God’s Family Management Manual

I chuckled to myself as I read from Sirach, Paul and Luke in preparation for this writing.  The inspired word I encountered reads like a family management manual.  I suppose these readings are well-placed on the Feast of the Holy Family, especially in light of some of the family antics that emerged in the midst of our Christmas gatherings.  The wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher in me appreciate their tone.  These particular readings tell every family member among us precisely what our roles are in the grand scheme of things.  Since we are all family members in some capacity, God’s word speaks to each one of us today.

If you are a little fuzzy regarding these scriptures, look in the Book of Sirach (3:2-6, 12-14).  The cited passages designate the particular positions and the particular responsibilities of every family member among us.  Fathers hold places of honor over their children, while mothers’ hold unquestionable authority over their offspring.  Reverence for ones father draws countless blessings to a child.  Mothers who observe this behavior take comfort in the goodness of their daughters or sons.  Respectful children fill their households with blessings and they mature into parents who earn the respect of their own daughters and sons.  When children are respectful of their parents, this world enjoys the possibility of peace for another generation.  This sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  If you have spent any time with children as of late, you realize along with me that they truly possess world-changing power.

In his letter to the Colossians (3:12-21), Paul makes it very clear that family-like behavior is not limited to the family members with whom we live.  You see, whether we are surrounded by endless family or we are the sole survivor of our bloodline, each of us is called to be “brother” or “sister” to the rest of God’s children.  If we remember that everyone around us –yes, each and every one– is another of God’s children, behaving accordingly becomes much less difficult.  We need only to consider the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness which Jesus extended to those around him to discover how we are to treat one another.  Each one of us is parent some of the time and child some of the time, and it is our privilege and responsibility to embrace these roles as God asks.

It is also important to understand that God’s request that we behave as family comes with complete understanding of our plights as parents and children.  Luke’s gospel (2:41-52) draws us from the ideal to reality when he shares an event from the Holy Family’s life.  Though Mary and Joseph do their best to love and to understand their son, they are as puzzled by Jesus as every other parent of a pre-teenager.  After celebrating Passover with their Jewish brethren, Mary and Joseph allow Jesus to mingle freely amidst the caravan returning home.  Only as night falls do they realize that Jesus is not among them.  Because they have taught him common sense and consideration for others, the frantic couple fears the worst.  They hurry back to Jerusalem to find Jesus.  When they discover him in the temple, Jesus seems bothered by his parents’ worry.  He offers a partial explanation and partial scolding when he asks, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  The parents among us would have responded in kind regardless of whose house their child thought he had to be in!  But Mary and Joseph, they who taught Jesus compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, practice what they preach.  Though they do not understand Jesus’ actions, they take their son home.  Jesus, though anxious to begin God’s work among the people, goes back to Nazareth to continue his training “…and was obedient to them.”

It seems to me that it is important for us to recognize that Jesus works at being a good son for thirty years before he begins his three years of public ministry.  When Jesus leaves his own family to pursue this ministry, he makes a new family of those with whom he works, prays and plays.  It seems to me that our work on this Feast of the Holy Family is to consider God’s Word, to learn from the families from which we have come and to apply that learning to the families in which we live today.  Whether we belong to a family of one or one hundred, each of our families holds the potential for our holiness.  It is up to you and me to embrace that holiness and to spread the word today, throughout 2013 and always.  Happy New Year!

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Hope In God’s Promise and God’s Presence…

I am most grateful that each time I have sat at my keyboard to write for you this Advent I have found myself in good spirits.  This seems quite miraculous in light of all that I needed to accomplish in preparation for Christmas.  Though I admit to some less-than-pleasant moments here and there, I am happy to share that most of the past twenty-three days have been joyful and well spent.  This occurred in spite of the reality that life in this world of ours is difficult at best.  My own disappointments and lingering grief tugged at my soul more often than not.

The truth is that regardless of our best efforts, people and circumstances of every sort threaten each of our personal parcels of peace on earth.  Yet, true as this is, we survive because our hope in the promise of this season remains steadfast.  To bolster ourselves and one another, you and I persist in wishing those we meet the best of the season in every checkout line, parking lot and mall through our words, actions and attitudes.

In just a few days, we will hug our loved ones and greet everyone we encounter with a joyful “Merry Christmas,” for indeed that is what it will be.  In spite of the imperfections of our lives today, we will embrace the long-awaited Christmas Spirit.  We will watch with great anticipation as our Christmas preparations come to fruition in imperfect hearts filled with great love and in imperfect gifts which express that love as best they can.  Though our human quirks will punctuate our Christmas festivities far more often than our Hallmark expectations prefer, the promise of the first Christmas will remain intact.  We will hold on to our hope for peace on earth and peace in our hearts because every moment of this life that we are given holds the potential for fulfillment –perhaps not as we see it, but certainly as God does.

Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:39-45) speaks to Mary’s great hope as she set aside her own troubles to reach out to her cousin.  Though with child herself, Mary made a three day journey because elderly Elizabeth was also pregnant.  It is unlikely that Mary’s family owned a donkey, so we must assume that Mary walked the entire distance.  Mary might have excused herself from tending to her cousin in light of her own predicament as an unwed mother-to-be whose betrothed was home, contemplating what to do about their impending marriage.  Rather, Mary placed her worries in God’s hands and then offered her presence and encouragement to her cousin.

The moment Mary arrived, Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb.  This tiny movement filled Elizabeth with awe.  With absolute certainty that she was in God’s presence, Elizabeth proclaimed, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? …Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”  Elizabeth’s remarks underscored Mary’s hope regarding God’s love for her.  After this visit, both Mary and Elizabeth were left with hope-filled hearts.  What lay ahead for these women would be difficult at best, yet they embraced the things to come because there they would find the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Not long afterward, Mary and Joseph wandered about Bethlehem, desperately seeking shelter.  Though Mary was on the verge of delivering her child, she and Joseph failed to find lodging.  Finally, an innkeeper ushered the couple to a stable where animals waited to welcome the Savior of the World.  As an exhausted Mary and Joseph delivered a baby boy, the countryside took on a heavenly aura.  In spite of the unrest that consumed the world, angels sang, “Glory to God in the high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests!” (From the Gospel for Midnight Mass, Luke 2:1-14).  Amazingly enough, in spite of all that we endure and in spite of this world’s persistent unrest, the angels continue to sing.

As our Advent observances give way to Christmas, we must greet this great feast by remembering that Jesus came to reveal God’s love to us.  For those who understand, like Mary and Elizabeth, this revelation allows joy to enter into even the most difficult of times.  You see, in spite of and because of all that we are going through and this world’s persistent unrest, God will dance and the angels will sing once again this Christmas Day and always.  We gather to celebrate because we believe that God loves us.  This is all that matters today and every day.  Merry Christmas!

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


This Advent… Let Hope Dance in Your Heart

I am especially grateful for the unseasonably warm temperatures that provided unexpected opportunities to venture outdoors in late November.  Most of our neighbors joined Mike and me in decorating our homes for the holidays because we simply could not resist the warm sunshine that poured down upon us.  Though we had not yet finished our Thanksgiving leftovers, the residents of our street heralded the coming of Christmas in full earnest.

While the weather continues to vacillate between early fall and pre-winter temperatures, my activity level increases with each passing day.  By December 1, I gave up all hope of relaxing after dinner to read the newspaper or even the titles of the stack of books I have set aside for “when I have time.”  Rather, I continue to plod along well into each evening, ticking task after task off of my “To Do” list.  Some years ago, I came to understand that an inordinate number of responsibilities plagues every Advent.  With that reality in mind, I decided to make the best of life for the duration with the hope of truly enjoying Christmas Day in the end.  When my sons were little, I often told them not to “crab around” when they were doing the things they had to do.  My point was that any task becomes less daunting when we set aside our complaints and tackle it with a smile.  So it is that I have decided to practice what I preach and to avoid “crabbing around” at all costs.

The good news is that this effort has resulted in my now habitual enjoyment of Advent.  Referencing this time before Christmas as “Advent” rather than in terms of the number of shopping days left is always a good start for me.  Rather than wringing my hands over the gifts that remain on my shopping list, I imagine the faces of their recipients when I finally present them with my best finds.  Yes, this season is all about joyful anticipation of both God With Us and time spent with the good people God has given us to love.  When I am out and about, I listen to my favorite Christmas CDs.  At home, I play my favorite Christmas movies.  Though I never sit to watch, the dialogue I hear draws me into the lives of these beloved characters as I decorate the tree, wrap gifts and bake cookies.  Even housecleaning takes on a whole new allure –okay, maybe not “allure”- when I hear George Bailey finally propose to his beloved Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life.

While I admit to my fatigue as I crawl into bed each night, I also admit to feeling very good about the things that transpired over the previous sixteen hours or so.  As I reflect upon my days and ease into my prayers each night, I find that I have not “plodded along” after all.  No, I have pretty much danced my way through the things I have had to do.

Now, before images of my less-than-graceful movements fill your head, please understand that this “dancing” is an internal activity.  This “dancing” is a very personal celebration of hope in the things to come deep within my heart.  For some reason, I am forever mindful of the impact God has on my life, especially as God is revealed through Jesus.  With this in mind, how can I feel anything other than joy deep within as I prepare for Christmas and always?

I do realize that Advent 2012 comes with a measure of stress, sadness and even despair for many of us.  Our plight does not differ much from that of Jesus’ contemporaries who suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans and some of their own temple hierarchy as they plodded through each day.  Still, Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:10-18) tells us that many of the people who hear John the Baptist preach take very seriously John’s promise of better things to come.  Because they find hope in John’s message, they ask him what they might do to prepare for the long awaited Messiah.  Though John is very specific in his reply, John’s intent goes beyond single directives.  Once a person with two cloaks shares one with a person who has none, he or she is expected to find other ways to share with those in need.  Once the tax collector stops charging more than what is prescribed, he is expected to find other ways to interact honestly with the people.  Once the soldier refrains from falsely accusing or extorting those in his jurisdiction, he is expected to expand upon these just deeds.  What John asks is that the single good deeds of those who seek the Messiah become a way of life for each one of them.

This Advent, God calls you and me to do the same.  Rather than plodding along and “crabbing around” about our trials or tribulations, God invites each of us to dance our way to Christmas Joy by doing what we can for those we have been given to love.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Live With Hope and Share It!

Before leaving to visit our granddaughters, my husband and I watched the noon news.  The anchorperson narrated as we viewed images of the horrendous suffering that continues on the east coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Just a week ago, I had spoken with a friend whose sister lost everything except for her loved ones as a result of the storm.  Though this person responded immediately by heading east in a rented RV filled with supplies, her sister’s family continues to struggle as they attempt to reassemble their lives.  Long-term hardships torture all concerned, especially when there seems to be no end in sight.  As I packed up raisins and juice boxes for our granddaughters, I prayed for our suffering friends out east and for all of the world’s people who endure sorrow and hopelessness day after day.

I continued my prayer as Mike drove us down the tollway.  Though I normally enjoy the green forest preserve expanses that punctuate the landscape along the way, they troubled me on this particular day.  “What must it be like,” I asked myself, “to see only rubble where ones home used to be?  What must it be like not to have lights and heat for weeks on end?”  I could only imagine the terror that accompanied each sunset before power made its way back to so many of these people.  My questions continued.  “What must it be like to walk away from everything to begin again?  What would I do if Mike and I returned to find our home gone tonight?”  Though I cannot be certain of what my east coast friends and so many of God’s other children are suffering around this world of ours, I can tell you that imagining their pain brought extreme heartache my way.

I admit that my melancholy accompanied me into our son’s home.  I was grateful that we would send the nanny home early, that Claire continued to nap, that Lauren and Mommy were busy running errands and that Grandpa Mike would soon leave to walk Ellie home from school.  As soon as I closed the door behind my dear husband, I prayed:  “You have been very good to me, Dear God, which is why I’m having a little trouble with what seems to be an unequal distribution of blessings.  Mind you, I’m not looking for any more suffering, but I am looking for some relief for the many others in your family who suffer today…”

Before I could finish my prayer, my youngest granddaughter rustled in her bed and called for someone to rescue her from naptime.  Because she is accustomed to our weekly visits, the little imp offered a giddy smile when she saw me.  She stood immediately and opened her arms so I could pick her up.  Claire always greets her naptime rescuer with a smile, a hug and pats on the back which continue for the entire trip out of her room and down the stairs.  For the first time in hours, I felt joy again.

Minutes later, Abby and Lauren returned home with groceries and bagsful of gifts for two teenage boys.  Abby explained that most people don’t like to give to needy teens because they are not as much fun to buy for as the little ones.  “We always pick teenagers,” she said.  Lauren proceeded to tell me about the basketballs, clothes and other items they had purchased.  “They don’t have any money,” Lauren explained, “so we’re helping them.”  As the joy within continued to grow, Ellie and Grandpa appeared.  It was during our after school snacktime that Ellie remarked, “Grandma, I’m so excited.  Christmas is coming and we’re going to celebrate Jesus.  It’s his birthday!”

You know, during the first Advent as the people of Israel longed for the messiah, they endured excessive grief.  What was worse for them was their waning hope that the messiah would appear at all.  Still, the prophet Baruch (5:1-9) rekindled their hope by calling the people to celebrate God’s promise.  Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6) reports that centuries later John the Baptizer appeared with a similar message to a people of similar suffering.  Twenty-one centuries after John’s call to rejoice in Jesus’ coming, Advent beckons you and me to do the same.  In the face of our own suffering and that of so many around us, Advent calls us to move beyond mere hope to celebration.  You see, as we endure the pain that assaults our world, Jesus walks with us through it all.

I tasted the Israelites hopelessness as I considered the suffering that fills this world.  Still, I found reason to celebrate in the little girl who knew I needed a pat on the back, her older sister who had to tell me about the teenage boys she was helping and my eldest granddaughter who can hardly wait to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  This Advent, it is up to you and me to spread the joy by being present to those who need us as well.  It is in your presence and mine that they will see Jesus at their sides.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Find Hope In God’s Unexpected Plans

This year’s early Thanksgiving and many stores’ eagerness to accumulate premature Black Friday sales brought the holiday shopping frenzy to a head by the wee hours of the morning that day.  My husband Mike and I avoided shopping on Black Friday 2012 because we ventured to The City to see a play. The rest of the world’s plans to take advantage of the sales allowed us to secure excellent seats for a Sister Act matinee that day.

Though everyone around us scurried along to fulfill their shopping lists, Mike and I enjoyed a leisurely drive to the North Side as our son and his wife were joining us for the play. We found a parking space near their condo building quickly. Apparently, the neighbors had vacated the premises to seek out Black Friday deals. After a quick stop at the kids’ place, we boarded a Brown Line train and headed downtown. Though commuters usually fill them, Black Friday brought half-filled trains with plenty of seats and a tranquil forty minute opportunity to converse with Mike, Tim and Kim. I whispered more than one prayer of thanks for this uncommon gift of respite on the most hectic day of the year.

When we arrived downtown with time to spare, we stopped at a coffee shop on our way to the theater. Our steaming beverages drove the chill from our bones almost as effectively as the young woman behind the counter. She greeted us with a winning smile that grew even broader when she addressed her dad who happened to be seated next to us. I could not hear a word of their conversation because they signed to one another. Still, the tone of their words was obvious. Though the world’s frenzy continued outdoors, the love shared by this father and daughter was an unmistakable constant. Neither intended to part for the day without reminding the other of his or her affection. When my family and I ventured back into the biting cold to continue our trek to the theater, the warmth that I found in that coffee shop stayed with me. I whispered a prayer for the shivering souls who hurried by us as we strolled along –that they might be comforted by a similar bit of warmth along their way.

Sister Act proved to be an outstanding diversion from the hustle and bustle of Black Friday. Every performer seemed perfectly cast which enhanced this already engaging musical. The plot revolves around Deloris Van Cartier, a somewhat wayward young woman who longs for a successful singing career. This quest brings Deloris into the company of a ruthless man who “takes care of” anyone who gets in his way. Unfortunately, Deloris inadvertently witnesses one of these “eliminations” and is placed in protective custody until she can testify regarding what she has seen. Much to Deloris’s dismay, Mother Superior and a band of sisters serve as her “keepers” in a nearby convent.

Deloris’s transition into religious life proves to be rocky at best as she and Mother Superior lock horns at every turn. Deloris abandons everything she knows, including her cigarettes and wardrobe, to insure her safety. She embraces the sisters’ ways as best she can, at first to insure her anonymity, but eventually because she comes to love the sisters as much as they love her. In spite of her fast friendships with the other nuns, neither Deloris nor Mother Superior can set aside their individual expectations of one another, of this life and of God. When they finally do so, God blesses both with a lasting peace within and a lasting friendship with one another.

I was among the first in the theater to offer a standing ovation to this troupe who swept me off my feet that afternoon. Though these actors had no idea of what they had done, their work compelled me to thank them for helping to set the tone of Advent 2012 for me. This unconventional Black Friday experience, which caused me to miss the best sales in town, opened me up to the wonder lurking in a toll way drive, that Brown Line train, the company of my family, a coffee shop and the Auditorium Theater.

While the rest of the world attended to what may have been far more important tasks, this seemingly lost day filled me up with much of what I will need as I make my way to Christmas 2012. Though I cannot guarantee many things, I am quite certain that the next four weeks will not unfold as any of us intend. Just as was the case for Mary and Joseph when they planned their simple life together in Nazareth, these lives of ours more often than not unfold quite differently than we expect.

Advent provides us the opportunity to follow Mary and Joseph’s lead, to prepare for whatever comes our way by holding on to one another and doing whatever it takes to welcome Jesus into our lives. Sometimes, this will require simply going with the flow. Sometimes, this will require more than we think we have to give as circumstances turn our lives upside down. Either way, we will continue on because, just as he was for his pregnant mother, Jesus is already here.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved