We Always Have Hope

While I considered what magic to work with the Thanksgiving leftovers that linger in our refrigerator, I wandered into the garage to see what my husband was up to. I found him surrounded by Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, Woodstock and a pathetic little Christmas Tree. I have been feeling overwhelmed and somewhat less-than-hopeful as of late. Since Charlie Brown has always been a symbol of hope to me, I was most grateful to see that my husband had unearthed him for another year.

The Peanuts Gang was born just a few years before I, and it didn’t take long for me develop great affection for each one of them, especially Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown’s misadventures reflect our human experience at its worst and at its best. In spite of his frailty and seemingly unending list of failures, Charlie Brown never abandons his hope. Though Lucy always drops the football before he kicks it, Charlie Brown embraces the opportunity to try to kick it every time. Maybe this time, he will succeed. Though the Pretty Little Red Haired Girl doesn’t even know Charlie Brown’s name, he waits with great anticipation for her first smile. Maybe this will be the day she notices him. When his friends need a tree for the annual Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown selects a thinly branched, minimally needled tree. He drags it to his school, certain that it will be just right. Though most of these ventures bring about Charlie Brown’s complete embarrassment, they also end with Charlie Brown’s renewed hope in the things to come. Charlie Brown remains ever faithful to his resolve to find joy in his life. Though the glare of Charlie Brown’s failures threatens to dissuade him, Charlie Brown never ever gives up.

It seems to me that the good Charlie Brown has much to teach us this Advent Season. Could it be that Charlie’s creator Charles Schultz referenced Isaiah when he conceived of Charlie Browns plight in this life? Both Charlie Brown and Isaiah suffer through their own cycles of troubles to triumph, back to troubles and on to triumph again and again. Poor Isaiah speaks from his own intense suffering in today’s first reading (Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19b; 64:2-7). Isaiah fumes at the Israelites over their continued unfaithfulness to God. He cannot stand to watch their evildoing any longer. Isaiah fumes even more vigorously at the Lord God who seems to allow the people to fall into evil repeatedly. Isaiah shouts at the heavens as he begs, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” As I read Isaiah’s words, echoes of similar quandaries from my own lips swirl in my memory. How many times have I looked up to our patient God to ask, “If you do not want things to be this way, why don’t YOU fix them?” Fortunately, there is good news in all of this. In the end, Isaiah reclaims his hope and renews his faith in the possibilities that lie ahead. My friend Charlie Brown may moan and wring his hands momentarily as well, but he follows Isaiah’s lead. It seems to me that you and I have no choice but to do the same. Isaiah prayed, “O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are the work of your hands,” because he was grateful to be God’s child. So am I.

Every day, you and I and our loved ones face difficult challenges. Whether it is the troubled economy or our troubled hearts, we face the moment at hand without the resources we need. Whether it is the discouraging job market or our own discouragement, we find ourselves lacking in productivity. Whether it is the miles between us and our loved ones or our inability to communicate with one another right here, we find ourselves feeling alone. There truly is no lack of blessings in our lives, yet we are sometimes blind to them. This Advent Season opens with an invitation to wait with joyful anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. Though Isaiah had only his faith to encourage him and Charlie Brown was at the mercy of Charles Schultz’s pen, we have everything we need to make the most of these days before Christmas. We know the Messiah firsthand in his Word and in every good deed he did for those around him. We know the Messiah through his life and through the death he endured for each one of us. We know the Messiah in the amazing moments of peace, joy and love which punctuate our lives. We know the Messiah in the people God has given us to love. So it is that we continue to kick that football and dream of the Pretty Little Red Haired Girl with Charlie Brown. So it is that we look with Isaiah to our God for all that we need. So it is that we live these days of waiting with great faith and great hope in the things to come.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Learn Those Lessons Well!

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old…

Psalm 78:1-2

Early in my career, I came to understand some very important aspects of teaching. To get my message across, I first had to get the attention of my students. Secondly, I had to keep their attention by making what I had to say interesting and understandable. Finally, I had to give my listeners reason to remember what I shared with them.

As a reading teacher, I became very good at convincing my most reluctant students to read just about anything. The greater challenge came in convincing them to approach their textbooks and homework with the same enthusiasm. I sympathized with them, as I knew myself that actually applying what we know can be difficult for us all.

Perhaps this is the reason Jesus taught the same message over and over again through a variety of parables. When I doubt that I am loved, I need only to recall the parables of The Good Shepherd, The Pearl of Great Price and The Lost Coin. In each one, everything is set aside in order to pursue that which is missing. The message? Regardless of where I hide, God does whatever it takes to watch over me and to love me every minute of every day. When I doubt that I can possibly be forgiven, I need only to recall the parables of The Prodigal Son, The Unjust Judge and The Friend at Midnight. The message? Regardless of how the world responds to my guilt, God always looks beyond what I have done to embrace me and to encourage me to be begin anew.

Jesus, The Master Teacher, offered the most amazing lessons of all. They have revealed God’s goodness for two millenia. Now, it is up to us to apply what we’ve learned today and always.

Generous God, thank you for gifting humankind with Jesus’ company. His love for you is so great that he could not help sharing your goodness with the rest of us. Give us the generosity and wisdom to do the same for one another, especially our children.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Friend In God

The Lord is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The Lord is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.

Psalm 145:17-18

While thumbing through my favorite book, I came across a prayer card I’d forgotten about. I picked up this homemade creation at a craft sale some time ago. The anonymous prayer featured on the card expresses the sentiments of one who wishes each of us to experience God as powerfully as he does. This prayer does not ask that others are blessed with a keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. Though these are all good places to seek some understanding of God, this prayer asks that we sense God’s presence not only with our psyches but with our hearts as well. It seems to me that this prayer’s author knows God in the same way that he knows his closest friends. What is more is that God seems to reciprocate this relationship in very tangible ways.

I have taken that prayer card from my book and given it a new home on my dresser. Each morning, it reminds me to pray for the people I have been given to love and for me -that each of us will see God with the open and loving eyes of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always.

Dear God, thank you for showing yourself to us in so many ways. Please, reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we cannot miss your presence around us and within us.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Happy Thanksgiving!

Give thanks to God;
bless God’s name for he is good:
the Lord whose kindness endures forever…

From Psalm 100:4-5

This past week, my morning walks have not been as entertaining as they were in early November. The cold temperatures challenge my ability to dress appropriately. I struggle to layer myself lightly enough to engage in a brisk walk, but heavily enough to stay warm for the hour I spend outdoors. Once outside, I’ve discovered that the late autumn wind and diligent neighbors have removed most of the leaves along the way. I no longer enjoy the opportunity to crunch and crackle them beneath my feet as I amble along. The good news is that the late November sky provides plenty of opportunity for contemplation. The other day, the blue eastern sky glowed with bright sunlight while ominous charcoal thunderheads filled the sky to the west. It occurred to me that there was a great story here, until a couple of leaves distracted me.

These stubborn leaves seemed to cling to otherwise barren branches with all of their might. As I continued on, I noticed that, in spite of the wind that battered and shook them, several determined leaves held tightly to the trees they called home. Each one seemed unwilling to give in to the inevitable. I imagined these leaves laughing in the face of the cold wind and giving thanks for every additional second that they were able to hold on. These stubborn leaves had lived their lives to the full as best they could, and they were not about to let go before they absolutely had to do so.

This morning, I found that most of those determined leaves have finally joined their counterparts, swept away by wind and humankind. Only a few remained, stuck at the bases of bushes and fences. As I passed by, I silently congratulated them for a job well done. I also acknowledged that their work on this earth is not complete. They will rustle and settle and rustle again until the first heavy snow forces them into a final resting place. Though they will eventually lose their leaf-like appearance to decay, they will enrich the soil. That soil will nourish the trees which will produce another season’s leaves, some of whom will enrich my morning walks and repeat their brave predecessors’ stubborn ritual. Oddly enough, these leafy encounters on my treks around the neighborhood have provided me with a renewed understanding of today’s celebration of Thanksgiving.

If you’ve been attuned at church, you realize that we spend a good deal of time listening to Jesus teaching us the ways of his Father. Jesus preached love and forgiveness, joy in the face of poverty, and peace in the face of suffering. Jesus tried very hard to convince us that his Father –Our Father– loves us as we are with all of our human frailties. Though Jesus provided a lifetime of good example, he assured us again and again that God expects only what we are able to do, nothing more and nothing less. Jesus spent his time with the seemingly unworthy, and he shunned the presumptuous ones who would use his acquaintance to increase their own power and stature. Jesus loved the poor in spirit and the materially poor, and he always made time for them. In the end, Jesus hung on a tree with all of his might, stubborn and determined not to let go until he had to let go. I imagine Jesus pondering those brave leaves who held onto their trees as he once did. I imagine Jesus smiling. He knows that just as their work to enrich the soil continues season after season, so does his work continue in and through your life and mine.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks for the lessons to be found in the lives of my precious leaves and in the life of my precious Lord. I give thanks for my family, for the blessing they are to me and for the opportunities they give me to share God’s love in a very personal way. I give thanks for my work here at home, at church, in my neighborhood and everywhere that I encounter those God has given me to love. I give thanks for the drab brown leaves who cling to trees and then fall, only to give life in seasons to come. I give thanks for the Christ, our Lord. For it is Jesus who clung to a tree as well that he might give life to you and to me and to all of God’s children. Most of all, I give thanks for the life Jesus lived before embracing that tree. It is this life which teaches me how to live and how to love to the full. What more do I need?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Generous God, thank you for everything. You gifted us with Jesus who revealed your love and mercy in everything he said and did. Thank you also for the leaves and all of creation which remind us of your amazing promises and plans for each one of us.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

I Am Grateful

“Why are you so terrified?
Why are you lacking in faith?”

From Mark 4:35-41

Today’s date brings to mind a frightening and precious memory…

It was Monday morning when we put our son Mike on the school bus. Our neighbor Ellie would keep Mike after school to wait for news. In the mean time, my husband and I headed to the hospital to deliver our second child.

I had experienced contractions for days, so we expected a fairly quick delivery. Still, we waited several hours for progress. Suddenly, the nurse in charge tossed a gown at my husband and rushed me into the delivery room. The monitors had detected fetal distress. When he made his appearance shortly thereafter, Timothy was white as a ghost. A nurse whisked our baby away without allowing me to hold him. After some whispering among the medical team, our doctor asked us not to worry. Then he added that he was calling in a specialist. My husband and I prayed. We had waited a very long time for this child.

The next morning, the doctor shared that our baby might be suffering from a grave illness which would cause serious disabilities before taking him by age three. This news devastated us and our prayers continued. Later that day, Sister Charles who managed the hospital lab hurried into our room. She said, “I’ve looked at Timothy. Trust me. He will be just fine.”

Three decades later, I’m happy to report that Sister Charles was absolutely right!

Dear God, I wept through my prayers that night, begging all the while for Tim’s life. Thank you for this wonderful son and his wonderful older brother. Today, please bless all parents with a generous measure of peace. You understand better than we do just how much we worry about our children.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Live Gratefully

Let all your works give you thanks, O Lord,
and let your faithful ones bless you.

Psalm 145:11

Perhaps Thanksgiving Week makes me feel this way… As soon as I established my pace for this morning’s walk, feelings of gratitude overwhelmed me. I admit that I am a creature of habit who walks the same route every single time I venture out. Still, the blue sky and the changes in trees which I have seen a hundred times fill me with awe. Every day the barren trees reveal gnarly knots which I failed to notice before. Chirping birds who should be making their way south are the frosting on the cake. Even drizzling rain gives me reason to feel grateful.

Perhaps I am an unwitting student of Creation’s wisdom during my treks outdoors. Perhaps the clouded blue sky that beckons my eyes toward heaven and the trees who continuously raise their arms upward are reminding me to do the same. Their very existence points to God’s glory. Perhaps my existence on this earth is meant to point to point to God’s wonder as well. Like Nature around me, perhaps I am meant to do this with a spirit of gratitude. After all, being a part of God’s creation is a privilege and honor and something for which we can all be grateful.

Generous God, help me to live with a grateful heart. When I appreciate what I have, it is easy to share my gifts with others. Help me to do so as generously as the outdoors with which you bless me so abundantly.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved