A Potential Book Inspired The Following…

Bob and Grace have lived behind us since we built our home in Gurnee in 1987. Mike met Bob one day when he walked across Bob’s yard to get to our lot. Mike had just taken our dog, Ernie, to the vet for the last time. His eyes teared as he looked over the barren plat that would become our yard. At the time, Mike thanked God that he was alone. Friendly guy that he is, Bob bolted out of his house when he saw Mike. He and Grace have a son and a daughter, and they were anxious to know if a family with children was moving in. Though Bob was probably taken aback by the grown man crying in his yard, he welcomed Mike with a warm handshake. This unexpected meeting grew into numerous conversations across yards and at various neighborhood gatherings over the years. During one such encounter, Bob shared that he’d just published a book. Though it was a business publication, Bob still found it exciting to see his name in print. Fellow writer that I am, I certainly related to Bob’s joy, and I asked him if I could read a copy. When Bob handed the book to me, he confessed that he’d begun another manuscript that he hoped to publish on a grander scale some day.

Bob hoped his book-in-progress, JUST BE GOOD, would develop into sound advice to those of us who truly hope to take the high road during our lives on this earth. Bob is the product of seventeen years of Catholic Education and, like many of us, he’s wrestled with his own variety of “Catholic” guilt. Over the years, Bob found that he and many of his peers became so discouraged with the rules they’d broken that they overlooked the many good things they’d done. This discouragement often drew people away from The Church because they felt they’d never be quite good enough. In the end, Bob concluded that focusing more on what we’re doing right and not fixating on our failures might just make us more productive people. Bob hoped that his story would encourage the rest of us to focus more fully on what we might do to help ourselves and those around us to become the good people we are meant to be.

As I read today’s scriptures for this writing, it occurred to me that Bob has the right idea about the power of our focus. In the first reading (1 Kings 19:16b-21), Elijah calls Elisha to leave everything behind so he can train to be Elijah’s successor. The Old Testament illustrates again and again that a prophet’s work is never easy. Elijah knows that Elisha will need all of his energy to proclaim God’s word to his stubborn people. Wasting time with unimportant considerations is a luxury Elisha cannot afford. So it is that Elisha single-heartedly follows his mentor. In his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:1, 13-18), St. Paul calls his followers to focus as well. Christ set his disciples free from earthly concerns to allow them to focus upon God’s concerns. Paul speaks with great passion from his truly singular focus on the teachings of Jesus. Paul can’t imagine why anything would concern his people more than God’s call to love and to care for one another. In the gospel (Luke 9:51-62), Jesus makes the ultimate plea for our focus: Follow me. When those who hear ask first to bid farewell to their families or to bury their dead, Jesus seems impatient in demanding their immediate response. It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t want his followers to care for their families. Indeed, it is Jesus’ deep love for we who are his family that inspires his response. Jesus knows his final journey to Jerusalem is in the offing and he is determined to provide a lasting example of the price and the value of remaining focused upon God’s call. His friends will not understand why Jesus allows himself to be arrested, misjudged, tortured and murdered. Rather than drawing upon the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, the disciples will lose their focus on Jesus and respond to their fear. Only when the resurrected Jesus returns do the disciples see where their focus must remain and why.

I must admit that I’ve spent undue energy during my lifetime focused upon the wrong things. How much effort I’ve wasted on regret! I find that as much as I admire Bob’s insight in calling us to focus on helping ourselves and one another to be good people, it’s taken me a while to take it to heart. The good news is that, though I am a work in progress in this area, I’m already enjoying the peace that comes with focusing on Jesus’ call to Follow me. When we consider the arms of the father wrapped around his prodigal son, the kindness Jesus offered the Samaritan Woman at the well, the numerous times Jesus repeated, “Your sins are forgiven!” and the resurrected Jesus’ offer of peace to his errant followers, we realize that the focus is God’s love after all. How else can we respond other than to return that love in kind –to God and to one another?

©2010 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Paying It Forward

While making my way down the pasta aisle at the Jewel, I stopped to find the elder good deacon’s favorite sauce. As I perused the shelves, two young men stopped to pick up a few boxes of spaghetti. I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. The taller of the two insisted that he was going to pay for his friend’s groceries to make up for a past debt. The other replied, “I helped you because you needed it. That’s what friends do. If you want to do something in return, just pay it forward.” I hadn’t heard those words in years, but they immediately conjured up images from a very special movie Mike and I saw almost a decade ago. When I arrived home, I set the groceries on the kitchen counter, put away everything that needed to be refrigerated and ran to our computer. I did a search for Pay It Forward and spent the next hour enjoying clips from this movie that continues to touch my heart.

Pay It Forward chronicles the story of Trevor McKinney, an eleven year old whose father deserted the family and whose mother is an alcoholic. Though their home is reasonably pleasant, this seems more due to Trevor’s propensity to behave than to his mother’s attention to domestic details. Though his mom provides as best she can for his material needs, Trevor yearns for emotional support and security. Somehow, in spite of this longing, Trevor holds onto a remnant of hope buried deep within himself. The story begins on the first day of school. Trevor’s social studies teacher realistically acknowledges his students’ reluctance to be in class. After some moments of bantering about the miseries of middle school, the teacher offers his students a challenge that they are to make a yearlong project. Sighs and moans fill the classroom as the students note the assignment on the board. The directive reads: “Come up with an idea that will change the world and put it into action.” While his classmates complain, Trevor gives genuine thought to the project. Though he outwardly expresses his doubt that a seventh grader can actually accomplish something of this magnitude, it is obvious that he is wrestling with the possibility internally. Trevor eventually engages in some “helpful” behavior that might have placed him in serious jeopardy. When his mother points this out, Trevor responds angrily. He thinks he has come up with an idea that will change the world, and he refuses to let it go. Even when Trevor’s mother approaches his teacher about the foolishness of the project –you see, she recognizes her son’s goodness, and she knows his innocence makes him particularly vulnerable to disappointment– Trevor refuses to abandon his campaign.

In the end, when the students share their presumably world-changing ideas, only Trevor shares something that clearly illustrates his teacher’s intent. Indeed, Trevor’s concept reaches far beyond his teacher’s expectations. Trevor’s plan is to begin by doing something good for someone who really needs help. This is why he brought a homeless man home to dinner, invited him to sleep in the garage and to shower in the morning, and then sent him off with his savings to purchase clothing for a job interview. Then, rather than paying Trevor back, the homeless man shows his gratitude by paying forward the good deed to three new people. Those three each go on to pay forward good deeds done for them to three more people. Trevor concludes that, eventually, paying it forward will change the world. Though his classmates remain skeptics, Trevor’s teacher cannot ignore the passion with which Trevor presents his plan. Though Trevor considers himself a failure in his attempts to make a difference, the remainder of the film tells quite a different story.

In today’s gospel (Luke 10:1-12, 17-20), Jesus is the teacher who sends out seventy-two disciples to engage in “paying it forward.” They are blessed with the Good News, and Jesus asks that they share this blessing with all who will receive it. Jesus sends them forth with the realistic expectation that they will be rejected in some places, and their job is not to force the Word upon anyone. Nonetheless, they are to offer God’s message of love with the hope that it will take root within others who will also pay it forward. Like my friends from the pasta aisle who have no idea that their generosity in paying it forward inspired this writing, we cannot predict the lengths to which our goodness toward others will go. Our only certainty is that failure to pay goodness forward results in a preventable void. It seems to me that paying it forward every chance we get makes all the sense in the world when it comes to changing this world as Jesus asked.

©2010 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In A Bit Of A Time Crunch

Almost twenty years ago, when our son, Tim, was six years old, he and his dad set out for a weekend in Wisconsin. They had only driven about twenty minutes when they stopped for gas. Because he was anxious to get back on the road, Mike hopped into the car and sped off without giving any thought to his or Tim’s seatbelt. Just a block away from the gas station, Mike noticed the flashing lights reflected in his rearview mirror. Before he could ask himself, “What in the world?” Mike realized what was wrong. “Oh no! Our seat belts! Put on your seatbelt, Tim.” Mike pulled over and waited for the officer to approach the car. When the officer asked for his license and registration, Mike asked, “Is there a problem, Officer?” The man looked at my husband and son whose seatbelts were now precisely where they should be. Then he asked, “Did you have those seatbelts buckled back there when you pulled out of that gas station?” Poor Mike, who at the moment wanted nothing in this world less than a traffic ticket, answered with great reluctance, “No, sir.”

I admit to being extremely pleased that the good deacon took the high road by telling the officer the truth. Mike could have lied to avoid a ticket which would have given him and Tim something to chuckle about on their way up north. This lie would also have given our son a terrible lesson regarding honesty. Ultimately, that single lie would also have tarnished Mike’s essence a bit. Every lie makes the next one so much easier to tell, chipping away at our honesty until there isn’t enough left to recognize.

I share Mike’s and Tim’s little adventure with you because it speaks to the heart of today’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37). Luke tells us that a scholar of the law asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus replies with a question of his own: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The scholar answers with the familiar commands that we must love God with every part of our beings and that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus compliments the scholar by acknowledging that he has responded correctly in identifying the means to eternal life. Unfortunately, the scholar isn’t satisfied with Jesus’ reply, so he persists by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus continues with the parable of the Good Samaritan who stops to care a man at the side of the road who was left for dead by robbers. Though a passing priest and a Levite not only ignored the man, but also crossed the road so as not to be contaminated by him, this Samaritan stopped to help. When Jesus asks who was neighbor to the injured man, the scholar acknowledges that the neighbor is the one who treated the man with mercy. Jesus ends this exchange by telling the scholar, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke doesn’t tell us the final impact Jesus’ story had on the scholar. Perhaps this is so because what is important is the impact Jesus’ story has on the rest of us. Certainly, the Samaritan’s compassion is remarkable. He seems not to hesitate in the least when he sees the wounded man at the side of the road. He not only dresses his wounds, but he also delivers the man to an inn where he can rest and recuperate. The Samaritan leaves money to provide for the man’s care, and he promises to repay the innkeeper any additional costs incurred. These efforts indicate to me that the Samaritan could have no more left his own mother or spouse or child to die than he could have left this man. His essence, indeed his very soul, would not allow him to do otherwise. As I reflect upon the goodness that seems to define the Samaritan, I must ask myself what defines the priest and the Levite who leave the man to die. What is it that drove them to value ritual purity and their positions within the temple community more than they valued the life of a fellow person? It is one thing to put the plight of poor and the persecuted out of mind for a time. But what is it that allows one to walk by, to step over or to run across the road from a dying brother or sister?

It’s likely that most of us will never encounter a scene that demands action quite as dramatically as the dying man who lay on the side of the road. Nonetheless, life offers us opportunities every day to strengthen our characters, our essence and our very souls by taking the high road and doing what we know is right. Eventually, our good deeds become part and parcel of who we are –like the honestly that caused Mike to tell the good officer the truth that day so long ago. Apparently, this officer cultivated some compassion of his own. After instructing Mike on the necessity for seatbelts, he sent Mike and Tim on their way without a citation.

©2010 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Prayers Regarding Some Writing Projects

I smile every time I read today’s gospel (Luke 10:38-42), perhaps because it reflects the spirit of my favorite childhood activity. Luke writes of a visit Jesus pays to the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Throughout Jesus’ stay, Martha finds herself caught up in a flurry of domestic activity. The Jewish people pride themselves in offering hospitality to those who grace their homes with their company, and Martha intends to put forth her best effort for Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, is so taken with him that she perches herself at Jesus’ feet for the duration of his stay. Mary’s unwillingness to help with serving and cleaning frustrates Martha so much so that she complains to Jesus about her sister. Jesus takes Martha by surprise when He responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

I admit that I made an art of taking on Mary’s role when I was a child. I enjoyed having company in spite of the fact that all entertaining was preceded by a thorough housecleaning and other equally annoying chores. I looked forward to the arrival of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with excited anticipation. There was something magical to me about our home when it was filled with family and friends enjoying one another. Though I spent a bit of these visits with my cousins, I edged myself into the periphery of the adult conversations as quickly as possible. This was the best place to be as I avoided being rounded up with the rest of the kids when it came time to pick up toys and to straighten up their play area. More importantly, this location made me privy to the best of our family lore. I learned how my grandparents met and that my dad peddled my mother around on the handlebars of his bicycle until he purchased his first car. I learned that my grandfather didn’t allow any of my aunts to wear makeup and that as soon as they were a block away from home they put it on. I even learned that my kindly Uncle Gee had a lovely and devoted secret admirer who didn’t mind at all that polio had disfigured my uncle’s body. After these visits, when my brother and sisters discussed their adventures with Kick-the-Can and Hide-and-Seek, I had nothing to say. Rather, I savored the stories the adults had told as my personal treasures. They remain very much a part of who I am today.

