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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Son's Affection and The Loving Father...

Rembrandt's Loving Father... 
“I love you, Daddy,” he said as he hugged my arm and buried his head on my chest, while I was kneeling during my eight-year-old daughter’s First Holy Communion Commitment Mass last week.

I can think of nothing more rewarding for a parent to hear than those words with sincerity from their child. 

It makes you almost forget the sleepless nights of having to get up to change the bed sheets after an overnight "accident," the aggravations of the occasional bedroom (or worse, living room) battle scenes played with every single toy within reach, and the irritations of having to repeat the same things over and over, like to pick up shoes thrown everywhere around the house, or our daughters' dirty clothes and towels on the bathroom floor (Or my pet peeve; using less toilet paper, for Christ's sake!  I think I'm developing back problems from having to plunge the toilet so many times.  Then again, it could be just my age!).    

At any point, those four words, "I love you, Daddy" sweetly offered unsolicited from the depths of the soul, as only an innocent child could express with unconditional love and earnest dependence, is probably the most poignant argument against John Calvin’s predestination doctrine. 

In other words, as a child loves his father, so we love God; not because we have to but because we want to (free will).  It wouldn't be true love unless we chose to love freely; which is what God and all loving parents want from their children.

But, less I digress, that's not where I'm heading with this blog.  Although, if you haven't noticed by now, I have a tendency to stray from the story line from time to time, which is why when I was in college, my brother's high school friends used to call me “The Governor,” for the character in the old TV show Benson.  Governor Eugene Gatlin would often go off on tangents while telling stories and make a short tale a little bit longer than intended. But now, I'm just dating myself. (see my point!)

Anyway, to get back to my son at Mass, the fact that I had just heard him attempt to sing the Lamb of God Prayer (including the parts in Latin!), before expressing his sentiments to me, my younger daughter had just made a public commitment to Jesus and to working hard in preparation for her First Communion next April, and my wife and I had just reaffirmed our commitment to raise our children in the Catholic faith and help our second grader prepare to receive the pinnacle of everything we believe in; the Holy Eucharist; I couldn't help but feel a great sense of joy and peace, and, in all honesty, a true sense that God was sending me a clear message.  (Not to mention, our older daughter was singing in the children's choir, after several months of saying she didn't want to do it anymore)

In fact, for, at least, that brief moment, and at the risk of sounding full of myself (which isn’t that hard for me), I felt God was telling me, or actually showing me, what He said at the Baptism of Jesus, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased."

It is a powerful statement and image to contemplate, which is why I once had a priest tell me after my Confession to go home and reflect on Jesus' baptismal narrative, and how, in our baptism, we are united with Christ's Baptism and become part of God's family; His beloved children.

Therefore, as I sat there at church with my family, joyfully pondering the many blessings God has bestowed upon me, including in that particular place and time, my son's love and affection, I could feel a sense of fatherly pride and the thought crossed my mind that, despite my many faults and deficiencies, God was patting me on the back and telling me that it was going to be ok.  I was fulfilling my most important responsibility as a parent; raising Godly children.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “When a child is given to his parents, a crown is made for that child in Heaven, and woe to the parents who raise a child without consciousness of that eternal crown!”

I once heard a comment by Catholic radio host, clinical psychologist, author and father of ten, Dr. Ray Guarendi, that has always resonated within me.  He said, "I am more interested in my children getting into Heaven than getting into Harvard."  (Although, it wouldn't be bad if they got into both!)    

Still, I must admit, I often doubt myself as a father, husband and spiritual leader of my family.

As my wife often points out (probably more than I want to hear), in her own motivational way (to knock me off my high horse!), I sometimes sound better on paper than I do in person, especially when I'm betrayed by my own actions.

I probably spend more time chastising, reprimanding and correcting my kids than I do serving as an example of God's love, mercy and forgiveness.

But, if, as the saying goes, "All saints are sinners who just keep trying," and since there is only one perfect Father, then all we can do, as fathers (and mothers, for that matter), is to keep trying and doing the best we can.

In my case, it often bears fruit.  Despite my occasional cantankerous or self-centered behavior, I think my kids know I love them; not because I tell them but because I show them affection.  I think they also recognize my sincere commitment to God, to the Church and to our family through example.

They see me trying to be a good husband (and trying being the operative word for any husband), father and son.  They see me praying (often with them), taking them to Mass every week, going to Confession regularly (which, if not humility, at least shows them their old man is a big time sinner that needs constant forgiveness!), and studying my faith.

A close friend once told me, "Life is God's gift to us and what we do with our life is our gift to God." I'm not sure whether it was original but it certainly was profound; to the point where, many months later, the statement continues to linger in my mind.

Although, I'm still working on my gift to God (probably until the day I die!), He is constantly giving me; not just with my life, and the fact that I get up every morning, but through the lives that He has put in my care.  And, in spite of myself, like that recent Sunday morning at Mass, through the affection of my son and the faith of my wife and daughters, He uses them to show me His love, mercy and loyalty, as a true loving father often does...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Archbishop Fulton Sheen...

“When a child is given to his parents, a crown is made for that child in Heaven, and woe to the parents who raise a child without consciousness of that eternal crown!”

-- Archbishop Fulton Sheen, priest, author and one of the first and greatest televangelists in U.S. history.  Sheen hosted a prime time television show called, Life is Worth Living in the 1950's and The Fulton Sheen Program in the 1960's.  His cause for canonization was officially opened in 2002 and, earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as "Venerable Servant of God," for a life of heroic virtue...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Traditions Past and Present...

"Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done” (1 Chronicles 16:8).

When I think about Thanksgiving, I can't help but think of one of my favorite Norman Rockwell paintings.  It's the one that depicts a father and mother setting a Thanksgiving turkey on the table before, what appears to be, their children and extended family (or friends). 

That is what I think about when I think of this day; the memories of growing up in my grandparents' old home in Hialeah. 

I think about my grandmother cooking, as she always seemed to do, my mom helping and setting the table, my dad and grandfather running errands, helping carry things or sitting with my brother and me to watch football (my favorite team, the Washington Redskins, usually played their arch rivals, the Dallas Cowboys), as we waited for other relatives to arrive (although my grandfather was never too fond of that game for "animals" that we called sport!  But, would watch and laugh, especially during rainy games, where players were slipping and sliding on the field).

It was a quaint little home, probably no more than 1500 square feet, which included three bedrooms, one bath, a small kitchen, which only really had room for one cook, although at times, there were two or three tightly squeezed in, a dining room, and, like many Hialeah homes, an illegal addition in the back of the house, which served as a small family room, and connected to a laundry room, where we put a toilet and sink.  But, it was home. 

For really big celebrations, during Noche Buena and New Year's Eve, where not only cousins and uncles, but great uncles, aunts, second and third cousins would come from as far as Chicago, Orlando and  Caracas, Venezuela, we would set up a ping-pong table and several other tables in the car port and drive way area so that we could have dinner together.

However, on most Thanksgivings, it was just contained to the dining room table.  We would turn off the TV, and gather around the table, pray, talk and eat.  And, I loved to eat!  (and still do)  My grandmother was a great cook.  While she mostly kept the meal traditional; turkey, home made gravy, cranberry sauce, corn and yams, there was always a little Latin flair, like black beans and rice, Cuban bread and flan, arroz con leche or pudin de pan for desert.

Even when my parents, brother and I moved to a townhouse several miles away, my grandparents house always was home to me.  It's days like today, that I most miss my grandparents and those memories that will live forever in my heart.

I love tradition; especially the memories that come from them.  Those are the kinds of memories I want my children to have and grow up with.

Today, like most recent Thanksgiving Days (as long as I can recall), my wife, children and I will go to my wife's cousin's house for Thanksgiving lunch (since several in the group have Thanksgiving dinner elsewhere).

They really serve a nice spread of all the traditional foods; turkey, gravy, ham, potatoes (in some form), corn casserole, cranberry sauce and much more.

Like my family and I did through the years, everyone sits together outside in their paved side yard, which has great shade trees.  It feels like home, family and tradition.  They are even gracious to invite my parents so I get to spend Thanksgiving with them as well.

My family and I usually go home and watch a movie and then eat a late snack when we get hungry but this year, I plan to start a new tradition.

For years, I have wanted to celebrate an old-fashion Thanksgiving dinner at my home.  Unfortunately, because she figures it will all fall on her shoulders, my wife has always balked (Excuse me for being nostalgic, why don't you?  Although, she might have a point!).  But, after years of pining and not doing much about it, I finally decided that this year, I will take the task upon myself and cook a small Thanksgiving dinner for my wife and kids.  (Besides, it was as good a year as ever; after a several year hiatus, the Redskins are playing the Cowboys again!)

Since it is my first attempt at this, I don't want to overextend myself (I figure it's like working out; you don't want to get injured on your first day) so instead of turkey or ham, which requires a lot more planning than I was willing to do (at least) this year, I will cook a pork loin.  Yes, pork!  I'm Cuban!  I also bought some corn on the cob, which my kids love, some Stove Top stuffing, which I love, dinner rolls and an apple pie.

My wife wants nothing to do with it so it will be up to me.  But, I'm confident I can pull it off.  Hopefully, if all goes well, I can make it a yearly custom, like the one my grandparents used to have, and can invite my parents and mother-in-law in the future.

So, I give thanks to God for my wife and kids, for our health and faith, for our parents and families and for the opportunities to begin new, and hopefully, everlasting traditions.

Wish me luck and Happy Thanksgiving!...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

General Petraeus, Marriage and the 800 Lbs Gorilla...

General David Petraeus... 
I sometimes wonder what I would do if my wife was unfaithful.

For the pop psychiatrists out there, no, it’s not due to insecurities about my robust figure and I don’t have a self-fulfilling prophesy. Moreover, it's not because she has given me any indication or, I think, would ever betray me that way. Then again, Edward Sumner, Richard Gere’s character in Unfaithful, didn’t think so either (and, let’s just say, I’m no Richard Gere; I don't like gerbils!).

But, the reason the thought has crossed my mind, aside from the fact that a couple of friends have gone through this, is that it would be a true test of my faith.

I mean, we made a commitment before God, family and friends that we were in it for the long haul; in good times and in bad until death do us part.

I realize it's a romantic notion, which considering that fifty percent of marriages end in divorce in today's society, many people have forgotten. But, after one failed marriage myself, and having learned a little about the meaning of a sacramental marriage over the past few years, I can't. (Besides what’s the limit on Church allotted annulments?)

Anyway, I think it's easier for a man to think about his own improprieties then to consider what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot but it's an unfortunate consequence of women's liberation, the economics of family life, where women are forced to work outside the home, whether they want to or not, and the permissiveness of the culture, which has accepted, if not promoted, women and men to forget commitment and seek personal gratification; both professionally and personally.

We’ve become a culture obsessed and nurtured with “looking out for number one”; or as a song my younger daughter dances to in her jazz competition team, “You know it’s all about me.” (I always tell her it's actually about God and she rolls her eyes at me and says, "I know dad!")

Although my wife is not that shallow (or selfish, for that matter), and her loyalties to our family are deeper than, she would say, mine are to the New York Mets (I know, sad; comparing a spouse with a baseball team but if you know how bad the Mets are and consider that I still root for them, you would realize how loyal I am!), I still think about the impact and upheaval infidelity would have on our lives, especially on our daughters and son, who are impressionable.

By the way, one of the first things my wife told me early into our marriage is that she would never forgive me if I cheated on her. Was it a bluff? I rather not find out!  But, as I have heard friends say, any man who is not grounded on God and family and doesn't surround himself with friends who are on the same page is a sitting duck.  (And today, possibly the same could be said about women)

In any case, I think about whether my faith would carry me through it. Would I remain faithful to my beliefs? Would I get angry at, not just my wife, but at God? Would I try to get even? Or, would I put my pain, ego and pride aside, forgive (in due time) and fight for my marriage and family?

I'd like to think that I am man enough to do the latter. (Maybe barely, although let's keep this between us.  I rather not give any ideas, just in case!)

The reason for my digression, into possibly the abyss of any marriage, is that, as most people learned last week, David Petraeus, the former Director of the CIA, a four-star general, decorated war hero, and man of discipline, respect and integrity, who most considered an exemplary husband of 38 years and father of two adult children, resigned abruptly after admitting to having had an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who is also a married mother of two young sons, ages 6 and 4.

Did either jilted spouse suspect something was going on?  Well, despite The Eagles' famous lyrics, "There ain't no way to hide your lying eyes," only they can answer that.

But, the fact is that the sex scandal, which the media can't seem to get enough of, appears to be snowballing daily with information about threatening emails, possible access to classified information, an FBI investigation, the death of four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, in Benghazi, the involvement of another decorated general and an FBI agent sending inappropriate emails to a socialite with connections to Petraeus, and through it all are two families who have been hit by, what probably feels like, a stealth bomb, whose casualties remain to be sorted.

Unfortunately, it's getting less uncommon.  It seems that almost every week, we hear of a sex scandal involving a married politician, sports hero, celebrity or regular Joe or Jane that was caught having an affair.  It destroys many marriages, families and lives; especially of innocent children, who never asked to be raised in a broken home because that is the easy way out for many couples.

As for Petraeus and Broadwell, getting through this will not be easy.  Once trust is broken in a marriage it takes a monumental effort to restore.  It will be incumbent on each of them to make amends with their spouse.  But, it is possible, as long as there is sincere repentance, forgiveness and time to heal, which, at least for me, despite my doubts, I couldn't imagine would be possible without God.

Hopefully, notwithstanding the occasional wonderment, I'll never have to…

What would you do?  (And, I don't mean your knee-jerk reaction)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post Mortem Election Blues…

Not meant to be...
Dejection, disheartenment, a sense of hopelessness, disillusionment and loss (and not just because my candidates lost!); waking up the morning after President Barack Obama’s resounding reelection win over Mitt Romney, was a bit sobering to say the least.

Even though, I wasn’t as submersed in this election as I was in 2008, where I lost sleep, got into constant arguments with family and friends at the drop of a hat, and was an emotional wreck for weeks leading up to election night, and tried my best to stay above the fray this time around (which I realize was a defense mechanism not to get emotionally crushed once again), I was still disappointed when Ohio’s results were announced and Obama surpassed the 270 electoral votes necessary to get reelected.

Despite trying to put on a brave face at work, it was like losing someone I knew and had grown to like a lot over the last several months.

I don’t know. Maybe, I take things too seriously. But, when I think about the direction our country is heading in, it really worries me. Our financial debt growing by the minute, which will take generations to pay off, our leaders more interested in politics, power and popularity than solving problems, and our values shifting from a focus on God, family, country and the greater good, to the marginalization of God and trampling of religious freedom, redefinition of the family, hate, division, and self-interest over the common good. And, worse of all, it seems a majority of people, including Catholics, don’t really care! (Or, at least, not as much as my circle of family, friends and I do)

I was hoping for change; of direction, of focus, of the gridlock that has plagued Washington, where everyone is pointing fingers, blaming and ostracizing the other side and, meanwhile, millions of Americans are un- or underemployed, more people are dependent on the government than ever before and Federal spending is out of control.

I know it’s easy to blame the other side, especially when the values and priorities are so diametrically opposed, but the way I see it, if it’s not working, why not change it? Why not try to see if someone else, namely Romney, someone from outside Washington with great business savvy, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, a young Catholic with strong moral convictions and considered an expert on governmental budgeting, would be more capable of leading and sparking compromise?

But, maybe the moral part is the problem, especially when morality is confused with choice, as some ads and media reports made it seem.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought.”

Obviously, my hopes of change weren't meant to be.

This morning, on my way to work, I stopped by my parents’ house, as I usually do for some Cuban coffee, and I could tell they were downcast and dejected as well.  Then my mom said, “Now, we have to pray even more than before.  Pray that we can remain true to our beliefs and not be consumed or discouraged by the whims of the society.”  Everyday that seems to get harder.

As I drove off to work, reflecting on the wisdom my mom had shared, I realized how right she was. We cannot succumb to despair and apparent defeat. There is always hope.

This might not have worked out the way I wanted, or even prayed for with my children, but it was according to God’s plan.  It always is.  It may even be a challenge for all of us who believe in God to trust in Him more and maybe, just maybe, through our prayers of intercession, we can help touch the hearts and minds of those who lead this great nation.

God put the Israelites through 40 years in the desert; let's hope we only have to endure eight! But, regardless, we can’t give up.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes, “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground.”

As the late 19th Century hymn once said, “Onward Christian soldiers.”…

Friday, November 2, 2012

Faithful Citizens Will Stand the Test of Fire...

“It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work.” (1 Cor 3: 13)

Several months ago, I received an email from an organization I subscribe to with a powerful and extremely well produced video that was meant to both inspire and challenge Catholic voters in the upcoming elections. (See below)

It starts with the image of an iron rod that was just pulled from the fire being pounded into shape by a hammer, and words fade into the picture, stating, “In generations past, the church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. This generation of Catholics must do the same.”

Then, while the moving musical score gets louder, you see an old-fashion blacksmith from behind pounding the iron with a hammer and a raging fire oven next to him; the flames and smoke shooting up as the camera moves in closer.

It is stirring. It is dramatic. And, in all honesty, I felt the hair in my arms stand up (or what MSNBC’s Chris Matthews might call getting a “thrill up my leg”). Then, as the music pulsates more words come up, “This November, Catholics across the nation will be put to the test.”

Using only images, music and writing, the three-minute video called, Test of Fire, goes on to show many of the issues that are affecting our nation; the economy, jobs, taxes, etc., as words being pulled from the flames, but, as a woman walks towards a voting booth, it states that there are issues that for Catholics are non-negotiable; life, marriage and religious freedom.

It ends with chilling statement and a question, “Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity. Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?”

That's a pretty profound statement, which immediately made me think of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which states, “It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation.”

It goes back to the Bible verse from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that I used at the beginning of this blog.  At the end of our life, our works and decisions will be put to the test and judged accordingly. Which is why, as I once heard someone say, we should vote as if we were facing that final Judgement tomorrow.

In any case, not long after watching the video for the first time, I noticed it on Facebook and received it from other friends via email as well. It was spreading like wildfire, excuse the pun. In fact, the video went viral and has gotten over 2 million hits since being posted on YouTube several months ago. 

For me, as a Catholic, it is pretty simple.  It comes down to three basic questions, which I hope all Catholics ask themselves:  do I truly believe in Jesus Christ?; do I believe, as the Gospels state that Christ built a Church, which He gave the power to bind and lose on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven and promised the Holy Spirit to guide it to all truth?;  and, am I humble enough to submit myself to that truth, or do I think I know better?...

Where There is Despair, Let There be Hope...

Amidst the rubble and destruction left by Hurricane Sandy, a statue of the Virgin Mary stood in a yard at Breezy Point, Queens, NY giving a ray of hope to the faithful.  The death toll has already surpassed 75 in NE United States and damages are estimated in the billions...

Most Blessed Virgin, in your life of glory, remember the sorrows of earth. Look with kindness on those who suffer, who struggle against difficulties, who drink of the bitterness of life.
Have pity on those who love each other and are separated.
Have pity on the lonely of heart.
Have pity on the weakness of our faith.
Have pity on the objects of our affection.
Have pity on those who weep, those who pray, those who fear.
Obtain for all hope and peace. Amen.

[pic credit: Spencer Platt, Getty Images]