A Journey Back in Time

During Fall 1991, my husband, the good deacon, spoke with Father Farrell several times to discuss his potential service to the new parish. Early on, these two seemed convinced that they would work very well together. When we invited our potential pastor and his associate, Father Phil, to dinner at our home, they hadn’t yet met me. Though being part of a new parish excited me, it also frightened me a bit. That evening, I hoped to make a good impression as Mike had.

During dinner, Father Farrell asked what I wanted to bring to this parish. “Welcome,” I said immediately. “I want it to be welcoming. I want everyone –no matter what their story is– to feel welcomed. This is church and everyone should be able to feel at home here.” Father Farrell smiled and remarked that this sounded good to him. Still, though all seemed to be going well, I knew that deacons couldn’t simply appear on the doorstep of a church. They had to be “wanted” and they had to request an official transfer. Halfway through this dinner, which my nervousness kept me from eating, I finally asked, “Do you want us?” Father Phil responded for them both. “Of course! You two will be great!” And that was that.

On February 12, 1992, we gathered in a meeting room at the local Holiday Inn. More than two hundred potential parishioners attended. Father Farrell took the podium with a smile and offered a grateful welcome to all. After reporting what he’d done to prepare, Father listed many other tasks to be completed and ministries to be formed if we were to function as a “real” parish. Much to our relief, sixty-seven families registered and numerous volunteers stepped up to serve. John offered to coordinate ushers. Sister Christine arranged for her master carpenter to build us a portable altar. Art busied himself with making the school gym we’d rented a bit more “church-like” while we were there for Mass. Others signed up to be musicians, communion ministers, lectors, set-up crews and much, much more.

It was the first weekend of Lent 1992 when we celebrated our first Mass as a parish family. We filled every chair in the gym and much of the space along the walls. Parish registration forms, contribution envelopes and our first parish bulletin made us feel somewhat like a “real” parish. More importantly, we who had already made this new parish our home extended our smiles and our welcome to all who joined us to pray that day. Though we couldn’t predict the twists and turns that would characterize our eventual journey together, we knew we were in the best of company –with one another and with our loving God who brought each of us to that particular place and time…

Below is the first edition of Something To Think About which appeared in our parish bulletin that first weekend together. I hope we’ve managed in some small ways to do what we set out to do. Lent 2012 offers us the perfect opportunity to tweak our efforts as needed. Together, may we all commit to bringing our best as we continue this journey together.

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT, The First Sunday of Lent, 1992

Have you ever been perplexed or depressed by the circumstances of your life only to find out later that everything has turned out well? The faithful in today’s readings dealt with every sort of trial. Yet each, from Moses to Jesus Himself, emerged triumphant. When one places a vision before his or her personal needs, trials encountered become small and unimportant. What matters is that sense of inner peace growing within our hearts when we know we are headed in the right direction.

Some of us may have felt perplexed or depressed as we looked around during Mass today. We may have wondered what we were doing trying to worship our God in a gym. We may have questioned how we can possibly function as a parish when we do not even have a church. How are we to pull this off?

Perhaps it’s a matter of vision. The rest of the Catholic World celebrated this First Sunday of Lent as the beginning of their journey toward Easter. They hope to emerge a bit better and a bit closer to God. To us, this First Sunday of Lent is much more. We are sharing the experience of the first Christians. We are on a journey to build Church. They celebrated the Eucharist, shared the word and served one another wherever they were. Some thought they were a bit odd, while others observed, “See how they love one another.” We, too, have the opportunity to bring a very special presence to this world of ours as we build the Catholic Community of Warren Township. The trials wills come, but the rewards… Perhaps, someday, someone will say of us, “See how they’ve loved one another. See how they’ve loved Me.”

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Least and the Best We Can Do

My extended family includes a great group of cousins who live just outside of Detroit. Over the years, my aunt and uncle consistently made the effort to bring their four children “back home” for the holidays, weddings and other special occasions. Though I always enjoyed seeing our Michigan family members, I didn’t truly appreciate their devotion to their Chicago area family until I realized just how far they drove each time they came to see us.

When my Michigan cousins heard about my sister Cecele’s battle with cancer, they decided that they needed to do something to support her. My cousin Adrienne called my sister Rita who always opens her home to out-of-town guests. When Rita confirmed that she, her brother and sisters were welcome to stay over, they continued with their plans. Adrienne, Ed, Paulette and Yvette settled on a weekend for this trek. Rita readied their sleeping accommodations. My sister Jo Ann and her husband offered to host the visit since they’re centrally located. The rest of us adjusted our schedules in order to join in the fun. In the mean time, Adrienne explained the Michigan cousins’ intentions in an email to me…

