Giving thanks for the gift of family

Our son, Eric, and his wife, Jenny, live in the tiny town of Garfield, Washington. They have been married for 11 years. Eric, a poster boy for Scandinavians, is 6 feet 7 inches tall, with blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Jenny, born in Colombia is 5 feet tall, with long black hair and brown eyes that match her cocoa skin. Their family includes four walking and breathing “lures” — two girls and two boys. Bronze-skin, dark hair, broad smiles, mischievous, inquisitive and beautiful — for whom Mary Beth and I happily hop into our car for a road trip. Annually. One thousand three hundred thirty one miles. Nineteen hours and 40 minutes. But who’s counting?

By Curt Hanson

By Curt Hanson

Do all the people of my generation (“Generation Old”) take insane steps to spend time with their grandkids?

Last year, Hunter, first-born of the lures, was able to ride back to Little Falls with us for a visit that lasted just over two weeks. It was my idea because when I was Hunter’s age, I spent a great deal of my summer vacation with my grandma and grandpa at their cabin. In hindsight, the cabin was no more than a shack on a back lot with a view of Round Lake. But to me, it was a castle in paradise, where every moment brought pleasure, adventure and joy. I made friends there and was welcomed by them each summer from my seventh year to age 14. Simply writing about it fills me with indelible sounds, sights and smells.

My grandparents, however, lived just three hours from our home in Two Harbors.

MB and I climbed back into the car once again with Hunter, for the second odyssey in less than three weeks. Madness.

In June of this year, fairly well healed emotionally, physically and spiritually, we made for Garfield once more.

But this year, shortly after Hunter’s 10th birthday, we were granted a full month with him at our house.

He spent time each day fishing off our dock, shouting for occasional help because he had a “monster” on the line. Most often the Leviathan managed an escape before Mary Beth or I reached the dock. We took him to Two Harbors and Duluth to get reacquainted with great aunts and uncles. He walked with us to the end of the breakwater in Two Harbors, jumped into cold Lake Superior at Brighton Beach near Duluth, enjoyed a cruise of the busy bay area in the Vista Star and spent time at the train museum in downtown Duluth (perhaps his favorite site). One evening, Nick the Chef, a son of our good friends, Steve and Voni, prepared a delicious four-course masterpiece for four couples and our very food-fussy grandson. Hunter promised to at least taste everything, which he did.

Good stewards, let’s thank God for the gift of family. Old, young, here, gone, messy…perfect.

Curt Hanson is executive director of the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of St. Cloud and director of the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Development.

Honoring an old friend’s life after his tragic death

My old friend Phil was killed in a tragic automobile accident last July. He left behind his wife, Judy, and their son, daughter and grandkids.

He and I first met in kindergarten. Our birthdays were less than two weeks apart. Phil was a town kid, while I lived out in the country, so in our early years we didn’t see one another much outside of school.
Phil was smart, studious, athletically gifted, a bit shy and introverted. He had a wry sense of humor and laughed easily. I played sports, although not well, worked hard enough to make the B honor roll when I needed to (in my teens, the B honor roll was my parents’ standard for getting on their car insurance), and only shut my mouth when changing feet. I guess opposites do attract.

A radical turn

By Curt Hanson

By Curt Hanson

We lost track of one another for a while after high school, but in my early 20s Phil and I reconnected. He lived and worked in Duluth at the time and I was living in Wadena. But most weekends over the course of a two-year period we hung out together — a pair of bachelors who were not averse to a beer or two, liked to joke and laugh and exercise, and didn’t have girlfriends to occupy any of our precious time. I soon moved to Crosby-Ironton, closer to Duluth and my buddies.

Then one day I met Mary Beth Anderson and the object of my precious time took a radical turn.

Phil met Judy shortly after MB and I were married, and we got together as couples a few times. But the distance that had not fettered “heading north” in the past, began to cast a shadow on my weekend travel.

After all, I was trying to fix up a little house that Mary Beth and I co-owned with the local bank.

Before long another Hanson entered the scene, a tiny one whose very presence was enough to engage every fiber of our attention. Old friends seemed to fall by the wayside as our family grew. Phil and I rarely, if ever, saw one another as we tended to our own families during the ensuing years.

Mary Beth and I were on our way home from visiting our kids and grandkids in Washington (the state) when I received the call from another old classmate, alerting me to Phil’s death. “Curt, I have bad news,” he said. “Phil was killed in a car accident yesterday and I’m trying to get this out to his friends.”

We were heading east through Montana on I-94 when I answered that call. So many thoughts ran through my head. I hadn’t spent a minute with Phil in the past 20 years, yet I was deeply saddened at the news.

How is Judy doing? Or his kids, who I only met once as infants? What kind of a friend had I been?

Making a change

In life, Phil had paid tremendous attention to his health and body, carving a physique that made him look years younger than he was. He trained with weights, golfed, ran and even played some basketball into his 60s.

In the old days, he and I did many of those things together. Over time, however, I had allowed brownies, pork chops and chocolate chip cookies to sculpt my physique.

A few weeks after Phil’s funeral, I went down into our basement and looked over the exercise equipment we had amassed over the years: Olympic bars and bent bars, adjustable dumbbells, benches, a treadmill and exercise bike, quite a few plates of various weights, etc. I prayed right there among all that stuff — for the repose of Phil’s soul, for peace for his loved ones, that his grandchildren would have memories of him. I decided to do something for my health and well-being to honor Phil’s life.

I set up a fairly gentle exercise regimen for myself, stuck to it, including prayer before, during and after the workout, and over time, added pounds, repetitions and new exercises.

I still pray today for Phil and his family but have added many prayer intentions to lift up as I “lift up” semi-heavy objects. I feel better and have more energy because of my workouts. God often turns the worst circumstances into something good for our loved ones, our souls, our minds and even our bodies. Because he loves us. Because he’s God.

What will you do in gratitude for all your blessings?

I will honor those baptisms over the years and sacramental marriages that anchored families

Mary Beth and I had what we call a “whirlwind courtship.” I met her by chance in February (note to readers: I know today that it wasn’t “by chance”), saw her again in April and asked her to a movie (she said “no,” but I talked her into it), proposed to her in June (this time she didn’t say “no”), and wed her in October.

Mind you, during our seven-month courtship MB was still living at home with her parents in Duluth. I was living in Crosby-Ironton.

curthanson

Curt Hanson

We were married at St. Michael Church in Duluth, her home parish. I was not yet a Catholic but had met with a priest in the town of Deerwood to guide me through my conversion. After two and a half years in the Crosby area, during which I became a Catholic, and MB and I became parents, I bid on a job in Pine River and was awarded it early in 1980.

Four of us tootled northward that year: 1-year-old Eric sat in a car seat while Danny was warm and snug in his mom’s belly. We found an old, drafty house for rent, which pretty well matched the rest of the neighborhood for ambiance. Most days when I arrived home from work, MB was crying. I’d not only taken her away from our little “fixer-upper” home in Crosby, but moved her many more miles away from Duluth.

To make matters worse, the Crosby house (which was no gem in the first place, believe me) didn’t sell for years. We were paying rent and house payments simultaneously although, by God’s grace, the payments didn’t overtax our modest income.

A new phase

In time, life got better in Pine River. We began making friends, lots of them, most of whom had kids near our kids’ ages and almost all of whom were at Mass with us every Sunday.

We became active in parish life. In addition to Daniel, both Kyle and Brady arrived during the Pine River days, adding new sounds, new personalities and new things to be grateful for. We bought a recentlybuilt rambler house, cared for it and improved it while it sheltered us. Blessings tumbled over blessings.

In late 1989 I was offered another job, this time in Duluth. As we left arguably the most idyllic chapter in our married life, Mary Beth wept.

Writing this short piece, I recall baptisms, preparing our kids for the sacrament of penance, first holy Communion and, at the center of it all, a sacramental marriage as the anchor of our growing family.

Even in the most common aspects of our lives — fixing up a little house, planting a vegetable garden, dating a pretty girl, making a new friend, saying a final “goodbye” to an old friend — there is our God, always at our side, always watching over us.

How will we thank him?

Here’s my plan: in gratitude, I will honor those baptisms over the years, and sacramental marriages that anchored families. Faith formation for generations and Bible studies that have enriched me spiritually. Life for all in all stages of life and friends whom I was blessed to meet simply because we both loved Jesus Christ and met in his house.

I am going to support Bishop Kettler’s Annual Appeal. I hope you will, too.

Curt Hanson is executive director of the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of St. Cloud and director of the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Development.

Working to help God’s most precious creatures

When we become warriors for the Lord, our weapons are mercy, kindness, understanding and generosity

Mary Beth and I like to take a regular brisk walk. Our route covers a little more than four miles, during which we greet neighbors in their yards or driving by, sometimes on bikes, or walking like us.

We never tire of the beauty of corn and hay fields, manicured lawns dotted with majestic pines and great oaks, and glimpses of the Mississippi along the way. We have always found it good for our health, a convenient venue for uninterrupted conversation and a great opportunity to breathe in the glory and wonder of God’s creation, especially as seasons change.

Kitten in distress

About three weeks ago, as we headed out of our driveway, we heard a plaintive cry in the woods across from our house. I went in for a closer look and discovered a small orange-colored kitten that sounded as though it needed help, but had no interest in me as I approached it.

After a couple more tries to pick up the poor thing, I suggested we walk first and see if it was still around when we got back home. After arriving again at our driveway — and with no kitten in sight and no mewing that we could hear — MB expressed relief that the kitten may have moved on but said she’d put a little dish of cat food on our deck “just in case.” I think you know where this story is leading.

Mary Beth and I have a cocker spaniel that we’ve loved for many years. Her eyesight is not what it used to be, and we think her hearing is non-existent. Energy and zeal have yielded to long naps. The same goes for our house cat, who is about the age of our dog. They used to amuse us by playfully chasing one another around the house. Now they look like stuffed toys placed awkwardly in front of the fireplace or sprawled in the middle of the living room floor.

The last thing we wanted, especially this close to winter, is a kitten. However, we agreed that the little fellow (just learned the “fellow” part at his first veterinarian appointment) is of God’s creation and therefore worth saving. For that reason, we decided to keep him.

Joining the battle

The story of MB and me and a stray kitten is insignificant. But think about it in light of our current culture. If a kitten is worth saving simply because it is a product of God’s creation, what can we do to help preserve life for God’s most important creatures?

When we, as Catholic Christians, become warriors for the Lord, our weapons are mercy, kindness, understanding and generosity. Our ammunition is love. Our battle cry is, “Praise God! Praise Jesus!”

Good stewards, good people of light and life, help protect life at all stages. Help Bishop Kettler lead us in the spiritual battle that rages about us. If you’ve not done so yet (or even if you have), please prayerfully consider a gift to his Annual Appeal, so that the bishop’s ministries and offices will be equipped for the work that must be done.

God will bless your generosity.

Knowing what I can change and leaving the rest to Him

I’ve become keenly aware — since morphing over the years from Tarzan the Ape Man into a run-of-the-mill chimpanzee — that I am racked with maladies. (OK, for the record, I was never much of a Tarzan, although I remember a time when I could read the pounds on our bathroom scale without interference from an over-achieving belly.)

Maladies include aches and pains in my knees and shoulders for example, fatigue, short-term memory loss and the dreaded “man-itis,” a condition which I share with hundreds of millions of my gender, in which we attempt to solve really big, deeply annoying problems —  all of the problems, all of the time, without ever actually solving them.

Our friends Linda and Terry invited Mary Beth and me to supper at their home recently. They also had invited Father Joe Herzing, our pastor. The food was fantastic, conversation was lively and the laughter plentiful. At one point, Father Joe and I were making small talk. “How are things going?” he asked.

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m struggling a bit. I’ve been fretting over things like attacks on our religious freedom and the way the world seems to be spinning out of control.”

Father Joe just looked at me without comment. He was smiling like the Mona Lisa — more with his eyes than his mouth.

Too big to fret over

After a number of uncomfortable seconds, during which he refused to take his eyes off me and I silently cursed the scourge of “man-itis,” I acknowledged that perhaps something that big didn’t call for fretting.

He didn’t respond, he didn’t blink, still wearing the little smile.

“I suppose I should be lifting those concerns to someone who can actually do something about it,” I offered slowly, with a crooked smile of my own. Father Joe raised an eyebrow. I managed to change the topic.

I know to the depth of my being that God is the creator of everything, everywhere — beyond time, beyond all that we see and don’t see, beyond everything we know and don’t know. I profess Jesus Christ as my savior, and I am convinced that he loves me and every other foolish sinner like me, because his DNA is love. I speak boldly of my absolute trust in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet I still find myself rushing to take over the jobs of all three, as if things might be handled a bit better via my wisdom and deft touch.

Good stewards, forces and movements that oppose Christian beliefs are indeed striving to impact our religious freedom. But they can’t touch our faith unless we let go of it. I tend to place a lot of blame for the current culture on the mainstream media (TV, movies and music), but it can’t do a thing to us if we simply turn it off.

Plenty of folks in our local and national governments are not shy about striving to remove faith altogether from public discourse. Does that mean it really shouldn’t be there?

I can’t fix any of this stuff. I’m pretty sure you can’t either, but I know someone — and you know someone — who can. Let’s talk to him frequently about the world we live in; and while we’re doing it, let’s see if we can’t sprinkle a little of his DNA around so others can start talking to him, too.

TV misfortune was really a blessing in disguise

I feel that I’m closer to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Last February, God caused a malfunction in our television’s satellite receiver.

Do I sound crazy saying this? Did you raise your eyebrows when you read it? I mean, why would I blame God for such an insignificant and very earthly problem?

Well, to set things straight from the beginning, I don’t blame God at all — I thank God profusely. Beyond that, what happened was not — and is not — insignificant.

Since moving to our modest home along the shore of the Mississippi River, Mary Beth and I have become early risers. We weren’t always so, but a rather large, east-facing window in our bedroom — through which the beauty of God’s creation pours into our home, our eyes and our hearts every morning — makes it difficult to sleep in.

Every day the Author of Love paints a masterpiece, rich in patterns and colors I can barely describe, and set on an easel less than 80 feet from our pillows. Oh yes, and it’s animated — with a sound track. Birds chide and scold one another as they redecorate an old home or create a new one. Rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks boldly defy MB’s strict rules with regard to flowerbeds, woodpiles, rhubarb and the space beneath our sauna.

Despite rising early, I’ve noticed that the older I get, the longer it takes for me to become fully awake. Therefore, I might spend some time stretching on the floor, perhaps doing a couple of sit-ups and maybe even a push-up or two. This less-than-severe regimen would include trips to and from the coffee pot. Until February, it also included flipping on the TV and staring blank-faced at “Mike & Mike,” a sports talk show on the ESPN network.

Please know that after 30 or 40 minutes of football, baseball and basketball scores, the TV would go black and Mary Beth would join me for daily readings from “The Word Among Us” followed by our daily prayers. But, oh, the hours I’ve wasted over the years with Mike and the other Mike!

On the fateful morning of God’s splendid intervention, I hit the remote but there was no response. I didn’t hear the usual “ping” that heralds the faces and voices to come. I looked at the television screen and then at the receiver and noticed the little red light was not lit. It was dead.

“Mary Beth,” I called, “I think the TV receiver went kaput.” “Really?” she replied. She asked what I would like to do about it. I pondered this a bit before answering her with another question: “What does the satellite service cost per month?” MB tends to the bills. She told me how much it costs. “Cancel it,” I said.

Now, I literally watched three programs with any regularity when the TV was still receiving a signal: the aforementioned Mikes; “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” (a show about restaurants and cooking, hosted by a tubby, tattooed chef who my mother would have labeled, “hyperkinetic”), and “American Restoration” (about a guy in Nevada who, along with some family members and assorted reprobates, restores just about anything under the sun of interest to collectors, such as scooters, old toys, neon signs, tractors, mail boxes, gas tanks, golf carts — the list is endless).

“Are you sure you want to cancel?” she asked. Mary Beth knew I had the doggone thing on a lot of the time, just for background noise. “We’re paying a lot of money for nothing,” I answered. “I can get by without it.” I learned, however, that habits can be hard to break.

For the first couple of weeks I didn’t know what to do with myself in the morning, absent the inanity of the world informing me with great fistfuls of nothing.

But as I got used to the blissful quiet, things changed radically. Mornings became a mini-retreat, with ample time to listen to what God had to say to my heart. Prayer time for MB and me expanded, leading to serious, fruitful discussions about “tomorrow,” as retirement looms for both of us in the not-too-distant future. I feel that I’m closer to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I know for certain that I’m much less “of the world.”

Good stewards, my prayer for you today is that your receiver will go kaput. God bless!

God is always giving — how do we say, ‘Thank you’?

What should I give back to God? What’s the going price, do you suppose, for happiness? Or love? Or forgiveness?

A significant portion of my job is dedicated to stewardship. I have given stewardship talks, provided stewardship materials for parish committees, consulted with new or renewing stewardship committees and even hosted a “Stewardship Day.”

When I ask others what the word “stewardship” means to them, I often hear the three Ts — time, talent and treasure. I get all of that, but how do we discern the process, volume and frequency of meting out our treasure, talent and time?

prayer_manYears ago when I was working for an hourly wage, I learned that there is a specific reward for a specific amount of time and talent (or, in my case, time and grunt labor). I had co-workers in those days who watched the clock to the second, making sure no one would steal a portion of their 15-minute coffee break or 30-minute lunch. I fell in with the folks who were a bit more laid back than that; but in truth, I learned that time was a huge factor.

Talent is even more difficult to figure out. Everyone is good at something, but no one is good at everything. Who do we tap on the shoulder to teach a faith formation class? Or lead a Bible study? Why do we go to them?

What do we consider a fair share of our treasure? After all, we work hard to earn it. I guess the Bible says to tithe 10 percent, but does it have to be that much? Should we sweat all week just to give money away on Sunday? God must know how important it is to have an evening out once in a while or to drive a newer car.

My story

OK. So in 1952, God plants me in a loving family. Not wealthy by the world’s standards, but caring. I learn by the age of 3 that the oldest brother could use a tune-up, but he turns out OK. (The youngest brother comes to the same conclusion years later, with the middle brother in mind.) The mom is a great cook. (Thank you, God.)

God endows me with modest talents and abilities, allowing me to experience much more in this life than just eating, sleeping and working.

God orchestrates a meeting between me and a young lady who will become the love of my life. Our sacramental marriage is imperfect because we’re human, but still our friendship and love for one another thrive as our marriage approaches 38 years.

God blesses my wife and me with four sons, which I will admit hasn’t always been a cakewalk either; however, the difficulties we’ve experienced in raising a family have brought us closer to Jesus, the cross, each other and our Catholic faith.

God surrounds us with friends that love us. We love them back.

In his mercy, Jesus forgives our transgressions, bad behavior, poor choices and apathy. All we had to do was ask.

God sends us a handful of grandkids to make sure we have something to be joyful about as our joints deteriorate, our memories fade and our physical strength somehow disappears.

Dear readers, please help me answer this question: What should I give back to God? What’s the going price, do you suppose, for happiness? Or love? Or forgiveness? Fifteen or 20 bucks in the usher’s basket? I want to be fair. Maybe an hour or two working for the church. But I’m pretty busy. I don’t want to shortchange God on this; I truly don’t. But, hey, I can’t give it out like candy either.

I read once that I should give it all to God — my whole being, all that I am and will ever be. Could that be right?

Good stewards, as I write this, Holy Week is approaching. We’ll have an opportunity to ponder another gift God gave us, through the mercy of his only Son: freedom.

How will we say “thank you?”

Generosity drives Foundation’s iPad contest

I worked as a lineman for an electric utility for about 15 years, climbing poles and towers, using heavy equipment and special tools, working with high voltage lines and restoring electric service in the wake of storms or other events.

It was a job that I am proud of to this day, as I had to overcome a number of fears and ineptitudes to do it justice — not the least of which was growing up with a significant fear of heights.

A lineman wears a rather heavy leather utility belt, with pouches and loops for the necessary hand tools of the trade. All the tools are heavy duty and sized for the work. My colleagues and I used to joke about being Neanderthals. It was not far from the truth.

In 1990, I was brought into a very different part of the utility. There I was given a desk, and for the first time in my life, a computer. I longed for a hammer.

I was pleased to visit recently with young folks who claim computers aren’t so bad. I had spent the better part of a day delivering iPads to four Catholic schools in our diocese: St. Mary of Mount Carmel School in Long Prairie, Christ the King School in Browerville, Sacred Heart Area School in Staples and St. Henry’s Area School in Perham.

The “Great iPad Giveaway Contest” is the brainchild of Alice Coudron, my colleague at The Catholic Foundation. To enter the contest, students are invited to answer questions related to our faith. They have been given opportunities to write essays or film skits or use other art forms to tell their stories. A small group representing Catholic Education Ministries and The Catholic Foundation reviews the entries and decides the winners.

The true engine of this contest is generosity. You see, Alice asks businesses to consider purchasing an iPad, or sending a check for one, so that we can provide access to the latest technology in all of our Catholic schools. Thanks to our donors, 43 iPads were distributed among 19 Catholic schools, grades one through eight, this year. Over the three years of the contest, 119 iPads have been given. Not bad!

It was an honor to deliver the much-welcomed iPads. But my highlight that day was witnessing, at each school, the energy and enthusiasm of students and staff. I know that same enthusiasm is abundant in our public grade schools as well, but it’s different when you know Jesus is a welcome guest and daily prayer and praise echo in your house.

Busy year ahead

There are so many great things going on in our diocese. I’m blessed to be here, among the generous, the faithful and the tech-savvy.

Pay attention to The Catholic Foundation’s calendar this year. Once again we will host “The Bishop’s Charitable Breakfast” on the campus of the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.

The first “Bishop’s Charitable Golf Tournament” is slated for June. “ACT-oberfest,” to benefit youth activities and retreats, is coming to the Falls Ballroom in Little Falls in October. Also that month, the Foundation is presenting a pilgrimage to Fatima, Lourdes and Barcelona.

All are opportunities to bring people together to have a great time while building the Body of Christ here in our diocese. God bless!

Unforgettable memories of my first Christmas as a newlywed

Mary Beth and I were married in October of 1977. After a brief honeymoon, she moved into the tiny house in Crosby, Minn., that I had purchased just days after she said “yes” to my proposal of marriage.

It needed a lot of tender care, so I gutted it and “fixed it up” with advice from others and very little know-how of my own. In hindsight, it was a shack, but for us at the time, it was a palace.

As our first Christmas together approached, Mary Beth became more and more excited. We purchased a real tree and went shopping for lights and ornaments at the Ben Franklin store in town. She spoke often of Christmases past and her family’s traditions — her mom’s delicious spaghetti and meatballs for Christmas Eve dinner, followed by opening presents; “Santa” leaving a filled stocking for each family member to appreciate on Christmas Day morning, and later in the day, a ham supper with Uncle George and Aunt Marg.

I admitted to her that I had never had a stocking; my family didn’t share in the stocking tradition. I also suggested that a 21-year-old should know by now that her dad probably filled the stocking. That turned out to be a not-so-good way to suggest a new tradition.

“I like to wake up on Christmas morning and open my stocking to see what Santa brought,” she said flatly.

Mary Beth then expounded on the stocking and what it might contain. “I would be perfectly happy with anything,” she lied, “so you can put an orange into it and maybe some candy. And something personal, like bubble bath.” (Another product I’d had little or no history with. I was a Palmolive man to the core.)

Still somewhat bewildered, I looked into Mary Beth’s eyes, nodding from time to time as she continued the litany of potential gift items.

Proud stocking stuffer

I wanted our first Christmas to be special, so I dutifully set about filling her stocking. It was almost big enough to hold a surfboard. I popped in a couple of oranges, assorted chocolate candy, a couple pairs of warm, Christmas-themed socks, a porcelain knickknack and other stuff I can’t recall.

The final gift — the first one she would behold on Christmas morning — was a large container of bubble bath. As I (“Santa”) set it under the tree on Christmas Eve night — just before coming to bed — I gazed once more at my handiwork and congratulated myself. I slept like a log.

We awoke to a brilliant winter morning sun, brightening the snow around our house and casting shadows across the drifts. I was tingling with excitement, eager to see the look on MB’s face when she dove into the treasure trove I’d prepared for her.

We sat by the tree. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “Merry Christmas,” she replied with a smile. “It looks like Santa was here,” I observed, pointing toward the large red stocking with white trim. “Oh!” Mary Beth said, as if she were truly surprised. (The surprise would come soon.)

MB gently picked up her stocking and looked at it from different angles. She smiled at me and gave a tiny nod, then put the stocking on her lap and began reaching inside. Her hand found something solid, which she began to slowly extract. My smile broadened as the head of a sea horse — dull and dark green plastic, with a white plastic cap on top — began to emerge.

MB’s mouth was still half-smiling, but her eyes were beginning to tell a different story. She continued uncovering the seahorse. I informed her with a proud grin, “It’s bubble bath.” “Yes,” she said without turning to face me. I said, “It’s a whole quart.”

She thanked me for being a great stocking stuffer, and said, “I love you.” A few days later, I realized the bubble bath was nowhere to be found. In fact, I hadn’t seen it since Christmas Day.

Good stewards, I pray that your Christmas and New Year’s Days were joyful and memorable, filled with love and laughter. God bless you all year long.

Gratitude highlights the richness of our lives

Holidays encourage us to celebrate all that we are thankful for

Each year draws to a close in high stewardship style. The Thanksgiving holiday encourages us to look beyond our difficulties and shortfalls and celebrate all that we are grateful for. Many of us honor the spirit of gratitude through sacrificial giving of our time, talent and treasure.

Advent follows, veiling us in the mystery of our Catholic faith, as we — and millions of our sisters and brothers throughout the world — pray in anticipation for the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, grateful for the joy ahead.

Jesus is with us on Christmas Day — He is here! Once again we are moved by gratitude to forgive our enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the
naked, minister to those in prison, comfort the poor and lonely and increase our faith. As stewards and disciples of Christ, we are set ablaze in the world by all that we are thankful for. Here is a small sample of things that I am thankful for as 2014 nears its end.

Problems. My wife, Mary Beth, and I have lots of them, and they come in all sizes and intensities, from a broken dryer and a washing machine on its last legs, to a kid going through an extremely tough period. Problems are a consistent condition in our lives, and I used to curse them. But I’ve learned that difficulties shine a spotlight on ourfriends, family members and even strangers who, through the grace of
God and urging of the Holy Spirit,assist us. I can’t express an act of loveany better than watching my friend and neighbor remove snow from
our driveway because I’m recoveringfrom foot surgery. Problems remindus of God’s mercy. Big problems drive us to the foot of Jesus’ cross.

Memories. Mary Beth has beencooking and baking for the holidays. She told me recently that she could sense my mom’s presence in our kitchen. It warmed her heart, even as it created a sense of sorrow and longing within her. Mom was very proud of her cooking (deservedly so), and she passed a great deal of her skills to Mary Beth.

I often think of my Grandma and Grandpa Bratt. They were definitely characters. Grandpa was serious, a teetotaler and quite opinionated. He did not value idle time, seeking instead something to fix, tear apart, clean or maintain. He taught me a lot about work and priorities.

Grandma, on the other hand, was almost childlike. She loved to play cards, but cheated as often as possible, because she also loved winning.

She was thrilled to pull her grandkids’ baby teeth. Grandma and Grandpa had 27 grandchildren, so I assume she pulled 27 teeth. I know she got one of mine, but I didn’t go near her with a loose tooth again, and I can’t imagine my cousins being any less cautious. Mary Beth and I spent many hours with them over the years. I love them dearly to this day and will forever miss them.

Faith. It seems there is always a news story or magazine article about “the richest person in the world.” I understand it changes hands from time to time. Do you apply for the title? If so, I think I’d give it a whirl. Watch the sun rise slowly above the horizon, sprouting shoots of brilliant light that morph into colors almost impossible to describe. They fade, commingle, disappear and reappear at random. This short event has been going on since the beginning of time. It’s set to cease in infinity. I’m friends with the One who orchestrated it all along. And sunrise is just a tiny part of the whole show. You know that air that we’re breathing? Yeah, that too. How rich must I be to have a friend that loves me that much?

Good stewards, seek gratitude in everything, and recognize it every day. May God bless your Advent and Christmas this year.