My appreciation of Mary’s role changed a bit with the onset of adulthood and independence. When Mike and I began to entertain in our own home, I found myself stepping into Martha’s shoes. After inviting family or friends, I fretted over the preparations. When our guests arrived, I busied myself with the tasks at hand, while Mike acted as host. After serving the meal, I missed out on most of the conversation that followed as I cleared the table and tended to the dirty dishes. When our guests left, Mike filled me in on the latest news. It took a few years of lost opportunities before I realized that the dishes and soiled table linens would not miss my attention, though I would always miss the time lost with our guests.

I suppose there are times when we’d all like to have a Martha of our own. We’d likely jump at the chance to have Martha help us through just one hectic day. The problem is that the more Martha would help us to accomplish, the more we would find for her and for ourselves to do. Though we would spend hours working side by side, we and Martha would likely know very little about one another at day’s end. Task orientation may be helpful on the job, but it does little to nurture relationships and to fill our hearts with the joy our relationships are meant to hold.

Today, Jesus calls us to be relationship oriented. Jesus asks us to tend to one another as his friend Mary tended to him. As much as Jesus appreciated Martha’s concern, he appreciated Mary’s company far more. The nourishment Jesus needed more than a good meal was sustenance for his spirit. That sustenance came in the form of Mary’s friendship. When Jesus pointed out Martha’s anxiety and worry, Jesus seemed to indicate that Martha was welcome to join her sister in spending time with him. Jesus’ message to us today is the same: We must set aside our anxiety and worry and take the time to get to know and love one another. It is in the relationships we form with those we love that we find Mary’s treasure for ourselves. When we spend time with one another, we spend time with God.

©2010 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Listens With Such A Patient Ear

Jesus offers us a revealing glimpse of God in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The image of a welcoming and forgiving father with arms outstretched toward his children, regardless of their carryings on, is one I have held dearly all of my life. It is this image of God as loving parent that encourages me to seek an intimate relationship with God.

If you have been blessed with a close relationship, you understand the implications of intimacy. When we are intimate, we hide nothing from the other. Neither pretenses nor formalities get in the way of the reality of our identity. When we truly share ourselves, we put our every flaw and our every virtue in full view of our beloved. When God is our partner in such a relationship, even the things we don’t know about ourselves are known to God. When I find myself faced with the reality that I’m not perfect –an all too frequent occurrence– I also recognize that God has been aware of this all along. Yet, in spite of the pettiness or grandeur of my imperfections, God looks upon me with persistent love. Because God loves me –and all of us– so, I approach God with the same confidence that Abraham exhibits in today’s first reading (Genesis (18:20-32).

It is important to note that when Abraham speaks, he does so because he finds God to be both approachable and compassionate. The author of Genesis carefully portrays this encounter as a conversation during which God and Abraham walk together, just as God walked with Adam and Eve in Eden. Though very much aware that he is in the presence of God, Abraham speaks freely as he bargains for the lives of the innocent inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though God is responding to an outcry from righteous people in the face of the evil that festers in the two cities, God listens to Abraham. First, Abraham pleads that the cities be spared if there are just fifty innocent inhabitants. Then, he pleads for forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty and ten innocent lives. God responds sympathetically. Indeed, the chapter that follows tells us that God has Abraham’s plea in mind when God spares the lives of Lot and his family.

The God with whom Abraham is so familiar is the God to whom Jesus refers his disciples in today’s gospel (Luke 11:1-13). Jesus has just finished praying himself when the disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. Jesus responds with the Lord’s Prayer. Afterward, Jesus goes on to make his instruction regarding prayer perfectly clear. If the disciples have forgotten the persistence of Abraham and God’s generous response to him, Jesus reminds them in no uncertain terms. Jesus tells the disciples of a man who responds to his neighbor’s need in the middle of the night, not so much out of love as out of weariness at the neighbor’s persistence. Jesus continues, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus goes on to point out the disciples’ concern for their own children: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

A poignant memory comes to mind whenever I’m discouraged and tempted to question the power of prayer. It was twenty-two years ago that I stood at my step-father’s bedside with an aching heart. Emphysema had transformed the muscular carpenter I once knew into a shadow of his former self. I prayed and asked the God of Abraham to watch with me a while. Like Abraham, as soon as I had God’s attention, I began negotiating. First, I asked for relief for my dad’s difficult breathing. “Take away his anxiousness over each breath,” I begged. When I felt assured of that much, I went on. I requested strength for my mom and the rest of us to remain present to him for as long as needed. I knew God was listening as always, and so I continued. This time I set limits on the “as long as needed” part. “If he was my son, I would have him home by Easter!” I challenged God to hear and to respond to my prayer as Jesus promised God would do. Just a week later, we walked with my step-dad through his passing. It was the night before Easter that I apologized to God for my insolent and demanding prayer. I also thanked God for taking my father home. In spite of my tears, I smiled and promised to pray with the conviction of Abraham and Jesus many more times before God and I meet face to face. You see, if I cannot turn to my God, I have no place to turn, and nor do you. Whether life is good or difficult at the moment, talk to God, the One who listens –always!

©2010 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

My Recent Immersion In Nostalgia

Since our son, Tim, married several weeks ago, I’ve made a seemingly futile attempt to clear our house and garage of items that we no longer need. While doing so the other day, I came across a box of my mother’s things. It occurred to me that the elder good deacon and I are on course to leave each of our sons and their poor wives a truckload of similar memorabilia. So it was that I set out to extract something from the mounds of boxes we’ve accumulated. Unfortunately, as I poked around, my attention returned to that box of my mother’s things. Before I knew it, I’d perched myself on the steps, opened the box and looked through these treasures. Somehow, they carried me back in time to my mom’s condo where my sisters and I were going through her things, trying to decide what to keep, what to pass on to the family and what to give away…

One of my mom’s most prized possessions was a huge assortment of fabric that she’d accumulated over the years. My mother purchased fabric whenever it was offered at a good price, and her walk-in closet was literally filled with the stuff when she left her condo for the last time. Now my mom wasn’t a compulsive buyer. She purchased fabric only when she had a project in mind. When we were growing up, my mom made most of our clothes and her own. She also upholstered furniture, designed drapes and did alterations for various family members. Two of my mom’s greatest sources of pride were the bridesmaids dresses she fashioned for our family weddings and the sewing she did for the veterans housed in Chicago area VA Hospitals. She sewed lap blankets for vets confined to wheelchairs. She made neck pillows for those confined to bed. She also made ditty bags in which each of them could store personal items for safekeeping. When Mom fashioned some of these items for women vets from our old bridesmaid dresses, she observed, “I knew I’d make good use of them!” A few years before my mom passed away, her hands began to ache from arthritis. Since she found that she could clothe herself with store-bought items as inexpensively as with what she made herself, she began to limit her sewing to projects for the veterans. These projects ended the day she left her condo.

Though sewing had been a huge part of my mom’s life, she didn’t mention it much after she moved. Rather, she concentrated on the new business at hand. She had taken up residence with her children, and she focused on being a good houseguest and causing as little disruption as possible to our families. Her sons-in-law agree that Mom was easy to have around, too easy, for sure. When we eventually discovered that she had cancer, my mom’s life work changed once again. Her new goal became to live the life she had left to the full. This involved enjoying the daily activities provided in her hospice setting, being a good patient when she needed care, offering good company to her fellow residents, holding on to her dignity at all costs and assuring her daughters that she was absolutely fine. Apparently, my mom focused on the right things because she embraced her passing with peace and joyful anticipation.

In today’s gospel (Luke 12:13-21), Jesus tells us of a rich man who didn’t quite understand how to find happiness in his treasure. Jesus explains, “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.’” The poor man doesn’t understand the blessing that wealth of any sort is meant to be. He busies himself hoarding, rather than using what he has to enrich others. He loves himself more than he loves others, and he completely misses out on what matters to God.

My mom became expert at giving up the things of importance in her own life in order to enrich the lives of those around her. You know, we’ve all been blessed with gifts and talents. We can hoard them like the rich man or we can share them with those we’ve been given to love. Today, you and I are invited to make the choice that will make all of the difference in the world to someone who needs just what we have to offer.

©2010 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved