipe it away. Still, he would maintain that he loved both of his daughters the same.

At the seeming top of the meteoric climb of this rising younger daughter, horrible news showed its ugly head. The doctors discovered that she had breast cancer and this for a woman only 22 years old. They tried everything, from radiation to chemotherapy to the available experimental drugs at the time, finally attempting the more nature-inspired homeopathic cures. Nothing. The bright light that surrounded her began to dim and slowly it went out. She died weighing only 87 lbs and barely able to walk or speak. The funeral was in January in one of our country’s northern states on a merciless, biting cold morning with rain and darkness, the sun painfully absent. This father was consumed with grief, totally inconsolable. At a relative’s house, the family gathered once again to provide support and encouragement only this time there would be no cheering, no doting, no beaming smiles—just tears.  They left him to sulk in the enclosed patio, surrounded by plants and ferns protected from the winter’s deadly touch. There he was, crying uncontrollably alone with his pain and loss. It was then that his oldest daughter spotted him and slowly made her way over to him. She sat next to him placing her arm around him gently patting him ever so gently. He appeared, at first, not to notice her, that is until she spoke these hauntingly painful yet innocently crafted words, “Don’t Cry, Daddy . . . I’ll be your daughter now.”

For some, there will be days and nights waiting for invitations, friendly calls, even surprise visits from close souls, and yet there are others who never experience a dull moment or an empty day planner. Be that as it may, how about you and I look around our worlds and see if we are playing favorites? Do we forget the ones who have truly loved us and wanted the best for us? Do we seem to chase the fanfare of popularity and personal reward of seeing what this one or that one can do for me? Have you noticed how often it takes a tragedy to open our eyes? I know we’ve all heard it said that we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone, but does it really have to be like that? Stop for a moment today, any moment, any place. Just think about where you are right now, this very second. You see, God determines who walks into your life and it’s up to you to decide who you let walk away, who you let stay, and who you refuse to let go. Listen and do what He tells you to do.

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Are you a Carrot, an Egg or a Coffee Bean?

girl with cup of coffee

What could a carrot, an egg, and a coffee bean have in common? These three items have been used by a mother to teach her young daughter an important life’s lesson. You might be amazed at the impact this lesson could have on your lifestyle.  Are you struggling with adversity and heartaches? Maybe there is a solution to be found in this story.

There once was a young woman who went to her mother and started telling her about how hard her life is and how hard things were for her. She was tired of fighting and not knowing how she was going to make it.  She was ready to give up.  It seemed as though the problems never stopped. As soon as one problem was solved, another one arose.  How could she continue?  She needed advice.

The young woman’s mother took her to the kitchen and filled three pots with water and placed each one on the stove and then lit a high fire under each pot. When the pots of water came to a boil, her mother took a carrot and placed it into the first pot of boiling water.  She then took an egg and placed it in the second pot.  In the third pot of boiling water she placed ground coffee beans.  Without saying a word, her mother let them sit and boil.  About twenty minutes later, her mother turned off the burners and fished out the carrot and placed it on a plate.  She continued by removing the egg and placing it on a plate.  Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a cup.  Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me, what do you see?”  The daughter touched the carrot and commented that it was soft.  The mother then asked her daughter to take the egg and break it.  After pulling off the shell, the daughter observed that the egg was hard-boiled. Finally, the mother asked her daughter to sip the coffee from the cup. There was a big smile on her daughter’s face as she tasted the rich aroma.  “What does it mean, mother?” asked the daughter.

The mother explained that each of the objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Yet each object had reacted differently.  The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. But, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softenend and became weak.  The fragile liquid interior of the egg had been protected by its thin outer shell, yet after sitting in the boiling water, the interior had hardened. However, the ground coffee beans were quite different.  Sort of unique, since after sitting in the boiling water, they had an effect on the surrounding water.  “Which are you?” the mother asked her daughter.

When trouble comes your way and you are in “hot water,” how do you respond?  When adversity knocks on your door … what is your reaction?

Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?

Are you the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity wilts and becomes soft and loses its strength?

Are you the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but hardens with the heat around it?   Did you have a fluid spirit, but after a tragedy, a financial hardship or some other trials, becomes hardened and stiff? Does your shell look the same but the inside is filled with bitterness?

Are you like the coffee bean that actually changes its surroundings?  The bean actually changes the very circumstance that causes the pain.  When the water gets hot, the bean releases the fragrance and flavor.  The bean changed the water even at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and that hot water brought out the original intent of the coffee bean.  It was meant to provide flavor, aroma and be pleasing to the senses around it.

If you are like the coffee bean, then you get better and change the situation around you when things are at their worst.  When the hour is the darkest and trials are their greatest, do you elevate yourself to another level? When the world around you seems to be closing in and darkness surrounds you, do you still reach out and help others?

When trouble is in your way and you can’t tell night from day, be like the coffee bean.  Reach out to Jesus and He will give you strength to leave a fragrance around you.

“I have told you this so that you will have peace by being united to me. The world will make you suffer. But be brave! I have defeated the world!”  (John 16:33 GNT) “Leave all your worries with Him, because He cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:7 GNT)  “Leave your troubles with the LORD, and he will defend you; he never lets honest people be defeated.”  (Psalm 55:22 GNT)

How do you handle diversity?  Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?

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The Challenge of Life

closeup of burning candle in dark

A man built a prosperous business through much hard work and honesty. As he got older, he became concerned about the future of his business mainly because he had no children of his own, no close relatives, except for three distant cousins who were already in charge of various aspects of the business. After much prayer and consideration, he called a meeting with all of them, and told them he needed a solution to a problem. They nervously gathered in his spacious office, a little intimidated, but mostly curious. After they sat down, exchanged polite pleasantries and finished their cups of coffee, the wise man stated,“there is a problem that I have and I want you to find the solution. The one who indeed brings me the best remedy will be the next CEO of this great company.” Then, very unceremoniously, he handed each of those young men an envelope with $2000 inside it. They continued to be baffled, scratching their heads and looking sheepishly at one another. The challenge was then put forth. “I want you to find something that will fill this spacious office of mine; spend no more or less than what you have been given and be back here in my office no later than sunset. Now go!”

It was certainly a long day for each of the three prospective future CEOs, and they all went their separate ways trying with all their might and intellectual acumen to fulfill this lofty challenge. On the one hand, it seemed an easy task to accomplish, and yet, on the other, overwhelmingly puzzling given the magnitude of the reward offered. Finally, the hour arrived and all three returned to the high and lofty office of the company. There the wise old man sat, behind his desk, scribbling aimless words on the leather-clad pad in front of him. Each made their presentation. The first man brought in four to five huge sacks of packing peanuts and packing filler that almost in fact filled the large office when they were opened and spread across the marble floor. They were removed to make room for the next attempt. The second man literally brought in hundreds of helium-filled balloons which he immediately released into the large office. Once again, they nearly filled the entire space assigned. After all the balloons were whisked away, the third candidate stood silent and seemingly upset. The silence became awkward and nervousness crept into that space.

“So, what do you have to say for yourself?” the boss called out. This outstanding young man carefully moved to turn out all the lights in the office and then said, “Sir, I did the best I could possibly achieve, but as I went searching throughout this big city I ran into a family whose house burned down last night and gave them half of what you gave me. Then there was a school with not enough funds to keep the cafeteria open and functioning so, I gave them the majority of the other half and with the little bit I had left, I purchased this candle and matches.” Then he lit the candle and the soft shining light filled every corner of the office. The wise entrepreneur with the experience of many decades rose from his desk, recognized immediately the wisdom of this third applicant and welcomed him as the new CEO of a great and long-lasting company.

“The most worth-while thing is to try to put happiness into the lives of others. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life. Happiness doesn’t come from being rich, nor merely from being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so can enjoy life when you are a man. Nature study will show you how full of beautiful and wonderful things God has made the world for you to enjoy. Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one. But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best.” (Robert Baden-Powell)

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The Problem Tree

house with trees rolling green grass

There was once a plumber who just finished a very difficult and long day. He lost a few clients, one died, a check bounced, and one of his employees quit and took all the tools that were purchased for him a year earlier. On top of that, a flat tire caused him more stress as did the amount of crazed drivers who thought they were on the Indy 500. One of his co-workers needed a ride home and asked him to please drop him off at his house and he would walk from there.

While they were driving, the frustrated plumber just steamed in silence, without saying a word trying to make sense of this very crazy day. When they arrived, he invited his young co-worker to come on in and meet his wife and two children and stay for dinner, if he didn’t have any other plans. As they were walking inside, the plumber casually walked over to a medium-sized tree in the front yard and almost ritually began to wipe his hands on its sprawling, bright-green leaves as if he was removing grease or oil or dirt. As the plumber walked through the door, something remarkable was taking place right before the young man’s eyes, there was an amazing transformation. The plumber began to glow and began to beam as he hugged his children and a long embrace for his wife followed by a loving, tender kiss. After a delightful dinner, the plumber and his young associate walked outside and the they said their good-byes. But before the apprentice got to the sidewalk, he passed that tree and remembered the little ritual that had taken place maybe an hour before. So he asked, “Hey, Sir, as we were coming inside for dinner, I saw you do something with this tree and you changed quite a bit. What was that all about?”

The plumber replied: “Oh yeah, that’s my ‘Problem Tree.’ My job can be pretty stressful like it was today and I know I can’t do much about that but I also know that I shouldn’t bring any of those problems back home with me. So, at the end of every day, I pass by my ‘Problem Tree’ and wipe my heart clean and hang all my problems out for the night and pick ’em up again in the morning!”

“Well, Sir,” asked the young man, “does it work?”

The plumber replied, “You know it’s kind of strange. In the morning when I leave for work, I pass by my ‘Problem Tree’ to pick up those worries and stress monsters, and you know, on some mornings, it seems as if there aren’t as many as there were before. I guess they just crawled away during the night, or maybe someone came by and just picked them off!”

On his way home, that young man touched every single tree branch he passed. I wonder what happened the next day or whatever happened to him. Is that you?

“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” (C.S.Lewis)

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Definitely A Different Christmas

wild rabbit in grass

This past week, I was alone without a tree and nothing to open Christmas morning. Now, don’t get me wrong here: this is not your very own personal invitation to my “New Year’s Pity Party.” Hardly. I am the most blessed man I know, and I mean that sincerely. People who know me often comment that I am the strongest, most patient and courageous person they know, and believe me, that’s nice. While I strive to live up to that daily, some days and years are better than others; which brings me to this past Christmas.

Sometime after Thanksgiving, I could tell it was going to be a struggle. The last eighteen months or so had been delivering slow growing pressures seemingly from every direction. There was disappointing news at least every month, issues with no apparent resolution in sight and just a mounting challenge to get up every morning to face the same thing, all over again and again. I decided to spend the weeks before Christmas to move out of myself and find all the opportunities to give and share and be joyful with others, no matter where I would find them. I especially thought of those who clearly had a much harder time with life than I was having, and even deduced to leave carrots and celery for this little wild rabbit visiting my backyard patio from time to time. And you know, it all worked. The height of all this reached Christmas Eve where I spent awesome quality time with family and dear old friends practically all day culminating with Mass followed by a sumptuous dinner. What a blessing! I went to bed like a five-year-old child, full and happy with a large grin on my face. It was good.

Then came Christmas Day morning. Uh oh! I wasn’t ready for it, and can’t explain why. Because of space and other constraints, I decided not to have a tree but still decorated festively, not sparing any empty corner or shelf space available. Thus, the childhood ritual of waking up and going straight to the Christmas tree did not happen. And although there were a handful of cards, email messages and texts, and some nice bottles of wine, this was the first year where there was nothing to open on Christmas morning. Before allowing myself to wallow in self-pity, I quickly returned as many emails, text messages and phone calls as I could and by noon it was time to deliver a couple of turkey dinners to home-bound people, then get back in time to prepare a luscious Christmas dinner for a couple of good friends. I went to bed exhausted.

For the next couple of days, every time I walked back into my home after a full day at work, I caught myself thinking about this past Christmas and how silly and selfish it was for me to frame the experience in terms of the absence of a tree and brightly wrapped gifts. I kept trying to think of all those who certainly had much less than I do. I wanted to remember those in hospitals and prisons. I continued to recall the great outreach and memories that had been made. But, I’m sorry to report, there was still that nagging and irritating emptiness that was simply not going away. I begged Jesus to help me and then resigned to simply accept all this as part of life and then, as soon as possible, to start packing away the decorations and try to move forward. “I am good at that,” I thought. On the fourth day of Christmas, it all finally made sense: it was about five in the morning and I was wide awake. I tried to go back to sleep but it was futile. There were a number of powerful dreams that made for a bit of interesting interpretations and a lot on my plate for the upcoming day so I decided to make a fresh cup of coffee, sit outside, drink it with Jesus and watch the sunrise.  The first thing I noticed was that my little rabbit didn’t make it to the porch for his carrot and celery salad and hoped that he was still alive somewhere. It was then that I saw something moving by the only tree in my back yard. It was that silly rabbit, caught in between some plastic netting and the fence unable to break free. While I carefully walked over on this rescue mission, I knew I could very well scare it to death so I had to be quick. Taking some kitchen shears from inside, it was a simple maneuver to snip the upper part of the plastic cords with one clean cut, which worked and the little guy took off like, well, “like a jackrabbit.”

“Merry Christmas, Bugs!,” I called out. Freedom for Christmas, what a gift. It was then, in the last few moments of darkness as the sun began to peak over the horizon, that I could see in my mind’s eye, the little Baby Jesus opening his arms to me. It was as if He was saying to me “this is what you open on Christmas, not paper-wrapped boxes.” There was a Christmas tree for me this Christmas and there was a gift for me to open. It just took me some time to find them.

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The Perfect Gift

Magi with gifts nativity

A short Christmas story by O’Henry entitled “The Gift of the Magi” is about a young, very poor, couple who lived in New York City during the turn of the century. They were clearly very much in love and both wanted so deeply to give the most wonderful gift to one another, but, as it was, they had no money. Each of them had only one material possession that had any real monetary value; the young man had a valuable pocket watch and his young bride had beautiful long hair. Both worked hard to pay the bills and put food on the table. Both were very tired from the long hours at work but it was their love for each other that kept them vigilant through the hard times and still very thankful especially at Christmas, the first one as a married couple. Each of them began to think during the weeks prior to the Yuletide of the best gift they could give to each other on this beautiful and meaningful occasion. She kept thinking how beautiful a gold chain would look attached to his watch and he thought how exquisite porcelain combs would enhance the finery of her hair. Finally, the day arrived. Imagine the surprise on their faces when on Christmas morning he discovered that she had cut her hair and sold it to buy a chain for his watch and he had sold his watch to buy combs for her hair. The point of the story is, of course, that what is given is not nearly as important as why we give. We may think that whatever gifts we have to give to the Christ Child are useless and insignificant. The important thing, however, is our inward sincerity in wanting to give ourselves to Him.

O’Henry concluded his brilliant piece that is worthy of a warm Christmas Spirit. “The Magi, as you know, were wise men, wonderfully wise men, who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days of all who give gifts; these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the Magi.”

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In Case Of Emergency

Christmas is coming and the geese aren’t the only ones getting fat. Even as Thanksgiving is still a few days away, my family and I have already begun exchanging food preparation ideas, old and new recipes, special prayers to invoke before we dive in, and of course, the names of those who are going to clean up everything once we have done our significant damage. To that end, I am always looking for books and materials at estate and garage sales, libraries and yes, even half-priced booksellers for older books that chronicle how exciting, fun and memorable these family days used to be and how they can be again if we set our minds to it. This year, I found a gem entitled, It’s a Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965,” which has provided so many neat concepts that I am sure it will provide suggestions for the next couple of years. But it also contained a remarkable surprise. On the back cover there was an envelope taped securely and clearly marked, “Open Only in Case of Emergency.” I don’t know about you but my curiosity was eating me alive and after I realized that I would never know the previous owner or the circumstances surrounding this strange note with cryptic instructions, I decided to declare the moment an emergency and opened the envelope. I thought there may be some money in there. No, but there was something much more valuable. Here is the text intact:

“I don’t know if you will have to open this next week, next year or even 20 years from now. I am not even sure if you will be the one who finally reads this. But if you are reading this, it means that something terrible or monumental has happened. I am thinking that it may be because someone you love very much has died, or something involving your health or the health of a loved one, or your work, career or some tragic disappointment or unforeseen catastrophe has occurred that has brought you to think if only for a minute that your life is somehow over. It may mean that I have died because it couldn’t have been you that went to Heaven since you’re reading this! (example of disarming humor. Hope it worked.)

Whatever the reason, I want you to remember a few things:

1. This too shall Pass. During the first 20 years of your life of which I was a primary witness, this proved to be true over and over again. I truly believe it will be again.

2. Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. We both know what we’ve both have been through the worst years of your life. By now you should be so strong that you could bench press an F-350.

3. When much is given a man, much is expected. Expect great things from yourself, from those whom you have assembled around you, and most importantly from Jesus. He has never left you. Never will. Especially now.

4. If you’ve hit rock bottom, remember this: IT IS ROCK. It is solid, firm and you can and will rebuild part of your life or your entire life. You have done this before and you can do this again.

5. Even and especially if the news today is about a terminal illness, you still must recover from the impact, ask to be anointed and Prepare either for a different kind of life here or the much better one promised to you.

Okay, Son, that’s it. I have lifted you to Jesus ahead of time for this particular moment, so wherever I am today, my prayers are already here with you. This life has been an amazing journey and we have been richly blessed. I can’t wait to see you again.”

I was stunned. My thoughts mingled with my imagination to try to figure this out. Obviously, it was from a father to his son. But why did he not receive it? Why was this book discarded? Did the two have a fight? Did the son die before his father? After a couple of weeks it occurred to me that at least one of the reasons that this letter was in my hands was so that I could share it with you and attempt to fathom its meaning as it applies to our life.

I immediately prayed for both father and son wherever they would be today. Then I wrote a similar letter to the ones closest to me and placed them in Bibles with similar instructions and thanked God for having found this treasure. In one dictionary, the definition of an emergency was rendered as a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action. Well, obviously it was an emergency and action was taken. I wonder how many emergencies we miss every day?

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Carrying the Cross of Powerlessness

woman talking on smart phone sitting on park bench

We don’t often receive desperate pleas in our office for help except when it comes to frantic questions about the number of English or Spanish Bibles that someone quite nervously is wondering why they haven’t arrived and who might have stolen them and why they are not there as we promised, etc. However, all that changed last week. Have you ever heard the premise that God places us right where He wants us, at the right time, for the right reason? Well, if not, I intend to make a believer of you today.

It had been a good day with a mix of obvious blessings and typical discouraging occurrences that are part of one’s daily life. While I was not watching the clock, I knew it was getting close to that time for me to get into my car, drive home and maybe even drive a few golf balls down the fairway along the way. That is about the moment the call came which was to plunge me into the dusking hours, too late for working on my swing, too early to get some dinner but right on the money to learn something valuable.

“Do you have a few minutes, sir?”
“Sure. Go ahead. Let me pull your file.”
“Well, it’s not about that.”
“Well, then, what is it about?”
“They lied about me.”

Goodness. I don’t mean to be melodramatic here, but it was as if my heart stopped for a second, not out of fright or panic, but out of one of those moments where in a single nanosecond your whole body tenses a bit as if to compress the last twenty-five years of your life into a single moment to realize that you know exactly what someone is talking about. And then you listen. The scenario was all too familiar. In order to get what they wanted, someone lied to the boss and placed my caller into an unfavorably unflattering and even suspicious light. To make matters worse, as if that were possible at this point, the alleged perjurer was a relative of the CEO, and I mean, close relation and thus it was becoming complicated and emotionally draining for my unexpected visitor who felt as if she had no power to confront the culprit and thought that the only path open to her was to accept the bad light cast upon her, cooperate with whatever request was being made and then begin counting the days before she was to look for another job. She was, however, overwhelmingly tempted to take this matter into her own hands, defend herself to the boss, complain bitterly about the shameless behavior of that man, and wreak havoc on the other employees, half of which were egging her on while the remaining were begging her not to make trouble. She was caught in what many would have described as a no-win situation, but I immediately disagreed with that assessment.

For the next hour or so, we both arrived at some wonderful and effective alternatives to unjust things that happen to us every day. We may not be powerless after all. The following is our list.

Calm Down
The appearance of powerlessness almost always creates a ripe breeding ground for anger. We can’t do anything about a certain situation so we turn to the only things we have control over which are our emotions. Anger is a volatile and perhaps the most destructive of all the vices. Unbridled, it can destroy us.

Discover Your Own Real Motivations
Why do we want justice? Is it really revenge? Justice is a virtue; revenge is perversion of justice.

Consider the Source
Who lied about us? Who has besmirched our reputation? Whenever we hear praise or harsh criticism, we must first consider its source. What someone says about us is never more important than the one who said it.

Weigh Carefully the Consequences
This is where prudence rallies into our discussion. Will I bring more attention to myself and my own emotional spasm?

Remember Jesus waited three days after His brutal murder to set things straight. Waiting and watching are deep spiritual exercises that separate us from the beasts of this world. My Italian friends put it best when they say, “Let God handle the need for revenge. He is much better at it.”

The sun had long said goodbye when it was time for me to do the same to our sentimental and heart-hurt friend who by this time was hardly any of those things. It was, all in all, a very good afternoon and a worthy conclusion to a complicated yet fruitful week. I did none of what I had planned to do, never made it to any of my destinations, yet did everything I was supposed to do, and was exactly where I was supposed to be. A few days later, a simple card arrived to my office. I knew who sent it and I knew she was in a much better place on her journey. The message on it was so profound that I posted it on my refrigerator to see it often, and now I share it with you.

When you pray, God listens. When you listen, God talks. When you believe, God works.

I am reminded of the scripture in the book of Romans, Chapter 4, verses 20-25.

“Brothers and sisters: Abraham did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God and was fully convinced that what God had promised he was also able to do. That is why it was credited to him as righteousness. But it was not for him alone that it was written that it was credited to him; it was also for us, to whom it will be credited, who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification.”

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That Familiar Ring

man's hand holding gold wedding ring-band

“The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.” ~Cecil B. DeMille

Before the written word in human history, there was storytelling; narratives that were used to pass on events, provide a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and instilling moral values. In his book “Teacher Man,” Pulitzer Prize-winner, Frank McCourt reflects on his 30 years as a teacher in New York City high schools. He used a variety of techniques in his English and creative writing classes, but one that seemed to surface again and again was the power of a compelling story to capture attention and encourage learning. This prized method of instruction was used by the greatest teacher of all – the Lord Jesus Christ. The scholarly religious leader, Nicodemus said to Jesus, “We know that You are a teacher come from God.” (John 3:2) Yet when Jesus addressed the crowds that followed Him, He didn’t use notes or recite memorized lines of the great truths of the Law. Rather, He spoke in very basic terms, using the story to carry and communicate the greatest and simplest truths as if all of humanity were sitting together around the earthly campfire waiting for the eternal dawn.

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17,18)

Once in a land not too far way, but not very close, either, was a wise king who loved his people very much. He knew their struggles and he remained intent on not just protecting them from the dangers of the world but also on instructing them concerning the mystery of life as he saw it. He noticed how preoccupied they become, working about many things, losing peace and perspective which in turn fueled resentments, animosities and growing general unrest. On day he announced a contest. “My people! I give you an adventure of deep meaning and great consequence. I will honor generously the one person in the kingdom who finds and brings to me the only item among us that, ‘can make a sad man happy and a happy man sad.’ I will give you three months to search after which time, we will all gather to witness the most magnificent discovery!”

The entire populace began to search, young and old, craftsmen and artists, mothers and teachers, from those considered most wise to the ones who thought as most clever. All searched. Many thought it must be buried somewhere. Some believed it must be a kind of fruit or plant. Few wondered if such a thing could even exist. Then the day finally came and all gathered as their king had promised. But first, there was a huge banquet where all at their fill. There was music and dancing, and much laughter. People began to share their experiences of their search for this mysterious prize. One-by-one, people came forward with their best efforts but none proved to be suitable or successful. And when all thought it could not be found, the jeweler of the kingdom, an elderly man who had seen his share of both beautiful moments and tragedy throughout his long life, slowly made his way to the kind in front for all to see; he held a ring in his hand. The old man approached the king and whispered something in his ear. The king listened intently while the people remained stone silent and staring. The king took the ring from the jeweler, read the inscription within it, embraced the wise old man and then turned to the kingdom and shouted, “My people, this day will be marked with celebration for generations to come! Tell your children and your grandchildren, let the story of this day be remembered in every season, with every planting and with each harvest! What can possibly make a sad man happy and a happy man sad?” Then, placing the ring on his finger, he revealed the words that were inscribed upon it, “This Too Shall Pass.” And so it does.

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Your Taxi is Waiting

elderly woman sitting on suitcase waiting

Kent Nerburn is a noted writer, speaker and all around gifted man who has allowed his rich life to shape everything he does and says. I hope one day I can go and listen to him, maybe even share a cup of coffee. He says that the most formative experience of his childhood was accompanying his father while working for the Red Cross as ‘first-responder’ to many natural and unnatural disasters in Minnesota. Clearly, many life lessons were learned from those nutritive moments.

Earlier in his remarkable life, Kent drove a taxi for a living. He would write later that the main reason he wanted that work was so that he wouldn’t have a boss. He would also admit that those months in the cab turned out to be a real ministry. You see, he mostly drove the night shift and he christened his cab a moving confessional because of his passengers who would board, sit in a dark and safe place and, on more than regular occasion, opened their souls and emptied their lives upon the canvas of the heart of this fledgling author – disguised as a taxi driver – in a way that truly amazed, stunned and moved him. And then there was that call at 2:30 am from dispatch downtown one night in August. His first thought was that this was going to be either a few drunk partiers who may or may not have enough to pay him, or someone whose life had just fallen apart, or maybe a shift worker dragging himself to the factory downtown. Tonight, however, would be very different. Newborn wrote the following.

“When I arrived at 2:30 am, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, and then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked. ‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated’. ‘Oh, you’re such a good boy,’ she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’ ‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly. ‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.’ I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued. ‘The doctor says I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked. For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now.’ We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. ‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘You have to make a living,’ she answered. ‘There are other passengers,’ I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. ‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’ I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.”

Every time I have rushed through my day, trying to accomplish as many of the details that I frenetically scribbled upon my phone the night before, it is always the same result at the end of the day: tired, exhausted and wondering where the day went. I truly believe that if we take just a little more time realizing who are the most important people in our lives and mix that with the thought of those who are the most neglected people in my world, I believe we will have discovered something quite remarkable. The mixture, I think, will create a miracle.

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.” (Flavia Weedn)

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To Free or Not to Free?

inside view old prison cell

When I was in college, I remember reading about an incident that apparently transpired between Frederick II, the king of Prussia in the 1700’s and a prisoner. This beloved monarch truly wished to be present to all in his kingdom, even to those who were incarcerated.  It was reported that when he went to a specific prison in Berlin, he went cell by cell greeting each of the occupants. Everyone who saw their king had the same reactionary speech, “Please, Your Highness, free me from this place for I am innocent and do not belong here!” You and I can only imagine how old this was getting, over and over again, the echo of entitlement filling the dark and musty hallways; that is, until the last prisoner. The king noticed a very neat and tidy cell at the end of his state visit. There, in the corner of this dingy enclosure, was a small, middle-aged man washing what appeared to be a few articles of clothing in a bucket. Of course King Frederick was intrigued.

“You, there!,” he bellowed.

“Yes, yes, Your Majesty,” answered the startled inmate.

“Why are you here?”

The prisoner looked down and said, “I am here because of robbery, Sire.”

“And are you guilty, man?!”

“Yes, Sire,” the prisoner continued, “I am guilty and deserve to be here” as his head humbly sank downward. To the surprise of all gathered there, King Frederick reportedly shouted, “Guards! Remove this prisoner and let him go free. It is certainly not right for this guilty wretch to corrupt all the innocent people in here!”

You and I are on this road of life and encounter all kinds of disappointments and discouragements. We even have to put up with those who do not appreciate us or understand how we struggle in life, sometimes in quiet desperation. None of us can really say that we are totally innocent and do not belong here, to the point that we are so self-righteous and judgmental of others around us, fellow travelers all. Life is too short to lose precious moments or opportunities to express the truth about ourselves even in the most unexpected of moments.  No one is suggesting to ignore bad and harmful behavior, especially when it is lashed out against one of us.  But, I do recommend healthy doses of self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-love, the good kind, every day. Whatever is true about you is never going to hurt you. Running away from it, certainly will. Everything is going to be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.

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Outliving My Father

boy hugging father playing outside

Today, I have outlived my father by one day. What happens tomorrow is all in God’s hands, to whom I have given thanks and praise, and to whom I have lifted my Dad’s soul to Jesus, all throughout this time leading up to this occasion especially with the awesome celebration of the Mass. This whole experience has been a kind of epiphany for me even as the eventual appearance of the numbers “60” on the birthday cake loom in the not-so-distant future.

My father, you could say, was a little attached to the past especially as he immersed himself among the memories of the care-less, free-spirited days of high school football, fast cars, beautiful women, including my mother, and a world just recently ravaged by the threat of the Nazi take-over of the planet, friends he knew that died in Korea, and the prospects of choosing to raise a family, live on his own, and finding a path which could pay for all of it. Unfortunately at times, for me, anyway, he had many friends and associates who helped him enjoy and justify the nostalgic hold on the ticking seconds of life just as his sons were growing older, his wife expanding her professional horizons, and his body gradually weakening although you could have never suspected it. Even at fifty plus years old, with a handsome touch of grey hair, hardly a hint of a belly, and any number of aching muscles clamoring for the quick and over-generous application of Absorbine, Jr., he could still outrun, out climb, and outperform all of the younger firemen at his station which he daily reminded all of them at the drop of a bright red helmet.The last time I saw him alive was in his garage office, a small brown desk that had survived two hurricanes and a couple of frantic moves from his childhood home, to the first house he ever shared with his wife, to the new home he thought they could never afford and finally to the last residence he would occupy. Things were good between us at that point, in fact, they were more than good. Each time we saw each other, even that last evening in the garage, he would hold me tight, mess up my hair a little, then quickly restore it, then insist that I take something for the trip home, be it a sandwich or fruit, or something he thought I might need for my car or kitchen. That last night together, as I was walking to my Chevy Blazer, he reached out to me and started to choke up over his words. “Don’t worry, Dad,” I remember saying to him, “I know you love me.”

Twenty-four years later I buried my Mom, and now I can say that another passage has been complete in my life and I am grateful. Grateful to them both,  I am ever-so-thankful to my Sweet Jesus who has never left my side no matter how dark it has been, or rather how dark it appeared to be. Therefore, I’d like to share with you what I have learned going forward. (1) The fear of death is more dreaded than death itself. Fear is the enemy and we cannot negotiate with it. I choose to live in freedom. The only failure is losing God and that’s not going to happen. (2) Because I choose to envision the sheer magnitude of my dreams and blessings, I can appreciate and accept the intensity of my life’s battles. As long as there is breath in my body, I will never give up. (3) Problems are messages. I realize now that until I fully receive and grasp the messages, they are poised to repeat themselves.
I know very well how valuable time is and how wonderful it is when it is spent doing good things and spending it with great people. Thank you, Daddy. I know you did all you could for all of us and truly believe that you are at peace now, hopefully close with Mom. I sure do miss you.
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The Heart of the Matter

hands holding red heart image

Having spent seventy-seven wonderful years on this planet, my amazing aunt died peacefully in her sleep earlier this month. Although she carried a number of painful medical conditions and her memory was beginning to fade, it was still a brutal reminder of how fragile and delicate life truly is. This experience was also compounded with the death of her sister, my mother, less than two months earlier. My aunt’s life was filled with a series of fundamentally linked episodes which I only recognized after she died. Isn’t that always the case? I’ve broken those episodes down into four types of hearts.

Broken Heart
Over 50 years ago, my aunt was engaged to be married to a student navy pilot, who was assigned to a local naval air station. My only memory from what little my own mother told us, was that his name was Philip and that he was killed in one of the training missions. My aunt never dated again and obviously never married. She gave her heart to this man and walked away from the events of a young woman with a broken heart. Only once do I remember asking about him and she quickly changed the subject. I got the message.

Open Heart
A few years later, the world witnessed the very first open heart surgery which impressed her to begin her career in cardiac nursing. Thus she did and became quite proficient. I remember seeing several awards and commendations on her desk as a little boy and thought she must be very smart. Later in her life, I was able to sit next to other student nurses watching an open heart surgery from an above, glass-enclosed operating suite. What an experience!

Heart of Jazz
During a shortage of nurses in New Orleans in the early seventies my aunt responded almost immediately. I remember that there was deep concern from my elders about her safety but she kept telling them that she had to go and fulfill her dreams and off she went.

Sacred Heart
I remember many wonderful visits to New Orleans, especially during my college years. As if it was just last week, I remember standing twenty hours in line to see the first ever public exhibition of the treasures of King Tut. She was adamant about pointing out that the Ancient Egyptians held tightly to a belief in a resurrection after death and that life was indeed a journey of which death was not the final stop. Amazing. After college and well into my professional life, I kept going back to Louisiana and realized what a devotion she had of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and how she kept reminding me of how much He suffered for each and every one of us. Her faith was not reduced to a Hallmark card either. In 2000, my mother and I took my cousin, their grand nephew, to visit my aunt in New Orleans. I vividly remember a particular incident in the Chapel of one of the Convents. My little cousin had a form of Turrets Syndrome which manifested itself as constant blinking of the eyes. It was close to his twelfth birthday, and during our visit to that grand city, my aunt asked him what he would ask for in such a significant moment. He told her that he really wanted to stop this blinking as it was bothersome. She calmly escorted him into one of the chapels and remained there with him for about forty-five minutes. My cousin’s mother recalled how he called her that night very excited about praying for a miracle. Since then, there were no other signs or symptoms of anything neurologically astray with him and I believe I know why.

“Life is not a Hallmark Card, nice, neat and predictable. I don’t want a card life; I want one that is real,” she would often say to us, and I believe she led that kind of life that underscored her belief and life ethic. If we put all this together, it makes perfect sense why we all came to believe that she enjoyed a very special birthday, The Feast of St. Valentine, the fourteenth day of the second month of every year until she went home. It makes sense now that I look back on it all. It makes perfect sense that she would have been born on a National Heart Day when love, for good or for ill, is highlighted by many. I know for many of us, it will always be remembered for an additionally warm and comforting reason. My aunt taught me many significant lessons that I pray I will never forget. She said that the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why. The two most important moments of your life are now, and the hour of death. Amen.

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Called to be Holy

sunset over grassy hill and wildflowers

With all the various temptations for the mind to stray from the path of righteousness, can anyone ever be holy in what they do? The Good News is that the word of God tells us how to be holy. We are to have our minds ready for action, to keep alert and set our hope completely on the blessing which will be given to us when Jesus Christ is revealed. Peter calls all to be obedient to God, and do not allow your lives to be shaped by those desires you had when you were still ignorant.  Instead, be holy in all that you do, just as God who called you is holy. The scripture says tells us to be holy because our Heavenly Father is holy. All human beings are like grass, and all their glory is like wild flowers. The grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord remains forever. This is the Good News that was proclaimed to you.

We know that we were born sinners and only by the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus, can we be cleansed from our sin. “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from death and gave him glory; and so your faith and hope are fixed on God. By your obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves and have come to have a sincere love for other believers, love one another earnestly with all your heart. For through the living and eternal word of God you have been born again as the children of a parent who is immortal, not mortal.” (1 Peter 1:13-25 GNT)

“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.  He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised. Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.  Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me. You prepare a banquet for me, where all  my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim. I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live.”  (Psalm 23 GNT)

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The Visit

single red rose on piano keys

It was many years ago, but it seemed as if it all transpired last week. Her funeral was scheduled for the last day of May and by that morning he had nothing left emotionally. The last bit of energy behind the forces to smile, to relieve and comfort members of his family and his mom’s closest friends had basically evaporated. He couldn’t even drive to her funeral; thank God for his 17-year old daughter acting as the chauffeur, who perhaps should have relied on Google Maps instead of her childhood memories of the streets.

To add to the pressure and the crushing loss of one’s own mother, there was literally a stack of regulations and prerequisites that he had to follow word-for-word, letter-by-letter. He was supposed to deliver a simple eulogy, but it seemed as if he was opening a liquor store next to a hospital! Needless to say, and for many reasons too many to mention here, he had to watch everything he did and say to make sure no one was ruffled or peeved. The clock was literally ticking. He was alone with the priest in the sacristy, pacing, over-thinking and worrying about how it would all turn out. He was waiting, wondering and, yes even apprehensive about who might be taking notes, preparing a scathing report for the press and if there would be any body at his mother’s funeral at all. Since the restrictions also applied to her obituary, he wasn’t totally sure who knew about her funeral, much less that she had even died.

Minutes before the funeral was to begin, his 30-year old son just in from the airport, walked into the sacristy as if he belonged there, which in many ways he did. Standing tall like the man he was, this son whom he helped mold into a man, turned to his father with a message. Although his words were inquisitive and casual, asking about the funeral director, where should the pallbearers be, what happens next, etc., his eyes communicated something much more. The mourning dad felt a slight grin dawning on his face knowing that the somewhat lengthy explanation of his son’s appearance was his own way of getting to his beloved father in order to stand next to him during one of the most difficult moments of his life. Before he left, he leaned over and whispered, “You’re going to do great. The Church is packed! I love you.” And humbly with all the meekness that anyone could muster, let us say that he was right, it was great and healing and wonderful.

Later that night, when all had quieted down and that proud but sad father was preparing for sleep, as all the events, sounds, smells and faces of that day, as that of a painting,  that was that day began to replay in his mind, it hit him; today had been the Feast of the Visitation. It was when Mary, with child, visited her cousin Elizabeth, also with child, to share with her the great news of the birth of Jesus Christ and to stay with her to comfort her to prepare her for a life that was about to change dramatically for both of them. Well, that day, he had his own visitation. And it did prepare, and it did comfort, and it did heal. He prayed to Jesus that he would never forget that visit. He still hasn’t and I doubt he ever will.

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Two Most Important Days

hospital bed note on it says going home

“Human stories are practically about one thing, really, aren’t they? Death. The inevitability of death . . . There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that very happens to man is natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

The story I am about to share with you is actually the work of a short fiction story written back in 1964 by Roy Popkin. It was first published in 1965 in the Reader’s Digest and has been reproduced in many forms and titles and languages for the last 50 years. Even though the specifics of the original story and the actual events that led to its inspiration may never truly be known, I personally know of more than a handful of people who have worked and ministered in hospital settings that recognize the substance and the real meaning behind what we are about to enter.

“A nurse took the tired, anxious serviceman to the bedside. ‘Your son is here,’ she said to the old man. She had to repeat the words several times before the patient’s eyes opened. Heavily sedated because of the pain of his heart attack, he dimly saw the young uniformed Marine standing outside the oxygen tent. He reached out his hand. The Marine wrapped his toughened fingers around the old man’s limp ones, squeezing a message of love and encouragement.

“The nurse brought a chair so that the Marine could sit beside the bed. All through the night the young Marine sat there in the poorly lighted ward, holding the old man’s hand and offering him words of love and strength. Occasionally, the nurse suggested that the Marine move away and rest awhile. He refused. Whenever the nurse came into the ward, the Marine was oblivious of her and of the night noises of the hospital – the clanking of the oxygen tank, the laughter of the night staff members exchanging greetings, the cries and moans of the other patients. Now and then she heard him say a few gentle words. The dying man said nothing, only held tightly to his son all through the night.

“Along towards dawn, the old man died. The Marine released the now lifeless hand he had been holding and went to tell the nurse. While she did what she had to do, he waited. Finally, she returned. She started to offer words of sympathy, but the Marine interrupted her. ‘Who was that man?’ he asked. The nurse was startled, ‘He was your father,’ she answered. ‘No, he wasn’t,’ the Marine replied. ‘I never saw him before in my life.’

“‘Then why didn’t you say something when I took you to him?’

“‘I knew right away there had been a mistake, but I also knew he needed his son, and his son just wasn’t here. When I realized that he was too sick to tell whether or not I was his son, knowing how much he needed me, I stayed. I came here tonight to find a Mr. William Grey. His son was killed in Iraq today, and I was sent to inform him. What was this gentleman’s name?’ The nurse with tears in her eyes answered, ‘Mr. William Grey…'”

This story, though a work of fiction, has a very real message. God can use what we see as “mistakes” to put us where we need to be. So the next time it seems like things are going wrong, pause and take a good look around. Look for the opportunity that God has put in front of you to impact someone’s life.

Do you realize that you are placed on this earth for a specific reason and purpose? Every day becomes an opportunity to strive and realize that reality, especially when things look dark and bleak. If I have a purpose in life, and I do, then that which is happening around me today is either a part of that reality and movement and I should stay focused, or it is keeping me from my purpose and direction and therefore I should move on.

The most unhappy people in the world have made it their life’s mission to make as many people around them as miserable as they are with every ounce of strength they can muster. Surely, this can’t be news to you. Remember, only wounded people wound people. Your best stories will come from your struggles. The seeds of your successes are in your failures. Your praises will be birthed from your pains. Keep standing. Seasons change. I have never seen a storm that lasts forever.

Let’s hear from Mark Twain before we go. “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

I ask God to help each and every one of us continue to uncover and discover our purpose in this great adventure we call life. Remember,
you just may be the difference between life and death for someone today, or tomorrow.

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A Real Thief

three crosses on a hill

After years of wandering aimlessly throughout his life, Clint Dennis realized that something deeply important was missing. He decided to attend church, and as he entered the church for the first time he noticed people putting on long robes. They were also tying ropes around their waist and wrapping headdresses around their heads. “Come be a part of the mob,” a stranger told him. It was Palm Sunday and the church was reenacting the crucifixion. He would be part of the crowd that shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Hesitantly he agreed. Then another stranger hurried up to him stating that the man who was supposed to play one of the thieves on the cross didn’t show up, and asked Clint if he would take his place. Again Clint agreed and was shown to the cross where he would look on as Jesus died. Just then, something about Clint’s manner caught a member’s eye. He slowly approached Clint and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus to forgive your sins?”  “No,” Clint replied softly, “but that’s why I came here.” Then, gently and beautifully beneath the cross, they prayed, and Clint asked Jesus to come into his heart. He finally denied hell and stole heaven.

He is much like the most famous thief who has an amazing place in history. We refer to him as the good thief, while some refer to him as St. Dismas. At the top of Calvary he was the one person who saw the truth of Jesus’ message even as Christ faced His own death for our salvation. Those around him were grieving, shocked, taunting, or disinterested in the crucifixion, but the thief stole the show. He saw his opportunity, to rob hell of his soul and to repent of his past heinous crimes. For this he would be remembered for all time. The robber, like every sinner on the verge of repentance, understood that he himself deserved to die, that his own crucifixion was his own doing. However, when he looked about him in those final minutes of his life here on earth, he did not just see another criminal but the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. This is what led him to shout with whatever air he had left in his lungs, “Remember me!” Recognizing the truth about humanity, about ourselves, he had stolen the greatest prize at the very last moment to have a life with Jesus.

As we hang on our own cross of life, let us remember the lesson of this man who denied hell and stole heaven.

My Crucified Jesus, wash me with your most precious blood. Look upon me as the good thief, who hung on the cross next to You at Calvary. A sinner, paying for his crimes, but recognizes your divinity and begs for mercy and forgiveness and asks: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Dear Lord, look upon me like the good thief. And I should be so blessed, so fortunate, so full of Peace. Amen.

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God’s Children

girl looking in mirror face painting on cheek

When was the last time you looked in the mirror? What did you see? Did you see how much the Father has loved us? The Good News is that “His love is so great that we are called God’s children — and so, in fact, we are.” (GNT 1 John 3:1)

Beloved child, as a Christian, you are no stranger to God. Though you may sometimes feel alone, you are not. Take comfort in the promise that God is everywhere, that He keeps watch over you and that He is always ready to listen when you want to talk with him. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, you are still a beloved child of the Almighty creator. And the privileges don’t stop there. Having been adopted into the family, you have the same rights as Jesus. “My dear friends, we are now God’s children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is. Everyone who has this hope in Christ keeps himself pure, just as Christ is pure. Let no one deceive you, my children! Whoever does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous.” (GNT 1 John 3:2,3,7)

You are special to God and have been given words of encouragement to help you through your daily challenges. Here are a few of those words. (1) Count your blessings, name them one by one. (2) Spread your gift of love for all have been given the love of God. (3) Lift your heart and mind to your Heavenly Father and He will sustain you. (4) Be not discouraged, for Jesus, your brother has redeemed you by His blood. (5) Be true to God and to yourself.

David the King and Psalmist prayed, “I call to you, Lord; help me now! Listen to me when I call to you. Receive my prayer as incense, my uplifted hands as an evening sacrifice. I keep trusting in you, my Sovereign Lord. I seek your protection; don’t let me die!” (GNT Psalm 141:1-2,8)

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His Great Decision

There is a true story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. The Doctor explained that she had the same disease the boy had recovered from two years earlier. Her only chance of recovery was a transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease. Since the two children had the same rare blood type, the boy was ideal donor.

“Would you give your blood to Mary?” the doctor asked.

Johnny hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.”

Soon the two children were wheeled into the hospital room. Mary, pale and thin, Johnny, robust and healthy. Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned.

As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny’s smile faded. He watched the blood flow through the tube.

With the ordeal almost over, Johnny’s voice, slightly shaky, broke the silence.

“Doctor, when do I die?”

Only then did the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he agreed to donate his blood. He thought that he had to give all his blood to his sister thus giving up his life. But in that very brief moment, he had made the one great decision that would forever change his life.

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Life in the Sandbox

boy playing in sandbox

A story told during a sermon at church involved a little boy and his father. The scene was the backyard of their home where the young lad had a sandbox that looked like a small beach enclosure with toys and lots and lots of area to play. While his father looked on from the back kitchen window, his son was playing the way most children play, unfettered and very innocently with the imagination and creativity that usually accompanies this age. All seemed to be going very well until the child found a rather large rock in the mix of sand, that may have found its way in when it had been delivered to their backyard. With a small, red plastic shovel that was part of his toy collection, he tried to move the large stone from the sand box, pushing and shoving, huffing and puffing as he did so. Well, as you can imagine, the little shovel was no match for the rock and it snapped in two pieces causing the boy to cry out loud as if perhaps he had done something wrong or maybe out of sheer disappointment in his own attempt to tackle his problem in the sand box. Immediately, his father came out to the yard to tend to his son, picking him up, dusting him off and sitting at the edge of the enclosure with his pride and joy on his lap, he asked, “Son, what happened?” The boy tried to explain through his tears what had happened and how sorry he was. “Why didn’t you use all your strength?,” came the next question. “I did, I did, Daddy, I did use all my strength!” “No you didn’t, Son. You didn’t ask me!” And with that, with one large grab with his own massive hand, he pulled that stone out of the box and hurled it into a nearby pile of other rocks.

Our Heavenly Father is much like the father in that story. Always there, waiting for us to ask for mercy, forgiveness, love, understanding and all the many things that we need to keep moving on our journey back to Him. Our God is also full of compassion, never wishing to punish all for the sins of a few and even wanting and expecting that all sinners be converted and live. “When I called you answered me; you built up strength within me.”  (Psalm 138:3) The Psalmist reminds us that our Lord has always been there for us and never has or will abandon us and even further, has sent us His Son Jesus the Christ to remove the guilt and pain of sin so that we may in fact call out to Him without worry of rejection. We are assured of the new life that has been won through and by His Blood.

The most famous prayer of all time is the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father.” It contains seven different and remarkably beautiful petitions that asks to depend on our Heavenly Father to answer all our needs. Jesus also encourages us to pray with persistence and diligence because of the immense love that our God has for us. When we pray like this, our lives are changed for the better, forever. Is there a big stone in our sand box?

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God Wants Your Attention

man walking with dog into sunset

There was a little boy named Steven, who had serious allergies. At first, he didn’t understand why crazy things were happening to him. Swellings, wild itching or rashes covered his entire body when he ate a particular food or got near a certain fabric, or one year a live Christmas tree.  Later Steven was told to stay away from bees and wasps, which, always seemed to gravitate toward him. He was never afraid of the dark -or spiders -or even snakes, but he did develop a serious respect for those winged fiends. Especially one particular afternoon when one stung Steven close to his neck and they had to pack him in ice. His parents told him that he almost died from that. Among the other allergens they discovered was dog hair, which obviously meant that Steven couldn’t have a canine pet like so many of his friends. Neighborhood dogs followed him around and jumped in his lap, and poor Steven would start sneezing and wheezing all over again.

After high school, Steven went off to college and graduate school. It was then, years later, while studying in a different country, with various kinds of exciting cultural experiences, including foods, he realized something wonderful had happened. No more allergies! He must have outgrown them, or something like that. Well, Steven finally got a dog. It was great, and throughout the years, he had several. But of all the companions that God blessed him with, there were two beautiful, hilarious, mischievous and loving Labradors. To say that they were spoiled would be a feat of remarkable restraint. Steven took them everywhere he could, daily long walks, provided special sleeping blankets, foods, and of course his family and friends loved them, also.

One very hot summer afternoon, it was that time of the year to take them in to the Vet’s. Although they never liked that place, Steven always made it worth their while, knowing full-well that one day, it would be a sad visit. But nevertheless, they made an adventure out of it. On the way back, Steven had to stop for gas and pulled up to a station near his home. This was back in the day when you had to go inside to pay before the attendants would even release the pumps. Right away, he noticed what seemed to be a homeless man with a brown and white, medium-sized spaniel. He stopped, and the man asked him if he could get him some food from inside the little station market. “I’ll be right back,” Steven said. But he sunk his head, looked at his little companion and continued, “Do you think you can get something for my buddy, here? He hasn’t had anything for a couple of days.” Steven’s heart melted. “Sure! Let me see what they’ve got in there,” replied Steven. He bought the man a couple of hot dogs that would at least be some hot food, and some other things that could last a few days. When he went looking for dog food, they were all out. But they did have cat food, which seemed to be at least as nutritious for the dog, so he picked up a few packages and cans of that. After paying for everything and writing down the address of where there was a food kitchen downtown, Steven went outside. That man ate his food so fast that it seemed he might choke on it. His dog practically did the same thing. There was nothing left of the cat food as his little creature cleaned out every atom and particle that was there. The man said thank you, his little buddy extended his paw and they all said their good-byes.

Steven returned to his vehicle with his ‘king and queen,’ and watched the man and his buddy walk off, worrying for the safety of the animal with no leash and fearing the inevitable. Steven waited until he could see them no more. For some reason, he started to tear up, both of his companions became unusually quiet. He called out to God, “Lord, it’s not fair. These two labs have everything including a home, lots of friends and a great life. Who knows what will happen to that man and his dog. It’s just not fair…” And then, something wonderful happened. Steven believed he could hear the Lord speaking to him. It was a calm but strong voice that made perfect sense, “Your dogs are blessed because they have you … just like you are blessed because you have Me.” Steven never forgot the way God used the Labs to bring a remarkable amount of joy to his heart, and how the Lord got his attention to let him know how much, not only he, but we all mean to Him.

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Nails and Consequences

hand holding nail and hammering it

One day, a young father wanted his son to understand the true impact of making right choices, of obeying and doing what’s right. His idea was unique: every time his son made a bad choice or a wrong decision, he gave him a hammer and one gray nail to go out to their backyard and pound it into the wooden fence. At first, it seemed like a game for the youngster, as he was excited in a playful way to have to go out and nail these objects into the fence. It was fun, of course, until he had to go out when it was raining or cold or in the darkness of the night. But still, it continued. Every time the little boy got in trouble, talked back to either of his parents, or caused a disappointing note to accompany him from his teachers, there he went out to the back. However, every time he made a solid, great decision, making his parents and himself proud of his accomplishments, he was instructed to go out to the fence and carefully remove any one of those nails.

This family ritual continued until the boy was now a strapping, handsome young man all of 21 ready for the world and a bright future ahead. By this time, it had been months even years since he ever went outside to either pound or extract any more nails in the back fence. The night before he was to leave for a new life in another city far away, his father called him outside late one afternoon as the sun began to set. His young man of a son knew what was coming as he saw a few tears begin to drop from his dad’s face. There were no more nails in the fence. They both idly stared at the fence from left to right with powerful memories flooding both of their souls as the light of the sun began to escape.

“Son,” the father continued, “You’ve done well. I am ready to let you go forward. But just look at all the holes in our fence. It will never be the same. When you choose a wrong path, speak a hateful word, give in to a selfish act that hurts another, or violate trust that has been faithfully placed in you, they leave a scar just like these holes. You will find forgiveness, but please think before you act knowing that there will always be consequences.” “If you can remember this moment and this fence, I can rest assured that I’ve done all I could to raise you as good a man as possible.”  Now the sun had set and only the light of the back porch and a pale soft glow from a full moon gently bathed the two men and an old fence. Time seemed to stand still. No words were needed.

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Green Limbs and Singing Birds

singing yellow warbler on branch

William Arthur Ward (1921-1994) was an American writer and one of this country’s most quoted inspirational writers with more than 100 articles, poems and meditations written and published in such magazines as the Reader’s Digest. He once wrote a piece based on a Chinese proverb that said, “If you keep a green limb in your heart, the singing bird will come.”

The obvious application that he was asserting is that there are certain pre-set attitudes (limbs, branches) in one’s heart that are conducive to a happy life and outlook. His idea of these spiritual tree branches that can invite goodness and peace into our earthly existence are as follows.

Enthusiasm is not only contagious, it is attractive. Where there is enthusiasm there is always excitement and where there is positive excitement, there is more joy in the job, sparkle in the eye and more zest in living. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)  We can practice enthusiasm by being excited about life, doing things wholeheartedly, being inspired by simple things, putting love and joy into what we do, smiling and laughing and having a great sense of humor, and having a positive spirit. As the great Vince Lombardi stated, “If you aren’t fired-up with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.”

Kindness is actually putting the words of Jesus into action when He said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) Others have defined it as a behavior marked by principled characteristics, a pleasant frame of mind, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and highly esteemed as a value in many cultures and religions. Mark Twain perhaps said it most appropriately when he wrote, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Generosity has been defined by some dictionaries as sounding very close to our previous selection with some nuance. The quality of being kind, understanding, and not selfish; the quality of being generous; especially with a willingness to give money and other valuable things to others. The famous artist, Pablo Picasso, had a very interesting take on the matter when he said that “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” The word has its origins from a deep root meaning, “excellence” which could explain why being generous truly catapults a dreary, selfish existence to something wonderful. The word’s opposites also speak volumes, as in stingy and petty.

Humor: It has been said that if we learn to laugh at ourselves we will always be amused. There has got to be something remarkably healthy about being able to laugh at our own silly mistakes, foibles and other wise human fumbles. I think a good sense of humor can help us look at the world more realistically, improve our relationships and help us resist from taking ourselves too seriously. William Ward said that “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps, as you walk the tightrope of life.”

Gratitude is simply a disposition of always giving thanks, for everything and anything. When we are thankful for our lives, good days and bad days, for our talents and for all the people around us, our lives literally sing with joy. When we decide to begin and end our day with the decision that we are going to thank God and those around us, several awesome things can happen. (1) We live in the present moment. (2) We block toxic and negative emotions. (3) We are better able to counteract the effects of stress. (4) We experience a kind of solidarity, connected-ness with others and a healthy dose of self-compassion, that is, the ability to love ourselves as God does. Some have called gratitude the “miracle disposition.”

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If You Can Dream It

aerial view of EPCOT center FL

If you can dream it, you can achieve it. The incredibly imaginative EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida opened some 16 years after its principle architect and dreamer, Walt Disney died. It had been a concept still in development by the masterful Disney who envisioned it to be a “real city that would never cease to be a blueprint of the future.” Even though there were many who said that they didn’t understand what he was talking about, and that there was no way they could put all that together in one place, Walt never lost sight of his vision. Nuts-and-bolts procedures didn’t faze him for he was a student of the philosophy of beauty, cutting-edge technology and entrepreneurial enterprise. He was a man who had the mind of an architect and the soul of a time-traveler. Whatever idea or conceptual rendering he couldn’t crack open himself, he immediately flung over to his elite “Imagineers” (Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, Inc.). “Walt Disney had one foot in the past, because he loved nostalgia, and one foot in the future, because he loved new technology,” said Marty Sklar, who joined Disney’s marketing and publicity team in the 1950s. Several sources have documented an incident that reportedly occurred at the Grand Opening of EPCOT Center on Friday, October 1 in 1982. Apparently, one of the speakers of that day lamented, if just for a short time in these or similar words, that “It is a shame that Walt Disney didn’t live long enough to see this day and this magnificent place!” However poignant and meaningful that phrase may have been, the next speaker rose to the podium and the occasion and countered brilliantly with, “He did see it, that’s why it’s here!”

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Opportunity Everywhere

young woman side of boy in hospital bed

This story took place in a small, rural town somewhere in the Midwest, where there was a horrible house fire and all the members of the family barely escaped with their lives. The ten-year old son was alive, but suffered severe burn injuries over seventy-five percent of his body. The pain was unbearable, especially for a youngster who literally saw most of life go up in smoke. Since there were no hospitals close by that could administer the help and recovery that he needed, he was flown to a hospital specializing in burn victim treatment which was about two states away. Once again, this was a horrible overnight change for the young boy. After three weeks or so, the young boy simply had enough. He became despondent and nearly lifeless, refused to eat, play or even interact with others on his floor. However, the following week that was changed by a teacher from the local school district who went to the hospital. Since he was going to be there for quite some time, the doctors believed he should begin in-house tutoring in order not to fall too far behind in his fourth grade studies. When she arrived, she realized the amount of pain he was in, and thus began English lessons, including vocabulary words, spelling exercises, and grammar. She continued for the following three days and on the fourth day, a nurse stopped her in the hallway before she went into his room.

“What in the world have you done to that boy?” she asked. “What do you mean?” the tutor replied, “I’m only trying to help him…”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” continued the nurse, “He is a changed little boy who made a complete turn around and it looks like he wants to live!”

Everyone involved with the life of this young man came to realize what had happened. He had indeed given up all hope until the tutor arrived, until it occurred to him that there must have been a good reason to send him a tutor. “Nobody would send someone to work with me on nouns and verbs and spelling if I was actually dying, right?,” he exclaimed later.

We never know the entire impact we potentially make on another person’s life. Yet, every single day, those opportunities to love, share and comfort are present. If we ever doubt or wonder about why we are here on this planet, perhaps it would be good to sit back, wait and seize upon those moments that make an eternal difference. We are definitely a part of something much larger than ourselves.

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