A “renown” author?

Last week, I spent an afternoon talking with elementary school students about being an author. When asked to do this, I chuckled nervously as I’m not quite the “renown” writer that I was described to be. When I explained the narrow scope of my publishing experience to the person who’d invited me, she insisted that I’d be perfect for the job. I’m certain my willingness to speak for free contributed to my qualifications! So it was that I kicked off an all-school writing contest for kindergarten through fifth graders. I began by telling the children that I’m an author because I write. I brought along some newspapers and a magazine in which I’ve been published. I also showed them Page 2 of a few of our bulletins. Though none of this made much of an impression on the younger students, the fourth and fifth graders noted the quantity of small print for which I’m responsible. I did catch the little ones’ attention when I showed them my children’s book and the manuscripts and pictures for two more books waiting to be published. When they noticed my picture on the back of the book, the entire audience sat up and took notice. Apparently, that picture next to my name established my credibility for them.

I began by explaining the sources of my subject matter. I started to collect stories before I went to school. I gathered them from my parents and the other adults in our family. Perhaps I listened too well as I earned the nickname “Little Big Ears” in short order. Regardless, the adults around me continued to talk and I continued to store all that they had to say in my heart. When I went to school, I sometimes stored what I learned in my head. It was good information, but not necessarily something I cared deeply about. At other times, what we discussed went directly to my heart –like the day the entire student body gathered to hear that President Kennedy had been shot. Sister Mary Philip Neri allowed us to process this devastating news by asking us to write our reactions. As sad as I was, I found it easy to write that day. The words poured out of my heart. This phenomenon repeated itself in high school when I wrote my response the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During college, I realized that I was learning things that could help other people. I studied hard and stored all of this in my head as well. Eventually, I wrote what I knew. I went on to tell the potential authors before me that whenever I do this kind of writing, the knowledge comes from my head, but the passion still comes from my heart. I invited the children to think about what they would most like to share with someone else. They volunteered their own family stories, their interests and the things about which they feel strongly. I ended by inviting the children to become authors by writing down these important things for the rest of us.

As I read today’s scriptures, I rediscovered some of the best of what is stored in my heart and my head. The passage from Zephaniah (2:3; 3:12-13) sets the tone with the description of a faithful remnant who illuminate absolute faith in God for the rest of us. They don’t behave as they do to earn God’s loving care. They live as they do because they know God cares for them every minute of every hour of every day. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that, like Zephaniah’s faithful remnant, his followers fail to measure up to this world’s standards when it comes to wealth, wisdom and power. Nonetheless, these followers are everything they need to be because Christ is the source of these things. They don’t follow Christ to obtain these things. In Christ, they already possess a full measure of wealth, wisdom and power. In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:1-12a), Jesus continues in this vein when he tells his disciples that the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers and those who suffer persecution for justice sake are indeed blessed. Like Zephaniah’s faithful remnant and Paul’s brothers and sisters in Christ, they aren’t blessed because they’ve earned God’s favor by enduring these things. Rather, they live and endure these things because God blesses them throughout their lives.

You know, some of the children I spoke to about life as an author have already begun their submissions for their school writing contest. They aren’t writing so they can become authors. They’re writing because they are authors. It’s the same for you and me today. We’re not going to behave as Jesus asks because we want to be blessed. We’re going to imitate Jesus because we know we’re already blessed. We’re simply doing what our heads and our hearts tell us, and we can’t possibly behave any other way.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We’re under a snow advisory!

“Thank you so much!” I couldn’t help myself as I looked out the window. I heard my husband lamenting the three to five inches of snow that this morning’s weather-cast promised as I offered my prayer of gratitude. “We’re under a snow advisory. I’ll probably have to do the driveway twice.” As the poor man continued to list the trials that would certainly accompany this snowfall, I continued to enjoy the beautiful flakes dancing outside my window. “Thank you, Dear God,” I whispered again.

The past few weeks have been very busy for good and not-so-good reasons. As a result, this Monday’s “To Do” list is much longer than usual. Most of our parish bulletin is unfinished and this article, as you can see, is only into its second paragraph. Still, I can’t keep my eyes from turning away from my writing to the window. Of all the amazing beauty that nature offers, I love the snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art project involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher showing us how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we made because each of our paper creations would be different, just like real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of our amazingly different paper flakes. Years later, a high school science teacher brought me back to this art project when she confirmed that every snowflake is different. During my college commute, I waited for trains many a wintry day. To amuse myself, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat, always fascinated by the intricate artistry of each one.

I confess that I stopped mid-page to ask, “Why all of this snow talk?” Before continuing, I returned to the window for another look. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground, while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro, regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I tell myself that it is I who should be moving frenetically because of all I have to do, my spirit basks in the beauty of the snowfall before me.

You and I are not very difference from the snowflakes that bring me such peace today. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind –God’s Holy Spirit who guides and inspires us. In the end, like snowflakes, we form a beautiful blanket that transforms this earth.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus has just received news of his cousin John the Baptist’s death. Though heartbroken over this loss, Jesus follows God’s Spirit and goes on to begin his work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus begins his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John cannot imagine where this journey will take them, yet they become the first members of the faith community that will follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes that tossed and turned in the wind outside of my window, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. At times, they chose to go it alone, Most of the time, they allowed God’s Spirit to lead them. In the end, they transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounds us today.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Little Christmas

My writing has been delayed this week because I attended my cousin’s wake and funeral this past Sunday and Monday. I’m having a little trouble getting started because the familiar path that I’ve walked with Joe’s family seems more discouraging this time around. Though all concerned truly believe that Joe is completely at peace in the hereafter, saying good-bye took all of the courage that any of us could muster. Joe’s wake evolved into a truly wonderful celebration of his life. Yet the next morning, as we offered our final farewells in the same setting, that celebration gave way to deep mourning. The Mass of Resurrection that followed underscored God’s amazing promises regarding the things to come. Joe himself told me that he wasn’t at all worried about “over there.” Joe knew with all certainty that God would take care. His concern was to fight a valiant fight in order to remain with and to care for his family for as long as he was able. Yet, though our faith is intact, Joe’s wife Pam, their children Nicole and Joey and the rest of us suffered greatly as we attempted to say good-bye. When we gathered at the cemetery, I took note of the absence of snow. This was a blessing as our large contingent wasn’t necessarily dressed for a trek through the white stuff. At the same time, this absence contributed to the barren scene before us and to the emptiness in our hearts.

This morning, I woke up with thoughts of Joe. My much younger cousin exuded life, and I wondered how he and God got along during that first face-to-face encounter. As I imagined my businessman cousin pitching ideas to his Maker who certainly cherishes the winning smile that he gave Joe, I discovered the beautiful snowfall that continues as I write. I thanked God for covering that barren cemetery with this beautiful blanket. Joe’s family lives nearby. If Pam and the kids head over there today, they’ll find a much different scene than we left yesterday. Indeed, everything will be different from now on.

As you entered church this weekend, you may have experienced a sense of the same here. Though a few poinsettias remain, our worship space looks much different than it did just a few weeks ago. The beautiful adornments that announced the Christmas Season so dramatically have given way to the green of a quieter liturgical season. In the absence of the special seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, the church simply numbers the Sundays in ordinal fashion, one after the other. I suppose we do the same when we reference moments in time in accord with major events in our lives: before or after the wedding; before or after Baby’s birth; before or after we lost our loved one.

As I consider the scripture readings for the coming weeks, I find that God’s best work among us unfolds when our lives change and everything is different. Jesus’ public life began in the waters of the Jordan River most unexpectedly. John the Baptist felt that Jesus should have been the one pouring the water. When Jesus allowed John to baptize him, Jesus set the tone for his public life. Ours is a very “hands-on” messiah who spent himself caring for others. Throughout the three years that followed, Jesus taught that God loves each of us unconditionally and that it is up to us to love one another in the same way. In everything Jesus said and did, he illustrated God’s willingness to embrace us when life is good and when we’re shaken by bumps and pained by bruises along the way. God’s presence in our joy and in our sorrow makes all of the difference in the world when we take it to heart.

