God’s Treasures Lie In Our Similarities and Our Differences

A few week’s ago, I attended an “old neighborhood” reunion.  As I printed directions to this gathering, I could not help indulging in a stroll down Memory Lane.  During the drive south, I wondered which of my classmates would attend.  By the time I arrived, I had decided that being surprised would be the best part of the fun.

I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed.  In spite of the reality that those of us in attendance have evolved with our ages over the years, I managed to recognize most of my classmates without support from their nametags. These fellow alums proved to be nice kids who matured into even nicer adults.

About ninety minutes into the festivities, most of us gravitated to tables where we sat and caught up with one another’s lives.  My rediscovered friend Dan asked if any of us had visited the old neighborhood in recent history.  I couldn’t resist sharing my adventure from a few years ago.

During an attempt to create a wall display of our childhood homes, I found that I had no photo of my family’s home on Lockwood Avenue.  My husband and I drove to Chicago’s West Side to take a picture for ourselves.  When we arrived, a woman came out of the house.  I didn’t want to alarm her, so I told her that I once lived in the house and that I was hoping to take a picture of it.  She smiled and asked, “Were you one of those six kids and didn’t you have a big black dog?”  When I responded in the affirmative, she added, “My parents bought this house from your parents.  I remember your family members because my parents had six kids and a dog, too.”  Suddenly, it all came back to me.  My mother was brokenhearted when she and my dad decided that the time had come to leave our big old house.  We had all left home by then and they were alone to manage the upkeep.  Before I could continue my musing, the young woman asked, “Would you like to see the inside?”  I offered a most grateful “yes” as she turned to open the door and lead us in.

Memories flooded my mind and tears flooded my eyes.  As she guided us from room to room, I saw that this woman’s parents had managed to complete all of the remodeling that my parents’ meager income allowed them only to dream of.  “I can hardly wait to tell my mom about this!” I told her as we departed.  “Thank you so much!”  What a gift it was to realize that the apparent differences between our two families were only external.  What a gift it was to know that all my parents hoped to do for us had come to fruition at the hands of another couple who wanted the same for their children.

Though my rediscovered friend was impressed by this encounter, he remarked, “Have I got a story for you!”  Dan went on to share that his older brother celebrated his sixtieth birthday seven years ago.  Since this sibling was the first to reach this milestone, Dan wanted to make his brother’s birthday memorable.  Though he realized he planned to make a ridiculously imposing request, Dan called the family who had purchased his parent’s home thirty years earlier.  He explained to the woman who answered the phone that this was a very special birthday which he hoped to celebrate by revisiting his family’s longtime residence.  “Would you give us two hours?” he asked.  “Just two hours.”  The reply was immediate.  “Yes. We can do that for you.”  Thinking better of his plan, Dan asked the woman to please check with her own family before committing as this would be a huge imposition upon all concerned.

A day later, the woman called to offer her welcome to Dan and his family once again.  When Dan and his siblings arrived at the appointed time, they were warmly greeted by a family of smiling faces and a table filled with good food and drink to share.  The smile that Dan could not contain indicated to me that he has never let go of his gratitude for the kindness of the wonderful people who have made his one-time family home their own.

I share these adventures with you because scripture readings from Numbers (11:25-29) and Mark’s gospel (9:38-43, 45, 47-48) underscore God’s intent to make all people members of God’s Family, recipients of Divine love and purveyors of service to those in need.  Ours is the God who seeks unity among us in spite of and because of our likenesses and our differences.  That unity is best expressed in good works and the gracious hearts from which these works flow.  Could it be that God is especially pleased when we surprise others -and ourselves– with the amazing ways we express God’s love to one another?

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Jesus Observes That Actions Speak Far More Loudly Than Words

My granddaughter is about four weeks into kindergarten.  Though Ellie shares few details, she always assures those who ask that she really likes school.  This is evident in her eagerness to get out the door each morning.  On the day that Grandpa and I walked Ellie home from school, I whispered a prayer for her continued enthusiasm, her success and her safety.  Ellie’s life in academia has begun and her world has expanded in ways that this former teacher and current grandmother understands too well.

Ellie’s venture into kindergarten brings to mind the challenges my students and I faced at the onset of every new school year.  It was with great expectations that I welcomed my new students.  As we gathered on the blacktop outside our assigned entrance to the school, I watched old friendships rekindle and new friendships ignite.  Sometimes, old rivalries also surfaced and new conflicts threatened.  I tried not to make judgments regarding my students’ behavior on that first day.  I also tried to nip any negativity in the bud.

When the morning bell rang and the children filed indoors to their new classroom, I allowed them to  choose their seats.  I explained that this was a temporary arrangement.  I would “adjust” their seating as needed to best accommodate learning and productivity.  If sitting near a friend did not interfere with our work, a student could expect to sit near that friend for a very long time.  I immediately addressed those all-important restroom breaks and walks to the lunchroom to ease any apprehension regarding these rituals.  After sharing these essentials, I went on to offer the first of many lectures my students would endure regarding appropriate school behaviors.  I explained that we were all to treat others as we wished to be treated.  We were also to behave as we would if the persons we respect most in the world were watching us.  I pointed out that we would get to know one another best by observing the way we acted.  My use of the pronoun “we” was intentional as I learned early on that children can detect a hypocrite a mile away.  Finally, I predicted that those who cooperated, were good sports, gave others a second chance and exhibited kindness would make many friends.  I warned that negative behaviors toward others would likely result in the opposite.  In the end, my students and I started each new year with a better than average chance for success.

I share my first day of school memories with you because they echo scripture passages from the Book of Wisdom (2:22, 27-30), James’ epistle (3:16-4:3) and Mark’s gospel (9:30-37).  Each selection addresses the behaviors of those who count themselves among God’s people.  The author of Wisdom quotes the wicked who detail the evil they will do to the “just one” because “according to his own words, God will take care of him.”  I am most grateful that my students refrained from testing my theories with such ill will!  James leaves no doubt regarding his observation that we expose the sentiments we hold in our hearts through our behaviors.  Just as the wicked knew what to expect from the just one, James tells us that those who observe us know what to expect from us.  “Your actions speak louder than your words,” I told my students.  Though the scripture reference escaped them, I’m happy to share that the intent of my words did not.  Mark’s gospel indicates that my students responded a bit more favorably to my lectures regarding their behavior than the disciples responded to Jesus on that particular day.

Jesus and his friends had just begun a trip through Galilee.  Jesus hoped to use this time together to review an important lesson: Their Messiah would fair far differently than the political and military hero so many hoped for.  This Messiah would endure great suffering and death before he achieved glory.  Though the disciples listened, they moved on to a more pressing topic -their positions of importance.  Though Jesus had just instructed them regarding the necessity of humility and servitude, the disciples chose to argue about who was greatest among them.  So it was that Jesus summoned a nearby child to illustrate the power of putting others before ourselves and of serving the most humble of God’s children.  Jesus insisted that only by behaving as he did would the disciples find true fulfillment and power.  Today, Jesus reviews this lesson for you and me as well.  While our Teacher is pleased with our ability to listen, Jesus is more pleased when we put what we hear to good use in our interactions with and service to one another.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


God’s Life-giving Hope

Not long ago, my husband and I stole away to Wisconsin for a few days.  We had no plan except to consider staining our cabin’s deck and to definitely relax.  Our rainy northwesterly drive ended under cloudy skies and cool temperatures.  We found the vegetation in Marquette County to be much greener than expected.  Though the local corn crops stood only knee-high, their green leafiness offered some hope regarding things to come.  This year’s crop will certainly fall short.  Still, its stunted sprouts encourage us to look ahead to the coming year.  When we arrived at the cabin, we found the single pot of marigolds that graces our porch to be thriving in spite of our lack of attention.  Mike smiled and I whispered upward, “Thank you for this perfect surprise.”

We treated ourselves to dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant the night we arrived.  The next morning, Mike determined that it would indeed be dry enough to stain that deck by late afternoon.  We decided to enjoy a movie beforehand.  I checked the local offerings and determined our choice regarding which movie to see.  I usually defer to my dear husband’s preferences for the films we see together.  I sometimes get to the theater with my sisters for the few cinematic wonders about whose value Mike and I disagree.  This time, however, I felt impelled to select The Odd Life of Timothy Green.  I couldn’t resist the reference to my younger son and the color of hope in the title.  So, with great apprehension, Mike drove us to the Portage Theater where we eventually discovered the accuracy of my instincts.

As we found our seats, I recalled the trailer for this film which I had seen several months earlier.  Apparently, a childless couple would be astounded by the miraculous appearance of a little boy flawed only by the unexplained growth of leaves on his ankles.  As we settled in, I also recalled a Youtube video of two eleven or twelve year old boys sobbing in the back seat of their parents’ car as they traveled home after viewing the film.  Though I failed to admit this aloud, I questioned the wisdom of attending a movie that caused seemingly tough youngsters to cry like babies.  I had endured enough sorrow in my own life and in the lives of my family and some dear friends as of late.  A chill ran down my spine as fear of reliving this pain overwhelmed me.  I looked upward and whispered, “Dear God, what was I thinking?  Please, make this film a pleasant surprise.”

In the end, I have to tell you that my prayer was answered one hundredfold.  Though I won’t spoil the film for you in the event that you plan to see it, I will tell you that for me the unexpected plot of this touching fantasy lived up to my initial expectations.  Timothy Green’s surname is no accident; nor is his unconventional life.  Both inspire hope far greater than I found in Wisconsin’s green farm fields and our little pot of marigolds.  Timothy Green’s parents and many others who interact with him find themselves changed in the most odd, uncommon and unexpected ways.  Though these transformations are sometimes painful, they are always worth the price.  The Odd Life of Timothy Green proved to be the second perfect surprise of our getaway.

I share this adventure with you because it is reminiscent of Mark’s gospel (8:27-35) where the disciples find themselves in need of hope in the midst of troubling times.  Though Jesus’ preaching brings peace to some, his words alienate others who grow ever more deaf to his teaching.  No one is certain of who Jesus is as evidenced in this passage’s conversation.  Some suggest that Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets.  Only Peter has the courage to acknowledge, “You are the Christ.”  Yet, in spite of this declaration of faith, even Peter rebukes Jesus when Jesus shares that great suffering will precede any triumph in the making.

I admit to shedding some tears as I watched Timothy Green’s saga unfold.  I also admit that this tearful downpour was punctuated by numerous “aha” moments which shed light upon the recent sorrow around me.  Oddly, on several occasions throughout this film, Timothy stands with his eyes closed and arms outstretched as he faces the life-giving sun above him.  It occurs to me that this stance is reminiscent of Jesus on the cross.  Though I cannot speak to the filmmakers’ intent, my faith compels me to speak to God’s intent regarding these lives of ours.  Though there is pain for us all, even Jesus, there are also the perfect surprises that that fill us with hope –hope enough for Jesus to embrace the cross; hope enough for you and me to embrace every new day.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Glimpses of God’s Joy

The Monday morning after my sister’s funeral, my husband and I cleaned house together.   Though dusting, vacuuming and scrubbing bathrooms aren’t usually sources of joy for us, that morning’s encounter with housekeeping was different.  As we moved from room to room, we shared our recollections of my sister’s funeral and the celebration of her life that followed in our home afterward.  Each table that I dusted brought to mind those who’d gathered nearby to eat together and to comfort one another with their memories of Cecele.  My sister knew about her funeral arrangements and she knew that a party of sorts would follow at our house.  Perhaps one of her “welcome home” gifts in the hereafter was the wonderful weather that allowed our guests to spill onto the patio and porch that afternoon.  As I folded tablecloths and rearranged chairs, I couldn’t help smiling as I thought of Cecele.  “I don’t really mind cleaning up today,” I told her, “because I’m doing this for you.”

When Mike and I finished our cleaning, I determined that this was a small price to pay considering all that my sister had been through.  The truth is that I wasn’t paying a price at all.  I would have washed the kitchen floor a second time if I thought this exercise would insure that the joy and consolation I found among our loved ones at Cecele’s funeral and luncheon remained with me forever.  I would have cleaned the entire house again if it would insure that Cecele realizes just how much she continues to be loved and missed.  Apparently, my sister is very much aware because an image of her smiling face refuses to leave me to my writing at the moment.  Now, what was I going to write next?

I share my adventure in cleaning with you because the joy found in this work is nothing short of miraculous.  My husband and I suffered greatly –along with everyone else who loves Cecele– through her illness and passing.  It was frustrating and agonizing to be unable to fix this for her.  Though  we visited and spent hours at her side, the outcome of my sister’s illness remained the same.  Still, we did what we did because no one who took a place at her bedside could be replaced one any of the rest of us.  Each of us brought something that only he or she could bring.

In the end, when our care-giving was no longer needed, each of us took on the practical and sometimes mundane tasks that would result in the life-giving, prayerful and consoling gatherings through which we mourned together.  Because each of us did his or her part, each of us left with a measure of comfort and joy we would otherwise not have found.  As for me, watching those who gathered for my sister’s funeral and the luncheon afterward was a gift in itself. In spite of our personal sorrow and loss, those present consoled one another as only they could.

I find myself most grateful as I write today because God has gifted me with a glimpse of Divine Joy.  I found amazing consolation and gladness among my sister’s family and friends who filled up my house on her behalf.  I can only imagine the wonder in the Almighty’s heart when we fill up God’s house to pray and then go off to minister to one another as only we can.  It seems to me that I have much more to be grateful for than I thought because this phenomenon has repeated itself again and again in my own life and at my parish church through the efforts of the good people around me.

This is Ministry Weekend in my parish.  The events of my sister’s illness and passing compel me to share the amazing benefits of setting aside a bit of our time to minister to others.  It is sometimes the smallest act of kindness that brings the greatest gift to a fellow soul in need.  If you attend my church, please, look through the St. Paul the Apostle Parish Ministry Directory.  Browse through the various ministries listed and find one that strikes your fancy.  If you’re not sure that you can take something on just now, call the contact person anyway to see if there is a small way in which you can help out.  You can also stop at the prayer intention table and select an intention to pray for during the coming year.  If you belong to another church or temple and have been in need of a little nudge to become more involved, please consider yourself “nudged” today.  If you’re an “independent agent” who is not affiliated with a faith community, you are not off the hook.  You possess gifts that only you can bring to your community and you are very much needed.  Find a good cause and get involved!

I can’t begin to tell you how happy that house full of my sister’s mourners made me that day.  Wouldn’t you like to join me and the rest of God’s kids in filling up the life of someone  in need?

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved