Friday, June 13, 2014

Living the Dash with Vulnerability

My priest recently said in one of his homilies something that struck me as rather profound.  He stated that the most important symbol engraved upon a tombstone is neither the date of birth nor the date of death; rather, it is the dash between those numbers that is the most meaningful.  It is what we do with that dash, that time between our dates of birth and death that gives meaning and significance to our life.  And this is true regardless of how long or short of a life that may be.

With the passing of my beloved wife last November, this struck me to my very core.  I have been reflecting on Jenny’s life and have come to realize all of the people she had touched, how many lives she changed for the better, and how many people she comforted with her love when they felt despondent and alone.  With all of the medical issues my Jenny had, she could have easily retreated into her own self and cried “woes is me”!  She was not one to play the victim though, and I always admired and respected her immensely for that!  Whenever she was physically able to do so, and indeed sometimes when even that was questionable, she lived her life by caring for and loving others.  It was something I saw her do again and again and again for the 25 years we were together. 

I am rather slow on the uptake most of the time, but she taught me a lesson that I didn’t even pick up on until after she was gone.  You see, most of the time the people that Jenny helped showed her great gratitude, affection, and love in return.  But there were some people that only wanted more from Jenny, even when she could give any more.  Those few people became bitter and spiteful towards her when they couldn’t “get more” accordingly.  Those broken relationships injured Jenny deeply and left her feeling betrayed, and yet she never gave up on people.  She remained vulnerable enough to put herself out there to try and help and love others yet again.

Now many people when you ask them what they think vulnerability means will respond with the answer that it is weakness.  That is sure as heck what I was taught.  Most men in my and preceding generations were brought up with that same notion, I think.  I was taught that big boys don’t cry.  My boyhood heroes certainly wouldn’t show signs of vulnerability.  You certainly didn’t see John Wayne throw his feelings out on the table like so many cards.  He absolutely wouldn’t cry.  Stoicism and strength were something to be admired, particularly in men.  And that is how I was raised and how I lived most of my life to date.  (Never mind that most of the time these days I have become a great big wuss!) 

But what Jenny and the example of her life showed me was that REAL strength doesn’t come from living a stoic life.  It doesn’t come from holding one’s self aloof from others.  Vulnerability is not weakness at all.  Indeed it is the very antithesis of weakness.  It takes great courage and strength to be vulnerable and live your life being open to others, even though showing such vulnerability might get you hurt.

My brother-in-law, Jenny’s brother, came to live with us a year and a half ago.  (This was because once again Jenny was showing great courage in her vulnerability in reaching out to her brother who didn’t have any place else to go at that time.)  Jeff likewise showed great vulnerability in agreeing to come live with us.  Jeff has lived a difficult life, and he would be the first to tell you that it was largely due to his own doing.  Jeff is a fighter and is exceptionally tough with his street smarts, and yet he is like his sister and indeed his whole family, as he exhibited that same kind of strength in vulnerability.  Jeff, despite being a man’s man, was never afraid to tell me that he loved me.  He has put himself out there literally giving his last dollar in his wallet to try and help someone else that was worse off than him.  He too has been hurt in his attempts to help others at times because of that strength in vulnerability, and yet he perseveres also.

So now I am taking a new look at how I live my life this past year.  I am struggling, mightily at times, to put myself out there more and more for others.  I am trying to shed my more stoic and self-centered exterior.  I am trying to find the courage to be vulnerable especially with my family and dear friends.  While frightening and difficult at first, it has become easier as time progresses. 

I have a friend whom, along with his wonderful family, has more or less adopted me this year.  They have filled many of my weekends with laughter and happiness, not to mention wonderful meals.  (Being a fat man, that is something very dear to me!)  I am very grateful for their friendship and told them so last time I was at their home and that I loved them all very much.  At first there was an awkward moment.  After all, guys just don’t do that these days, but then they each responded that they too loved me.
I am not going to go through life holding back anymore.  If somebody has touched my life or allowed me the privilege of coming into their lives and touching them, then I am going to respond with gratitude and let them know it!  I want to find and hold on to that courage to live my life in the strength of vulnerability. 

Living in my own shell certainly was not a life.  It was an unsatisfying and unfulfilling existence.  My choosing to love God and to love my neighbor as myself by being open and vulnerable to others has proven to be a much more rewarding life.  I know that is what Jenny did and what she would want me to do.

Indeed, her wish for me was that if anything ever happened to her that I would fall in love and get married again.  She said that I had too much love to hold that inside of myself.  Well, I don’t know about all of that, as she always brought out the best in me.  I will leave my path open to what God wants me to do whether that is marriage, should the right woman come along, or perhaps taking Holy Orders and entering the clergy.  Perhaps I will remain single and simply live my life loving God, my fellow man, and his creation as best as I am able. 

Regardless of the path that the Good Lord places before me, I am going to make dang sure I try living my life with the strength and courage of vulnerability.  I intend to try to follow the example Jenny lived.  It has taken me far too many years but I have concluded that it is the only way to truly live that dash between my birth date and my eventual date of death… to live a life of meaning and significance.  By doing so, I will hopefully have lived a life that will make my daughters reflect upon with smiles when my time comes to leave this earth, just as it has been for me with the fond memories of their mother’s life.  Jenny definitely lived the dash.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Real Cowboy Way

When I was a boy, I used to love to read Louis L'Amour westerns.  It was a simpler time for me when I had no doubt who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.  The cowboys that were the main characters in each of those novels were always tough, honest, and chivalrous.  In some small silly way, I think those books helped form my own sense of honor, and I am grateful for that.  Perhaps I am naive to be the age I am now and still often thinking in those terms, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the world would be a better place if more people thought and acted like my old cowboy heroes.

One of my favorite of those Louis L'Amour books was Hondo.  Now Hondo was a tough but fair man that came across a woman and her son that were unknowingly abandoned by the ne'er do well husband/father on their homestead right in the middle of Apache territory.  Of course, Hondo ends up teaching the boy what it really means to be a man and also inevitably falling in love with the woman. A few years later, I discovered that they had made a movie of the book staring John Wayne.  That was it for me!  It seems my heroes have always been cowboys ever since.

Cowboys these days are definitely a dying breed and there are darn few of them around anymore.  That is surely a damned shame, because I think the country would be far better off if we had more of them around. The several real cowboys I have had the great pleasure of knowing and counting as my friends are all men that love God, love their families, and love America, and in that order.  Each of them will look you in the eye and their handshake and word is their bond.  They work hard, love their women faithfully, and they love and teach their children to grow up strong, independent, and true.

All of that said, I think we can still learn a lot from the simple philosophies lived and spoken by the cowboy. Some of my favorite sayings and pieces of wisdom from this dying breed follows below.  Enjoy!

Find her, protect her, spoil her, dance with her and never stop loving her or someone else will.

The biggest troublemaker you'll probably ever have to deal with watches you shave his face in the mirror every morning.

Life is not about how fast you run, or how high you climb, but how well you bounce.

Keep skunks, lawyers, and politicians at a distance.

Life is simpler when you plough around the stump.

Words that soak into your ears are whispered, not yelled.

Meanness don't happen overnight.

Don't sell your mule to buy a plough.

It don't take a very big person to carry a grudge.

You can't unsay a cruel thing.

Every path has some puddles.

When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.

Most of the stuff people worry about never happens.

Don't squat with your spurs on.

Don't judge people by their relatives.

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

Don't interfere with something that ain't botherin' you none.

Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.

The easiest way to eat crow is while it's still warm. The colder it gets, the harder it is to swallow.

If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin'.

If it don't seem like it's worth the effort, it probably ain't.

It don't take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep.

If you get to thinkin' you're a person of some influence, try orderin' somebody else's dog around.

Don't worry about bitin' off more'n you can chew; your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger'n you think.

Always drink upstream from the herd.

If you're ridin' ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there with ya.

Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.

Lettin' the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin' it back in.

You can't tell how good a man or a watermelon is 'till they get thumped.

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

Some days ya just gotta put on your boots and dance anyway.

Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.

The only substitute for good manners is fast reflexes.

The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.

A young cowboy once asked his father, “Father, how will I ever find the right woman?”  His father replied, “Forget finding the right woman; focus on being the right man.”

What this country needs is dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds.  ~ Will Rogers

Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless you’re bein’ hung from it.

Just because you’re following a well-marked trail don’t mean whoever made it knew where they were going.

Hard work spotlights the character of people:  some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.

Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.

Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.

Every cowgirl knows if you’re wantin’ to find yourself a good stallion, don’t go looking in the donkey corral.

You can’t fix stupid.

Life will change without our permission.  It’s our attitude that will determine the ride.

If you want to know what a man’s character is like, take a good look at how he treats those which are not his equals.

Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you'll enjoy it a second time.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In Love of Beauty

Sadly it is very easy to find evil and ugliness in the world today.  Indeed one does not have to search far to find it. That said, it is also true that there is much beauty in this world.  That beauty is often evident in God's creation of nature and in God's gifts of talent to humankind thus allowing us to create beautiful works of art in paintings, music, and architecture.  There is also much beauty and love to be found in each other throughout humanity and our caring and loving for one another.  And, of course, there is infinite goodness and beauty and love to be found in God himself.  Indeed he is the very essence and definition of these things.

Instead of focusing on ugliness, despair, and evil, I am trying mightily to find that love - that beauty - in God's creation.  In doing so, I came across some pictures that illustrate that wondrous and transcendent beauty that is ultimately created and held in its very existence through God's own will.  I do hope you will find that same beauty that I see in the following pictures accordingly.

This is a picture I personally took several years ago from in front of the picture window over the altar of the Chapel of the Transfiguration in Grand Teton National Park.  I commented to some other visitors there at the time how it must be difficult for any pastor to come up with a sermon to surpass the beauty of this scene above the altar.  One older lady said that she was an Episcopal Minister that had preached there before and that I was indeed correct.

This is a picture of the Milky Way over the Anasazi Indian ruins at Hovenweep National Monument.  The stars anywhere on a cloudless night away from the small town lights in Southern Utah are simply magnificent!  They truly make me feel small, and yet very special, to be a part of this unfathomable universe God has created for us. 

Michelangelo's masterpiece, "The Creation of Adam", which  he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is truly amazing and beautiful!  Seeing this painting in person in the Vatican is definitely something that I would love to do before the end of my earthly days.

The next picture is of a coral reef and it is truly  breathtaking in it vibrancy.  It almost feels other-worldly in its beauty.  Years ago when I was in the Navy I was lucky enough to be stationed in both Puerto Rico and then Okinawa, Japan.  Both places had beautiful places where I snorkeled and saw just such amazing reefs and the life that they sustained.

A Monarch butterfly was flitting around in the warm Autumn sunshine when my wife noticed it and took this picture down by Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah a few years ago.  There was an ever so slight breeze and the warm sunshine was dappled on the ground as it was filtered by the huge cottonwood trees above us that lined our wooden path.  Among that scene, several of these beautiful butterflies would occasionally lite on the vibrant yellow flowers swaying in that gentle breeze.

The beauty of the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist  which was given to us by Christ himself at the last supper is something that sustains me and many millions of Christians throughout his beautiful world.  What could be more beautiful than a God that would lay down his life simply out of love for someone like me?

Another one of my most favorite places on earth is the serenely beautiful Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park in western Montana.  There is something about this place that simply brings peace to my soul.

The Italian Baroque master Caravaggio painted the "Incredulity of Saint Thomas" over four hundred years ago.   Thomas was told by his fellow apostles that the risen Christ had appeared to them.  Saint Thomas  in his incredulity stated, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."  A week later Jesus appeared and told Thomas to touch Him and stop doubting. Then Jesus said, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  This beautiful masterpiece is one of my favorite paintings.

The stunningly beautiful site of Machu Picchu was built by the Incas around 1450 in the mountains of Peru. Visiting this location someday is definitely on my bucket list.  A friend of mine will be venturing here later this summer!  I am very excited for her and hopes she takes lots of pictures to share!

This world's beauty is also reflected by many of the people that live on our planet.  This picture is of my oldest granddaughter when she was just a baby.  She has grown up to be a teenager now and is one of the most beautiful people I know.  Her spirit is so full of love, light, and God's joy.  Those are the things that make her so beautiful.  That said, she is also exceptionally beautiful on the outside too.

When I was a boy and a teenager, I spent a lot of time camping and hiking throughout many wild and gorgeous places throughout the Pacific Northwest.  One of my favorite spots was around Mt. Jefferson in the Cascade Mountain range in central Oregon.  It was through my hiking and exploration of such beautiful places that I learned to love and come to deeply appreciate the natural wonders of our world that we must ensure are secured and protected for all of mankind to marvel at in future generations.

This is another picture that my beautiful wife took several years ago on our trip back from exploring the beautiful red rock country in southern Utah.  The clouds that day were truly amazing and seemed to be like giant tufts of cotton that God had just suspended in the warm Fall sky.  

This is a picture of another of my favorite places on earth.  (I know - I know - I have lots of favorite places!) I took this picture of Bryce Canyon on that same trip as the one from the picture above.  God's artistry as displayed in the beautiful sand stone spires, called hoo doos, is something that I have never seen anywhere else in this beautiful world.

Another item that I have on my bucket list is to someday travel far enough north in Alaska to be able to see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.  I have always been fascinated by this atmospheric phenomenon.

The Pieta was sculptured by Michelangelo and depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus.  This solemnly beautiful sculpture is heart wrenching in its beauty and what it depicts.  There is a beautiful reproduction of this sculpture at my local parish.  Michelangelo's is in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Another place of beauty where I spent plenty of my teenage years was along the magnificent Oregon Coast. I have always appreciated the rugged landscape of the coastline throughout much of the Pacific Northwest far more so than the over-crowded sandy beaches of southern California.  God's handiwork is often on display in the rock formations and the crashing breakers that line the Oregon and Washington coastlines.

I never get tired of seeing God's painting of magnificent sunsets.  From my time growing up in Oregon to the present time as I watch the setting of the sun over The Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh Mountain range from my back deck, I always feel a sense of awe and wonder. Below is scene of black-eyed Susan's in a field as the sun sets in the distance.  I don't know where this picture was taken, but it is a common scene around here and could have easily come from this area.

God has also graced humankind with many great gifts and talents.  Some of those talents have been used to make beautiful structures and works of architecture, in particular in houses of worship to him.  The below picture is that of the the altar at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  The superlative detail in the craftsmanship is truly beautiful.

Sometimes there is even a sense of beauty in the destructive and creative forces of God in nature.  Such is the case during an eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii!  While it would be unsettling to be close to this eruption, the beauty of it is certainly evident.

And finally for my last picture of beauty!  The Catholic Church teaches that God calls each of us to a vocation.  Vocation in this context doesn't simply mean a "job", but rather a specific life calling.  Those vocations are meant to impart God's graces and happiness for the individual that strives to live that vocation faithfully.  The vocations that one can be called to are to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders as a Priest, Deacon, or consecrated religious man or woman.  Further, one can be called to the vocation of lifelong sacramental marriage.  Finally one can be a consecrated single person.  

My vocation for the last 23 years of my adult life was that of a married person.  God blessed me with the most beautiful woman, both in her spirit and in her countenance, to be my beloved wife.  With her passing, I am praying and discerning which new vocation he is calling for me to follow.  I was blessed with such beauty in my marriage with my Jenny.  I am sure that whatever my future vocation holds for me, God will also bless me with much beauty to be found within it as well!  

Lastly, I pray that each of your reading this will listen in your heart to God's calling to find and live your vocation in order that you too will be able to see the beauty that is so easily found and evident everywhere in God's creation!  Amen!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Intolerant Tolerance

America as a nation has always had a federal government that recognized the necessity of not having a state religion to dictate to our elected leaders how we should be governed.  Our founders specifically did not want such a quasi-theocracy or state sponsored faith such as England had with its Anglican Church.  It is for this very reason that religious liberties were declared sacrosanct and yet required to be specifically set apart from the administration of our government via the very first amendment to our United States Constitution. 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Many of our progressive friends will point to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he spoke of a “separation of church and state” in the misguided assumption that Jefferson meant that faith should be kept private and never intrude into the public square.  Of course they often fail to realize that if that was Jefferson’s meaning, then it would follow that the converse of his statement must also be true; the state should be held separate so as not intrude upon the religious rights of the individual.  That said, the latter part of the statement, not the former, is indeed true and is specifically codified in the first amendment.

However, Jefferson and our founding fathers certainly did not intend for any mention of God or Jesus to be something uttered only behind the doors of the village church.  Indeed, from the very beginning of this nation, congress has ever started its opening session with prayer led by a government paid chaplain.  Indeed many of our founders and some of our greatest presidents and governmental leaders have waxed eloquently on the floor of the house, to gathered crowds of citizens, or in the bully pulpit of the presidency to the American citizenry about the necessity of some legislation, movement, or historical event by invoking God’s name.  Such are done as appeals to the very best of what is within each of us.

Even Thomas Jefferson when contemplating the evil institution of slavery in our young nation, despite being a slave owner himself, made just such an invocation:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty.  And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God?  That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jefferson was proved correct about such justice being served when eighty years after having written that statement, our nation was plunged into a horrific and bloody civil war that nearly destroyed a country that was supposedly conceived in liberty, in order to right that evil.

I have had some discussions where I have been told that I and others of faith simply want to erect a theocracy to govern the United States.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I simply want OUR nation to be governed as per the original intentions of the Constitution and it amendments.  (I wouldn’t object to the repeal of the 16th amendment though.)  Further, I want to be able to live my life and my faith freely without the government infringing upon that most basic of human rights.  I want to be able to mention or perhaps even pray to God in school, in my office, or at a city council meeting without someone immediately calling the ACLU because they were offended. 

We all need to be respectful and polite towards one another, particularly when we are from differing cultures, faith communities, or perhaps a lack thereof.  We also need to realize that tolerance is something that must work in both directions for a peaceful society to emerge and it is not merely something of which the left has the rhetorical high ground and a monopoly thereof.  Indeed, it is my observation that is often times those espousing the mantra of “tolerance” whom are the least tolerant of those people that believe and live their lives according to a Christian faith.  

While we believers don’t want the government to impose our beliefs on those that choose not to believe, so too do we not want progressives to impose their secular beliefs upon us through governmental mandate, fiat, or legislation in the guise of a very intolerant form of tolerance.  Further, such is our right to publicly exercise our faith without infringement as espoused in the first amendment and by our Founding Fathers’ intents, words, and, deeds.  Indeed it is a right that transcends human law.  Our desire to worship Him freely is a right kindled within our hearts by our Creator, and as such it can never be extinguished.

Friday, May 2, 2014

McConaughey, God, and a Life Philosophy

Aside from the CMA shows decades past, I have never been one for watching award shows, particularly the Oscars.  The people that judge and give out those Academy Awards are simply not to be trusted.  On occasion they will be forced to admit what everyone already knows, like "Braveheart" absolutely was the greatest film of 1995 (and in the top three of all time, in my humble opinion.)  But just when you think you can trust those folks handing out Oscars because they nailed a no-brainer, they will throw in a nomination for “The Crying Game” just to make you doubt your own sanity.  I am still scarred from seeing THAT Oscar-nominated mess.

All of that said, that broken clock is indeed right twice a day.  Again, I did not watch the Oscars this year either, but I did take note of the hub-bub regarding Matthew McConaughey’s acceptance speech this year for winning the Oscar for best actor in a leading role.  Now, I have always liked McConaughey and found him to have done quite the admirable job of acting in many of his movies, but I was really struck by his Oscar acceptance speech this year.  It actually tells us a lot about the man and gives us a good recipe for how to improve our own selves, and thereby our lives.

McConaughey said in his speech that he needs three things every day:

1.)    Someone to look up to.  (For Matthew, this is God.  For me, I would unabashedly and wholeheartedly agree with that choice.  I cannot think of a better role model for us to follow in living our lives.)
2.)    Something to look forward to.  (For Matthew, this is his family.  Again for me, I must concur with him.  While I am blessed with many great and loving friends, looking forward to spending time with family is always the greatest anticipation.)
3.)    Something/someone to chase.  (For Matthew, this was himself in ten years.)

That third item really struck me as being rather insightful.  I think basic human nature makes most folks hesitant to embrace change and indeed many are loathe to adapt to changing times, myself included.  That said, unless we have a goal, something that gives life meaning and a purpose, we simply are destined to merely exist rather than truly live. 

This last year has been one of profound changes in my life.  I can choose to try and maintain the status quo and refute some of those changes to the best of my ability by living in the past, or I can embrace the goodness of God and pray for His love, wisdom, mercy, and guidance as I navigate the waters of my current life into the future.  To do that, I have to have something or someone to chase, while always being open to what God wants me to do.  If I can discern and thereby live His plan for me, ultimately my happiness will one day be assured in His heavenly kingdom. 

How does one do this?  I suspect the answer is different for everybody.  For me, I was intrigued by Matthew McConaughey’s answer.  When I think back ten years ago in my own life, I see myself still in the early years of my career at my current company.  I see my youngest daughter getting ready to go to junior high school.  I see myself in a very immature stage of my faith and spiritual growth.  I see myself comfortable and happy in my marriage to my beloved wife. 

Fast forward ten years to today and everything has changed dramatically.  My company has just merged with a Fortune Five company and potentially huge changes for my career lie ahead if I choose to remain in my current engineering profession.  My youngest daughter is now all grown up, moved out, and is tackling the world on her own terms.  My faith has grown and my love of God has increased exponentially as I converted and entered Christ’s own Catholic Church, so much so that I now am part of a team at my parish that helps to bring other people searching for God to a similar greater knowledge and love of Him.  And my beautiful wife of nearly twenty three years unexpectedly and suddenly passed away last autumn leaving me devastated and trying to figure out what “normal” is in my life.

So what/whom should I chase going forward?  Again, in admiration of Matthew’s answer, I want to set some goals and work day by day to make progress towards them over the next decade of my life.  That said, if I have learned anything over the past year it is that if you want to hear God laugh, you simply have to tell Him your plans.  While I am praying constantly and trying mightily to listen to what God wants of me, I am determined to try to the best of my abilities to work towards those goals with the underlying axiom of following His two greatest commandments:  Love God with all your heart and all of your soul, and to love my neighbor as myself.  If I can even partially live my life following those standards in striving towards my goals, I am sure that whoever I am a decade from now, I will be a person that I will want to meet.  God is indeed very very good.