Lady Liberty

I’m not quite sure of what happened to the month of June. Lots of family and friend events filled our calendar. Some very special people continued bouts with serious illnesses, and some others moved on to eternal life. In each case, time with those concerned was certainly well spent. We also hosted our granddaughters for two overnight visits, much to our pleasure and our fatigue. When July 1st arrived, Mike and I looked at each other and remarked in unison, “We need a rest!’ With that, Mike ignored our observation and headed off to the health club. I, on the other hand, decided to heed this advice by taking advantage of the quiet house and enjoying my annual viewing of Forrest Gump. My poor family has endured this rerun –and you have endured reading about it– almost every year since the film played in theatres in 1994. Though I claim this to be so because the screenplay is definitely a classic, I especially enjoy the many news clips from actual events that appear as the story unfolds.

I suppose I watch Forrest Gump as I prepare for July 4 each year because, like the movie, our Independence Day observances conjure up recurring memories that will never escape me. My earliest recollections include our family’s quest for the nearest fireworks display. This was particularly important and particularly difficult July 4, 1959. My dad passed away early that morning. Helpful family members assisted my mom by whisking us kids away for the day to attend our annual family picnic. I have no doubt that my aunts and uncles wondered if fireworks would be at all appropriate that night. While I don’t recall most of that day’s events, I do recall finding great solace in the fireworks displays I’ve observed every year since. The glittering lights that burst in the night sky suggest resurrection to me. My father’s passing into eternal life must have been a million times more glorious. While the flashing sprays above me dissolve into smoke and ash, I know my father’s transformation continues on –forever. Each time I watch Forrest Gump, I share in Forrest’s wonder as he watches the Bicentennial Fireworks of 1976. The Statue of Liberty fills his tiny television screen with all of her glory. Fireworks of every color form a sparkling halo around her head. Though this particular clip is quite short, the glimpse of Lady Liberty and her spectacular backdrop sets off fireworks in my mind that linger for days.

Of course, it isn’t just the fireworks that draw me in. The Statue of Liberty is another fascination that I share with Forrest Gump. Forrest found great comfort and peace in his ability to love and care for others, and this mighty green statue speaks to those things. Lady Liberty first inspired me when I was in high school. I sang with a chorus which performed for special programs. One of our selections was drawn from The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed within the base beneath Lady Liberty. The poem closes with “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Patriotism was not so much in vogue when I sang those words in the sixties. Yet, even then, I could not stop the fullness in my heart that swelled every time these words passed my lips. I experienced those feelings in stereo when I stood at Lady Liberty’s feet a few years ago. As I read today’s scriptures to prepare for this writing, I knew I simply had to share what Forrest Gump and I have been up to once again.

In Matthew’s gospel (11:25-30), Jesus extends this invitation: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Perhaps I’m so taken with Lady Liberty because she proclaims quite vividly God’s longing to draw us close and to be on hand whenever we need God’s help. Perhaps I’m so taken with fireworks because they are a vivid reminder of the things that await us in God’s everlasting home. Perhaps I’m so taken with Forrest Gump because his simple heart remained ever-open to the possibilities this life offers day after day. Perhaps I’m so taken with Jesus’ words today because they touch my own aching heart with God’s generosity –which is everything I can possibly hope for and more.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Corpus Christi—the Body and Blood of Christ

Our granddaughters spent a few days with us last week. The highlights of their stay included dinner at Red Robin, Gurnee’s newest eatery. Ellie and Lauren smiled when we shared our plans with them as they enjoy their occasional visits to the same restaurant in Naperville where they live.

Though we ventured out on a Tuesday evening, the restaurant teemed with diners. During the five-minute wait for our table, an unexpected celebrity made his way in. This individual’s appearance transformed Ellie’s and Lauren’s good humor into pure ecstasy. Red Robin himself personally welcomed each of the girls with a handshake and a hug. These gestures set the tone for what became a thoroughly enjoyable meal together. When the hostess led us to our table, Ellie and Lauren scanned the restaurant to see where their new friend had gone. “Do you think he’ll come back?” Ellie asked. Grandpa Mike assured Ellie that Red Robin would return to our table to see if we liked our dinner. “If we eat it all up,” Grandpa added, “Red Robin will know that we like his food.” With that, Ellie and Lauren gave our server their dinner requests and then colored their placemats. It had become very important to them to be on their best behavior for “Red”.

Since our table sat just behind the hostess stand, we were able to see everyone who entered and left the restaurant. While Mike and I sat back to enjoy this time with the girls, several people from our parish happened by. Each group had something to share as they passed us. Ellie and Lauren are shy with people they don’t know. Still, when our friends moved on to their own tables, Ellie wanted to know everything about them. Most importantly, she asked, “Do they like Red Robin, too?”

I’m happy to report that the big red bird visited our table during dinner. Though Ellie and Lauren were too shy to talk to him, when Red Robin moved on, they giggled and waved enthusiastically. As I observed the circus at our own table, it occurred to me that the same scene repeated itself throughout the restaurant. Tables of families, teens, twenty-somethings, elderly couples, young couples and several in-between chatted and laughed as they enjoyed their meals. After basking in the tangible merriment for a few minutes, I turned to the my husband and announced, “This is it! This is Corpus Christi—the Body and Blood of Christ. This is what Jesus loved to do. No wonder he had a last supper!” I noted that Mike rolled his eyes as I rambled on, likely wondering where I could possibly be going with this. I know. You have good reason to wonder the same thing.

It seems to me that the activity Jesus most enjoyed during his life among us was sharing a meal with his friends. The best part of this is that Jesus counted anyone in close proximity among his friends unless that person chose otherwise. Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding reception. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. On one occasion, Jesus welcomed a woman of questionable reputation who interrupted his meal to bathe his feet with her tears. Jesus ate with whoever invited him in. Jesus sometimes invited himself in. Jesus called Zacchaeus down from a tree and asked the man to take him home for dinner. Jesus also cured Peter’s ailing mother-in-law and then enjoyed the meal she prepared. Of all the things Jesus did, his meals shared with those presumed to be “unclean” incited the scribes and Pharisees most. Still, Jesus persisted in coming to table to share a meal with those he’d been given to love.

If I’d written this article for children, I’d add that, when Red Robin roamed around his restaurant smiling, shaking hands and welcoming everyone he met, he did exactly what Jesus did. Since my readers tend to be a bit more mature, I add this: It was no accident that Jesus spent his last night sharing a meal. Jesus left his greatest gift –his own body and blood, his soul and divinity– in the sometimes incapable hands of the motley crew who’d become his best friends. Though they didn’t fully understand, Jesus passed the bread and the cup to each one of them. On this Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we celebrate Jesus’ gift of himself to us. Unlike the poor disciples, we do understand. So it is that we show our appreciation by sitting at table, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, with EVERYONE we meet along the way.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The View From Heaven

Last weekend, my husband and I enjoyed a rare opportunity. We traveled to Wisconsin for a wedding which our sons and daughters-in-law also attended. Though I admit that I missed our granddaughters when the weekend began, I also admit that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing our married children in roles to which I’m generally not privy. As the weekend unfolded, Mike and Abby, Tim and Kim blended in with the rest of the young people, the likes of whom always bring life to such events. Since most of these couples knew one another and since many who had children left them home in the care of their respective grandmas and grandpas, all concerned enjoyed an especially good time.

After enjoying our own friends before and during dinner, Mike and I drifted over to the young people –far away enough not to be intrusive, but close enough to enjoy the show. They talked, laughed and danced all evening long. All the while, they morphed into giddy teens, sophisticated professionals, concerned parents and back to giddy teens before our eyes. One would never guess that Tim and Kim are almost eight years younger than Mike and Abby because they get along so well. While they thought I wasn’t looking, Mike and Tim revealed their dancing capabilities. While I know Abby and Kim are quite talented in this regard, both Mike and Tim surprised me with their rhythm and footwork. Since neither their father nor I are Dancing with the Stars material, I have to credit our sons’ persistence rather than the family gene pool for this display of talent.

A few hours into the evening, the elder good deacon eased his way into a group of our sons’ friends who’d gathered on the patio outside the reception hall. This overture wasn’t viewed as an intrusion because these guys enjoy talking to Mike. Over the years, these one-time kids have told Mike about engagement plans, wedding plans and their hopes for children long before they’ve told others. They’ve also shared their worst fears on those rare occasions when these things loomed on the horizon. This evening was no exception as Mike learned of one more impending proposal and another impending birth –both of which are very good news. For a few minutes, even Mike morphed –no longer the sixty-something dad, he became the wise older brother for a while.

During Mike’s patio stay, I found a seat near the dance floor. Truly, I could have sat there all night, watching as I tapped my feet to the music. Much to my pleasure, several of the young people whom I’d watched grow up stopped to chat on their way to and from the dance floor. What amazing transformations have occurred since those Gurnee Boys’ Baseball, Warren Basketball, FBLA, student council and college years! My heart filled up with memories as many amazing dreams-come-true danced before me. Suddenly, I found myself morphing as well…

“Is this anything like the view from heaven?” I asked as though I fully expected a response. Though the answer wasn’t voiced, the warmth that enveloped me assured me that I had indeed experienced a taste of things celestial. It occurred to me –or perhaps it was whispered into my ear– that God finds great pleasure in our joy. Last Saturday night’s gathering of friends so happy to be together echoed God’s intent for humankind from the moment life as we know it began. As I watched, I wished Mike, Abby, Tim, Kim, their friends and we parents could live this joyfully for the rest of our days. I’m certain God wished the same.

On this feast of the Blessed Trinity, we celebrate God. We celebrate the Creator who fashioned us out of love to love one another in this world filled with only the choicest of gifts. We celebrate the compassionate Son who became one of us. Jesus lived and died so we could see for ourselves how precious we are in God’s eyes. We celebrate the ever-present Spirit who transforms every moment with a reminder that God is always at work among us. Yes, today we celebrate God –the God who finds the greatest joy in celebrating us!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Frightful Storm

“What a frightful storm this is! The very walls tremble around us. These poor children have faced so much sorrow. How much more can they endure? Young John is so attentive, though I know he is frightened, too. He looks after me and the other women with great kindness. Indeed, I am his mother. Poor Peter. He has so many regrets. Yet he holds these friends together with all of his strength. He loved my son so, and he will never stop trying to understand. In the beginning, even I didn’t understand. I knew nothing of what my life would become the day I heard the voice. I could not imagine what ‘Thy will’ would entail. Fear filled me up when I considered who it was that I carried within me. Then he came, small and helpless. He depended upon me, a child myself, for everything. I thank my God every day for the love of sweet Joseph who took me into his home and into his life. Joseph gave up so much to provide a home for me and my child. I thank you, my God, for the strength that wells up within me whenever I am in need…

The rumbling worsens! What can this be? Son, tame this storm and calm us as you calmed your brothers in the boat. The wind! Can the wind be in this very room? The fire! What fire burns without burning? The walls cannot endure this! Son, is it you? No, not you, but the Spirit who fills the very air that we breathe. The Spirit who is our light and our life engulfs our very hearts in fire. My Lord and my God, do You see them? Their fear escapes them. See the fire in their eyes! No longer afraid, they stand, ready to break out of this room. Now they will tell all of your children the good news…”

In spite of what we would like to believe, the reality of Christ’s presence in the lives of Mary and the disciples was not crystal clear to any of them. Even the Jewish girl who grew into womanhood as she mothered the Son of God was never certain of how Jesus would impact upon her life. Yet, she and multitudes of others after her persisted in their commitments to him. Though some faltered, especially when their paths neared Calvary, they returned to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. On that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit rushed into their lives in wind and fire, with strength and conviction, their vision began to clear. Finally, when the disciples understood, they rushed out to spread the news and to give birth to the Church.

Each of our lives is a series of wonderings and wanderings that can be just as troubling as those of Mary and the disciples. Though we intend our direction to be heaven bound, we find ourselves often astray, lost in the trappings of this world. If this world’s temptations fail to completely disrupt our journeys, the heart-wrenching tragedies that unfold around us complete the task. An unexpected diagnosis, marital difficulties, loneliness, frustration over a situation that we simply cannot improve, the loss of our child, our spouse or our dear friend fill our eyes with tears. Our distorted vision keeps us from seeing the consolation to be found in the One who dwells within us. Like masses of commuters who fail to notice the detail of a single face they pass along their way, we fail to notice the Companion who is always at our sides. Fortunately for us, our lives are punctuated with Pentecost experiences that clear our vision a bit more each time they occur.

Our Companion Spirit visits us in the kindness of a neighbor and in the compassion of a friend. The Spirit emerges in the words of our children and the honesty of our spouses, even when we don’t care to hear their messages. The smile of a co-worker and an understanding boss hint at God’s presence. The Spirit breathes gently into our prayer to rejuvenate us and our relationships with God, and the Spirit dwells in the words of scripture. The Spirit rushes about us, making sense of our sorrow and radiating God’s beauty in our joy. The Spirit touches our hearts when they hurt most and are least attentive to God’s presence.

The arrival of the Spirit that first Pentecost empowered Jesus’ followers to burst out of hiding and to preach his good news. This event compels the disciples to challenge the rest of the world to live in God’s love. The same event compels us to share the movement of the Spirit in our lives with one another. So, be watchful and be ready! As Mary and the others discovered, we can never predict how the Spirit will choose to come. We can only be certain that the Spirit will come to us all.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

To God Be the Glory!

One of our younger parishioners recently shared that she’d attended the taping of Oprah Winfrey’s two-show Surprise Spectacular. She was on stage during a segment dedicated to the many children and teens Oprah has influenced over the years. I felt it was my duty to watch and to offer my support as McKenna enjoyed her moment on national television. The truth is that I’ve tuned in to Oprah often over the past several weeks. This season anticipates the loss of Oprah’s far-reaching presence in the lives of millions. I found myself curious regarding what Oprah hoped to accomplish through the last hours of her program.

This season’s shows have revisited numerous important segments and welcomed back several notable guests. The topics and causes featured clearly illustrated Oprah’s commitment to the betterment of humankind. Still, just days before the show’s finale, Oprah engaged in an extremely humbling encounter that she could easily have avoided. She invited back an author whom she’d interviewed several years earlier. Oprah read and highly recommended James Frey’s book about his journey from addiction through a twelve-step program. She felt strongly that anyone touched by addiction or otherwise insurmountable trials in his or her life would benefit from this work. Not long afterward, critics revealed that the story was more fiction than autobiographical. Still, Oprah defended Frey until he admitted that he’d fabricated some of the experiences he’d chronicled in the book. Oprah, embarrassed by having been duped, invited the author back to her show to address his deception. Before the show, a producer assured Frey that the interview would culminate in his “redemption” and that he should remain with it until the end. Oprah, unaware of this promise, masterfully chastised the author. Frey left the taping feeling ambushed, and Oprah left feeling vindicated – temporarily.

A few years later, while contemplating whether or not to invite a potentially difficult guest to the show, Oprah experienced an epiphany – a moment that illuminated what she’d done through her encounter with James Frey – and she wanted to rectify this mistake. Oprah contacted the author and apologized for what she’d done to him. She acknowledged that her ego had distorted her good judgment and that she was deeply sorry. Five years later, Oprah spent two of her last ten shows speaking with James Frey once again. Their conversation included the author’s update regarding how he’d made amends to his readers, what he’d learned from his own mistake, his subsequent books and his current work with budding authors. It also included Oprah’s public apology, her disappointment in herself and her good wishes for her guest’s future. This program left me amazed. Oprah Winfrey set aside two hours of the last ten she’d spend on the air to make things right between her and a fellow human being. It seems to me that this time spent on forgiveness and reconciliation speaks volumes regarding Oprah’s priorities and her heart.

Though I was unable to view many shows over the years, I did shed a few tears as I joined Oprah’s fans in saying good-bye. Those who know Oprah best chose to close their Surprise Spectacular by reflecting Oprah’s deep faith with heartfelt renditions of Amazing Grace and Oh Happy Day. Before leaving the stage after her final show, Oprah shared her gratitude for the deep and empowering love that she’s encountered throughout her television career. She also shared the truths she’s learned in this life, which include: We are responsible for ourselves and for the energy that we bring to our encounters with others; God is present to every one of us every moment of every day and it is up to us to open ourselves to that Presence. Oprah’s last words before leaving the stage were, “To God be the glory.”

Oprah’s world class farewell stands in contrast to Jesus’ departure that first Ascension Day. Still, though Jesus stood among only his closest friends before taking his leave, this event has resounded for two thousand years among believers of every generation everywhere. After repeating his most important lessons, Jesus promised to be with us always. We don’t need our television sets, PCs or iPhones to find God in our lives. We need only to open ourselves to the Presence that is already here. Perhaps Oprah’s farewell has provided an apt preface to our Ascension Day observances, offering glimpses of the amazing grace to be found every happy day when we turn to the One beside us to say, “To God be the glory.”

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved