Pure Joy, Not Obligation

A few weeks ago, I sat elbow deep in far more work than I had time to complete. I hadn’t written Something To Think About for the bulletin that was due and the bulletin itself still needed attention. Though I’d completed the book of Christmas reflections that I hope to share with you this year, editing and formatting it into its final form had become more tedious with each passing day. It had been a long Sunday at church the day before, and I admit to being extremely tired. The elder good deacon’s hospice work and tasks here at St. Paul’s kept Mike busier than usual as well. When it took great effort to orchestrate our wedding anniversary celebration and recent visits with our granddaughters, I began to question the status quo. I decided to get my email out of the way before embarking on a contemplative walk through the neighborhood. I hoped that a few minutes in the fresh air would help me to regain my perspective, replenish my spirit and boost my energy level a bit.

Though my mind was already halfway out the door, I deleted the day’s allotment of spam, replied to the most pressing correspondence and then moved on. As I scrolled down, I found a message that I’d seen a few days earlier and saved because I didn’t have the time to read it. Busy as I was, I clicked to open and read what proved to be an amazing e-parcel of wisdom. This edition of The Spirit Today* seemed written especially for me. It offered the story of a couple who’d been deeply involved in ministry for many years. They’d recently arrived at a fork in the road that lay ahead of them. The couple had to choose between their ministry in a very busy city and a more recent opportunity in the country. They struggled and prayed with the hope that the better choice would become evident to them. Finally, the woman asked her husband how he felt about his day-in and day-out work in the city. The man replied honestly that it had become an obligation. The woman then asked how he felt about the ministry they’d shared in the country. The man characterized this work as “pure joy”. The man’s very wise wife declared, “At our age, we have a right to choose joy over obligation.” So it was that the couple embraced their new opportunity to serve in the country. As for me, I decided against my walk that day. The Spirit Today* had revived my spirit and adjusted my perspective just enough to urge me on through the tasks that lay before me. It also gave me the inspiration I needed to write today.

As I worked on, I recalled a time when staffing the desk in the gathering space here at church became more “obligation” than “joy” for me. A very generous Jeanne Graff had stepped up to assist me in this ministry some time earlier. After faithfully managing her post for years, Jeanne moved north to be near her daughter and grandson. I’d so enjoyed Jeanne’s company and her “in charge” demeanor that I’d forgotten just how much work it is to remain at the desk all Sunday morning. My face must have revealed the wear and tear I was feeling because an observant parishioner approached me one Sunday to ask, “Mary, is there anything I can do to help you?” That wonderfully insightful and generous question began our Information Desk Ministry. Ever since, Paula Mengarelli has managed staffing the desk with equally generous volunteers. Needless to say, the “obligation” regarding this work has returned to “pure joy” for me.

You know, many of our parishioners give of their time and talent on a day-in and day-out basis. As they continue to step up to the plate whenever they’re needed, I offer a prayer of thanks for them with a P.S: Dear God, please don’t let them get burned out. It’s painful to feel burned out! Next weekend, September 10 and 11, you can help God to answer my prayer. We’re celebrating Ministry Weekend here at St. Paul’s. Representatives from each ministry will be available after all of the Masses to answer any questions you may have regarding how you can help to keep our vibrant and welcoming parish family alive and well. Next weekend’s bulletin will be a directory of every ministry and its contact person. When you consider what you might do to enrich our parish family, don’t feel obligated to respond. Rather, choose something, just one thing, to be your personal opportunity to bring joy to those around you and to yourself. You’re offer to help may be just what is needed to return one weary volunteer’s obligation to pure joy.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*The Spirit Today is a meditation written by Bridget Purdome who ministers with her husband, our younger good deacon Mark. See www.TheSpiritToday.com to receive this inspiring reflection every day for free.

Jesus Continues To Take Care of Us

Before I went to kindergarten, I knew God. My parents taught me to say my prayers every night, to go to Mass every Sunday and to seek out God in the best and worst of times. I was almost four years old the first time my family gathered in the living room to pray. My uncle lay in the hospital bed fighting pneumonia, a tough battle before penicillin became available. Uncle Gee’s severely curved spine complicated matters because he simply couldn’t breathe as deeply as the rest of us. When his prognosis dimmed, we adjusted our prayer. Rather than praying for his speedy recovery, we prayed for my dear uncle’s happy death. A few days later, my dad assured us all that Uncle Gee happily embraced his new home in heaven where he enjoyed perfect health and happiness. I thanked God as best I could for my uncle’s good fortune.

By the time I began second grade, it was my dad who received the dim prognosis. Because he continued to work and both he and my mom kept things as normal as possible around the house, my dad’s last year went rather well. This is the year I received First Communion, so I became immersed in pursuing a relationship with Jesus himself. I liked what I learned about this amazing Son of God. Jesus took care of everyone he met, and even after dying on the cross, he continued to take care of us. This was the perfect lesson for a little girl who’d soon lose her dad. I’m certain my mom’s demeanor, her gentleness toward my father and her amazing faith helped me along. I’m also certain that my conviction of God’s deep concern regarding all of this also pulled me through. Many a night after my dad passed away, I prayed tearfully to thank God that my dad was well, but also to tell the Almighty that I missed my dad terribly.

This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though our dear Lord never actually spoke a word to me, I always knew deep down that I had a great ally in God. During those emotionally devastating teen years, I sometimes ran the other way. Yet God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me, though they never actually abandoned me, I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

I’m happy to share that I enjoyed high school and college far more than I might have because God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. I began working at age sixteen and often had to rush off from school to make it to my job. Though I ran twenty-four seven to keep up with my studies, work, life at home and a boyfriend or two, I continued to make time for Mass. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers that characterized my childhood worship. Still, the opportunity to celebrate Mass in English thrilled me. During the week, I often attended noon Mass at the college chapel because this energized me for what lay ahead. Though lots of tough times and tragedy punctuated my high school and college years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto the relationship with God that began so long ago.

I’m sharing all of this because I don’t want you to be misled by the tone of today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-27). When Jesus began to prepare his friends for the inevitable suffering that would take Jesus from their midst, Peter pulled Jesus aside. The last thing Peter wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus went on to insist that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life in order to find what matters most. While all of this is true, I join Peter in reminding you that in spite of his failures, my failures and your own, Jesus never abandons any one of us. Though we sometimes try to refuse our crosses, Jesus helps us to carry them just the same. Though we sometimes ignore God’s presence, God never abandons us. Jesus asks only that we allow God to be a part of our lives because when we open ourselves to God’s presence, our joy is exponentially greater. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our sorrows are lighter to bear. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter, to you and to me is steeped in absolute love.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Trial Run

When I prepared my schedule for the first semester of sophomore year of college, I included a class entitled Death/Resurrection/Immortality. Long beforehand, I admitted to a preoccupation with the process and aftermath of dying. The passing of my dad, my uncle and both grandfathers by the time I was eight years old probably initiated this interest. To date, I’ve read everything I’ve found on the subject. Regardless of the author’s perspective, I close each book with the conviction that our deceased loved ones lived with a specific purpose and that they continue to love us from the hereafter. I wouldn’t have survived the loss of my dad if I didn’t believe that he is in heaven and in perfect health, watching over the family he left behind with great love. I suppose this is why I write so often about our need to care for those we’ve been given to love here on this earth. I consider this life to be a “trial run” that prepares us for eternal life. We may not control much in this life. Still, we do control ourselves. It seems to me that this is the most important bit of authority each of us exercises. Today’s scriptures underscore our responsibility when it comes to the topic of authority. Nothing matters more than the authority we exercise over ourselves to live and love as God created us to live and love.

In the first reading (Isaiah 22: 19-23), God sends Isaiah to Shebna, King Hezekiah’s chief of staff, to straighten him out. Shebna abuses his office by screening those who wish an audience with the king. If it is to his advantage, Shebna arranges for the king to receive particular visitors. If Shebna has nothing to gain, appointments are denied. Shebna goes so far as to encourage the king to align himself with Egypt, though this is in direct opposition to the will of God who wishes the people to be aligned with God alone. When Shebna places his own needs above all others, he misuses his authority over others and over himself. Shebna also misses his personal opportunity to prepare for eternal life. God expresses displeasure over this turn of events by promising to send a more worthy successor who will align his heart with God’s heart. As for Shebna, he will be left to his own devices to seek a new opportunity to live as God asks him to live.

In the second reading (Romans 11:33-36), Saint Paul rejoices in the riches, wisdom and knowledge of the Lord. To Paul, it’s unreasonable for us to focus on anything other than our mission to live and to love as Jesus did. Paul truly understands what he’s preparing for. I find myself grateful for Paul’s encouragement and consoled by Paul’s humanity. Regardless of how often I’ve failed in the past, like Paul, I can find new opportunities to try again and again and again to do the right thing.

In the gospel (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus engages his closest friends in conversation. Eventually, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” Some respond with what they’ve heard on the street. One suggests that Jesus may be John the Baptizer. Another has heard that Jesus may be Elijah. While they’re quite willing to repeat what has come from the lips of others, none will declare what is in their hearts, except Peter. “You are the Christ,” Simon Peter proclaims, “the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s bravery in speaking what he’s come to believe moves Jesus. Jesus doesn’t rely on Peter because he is the brightest of his followers. Indeed, Jesus has had numerous opportunities to shake his head at this big fisherman who speaks so often before he thinks. This day, however, Jesus knows that Peter speaks from the depths of his heart, a heart open to God’s presence. Jesus rewards Peter’s faith and courage by awarding Peter authority over the church. Peter is “the Rock” upon whom Jesus builds his church. Peter is “the Rock” who teaches us to prepare for eternal life by living in accord with the goodness God reveals in our hearts.

Though we don’t have authority over much, we do have authority over our own thoughts, words and deeds. When we use them well, we take full advantage of this “trial run.” Like those who have gone before us, we prepare for the amazing life to come, not always perfectly, but as best we can.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

No Outsiders

I grew up in an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Since only the tiniest drop of each bloodline flows through me, I had no preference for either group. The truth is that I envied both, especially on St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Days when they celebrated their heritage with great flourish. I secretly took pleasure in being mistaken for an Irish lass when our Irish neighbors sported their finest green garb. Though I had no chance of looking Italian, our Italian neighbors invited our entire family to their annual St. Joseph’s Table. I enjoyed my “Honorary Italian” status for that hour or so.

For the most part, I’m French Canadian. There was no designated day for me to celebrate my roots as Bastille Day never really caught on in The City. My mom and dad met one another at the French Club in their area years earlier and our extended family celebrated rich traditions that are the direct result of my nationality. Still, I longed for a colorful display of our heritage that included a day of our own. At the same time, Trino, one of my two best childhood friends, happened to be Mexican American. It never occurred to me that he might feel left out, too. Perhaps I overlooked this possibility because Trino’s family included twelve children of whom he was the youngest. Trino always seemed to get plenty of attention, probably far more than he liked.

Later, as African American families moved into our neighborhood, my understanding of such differences grew exponentially. While my mom encouraged us to befriend our new neighbors as she did, some of my friends were advised to keep their distance until their families were able to move away as well. As I acquainted myself with the new kids in the neighborhood, I discovered Glenda who would become my second best childhood friend. Glenda and I spent our summers evangelizing the littler kids. We only baptized one batch of Catholics-to-be. When I told our parish priest what Glenda and I had done, he advised us to leave baptism preparations to our new little friends’ parents.

In the end, my childhood struggle with being an outsider resolved itself. Trino, Glenda and the rest of our new neighbors helped me to see that while we’re all different in many ways, we’re also alike in many ways. Being born with a particular gene pool is the least of our worries. How we share who we are is the real challenge. Perhaps it was providential that I spent my career working with children. My classroom provided the perfect forum in which to honor both our personal uniqueness and our common qualities. I can only hope that my work enriched the children as powerfully as they enriched me. I can honestly say that the only inhabitants of my classroom who were made to feel like outsiders were the children I sent to the corner until they “cooled off” or chose to cooperate with the rest of us.

Today’s readings speak clearly regarding God’s stance on this topic. In the first reading (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7), Isaiah tells us that in God’s eyes there are no outsiders. God proclaims, “…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Saint Paul underscores these sentiments as he calls himself “the apostle of the Gentiles.” In Matthew’s gospel (15:21-28), Jesus boldly engages in a battle of wits with a Canaanite woman who is an outcast of the Jewish Community. The men of Jesus’ day never invited any woman into such intellectual banter. To do so with a Canaanite woman was unheard of. Though Jesus seems cruel in his remarks, he actually honors this woman’s wisdom and stature when he engages her in this verbal exchange. Jesus honors the woman further when he rewards her profound faith with her daughter’s cure.

When he cured the Canaanite woman’s daughter, Jesus acknowledged this woman’s membership in God’s family. His actions that day underscored once again what Jesus taught again and again: There can never be outsiders when it come to God’s family. Our task is to open our hearts and make this so.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Main Guy

I spent the afternoon with my Aunt Elizabeth. She lives alone in a home for the infirmed. I say she lives alone because, though she has a roommate, Aunt Liz doesn’t relate very well to those around her. She lives in her own little world, sheltered by fading memories. I admit that I procrastinated in scheduling today’s visit. I love my dear, idiosyncratic aunt. Still, it’s not easy to visit a nursing home, even one as nice as St. Andrew’s. Though I know Aunt Liz is well taken care of and that this is one of the nicest places she’s ever lived, the suffering that surrounds her is difficult to watch. Some of her housemates are very, very sick. Thoughts of my mom’s four-month stay in a similar setting prodded me out the door. I visited Mom every day because I wanted to see her and to keep watch over her care. Aunt Liz never married. Because there are no sons or daughters to do the same for her, off I went.

When I arrived, I met three residents in the lobby. They busied themselves with knitting, a magazine and gazing at the beautiful sunshine outdoors. The sister at the desk welcomed me as I signed in. When the elevator arrived to take me to the fifth floor, two residents paraded out past me on their way to see Sister about something. I found myself oddly drawn to the residents I’d encountered. There was something loveable about each one, and I smiled as my reluctance regarding this visit disappeared. While I contemplated all of this, a chill startled me and I realized I wasn’t alone.

A few minutes later, I found Aunt Liz in the fifth floor dining room. Aunt Liz is an extremely slow eater who usually finishes a meal about three hours after it’s been served. She and my dad share ten siblings. Though two passed away as very young children, the rest filled their kitchen table for every meal. Money was scarce, and every morsel of food a treasure. As a result, Aunt Liz can’t bear to waste anything. She cleans her plate every time, hungry or not. Though her long-gone housemates had finished lunch at least ninety minutes earlier, I knew Aunt Liz and I would spend the next few hours at that table.

When I approached her, Aunt Liz looked up from her plate to greet me with, “Thank you, Jesus! You came to see me?” For a moment, I wondered if Aunt Liz could see something (Someone?) that I couldn’t. Before daring to ask, I gave her a hug. She smiled and then quickly returned to her lunch. While she ate, I reminded her, “I’m Mary Ellen, your brother Raoul’s daughter.” Aunt Liz’s family has always been the center of her life. When she remarked, “I had a brother Raoul? Wow!”, I felt a terrible ache in my heart. I refrained from asking the One who’d apparently joined us why it was necessary for my aunt to lose her most treasured memories. Instead, I pulled out the family photos I’d brought along. I pointed to my dad, her parents and her other siblings. Aunt Liz smiled broadly as she put her finger on each one, saying “This one and this one and this one. They’re all mine.” Aunt Liz returned to her meal and I filled the time with small talk. A while later, Aunt Liz looked past me and then turned to the Last Supper painting that adorns the dining room. “He’s the one I know,” she said. “He’s the main guy.” Wide-eyed, I asked, “Do you mean Jesus?” Aunt Liz put down her fork and said, ’Yeah! Yeah, he’s the one. Jesus!”

I’ve visited my aunt several times over the years that she’s been at St. Andrew’s, and I’ve never found her to be so much at peace as she was today. She no longer recalls my name or the names of most of her beloved family, and her fondest memories escape her. Still, she’s found something –or is it Someone?- to get her through her days. In today’s gospel, Matthew (14:22-33) tells us of Peter’s adventure walking on water. Though he seems destined to perish in a terrible storm, Peter fearlessly leaps to his feet and walks into the raging waters when he sees Jesus among the waves. As long as he remains focused on the One who revealed God’s love to him, Peter stays afloat. Perhaps her loss of memory isn’t an issue after all because Aunt Liz keeps her eyes and her heart focused as well. Perhaps all Aunt Liz needs just now is the main guy, the one she knows –Jesus. Perhaps all any of us needs just now is the same.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved