Our Place Among The Branches

Though the past few days have boasted cool spring temperatures, the sunshine and breeze have beckoned me outdoors just the same.  Every time I walk, something that I have failed to notice hundreds of times before stands out.  I should be accustomed to these little interludes with my neighborhood environment.  Still, these phenomena never fail to inspire me.

This morning, it was an archway trellis which caught my eye.  Actually, it was the rambling mass of lilac branches at the top of the trellis that demanded my attention.  You see, the trellis is just about the width of a typical doorway, but the lilac growth spewing from its top reaches out three feet in every direction.  It seemed to me that this poor trellis was doomed to fall over in the next big wind until I looked more closely.  It was then that I saw the amazingly thick trunks of two lilac bushes which flank each side of the trellis.  “No wonder it can stand,” I told myself, “and no wonder the lilac blooms are so beautiful and too numerous to count.  They’re getting plenty of support and plenty of nourishment from those sturdy trunks.”  As I looked further, I also saw that the branches atop that trellis were tightly woven together.  Not a one would be displaced by the wind because the branches held one another in place.  As I pondered this, I paused a while longer to enjoy the lilacs’ fragrance. 

I returned to my walk most grateful for this encounter with another of God’s wonders.  I turned my eyes upward and whispered, “Thank you, Lord, for revealing yourself to me once again.”  I walked under numerous trees, past thriving bushes and budding perennials.  As I continued, I realized that the amazing lilac crown which adorned that trellis wasn’t the only recipient of nourishment and support to be found along the way.  Every tree, bush and plant which I passed boasted leafy branches that complemented and supported one another.  Each one flourished in the water and minerals so generously supplied by the vines and trunks and roots which fed them and anchored them safely in the soil.  Each one also basked in the sunshine lavished upon them from above.  On the way home, I happily absorbed the sunshine as well as it overpowered the lingering spring chill in which I had started this walk.  I also took another look at that lilac-crowned trellis, still mesmerized by its ability to stand. 

When I came inside, I traded my shoes for my slippers and sat at my desk to peruse John’s gospel (15:1-8) in preparation for this writing.  It was then that I realized the depth of the gratitude that prompted the prayer of thanks I uttered as I walked away from that trellis.  You see, John tells us that Jesus likens himself to a vine and he likens God to a vine grower.  Jesus adds that this vine grower provides everything that is necessary to allow this precious plant to flourish.  Jesus goes on to liken his disciples –you and me– to the branches that spring forth from him.  “Wow,” I tell myself as I envision that trellis once again.  This encounter with God’s greenery compels me to carry Jesus’ metaphor a step further.  

I would like to think that each of us has some awareness of God’s sustaining power.  Whether it is our next breath or the touch of a gentle breeze, God provides all that we need.  To be certain that we understand the workings of God’s nurturing ways, Jesus walked among us to explain this through his every word and deed.  God’s Holy Spirit followed to seal the deal by demonstrating that God actually dwells within each of us.  Our vine dresser not only provides for us, but also remains connected to us though Jesus and the Spirit.  Our part in all of this is to mingle and to intertwine and to become woven together.  As we bear fruit amd flourish together, we support one another and keep one another anchored safely to the Vine who sustains us all. 

If you question the value of your presence to those around you, consider that lilac-laden trellis.  Just a few snips would dislodge branches and upset the amazing network that allows its top-heavy lilac growth to stand.  God created each one of us with the means to nourish and to support one another as only we can.  So it is that we follow Jesus’ lead and do just that.  Everyone connected to us depends on it!   


©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

At Our Best and at Our Worst, We Are Loved

A few weeks ago, I basked in the beauty of another of the unseasonably warm days that have punctuated our transition into Spring 2012. My husband-the-good-deacon and I were up north for a brief visit. Mike enjoys navigating the county roads that wind every which way around our cabin, and I enjoy gazing out the window as he drives along. Oddly, though we’ve traveled the same roads in and out of town for more than twenty years, I’m always fascinated by what I see. Regardless of numerous previous sightings, every farm and hillside reveals something new to me as we meander by it. On this particular day, a large pasture filled with sheep surprised me. Though I was certain I’d never seen it before, I refrained from pointing it out to my dear husband. I knew he’d tell me that we’d passed that particular pasture hundreds of times. Rather, I tended to my own musing regarding the amazing gathering which had caught my eye.

From my vantage point in the car, each sheep seemed to be a perfectly coifed specimen. Their woolen coats boasted every shade of beige. Though usually a nondescript color, the beige hues of these sheep accentuated their fluffy appearances. It was as though Don, our favorite Wisconsin barber, had trimmed each one to make this herd a perfectly matched set. The vibrant green grass on which they grazed only enhanced this idyllic scene. “You have to love sheep!” I said to myself. “They’re just so lovable!”

As we drove on, I opened my window a bit. I took in a hearty breath to sample the country air. Ugh! The realities of habituated pastures and bountiful fields interrupted my musing in short order. “Hmmm,” I said to Mike. “I think our farming neighbors have begun to fertilize.” I rolled up the window quickly with the hope of keeping that country air outside of the car. I had to laugh as my thoughts turned back to those amazingly cute little sheep I’d seen a few minutes earlier. “I know,” I thought, fully expecting my sheep friends to pick up my message telepathically. “If we’d stopped the car long enough to take a walk among you, I might not have found you to be so completely lovable after all.”

Similar adventures out and about in nature fill our treks to Wisconsin, and I admit that I forget many of them within hours of returning home. This time, however, the adventure has remained with me because it speaks so beautifully to one of your and my greatest blessings. When I turned to John’s gospel as I prepared for this writing, those perhaps not-so-lovable little sheep came to mind immediately.

In John’s gospel (10:11-18), Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. As I consider the ramifications of this claim, the scent of that country air returns in full force. I wonder if “scent” is the appropriate label for the air that assaulted my nasal passages so brutally. I wonder if my affection for those sheep would have waned if I’d taken the time to walk among them. I wonder if I would I have bothered to get near enough to pet any of them. I don’t have to wonder about how I would have responded to an opportunity to shepherd these wooly creatures for even an hour. I’d have declined quickly and escaped even more quickly with the hope that I’d be able to wash their “scent” out of my clothing. Yes, walking and working among sheep is risky business. Still, our Good Shepherd embraces this risk to care for you and me.

It seems to me that we all try to give the impression that my faraway sheep friends gave to me. We primp to display our best exterior. We graze with those with whom we want to be seen. We stay distant enough to keep the truth about ourselves hidden beneath our woolen coats. Then, in spite of our best effort, Jesus comes along to announce that he is perfectly aware of who you and I are. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, “and I know mine and mine know me…” As he looks deep into your heart and mine Jesus adds, “Yes, my little friend, I know you. I know your ‘scent’. I know your every aspect, body and soul. Regardless of the way anyone else responds to you, I respond with love. And there is nothing you can do to change this.”

I am of the humble opinion that our Good Shepherd fully expects each of us to accept his affection without a peep –or a baa– of complaint.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Presence We Need Most Is Always With Us

I find great consolation in our Easter Season scripture passages. Jesus responds to the disciples of old with the same grace and kindness that I often crave. On the Second Sunday of Easter, John’s gospel (20:19-31) related the tale of Thomas’ struggle when his fellow disciples insisted that they’d seen the Risen Lord. Jesus himself returned to invite Thomas back into the realm of believers. Though his observation of Thomas’s unbelief seems harsh, Jesus pursued Thomas until he won him over. Why else would Jesus return when Thomas was present? Jesus came to forgive Thomas and to call Thomas back into his future. Jesus fully appreciated the contribution Thomas would make to God’s Family. Because he had walked in their shoes, Thomas would soften the hardened hearts of many skeptics along the way.

This Sunday, Luke’s Gospel (24:35-48) begins as two disciples’ describe their journey on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ death. As they walked, Cleopas and his friend shook their heads as they reflected. Jesus offered such hope just a week earlier when he entered Jerusalem in triumph. Who knew that he would be dead by the start of the next Sabbath? Still, in spite of his heinous demise, some women in their party reported a vision of angels at Jesus’ empty tomb. When others went to verify the women’s story, they found the scene as the women described. This is the reason Cleopas and his companion were so confused by the stranger whom they encountered along the way. This man appeared to know nothing of the events that turned their world upside down. The two wondered how anyone near Jerusalem could have missed the news of Jesus’ condemnation and death. Yet, as they walked along, these disciples found that this seemingly uninformed stranger enlightened them regarding many things. This mysterious companion spoke of Moses and numerous other prophets to explain each reference made to the Christ. This stranger insisted that what happened to the Christ should have been no surprise to anyone who attended carefully to the scriptures. His suffering was prerequisite to his glory.

When the stranger prepared to leave them, Cleopas and his friend urged him to join them for the evening meal. He agreed. Later, when the three ate together, the stranger broke bread and revealed his identity. Immediately, Cleopas and his companion hurried back to the others to share what they’d learned and with whom they’d just walked. The disciples’ response echoed the disbelief Thomas expressed just a week earlier. In the midst of this conversation, Jesus appeared once again. Though Jesus greeted them with, “Peace be with you,” the disciples trembled with terror. In spite of the women’s sighting at the tomb and all that Cleopas had just told them, they believed they were being accosted by a ghost. Only when Jesus ate a bit of fish did they recognize that, indeed, Jesus was with them.

I won’t criticize Thomas or Cleopas or any of the disciples regarding their bouts with disbelief. How often have I shaken my head and wrung my hands over this life’s troubles? My sister Cecele’s fight-for-your-life battle with cancer weighs heavily upon those of us who love her. Just think of what it’s doing to her! I sadly admit that along the way I’ve sometimes allowed this battle to threaten my joy. Though I try very hard to live with joy, my worry has sometimes driven my joy into hiding. Fortunately, our Risen Lord has made his presence known to my cancer-battling sister in many joyful and peace-giving ways. Fortunately for me, I’ve been wise enough to follow my sister’s lead. Like Cleopas and Cecele, I’ve learned to recognize the Lord when I need him most.

When life is tough, I’m tempted to bury my face in my pillow or to hide under a quilt in my easy chair because I’ve foolishly convinced myself that everything depends upon my own effort. When I finally muster the courage to peek out at those challenges, I try to imitate Cleopas and Cecele. I pick myself up and get myself going. I return to the table, listen to the word, break bread and look deep within myself. In all of this, I find the joy and the peace that eluded me. Though I will certainly stumble again, Christ remains, sometimes in spite of my unbelief, for as long as I need him. In my case, this will be a very, very long time!

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Holy Saturday Blessing from the Hands of Children

“So, what did you think?” I asked my young friend.  Without hesitation, Alina smiled broadly and announced, “It was awesome, just awesome!  Now we can all be here and do this together.  My whole family will go to Communion!”  Alina’s younger sister proudly edged closer to Alina.  Apparently, Sarah fully approved of Alina’s assessment of the evening’s events.  After congratulating Alina’s and Sarah’s parents regarding their wonderfully inspiring daughters, I went on to greet another family.  I posed the same question to Danielle.  “What did you think?” I asked.  Again, without hesitation and with unquestionable conviction, she offered her reply.  “This is so exciting!” Danielle announced.  “It’s my dad’s First Communion Day!”  Again, a younger sibling stepped up to offer his approval.  This time, it was Kevin who looked admiringly and with full agreement toward his older sister.

I admit that Alina, Sarah, Danielle and Kevin gifted me with more than I could ever have hoped this past Holy Saturday Night and they did so just in the nick of time.  You see, while Holy Week is my most treasured week of the year, it is also the most demanding.  The my husband, thegood deacon, and I seem to run non-stop from Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday.  Even our weekly visit with our granddaughters was put on hold for this seven days simply because there was so much to do.

Mike and I weren’t alone in our frenzy.  The many people who prepare our parish church and the liturgies for this sacred time found themselves in the same state.  By Holy Saturday evening, our priests, our deacons and deacon-to-be, the choir and other musicians, those who cleaned and decorated the church, our lectors, Communion ministers and those who prepared all year to embrace the faith have invested a good deal of energy into the events of this precious week. 

I think I speak accurately for each one when I say that we did these things because we wanted to.  Each of us felt honored to participate in celebrating the greatest mysteries of our faith.  Still, by six forty-five on Holy Saturday, fatigue replaced some of our enthusiasm.  When a good friend observed my “hall monitor” stare early on, he urged, “Smile, Mary!”  I didn’t realize that I wasn’t smiling until Larry offered this well-timed nudge.  In response, I did smile as I entered into what became the awesome and exciting night which touched Alina, Sarah, Danielle and Kevin so deeply.             

Our parish celebration of the Easter Vigil unfolded beautifully.  Our human imperfections laid dormant in the shadow of our observance of Christ’s resurrection.  We ignited the Easter Fire, blessed the Waters of Baptism, asked the intercession of Mary and all of the saints, and baptized seven new Catholics.  After Father Ray and Deacon Mike sprinkled us with holy water, all thirteen of our RCIA Elect professed the faith with us and then received the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Afterward, we continued the Mass which culminated in Communion where each one of us took our place at God’s table. 

Of all that occurred that night, their dads’ walk to receive communion impressed my young friends most.  For as long as they can remember, Alina, Sarah, Danielle and Kevin have observed their dads waiting in the pew while everyone else filed up to receive the Eucharist.  Much to their children’s absolute joy, these dads changed all of that on Holy Saturday.  Is it any wonder that this is all that Alina and Danielle could talk about afterward? 

As I cleaned up late Holy Saturday night, I thought about my young friends.  I asked myself, “How long has it been since I left church as awestruck as they?”  Just as quickly, I answered:  “Our Good Friday liturgy tugged at my heartstrings from beginning to end.”  Still, by the time I arrived home, I’d allowed everything waiting to be done for Saturday to distract from the gifts of that night.  I wonder if a similar phenomenon kept poor Thomas from believing the others when they shared that Jesus had appeared to them.  I wonder if Thomas was so concerned with the word on the street and the certain danger that threatened him and the other disciples that he buried Jesus’ promises a little too deeply.  In his gospel (John 20:19-31), John tells us that it took Jesus himself to convince Thomas that Jesus had indeed returned.  You and I know better, though we sometimes don’t act it.  It takes the likes of Alina and Sarah, Danielle and Kevin to stir up the embers and to rekindle the faith that burns deeply within us all.     

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Peace Be With You… Today and Always!

Christians everywhere join us today in celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.  It was more than two millennia ago that Jesus of Nazareth dispelled all doubt regarding the fate of God’s people.  On that first Easter morning, Jesus revealed for all of humankind God’s promise of life everlasting.  What better reason have we to fill our churches with alleluias?  So convinced are we of God’s promise that we gather in unprecedented numbers to worship.  The lily and tulip blooms that adorn our sanctuary resemble our hearts –opened completely to hope fulfilled.  While we bask in the this day’s glory, we also recall the difficult road which brought us to this amazing moment in time…  

Mary of Magdala is beside herself when she approaches the tomb to find the stone rolled away and Jesus missing.  The Easter gospel ends before Jesus makes himself known to Mary.  Fortunately, when Jesus comes to her and the disciples, he greets them all with words they need to hear: “Peace be with you.”

Now Jesus knows all too well the fear that causes his friends to tremble.  Jesus knows the guilt that wrenches their hearts.  Jesus knows that they struggle to face having deserted him when he needed them most.  Jesus knows the distrust that grew among them until Judas exposed his own guilt.  Jesus knows that when they lost him, his friends also lost their hope.  The one upon whom they had wagered everything was gone forever.  Indeed, Jesus knows well the emptiness that consumes his friends because he felt it himself two days earlier.  It is this intimate knowledge of suffering that impels Jesus to return to his friends to set their world aright again.  It is this knowledge that impels Jesus to do the same for you and me.

If we peered into the hearts of those gathered with us to pray today, we would find unimaginable joy and unimaginable suffering.  While the joy is tangible in smiles, dancing eyes and good cheer, the suffering hides in quiet comings and goings.  While some of us have gathered with good reason to celebrate, others cannot say the same.  Some have come without a wife or a husband, a mother or a father, a son, a daughter or a friend who left this world far too soon.  Some have joined us in the midst of a failing marriage or without a paycheck.  Some are so lonely that they will ignore this Easter after they leave church today in order to avoid the pain.  Some who question their own worth will sing “alleluia” in spite of their uncertainty, wondering all the while if Easter joy can actually be theirs.  Some struggle with worry over their children.  Some battle illnesses that seem to be winning the war.  Some sit among us in sadness, unable to explain even to themselves why they feel the way they do.  Today, Jesus himself reaches beyond the suffering of his disciples of long ago to minister to those whose suffering continues.  Jesus embraces each one of us and whispers the words that brought comfort and joy to Mary, Simon Peter and the rest.  “Peace be with you,” Jesus says.  “Peace be with you.”

You and I celebrate Easter today because we’ve found hope in our relationships with God.  Whether we walked our Lenten journeys with great success or we failed miserably to keep our commitments, we gather today with hope.  We know without a doubt that there is peace to be found this Easter Sunday. 

Because Jesus remained fixed on God’s promise, he overcame the obstacles of this life.  Jesus remained fixed on God’s promise as he persisted in teaching us and showing us how God’s children must live.  Jesus remained fixed on God’s promise as he dragged his cross to Calvary.  Jesus remained fixed on God’s promise when he used his last breath to forgive the man hanging on the cross next to his.  After all of this, when Jesus experienced the fulfillment of God’s promise firsthand, he shared what he found with his friends.  So it was that Jesus spoke the words he has repeated for centuries and that he continues to whisper to you and me: “Peace be with you.” 

Whether we are among the rejoicing or the worried today, Jesus stands before us to say, “Peace be with you.”  We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus regardless of the circumstances of our lives because we too remain fixed on God’s promise until we experience it firsthand as Jesus did.  Indeed, on that first Easter morning everything changed for us, and so we sing, “Alleluia!”  Happy Easter!       

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved