A Hero For Us All

As I read, a chill suddenly runs down my spine. The few sentences that I’ve just pored over hit a little too close to home. Without warning, the most difficult memories from my life resurface. I have to set aside my reading for a minute and take a deep breath before the tears flow too freely. The hero I’ve come to love through this story approaches the end of his life. Though he maintains a positive and tough exterior, he realizes that certain demise awaits him. He seems to be tying up loose ends with those around him in an attempt to leave them with the best of his wit, wisdom, advice and love. Though his tone is hopeful, my hero suffers within. Misgivings regarding the immediate future shake his faith, and his family and friends fail to sense this. Though some begin to notice the change in his demeanor, the activities of the moment distract them from their concern. I fear that my hero’s people are going to be taken by surprise as the plot unfolds.

 

I’m not a stranger to tragedy in my life. I’ve survived more adversity than many, though not nearly as much as most. Somehow, walking through these final pages with my hero brings back to mind my own life’s trials and tribulations. I suppose this is so because I identify with the hero in this particular story on many levels. We seem to share the same approach to the things that are most important to us. He loves his family just as I love my own. He has special devotion to his parents who taught him to love and to believe with great passion. Their most poignant lessons came through example rather than words which is also the way my parents taught me best. My hero feels at home in his faith because his parents introduced him to their temple when he was just a baby. My parents did the same when they carried me down the block to church on the day of my baptism. My hero lost his father early on, but still managed to grow into a devoted son who made his mother proud. Though my dad’s untimely death caused him to miss most of my childhood, my mom acknowledged a thing or two that made her proud of me over the years. Throughout this story, when those around him face difficulties, this hero who seems more like a friend to me now consistently steps up to help. Though I often fail, I really do try to do the same.

 

I’m most struck by my hero friend’s persistence in the face of the worst this life has to offer. Though he may withdraw for a bit to regroup and to replenish his soul, he never abandons his mission. Indeed, my hero returns every time more convinced than ever that he’s on the right road. I had to set down my book a few minutes ago because of something my hero said. He’d just left a holiday dinner with those closest to him. He’d bared his soul regarding how he feels about them and he offered a final gesture of his love and devotion to each one. As he rose from their dinner table, my hero wondered if any of his friends had grasped his meaning. With a heavy heart, he took them out to enjoy the beautiful night. While he left them to rest in the greenery, my hero knelt in an isolated patch to consider what the next several hours will bring. He has always turned to his dad on such occasions and this night is no exception.

 

“Dad,” he prayed, “All things are possible with you. Take this cup away from me…” He’s so frightened that he sweats blood. No human can survive what lies ahead, and this hero to us all questions his ability to endure it. Still, he considers his father once again and adds, “…but not what I will, but what you will.” When I read this, I simply had to set aside the Passion (Matthew 26:14-27:66) for a few minutes. As the calamities from my own life flooded my mind, Jesus’ words filled my heart with understanding. Finally, I realized the reason I’ve survived these things. In each circumstance, I echoed Jesus’ words with my own requests to be relieved of my suffering. Nonetheless, in each circumstance I also followed Jesus’ lead with confidence that God would get me through whatever lay ahead.

 

This Palm Sunday, we listen to Jesus’ story. We acknowledge all that Jesus said and did during his life among us. In Jesus’ life, we find the strength to endure. In his passion and death, we find the hope that urges us on. Jesus never said our existence on this earth would be easy, but Jesus promised often that we would never be alone in our efforts. Today and throughout this Holy Week, we celebrate this hero who has shown us the way to live with courage, to die with hope and to rise with absolute certainty that Easter awaits us all.

 

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Jesus Went First for Us!

I admit that I’ve become quite fond of the late evening hours when I can nuzzle into my recliner and unwind after a long day.  I might only have time enough to read five or six pages or to scribble a few words into a crossword puzzle.  Still, I always find myself settled and ready for a good night’s sleep after these mini-vacations from the trials and tribulations of life. 

Several days ago, my husband the good deacon and I had endured three hours in the car and I longed for the comfort of that big burgundy chair.  As we neared home, I remembered that our parish mission was on that night.  “Ugh,” I thought.  I really wanted to attend because I felt the need for some nourishment, spiritual nourishment that is sometimes hard to come by during these demanding times.  Still, I was so tired!  As it happened, when Mike and I arrived at home, I helped to unload the car, grabbed something that I called dinner, freshened up and headed off to St. Paul’s.  With only a minute to spare, I managed to find a second-row aisle seat that offered full view of our presenter.  I used the remaining thirty seconds to thank God for nudging me to this place where I just knew I’d find what I needed.

As soon as he began to speak, I found Dr. Terry Nelson-Johnson to be a kindred spirit.  This self-proclaimed “street theologian” has a knack for finding God in the worst of our circumstances and for rejoicing in these encounters which truly allow each of us to experience new life.  Over the years, I’ve used this space to share numerous instances of adversity from my own life and that of my loved ones.  Just as Terry observed, we’ve always managed to emerge better off as well.  Though I’ve taken this phenomenon as a given most of my life, Terry helped me to realize why this has been the case.  “Jesus went first,” Terry said.  “Jesus embraced the cross because he knew that walking through it would bring him to new life.  All of the suffering in the world was worth the resurrection that awaited Jesus on the other side.”

As I listened, I laughed at myself for never having spoken or written of what Jesus has done for me in quite this way.  I live my life as I do because of the things Jesus said and did.  Yet, not ever have I considered that my courage in doing so comes from Jesus.  Jesus is the One whose courage allowed him to “go first” so the rest of us would know how to do what we must.  Suddenly, I saw Jesus as my most loyal friend.  Jesus accompanies me to life’s most frightening venues.  Jesus went first so I’ll know the way.  Jesus endured the worst that this life has to offer so I’ll know how do the same.  Jesus gave his hands over to the soldiers so he could give me a chance at my own resurrection.  Jesus never promised that this life would be easy, but Jesus did promise that our pain and agony are worth the treasure to be found on the other side of them.  Indeed, Jesus didn’t only promise these things.  Jesus went first to show us that this is so.             

I share my mission experience with you because today’s scripture readings underscore Dr. Terry Nelson-Johnson’s assertions regarding God’s persistent and unconditional promise of resurrection to us all.  Jeremiah (31:31-34) eloquently reveals God’s intent: “…this is the covenant I will make… I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people… All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”  In his letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9), Paul reminds us that God’s love became flesh in the person of Jesus who “became the source of salvation for all…”  Not leaving our understanding of his passion and death to chance, Paul tells us again that Jesus went first to reveal God’s constant care, God’s unqualified forgiveness and the reality of resurrection.  In John’s gospel (12:20-33), Jesus clarifies his intent as he declares, “…when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”  Yes, Jesus went first for you and me so we’d know the joy on the other side of our pain.

This Fifth Sunday of Lent, won’t you join me in finding courage in what Jesus has done?  Won’t you join me in embracing what lies ahead because we know we’ll find something that is worth our trouble on the other side?  Won’t you join me in finally realizing the amazing friendship we have with Jesus?

 ©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

 

God Always Responds to Our Needs

It was late Sunday afternoon when the phone rang. My sister called to share a milestone of sorts in her ongoing battle with cancer. Cecele continued to enjoy a string of good days after the side effects of her first chemotherapy treatment subsided. She awoke early to embrace this new day in anticipation of a visit from Chris, a childhood friend whose friendship with Cecele has withstood the test of time. When she made her bed, Cecele noticed some hair on her pillow. When she showered, a small clump of hair on her arm interrupted Cecele’s fond childhood recollections of Chris. She was a little surprised as she expected her hair loss to occur a bit further into treatment. Cecele almost dismissed this development until she realized that her shower floor was covered with hair. With merciless vengeance, Cecele’s cancer had made its presence known once again.

My sister admitted that her tears flowed freely as reality set in. As good as she’d felt for days now, she still has cancer. As thrilled as her doctors were with her progress, the road ahead promises many more challenges. Fortunately, Chris’s visit urged Cecele on to dress, eat breakfast and take her morning medications. Though her sadness persisted, Cecele distracted herself as best she could as she waited for Chris.

When Chris arrived, Cecele put on a grateful smile as she opened the door. Chris returned Cecele’s welcome with an excited smile and some gifts. Now Cecele was thrilled to have Chris’s company and she insisted to her friend that her gifts weren’t necessary. Chris ignored Cecele’s observation and insisted that she open what she’d brought. When Cecele unwrapped her friend’s offerings, she realized that these gifts were necessary after all. Chris had given Cecele two amazingly cute hats –perfect for anyone having a “no hair” day. As Cecele admired her gifts, Chris also gave her the card of a woman from the cancer center who works with people who might opt for a wig during their treatment. Though Chris thought that down the road Cecele might have use for these hats and her cancer center contact, she never expected these things to be useful on this particular day. Nor did my sister.

Indeed, this was the reason Cecele called me. She simply had to share the most amazing aspect of her hair-loss adventure. After telling me about Chris’s visit, Cecele added, “You know, Ma told me all the time that whenever she was in need, somehow help came just in time. It might have been someone or something unexpected. Whatever it was, Ma insisted that God always found a way to give her what she needed.” To be certain that her meaning wasn’t lost on me, Cecele explained that our mother was absolutely correct in her observation because God had just done the same for her through Chris. While my sister continues to be most grateful that her friend responded to the little nudge that encouraged her to bring those hats on that particular day, it occurs to me that each of us has reason to be grateful as well.

This Lent has been tough going for many. My sister had no choice regarding her Lenten observances. Her full-time job these forty days and then some is to engage in battle with cancer while holding on to hope with all of her might –not an easy task. We can all share loved ones’ stories -and our own- which include similar encounters with illness and hopelessness, loneliness and helplessness, poverty, desperation and worries of every sort. Still, from the ashes that surround these brave souls, they rise up to be embraced by God’s love in its many amazing forms.

In today’s scripture readings, the Persian leader Cyrus (2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23), Saint Paul (Ephesians 2:4-10) and Jesus himself (John 3:14-21) assure us that God’s love and mercy are ever-abundant and ever-available to each one of us. The only requirement for receiving these gifts is to accept them. Just as Cecele found God’s love and rekindled hope in those cute little hats, we must find God’s touch in the people and the circumstances around us. Perhaps we can use what remains of these forty days to attune ourselves to God at work in the midst of this life’s troubles and to embrace the love that results.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Lent… A Time to Enrich Our Relationships with God

One of the most enjoyable things my husband and I do at our parish is to coordinate the RCIA Program.  RCIA allows those interested to learn more about the Catholic Faith.  Each year, Mike and I find ourselves richly blessed by this opportunity to share in the faith journeys of those who join us.  The following reflection was inspired by a recent session regarding the Season of Lent -a favorite topic of mine.  
 

Mike and I recently discussed the Season of Lent with our RCIA participants.  We talked about the purposes of the season: To celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, to renew our baptismal commitments by turning ourselves away from the distractions of this life and to turn ourselves back toward God.  We pointed out that our efforts in this area take many forms.  Often, we give up things such as favorite foods, smoking or the movies.  Such acts of self-denial are meant to put our physical concerns on the back burner so we can focus more upon our spirits.  Sometimes, we add activities to our day to express our affection to God such as attending daily Mass or Stations of the Cross, spending more time with our children, avoiding unnecessary arguments or putting a bit of change into our Rice Bowl each day.  Again, these activities are meant to focus us more clearly on our spirituality. 

Whatever we choose to give up or to do, we sometimes find that we spend a good deal of time “policing” ourselves with the hope of keeping our Lenten commitments for the full forty days.  The good news is that through this process we might just kick a bad habit, form a good habit, lose a few pounds, gather a few dollars for the poor, improve our family relationships and much more.  The better news is that we can transform these successes into amazing encounters with God.         

I admitted to our RCIA class that of all the seasons and holy days that fill the church year, Lent and Holy Week are my very favorites.  The smudged cross of ashes that I receive on my forehead each Ash Wednesday signals my return to the realities of my relationship with Jesus and, more importantly, of Jesus’ love for me. 

Two thousand years ago, Jesus did everything to convince the people of God’s love.  Unfortunately, the possibilities of a heaven that was open to everyone and a God who overlooked the rules in favor of mercy were too much for some.  So it happened that Jesus’ betrayal was set in motion and his death became imminent.  History tells us that Jesus was arrested and questioned, ridiculed and beaten.  The hatred and fear of his captors led to the scourging that would have killed another man and the crowning that only this God would choose to endure.  Jesus went on to die in disgrace with only his mother and two friends in his company.  To me, the most frightening aspect of all of this is the reality that Jesus endured his passion and death in spite of my sinfulness and because of it.  As terrible as this is to acknowledge, I embrace the opportunity to remember what Jesus did for me.  To me, Lent is my opportunity to make things right by walking with Jesus all the way past Calvary and on to Easter Sunday.

I realize that my Lenten sacrifices pale in the face of all that those around me accomplish.  Still, I persist in spite of myself because I’ve added a “God Dimension” which gives the only true value to my effort.  When I feel hunger, I thank God for the reminder that God is always with me.  When I remember those who have asked for my prayers, I thank Jesus for using just the right words to touch my heart.  When I’m discouraged by events near and far, I turn to God to ensure me that all will be well in God’s time.  When I look at my neighbor and find it difficult to love, I ask Jesus to look with me that I may see whom He sees.  When I attend Mass, I thank Jesus for the gift of himself.  When I pray the Stations, I tell Jesus I don’t know why he bothered and that I will always be grateful that he did.  When my heart feels empty, I seek inspiration from a favorite book or song, a psalm or holy card, a prayer or a walk in God’s outdoors.  I know God will reveal the Divine to me as God always does.  You see, Jesus has absolutely convinced me of God’s love, and I use Lent to return the favor as best I can.  

In today’s gospel (John 2:13-25), Jesus is beside himself with anger because on this holy feast of Passover the temple looks more like a marketplace than God’s place.  Jesus has given everything, and soon he will give his very life, to convince the people of God’s love for them.  Jesus exhibited God’s mercy and acceptance, God’s forgiveness and compassion in all he said and did.  Nonetheless, the people persist in their selfishness, their hatred and their refusal to open their hearts to God’s word.  Though you and I can do nothing about what happened in the temple that Passover so long ago, we can do something this Lent.  We can transform every bit of self-denial achieved, every good work accomplished and every failure in our resolve into an opportunity to return God’s love with our own.               

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Follow in His Footsteps…

Last weekend, my husband and I headed north to spend a few days at our cabin with our son and his family.  Saturday afternoon, while our youngest granddaughter napped, Grandpa offered to walk her older sisters to the lake.  I went along partly to serve as an extra set of arms, just in case the walk back was too much for the girls, and mostly to enjoy the time with them. 

The path to the lake, which is half a block down the road from our driveway, provides fairly direct access to the shoreline below.  This particular day, however, the path alternated between hardened mud, icy patches and snow.  Twigs and branches strewn by recent winds made the walk even more challenging.  So it was that Grandpa held tightly to Lauren’s hand and I held tightly to Ellie’s hand as we gingerly made our way down toward the frozen water.  As we proceeded, we watched carefully and warned one another to be careful when we came to a difficult-to-navigate stretch.  All the while, I prayed that we all would remain safely on our feet. 

 

Fortunately, near the end of the path there is a large community deck which overlooks the water.  When Grandpa saw the ice-covered beach, he quickly announced that we’d see the water best from this wooden perch.  Ellie and Lauren happily climbed the icy steps with us.  To the girls, the view was breathtaking.  Lauren looked across the lake to the clusters of trees on the other side and declared, “There’s a kingdom.  And there’s another kingdom, too.”  Ellie remarked, “The water is white, Grandma.  It’s all ice. I never saw so much white ice!”  Nature’s beauty wasn’t lost on these preschoolers from the suburbs.  The beauty of this place is never lost on Grandpa and me in spite of the sometimes hazardous trek down to see it. 

 

In the midst of our musing, a cold gust urged us back to the warmth of the cabin.  Ellie quickly grabbed Mike’s hand as she pointed out that it was her turn to walk with Grandpa.  Lauren grabbed my hand and countered, “I want to walk with Grandma.” 

As we headed upward, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, darkening the path before us.  Mike and Ellie barely balanced themselves on the ice beneath their feet as they led the way.  Finally, Mike eased Ellie into the snow that bordered the path to avoid what seemed to be an inevitable fall.  Though there were more branches and rocks to climb over, Mike and Ellie were able to maintain their footing in the snow.  As I watched, I warned Lauren that we had to be careful, too, or we’d slip and fall.  With all of the seriousness that a three-and-a-half-year-old can muster, Lauren reassured me, “Don’t worry, Grandma.  Just put your feet in Grandpa’s footprints.  I’ll put my feet where Ellie goes and we’ll be okay.”  Lauren and I did just that.  Step by step, I placed one foot at a time into the tracks Mike had made.  Step by step, Lauren followed her sister’s footprints precisely.  With great care, we successfully navigated the treacherous hill back up to the road and on to our cabin.

 

I share this hillside adventure because Jesus leads his disciples to a disconcerting mountainside in today’s gospel (Mark 9:2-10).  Though the trip upward seems easy enough, Peter, James and John have no idea of what they’ll encounter as they follow Jesus.  They are acutely aware of growing unrest among the people.  When Jesus began to reveal himself not as a prophet, but as the messiah, this news didn’t sit well with the temple hierarchy.  Perhaps the three disciples hope that Jesus has taken them aside to explain his teachings further.  Before they can utter a word, Jesus appears in a dazzling aura with Elijah and Moses at his sides.  These glowing figures reveal the essence of eternity before the incredulous eyes of the disciples.  If this isn’t enough, the Almighty speaks from the clouds, “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”  As frightening as the journey ahead will be, God promises that Jesus’ footsteps will reveal the way to the same glory for each one of them. 

 

My granddaughter Lauren knew exactly what she had to do to get up that ominous hill last weekend.  It wasn’t at all easy for her little feet to follow in Ellie’s footsteps.  Still, Lauren persisted because it was the only way for her to return to the warmth of the cabin and Mommy’s and Daddy’s hugs.  Like little Lauren, Jesus knew exactly what he had to do to urge Peter, James and John heavenward.  Jesus gave them a glimpse of all that any of us needs to motivate us to follow in his footsteps.  In that dazzling aura, Jesus offered his disciples and each of us the promise of eternal life at home with God one day.                                                          

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved