Winter Trees

Let’s talk about trees.  Not Blue Spruce or Balsam Fir.  Just good old deciduous trees.  Yes, I’m referring to those branches that look quite bare these days in our Central New York climate.  Some even say trees this time of year look ugly, but I vehemently disagree!  When all their leaves have been shed after November winds and rains, the bare branches of trees are rather beautiful.  If I were a painter, I would paint winter trees because there is something rather fascinating about the intricate design of each individual branch and the relationship of one branch to another, all connected to the center, the tree trunk.

 

The new snow on previously-bare tree branches is another wondrous sight, almost like icing on pastries, all sparkly like precious gems.  As I sit gazing out the window at the lightly falling snow, my heart is filled with both beauty and sadness.  Winter days like this provide the opportunity to sit still and contemplate all the spring, summer and autumn days that led to this winter moment.  Many of these memories are joyful, and I find myself smiling, almost chuckling as I think of loved ones near and far as well as friends here in the neighborhood, at church or in our community.  But then my thoughts go to those who we have lost or people who have moved away.  I grieve a little and ask God to continue to bless them and all those who love them, too.

 

Bare winter branches can be, at times, sacramental in that they lead me to marvel at the wonder and beauty of our God and all that God has gifted us.  The dead branches in another five months will once again produce blossoms and leaves and new growth.  Are we not a little like winter trees ourselves?  Do we not at times have to “die to self” in order to grow into whatever/whoever we have been called to be?  Don’t we also have moments in our lives where we experience the waiting that feels like winter?  We know another “springtime”, or joy, will return, and so we wait.  Almost like Advent Waiting.

 

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

(The O Antiphons of Advent)

 

I don’t know what’s left of my life journey, but I do know I never walk it alone. And I’m thankful to have the winter trees to remind me that everything in life involves some waiting, some growing, some dying, more waiting and eventually, rebirth.

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Morning Walk

I had a date this morning with someone who loves me even when I hide my bed head under a knit cap and am sporting a lanyard with a container holding poop bags at the end. Yep, my date was with our dog, Jacob, or Jake.

Jake gets so excited when I first take the leash off the hook, but then it becomes a wrestling match to ease his rather large German Shepherd nose into his Halti® collar.  Once that’s on, he sprints for the door and we’re off to walk and explore and stop frequently for sniffing and tracking goodness-knows-what!

I just can’t help but wonder what Jake is thinking with his nose to the ground, through the park, past the courthouse and the library, barely looking at the people we pass by, not a care in the world.

He gets timid on the bridges if there’s a lot of traffic, something that reminds me of his puppy days.  Jake keeps turning and looking to make sure I’ve got things under control.  Don’t worry, Jake, I’ll keep you safe.

This morning, we arrive back at the house after a very short walk and I think, let’s go around the block once before we head inside.  Jake looks at me like I’m nuts when we walk past the yard and our front steps, but he keeps on walking with me.  We take the sidewalk near the house up to the driveway and then the funniest thing happens.  When we get to the end of the sidewalk by the driveway, Jake just stops and sits.  He’s not going another step and he gives me that famous death stare.  He’s done.  The walk is finished, and he wants to go home.  So today I decide, that’s enough.  Let’s go home.  And we walk back down the sidewalk and then he practically sprints up our porch steps.

I don’t have a scripture quote that goes along with dog walking today, friends, but walking with my dog has led me to a talk with God this morning.  I’m reminded that I, too, must take time on the daily travels of life to stop and notice, to taste and see the Goodness of the LORD.  When I’m timid or uncertain or downright terrified, I’m not alone.  Don’t worry, Kris.  I’ll keep you safe.  And somedays being home is better than wandering aimlessly.

Thanks, Jacob!

Unexpected Drive Thru Conversation

A funny thing happened to me recently while driving home from work.  It had been a long day and I really wanted to get home. My stomach was growling most likely because I had skipped dinner, so I drove to a local burger joint only to discover that the drive thru window was closed.  I decided I’d stop at another burger place closer to home.  My rationale was that it would be quicker to go through a drive thru than go into the store to order dinner.  I just wanted to grab a burger and get home.

All the traffic lights seemed to be “with me” for a change so when I pulled up to pay at the drive thru window, I figured I’d soon be on my merry way home with a bag of fries and a burger in hand.  It was all going so well until I asked that one question that changed everything…all I asked the woman at the window was, “How are you doing tonight?”  For what seemed like close to five minutes, this woman shared her feelings with me, a total stranger, while I impatiently waited for my food order.  As I listened to her talk about how it was her dad’s anniversary of his death AND her uncle had just died, my impatience turned to compassion and my “hangry” attitude melted away.  I have no idea why she chose to share ANY of this information with me, but I knew my role here had to be one of patient listener.  When she handed me the warm bag of food, all I could say was “Thank you,” and “I will be thinking of you.  Please take care.”

As I drove home, the burger and fries didn’t really seem to matter that much.  The short exchange of words with a stranger, the quiet understanding of what it means to miss a parent who has died, that had already filled me up in a different way.

Advent is coming up soon, followed by Christmas.  Sometimes during the days leading up to Christmas, I can get so consumed with the “busyness” of the season that I forget to watch for the little signs of Christ present in others and everyday situations.  If I always seek the “drive thru” moments, I may miss out on the wonder and beauty of this time of joyful anticipation that is Advent.  I encourage you to occasionally take the “long way home” this Advent instead of staying on the fast track.  Let’s usher in this Advent season slowly and mindfully.  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

 

 

Thank You

This past summer, I purchased an economy-sized box of Thank You notes.  They were attractive, and I was certain I’d put them to good use!  Months later, that extremely large box of barely-used cards now sits on the table almost mocking me.

To make matters worse, during the month of November, people seem to get all grateful on social media, posting #thirtydaysofthankfulness and other such things.  Before you write me off as some type of Scrooge, please know that I DO live a life of gratitude.  I just really have become a slouch when it comes to writing thank you notes, so today’s blog is the beginning of my attempt to turn things around.

This morning I say thank you for a warm mug of black coffee and my old, soft bathrobe.  Thank you for a dog who still loves me even though I ran out of his favorite dental treats.  Thank you for a clear head and a heart full of love and a reason to get out of bed this morning.  These thank you’s lead me to spend some time in prayer with the Psalms:

I will always thank the LORD; I will never stop praising him.

I will praise him for what he has done; may all who are oppressed listen and be glad!

Proclaim with me the LORD’s greatness; let us praise his name together! 

I prayed to the LORD, and he answered me; he freed me from all my fears.                     (Psalm 34: 1-4, GNT)

Thank you for this day, Lord.  Thank you for the people I will encounter. Help me to use this day to share the gifts you’ve given with everyone I meet.  Let me trust in your goodness and mercy!  Thank you, Lord, for loving me even on the days when I am not acting particularly lovable.  Thank you for knowing what sits on my heart and for continuing to walk with me on the best of days and the worst of days.  Thank you for your unceasing love and guidance.

Thank you for all the things in life that are, in all actuality, not things at all—the people, the conversations, the grace-filled moments that remind me that I’m just one small part of something so much bigger and wonderful than this human brain can even fathom.  Thank you for continuing to fill me, your humble servant, with awe and wonder, Lord:  I thank you LORD, with all my heart.  (Psalm 138: 1, GNT). 

 

 

 

Grocery Store Contemplations

Is a weekly trip to the grocery store part of your routine?  There’s a store I visit on my way home from work each week.  As I walk up and down each aisle procuring items from the list, I’m often alone with my thoughts.  There’s a certain peaceful rhythm to this routine chore and at times the quiet lends itself to prayer, rather unexpectedly, I assure you.  I think about my husband, our children, their grandparents, and people I know who are going through all kinds of things. Once the cart is full and all the items on the list are checked off, I advance to the checkout area.  On a recent shopping trip, while standing in line, the woman in front of me turns and apologizes that she might take a while because she has WIC coupons (no need to apologize for feeding your children, I reply with a reassuring smile).  What I don’t tell her is that I can remember standing in a grocery store line twenty-three years ago with our two oldest children in the cart, hoping the amount in my wallet was going to cover the groceries and two packages of diapers. I know it’s not easy being a mom, I think to myself, and I hope she knows I really do not mind waiting for her transaction to finish.    

The WIC coupons do slow the line down, but that gives me even more time just to think and pray, adding a prayer for the young mother in front of me and for all mothers and fathers who worry about keeping their children fed and clothed.  When it’s time for me to hand my bags to the cashier and answer the weekly question of How heavy do you want me to fill your bags, I am surprised that the cashier has more to tell me.  She can’t be older than a high school teen or maybe a college freshman.  Her eyes get wide and she begins to tell me about how rude people have been in the store today.  She goes on to tell me about some of the unkind things people have said to her and just the general rude behavior that’s been going on in the store.  She asks me why people don’t use their manners anymore, this young, very wise cashier.  Inside I laugh because most of the rude people this young person has encountered are much older and should know better, right?

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.

 These lyrics are from Jackie DeShannon’s hit from 1965, penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  Don’t they still ring true today?  What about Jesus’ words in Matthew 22: 34-40 that we heard in yesterday’s gospel?  What makes it so hard to love our neighbor?  Is this something we can all work on together?  Let’s try, friends. Our world needs love NOW.

Jake Joy

We have a six-year-old German Shepherd rescue named Jacob, or Jake.  We adopted Jake at five months of age and he immediately stole our hearts with his lovable, goofy personality.  We did have to live through Jake’s puppy antics which at times were more annoying than endearing.  There were times I got a little tired of Jake using my arm as a chew toy or running through the house with shoes in his mouth, but the puppy days have passed, and our big dog is a cherished member of our family.

What I’ve come to notice over the past few years is that Jake is happiest when our entire family is home.  Now anyone with a dog will say that’s no surprise because dogs are pack animals.  But I am amazed at how completely content and even energized our Jake becomes when the entire family is gathered.  I’m talking about lie-on-your back while chewing on a bone content!

Yesterday at Mass, the church was full, and people were singing and fully engaged in the Liturgy.  An infant was baptized, and all the baby’s family and friends were gathered.  While I don’t know the baby’s parents, I can only imagine the joy they must have been feeling yesterday.  It looked like “Jake joy” to me!  I know I felt a moment of “Jake joy” with the church so full and so many members of our parish family present.  I want to hang on to that “Jake joy” feeling this week and hopefully be a source of joy or comfort to those I will see.

This week I will think about the words in Psalm 16:11 which say, “You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”

 I wish you a “Jake joy” kind of day, friends!

Sunday Dinners, the Grinch, and Keeping Sabbath  

I recently walked past a grocery store display that sparked the idea for today’s blog.  The sign posted near the product suggests one can simply cook this item and have that Sunday dinner feeling ANYTIME.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a hater…in fact I love the idea of people gathering around the dinner table.  I am skeptical, however, of the premise that any food can re-create Sunday.  Allow me to use the Grinch analogy to explain.

If you’ve ever read How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1957), you know that the Grinch learned an important lesson when his plan to prevent Christmas failed miserably:

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” 

The Grinch discovered that the members of Whoville still gathered together and gave thanks despite their losses. The true wealth and strength of the community had not been broken, just changed, perhaps even strengthened in these moments of adversity.

As Catholic Christians, we are familiar with The Fourth Commandment, Keep Holy the Sabbath.  On Saturdays instead of Sundays, our Jewish brothers and sisters also honor the sabbath in their faith tradition. An important part of keeping sabbath begins long before Sunday (or Saturday) dinner.  It’s the gathering as a faith community for Mass (or synagogue).  Sunday dinner for many of us is the endcap on a day that begins with prayer and thanksgiving.

Here’s a little Merciful Moments assignment for you.  Think back to your Sunday traditions as a child and compare them to your traditions now.  Are you doing something to make Sunday special?  It doesn’t have to be “Pinterest special,” but is there anything you do differently on Sunday to honor the sacredness of the sabbath?  I challenge you this fall to re-set your Sundays if necessary, to re-connect with sabbath.

This blogger has some fond memories of Sunday “family day” as a child.  I’ll bet others may remember Sundays beginning with church, an early Sunday dinner and Sunday drives often just for the scenery and nothing else.  The meals may or may not have been fancy, but there was some undisclosed ingredient baked right in that somehow made Sundays special.  Maybe that ingredient was love, or time, or hope?  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that I want to keep our Sundays special so that I never take sabbath for granted.  I don’t want to buy into an instant-gratification culture of having Sunday dinner when I want it and where I want it. I want Sunday just as it comes every seven days, gathered with our faith community at the start of the day and ending with family, together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning News

I went to bed early last night and got up with the intention of sitting down to do some writing over the first cup of morning coffee.  After taking our dog outside and feeding him his breakfast, I ground the coffee beans as usual, filled the reservoir with clean cold water and then listened to the comforting drip drip drip sound that meant hot coffee was only moments away.  I settled onto the family room couch which is worn out, lumpy and covered with quilts and dog fur but still my favorite place on cold mornings to savor coffee, prayer time and the morning news.

The cozy feeling ended abruptly once I learned of yet another shooting, this time in Las Vegas, at a country music festival.  I waited until after I drove my teen to school before I had the energy to turn on the television for updates.  My husband texted from work, “Love you.  So sad about Las Vegas.”  I agreed, yes, so sad.  But my emotions are so much stronger than sadness as I write this today.  How can we, as humans created in God’s own image and likeness, inflict such pain and suffering on other human beings?  I was prepared to just post a photo on the blog of a single tear drop instead of an essay because I just don’t feel very hopeful or joyful this morning.

I proceeded to make meatballs for this week’s dinners and vegan-bread and fry some fairy tale eggplants that I’d picked up at a local farm stand a week ago.  With no early morning meetings scheduled today, I had the luxury of time this morning to seek refuge in our home kitchen, wiping tears away as I flipped the eggplant slices and watched the continuing news coverage on the little kitchen TV.  After everything cooled, and I packed the items away in the fridge, I knew I cannot hide in the safety of home all day.  I’ll have to go to work and put together a peace prayer for our teenagers who will meet for weekly faith formation classes later this evening.

The sad part is, none of this is new to me or you.   I remember putting together a peace prayer after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 as if it were yesterday.  A year later, I was at the Boston Marathon celebrating our son’s Army team’s completion of a ruck march one hour earlier when we learned of the bombings there and were filled with fear and shock.  With all public transportation shut down as a safety precaution, we had to rely on the kindness of others to get back to our car parked miles away at a train station.  In 2015, a San Bernardino shooting occurred during a  Christmas event at a workplace. We remember the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 and the Ariana Grande concert shooting last spring…too many shootings.  Senseless, horrible violence.

Yesterday our sixth and seventh graders prayed The Prayer of St. Francis, which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”  Today, and every day, Lord, help me seek to understand the people I encounter.  In learning about who they are and what they are about, help me to learn to love them, embracing not just our similarities but our differences as well.  Help me to lead others to peace and love and not to intensify hatred and ignorance and divisiveness.  We are better than this, Lord.  Please watch over us and guide us.  Pray for peace, friends.  Pray for peace.

 

Soft Touch

Recently a long-time friend of our family referred to me as a “soft touch” and I immediately took offense at this characterization.  While I joked about it at the time and fired back some sarcastic comment with a smile, I have been pondering that phrase.  After all, nobody likes to be called a wimp, right? This morning I had to look up the definition of “soft touch” and based on what I’ve come to learn about mercy and understanding, I think I can live with this label after all.  The Oxford Online Dictionary defines “soft touch” as:  A person who readily gives or does something if asked.  While that is not true one hundred percent of the time, that description sums up what I ask for daily in prayer when I say, “Lead Me, Lord.”  I often turn to God in prayer and just ask for guidance, nothing more and nothing less.  Do you ever just want to know that you are headed in the right direction?  That’s a major part of where I am in my current post-age-fifty prayer life.

 

As a child, our mom said a prayer with us every morning at the breakfast table called The Morning Offering.  I haven’t thought about it for years, but today it is a vibrant memory.   You may be familiar with it:

 

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father this month. Amen.

 

I don’t want to be jaded and if that means putting myself out there for others and occasionally getting burned, so be it.  Most of the times when I hold back from helping another, it’s due to fear or my own insecurities, but I will keep plugging away at them, doing whatever I can in my own simple way to bring about the Kingdom here on earth.  I have a long way to go, but if I am a “soft touch” already, that means my heart has not been hardened, and in Christian terms, that’s a good thing, right?

Fog

The last few weeks of summer seem so precious.  Warm, sunny days give way to often much cooler evenings and perfect sleeping conditions.  But a side effect of those comfortable evenings can be fog.  When commuting, fog causes one to stay focused and in tune to the road conditions and surrounding drivers with a much greater intensity than ordinary weather conditions.  To me, the most unsettling thing about fog is the inability to see very far in front of me.  Driving through fog forces me to use faith and trust to keep moving ahead. Fog requires patience and perseverance.

Perhaps you have experienced a time in your life where things seemed a little unclear, almost fog-like.  Were you concerned about a decision you had to make or unsure about a career change or a geographic change?   Maybe you turned to God in prayer on your own and when you gathered with your faith community on Sundays.  Perhaps you called a friend who you knew would listen and calm your nerves.  Just like when driving in fog, I suspect you had to be a little more deliberate in your actions, fully awake and aware of your surroundings.  Driving through fog and trusting in God are not for the faint of heart, but we always make our way through.  If life is currently feeling a little foggy for you, I hope you will know that you don’t have to go it alone.

“When I am afraid, in you I place my trust.  I praise the word of God; I trust in God, I do not fear.” (Psalm 56: 4-5)