You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

Valentine’s Day is upon us. The celebration of the heart.

Three years ago, my daughter and her friend made Valentines for our whole neighborhood.

No. I’m not kidding.

(If you aren’t familiar with it, feel free to read the story above by clicking the purple words and then come back.)

I was astounded by the girls’ actions, and I’ve never forgotten watching them spread light in a dark world.

I was in awe of their enthusiasm. I was enamored with their openness.

They reminded me of a simple lesson: Don’t ignore a generous impulse.

Even if you are not a Jesus-believer, you probably know this verse, a favorite of mine:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

Notice, there are no caveats in that command. (i.e. Only love those who love you, who live with you, who look like you, who are convenient to love, etc.)

If you’re really going to do it right, love demands a lot.

Walking in faith, you learn from experience that loving well isn’t something you do by yourself.

Knowing True Love is being in relationship. With Someone. The One.

He – the Spirit – makes it possible for us to really love others, because we alone do it so very, very poorly.

We think that Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love. And for most people, it is. But I would argue that it can be so, so much more. Because the world needs LOVE — in all its biggest and most brilliant, and smallest and very humblest forms.

I was thinking along these lines when I gave a short presentation to a group of 20 women a year ago. I told them the story of my daughter and her friend, and I explained the following:

“Don’t ignore a generous impulse. We all know that our world is beautiful, but broken. Lately, when we read the news, it may seem particularly dark and ugly. But the light isn’t far off. It lives within each of us. And we see it when we give it away….While many people told the girls how much they had appreciated the Valentines, the real gift the girls received was the joy they’d given themselves.”

Following the promptings of the Spirit will in all likelihood move us beyond our comfort zones. But how is God ever supposed to share ALL THE LOVE He has to GIVE if WE don’t step out and SHARE IT with OUR very own hands?

After speaking, I gave out 20 very basic valentines that I’d put together myself, and I invited the group to think about the people in their lives. Friends. Colleagues. Neighbors. Acquaintances.

I asked:

“Do you know a woman who was just diagnosed with a devastating illness?
Do you know someone going through a divorce?
Have a coworker who has a troubled child?
Have an elderly neighbor who lives alone?
Is there someone in your circle who is bearing a heavy, heavy burden?
Is there someone you can just tell feels hopeless?
Is there someone who seems fearful?
Is there anyone you haven’t thanked for a kindness you’ve been shown?

Valentine’s Day is about love, and we can make it about so much more than romance and friendship between elementary school classmates. Let’s use it as an opportunity to reach out and say, “I see you, I value you, and I care about you.”

We wrote those Valentines to the people we felt might need a bit of True Love, and gave them away.

Maybe tomorrow, you could buy or make a simple note, and then extend your heart and the Spirit to someone in your circle who might appreciate a little something sweet.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Hebrews 4:7)

We WANTED It – Parting Thoughts on Philly’s Super Bowl Win

We WANTED It – Parting Thoughts on Philly’s Super Bowl Win
Photo by Fredy Martinez on Unsplash

So we won the Super Bowl.

Philadelphia triumphed.

And people were congratulating me this week.

As if I had anything to do with it!?!!

Well, I suppose if you count the prayers, hand-wringing, fist-punches, screams, and vaulting I did from our couch during the game, then maybe I did.

My explosive reactions were almost as entertaining for my family as both teams’ impressive plays and the better-than-usual commercials.

It began with the first Eagles touchdown.

I leapt off the couch, clapping and yelling at the top of my lungs….

And sensed that the room was strangely quiet.

I looked down to see four faces staring back at me in amazement.

My husband chuckled.

“What?” I said, “They scored! THEY SCORED!!”

I started high-fiving everyone with both hands as my daughter asked, laughing, “Mom?!!? What’s happening to you?”

Admittedly, the display was out of (current) character for me.

“I’m sorry. The cheerleader in me just came out.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how deeply I empathized with everyone watching back home in the City of Brotherly Love.

I hadn’t realized that….I truly felt what was so simply and perfectly expressed on an Eagles billboard I’d seen on the highway in PA the day before.

WE WANT IT.

It was time for the city to have the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and WE WANTED IT – BAD.

When the the game ended with Brady’s last throw meeting a mayhem of players in the end zone, my husband yelled, “That’s it!! That’s it!!” and we all screamed and cried, reveling in victory. The little celebratory scene in our family room was re-enacted millions of times over hundreds of square miles.

And yesterday was – literally – the Eagles’ day in the sun. I wasn’t there in the throng of a million loyal fans, but I poured over my family’s and friends’ photos of the city’s parade, exulting in what one friend called “the enormity of this thing.”

Indeed. The enormity of the thing.

Have you ever wanted something SO BADLY and wished for it SO LONG that when you finally get it you’re somewhat flabbergasted?

The excitement is just….well, mind-blowingly fun. You feel like a kid on Christmas morning. There’s almost no other way to describe it. You want it to last and last.

It’s too bad that every day life can’t bring the elation of this week, but if it did we couldn’t appreciate the joys of heaven.

Meantime, we rest in this…

Something we know for sure….

God loves Philadelphia. (wink wink)

And I’m fairly certain there will be Super Bowl wins for everyone in the great beyond.

A Small Tribute to Philadelphia: My (Other) Hometown

A Small Tribute to Philadelphia: My (Other) Hometown
Me. Ready for Sunday’s game. Do you know who to cheer for?

Two nights ago our 7-year old son asked the question of the moment.

“Dad,” he said, “Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?”

My husband made eye contact with him.

“The Eagles.”

“Why?” the boy asked. I knew he was looking for an answer about strategy or tactics; our little guy is into that sort of thing.

My husband narrowed his eyes.

“It is the will of God.”

There was a pause.

Then – raucous laughter from our son, along with the rest of us.

My husband smirked and went back to eating his soup.

That exchange?

Something about it strikes me as…

Oh. So. Philadelphia.

Do we really believe it is the will of God for the Eagles to win?

Not exactly.

But will they?

Darn right.

In our home, we are loyal to Philadelphia.

It’s a family tradition.

Philadelphia is often misunderstood. Some people just don’t get the mix of wry, sardonic humor and subtle faith. They call it brusque and cold, but however you see it, the city and its people are the genuine article, a place unto itself. And it’s a place I love, because it loved me first.

I spent my high school years in the suburbs of Philly, having moved there from Florida, and upon my arrival I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Blessedly, I was warmly welcomed by my peers, and that was important for me at a time when life didn’t feel so stable.

You find that when you’re “inside” Philadelphia – when you enter its homes, schools, and neighborhoods long enough to take your coat off and hang around for awhile. There might not be many newcomers, but a newcomer can be accepted. You can read a little about that here – where I also briefly talk about Philly’s famous food – the cheese steak.

Philly also gave me my partner for life – my husband of almost 20 years – as well as his entire loving family, and many friends who are close enough to be family too.

And so, without getting mushy and listing each person individually (a very long list), I’ll just say this: I cheer for the Eagles because I am loyal to MY Philadelphia – all of the people in and around that particular city who have shared with me the formative experiences that over many decades have created the life I cherish today.

How about you? Where do your loyalties lie and WHY?

I’m willing to bet that if you have an allegiance, it’s to a person, or people, or a place, that nurtured you and gave you hope. And that’s a good reason to continue to be faithful.

So consider Who you ally yourself with. And choose well.

Oh – and on Sunday – choose VERY well. Fly Eagles Fly!

Are You Still Living in Middle School? The Pressure’s Off.

Are You Still Living in Middle School? The Pressure’s Off.

My middle-school daughter stood at the podium, reading into the microphone. Just her – in front of 800 fellow students.

‘Slow down, honey. Oh, slow down.’

That’s what I was thinking as I watched her this morning. She shared her own thoughts printed on an index card, about why she loves her school. She was breezing through them so quickly I was afraid she couldn’t be understood, and worried that her dad wouldn’t be able to hear her clearly on the video I was trying to make with my phone.

She was nervous.

Terrified, actually.

Unusually so.

And she had told me she would be.

“You’ll be fine,” I tried to reassure her, “You’ve done this before.”

She’s often been selected to read at church, and she’s enthusiastically volunteered to dance in the end-of the-year talent show.

But now she’s 12.

And middle school is different. Isn’t it?

Sometimes I think we enter middle school….and we never leave it.

There is a constant pressure to change from who we naturally are into something else.

Something cooler and better.

Think about it: The world is bent on convincing you that you are not doing enough to make yourself feel great, look perfect, be organized, love effortlessly, and live carefree. We, as a society, are literally paying billions every month in an attempt to buy this mythical life for ourselves.

Even in my work – writing – there is pressure to do more, and be more, than I am. In the so-called “blogosphere,” bloggers ‘should’ publish all the time, grow an audience, and create products.

The fact is, I may not be doing enough for you, friend. Every time I publish a post, I can see whether someone has “subscribed” or “unsubscribed,” and the latter gives me pause.

I want to encourage.

I want to share stories that make people smile.

I want to write words that count.

I want to do something that matters.

Don’t we all?

To do this – to live in a way that MATTERS – requires slowing down, and listening with every breath to the One voice that guides me toward my true purpose, which is to serve others out of a deep gratitude to the One who gave me life.

I am in a place of reflection about this blog, friends. I’m wondering how I can better serve you as my readers.

Please take a moment when you have some free time to write me an email at gretchen@gretchenmatthews.com and share your thoughts with me. I welcome them.

In what areas of your life do you need encouragement? What do you need to hear more of? Less of?

And bear in mind the words of Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ESV)

Slow down. Embrace yourself. You are loved.

Lighten Up!

Lighten Up!
Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Do you need to lighten up?

I do.

And I’m not talking about weight here.

I’m talking about attitude.

This is a recurrent theme in my life.

I try hard.

A LOT.

To get things right.

And sometimes I overdo it.

I lose perspective.

I miss what’s really important.

Recently I was remembering one particular time when my earnestness billowed up comically.
When my husband and I were awaiting the birth of our first child, I took seriously the advice that I interview pediatricians. I was convinced the doctor-patient relationship may prove significant in the years ahead.

And so, one very cold, windy December day about a month before my son arrived, I rolled my round self through the doors of a doctor’s office.

I was a vision, to be sure. Breathless from having climbed two flights of stairs, my shoulder-length blond hair was whipped around my head, and I struggled to free myself from my coat – a cherry-red, ankle-length woolen shroud that had once been my mother’s. Back in Philadelphia circa 1988 it had been striking, chic, and regal. On me – 8 months pregnant in 2002 – minus Mom’s 3-inch heels, manicured nails, and expertly coiffed hair – it was somewhat less fantastic. I resembled a squat strawberry past its peak.

Looks aside, I was on a mission.

I had my notes and my questions ready.

I was going to make sure my baby would have the best provider I could find.

When the doctor entered the room, I was slightly surprised that he was no more than 5 years older than me. But no matter. I proceeded through my questions about diet, weekly and monthly visits, developmental expectations, office hours, etc. and he answered dutifully, thoroughly, and patiently until I finally thought, “Good grief. He’s the professional. And I’m exhausted.”

Having crossed just about everything off my list, I looked up at him and asked, ”How am I doing?”

He smiled.

“Fine,” he said. “There are really just a few things we want to make sure all new parents know about.”

“Ok,” I said.

“First, is that we believe in immunizations.”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up and my body start to tremble.

“Umm…” he stammered, “There is a debate right now. And for some people this is an issue.”

I covered my mouth and then burst out laughing.

“Hahaha! I know! I know! Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! I was so uptight about this. About meeting you… I…I…forgot to ask about the most basic, essential things! You don’t have to convince me of this. I’m fine with immunizations.”

He looked relieved.

“Oh. Ok, great!”

I nodded.

“Another thing,” he continued, “Do you have a car seat?”

I laughed harder.

“For real!?! Yes!”

“Make sure it’s installed properly. Seriously. Do that and you’re golden. Everything else we’ll take as it comes.”

I beamed at him.

I deeply appreciated that doctor that day, and every day we’ve visited him since, because he has consistently focused on the NOW. Today’s right thing.

So here’s the rub…

Do you catastrophize?

Do you envision all the ways the future could go wrong before the next hour has even happened?

If so, lighten up.

Our biggest burdens are often the ones we put on ourselves. So toss your heaviest loads aside, look UP for guidance, and trust that you have – and will be given – the appropriate wisdom and strength required to handle whatever comes next.

All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.

(2 Chronicles 9:23)

$250 for Christmas Joy!?!??

$250 for Christmas Joy!?!??
Photo by Mike Arney on Unsplash

On the radio yesterday, a DJ reported survey results. People said they would pay $250 to find Christmas joy – the kind they knew when they were kids. (Apparently, most people surveyed would also be willing to fork over $145 to have someone else wrap their gifts.) Now, I know many people hate gift-wrapping, but $250 for Christmas joy!?!?? Craziness.

I once knew a Jewish man who had tremendous Christmas spirit. When his three sons were very young, they had a devout faith in Santa Claus. They knew all about Santa’s generosity and good cheer, so naturally, they wondered if he would stop at their home come Christmas Eve.

To honor their own holiday traditions – while also sharing the spirit of the season – the man and his wife hatched plan. On Christmas Eve, the family did a little art project, and then the joyful father climbed out a window and onto his roof. As the little boys stood watching in their pajamas, their dad placed a decorated poster next to the chimney. It said:

Dear Santa,

Just a reminder: We are Jewish. You don’t need to stop here tonight. We wish you a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Love, The Jacobs Family

Friends, this is the Christmas spirit. And it cost virtually nothing but time and love.

It demonstrates the largest Truth of season: It is NOT about us.

It IS about caring for others and spreading joy because we see that we ourselves have been loved.

But maybe you don’t feel joyful. Maybe you think you have nothing to celebrate because you’ve had a rough year or you’re not with the people you think make your holidays complete.

If that’s the case, try these three steps – now or starting tomorrow – to reignite your Christmas or holiday mojo.

1) Close your eyes and begin a mental gratitude statement. If you believe in a higher power – talk to that power. If not, imagine all of the people closest to your heart standing in front of you.

Express thanks for as many things as you can think of, starting with the immediate and going from there. “Thank you for the fact that I’m breathing. Thank you for my beating heart. Thank you for my hands and feet and brain and muscles and my capacity to feel the ground beneath me.”

Move out into your surroundings, the people in your life, counting each thing consciously and with the understanding that even the trials you face are building character in you. Be grateful for this. Be thankful for what you have learned. Don’t stop your list until you simply cannot go on anymore.

2) Get out of your head. Think of a holiday song you enjoy and sing it out loud. Whisper if you must, but verbalize the cheerfulness you’re starting to feel.

3) Decide that you will give every person you meet today a free gift: your smile. Look each one in the eye – especially the annoying, angry, impatient, or rude ones – and smile, with good intentions. Imagine the individual as he or she might have looked as a child. See each person’s vulnerability and humanness. Pray or simply ponder the following over them: Grant this person peace and comfort.

Why do I recommend these steps?

Because gratitude, hope, and generous actions yield joy.

And true Hope is not wishful thinking, but instead it is the firm expectation that something good will occur based on a pattern of goodness that is now present and has come before.

Hope is open to everyone.

Joy can be yours.

I pray you will find both – free and overflowing – this holiday season.

Adoption: What a Gift!

Adoption: What a Gift!

I was overjoyed to learn this weekend that a friend of mine and her husband were able to finalize the adoption of their daughter on Friday. The photo says it all – one child smiling ear to ear, surrounded by two loving parents and a large extended family who have embraced her with a forever welcome.

This isn’t the only adoption story I’ve heard this year. Other friends have adopted children internationally, or are waiting to do so. And every time I hear about this complete and unconditional acceptance of a child into a family – whether it’s happening now or occurred long ago – I have the same recurrent thought.

Adopting a child is one of the most generous and least selfish decisions a person can make.

Today it occurred to me: Jesus was adopted too.

Yes, he was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, but he had an earthly father who took Jesus in as his own, regardless of what it would cost him.

Think about it: Joseph’s decision contradicted every ‘reason.’

The child was not biologically his. Choosing to love a woman who had conceived under circumstances the world would fail to understand would threaten his reputation and of course, require every resource he had.

Yet he heard God’s calling on his life and obeyed.

It wasn’t easy.

His decision to raise the Son as his own meant that while he gave everything a parent could, his child still suffered a humiliating death.

It was an ending no parent would want.

At least on the face of it.

But then – Joseph’s sacrifices were transformed through the Son’s ultimate success.

The child would return his father’s goodness – more times over than Joseph (or we) could ever count – and for all eternity, by adopting us.

Through His mercy and infinite Love, the Lord counts us as His own.

That’s the amazing gift of adoption we celebrate this Christmas.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Romans 8:14, NIV)

Are You A Welcoming Person?

Are You A Welcoming Person?
Photo by Remi Walle. Unsplash.com

I’ll tell you this story – not because it makes me look good – but because it doesn’t.

Sunday I was sitting with my family at the 5 pm Mass, having finally made our way there after a long Thanksgiving weekend filled with fine, rich food and lots of family in two states. I had spent a little time over the previous days praising God for his goodness, and even more time thanking Him for my blessings, but it quickly became obvious my heart wasn’t right for the worship service.

I remember my husband telling me early in our marriage (before I became Catholic), that you shouldn’t be late for Mass, but if you were, you needed to get there before the Gospel was read – the third of the Scripture readings. On a Sunday, this generally occurs about 15 minutes into the service.

And so it was that just as the Gospel started, three 20-something guys in baggy pants and hoodies moved swiftly and quietly to the front of the church and slid into the pew directly in front of me and my family.

Something about them made me uneasy.

Was it their very late arrival?

Was it their dress?

Two of them sported scruffy beards and fringed, unkempt hair and the other had shaved his head. Strong, subtle curves of youthful muscle filled out the shoulders of their large sweatshirts.

Was it the way they seemed unprepared for the service and restless upon the decision to sit?
The one closest to me – the one with the shaved head – was fidgety.

My thoughts raced and images of a mass-shooting at a church in Texas flashed through my head.

God forbid.
How awful of me to think….
Am I always this jumpy and judgmental?
Ugh, if I am – I’m truly awful.
But…my anxiety is for nothing.
Do I have such little faith?
What am I afraid of?
Who do I trust?
I trust you, Lord.

No sooner had I thought this than my focus returned and I looked down at the Scripture in my lap. I heard the Word proclaimed, read in every Catholic Church around the globe on this very day.

’Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ -Matthew 25:44

The homily came and I listened. Then it was time to greet one another with the words, “Peace be with you.”

The young men turned to face us one by one with cautious, unsure expressions. They hesitated before leaning over the seat to shake our hands.

I felt shame and Love flood my body.

“Peace be with you,” I heard myself say to the one closest to me, and as I grasped his hand, his deep brown eyes softened at the corners. His shoulders eased back as he took a breath and returned the greeting with a tiny smile.

When Communion came, the three filed out of the pew and stood aside to let an elderly couple out. But then, they turned away without receiving the Eucharist, and left the church.

I took Communion and kneeled to pray, waiting to see what I would be led to pray about.

People make more of prayer than it is. It is a simple conversation, and when I let God lead, He brings people to mind who need my prayers.

Eyes closed, my thoughts wandered for a moment.

Lord, I thank you for my husband and my kids.

BOOM.

I saw the face of the young man who was sitting in front of me just moments before, the other two behind him.

Pray for them, came the not-so-subtle holy prompting.

And so I did.

And I have – on and off – imperfect as I am – throughout this week.

I may never see those men again – will probably never know WHY I need to pray for them or how whatever it is that’s going with them turns out.

But none of that should matter to me.

It’s not my place to be concerned about results. My place is to follow and obey the One who cares for – and welcomes – all.

People who are in need of welcome surround us every moment of every day, and we are often blind, or worse – unsympathetic – to them.

Souls suffer from myriad kinds of prisons, illness, and hunger.

Every person we meet has an interior life which is known only by God but which requires the Love His people are called to offer unconditionally.

In God’s eyes, welcome is the first action of Love.

This Christmas season, may we have eyes to see where welcome is truly needed, so that from there, we’ll have hearts open to giving, and souls ready for joyful sacrifice.

Is Your Schedule a Gold Mine?

Is Your Schedule a Gold Mine?
Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Do you think of your schedule as a gold mine?

Let me explain.

If you are an adult – and especially a parent of multiple kids – you’ve almost certainly faced (at least once) a constrictive schedule dominated by ‘who needs to go where, for what, and when.’

Right?

Two weeks ago I found myself in a surprising position. A schedule that for years had allowed me to serve in a volunteer leadership position on Thursday nights suddenly steamrolled my plans. As the fall sports schedules were released and carpools were worked out, I challenged myself:

How can I drive from Columbia to Annapolis, make dinner, and handle homework questions in between 5:45 and 6:45?

I know! I will use the slow cooker and pray there is never a traffic jam.

Yeah, right.

I have worked logistical miracles before, but seriously?

Thankfully, I came to the sober realization that I needed to step down from leadership and take a back seat to my kids’ plans for Thursday nights.

I tell you this because my first inclination was to say, “I take a back seat to my children,” but the Plan for me was: You get to spend more time one-on-one with them.

See the change?

How often do you view your schedule and say:

Wow! Today I get to go to the dentist!

I get to walk my dog two times!

I get to cheer up a friend!

I get to coach my child on handling disappointment!

I get to give a presentation at work!

I get to choose my own attitude!

My kids are at three very different and important life phases right now: elementary school, middle school, and high school. Their needs are discrete. They often don’t share details with me.

But if I am fully present to them – I hear what they don’t say directly.

I get to listen more.

In the last few days I’ve heard…

  • My second grader say that he visualizes drawing red circles on the ceiling with lasers, and I learn that his mind is like a painter’s, creating anew in the abstract.
  • My middle-schooler say that a teacher asked her to show a new student around, and I hear in her voice that this has made her feel valued and confident.
  • My high-school freshman explain that any boy who would someday want to date his sister must be “smart, kind, and considerate – opening doors for her on dates and stuff,” and I understand that despite his constant chiding of her, he feels protective.

Observations like this are gold – gold mined in the quiet moments between life’s scheduled events.

Our days are filled with opportunities to participate in creation, because we are made in the image of the Creator. His imprint is within each one of us, and He has given us the ability to work in collaboration with Him.

Our choices can work with His plan for our best interests – or against it.

And when we go with Him, blessings abound.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11

When Our Animals Pass On – Some Words of Hope and Consolation

When Our Animals Pass On – Some Words of Hope and Consolation

Some people just aren’t ‘animal people.’ They can’t help it, really. They just haven’t ever connected with a dog, cat, or some other creature in that deeply beautiful and inexplicable way that changes everything about how a person sees the world.

And then there are the rest of us.

Too many times over the last couple months I’ve watched friends wish a forever goodnight to a beloved dog or cat, and every time I hear of an animal passing, I go back to the days of losing the ones who were most precious to me.

There was Sassafras – the Puli I grew up with  – a Hungarian sheepdog who looked like a Rastafarian. She endured hours of ‘dress up’ as I styled her in my old baby clothes.

Crash – our 107 lb. Yellow Lab – who was afraid of linoleum, occasionally howled when he heard sirens, and adored flowers so much that if I came home with a bouquet, I had to let him smell it right away or he’d tackle me trying.

Crash. He loved flowers and wearing bandanas.

And Shiloh – our Golden Retriever – a big, red, fluffy guy who befriended all the neighbors and was so diligent about “checking” on our infant daughter I had to close the door to her room or he’d wake her up by pushing his nose through the slats of her crib.

It’s this last dog I think of with regret.

Regret. Commingled with our cravings for peace and comfort, it’s often the unspoken part of loss.

Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s not. But one way or another, it can creep in.

We got Shiloh – a 9-week old puppy – on December 22, 2003 when our oldest son was not quite one year. I house-trained him in the dead of winter by strapping my son into his high chair, giving him a handful of Cheerios, and running Shiloh outdoors. He learned inside from out, but was never trained in obedience. My husband and I fully admit – our timing in getting this dog was not among the best of our decisions.

Shiloh on the day we brought him home.

Our daughter arrived two years later, and I was perpetually preoccupied with the work of mothering young children. Shiloh just didn’t receive the one-on-one time and love he so richly deserved. We lost him to an irreversible heart ailment at 8 years old; it was far too soon.

Shiloh as a young pup.

I went to the vet on Valentine’s Day in 2012 to be with him at the end, and the doctor gave us a few minutes alone to say goodbye.

I looked into his eyes and was overcome, so I sat on the tile floor, and with my arms wrapped around his huge red neck, I poured out my pain-filled heart.

There was so much to say. So much I still wanted to do. And couldn’t redo. And all I was left with was precious little time.

I told him I loved him.

I thanked him for his constant devotion to me and our family…for the joy he had brought to our lives.

And then…

I followed my soul’s prompts…and I asked him for forgiveness.

I said I was sorry. I listed many things I did that I regretted, and all the things I didn’t do that I regretted even more.

And this dog knew.

Why am I sure?

I saw it in his eyes.

There is one thing domesticated animals do better than their people: they love unconditionally.

And he did.

Just then, he leaned into me – physically and in spirit. He rested his head on my shoulder and licked my tears.

If every life moment is a glimpse of the divine, what was I seeing just then?

These critical life lessons:

Do not look back and wish for something else. We must live and love right where we are. To do otherwise is futile.

Forgiveness is a matter of turning the heart in the right direction: owning up to wrongs and then relinquishing them. Often, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves.

If facets of God can be seen here on earth – present in the unconditional love and forgiveness of an animal who trusts us and accepts us as we are – then in the same way, we can rest in the knowledge that if we approach Him with contrite hearts, admit our mistakes and ask for mercy, it will be granted to us.

And what of the animals? Where do our friends go?

I appreciate the words of Pope Francis:

“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” – Laudato Si

It warms my soul to consider this…to savor the fact that the God of my experience and understanding so loves the whole world, and God wants me to experience perpetual joy and love to such a degree, that He will use any means necessary to show me this Truth….

Even a dog – here on earth, and someday, forever with me in heaven.

Shiloh dressed for Halloween. He had a funny birthmark on the middle of his tongue. And a beautiful, beautiful heart.