All Is Gift

ChestertonThanks

I wanted to tell you yesterday all the things I’m grateful for this year. I rose at 4 a.m. to stretch, pray, and write—but the Bearded Wonder (my eldest son Brendan) is home from college and rose at 4:30. We sat in flickering candlelight and visited for a couple hours, until Jodi got up to start the turkey. Then I left her and her boy alone and greeted the dawn with Bruno. Our walk was unusually peaceful: silent except for the whine of the distant freeway; we saw a total of four cars, a jogger, and a neighbor with the same idea: walking his dog in the quiet of the new day.

The rest of the household was stirring when we returned home, and the rest of the morning was spent going to Mass (the Feast before the feast) and preparing for dinner. We cooked, we ate, we watched the Lions get trounced by the Vikings. (Sorry, fellow Lions fans: to me, the game didn’t feel close.) My folks were supposed to be here, but Mom got sick and they returned home—we arranged for a friend to bring them Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful, grateful phone call with them in the early afternoon.  We laughed and listened to music; we napped, walked Bruno again, and ate pie.

And yet, when evening fell, I felt unsettled. The one thing I hadn’t done was write. So while the family played games in the dining room, I attempted to journal. Instead I listened to Jodi and the kids joking, arguing, and laughing together. After a while, Brendan stepped away from the games and took up the mandolin, picking and strumming snippets of songs we knew. I closed my journal and vowed to write this morning.

* * * * *

Today Brendan turns twenty. I rose again at four, acutely aware that I have now been a father for two decades—nearly half my life to date!—and unsure about what that means for me. I went downstairs to let Bruno out; stepped into the cold, black morning, and breathed in the clean air. I need to write, I thought.

About what? About all of this.

I brought Bruno back in and shuffled into the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror to see myself. At 4 a.m., I look lived in: a little worn and disheveled, sagging here and there, but comfortable and still functional. I leaned in closer to peer into my own eyes—windows to the soul, they say—and in an instant, they filled with unexpected tears.

Gifts. All of it—my bride in our bed, our beautiful offspring, the pup downstairs. Our aging suburban split-level. The still unfinished tree house out back. All gifts.

I am working harder these days for less money, and yet I feel better—freer—than I have in years. Gift. We have friends who never get sick of our company, family who love us, and a great God in Heaven who keeps the very rhythm of our hearts in time with His own. All gifts.

The tears brimmed but didn’t fall; my chest swelled but didn’t burst. Sure signs that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of my situation: the all-powerful and ever-present Creator of the universe is making room enough in me so He can dwell there. The One who is Love is carving a God-size hole in me, chipping away, flake by flake, at my stony heart.

* * * * *

With all the many gifts I enjoy in this life, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for this year is perspective. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Look around you. Have you seen this place?

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7

We are so very blessed and have done nothing to deserve it. Sure, we’re good people, as far as that goes. But lots of good people suffer, and a fair number of not-so-good people seem to thrive. I cannot earn these blessings or somehow make them happen—I cannot avoid illness, accident, or tragedy—any more than I can make Brendan’s beard grow. I can only look on with wonder and thanksgiving, and join my song to Mary’s: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!

 

Chains of Memory

The past couple of days I’ve been plagued by memories: guilty recollections of past sins, glimpses of images I never should have seen, bits of off-color or debauched “humor,” lyrics to songs that should not be sung.

Beginning in college, this was my rebellion. I looked at, listened to, and watched whatever I wanted. And in short order, I proved the adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” During much of my college years, I swore like a sailor; I told dirty jokes to old friends and new acquaintances, and I made excuses for my behavior—to others and to myself.

“It could be worse,” I said, and I knew I was right. I had a vivid imagination, and worse played out in my mind if I lingered too long on any impure thing.

Thanks be to God, over the first ten year of my marriage to Jodi, I weeded these things out of my life. Little by little I dropped the jokes, kicked my swearing habit, left porn behind, stopped watching racy movies, and cleaned up my taste in music. And beginning with one no-nonsense confession with Fr. Siebenaler, in which he politely but firmly questioned my resolve to actually amend my life and advised me to open myself to Jodi and ask for her help, I left off making excuses, and began instead to apologize.

So here we are, more than a decade later, and the Enemy is at work again: I find myself mindlessly mouthing the music in my head, only to realize it’s some obscene gangster rap fantasy or metal mayhem I laughed at as a younger man. In my mind’s eye I see images I haven’t looked upon in years, like a sin scrapbook I can’t help but leaf through, gazing at memories best forgotten.

That’s the first point of this ramble: you can’t forget. What your brain takes in is filed away for later reference. Every image, every word, is there, tying you to past experience. And those things you subject yourself to again and again, out of desire or habit? Your mind naturally assumes they are important, forging shorter, stronger connections so they can be easily accessed.

I can’t recall yesterday’s discussion with my bride, but I remember every detail of my past sins, with a clarity that repels the spirit and tempts the flesh anew. The Accuser seeks to set me against myself—but I know now I must seek every day, every moment, to purify both body and soul.

That’s the second point: The struggle against sin is noble and never-ending, to be sure, but all struggles are not created equal. The struggle of the rabbit in the snare speeds its demise; it kicks and thrashes against the noose, which only tightens against its efforts.

That was me, in the confessional all those years ago—declaring sorrow for my sins but unwilling to even attempt to remove my head from the strangling wire. The death brought about by sin cannot be escaped by panic, emotionalism, or bodily struggle. It is a spiritual struggle, requiring prayer, persistence, and genuine love of neighbor and of self. At some point, all the plans, safeguards, and accountability measures boil down to a decision: Am I going to stop doing these things or not?

How does one become a saint? Will it.

Finally, the third point: We don’t have to remain bound in these chains of memory, because God’s love is mercy.

This is not the first time I’ve struggled with recalling past sins and feeling old remorse and new temptation. The last time I remember it as strongly as this, our pastor, Fr. Richards, advised that I repeat the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

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At the time he told me this, it didn’t click with me that these are the words of the inscription at the bottom of St. Faustina’s image of Divine Mercy. (“Jezu ufam tobie” in the original Polish, above.)

Jesus, I trust in you. I trust in your mercy. I trust that you have forgiven these past, confessed sins. I trust that you continue to forgive me. I trust that you love me.

We are washed clean in the blood and water that flow from His Sacred Heart. We need not linger in darkness or doubt. He loves us. He forgives us. He saves.

Dog-Tired, or the Good, the Bad…and a Puppy

I’m dog-tired.

My dad used to say, whenever I would complain of not sleeping well, “When you get tired enough, you’ll sleep.” Over the past year or so, I had taken that to heart: if I found myself tossing and turning in the wee hours, I would get up, brew a cup of coffee, and write, figuring I’d sleep better the next night.

Generally it worked—but these days I know what Dad really meant.

The good news is that I’m working full-time and making just enough to keep us afloat another month. The bad news is that I’m working two part-time jobs, and one of them starts at 3 a.m., which means the alarm sounds at 2 a.m. and to function, I need to go to bed around 8 whenever possible. (Like tonight.)

The good? My early-morning job involves four hours of steady exercise, loading packages as quickly as I can. I’ve lost 10 to 15 pounds, and I’m in the best shape I’ve been in probably 20 years. I’m no longer sore at the end of the day. I rise, stretch, down a cup of coffee and a protein bar, then drain a water bottle and say my morning prayers on the way to the warehouse.

The bad? I joke with Jodi that I get paid to go to the gym each morning—but who in his right mind goes to the gym at 3 a.m., for four hours? I come home tired, filthy, and soaked with sweat, usually after everyone has left for work and school; I see my wife and kids for a little while after school and work, but usually turn in not long after supper.

Most afternoons and evenings I’m too tired to write much. I nod off at the keyboard. Continue reading

Love Thy Neighborhood

Hello, hello/I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

— the Beatles, “Hello, Goodbye”

Yesterday Jodi spoke with our neighbors across the street, a friendly couple a bit younger than us, with two small children and a dog, and personalities that draw you in and make you want to smile and visit.

They are moving to Alexandria.

As they talked, the husband and father said something telling: “I’ve talked more to my neighbors since we sold our house than in the previous X years.”

This was not a reflection solely on the rest of us: several homes are for sale or have sold in recent years, and he admitted that he, too, spoke more to the outgoing neighbors than those who appeared to be staying. Continue reading

Dust Bunnies and Mud Bubbles

“A puddle repeats infinity, and is full of light; nevertheless, if analyzed objectively, a puddle is a piece of dirty water spread very thin on mud.” ― G.K. ChestertonManalive

Scripture tells us that God took a bit of dust from the earth, shaped a man, and breathed life into him. The breath of God—spiritus—brings the unliving to life.*

I have seen what this windy world conjures when its breath stirs the dead earth: dust bunnies and mud bubbles. Continue reading