God Welcomes Every Single One

While dusting my son Mike’s “old” room, I came across some books which he and I made together before he started school. “Zoom” is the first written word Mike recognized, likely because it was the title of his favorite television show. We built upon this milestone by writing THE ZOOM BOOK together.

As I thumbed through this eight-page chronicle of Mike and his favorite people’s ability to zoom, I plodded further down Memory Lane. Images from my teaching career and the hundreds of other potential readers I encountered filled me up. As a classroom teacher, my inability to secure assistance for all of the children who needed help with reading frustrated me. When I eventually became a reading teacher, I intended to see to it that every reluctant reader would receive assistance.

Early on, I discovered that when I collected my “remedial” students from their classrooms, some of the other children made disparaging remarks, rolled their eyes or smirked. These children who did not require help with reading seemingly decided that there was something lacking in the children who did. Sadly, I realized that even my own students defined a pecking order among themselves to eliminate any question regarding who was most needy. The greatest frustration of my teaching career -and of life in general, for that matter- has been the willingness of some of us to hurt others by designating “outcasts” among us. My students and their classmates were no exception, and I determined on the spot to do something about it.

I am forever grateful for the love of books that my Children’s Literature professor passed on to me in college. Sister Mary W. convinced me that if I could get a child to pick up a book, getting that child to read it would be a breeze. So it was that I went about convincing my students that their lives would not be complete if they failed to explore each new book I found for them.

As my students’ collections of “readable” books grew, so did their willingness to read. An unexpected outcome was that I did not have to lecture the little cohort who made fun of my students. Some of them actually asked if they could also come to my classroom to get some of those “cool” books. Though I could not invite the little imps in for lessons, I rewarded their changes of heart by reading to their entire class and leaving some of my books for them to enjoy. In the end, my students learned to read, their classmates stopped teasing them, and all concerned were excited, at least some of the time, about books.

Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:21-30) tells us that Jesus also found himself the outcast. While in the synagogue in Nazareth where he grew up, Jesus read this passage from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor.” When Jesus set aside the scroll, he told the people that this saying had come to fruition before them.

While Jesus’ neighbors marveled at his knowledge, they wondered why Jesus performed no good works among them. After all, those closest to Jesus certainly deserved a miracle or two. What of the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed? The locals considered themselves faithful believers who deserved far more than these wretches. However, rather than offering a miracle, Jesus responded with a lesson. Jesus insisted that ones proximity to a temple or preacher, priest or prophet, bible or scroll, has far less to do with ones relationship with God than does the generosity of ones spirit. It is in reaching out beyond the confines of our comfort zones to those who need us most that we determine just how close we are to God. Sadly, Jesus’ neighbors missed the point and failed to recognize the joy to be found in loving all whom God places in our paths. They failed to see that when we eliminate the outcasts among us, everyone is family and every place is our home.

When I convinced my students to read books, I succeeded only because they opened themselves up to my message. Because they believed me, these reluctant readers turned page after page in book after book. When they took the risk of reading for themselves, my students encountered the adventures I had promised them and they discovered just how capable they were. This is precisely the challenge Jesus offered his neighbors that day in the temple. This is also the challenge Jesus offers to us today.

If we dare to reach beyond our own comfort zones and our own painful places to our neighbors near and far, we will find amazing ways to love one another. We will also discover the absolute joy that comes with putting others before ourselves. In the midst of our reaching out, everyone will indeed become our family and every place will be our home. In the end, we will find ourselves extremely close to God which was Jesus’ intent all along.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Where Do You Find The Good News?

Though we celebrated Christmas a full month ago, I happily continue to enjoy my favorite Christmas gifts. Those who know me best realize that time with my family and books top my wish list every year. While my husband, sons and daughters-in-law graciously arrange for the family time, the book purchases are another story. All concerned listen throughout the shopping season with the hope that I will offer some hint regarding what I would like to read next. It is with a full measure of gratitude that I acknowledge the amazing investigative skills of my family and friends. I have five awesomely inspiring books to savor as a result of their efforts.

I suppose three of the books I received are obvious choices. Before Christmas, my sister attended a book signing. Because the featured author expertly weaves holiday tales, Rita felt his newest novel would be perfect for me. What better way to assist me in ushering the Christmas Spirit into the New Year? My son and daughter-in-law found a book based upon my absolute favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Though Tim and Kim likely considered this book to be a supplement to my main gift, I admit that it tops the list of my favorites this year. Who would have thought that my friend would find a second insightful book based upon this movie? Terry’s find does an equally astounding job of highlighting the inspiration to be found in Frank Capra’s film.

Now that I think about it, the fourth and fifth books I received are also obvious picks for me after all. My husband gifted me with the fourth book which offers an orthopedic surgeon’s account of the near death experience which brought her to heaven and back again. I have read everything on this topic since enrolling in a class on death and dying while in college. Though my faith tells me what I need to know in this area, those who have ventured into the hereafter and then returned never cease to amaze me with their descriptions of whom and what they found there. Each story provides additional evidence that the God whom Jesus revealed is indeed a most loving and caring Creator. The fifth of my holiday treasures is my friend Carol’s annual gift to me –a daily devotional which I have read for twenty years. Though booksellers display both of these books outside of the “Holiday Section,” each one guides me back to the meaning of Christmas -God With Us- with every word.

I celebrate these written treasures today because each one brings good news into my life. Sometimes, the words these writers have strung together open me up to something new. Sometimes, their words give me reason to revisit the truths lying deep within me. Whichever the case, I find inspiration, grace and love in their work. You know, the Scriptures also invite us to celebrate the good news to be found in the written word on an even greater scale.

In the Book of Nehemiah 8:2-6; 8-10, Nehemiah announces to Israel that the long-awaited end to the Babylonian exile has come. The people gather before their priest, Ezra, as he reads from the Book of The Law. This encounter with God’s word is particularly moving to those present as they leave the bonds of slavery behind. Finally, they are home and free to worship on their own soil. This encounter with God’s word provides sustenance to their once starving souls.

Saint Paul shares good news as well in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12-30). Though they have not been estranged from God’s word by an external enemy, the Corinthians have estranged themselves from each other through jealousy regarding one another’s gifts. With carefully crafted words, Paul reminds his followers that they are each cherished by their Creator, uniquely gifted by the Spirit and called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as only they can.

Luke’s Gospel (1:1-4; 4:14-21) recounts that day in the temple when Jesus reveals his Divine Nature through a deeply moving passage from Isaiah. Jesus uses the prophet’s writing to assure the people that it is he who has come to bring comfort to all, even the most lowly among them.

Though the people to whom Ezra, Paul and Jesus address their words had experienced seemingly insurmountable difficulties, they drew near to find comfort and nourishment in God’s word.

I contemplate the written word at every opportunity because it is there that God’s voice whispers to me. Today, as we celebrate the gift of God’s voice in Scripture, we open ourselves to Divine inspiration, grace and love. Is your soul as hungry as my soul is just now? Perhaps it is time to find nourishment in God’s word wherever God chooses to speak it.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Jesus, Truly Divine and Truly Human

Though I walk regularly and run up and down our stairs several times every day, my bones ache as I  climb the staircase to our study.  In spite of my effort to reflect upon the scriptures as I finished up the laundry this morning, my tired bones distracted me from my thoughts.  I wonder if I will be able to recapture the great idea which came to me just an hour ago.  As I struggle to remember that bit of inspiration, I recall my mom’s occasional achiness.  “We have a little arthritis in the family,” she would say, “and my bones aren’t as young as they used to be.”  It occurs to me that my mom was about my age when this began.  Perhaps this achy day provides a not-so-subtle reminder that I am simply following the ordinary course of things.  Ordinary?  Am I ready to accept that achy bones have become an ordinary part of my life?  My answer will have to wait for another day.  You see, “ordinary” is the bit of inspiration I wanted to retrieve for this writing.

The Church’s celebration of the Christmas Season ended last weekend when we entered Ordinary Time.  The Church uses the adjective “ordinary” because this season’s weeks unfold in numerical order: The First  Sunday, Second Sunday, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, and so on.  Still, the scriptures chosen for these Sunday’s describe Jesus’ ordinary life among us.  Though most of Jesus’ public life proved to be anything but ordinary, what Jesus did day in and day out became ordinary to him.  When Jesus “went public” he embraced God’s call to reveal God’s presence among us.  Since there is nothing ordinary about God’s company and God’s amazing love for us, Jesus made these things known in what seemed to be less-than-ordinary ways.

Have you ever wondered what happened during the thirty seemingly ordinary years Jesus lived between his birth and his appearance at the wedding in Cana?  Perhaps Jesus’ miracle at the wedding feast gives some indication of the ordinary life Jesus shared with Mary and Joseph beforehand.  The Holy Family must have  been good neighbors to the people of Nazareth.  After all, the couple being married invited Jesus and his mother to their wedding.  Jesus arrived with his friends, so he must have learned something from his parents’ friendships.  I wonder how it was that Mary came to know that the newlyweds ran out of wine.  A host would certainly keep this information to him or herself to avoid embarrassment.  Could it be that Mary and her family were known for their willingness to help others?  Could it be that the young couple’s steward knew that Mary would find a way to solve their problem?

It seems to me that Mary and Joseph spent those ordinary years together teaching Jesus that the best of this life can be found in the simplest human experiences.  Perhaps picking up playthings and helping to clear the table predisposed Jesus to becoming a responsible adult.  Perhaps this willingness to cooperate helped young Jesus to notice when another was in need.  Perhaps being thanked by his parents taught Jesus to be grateful when others were kind to him.  Perhaps there were times when the Holy Family did without things in order to share with others.  Perhaps these choices taught Jesus the generosity characteristic of his encounters with others in adulthood.  The possibilities are endless!  God entrusted Jesus, truly human and truly divine, to Mary and Joseph and they raised Jesus as best they could.  The results of their work speak for themselves.

Though John’s gospel (2:1-11) calls our attention to Jesus’ first public miracle, the years that brought Jesus to this moment share equal importance with this event.  It is Jesus’ humanity which developed so beautifully under Mary’s and Joseph’s care which convinces me that I can imitate Jesus here in the “real” world.  In spite of the aches and pains, which I wish were the least of the imperfections that distract me from doing good, I am challenged and blessed with the opportunity to transform my ordinary life into something truly amazing.

Though the wedding feast at Cana provides the setting for Jesus’ first miracle, this event also sets the very human tone of Jesus’ work among us.  Indeed, each one of us can transform the ordinary moments of our lives into something amazing in spite of our nagging imperfections.  By loving, forgiving, sharing, listening, healing and responding to those we have been given to love, we transform the ordinary just as Jesus did.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Embrace “Life After Christmas”

With the holiday shopping, gift-wrapping, baking and entertaining finally behind me, I took the time here and there to sit before our Christmas Tree.  Though each of these interludes lasted no more than ten minutes, I enjoyed them just the same.  As I child, I spent what seemed to be hours staring into the manger that rested beneath our tree.  This scene drew me into serious conversation with the Lord God and Family.  I imagined the Holy Family’s troubles that first Christmas Night.  After shivering in the cold which I knew surrounded them, I assured Joseph, Mary and Jesus that I would have given them a place to stay if I had lived in Bethlehem back then.

My affection for my childhood crèche and the tiny statues that filled it paled in comparison to my mom’s love for it.  This tiny stable rested beneath my parents’ first Christmas Tree.  Since my dad’s passing after only seventeen years of marriage, my mom certainly cherished this remnant of their life together more than ever.  This is the reason I vividly recall the day we lost it.

My mom had boxed up our old clothes for Catholic Salvage. They made truck runs much like the Amvets and Cancer Federation do today.  When the truck arrived for our donation, my aunt directed the crew because my mom was at work.  Aunt Lucille guided the driver and his helper to the stack of boxes my mom had left in the basement.  Unfortunately, my aunt did not realize that the men also took some additional boxes which rested nearby.

It was the week before Christmas when my mom returned to the basement to retrieve our Christmas decorations.  Much to our collective dismay, she discovered that every bit of our holiday décor, including her beloved crèche, had been given away.  Heartbroken as she was, my mom sprang into action.  She headed out to purchase as many replacement decorations as she could afford.  My older sister Rita, who likely appreciated our mom’s devastation far more than her younger siblings, assisted our mom with this treasure hunt.  Rita worked after school and she took along the savings she had accumulated to supplement our mom’s budget.

In the end, Rita purchased the crèche which replaced our mom’s original.  Though I know my mom missed our lost decorations, she made the best of all that she and Rita found.  She simply would not allow her disappointment to overshadow her Christmas plans for her children.  Though we shared our mom’s sadness over what was lost, we celebrated the beautiful new things she and my sister found.  The following year, it was as though these relatively new ornaments and figurines had been ours forever.

Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22) tells us that Jesus received a far more difficult call to set aside the things of the past in order to embrace the next phase of his life.  Jesus responded by approaching John for baptism with many other good people who heeded John’s invitation to make way for the coming of the Lord.  While some thought that John himself might have been the long-awaited messiah, John assured all concerned that one mightier than he was on the horizon.

That Mighty One prayed quietly at the riverside after his baptism only to be singled out from above.  God gazed lovingly upon Jesus and declared, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”  You and I know that Jesus lived out his baptismal commitment with unquestionable love for every soul whom he encountered along the way.  Though his circumstances were difficult at best, Jesus persisted.  God’s words of encouragement provided the soothing mantra which kept Jesus going all the way to Calvary.

I think that my mom would concur that my childhood and her life without my dad often seemed difficult at best.  Still, those days and every one since have been punctuated by calls to let go of the past and to move on to the challenges and blessings of each new day.  Jesus’ baptism called him to the things that lay ahead which only he could attend to.  Our baptisms call us to the same.  The good news is that, before we set out to meet what lies ahead, God singles us out with the same words Jesus heard:  “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  Though they may not echo from the clouds above, we hear God’s words just the same in the depths of our hearts.  They come to life each and every time we make those difficult, selfless choices which make all of the difference in the world to those around us.  They also come to life when we need God most ourselves.

Our Christmas Tree finally found its way to the parkway and our decorations wait in the basement for Christmas 2013.  Still, the Baptism of Jesus calls us to keep the promise of Christmas alive as we embrace each new day.  After all, like Jesus, God has singled out you and me to enhance life on this earth, especially the lives of those God has given us to love.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Follow In The Magi’s Footsteps

When I was a child, I watched carefully as my mom decorated our Christmas Tree.  When she arranged the miniature village beneath the tree, Mom placed the statues of the Magi as far from the crèche as possible.  My mom did this to emulate the first Magi’s journey two millennia ago.  Every day after Christmas, these tiny statues of Melchior, Gasper and Balthazar inched a bit farther across the cotton-covered landscape beneath the tree.

I tried to be the first out of bed on those mornings after Christmas.  If I succeeded, I begged for the chance to move the plaster figures a few tiny steps closer to Jesus’ birthplace.  My mom guided whichever of us won this privilege by carefully calibrating each day’s distance so the Magi would reach the stable on January 6.  On this day, which we called “Little Christmas”, we celebrated Jesus’ birth once again with Mary’s and Joseph’s distinguished guests.  Though as children we failed to fully understand the importance of this encounter, to this day, my sisters and I have difficulty taking down our Christmas Trees before the Feast of the Epiphany.  Something deep within us insists that the work of Christmas is not finished until Jesus and the Magi meet.  Indeed, the work of Christmas culminates with the Epiphany –the revelation of God With Us to all the world.

You know, every Christmas Season evokes deep feelings from within us.  The Promise of Christmas intensifies our joy as we celebrate its fulfillment in God’s presence among us.  The Promise of Christmas also intensifies our sorrow as we struggle to align our faith in God’s presence with the reality of our suffering.  This Christmas Season offered no exception.  Though I am most grateful to be blessed with a sense of peace deep within which sustains me along the way, the events that closed Year 2012 tested that peace.

Our neighbors on the east coast continued to suffer in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Unrest overseas kept far too many of our husbands and wives and sons and daughters in harm’s way.  Some of us still mourned loved ones lost, while others sat with those they love as they prepared for their final journeys home to heaven.  Unfortunately, our external issues often paled in the shadow of the internal struggles which threatened us to the core.  Then, when it seemed our grief reached its limit, unthinkable evil etched a once-ordinary day into our memories.  The pain of those who lost a child, a sister, a brother or a parent on December 14, 2012 will remain with them for as long as they remember.  Still, in spite of the anguish that has burdened us every step of the way, the Magi who searched relentlessly until they found Jesus beckon us to join them in rejoicing today.

Before I allow myself to question the Magi’s joy, I recall the catechism and scripture lessons which assure me that life was no easier for them than it is for us today.  Though they were privileged to meet Jesus and his parents face-to-face, it took a great leap of faith on their parts beforehand to find their way to the Holy Family.  These wise men were likely astronomers because it was their knowledge of the night sky that alerted them to the new star.  The Magi were wise in other things as well because they surmised that this newly discovered star must certainly announce the long-awaited Judean King.  So it happened that they traveled perhaps a few months or for more than a year to pay homage to this long-awaited child.  The Magi risked everything because they believed that meeting Jesus was worth every ounce of their effort.  Though uncertain of the reception they would receive, the Magi stopped at Herod’s palace to inquire further about this king.  In the end, they must have been deeply effected by their encounter with Jesus because, as they prepared to journey home, they listened to an angel’s warning to avoid Herod’s palace on their way.  In their openness to Jesus, the Magi found their hearts opened to a new way of looking at these lives of ours.  Wise men that they were, they went on to share what they learned with everyone whom they met along the way.

Sometimes, life’s struggles tempt me to change places with the Magi under my Christmas Tree.  Life would be so much easier if God simply picked me up and moved me a few inches past my troubles each day.  Yet, the truth is that if God lifted me over those troubles my life would be much poorer as well.  You see, rather than picking me up and carrying me past my woes, God walks through each and every trial with me.  As I plod along, God’s presence assures me that I am not alone.  I may not see God face-to-face as the Magi did, but I certainly meet God heart-to-heart.

On this Feast of the Epiphany, as our world writhes with pain, the Magi beckon us back to the joy to be found in God With Us.  Like the Magi, we must find this joy within ourselves and within our circumstances and then share it with those we meet along the way.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved