M… for Mercy

…his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved.
He ran out to meet him,
threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

I realize that there is only one “M” in the alphabet and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity yesterday to celebrate Memorial Day with that M. Still, since God’s merciful love is the source of all of our hope, it merits recognition as well…

M is for Mercy. Of all of the characteristics Jesus exhibited, I find mercy to be the most powerful. Jesus taught mercy masterfully in his interactions with others. Then, he underscored these lessons with the mercy he extended to all, especially the isolated souls disdained by everyone else. To insure that we appreciated his every word and deed in this regard, Jesus offered the unforgettable Parable of the Prodigal Son. If any of us question our ability to be lovingly and mercifully forgiven, this story dispels all doubt.

In Jesus’ community, a request for an early inheritance insulted a parent gravely. The offending child essentially demanded, “Behave as though you are dead so I can have my money.” According to the parable, in spite of his son’s selfishness and disregard for his feelings, that father gave his son what he asked. The son responded by leaving town and squandering every cent. The young man had reached rock bottom when he eventually found work tending swine. In the end, he realized his wrong-doing and returned home to beg his father to allow him to work as a servant. As Luke’s passage above tells us, this father would have none of it. At the sight of his son, mercy and love filled up the man who embraced his wayward child to welcome him home.

God promises the same reception to you and to me.

Merciful God, thank you!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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M… for Memorial Day

For the Lord loves his people,
and he adorns the lowly with victory.

Psalm 149:4

Memorial Day observances traditionally recount the sacrifice made by those who gave their lives in service to this country. Whether they were drafted into service or they enlisted by choice, each one fulfilled an obligation which he or she accepted to the point of death. Though some may have wrestled with doubt, wondering if anything was worth dying for, we know the final outcome. This weekend, tens of thousands of flags decorate their graves. These flags herald those who completed, as best they could, what they set out to do.

Today, our Memorial Day remembrances include all of those who have passed from this life to the next. Though they may not have donned military uniforms to endure the trials of battle, those whom we mourn assumed a role of great importance to us. Whether our mother or father, our husband or wife, our child, our family member or our friend, those whom we mourn did something similar to that which our military personnel did. They responded to what they saw as their roles in this life and they fulfilled those roles as best they could. At times, our loved ones achieved great success and their impacts upon our lives were sources of great joy or growth or satisfaction. At times, they failed miserably, and their impacts upon us were precisely the opposite. Perhaps they walked away for a while from a father, a mother, a spouse, a child or a friend. Sometimes, we civilians can be tempted to be AWOL from a commitment which seems to require too much. Today, we mourn all of our loved ones who have passed, sometimes because of their humanity and sometimes in spite of it.

There is something very God-like about the way we remember those who have gone before us. Often, after we bid them our final farewells, our memories become less focused upon their failures. When we reminisce, we tend to recall the happy or amusing or glorious times we shared. In our family, my father died when most of us were very young. Within a year of his death, the man had become a saint in our collective consciousness. Years later, when our mother married a wonderful, but very different man, I marveled at his bravery. Following in my father’s footsteps was an impossible task. Yet, upon my step-dad’s death many years later, the same phenomenon occurred. A second father-turned-saint occupied our memories. Need I tell you that my mother-turned-saint resides above in all of her glory as well?

Memorial Day offers us the opportunity to celebrate the gift of eternal joy in the names of those who know that joy firsthand. There is something holy to be found as we relish our relationships with those among us and with those whom we mourn. The selective memories which bestow sainthood upon our very human loved ones reflect the selective vision of God. God’s welcoming eyes will greet each of us upon our arrival home.

Today, as we remember our military personnel and all of the loved ones who have lived their lives for us, let us smile between the tears. There is good reason to rejoice for them and for ourselves!

Thank you, God, for the promise of heaven and for the loved ones with whom we will share it!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Taste For Everyone

At a recent family gathering, our conversations covered an unexpectedly broad array of topics. My contributions included accounts from our childhood neighborhood, how I met my husband and experiences from the early days of my teaching career. One would think that the family memories would have piqued my emotions most that day. As it happened, however, reminiscing about my former students moistened my eyes and tugged at my heart. Without thinking, I blurted out, “I loved those kids!”

Life has been busy and I haven’t thought of my former students in a very long time. Still, as we spoke at my sister’s dining room table, I felt as though I had been with them just the other day. A subsequent drive past our neighborhood school elicited further long-forgotten memories of the many children who had spent a school year with me. I admit that I was taken aback by the surge of emotion which filled me up as I considered the best and most trying events of our time together. The good times often included special projects and programs and, of course, our class parties. A day when everyone cooperated was also reason to celebrate. Unexplained misbehavior and incidences which were sadly explainable were no fun for anyone involved. Even innocent onlookers shuddered when one of their own was in trouble.

I will never forget the year when three of my third graders misbehaved just enough to compel me to ban them from our class Christmas Party. When I told the boys that they would spend that precious afternoon in the principal’s office, they were crestfallen. The truth is they were so upset that they melted into the woodwork by party day. I hardly knew they were in class because they had joined in their classmates’ good behavior so completely. When they gathered up their pencils and papers to leave the room that Friday afternoon, I asked if they understood why they were leaving. After they mumbled something about “being bad,” I invited them to stay. Our party just wouldn’t have been the same if they weren’t there and I didn’t want them to miss the treats and little gifts I’d prepared for them. You see, I really did love those kids. Those three boys would never have forgotten third grade if that was the year that they missed their class Christmas Party. Perhaps they haven’t forgotten third grade because it was the year that their teacher extended unexpected mercy to them.

I know. We celebrated Christmas five months ago and Easter has come and gone. Why, then, am I writing about a children’s Christmas Party from four decades ago on this Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ? Perhaps I’m compelled to do so by the same Spirit who inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to record the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Of all that Jesus did, this event is one of a select few which appear in all four gospels. It is no wonder. This story highlights Jesus’ favorite activity -sharing a meal with his friends.

Jesus invited everyone within his proximity into friendship with him. Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding dinner. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus welcomed a woman of questionable reputation when she interrupted a meal to bathe his feet with her tears. Jesus broke bread with whoever invited him in. He sometimes invited himself in. Jesus called Zacchaeus down from a tree and asked the man to take him home for supper. Jesus cured Peter’s ailing mother-in-law after which she prepared a meal for Jesus, Peter and their friends. Today, I reference Luke’s gospel which offers an account of the best-attended meal Jesus ever hosted.

Jesus had spent the day preaching to a crowd of over five thousand. When the disciples told Jesus to disperse the people so they could find food on their own, Jesus told the disciples to feed them themselves. When they found a boy who had only a few fish and some bread, Jesus blessed it. Then he asked his friends to distribute it. Jesus didn’t tell them to feed his neighbors from Nazareth first or to feed their fellow Jews before the Gentiles. Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to feed the men or women or children in any particular order. Jesus simply asked that the disciples give them all some food. God loved the motley crowd who had spent hours listening to Jesus that day and Jesus was determined to make that love known to them through this meal.

I can’t help thinking that Jesus’ efforts in this regard inspired me to include my three troublesome students in our class party. To have done otherwise would have deprived them of a small taste of God’s all-inclusive love. It seems to me that we are all invited to offer a taste of the same by sitting at table, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, with everyone we meet along the way.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

L… for Love

You shall love the Lord your God…
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

From Matthew 22:37-38

L is for Love. This is a tough one. I don’t have a bit of trouble loving God. Though I admit to having had words with our patient Lord, this is the result of my certainty of God’s love for me. God invited me into a relationship. When I accepted, I committed myself to being completely honest in our interactions. This is my only choice. After all, if I choose not to share my true feelings, God knows them nonetheless.

Early on, a wise teacher shared that there is something lovable about every one of us and that it is up to us to discover what this is. This observation has helped me a great deal over the years. Though I don’t have a flawless track record, I can honestly say that I don’t hate anyone. Still, though I love my neighbor in theory, putting that love into practice sometimes poses a challenge. The good news here is that I try. The better news is that joy is the result of these efforts.

The toughest part is loving my neighbor as I love myself. Sometimes, I am judgmental and much of that judgment is directed toward me. If I fail to love myself enough to allow myself the luxury of being a frail human, how can I love my neighbors enough to allow them to do the same?

Love is a tricky endeavor at best. Still, it’s the best work we can do and the best source of joy. The passage from Matthew above isn’t a directive. It’s an invitation to heaven on earth.

Loving God, thank you for creating us in your image, especially when it comes to our ability love.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

K… for Kindness

People who are well do not need a doctor;
sick people do. I did not come to heal the righteous,
but sinners.

Mark 2:17

K is for Kindness. Unexpected kindness is the greatest variety of this virtue. When I’m not at my best, a bit of TLC can salvage the moment for all concerned. I became a recipient of random kindnesses early on in my life. When I woke my mom in the middle of the night with a childhood woe, she responded with patience. She returned me to my room and tucked me into my bed with a second good-night kiss. Thoughtful teachers responded to my occasional transgressions with understanding rather than anger. Their mercy encouraged me to be my best. When life became more complicated through my teens and into adulthood, I responded far more positively to a kind word than to a less-than-civil reprimand. The good news in all of this is that I took these lessons in kindness to heart. When I became a teacher and a parent, I found that my students and my own children responded best when kindness set the tone of our interactions.

You know, it is easy to extend kindness to the people we like and to those who offer us the same courtesy. Unfortunately, those whose names aren’t on our “A List” likely need our kindness more. Kindness offered indiscriminately changes lives and this world in amazing ways.

Gracious God, thank you for giving us the capacity to respond to one another with kindness. Inspire us to do so, especially when it is most difficult and most needed.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

J… for Joy

The Lord has sent me to bring
glad tidings to the poor…

From Luke 4:18

J is for Joy. Joy can be illusive at times. A recent off-the-cuff remark opened an old wound. I tend to let go of hurtful events from the past, so this recollection took me by surprise. I distracted myself by perusing the newspaper. This only increased my melancholy. I set aside the paper and picked up the remote. I surfed the channels until a news report caught my attention. The update confirmed that recent violence was accomplished to “honor” God’s name. I sank into my recliner, looked out the window and asked, “Dear God, what are we doing?”

We humans have hurt one another in God’s name since the beginning of time. Before I could repeat my question, a lone dove perched on our bird bath. Almost on cue, she turned my way seemingly to peer into my aching heart. Though a large blue jay joined her to dance on the rim of that bird bath, the dove continued to look at me. “Thank you, Lord!” I prayed aloud. Though that dove didn’t change the news that afternoon, she filled me with a morsel of joy just the same. Though she eventually flew away, perhaps to spread joy elsewhere, God’s joy remained with me.

As long as some of us continue to appreciate God’s joy within us and around us, there will be joy in this world of ours. Rather than allowing myself to be overwhelmed by wounds old and new, I must revel in God’s joy and share that joy at every opportunity.

God of Joy, help us to focus on your joy in spite of continuing attempts to distort and disfigure it. Help those of us who will to bring your joy into every moment every day.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved