Varied Graces 2018-05-01T09:49:00+00:00

Varied_Graces_Title

Varied Graces: Is Indeed

Soft white with a hem embroidered with pale blue flowers. The thread the same color as her eyes. Empty spaces between each of the flowers – spaces she called cutwork. They had been folded in yellowed tissue paper and stored in a chest of drawers that carried a hint of the scent of patchouli. I remembered that the same drawer had for years hidden a small brown bottle of the oil. The oil, like her, now gone.

They were a wedding gift to her and my dad from a sister-in-law who had died when I was still a child. And, for more than seven decades, they had remained in this drawer never used. She would take them out at least once a year during “spring cleaning” and sit with them on her lap for a few moments caressing the hem with her fingers as though remembering some long ago time.

As a child I would ask her why she wasn’t using them for the purpose they were intended – to cover the pillows on her bed. The answer was always the same, “I am saving them for a special occasion.” Once, I found her gently hand washing them. I watched her iron them and then place them back in the same chest of drawers.

By then my father was gone and she was living with us. I confronted her, boldly asking, “Mom, when are you going to use those darn things?”

“I am saving them for you and your kids.”

I shook my head and threatened to bury her with them. I made that threat many times over the years that followed. “They’re going in the casket right under your head.”

She always thought I was joking. But, the intention behind my words was real. I would keep one of the pair and use the other to cover the pillow under her head.

With the grief that inserts itself into the funeral days, I had forgotten my threat.

Now both of those pillowcases rested in my own hands. And, I remembered her and her words of future times.

My mother was a saver of precious things. Beautiful bed jackets and nightgowns went unworn. Saved “in case of” an unexpected trip to the hospital. Chocolate-covered cherries only eaten after all the other Christmas candy was gone.

She was a child of the Great Depression and of the war that followed. Her perspective and bent was a result of that.

She held on to the past and worried about the future. My father saved her from being swallowed in those unrealities of past and future.

A product of the same times, he, however, lived in the moment and in the abundance. Dancing with her to big band sounds and taking her on travels to continents a half a world away.

Though different in their approach to life, they always met in one place and there he pulled her closer to his way. That meeting place – the Church and its Easter message. The message of new life and abundance.

heir Easter greeting to each other always the same.

He would say, “Christ is Risen.”

And she would respond, “He is Risen indeed.”

Long after he was gone, she continued to repeat that greeting each Easter morn. In her last days she held fast to it, learning to cling to each “now time.”

And in this “now time” I realize the verb of their greeting is in the present tense. That was what she was trying to tell me, each time she spoke the words.

Life is now and always now. And He is Risen now and always.

I unfolded the pillow cases. They were going on the guest bed prepared for a cousin’s visit. Their first use in more than 70 years.

“I know, Mom. He is Risen. Not back then, Mom. Risen today, this Glorious Day.”

Stewardship Scripture: “I came so that you might have life and have it abundantly.” -John 10:10

Stewardship Reflection: He is Risen, indeed.

Stewardship Challenge: As Catholics, we say we are pro-life. But are we really pro-life if we miss the moments of our own life? Miss them by living in the past or the future? During these days from Easter to Pentecost, live in the moment experiencing the glory of simply being in the moment. All the while realizing that Life never ends. We know the end of our story. The end is in every Now moment when we realize that He is Risen.

Varied Graces: Presence

The rain came in sheets. Rain that is colder than expected in Southeast Texas. A miserable day. A miserable day for doing anything. The kind of day that makes you want to stay inside with tea and a good book. The kind of day where you want to go absolutely nowhere.

But, here we were watching windshield wipers splash water back and forth. Here we were with wet shoes and umbrellas draining onto the car’s floor.

Here we were, part of a long procession of cars. Cars with headlights on, going slowly through red lights. Cars headed to an interment service.

We had given up gravesite services long ago except for close family. Funeral Mass, vigils and memorials were the way we honored those we loved. The way we “paid our respects.”

And, we had already been to the Mass. But, I needed to go to this last service near her resting place.

“She always showed up,” I told my husband.

“I need to show up.” He knew what I meant. He agreed. We needed to show up.

The church had been full for the Mass. Her family alone filled at least 10 front pews. And friends and those she worked with filled the back rows. Most of them were now in the vehicles ahead of us.

She didn’t need us to go. Her family didn’t need us to be there. They barely knew us. The gathering was so large that they would not have missed us at the last service.

But I needed to go. Because she had always “shown up.”

She had volunteered in our ministry for nearly 16 years. Served on our diocesan committee. And, until her health failed, she had never missed an event or a meeting.

Some would have seen her usual role at events and workshops as a small one. She stood by the door and greeted people on their way in. She stood by the punch bowl and smiled and served. She stood by the exit and thanked them for coming. She showed up and she stood. She was present. And her presence made a difference.

I counted on her. We counted on her – our staff and her fellow committee members. Counted on her to be there. Never did we think – even for a moment – that she would not show up.

That was her ministry. I saw it as her charism. To be present. Whether things were going well or falling apart. She knew that the very first part of living the Gospel was to witness by her presence.

So as her pastor said the final prayers. I whispered my own message to my friend, “I am here. I showed up. You taught me to be present. And, I will be.”

Stewardship Scripture: “Standing by the Cross of Jesus, were His mother and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’” -John 19:25-27

Stewardship Challenge: During these first days of Lent, show up, show up and stand up. Show up for daily Mass. Show up for Stations. Show up for that ministry meeting you don’t want to go to. Stand up for what you believe in. Stand up for those who need your courage. Be present when someone needs you. Know that your presence is sometimes all that’s needed.

Varied Graces: On a wounded God, a post trauma reflection

It was a casual remark, meant to be humorous.

I obviously offended her. Worse yet, I hurt her. She had not known me long and certainly not well. The others laughed but she didn’t.

They didn’t notice that she was upset. I did. Her words came quicker than usual. The pitch of her voice was higher.
“I told God I didn’t like His plan, you know the free will one. I would’ve made you all robots who did the right thing all the time.” That’s what I said.

Maybe if I had left it there, it would have been okay. But I went on:

“If I were running things, I’d always intervene, take control. You know all the endings would be happy – no cancer, no Harvey, no war. But then God doesn’t ask me for advice. So we sometimes are at odds with each other. You know I’m not crazy about the way He runs or doesn’t run the world and He’s not crazy about the way I run my life with the freedom He’s given me.”

I wasn’t quite sure if she was upset with the fact that life doesn’t always give us happy endings or if she thought I shouldn’t question God.

As she continued to speak, I realized that she was praying for something very specific and my remarks generated fear. She didn’t voice it, but underneath the words I heard concern.

She was a good woman. What would it mean if God didn’t answer her prayer. What would that say about her faith? About her God?

I also realized that though she’s Christian, she’s not the same brand as I. You know, I’m Catholic. She’s not. Her faith is based in that prosperity Christianity that’s much in vogue these days especially with TV evangelists. Stay positive, work hard, believe in Jesus and you too can own a Lexus.

I often wondered how this brand of Christianity had disassociated itself from pain and poverty since so much of the Gospel stories deal with both. I wondered if taking the Corpus off the cross was the beginning of it.

I knew that underneath her words was the fear that her theology might be a little skewed. What if her Santa Claus god didn’t make it all better? I asked forgiveness for my arrogance both from her and from my Jesus. She needed comfort not my off the cuff theological rant. But I also wondered what would happen to her faith if her prayer wasn’t answered.

There are times when it’s tough for me to be Catholic. The institutional Church can drive me up a wall. I’m American enough to like a lot more democracy in the decision-making. No one ever asks me to vote on anything.

But I like the fact that Catholicism truly understand the Incarnation; that my Church acknowledges life even for the believer will still be filled with suffering just as His was.

I like a Church that teaches that His promise isn’t that the world will always go the right way, if only we believe; but that His promise is simply that He will dwell among us.

The world can be a bloody place. I like a God who’s experienced that first hand, and a Church that helps me remember that my God knows what it feels like to be whipped and bloody.

The world has been a bloody place for many of us in recent days – storms and earthquakes and wildfires. We have learned first-hand and literally that it “rains on the just and the unjust.”

But, we’ve also seen that goodness reins and that He still dwells among us as first responders rush with courage into life-threatening disasters and strangers come from hundreds of miles away to meet our needs.

The world has been a bloody place for us in recent days. I like a Church that teaches that simply “‘claiming the name of Jesus” is not enough. I have to do my part. I have to be a first responder for those who need to see that this wounded Jesus still dwells among us.

Varied Graces: Say where it hurts!

My memories of her are slim. Thin visions always covered with soft pastel colors and laced with laughter and music.1

She was beautiful and graceful and loved to dance. She would hold my child hands and we would spin through the space until one of us would collapse to the floor dragging the other down in gales of giggles. And if I fell and bruised my knee, she would ask where it hurt and then kiss it to make it better.

She was a little taller than the other adult women in my family. Her long hair was caught up elegantly and held with small ornate clips.

We would sit on the front porch of my grandmother’s house – she peeling oranges and me waiting for the juicy sections. Sometimes she would bring her manicure kit and polish her nails and then mine with clear nail polish. She would tell me that only when I became a teenager would she do mine with the soft pink that she wore.

But it never happened because by then she was long gone from this world.

So my memories of her are slim and mostly joy-filled. Except for a couple.

And those memories are not visual, but sounds. Sighs and whispers. Nervous breakdown was the 1950s term.

She would disappear for a little while and then return again.

She would be better. She would hug me again. We would again eat oranges on my grandmother’s front porch and collapse in gales of giggles on her kitchen floor.

But the other adults told me I was not to ask where she had gone. It was a secret.

And then she was better all the time. And she never disappeared again until she disappeared for good. It was cancer that claimed her not the dark times.

And in the ‘50s, that diagnosis was also spoken about in whispers. Whispers of the “Big C” and whispers of terminal.

So again I was told it was a secret and I shouldn’t ask her about it.

So I didn’t say. And they didn’t say. So she couldn’t say.

Nearly 20 years after she was gone, it became okay to talk about cancer.

But now, decades after her death. I am still hesitant to tell her story.

So I tell it in pieces and veil it with pronouns.

I knew where she went during those dark times. I knew it then. And even at 9 I knew it should have been okay to say.

So I am telling you now. I am telling you now what I knew at 9. She was beautiful and smelled of oranges. She could collapse in giggles and wore light pink nail polish. And most of the time she was joyful. But sometimes she was very sad. And she couldn’t get “unsad” without some help.

She was my elegant, beautiful Godmother, and I now think she suffered with chemical depression.

But I’ll never know for sure because it wasn’t okay to say back then.

And I often wonder just how alone she felt when she couldn’t tell family and friends just where “it hurt.”

Stewardship Reflection: “I give thanks to my God at my every remembrance of you … praying always with joy in my every prayer for you.” Philippians 1:3-4

Stewardship Challenge: For the next few days, not only pray for those who are dealing with mental illness, take some time to educate yourself about it. And if someone wants to talk about his illness, listen. And if you’re the person who is dealing with a sadness or a tiredness that you suspect may be chemical depression, talk to a professional and tell them where it hurts. Know that it is “okay to say.”

Varied Graces:Time spent and the Grace that follows

The exhaustion is settling in. Finding a home deep in my chest. I stare out the bus window at the passing scenery. The countryside is no longer verdant but softly melts into shades of gray as day turns to twilight.

My fellow travelers are quieter now than when we boarded. Many are asleep. Others are playing with phones and iPads. Almost all are somewhat hidden under blankets or jackets.

The air conditioning is cranked low probably to keep the driver alert. I’m cold. Not just hands and feet, but deep inside I’m chilled.

We are moving. The motion is evident in the changing scenery and the bumpy ride. We are moving and yet there is a stillness here inside the bus.

Still and quiet and softly gray. And spent.

All of that now finds a home deep in my chest. I recognize the exhaustion. And I know soon it will turn on me.

The woman in the seat beside me is co-worker, but more than that. We share similar interests, similar talents. We know parts of each other’s spiritual journey.

So I talk hoping to make a connection but more importantly I talk to escape from the stillness.

I try to tell her about this feeling, these thoughts that are welling up. This feeling that is more than emotion. This physical coldness that become dark reflection.

She listens, but all I can clearly articulate is “I haven’t done enough. Now it’s almost over.” She knows that I mean more than just the tasks of our trip.

I try to explain regret and depletion. But I lack the words to describe the doubt and self-criticism that has come more often of late – more often now that I have entered into the seventh decade of my life.

She tries to affirm my gifts, my blessings, my contributions. I am thankful for her words. The very sounds of them have been a disruption in the melancholy. But they are not enough.

I turn toward the window again. The twilight giving over to night. The melancholy is more intense than ever before.

I realize that this day itself has helped create the intensity of my frequently visiting exhaustion. More than one hundred of us had left home before dawn to travel to Austin and be greeted by hundreds more of us. T-shirted in our mission, we proclaimed to legislators that we were here to see that His work was done. Through mazes of corridors and up and down dozens of staircases, we ran from meeting to meeting to advocate for Cause.

We rallied together under a bright Texas sky. Waving signs as banners. Exuberant, we shouted that Christ is our King. Our crowd grew to more than four thousand.

Exuberant and now exhausted. Effort and now stillness. Filled and now spent.

And the day’s physical exhaustion – this down from an emotional high – has intensified the dark reflection that has been visiting me this last year and more often this Lent.

I have known for some time that the exhaustion was not physical and the feeling of melancholy was not depression – but something beyond both.

Though I have tried to avoid them, tonight I sit with the melancholy and the existential exhaustion a little longer. And this time, instead of turning on me, they bring Grace and I remember.

As Grace comes, I remember the story of a ride into Jerusalem and of another exuberant crowd.

And as Grace comes, I remember the time in the tomb and the day that followed.

And as Grace comes, He breaks through my regret and self-criticism.

I remember that none of it matters and that all is never spent because Grace comes.

Stewardship Challenge: During these last days of Lent, let go of self-hatred. Let Grace remind you that it doesn’t matter if you are not enough because Christ is All and you are His.

Stewardship Reflection: “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that I will send in my name – he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you… Do not let your heart be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, I am going away and I will come back to you.’’ – John 14: 26 & 27

Varied Graces: Exchanges of lemon light for walnut pieces

Another gray February morning. The side yard filled with pockets of brown mud where grass should grow. Humidity hanging heavy on this Texas morning. The ink colored berries on the Indian Hawthorne have been replaced with small white and barely pink buds.

And, that I think is his problem. That and also the fact that small pieces of walnut have been gone from my front walk for more than a week.

We are not friends he and I. More like acquaintances who have become dependent on one another. He on me for the small pieces of walnut. And, I on him for the lightness he brings that always lifts my frustration and late winter angst.

I have never actually seen him eat the berries only watched as he acrobats from one shaking branch to another and then to the windowsill and finally to the walk.

I have forgotten him of late.

For several days, my mornings have been filled with rush. The wetness of the air has made trips outside unpleasant. My flowerbeds need clearing. Leaf filled gutters need cleaning. Spring is knocking on Texas’ door. And, I am not prepared for the effort it will take to open it to sod laying and planting.

So, I avoid my yard. Going from car to house door without a glance. In that avoidance, I have forgotten my furry, gray acquaintance.

But now he is outside my window pulling on the plants closest to it. I remember my part of the bargain so I gather a handful of walnuts and two pecans from a friend’s tree and spread them on the walkway.

His eyes, however, are not on my sidewalk. Instead, he continues to scurry through the bushes. Then abruptly he stops to view the crepe myrtle tree and the heavens above it. His head stays lifted to the skies for several moments. Then lowers. His attention now on the walk full of walnuts and pecans.

He picks up the largest pecan and holds it close to his mouth. Hesitates and lifts his eyes again toward the tall crepe myrtle as if praying a silent grace in gratitude.

I wonder if he thinks the nuts are gifts from the heavens and the trees and not from me.

He finishes the pecan and picks up a small walnut then hurries off toward the azaleas. As he passes them, I notice a few of the buds have turned to fuchsia flowers.

He travels past the iris plant. Its leaves have turned a dark, spring green.

The morning clouds are separating just enough to let streams of lemon-colored light flow through them.

I stand on the edge of my front stoop surveying the nut-filled walk and the bright pink azaleas and greening iris that border them. If I hurry home from work this afternoon there may be just enough February daylight to begin the digging and trimming. I’m filled with energy and sunlight and eager plans.

I raise my eyes to heaven in thanksgiving for the Grace that’s changed my mood. For the blessing that’s brought lightness to this day. And, there in the trees below those heavens sits my furry acquaintance.

He tilts his head toward me and then rushes down the tree, again pass the blooming and vibrant azaleas to the walk still filled with nuts.

The walnut he apparently wants is the one closest to the edge of the stoop where I am standing. Fearlessly, he approaches it while I stay motionless.

He lifts it from the ground. Holding it, he stares at me for just a moment.

I smile.

He scurries away, his gift in my heart and my gifts in his hands.

Stewardship Reflection: God’s gifts are in my heart and God’s gifts are in your hands. Though we look to the Heavens for the answers to our needs, God places His response in the words and actions of family, friend, stranger and sometimes even furry creature.

Stewardship Challenge: In these weeks before Lent, consider each evening how God has answered your prayers through the words and actions of others. Consider how your actions could be the response to another person’s needs. Then look for a way to let your God-given gifts flow into the lives of others.

Stewardship Scripture: “On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, ‘Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me as scripture says, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” – John 37:38-39

Varied Grace: Knowing an Extravagant Love

A black and white, old photograph from more than a hundred years ago stares back at me from my cell phone. “Old country” wedding garb. High collar dresses. Huge boutonnieres on narrow jacket lapels.

Then the dimpled chin. And I know him. I know the man in the middle of the wedding party. Know about his devotion to my father, his skill at carpentry and how proud he was that he owned the very first car in his small town.

But this is the first time I have ever seen even a picture of him. This very young groom with the sweet face and the three-piece suit is my paternal grandfather.

My father was still wearing a mourning arm band the day he met my mother. But though my grandfather was gone years before I was born I have always loved him.

His carpenter’s plane and the small bench he made for my father and his siblings hold a special place in my home. I have always loved these things as though he had given them to me himself.
My daughter carries the feminine version of his name. Every doll I had as a child did the same. Because I have always loved him.

I have always loved this man I never knew but knew so well.

I had always yearned for a picture of him and only lately learned one existed.

Now I held this treasure in my hand. And its appearance brought memories of a thousand stories told by my father and hundreds of memories created by my dad.

So though I never knew my grandfather I learned to love him through the stories and the actions of my father.

From my father’s stories, I had learned that this sweet young man in the photograph had bought two rocking horses one Christmas and carried the awkward objects one – in each arm – through snow drifts as gifts for each of his sons. He had bought the horses, even though a very practical and frugal wife thought the two boys should share one.

That same extravagant love echoed many times in my father’s Christmas gifts. The purchase of a far too expensive coat for a 15-year-old by an out-of-work father with money he had intended for his own needs. A new refrigerator tied with a bow because “your mother can’t fit all the Christmas cookies she baked in your old one.”

And with every one of my father’s gifts and every one of my father’s stories, I learned a little more about the man who taught my father to love and be generous. And with every action and story I fell in love with my grandfather.

Now, sitting with my grandfather’s picture in my hand, I am coming to realize that this is way we fall in love with Jesus – a man we have never met.

We fall in love through story. The stories from Scripture of his healing, his service, his integrity. The stories we tell each other of the way His grace has nurtured us, saved us, comforted us.

And, we fall in love with Jesus through the extravagant love of others. Through the grown child who cares for us as we age. Through the friend who forgives us for our unkind word. Through the community that feeds us when we are hungry.

And so we fall in love with this Man whom we have never met.

And so we fall in love with this God whom we have never met.

And if we are very blessed, some Sunday mornings we hold that Treasure in our hands as we stretch them out at Eucharist. And if we are very blessed, we hold that Treasure in our hearts each day so we can continue to tell the Story of an Extravagant Love. And so we can continue to act with Extravagant Love.

Stewardship Reflection: “And God so loved the world that He Gave …” – John 3:16

Stewardship Challenge: This Christmas, tell the story of an Extravagant Love and give with such an Extravagant Love that those who have never known our Jesus will fall in love with Him.

Varied Graces: Move along people

“Going home.” That’s what I keep telling them. In a couple of days I’ll board a Southwest plane and head north and east. Going home for a few days.

Going home to see cousins and friends and a very special aunt.

Going home to Steeler and Browns country. Going home to pierogi and polkas and the reds and golds of a true autumn. Going home to good black earth that grows sweet corn and apple trees. Going home to Amish and Mennonite farms. Going home to places with names like Monongahela and Aliquippa.

So I tell them, “I’m going home.” And this time as I say those words, I hear them. Hear them in my heart.

I’ve been in Texas nearly 40 years. Reared my children here. Watched my daughter graduate from UT. Fell in love with fresh shrimp and seawalls and piney woods. Bonded with neighbors as we ran from hurricanes and cleaned up after the storms of Rita and Ike.

I’ve been in Texas so long that I can remember a time when the refineries were named Gulf and Texaco and the Rainbow Bridge was a solo act over the Neches in Port Arthur. I’ve been in Texas so long that I’ve found my way to Luckenbach and Cut ‘n Shoot several times.

Yet, I tell them, “I’m going home” as though the past 40 years have been an extended vacation.

But when I get there I know my thoughts and words will be peppered with Texas. I traded y’all for yinz, coke for pop a long time ago. I’ll look at the constant grey skies of Pittsburgh and Youngstown and wonder how anyone can live with so many overcast days.

I’ll greet and smile at strangers on the street and shake my head as they suspiciously avert their eyes. I’ll listen to cousins and friends talk about people I barely remember. And I’ll wonder where home really is.

But sometime during that visit, I’ll walk to morning Mass. I’ll sit in a middle pew at Blessed Virgin Mary Church. I’ll listen to the young priest speak the words of consecration with a Pittsburghese accent. I’ll offer my hand in peace to someone I’ve never met just like I have done thousands of times before. And I will know where home is.

Our recent 50th anniversary celebration reflected the wonderful diversity of our diocese. Our celebration made it obvious that we come from many different cultures. Some of us have been born in places as far away as India or the Philippines. Others of us may have been transplanted from the Midwest or the New England states. And even if we were born in Southeast Texas, when we come to the Eucharistic table we bring the culture and the native lands of our families with us.

When we come to the Eucharistic table, we bring the memory and the gift of those first homes. Our uniqueness is never ours to hold on to it. It is meant to be shared. In that moment of communion, we are one in Christ. We are catholic. We are Catholic.

Stewardship Reflection: This weekend during communion, watch those who are in the receiving line. Notice their uniqueness. Notice the beauty of the diversity of our community. Then reflect for a moment on this thought: not one of these individuals has the same memories as you or the same thought pattern or the exact same perspective. Yet, each of them struggles with the same broken humanity. Each of them believes in the same saving presence of Jesus. And each of them longs for the same Home in Him.

Stewardship Challenge: As each communicant passes by you, ask our Lord to help them with their individual struggles. Then ask Him what you could do to make them feel more “at home” with you.

Stewardship Scripture: “Whoever loves me will keep my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.” John 14:23

The Press Club of Southeast Texas awarded second place in the “Faith-based/Inspirational” category to director of Stewardship and Communications Ministry, Letty Lanza for her column, “Varied Graces: Times and Always,” and awarded third place in the “General Column” category to the assistant director of community development Richard Rosario for his column, “One Steward’s Response: Blessed Memories.” The ETC is rerunning those columns

Varied Graces: Times and Always

I listen to the morning news and hear that Disney is upping security at its theme parks and forbidding the sale of toy guns on its property. A sign of the times.

I make travel plans to see my daughter in California and book the trip through LAX because the flight is less expensive than at nearby smaller airports. I hang up the phone and worry that I may have made a bad decision. Perhaps the risk of traveling with a terrorist would be less if I were flying into Ontario or Burbank. A sign of the times.

A presidential candidate posits that we should forbid all members of a certain religious group from entering the country because some of them could be up to no good. A poll tells me that more than 30 percent of my fellow, freedom-loving Americans agree with him. A sign of the times.
I pull out of my driveway and notice my neighbor removing leaves from a street drain to let recent rainwater run into it. I roll down the car window to introduce myself. I have lived in the neighborhood 25 years, she has lived here 10. I tell her that perhaps we would have met sooner had her little ones been playing out in the front yard. She tells me that for safety reasons they’re only out in the front yard when she is with them. A sign of the times.

I’m traveling home late at night through what some call a “bad neighborhood” when the driver of the car behind me speeds up to travel in the lane next to mine. He blows his horn and tries to keep pace with my vehicle. My heart races until I see his face and realize he’s an older gentleman. I lower my window and he lowers his to tell me my brake lights are out. He smiles and I am embarrassed for assuming his motivation. A sign of the times.

I yearn for other times. Past times. Simpler times. Times burnt in my memory. Times when children played outside and neighbors sat on front porches. Times when airlines offered dinners instead of security checks. Times when toy guns looked like toys and no one thought playing with them would create mass murderers. Times when those “yearning to breathe free’’ did not have to be vetted. And times when a good Samaritan’s motives weren’t questioned.

Those times! Those times? The same times when citizens were rounded up simply because their skin color and eyes were the same as those bombing balmy islands. The same times when four little girls were dynamited to death in a church in Birmingham. The same times when four young Americans laid dead on campus grounds in Ohio. The same times when they are gunned down by other young Americans who shoot 67 rounds in 13 seconds.

Those times? When good folks act out of fear. Fear that behind those different looking eyes conspiracy was being planned. Fear that black children praying in a Youth Day service might someday find their way to an all-white school. Fear that a young woman strolling across a campus green between classes could do harm to an armed group of National Guardsmen. Fear that rose in the throats of young men ill prepared to meet and then surrounded by young college protesters.

Those times? Those times! The same times when young American soldiers discovered and emptied the concentration camps at Buchenwald. The same times when a Corps established to bring about peace captured the imagination and hearts of college students across the U.S. The same times when a southern president signed legislation that integrated public schools and outlawed discrimination.

Stewardship Challenge: As you consider the events of the past decades, look for the times when God sent His gifts of courage and wisdom to overcome fear and ignorance. Can you recognize the signs? Can you see that God sends those gifts to those who are open to wisdom and willing to act in courage?

Stewardship Reflection: Meditate this Christmas on the word Emmanuel remembering that no matter the times, God is with us.

To our readers: Blessed Feast of Emmanuel and may God be with you in the coming times!

Varied Graces: Move along people

“Nothing here to see, keep movin’, lady.”

I am waiting for the opportunity to play my game.

I play it most Sundays during the readings at Mass. Harmless. No one knows I’m doing it and it’s not a distraction. I’m focused.

In fact, my game is sort of reflection on what’s being read. Yeah, that’s it. I am really reflecting and contemplating.

So right now – this Sunday – my husband is proclaiming the first reading. We’ve already been sprinkled with holy water, and I’m watching this bird balance itself on a branch outside the chapel window.

My husband starts the reading by addressing some guy called Theophilus. I don’t remember anyone named Theophilus, so I worry that perhaps my sweetie is reading the wrong reading for “Ascension” which is now on Sunday instead of Thursday but only in Texas and a couple of other places.

For a few seconds, I consider that arbitrary liturgical change while the bird outside the chapel window changes branches.

Why do Texans get a pass on this Holy Day? Do my Pennsylvania relatives get a break on a different one – maybe the Immaculate Conception? Link that one to Sunday. That would be nice. They get a lot of snow in December. Makes travel tough.

But back to my honey and the Scripture reading. It’s apparently the right one despite my memory lapse about Theophilus since I now hear Luke talking about the Holy Spirit’s upcoming appearance. I realize that’s next weekend – Pentecost. No liturgical faux pas for hubby. He didn’t flip to the wrong page.

But who the heck is that Theophilus guy? I have got to start reading Scripture footnotes.

My husband’s light beige jacket is showing holy water droplets. It’ll dry. Meanwhile, outside the chapel window, my little friend flutters his wings. A late morning shower is accumulating on the glass. I assume he’s trying to get rid of his sprinkles.

Could he be a Carolina wren? Do they live in the Piney Woods? Google that later along with Theophilus.

“And as they were looking on, He was lifted up and a cloud took Him from their sight.”

My husband looks out at the room as he slowly enunciates, “While they were looking intently at the sky suddenly two men in white garments stood beside them.”

And now here it comes. One of my favorite lines from Scripture.

The little wren (I’ve decided he’s a wren) perches himself on the window ledge. He cocks his head and stares through the glass.

We both wait for my husband’s next line of Scripture.

“Why are you standing here looking at the sky?”

And while my husband proclaims, I play my little game. My little game of update and paraphrase. Show’s over, guys. Nothing left to see. Move along. Back to work.

Love the line! Every time I hear this reading I realize again how brilliant this Jesus is. Could have just quietly left, slipped back to heaven without much fanfare.

But he knew how to work a crowd. How to hold its attention. So instead of a quiet goodbye again we get a slow lift upward, a huge white cloud and talk of the ends of the earth.

But his guys are frozen in place, mesmerized. Holding on to the spectacular moment.

Holding on until… “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

Right, nothin’ left to see here. Keep movin’, lady. Keep movin’ to the ends of the earth.

I check the window. The Carolina wren is gone. Only seven more days to Pentecost.

Stewardship Reflection:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” – Acts 1:8

Stewardship Challenge:

Are you still standing in place simply watching and listening to Jesus or are you moving out and carrying His message to the ends of the earth. Move along people!

Varied Graces Stewarding now and tomorrow

“He’s the best looking 13-year-old in the entire country.” That’s what I tell anyone who will listen.

He now towers over me at 5”8’ with more growth to come. Dimples and dark eyes that twinkle with eagerness.

We explore together the long front yard of his Kerrville, Texas, home. He’s building a fort out of branches and rocks underneath one of its trees. We sit on the rocky, dry earth of the Hill Country. I ask about snakes and deer.

He tells me there are plenty of deer. They come very close to the house. Mostly in the evening. He has yet to see a snake. His plan is to “sleep out here” under the Texas sky whenever parents allow.

I yearn for long conversations with him where I could impart my wisdom. Our time together is always too brief. And he’d rather talk about action heroes than the meaning of life.

So we meet where our interests are similar – at animated movies and for soft drinks at Sonic. And always during the weekend visits – Mass. I sit in the pew. He serves at the altar.

I think he genuinely likes me and I adore him. The first time he called me “Grandma” my heart skipped a beat.

Opportunities for visits are infrequent. The drive to the Hill Country can be close to seven hours. School and work schedules are a challenge.

So I lay back against the rocky Hill Country earth to help ground me to this moment. This is now and he is here within arms’ reach. We laugh and make plans. The moment passes. Then another.

And then the moments are finished. And I am driving back home with a piece of my heart again left in the Hill Country.

I am well aware of the passing of time. I look at my hands on the steering wheel. I’m startled by how they look like my grandmother’s. I wonder when the skin became so thin. And suddenly I am filled with angst and worry about how quickly my 13-year-old will become 22 and then 40.

I do some simple math. How many years until 22. How many until 40.

I know that there will come a time when I will not be an arm’s length away from him or a seven-hour drive east. A time will come when I will be a distant memory. I quietly pray his future will be easy.

I smile wondering if that was my grandmother’s prayer for me. Often when we parted she would make a small cross on my forehead.

My grandparents were builders of churches. One set coming from Slovakia, the other from Poland to a country where Catholics were few and prejudice was rampant. These four, like so many others, left their mark with steeples and crucifixes and shrines and schools.

They built the churches with dime and quarter collections. And they built the Church with prayer and example.

They walked grandchildren to Mass. And they sat in pews for confirmations and First Communions.

Because of their own paths, they intuited the future would hold challenges. So they invested themselves into that “down the road” time with dimes and quarters and small crosses on a little girl’s forehead.

The landscape outside my car window changes from rolling hills to rice fields. As it does, I pray for my 13-year-old and wonder what he will remember of me.

Stewardship Challenge:

We are called to be good stewards of the present time but we are also called to grow God’s kingdom into the next generations. Take a few moments between now and Pentecost to ask yourself what you are doing to secure that the Church will be just as vibrant for your grandchildren as it has been for you. When you are gone from this world, what legacy will you have left?

Stewardship Reflection:

“… I will pour out a portion of my Spirit upon all flesh … your young men shall see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” Acts 2:17

Victoria diocesan priest nominated for canonization

In this season of rebirths and Resurrection, death has become palpable for me. The loss of three beautiful souls, three vibrant young men wore heavy on my Easter.

Amid the new beginnings and starts and first times of this spring comes these endings. Comes this “never again will I see them” time. While bougainvillea bloom and while my daughter’s new home is unpacked, while family visits for the first time, sons and brothers are ended and lost forever. At least lost forever to the visions of this world.

And so these mothers and sisters and brothers grieve. And I grieve, but in a way so different than all the past grieving. Perhaps it is because those who left us were still young, in the prime of their manhood. Perhaps because these three loved this world so much and were so much a part of it. Living life to the fullest. Risk takers. Doers. Lovers of creation. Lovers of abundance.

But perhaps, it is just because I am older this time. And perhaps their deaths remind me of my own and the passage of time.

And, perhaps this time, I am questioning more than ever before. So the questions appear in my heart but before they reach the mind their specificity vanishes. And, I am left only with longing.

But longing for what? To be again with dear friends and loved ones? To be again in those times that are past? For answers to their leaving? For the answers to my own mortality?

And for Whom are the questions? Perhaps I am questioning the One for Whom I long.

In some way each of my young men seemed to have chosen the moment of their death. All three had suffered for a very long time. They were ready to let this world go. I think there is great faith in that – to look into the abyss and know that the arms of Wisdom and Mercy will welcome you.

In the days since their passing the quote that keeps reverberating for me is not from Scripture but from a Don McClean’s song – “this world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you.” Perhaps this world was never meant for any soul created in and longing for God’s image.

Stewardship Challenge:

In the days between now and Pentecost, spend an hour each night reflecting on the mystery of your own life and your longing for the arms of Wisdom and Mercy. And if there are places where you are grieving a loss, steward that loss into its own resurrection by anticipating the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Stewardship Reflection:

“Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain…I am caught in this dilemma I want to be gone and to be with Christ, and this is by far the stronger desire – and yet for your sake to stay alive in the body is an urgent need.” – Philippians 1:21-24

Encountering a Conversion

“Beautiful family! Would you like to have a picture taken? They’re free. Would the kids like a Frisbee?”

Simple questions. Ice breakers. And there it begins.

And slowly with comments about beads and parades, the t-shirt they’re wearing, the observation that they lack a Southeast Texas drawl, you learn stuff. You learn where they went to high school, that they’re Saints fans, or that they moved down here from Connecticut.

You take pictures of the little ones and give them Frisbees that carry the Encounter Catholic logo.

Then you take a little breath and ask if they’d like a rosary followed quickly by the disclaimer that that they don’t have to be Catholic.

And they tell you more stuff – like they’re Baptist or Presbyterian or Pentecostal.

You tell them, “That’s okay. Rosaries are nice to hold on to, even if you don’t pray them.” You tell them they’re great for plane landings and take offs especially if the weather is rocky.

They all laugh. They tell you, “Sure.” One adds that she is not that Pentecostal.

And somewhere in those moments after the offer and acceptance of the rosary, the encounter becomes relational.

It’s been eight years of having these kinds of encounters. Eight years since we began reclaiming Mardi Gras and strongly linking it to the end of the holiday party season and the beginning of Lent. Eight years since we’ve set up a booth at Mardi Gras and subtly evangelized. Eight years of encounters becoming relational.

Relational because they tell you stuff. They ask – because they are not Catholic – if they could put the rosary on their baby’s grave. And you find out that a late in life and much wanted pregnancy ended in a child’s early death. You decide you should be grateful for all you have.

Relational because you listen. As a husband walks away, a wife asks you to explain how to pray the rosary. She wants to pray for him. You hear the marriage is not going well. You tell her about marriage retreats and Catholic Charities counseling. You tell her you’ll pray too. You realize you need to pray more.

Relational because they reveal resentments – the kind you might only tell a long-time friend. The resentments are not so much against the teachings of the Church but rather against the actions of its members – a Catholic neighbor, a Catholic ex-husband, a Catholic priest. You start to understand that the Catholic branding causes one to be held to a higher standard. You make a mental note not to be self-righteous.

You pack up to go home. The rosaries stored in little boxes. The printers in big ones. Soon the banner will come down.

You know you’ve been successful again. There is already at least one conversion – you. And as you look around at the smiling faces of your fellow co-workers and volunteers, you’re pretty sure there will be four or five more – them.

Stewardship Challenge:

This Lent instead of giving up some small joyful pleasure – candy, wine, social media, movies – try subtly sharing the joy of the Gospel by closely listening to family, friends even the person next to you in the supermarket check-out line. Can you see that offering the gift of your listening presence does far more to evangelize than any proselytizing? Then notice how this type of evangelizing changes someone – You.

Stewardship Reflection:

“Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” – Luke 6:38

Times and Always

By Letty Lanza

I listen to the morning news and hear that Disney is upping security at its theme parks and forbidding the sale of toy guns on its property. A sign of the times.

I make travel plans to see my daughter in California and book the trip through LAX because the flight is less expensive than at nearby smaller airports. I hang up the phone and worry that I may have made a bad decision. Perhaps the risk of traveling with a terrorist would be less if I were flying into Ontario or Burbank. A sign of the times.

A presidential candidate posits that we should forbid all members of a certain religious group from entering the country because some of them could be up to no good. A poll tells me that more than 30 percent of my fellow, freedom-loving Americans agree with him. A sign of the times.

I pull out of my driveway and notice my neighbor removing leaves from a street drain to let recent rainwater run into it. I roll down the car window to introduce myself. I have lived in the neighborhood 25 years, she has lived here 10. I tell her that perhaps we would have met sooner had her little ones been playing out in the front yard. She tells me that for safety reasons they’re only out in the front yard when she is with them. A sign of the times.

I’m traveling home late at night through what some call a “bad neighborhood” when the driver of the car behind me speeds up to travel in the lane next to mine. He blows his horn and tries to keep pace with my vehicle. My heart races until I see his face and realize he’s an older gentleman. I lower my window and he lowers his to tell me my brake lights are out. He smiles and I am embarrassed for assuming his motivation. A sign of the times.

I yearn for other times. Past times. Simpler times. Times burnt in my memory. Times when children played outside and neighbors sat on front porches. Times when airlines offered dinners instead of security checks. Times when toy guns looked like toys and no one thought playing with them would create mass murderers. Times when those “yearning to breathe free’’ did not have to be vetted. And times when a good Samaritan’s motives weren’t questioned.

Those times! Those times? The same times when citizens were rounded up simply because their skin color and eyes were the same as those bombing balmy islands. The same times when four little girls were dynamited to death in a church in Birmingham. The same times when four young Americans laid dead on campus grounds in Ohio. The same times when they are gunned down by other young Americans who shoot 67 rounds in 13 seconds.

Those times? When good folks act out of fear. Fear that behind those different looking eyes conspiracy was being planned. Fear that black children praying in a Youth Day service might someday find their way to an all-white school. Fear that a young woman strolling across a campus green between classes could do harm to an armed group of National Guardsmen. Fear that rose in the throats of young men ill prepared to meet and then surrounded by young college protesters.

Those times? Those times! The same times when young American soldiers discovered and emptied the concentration camps at Buchenwald. The same times when a Corps established to bring about peace captured the imagination and hearts of college students across the U.S. The same times when a southern president signed legislation that integrated public schools and outlawed discrimination.

Stewardship Challenge:

As you consider the events of the past decades, look for the times when God sent His gifts of courage and wisdom to overcome fear and ignorance. Can you recognize the signs? Can you see that God sends those gifts to those who are open to wisdom and willing to act in courage?

Stewardship Reflection:

Meditate this Christmas on the word Emmanuel remembering that no matter the times, God is with us.

To our readers: Blessed Feast of Emmanuel and may God be with you in the coming times!