The snow contiunes to fall, and my thoughts turn to my cousin once again. I’m grateful for our family’s faith because I know those who miss Joe will cope as a result. Yet, as I consider the life of Jesus, it seems that God wishes much more for us than simply to cope. God presents us with amazing possibilites, and it’s up to us to choose from among them. Certainly, we will mourn Joe’s loss in good conscience. After all, Jesus mourned his cousin John the Baptist and his friend Lazarus. Still, Jesus persisted. As a result of Jesus’ effort, the lonely and the desperate found their hearts filled with new hope and peace and they persisted, too. Could it be that we must do the same in spite of our losses, in spite of our sadness, in spite of not knowing which way to turn? Though I’m quite certain of God’s response, I can almost hear Joe, too. “Absolutely!”

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Christmas Cards and Gifts Received

Though this particular article must be submitted by 6:00 this evening and it is already past noon, I find myself reluctant to begin. Christmas 2010 lives only in my memory and in the photos and video that chronicled the day for me. In spite of the decorations, Christmas Cards and gifts received, our home feels empty. Our Christmas Tree’s branches droop a bit lower, exposing the bare spots that I so carefully filled with ornaments and bows a few weeks ago. The angel costumes that my granddaughters wore for Christmas Eve Mass are stored for another year. The gifts that filled the study where I write have been given, and the last of the wrapping and boxes wait in the dumpster for pick-up. Even the Christmas trays that boasted dozens of cookies lie empty. I shiver in spite of the humming furnace this chilly afternoon, and I wonder… What were Mary and Joseph doing two millennia ago after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the trials and tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah?

Our Christmas stories and hymns offer every possible scenario regarding the Nativity. On that silent and holy night, angels sang. Shepherds responded. A drummer boy drummed. The Night Wind asked Little Lamb, “Do you see what I see?” A more recent composition inquires, “Mary, did you know?” Yet, in spite of the beauty and reverence of our songs and carols, the First Christmas was an emotional and trying time for the Holy Family, and the events that followed tested Mary and Joseph even more harshly.

Astrologers, who traveled a terribly long distance to find them, surprised and amazed Mary and Joseph with their reverence for Jesus. This visit began Jesus’ ministry to the entire world, far beyond the borders of the Jewish community. While this milestone in Jesus’ life offered relationships with the God of Israel to all people of good will, the Magi’s unprecedented kindness came at a great price. When the Magi stopped at Herod’s palace to find out what he knew about the newborn king, they inadvertently alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Fortunately, the Magi were indeed wise men as they took an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. Joseph, a wise man as well, also listened to an angelic voice who directed him to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. As the Magi likely responded to their encounter with Jesus by sharing the good news in their own country, the scriptures tell us that Herod ordered the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two, thus ridding himself of the potential king.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained in Egypt, far from their home, until an angel brought news of Herod’s death. Though Joseph hoped to return to Judea, he found that Herod’s son now occupied the throne. To avoid this possible threat to Jesus, Joseph took his family to Galilee and settled in Nazareth. There Joseph and Mary raised Jesus to be a devout Jew and a good carpenter. The next mention of Jesus in the scriptures is a trip to Jerusalem during Passover when Jesus stayed behind to study in the temple while his parents journeyed home. It was a day into their walk before Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t with them. Mary thought her twelve year old had joined the men for the trek home because Jesus was old enough. Joseph thought Jesus joined the women because he was so young. When they found him, Jesus responded to his parents’ worry by insisting that he had to be about his Father’s business. Still, Jesus obediently followed them home. Again, the gospels lapse until Jesus’ public life begins at age thirty. A shiver takes hold of me as I consider all Mary and Joseph must have done to help Jesus prepare for that day…

Mike and I truly enjoy preparing our home for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. The God-made-man who changed everything with his arrival didn’t miss us in the process. Though life has pushed us and pulled us from the wonder of Christmas through the trials of this life, we wouldn’t have it any other way. As I admit to myself that I’m pensive and a bit tentative as I begin this New Year 2011, a welcome bit of warmth nudges away the chill and fills me up with hope. Our home isn’t empty after all. Just as our worries and concerns remain, the realities of God’s love and our own potential to grow in that love remain as well. Dear God, bless us this New Year with all we need, the best of what we want, and the courage to use well what we are given. Amen!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved