A Happy and Blessed New Year to You!

I’m writing to express my good wishes to you for the coming year. May each of you be blessed with everything you hope for and more than you’d dare to pray for! I have absolutely no doubt that God looks lovingly upon each one of us. Though the distance between us and our benevolent God may seem too great to us, it is never too great for God. Our comings and goings, our joys and our sorrows, our celebration and our mourning are of the utmost importance to the One who has given us this life. This year, may each of us use this life and live this life to the full! This year, may we finally be convinced of God’s love for each and every one of us!

I add a word of thanks to those of you who follow this blog and who forward it to spread the Good News to your families and friends. My thanks also to those who’ve read my Lenten book and who are in the midst of SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT… FOR CHRISTMASTIME AND WINTER DAYS. You honor me by taking my words to heart. You also inspire me to continue this writing ministry. God has placed many wonderful people in my life who’ve inspired me for as long as I can remember. It seems I can’t help finding stories in the gift of their presence. My thanks to each one!

Finally, I thank You, good and gracious God, Who fills me up so that I’m compelled to write. What more can I ask for than to continue this life in Your love which gives meaning to my words?

Happy New Year, indeed!

Just Follow Mary’s Lead…

This morning, I have a cold and no voice. The doctor suggests that I talk as little as possible. What better reason is there to allow myself a few minutes to enjoy our family Christmas Tree and the village that rests beneath it? My earliest memories include similar scenes in my childhood home. Our family Christmas Tree wasn’t complete without the little town of Bethlehem nestled at its feet. Though I continued this tradition our first Christmas together, my husband and our sons took over this task early on. Our sons have moved on to their own homes and their own Christmas Trees. Still, their dad continues to serve as village planner in this house. As for me, I unpack the boxes and step back as my husband positions himself beneath the tree to fashion the current year’s creation.

As I study my husband’s handiwork this week after Christmas, it occurs to me that the peace and joy that we associate with the first Christmas likely graced the mother of Jesus much differently than the scene before me suggests. Mary didn’t plan to be with child this early in her young life. I’m certain she never imagined having to share such troubling news with her parents. Her child was destined to change everything in this world of ours, amd he certainly changed everything in Mary’s life. How would she explain his impending arrival to Joseph? When Joseph agreed to take Mary as his wife in spite of this turn of events, Mary might have expected things to settle down a bit. Not so! Caesar Augustus required all citizens to return to their birth cities to register for a census. Since Joseph’s roots were in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph traveled there. Bethlehem teemed with people who’d made the same journey for the same purpose. In spite of Mary’s impending delivery, no one made room for them. Finally, a compassionate innkeeper led the couple to his livestock shelter where Mary could find some privacy as her labor progressed. Though a warm room and a clean bed escaped her, the mom in me suspects that Mary thanked God as she welcomed Jesus into her life.

The difficult circumstances that surrounded Jesus’ birth offered Mary a small taste of the hardships to come. The Magi traveled a great distance as they followed the star that heralded this new king. Though Mary certainly thanked God for this visit, she likely followed her prayer of thanks with a prayer for counsel. How would she and Joseph raise this amazing child? Mary had little time to reflect upon her dilemma. Not long after the Magi’s departure, an angel’s warned Joseph of King Herod’s wrath and instructed him to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. There they remained until Herod’s death. Though Joseph intended to return to his and Mary’s home, a second angel warned them of another tyrant whose threat changed their plans once again.

As I contemplate Mary’s life, I realize that in spite of God’s presence in her home and in her heart, Mary had a tough time of it. Though Mary and Joseph nurtured the very Son of God, they weren’t spared the difficulties that too often punctuate life on this earth. Some time after Mary lost her beloved Joseph, she sent Jesus out into the world to embrace his ministry. The mom in me suspects that Mary wept silently within as she smiled and waved her son off that day. I wonder if Mary suspected that she would soon lose her beloved Jesus as well.

This coming Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. God chose Mary to cooperate in heaven’s greatest work, and Mary selflessly responded to God’s call. In spite of her fears and feelings of inadequacy, Mary embraced the challenge to bring Jesus into the world. Mary’s choice saddled her with the greatest of our human suffering. Mary’s choice also graced her with the best that this life has to offer –an encounter with the Divine. In Mary’s case, that encounter endured for a lifetime and came to fruition when she joined Jesus in heaven.

This New Year’s Day, we celebrate Mary’s selflessness and bravery in responding to God’s call to give flesh and blood to God’s presence among us. You and I are offered the same opportunity to bring God’s presence to those around us. When we find the courage to set aside our own plans and accept God’s invitation to bring love to others, we bring the Divine into our own lives as well. Just as the angel Gabriel assured Mary that she was up to the task, God assures you and me. That gentle pat that nudges you forward in moments of doubt comes from the same One who urged Mary on day after day. Like Mary’s work, your work and mine are the only means to bring God to this world. Like Mary’s work, your work and mine will come to fruition in heaven as well.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Christmas Day and Every Day, Let’s Offer God’s Best to One Another

Three weeks ago, my husband and I spent a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina.  Because this is the busiest month in our lives at home and at our parish, I was reluctant to go away in December.  Still, something urged me to suggest to the good deacon that he look into flights.  When Mike discovered that we’d earned enough points to fly for free, something nudged me a bit further.  When I remembered that our son and his wife had gifted us with two nights of lodging, I knew that we just had to go.  So it was that we headed out the door just after I flipped the page of our calendar to December.   

Though the circumstances surrounding much of this trip provided numerous opportunities for things to go wrong, everything went absolutely right.  We were unexpectedly seated in the first row of our little plane which netted us extra legroom.  Rather than praying that the traveler in front of me would not lower his or her seatback into my lap, I gave thanks for the beautiful day, the smooth flight and the lone flight attendant who graciously tended to everyone onboard.  We found the airport in Charleston to be welcoming and easily navigated, and our luggage arrived with us intact.  I don’t usually enjoy taxi rides due to many a cab driver’s “enthusiasm” as he or she engages in battle with the speed limit and the other vehicles on the road.  This all changed when Anthony arrived and ushered us into his cab.  This young man embodied southern hospitality and charm.  He wore a vest with matching slacks, a dress shirt and tie and a smart fedora.  When I complimented his employer’s choice of uniform, Anthony replied, “This is my choice.  I like to make people feel that they’re receiving the best service we can offer.”  Wow! 

As Anthony chauffeured us to our hotel, he pointed out numerous sights of interest and suggested many other places to visit.  Our hotel and our sightseeing expeditions exceeded my expectations as well.  The front desk staff offered details regarding our treks around Charleston and our dining choices.  Every time we stopped with a question, the staff person on duty offered us warm chocolate chip cookies.  On the evening we ventured out to the Christmas Boat Parade, the staff sent us off with a little shopping bag filled with these tasty treasures.  Many fellow parade watchers enjoyed the cookies with us.  So it went for four days in Charleston and our day trip to Savannah. 

As Mike and I gathered our things for the flight home, I found myself at peace with the world.  Though there would be much to do when we returned home, something—or Someone– assured me that everything I needed to do before Christmas would be done in its own time.  When the TSA agent wished me a wonderful flight as I made my way through security, I couldn’t help thanking him for taking the time to be so cordial.  This had indeed been our best vacation yet.  When we boarded that little plane for the flight home, we were once again given those wonderful and roomy front row seats –at no extra cost, mind you!  I felt as close to heaven as I could be.                 

During our return flight, I ignored the crossword puzzles and book I’d brought along to distract from the confinement I usually feel in airplanes.  The blue sky and wispy white clouds outside my window put me at ease.  As I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for this trip, I realized that Charleston wasn’t the most beautiful or unique city I’d ever visited.  It occurred to me that the people we’d met along the way had made this trip so special.  It was as though someone had told each one that Mike and I were coming and that they were to give us their best while we were with them.  It was then that my thoughts turned to Christmas…

When Gabriel asked Mary to be the mother of Jesus, Mary fretted over the dilemma before her.  Good Gabriel sensed this and continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  When she realized she would not be alone in this, Mary responded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  This Christmas Day, we celebrate Jesus’ mother’s bravery and his Father’s generosity in bringing Jesus into our midst.  No longer would humankind puzzle over how best to live our lives.  Jesus came to tell us all that each of us has found favor with God and that we must treat one another accordingly.  This Christmas Day, we celebrate Jesus’ birth best when we offer our best to one another.  Only you and I can make my Charleston experience the rule rather than the exception.  None of us can change the world alone, but all of us can improve the space around us.  God offered us heaven’s best in Jesus.  Let’s return God’s favor by offering God’s best and our own to one another.  Merry Christmas!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


You Give God Joy -Yes, You!

I remember as though it was yesterday…  Our neighborhood UPS driver interrupted dinner.  When I went to the door, this consistently polite gentleman greeted me with a peculiar smile.  He handed me a very small, flat package which I eagerly accepted.  I wondered if Mr. UPS smiled because of the package’s size or because he somehow knew that I’d been waiting eagerly for this particular delivery.  I told him as much as I returned his smile and offered my thanks.  On my way back to the kitchen table, I quickly opened the cardboard envelope.  “It’s my proof!” I announced as I stared at the little yellow book in my hands.  The joy I felt at that moment is indescribable.  I can tell you that it filled me up from head to toe, front to back, inside and outside.  I’d written this little book years ago.  My nephew, Ralph, had drawn the illustrations for me.  Though I had a classroom-size copy made which I read to my students many times over the years, I’d never gotten around to having the book published.  Finally seeing this work in print absolutely overwhelmed me.

While my husband put down his fork to peruse the book, I looked over his shoulder.  As Mike thumbed through the pages, I realized that there were errors in the copy.  “Oh brother!” I remarked.  “They printed the wrong file.”  I set the book aside while we finished dinner.  As we ate, I found myself staring at the cover again and again, unable to contain my smile.  Though there were flaws to correct, I treasured this tiny volume.  A week later, when the final proof arrived, I happily inspected its shiny yellow cover.  I checked every page and then approved the copy for print.  Afterward, I placed the new proof on my desk under the original.  After all, it was the original proof that brought me that amazing joy, and I was reluctant to file it away.             

This Fourth Sunday of Advent, I find that my little yellow book adventure hints at God’s work among us during Advent and always.  Do you remember the Creation Story?  God’s love is so great that it overflowed into a universe filled with beauty and wonder.  Still, this material expanse wasn’t enough.  God went on to fashion creatures great and small to roam this earth.  Though the microbes and insects, fish and whales, cows, dinosaurs and dogs enhanced life on this planet, love impelled God to create souls capable of receiving the love that began it all.  God rejoiced in the possibilities that lay ahead.  Genesis 1:31 tells us, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”  If I treasure my flawed little book, what must God feel about us –the work of God’s hands?

My little book adventure hints at more.  Do you remember what occurred after Creation?  Though we and the world around us are the fruit of God’s love, from the very beginning humankind managed to distort that love at every turn.  Adam and Eve ate of the single forbidden tree in the garden.  Their son Cain killed his brother Abel.  As God’s children multiplied, so did our sinfulness.  The good news is that God responded to every new generation of transgressions with opportunities to begin anew once again.  God considered all of creation to be very good at the beginning of time.  God’s opinion of creation and of you and me remains intact today.  If I cannot bring myself to discard the flawed version of my little book, can God discard any one of us more easily?

Only a few days of Advent remain, and there is much to do before Christmas.  In spite of the length of your errand list, please join me in adding just one more item.  At the very top, write G-O-D.  Now, every time you look at the list, while waiting in line, driving to the next store or pumping another tank of gas, think of the One at the top of your list because you’re at the top of God’s list.  Regardless of what does and does not get accomplished this week, God will look upon you with pride.  Whether you’re shopping for a family member or someone in need, God will look upon you with appreciation.  If you manage the holidays well because life is good or simply because you’ve set aside your worries for a while, God will look upon you with admiration.  Most importantly, even when you and I forget the One at the top of our lists, God looks upon us with admiration and with great love.  So it is that we make the best of these last days of Advent.  We give God joy from head to toe, front to back, inside and outside, and God’s affection overflows into our hearts.  It’s up to us to let this love overflow from our hearts onto those we’ve been given to love.  What a perfect way to celebrate the coming of Christmas!        

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved



Celebrate the Best of God’s Message

During sophomore year in high school, I became involved with SPRED* (Special Religious Education). That year, archdiocesan staff worked diligently to test and perfect a religious education program that would serve children with special needs. They’d opened a pilot program at a parish near my high school and solicited volunteers from our student body. The program’s intent and the children involved drew me in immediately. I’m quite sure my name topped the list of volunteers.

My first meeting with the SPRED staff overwhelmed me. Sister Nancy, Father Jim and the rest treated me as though I was absolutely essential to the program’s success. I was charged with preparing the environment for the children’s sessions and liturgies. I set up the children’s and staff’s materials for the activities they’d share. I also prepared banners for the celebrations of the Word that followed. I had to determine the core message of each session’s scriptures and then create a banner that reflected this. Because I was no more a scripture scholar than I was an artist, I poured over my banner assignments. I found that when my artwork excelled, I missed the main point of the week’s scripture. When I focused on the appropriate message, my banner didn’t communicate my message well. Still, the SPRED staff found good in all that I did, offering helpful suggestions for my next attempt. By Christmas, I’d actually become an integral part of their team. The SPRED staff gently saw to it that I grew into this role as best I could.

As for me, I lost myself in many hours spent observing as the catechists and children interacted. I watched their special friendships evolve. I watched adult friends calm their sometimes agitated little ones by involving them in the patient repetition of soothing activities. I watched the children let go of their anxiety and open themselves up to the tasks at hand. Afterward, these adult and child friends came together for precious moments of catechesis when their leader shared the best of God’s messages. These encounters with God’s Word touched me in ways I’d never experienced before.

My association with these SPRED pioneers stretched my spirit. This was the first time in my life that I was treated as a peer by adults. I found this to be an awesome honor and an awesome responsibility. When I was sick and unable to prepare for or attend a session, my absence changed everything for those involved. My affection for the staff grew with our every encounter. My affection for the children grew as well. They became far more than “special” children. I came to know each one as a fellow soul who shared a common journey with me. I realized in short order that when any one of us was absent, the rest of us missed something special that week.

This Third Sunday of Advent, the scriptures preach glad tidings. Though Isaiah lives during one of Israel’s most devastating eras, he cannot help sharing his joy in the face of God’s benevolence (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11). He cries out, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul, for God has clothed me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked in her jewels.” Yes, God recognized Isaiah’s gifts and God used them to bring the best of God’s message to the people of Israel. In his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), Paul echoes the glad tidings of God’s ongoing affection for us. We are God’s holy people, and Paul calls us to use this status to bring goodness to this world. It is in the gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28) that John the Baptizer prepares us to encounter the best of God’s Word face to face. John tells us, “I am the voice crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” John tells us that Jesus is coming and it is up to us to welcome Jesus and to celebrate Jesus in our lives as only we can.

My sophomore experience with SPRED frightened me at first. It was not until the SPRED team welcomed me as a peer and acknowledged my gifts -and lack thereof- that I found the courage to do what they asked of me. God is acutely aware that a call from above is far more daunting than my call to work with SPRED. Still, God calls you and me with each of our gifts and our frailties intact. This Advent and always, God calls us to welcome and to celebrate Jesus -who is God With Us- as only we can. How else will those around us experience the best of God’s messages and the best of God’s love?

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved