Keep the Old

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Throughout our lives, we meet new people and forge new friendships – from childhood besties to our college posse to the circle of parents surrounding our own children. Someone once told me that our friendships naturally change as our lives change. But with any luck, there are those friends with whom we forge a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Last weekend, my husband and I got together with a group of his old pals from college. We converged at a lake in Michigan, the state in which these bosom buddies had met a few decades before. Of course, the group included spouses, some from the same college and others met later along life’s path.

From the moment the first arrivals gathered over pizza and beer, we enjoyed an easy rapport, a sense of picking right up where we had left off that I have experienced with some of my dearest friends. There is something comforting about hanging out with people who knew you when. No pretense is possible when you and your friends go way back to your more youthful and foolish days. Some of the fun, in fact, is in reminiscing about those crazy times and those “near death” experiences or humiliations you suffered in your callow youth.

The weather was hot and the sun plentiful in Michigan. We had lots of good food and drink, plenty of laughter, and the gift of time – time to catch up on each other’s lives, time to bask in each other’s presence. Since our salad days, we have married, divorced, become parents and grandparents, experienced health problems and the deaths of those we dearly love. All of that has become part and parcel of who we are, etched on our faces and in our hearts. Keeping in touch through the vicissitudes of life has only strengthened those bonds.

When my kids were little, they loved a video titled Wee Sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In it, the characters sing a song reflecting the need to hold onto our earliest friendships. The lyrics go: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

As we head into our golden years, let’s cherish those golden friendships and keep them close to our hearts.

 

A Life Well Lived

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IMG_1148Yesterday my beloved aunt Mary was laid to rest after 94 years of a life well lived. The chapel where her funeral was held was filled to capacity with family members, friends, and Aunt Mary’s many caregivers who had come to know her during her last 10 years spent in a nursing home.

Aunt Mary was always a favorite of mine because I was her godchild and namesake. Her presence was always a benign and pleasant one. She seemed to take raising a large family in her stride, and I don’t ever remember seeing her sullen or angry. Aunt Mary was intelligent. Even after a stroke had left her with partial paralysis, she became known for playing Scrabble regularly at the nursing home. She loved music, my cousin once told me, especially opera. And when I visited her, Aunt Mary could regale me with all the doings of her massive extended family. Above all, Aunt Mary was kind. She gave time in service to the church and community. But at the end of the day, what she lived for was to care for her family.

I had mixed emotions as I watched Aunt Mary’s many children, grandchildren, and great-children say goodbye. Whether escorting her casket into and out of the chapel, reading aloud from Scripture, or processing up the aisle to place individual white roses in an arrangement on the altar, her loved ones were clearly shaken and grieving. Even her son-in-law, who in Mary’s last years was a big presence in her life, could barely read  the comforting words of our faith without choking up.

It was so very clear to me that Aunt Mary was beloved. And I wondered, will people mourn my loss some day with such heartfelt love? Will my children and my children’s children miss me so deeply?

A few days ago, I received a text from an old friend. She had seen an obituary for my aunt in the newspaper and had found it jarring since Aunt Mary and I had the same first and last name before I got married. Thinking about my possible death had caused my friend to reach out and affirm her affection for me, and we agreed to see each other soon.

What does it mean to lead a life well lived? In a word, love. Love is what Aunt Mary showered on everyone she met. Love is what helped her endure hardship and loss, including the untimely death of a son. And love is what went with her yesterday and what will live on in the hearts of all those who were privileged to be part of her life.

In the final words of the priest at the funeral, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)

 

A Day For Love

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All the complaints about the commercialization of Valentine’s Day may be true. It’s overhyped, a “Hallmark holiday,” and an excuse to sell overpriced flowers, chocolates, and jewelry. Still, there’s something sweet about a red and pink holiday celebrated smack dab in the middle of the winter doldrums – and a celebration of love, no less!

Valentine’s Day helps remind couples of the romantic feelings that brought them together. It’s a day to break the cycle of taking our significant other for granted and do something nice for him or her. Going out for a nice dinner together, cracking open that bottle of champagne you’d been saving, surprising him or her with fresh flowers. All these actions can signify our appreciation for the one we love.

And these forms of appreciation need not be costly. Offering a back rub, taking a long walk, or watching a favorite movie on TV together can be just as romantic as an expensive night out or a piece of jewelry. Cooking her favorite dinner or whipping up a special dessert for him are wonderful ways to say you care. Just putting down those phones and really talking to each other. There’s an idea!

I’m a sucker for greeting cards. I can spend hours in the aisles at a store perusing the selections for just the right message for the ones I love. Yes, commercial greeting cards have gotten ridiculously expensive, and many people don’t want to waste upwards of $5.00 on a piece of card stock. But exchanging valentines is still a sweet and romantic gesture. You can always swipe a card from the sets your kids are using for their classmates and pen a message of love to your loved one.

Kids have the right idea about celebrating Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day should be heavy on candy, cardboard hearts, stickers, paste and glitter. I have fond memories of addressing valentines to all of my grammar school classmates and bringing them to school in the tissue box “mailbox” I’d decorated with hearts and flowers. I made sure to choose just the right greeting for each child (nothing too mushy or romantic for the boys!).

Love in all its forms should be the focus of today. After all, it’s really a saint’s feast day. St. Valentine was known not only for bringing young lovers together but for helping the poor and downtrodden of society. So let your Valentine’s Day spirit overflow with hearts and joy and love for the people in your life. I guarantee that love will come back to you many times over.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

Be Prepared

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. These words from Jesus in the Gospel struck me in a particular way: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” (Luke 21:34)

There’s not much chance I’ll succumb to carousing or drunkenness, but I have to admit that the anxieties of daily life often keep me up at night. Especially in the weeks before Christmas, I find myself lying awake ticking off my to-do lists in my head instead of getting much needed sleep. And all the busy-ness keeps me from focusing on what is truly important at Christmastime.

In the Church, Advent points not only to the arrival of a tiny baby in Bethlehem who will become the Savior of the world. It also points us to the end of our lives when we will be held to account for how we lived. How much did we love? How much did we give of ourselves to others? How much did we emulate the great sacrifice of Christ, who gave his very self for our salvation?

Even if you are not a religious person, it’s worthwhile to think about your impact on this planet and the people in it. Are you selfishly concerned only with your own gain to the exclusion or detriment of others? Are you so busy consuming that you fail to see the needs of your fellow human beings? Do you show kindness to others even when it’s difficult and inconvenient? How are you making the world a better place?

Advent invites us to consider our answers to these questions. As we prepare for the fun of the holidays – the family gatherings, parties, gift and cookie exchanges – can we take a little time each day to be reflective and consider how we might reach out to the poor, the lonely, the oppressed?

Are we content to let time just slip by as we engage in thoughtless pursuits? Or can we strive to live more meaningful and intentional lives? One of these paths leads to the greatest fulfillment both in this life and the next. Today I commit myself to taking that path and approaching Christmas by being prepared – prepared to open my heart to others, prepared to give more than I receive, prepared to make a positive mark on the world God has so graciously granted to us.

 

Who Needs Hell?

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The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.

Christmas Is For Lovers

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IMG_1485Our first Christmas together, my husband did not want to get a tree. He reasoned that we would be spending the holidays with our families and were at home so little it wasn’t worth the effort. To me, no Christmas was complete without a real tree shimmering with lights and tinsel. So I was feeling glum as I made my way home from my teaching job one cold and wintry December evening. When I walked in the door, I was surprised to find my beloved kneeling at the base of a lovely tall fir tree, screwing the posts of a tree stand into its trunk. Next to the tree were boxes of lights and shiny ornaments he’d bought. He had carried the tree on his back for three blocks and up the three flights of stairs to the condo where it now stood in all its majesty at the big picture window. I was thrilled and touched.

Something about the holidays moves us to be kind and generous to each other. And over the years, it has been a time when my husband has gone out of his way to show me how much he loves me.

One of my favorite Christmas tree ornaments was given to me by my sister. It is a Precious Moments ornament with the inscription, “Our First Christmas Together 1988,” and I have always given it pride of place on our tree. One Christmas, one of my kids was attempting to hang it on the tree when it slipped out of his little hands and broke in two. I was inconsolable. Of all the ornaments we had collected over the years, that one was irreplaceable. That Christmas morning, in the pile of presents from my husband, was a small box with the very Precious Moments ornament I thought was gone forever. My husband had searched for its replacement and special ordered it for me.

Through the years, somehow my husband has found ways to give me gifts with deep emotional meaning. One year he had restored and tinted a favorite old photo of my sisters when they were little. Another year, I unwrapped three fancifully decorated letters of the alphabet representing the initials of each of our three children. But there was a fourth box of identical shape. When I opened it, tears came to my eyes. It was the letter “O,” representing our hope for the fourth child we were in the process of adopting.

Christmas is an emotional time for many people, and I am an extremely sensitive and emotional person. The year my father died, I could hardly bear to celebrate Christmas. The holiday that had always been marked by my father’s birthday on Christmas Eve would feel so empty without him. That year, my husband gently coaxed me through the season, helping me decorate the house and reminding me that our kids needed to feel the joy of the season – but also allowing me space to grieve.

The true magic of Christmas is that it can bring us closer to the people we love. That has certainly been the case with my husband and me over the years. I cherish the memories of almost three decades of Christmases together and pray that we have many, many more.

Hope

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With everything going on in the world these days, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Greed, intolerance, partisanship, abuse, and violence have all cast a pall on my holiday spirits. I have several friends who have stopped going on Facebook to avoid the constant bad news and negativity. To add to my feelings of despondency, I learned that a little boy from my town lost his battle with cancer last week.

But then at Sunday morning Mass, something happened to me. I was watching parishioners file down the aisles after receiving Holy Communion, and a tiny feeling lit up my heart: hope. All these people, young and old, had given up their cozy beds of a Sunday morning and come together to pray. We were there because we have faith that goodness and love are stronger than evil and hatred.

Faith is the ” realization of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) This past Sunday, the first candle was lit on the Advent wreath, its light a reminder of that tiny flame within each of us that can kindle hope.

Hope looks like Sisterhood Soap, a collective of Iraqi refugee women living in the direst of conditions who are taking charge of their destiny by making and selling soap. Hope resembles the unlikely friendship between an 81-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old black man, who met playing the online game Words With Friends. Hope is the dominant spirit at GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that works toward achievement and acceptance of people with Down’s Syndrome. Hope is Operation Christmas Child, a mission to spread joy and faith throughout the world with boxes full of goodies for impoverished children.

Hope is the sound of the Salvation Army bell ringing out on the cold, busy street. Hope is the light in a young child’s eyes when he sees a brightly wrapped package on Christmas morning with his name on it. Hope is abundant as families gather at the holidays, break bread, and share their love for one another.  Hope is the babe in the manger, the unlikely harbinger of peace on earth.

With a spirit of hope, let’s move through the Christmas season, spreading joy and kindness, and doing good for friends and strangers alike.