St. Joseph, Pray For Us

Tomorrow, we celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of fathers (Joseph is also the patron saint of the Universal Church, families, fathers, expectant mothers (pregnant women), travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general), so he and I share a bond. I don’t have any kids like Jesus, but they try.

When I was in the Holy Land last year, we stayed at a convent built over the site of where Joseph might have lived with Mary and Jesus. It is just down the street from the Basilica of the Annunciation and next door to Joseph’s workshop, so who knows?

Nothing is recorded in Scriptures about St. Joseph’s words to his family. He gets a message in a dream, but even the Blessed Mother gets to speak once in a while. And yet, he is a model for fathers everywhere. There’s a lesson in there, albeit an ironic one, about who gets to talk and who gets to listen.

Joseph always makes me think about my father, quiet as a bookend and just as strong. As I try to land my dissertation, I am finding more and more research that speaks to the importance of fathers when it comes to raising faith-filled children. Nothing, it seems, can make up for a distant father. As I think about Joseph, I realize that in the Jewish tradition, the children learn their faith from the parent most like them. Dads teach boys and moms teach girls. It stands to reason, then, that Jesus’ own foundation in faith came from Joseph. He was the one who taught Our Lord to read, to pray the Shema, to understand the great commandments, how to worship in the synagogue, and how to rest on the Sabbath. Joseph was Jesus’ first teacher in the ways of faith. He was the best of teachers. Sure, Jesus was human and divine, but do any of us really believe that, as a small child, he was fully aware of everything, fully conscious of what was ahead? How do you square that with humanity? How do you put that in the head of an eight-year-old? No, Joseph taught Jesus, I am sure of it.

Like Joseph, I must teach my children – by word and example – what an intimate relationship with God looks like. I must teach them to pray, how to love, how to forgive, and how to rest. This week, I will be like Joseph and listen more. I will speak less. I will work hard. And, like Joseph certainly did for Jesus, I will teach my children well.

St. Joseph, patron of fathers everywhere, pray for us.

Have It All

One of the cool things about telling the Amazon Alexa in the kitchen to play music is that, every so often, she (yes, we think she’s a she) will play music that we have never heard before and we uncover a new artist or a new song. That was true last week.

The tubular device played Jason Mraz’s song, “Have It All” and we were hooked. We paused the song to ask Alexa what it was and then immediately grabbed the phone to download it. We store up credit on iTunes and share music as a family so everyone can enjoy it. It’s an earworm kind of song that gets stuck in your head, but, in this case, I am okay with that.

Apparently, the artist was visiting Myanmar some years ago, participating in a concert aimed at ending the exploitation and trafficking of young people. While traveling, Mraz noticed that Buddhist people commonly greet each other with the phrase “Tashi delek,” which translates to, “May you have auspiciousness and causes of success.”

And the song was born.

I have long thought that all music is directional – God to us, us to God, or us to each other. Most the music that I would label, “garbage” is from us to each other. Most of the music that praises God is us to God. This song, in my head, is clearly God to us. Here is how it opens:

May you have auspiciousness and causes of success
May you have the confidence to always do your best
May you take no effort in your being generous
Sharing what you can, nothing more nothing less
May you know the meaning of the word happiness
May you always lead from the beating in your chest
May you be treated like an esteemed guest
May you get to rest, may you catch your breath

And may the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows
And may the road less paved be the road that you follow

What a great invitation. What a challenge. We have a God who loves us unconditionally. A God who always wants the best for us. I do not believe that God wants us “to have it all” in the material sense. But I do believe God wants us to share in His love, His life, His Spirit. For me, that’s what the song says. That’s what went through my head as we danced around the kitchen, playing the song again and again.

Well here’s to the hearts that you’re gonna break
Here’s to the lives that you’re gonna change
Here’s to the infinite possible ways to love you
I want you to have it
Here’s to the good times we’re gonna have
You don’t need money, you got a free pass
Here’s to the fact that I’ll be sad without you
I want you to have it all

We are going to be hurt, but we have the power to change the world. Material things are not necessary. Just live Jesus and know that when we wander away from God, our presence is missed, though God never leaves us.

May you be as fascinating as a slap bracelet
May you keep the chaos and the clutter off your desk
May you have unquestionable health and less stress
Having no possessions though immeasurable wealth
May you get a gold star on your next test
May your educated guesses always be correct
And may you win prizes shining like diamonds
May you really own it each moment to the next

And may the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows
And may the road less paved be the road that you follow

So there is our challenge for the week. Love one another in a way that makes the love of God real in our lives. Be a window into the heart of Jesus. Greet others with “Tashi delek.” Wish others well by being the presence of God in their lives.

And don’t forget to sing.

A Sturdy Shelter

On Friday this week, we will hear from the sixth chapter of Sirach. It is one of my favorite readings and, though we do not hear it often proclaimed at Mass, Maureen and I used it as the first reading at our wedding.

A kind mouth multiplies friends and appeases enemies,
and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.

O Lord, this is hard. I know my mouth should be kind, but sometimes the words get from my brain to my mouth too quickly.

Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant.

Who do you trust? Who will be with you when the going gets rough? Thank God for Maureen.

When you gain a friend, first test him,
and be not too ready to trust him.

This is odd. I was taught that being the first to trust is better. Still, I suppose being cautious is relationships, especially new ones, is a good thing.

For one sort is a friend when it suits him,
but he will not be with you in time of distress.

Yes, I have met these people. They say they want to work with you, then they throw you under the bus when the work becomes too difficult.

Another is a friend who becomes an enemy,
and tells of the quarrel to your shame.

Pope Francis says that gossip is a form of terrorism.  Lord, save me from those who do not speak to my face when they are angry – and give me the courage to speak the truth.

Another is a friend, a boon companion,
who will not be with you when sorrow comes.
When things go well, he is your other self,
and lords it over your servants;
But if you are brought low, he turns against you
and avoids meeting you.

Yes, I know these people, too. They are right by your side until you are in need. Then, they are nowhere to be found. They have moved on to happier friends, those not currently in despair, those who require less of them. 

Keep away from your enemies;
be on your guard with your friends.

Makes sense to me.

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
he who finds one finds a treasure.

I call her my wife.

A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.

Or her worth. Let’s be fair here.

A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy,
such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly,
and his friend will be like himself.

A life-saving remedy indeed. They are your best editor and hear what you do not say. They save you from yourself and help you understand your needs before you are even able to identify them.

 May your week be filled with friends.

Uncle Bill

We are in Philadelphia this weekend, helping Aunt Barbara with the final cleaning of Uncle Bill’s house. Bill died on the anniversary of my own father’s death back in July. He had fallen a few days before and suffered a stroke, or perhaps the other way around. In the end, Bill was 95 and a half years old and my children were disappointed that his death came the day we shipped out to Europe, meaning that we would miss his funeral. Adding to the disappointment was knowing how many aunts and uncles on my side would gather in Philly for Bill’s funeral.

As it turned out, his burial was in Ireland a day before we touched down there, so we missed that too. Still, we lit candles for Bill across Europe and kept him close as we traveled. Bill and Barbara were together for more than fifty years. He proposed marriage once, she declined, and so they lived separate lives and yet were together always. Every memory I have of weddings, funerals, and trips to see Barbara always included Bill. Even when Aunt Barbara, dad’s only sister, would visit Tennessee with my grandmother, stories and greeting from Bill followed. When Barbara and I drove a half dozen times or so to be with dad during his sickness, I was privileged to hear the whole story – from how they met to her regret that he never asked for her hand more than once.

He was the youngest of ten children, born outside Belfast. Even the story of his birth was fascinating. His mother had delivered twins (children 7 and 8) so when the doctor came to deliver child number nine, he could not imagine there would be two babies. He delivered Hugh, Bill’s brother, and then departed, sure his work was finished. The hemorrhaging continued for two days until the doctor returned and, much to the surprise of everyone, delivered Bill – a twin born two days later. The bleeding had been too much, and Bill’s mother died in the process. Bill would often joke that he must have been an ugly baby, because, “my mother took one look at me at died.” Nothing was off limits when it came to Bill’s sense of humor. In today’s world, there would be lawsuits and endless news about the doctor, but this was a small village in Ireland in 1923.

He left Ireland in his 20s and joined the Army. Later in life, he owned a successful landscaping business and drove a truck for Sun Oil, Co. We know all this not just from stories from Aunt Barbara, but because we found all the receipts from the business and the jacket that still fit Bill from 1947 among all his belongings. With every piece of paper, picture, and receipt, there is a story. Bill’s house, an old Victorian home converted to apartments, was where he lived since 1979, renting rooms to those in need and hardly ever raising the rent or getting paid on time. It was as much a mission as it was a business. All the apartments are empty now and as we finish taking bags and boxes to St. Vincent de Paul, the finality of Bill’s absence is settling in.

There was never a time when my children didn’t get handed a few dollars from Bill. There was never a baptism, birthday or a holiday when Bill was either present of the children got a call or a card. His refrigerator has his few favorite memories, according to Barbara – notes from his family in Ireland and two photos – one of Bill and my Katie and another of my children and Aunt B and Bill at the Philadelphia Zoo. He loved my children and they loved him, perhaps more so since their own grandfathers had passed.

I expected complaints as we planned to spend a few days working, but I now understand that the children see this work as a way to honor Bill – and a way to serve the woman he loved. As we bag and box up the rest of Bill’s life today before we head north, we will whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for a kind and generous man whose life of generosity and humor will always be a part of us.

 

Photo – Uncle Bill and my father, at a party following Katie’s Baptism in 2009.

Becoming my Father

Today would be my father’s 85thbirthday. It feels like a lifetime has passed since we lost him in 2011. There is so much that has happened in my life, the lives of my family, and in the world, since he’s been gone.

I think death is like that sometimes – a great divide where suddenly you begin recalling things that happened “with dad” and other things that happen “after dad.” The older I get, the more I realize how much I am like him – his mannerisms, his jokes, even, Maureen says, the way I sometimes shuffle around.

But I struggle to be like him when it comes to his faith.

Dad prayed the Rosary every day. He only spoke when he knew he could improve upon silence or break the tension in a room with a comment that made everyone laugh. When he said he was going to pray for something, you knew he meant it. Then, weeks later, he would casually bring it up in a conversation to check up on you. He was a man of great patience, filled with the gift of wonder and awe for the people around him. All was gift. He recognized that. He lived in that understanding.

This week’s first readings are all about the creation story and my own creation story is rooted in dad. I often think about how he and mom sacrificed to send many of their eleven children to Catholic school, how going to Mass on Sunday was part of who were as a family, and how my own parent’s involvement in the church led to a lifetime of my own working for the institution.

On Saturday, my office sponsored an event and, since I am a team of one, Maureen and the children came to help out. One of the kids handled registration. Another manned the bookstore. Another helped set up breakfast and lunch. Though tired from her own work, Maureen was overwhelmed by the mess of my office and helped put things together, hoping it might lighten the stress that has crept in.

As the people were leaving, someone remarked about how they loved seeing the kids as part of the day. “You remind me of my dad,” this woman said. “Church is a family thing and your children will always remember that.”

It occurred to me as she walked away that I learned that from my father. He and mom were the epitome of involved when I was a child and I am glad my own children are having the same experience.

Happy birthday, Dad. Thank you for the valuable lessons you left behind.

My Friend Steve

I have a friend named Steve. He’s a Catholic husband, father, grandfather, and singer-songwriter. My guess is that is the exact order he would put that list in, too. We’ve been friends for two and half decades and I first got to know him when I was in parish youth ministry in Knoxville and invited Steve to join us for our diocesan anniversary Mass. Though we are separated in age by only a few years, his children are older than mine and he’s always been the kind of father and the kind of Catholic I struggle to be. I imagine we all have people in our lives that inspire us and challenge us like Steve challenges me.

He’s been on my mind the last few days. I could pick up the phone and text, challenge him to a game of Words with Friends, or call him, but Steve has a gift for putting words to music and I wanted you to know. To be honest, I don’t listen to his music as often as I used to. My commute, since we moved, has gone from an hour every morning to about 10 minutes. I barely have enough time for the Rosary, catching up on the news on the radio, or the podcasts I used to enjoy. I love getting to work early and getting home in a hurry, but I miss some of the traditions that were once part of my morning. 

On the way out of the house yesterday, I grabbed Steve’s latest CD, High Above Our Way, for the road trip we planned to take after Church. Child number three needed shelves for his room so a trip up 95 to Ikea was on our list. I had heard some of Steve’s new music at a conference in Tampa back in December and wanted to give the whole CD a try. 

There is one song in particular that I could listen to again and again. It’s called More Beautiful and while the whole song is great, I really like the second verse and the chorus.

There is a longing we can’t deny
that God alone can satisfy
peace that none in this world can give
every good thing comes from you
you’re the source,
you’re the summit we’re reaching to. 

May we find you more beautiful,
more glorious,
more alive, and this life, more victorious,
to be more free, and all we can be,
more than yesterday.

You can listen to a sample of the song here. You can also purchase the whole album if you want or download it from iTunes. 

This year, I have resolved to make a concerted effort to tell the people who make my life better how important they are to me. Steve’s music and stories have become a mainstay of Catholic parishes and ministry to young people across the globe. But to me, he will always be the guy who wrote a song for my son’s sixth birthday, huddled with the kids on the steps of the house when we set the fire alarm off at an ungodly hour, and texted me every few weeks when dad died. He is a friend I treasure.

May his music move you as much his presence in my life moves me.

A Thought For the New Year

Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue
I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it
I take it back
Strike it from the record

What is as irreversible as murder, violates its victims more than theft, is as deadly as an epidemic? And is a lot closer to you than you want to think?

Gossip, slander, and thoughtless speech. Gossip is a million-dollar industry in our country today. We tend to think of it as a sport, harmless and fun. After all, it’s only words. We even have shows devoted to it.

As Christians, we are called to see it differently. Which is worse, we must ask, to steal from someone or to speak ill of someone? To defraud a person or to humiliate him? Answer: Property can be restored, but the damage done to another can never be undone. In fact, our Jewish ancestors compared slander and humiliation with murder: the destruction is irreparable and enduring.

You can’t take it back. What we say about each other is terribly powerful: words have a long, long half-life, and they can destroy in unseen, unhealable ways.

Our words are a footprint we leave for the world. What will they reveal about the way we treat our children, our parents, our friends, students, co-workers, employees? How we treat ourselves?

It’s a new year. Perhaps none of us will find a cure for cancer, or feed the world’s hungry, or bring about world peace. But nearly every day we find ourselves with someone’s reputation or sense of worth in our hands.

We can improve our world in a powerful, pervasive way; we can act as though our words had the power of life and death.

They do.


About this reflection

When I was a child, there was an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal with the headline and text above, though I have edited some of the text. The ad was in celebration of the Jewish New Year, I believe. My mother, wise as she was, cut it out and posted it on the refrigerator. If you said or did something that warranted further reflection, you got to stand in front of the full page of newsprint. In time, I had it memorized. When her children moved out of the house, my mother made sure we each got a copy. Mine hangs on the refrigerator and I can still say it by heart. We learn slowly as children…and sometimes more slowly as adults.

Happy New Year Mom. Happy New Year One and All.

What Rules You?

Last Sunday (not yesterday), we celebrated Christ the King. It is one of those great feasts that gets lost on the calendar. As much as we would like to pay attention to it, the world around us has moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas and wants desperately for us to do the same. Let’s face it, shortly after the Labor Day sales are over, people are talking about Black Friday and in one store, I actually saw lit Christmas trees before I saw Halloween candy. But I digress…

The feast of Christ the King always reminds me of a homily I heard years ago. “What rules you?” the priest asked. My mind wondered then, as it does every year on that feast day, and I begin to think back over recent days. There is so much going on at work. At home, too. This week will see us juggling the science fair, the biennial adult ministry conference that Maureen coordinates with her team and at which the bishop and I will present, a new babysitter, projects, homework, and getting dinner on the table.

The day before Christ the King, we cleaned the house. From top to bottom, basement to bathrooms, wood floors to the grass outside, we cleaned. For the most part, the children were willing participants. Sure, the promise of pizza for dinner and getting to stay up late to cheer the Irish to victory helped, but so did the “divide and conquer” methodology we employed to get small children to accomplish small tasks and then move on to another job.

As I thought back over the day, it occurred to me that what ruled us was a checklist: the list of chores was created by us, but we were controlled by it. Like so many days and nights, we fly from lists at home to tasks at work and from commitments with family to promises made to friends. We let the work around us consume us, change us, and push us into an amnesic state where the “why” we do what we do gets lost.

We clean because it is important to take care of the place where we live. We straighten and dust and vacuum to be healthy in mind and soul so, later on when the pizza is consumed, and the Irish are up by six, we can sit on the sofa and hold our children as they fall asleep. We go to work, I hope, because we love what we do and, yes, because it pays tuition and the mortgage and the food bill. We keep track of what we do, perhaps, for a sense of accomplishment and to know when our work is complete.

Still, it is nice to be reminded once in a while and just to pause and ask ourselves that tough, embarrassing question: What rules you? From where is your motivation derived? Why do you serve in the way you do at the place you do and with the people you do?

Maybe, just maybe, answering the questions now will make for a more clear-headed Advent and enjoyable Christmas season, surrounded by family and friends.

Of course, by then, the house will be a mess…

~pjd

Ten Seconds

For family movie night, we chose a documentary. It doesn’t happen often and usually includes whining from at least one of the children. By the end, however, we are all hooked and wish we had bought it instead of renting it. That was, perhaps, never more true than this week’s movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.

It is hard not to be nostalgic these days for Fred Roger’s simple message: be kind. Back in 1968, Mr. Rogers, through one of his alter egos, King Friday, talked about how people do not like change and so the king decides to build a wall. He welcomes an African American to share his swimming pool and dares to dry the man’s feet as the documentary’s director juxtaposes the scene with footage of a hotel manager dumping chemicals into a swimming pool to drive the non-whites out of the water. Mr. Rogers spoke of peace and love and hope and other messages I want my children to learn.

There was one scene that moved me to tears more than others. Receiving an award, Mr. Rogers makes a request of those around him. The filmmaker makes the same request at the end of the film.

In Mr. Rogers words:

“Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have loved you into who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. I’ll watch the time.”

Then, looking at his watch, the audience goes silent. The camera pans. People cry. Mascara runs. Eyes close. People look up. People look down. Time passes.

The same is true for the documentary, as the camera pans from person to person featured in the movie: Mr. Rogers’ wife, his sons, his coworkers, his friends, celebrities he befriended. While that happened on screen, the same thing was happening in our basement. On a weekend when we celebrated giving thanks, when we gathered with family and dined together, we wrapped up the weekend by giving thanks for those who influenced us, challenged us, improved us, and loved us.

This week, take ten seconds. Listen to Mr. Rogers and take the time to close your eyes and remember the people who always wanted the best for you.

Ready?

One Mississippi….

 

 

Lord, I Want to See

“Then Jesus stopped and ordered that the man be brought to him;
and when he came near, Jesus asked him,
‘What do you want me to do for you?’
He replied, ‘Lord, please let me see.'”

In this morning’s Gospel reading, the author of Luke shares this powerful story of healing and puts the burden of our requests on the lips of one man (18:35-43).

“Lord, please help us see.”

This week, let us pray that we see civility return to our public discourse.

Let us pray that we see those for whom we are thankful gathered safely around our table.

Let us pray that we can see peacemakers in our families, our parishes, and our communities.

Let us pray that we can see safety in our schools and in our churches and synagogues.

Let us pray that we can see those in need around us and be moved to share what we have.

Let us pray that we can see those who need a lift up, a kind word, or an encouraging note – and be inspired to act.

Let us pray that we see a way that we can help support those who sacrifice so much for the freedoms we enjoy.

Let us pray that we can see fires quenched, homes rebuilt, lives spared, and first responders home with their families.

Let us pray that we can see the lines on the road, the signs at the corners, the lights that are red, and the cars all around us so as to arrive safely to our destinations.

Let us pray that we can see the face of Christ in those who annoy us, challenge us, and confuse us.

Let us pray, too, that we can see the face of Christ in the mirror, shedding self-doubt and remembering that we are all children of God.

Lord, help us see the truth, not as we wish it were, but as it is.

Lord, please help us see…

With a grateful heart.