“My thoughts and prayers have been with Cecele. Paulette, Yvette, Ed and I are coming in this weekend for a support visit with Cecele. We’re focusing on her… I do volunteer work for the American Cancer Society. I talk to ladies at the breast clinic who are preparing for surgery. I tell them my story and make sure I interject humor about my wigs and prosthesis and the tattoo covering my scar. I talk about the pain, loss of hair, loss of a breast and not feeling well. The treatments zap you! My point is to give the support they need. Sharing my story uplifts them… I know you sisters, family and friends are surrounding Cecele with all of the love and compassion and prayers you can muster, but I also know how uplifting it will be for us to come in just for her and to let her know how much we care and are sharing this with her. I also know that her treatments are much more intense than mine were because of her diagnosis. I know how they can just wipe you out. I know how discouraging it can be, no matter how hard you try to be positive and strong…”

“I know… I know… I know…” my cousin repeated. Because she, her sisters and brother have been through a similar journey, they do know that Cecele’s path isn’t easy to navigate these days. They think that their trek through last Friday night’s terrible lake-effect snow was the least they could do to help. The truth is that they couldn’t have done more as their effort made all of the difference in the world to my sister. Cecele smiled throughout this visit. She shared things with my cousins that she wasn’t able to put into words just days earlier. This encounter rekindled Cecele’s hope before my eyes. Cecele left that time with my cousins with a renewed resolve to fight this cancer with all of her might. Indeed, the Michigan cousins’ presence to my sister last Saturday afternoon was a more remarkable gift than they’ll ever realize.

I share this story because we sometimes miss the importance of the ordinary opportunities that allow us to help others in extraordinary ways. I suspect that the friends who carried the paralyzed man to meet Jesus in Mark’s gospel (Mark 2:1-12) did the same at times. After all, carrying this poor man to Jesus the Healer was the least they could do. When they arrived to find the house surrounded by a large crowd, these friends might have taken the man back home as there was no chance to get him inside. Still, they persisted. I wonder how long they stood outside developing their plan to bypass the crowd of people who were oblivious to their sick friend’s plight. I wonder which of them was foolhardy enough to think that they could get the man to Jesus through the roof. I wonder what diversion they used to get past the crowd in order to scale the wall to make their way upward. I wonder who found the rope to lower the man into the house. I wonder if the paralyzed man’s smile was as broad as my sister’s when he found himself descending from that hole in the roof.

Though Jesus provided the cure, it was this man’s friends who placed him at Jesus’ feet. Though my sister’s fate rests in the hands of the Almighty, it is the concerned Michigan cousins and others like them, who renew my sister’s faith in our loving God. Doing the same kind of ordinary things for those who need us can also end in extraordinary ways. As was the case for the paralyzed man’s friends, this is the least and the best each of us can do.
©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Reach Beyond Your Troubles to God

Whenever I’m asked how I’ve managed to write these reflections for twenty years or how I’ve managed to author three books of daily reflections, my answer is always the same. “Writing fills me up with peace,” I say. Whether the subject matter is uplifting or difficult, exploring it through the written word enhances my understanding and appreciation at least one thousand-fold. Still, there are times when the circumstances of this life become too much to bear. Then, even my best efforts bring me little consolation. Though I ask God’s help every time I sit at my keyboard, at those times I pray with increased urgency.

I’ve learned to acknowledge God’s surprises in my life. Though I believe God always listens to me, God’s assessment of my situation sometimes differs from my own. So it is that my prayers aren’t always immediately answered during a bout with melancholy or writer’s block. At these times, I reread passages from the scriptures and from some of my other favorite authors with the hope that their words will do for me what I hope my words will do for others. Afterward, I head outdoors. For me, it is in the midst of nature that God’s caress is most easily felt and God’s words are most easily heard. Still, I don’t always return home inspired. On these occasions, I turn to the laundry, picking up the house or other chores to distract myself from my troubles. After all of this, sometimes my inability to write remains. Indeed, this was the case this afternoon.

My sister’s battle with cancer weighs heavily on her, and it does the same to those of us who love her. Though I know God is with Cecele throughout all of this, it’s sometimes difficult for her and the rest of us to detect God’s presence. More than once, I’ve caught myself praying for a tangible sign that will insure my sister that she’s not alone. With this prayer on my lips, I returned to my keyboard a while ago in spite of my lack of inspiration. Before getting to this writing, I picked up my copy of SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT… FOR CHRISTMASTIME AND WINTER DAYS. Though I penned this book, I read each day’s reflection with everyone else. When I flipped to today’s page, my bookmark fell onto the floor. While picking it up, I lost my place. When I reopened the book, I found myself on the wrong page. Actually, this was the right page because it featured a reference to an email which a dear friend sent to me on a similar day about a year ago.

Carol wrote to tell me that my most recent article had touched her deeply when she needed this most. She shared, “Now, when I’m having a not-so-good moment, I will remember what you wrote and remember to take extra time to talk to the God who “planted” me where I am even though there may be some “weeds” popping up in my day.” Hmmm. I reread Carol’s message and allowed it to sink in a bit. Afterward, it occurred to me that I haven’t taken that extra time to talk to God this week. Though I know that God knows exactly where I’m planted these days, I haven’t told God how I’m dealing with the weeds on my path just now. Though I’ve forwarded a To Do List to the Almighty regarding my sister’s needs, I haven’t allowed God into that deep dark place where my own uncertainty and fear have taken hold. Week after week, I insist in my writing that God is present to us all. Still, I’ve been reluctant to seek out God’s presence in the midst of my own troubles these days. So it is that I have much to learn from Carol and from the leper in Mark’s gospel (1:40-45).

Mark tells us of a man stricken with leprosy who risks everything to meet Jesus. As always is the case in the face of someone in need, Jesus doesn’t miss this poor outcast whose wrappings and sores betray his disease. This man has lost everything, even his right to share the company of his community. The truth is, this man has nothing more to lose by breaking The Law to approach Jesus. Indeed, this man actually has everything to gain by turning to Jesus. Somehow, through his ravaged skin, he feels the warmth of Jesus’ heart. Somehow, beyond the hatred and disdain in the eyes of those around him, he sees acceptance in Jesus’ eyes. Mark tells us, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand.” Jesus cures the man with a single touch and changes him forever.

Our gracious and loving God reaches out to us just the same. When we find the courage to reach past our fear and uncertainty, past what seems reasonable to the rest of the world and past what seems to be naïve hope, we open ourselves up to God’s love. When we reach out to God, God’s response may differ from what we want or expect. Still, God’s response will do nothing less than to change us forever as well.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Woe Is Me…

I’ve just returned from running errands that brought me to five different stores within ninety minutes. I’m usually invigorated by productive mornings like this, but not today. As I emptied the bags I carried in from the car, I considered this crisp sunny day, my drive and my interactions with the various persons I’d met along the way. All had gone very well in spite of the Saturday morning traffic and the abundance of shoppers. At one store, the clerk shared that she’d lost her wallet and that a man had returned it to her home this morning. It happened to be this young woman’s birthday. She considered receiving her wallet with its contents intact her best gift ever. I congratulated her on her good fortune and offered a prayer for the good soul who’d gone to such trouble for her. Still, though this fine day began on many very positive notes, I find myself with a heavy heart.

I smiled -ever so slightly- when I read this Sunday’s first reading (Job 7:1-4, 6-7) because I’ve been feeling as though I’m in Job’s company these days. Our Old Testament friend finds himself the unfortunate victim of Satan’s folly. As the story goes, after much taunting, God allows Satan to test Job’s faith. In spite of the fact that Job is a good and just man, Satan conjures up every sort of suffering for him. Job loses his family, his home and his wealth. To make matters worse, Job finds no consolation in his friends. They blame his misfortune on some sin that Job or his forefathers must have committed. As his life worsens with every breath, poor Job makes no secret of his misery. Eventually, Job rues the day that he was born. Job has done all of the right things, and he doesn’t understand why he suffers as he does.

As I consider my sister’s current battle with cancer, I find many reasons for her to add to Job’s woeful litany. Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. In spite of many people’s best efforts, the missteps of a few others have deterred her progress. Every time Cecele finds reason to smile, another complication elicits tears. Cecele feels as though she’s done the right things, too, and she wonders why everything is suddenly going so very wrong for her. The truth is that, like Job, her children and the rest of us wonder the same thing. Still, as I consider Job’s story in full, I can’t ignore Job’s joy in the end. God responded to Job after all and things ended well for our suffering friend. Job lived what remained of his life at peace with himself and at peace with God. This is precisely what I wish for my sister. She simply hasn’t yet tasted Job’s joy in this regard.

I attribute my heavy heart to my inability to make things right for my sister. I attribute my sister’s tears to her inability to make things right for herself. It occurs to me as I write that Cecele and I are expending a good deal of energy on things that are out of our control. Poor Job couldn’t win for losing and neither can we. Only when Job turned over everything to God, even his very life, could God respond and make things right. Only when we turn over the unknown and the uncontrollable to God can God do the same for us.

God knew very well that Job had much to learn about the ways of the Divine, and God revealed heaven’s goodness and love to Job when Job needed them most. God did the same for the rest of us when he sent Jesus to walk among us –to touch us, to heal us, to teach us, to forgive us and to welcome us into God’s loving embrace. We need only to browse through the gospels to find instance after instance of Jesus’ loving response to the neediest souls among us. Still, we need only to browse through these same writings to find that Jesus’ most beloved family and friends, including his own mother, didn’t understand what Jesus was up to much of the time. They faired best when they simply placed their trust in Jesus. My sister and I have no choice but to place our trust just as wisely.

Yes, God is everywhere when we’re in need… right beside us when the coughing is at its worst; down the hallway when we’re feeling alone; at our side in the car as we doze off on the way to another treatment. God lingers nearby, offering compassion, mercy and love. Sometimes God comes in the presence and support of those around us and sometimes God comes in person. Either way, God takes care of everything.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved