Inspire Hope

Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!

Isaiah 35:4

The temperature had risen enough to coax me outdoors to our driveway. There were a few patches of ice there and on the sidewalk which needed to be broken up. If I tended to these nuisances right away, the sun would melt them out of existence.

As I worked at the task at hand, a group of children ran out of the school across the way for recess. I smiled as I imagined their teachers thanking God for weather warm enough to allow for this reprieve from managing their classrooms. This was no criticism as I thanked God often for the same over the years. The joyful bantering that filled the air turned my thoughts to Christmas Past in my own classroom…

Most of my students counted the days to Christmas with great relish. Every year, however, one or two of my students dreaded this departure from their daily routines. These children lived in dire poverty. School lunches were the best of their meals and our simple class parties were the best of their Christmases. Too often, the lack of material treasures in their lives paled in the shadow of their lack of love and security. The adults around them, burdened with their own troubles, missed the hurt and hopelessness growing in their children’s eyes.

As I chopped the ice in my driveway, I prayed for these special children who appreciated the little gifts I hid in their backpacks almost as much as they appreciated my attention throughout the day at school. Though I didn’t have the resources to alleviate all of their poverty, I did manage to ignite a bit of hope in these amazingly resilient children.

If a needy child is pulling at your heartstrings this Christmas, respond. I assure you that you won’t regret it. Neither will that little one!

God of hope, let this child share your love with my smile and your hope with what I’m able to share.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Nurture Hope

God will be gracious to you when you cry out;
as soon as God hears, God will answer you.

Isaiah 30:19

While I walked the mall with my husband, a long line of children waited to see Santa Claus. We chuckled about our sons’ first visits with the jolly old elf. As we continued our shopping, I recalled a decades earlier visit with Santa which almost ended badly for one of my students…

The week after Thanksgiving, Ronnie shared that he was going to prove to his older brother that Santa Claus is real. Ronnie planned to tell no one what he wanted for Christmas except Santa. When Ronnie visited Santa during his family’s annual day-after-Thanksgiving trek to the mall, he whispered into Santa’s ear so his gift would remain a secret. I’d hoped to catch Ronnie’s older brother in the hallway to let him in on Ronnie’s plan. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten this plan until winter break had begun. Though I normally set aside school concerns during the holidays to enjoy Christmas with my own family, that year I wondered often if Ronnie’s experiment had ended well. Happily, Ronnie returned to school in January with a bigger-than-ever smile.

Not long afterward, Ronnie’s mom shared that her older son had discovered Ronnie’s plan. As a result, the entire family went into detective-mode and they eventually discovered Ronnie’s Christmas wishes. So it was that Ronnie’s hope in Santa Claus remained intact for another year.

Loving God, when I see doubt in others, I sometimes wring my hands in despair because I don’t know how to convince them of your loving ways. Rather than fretting, help me to plant seeds of hope through everything I do.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate Hope and Love

“Anyone who hears my words
and puts them into practice
is like the wise man who built his house on rock.”

Matthew 7:21

Christmas preparations always pique my nostalgia. I’d finished the day’s errands and allowed myself the time to reminisce a bit. My musing drew me back to Christmas 1959, just five months after my dad passed away. I was only eight years old and I wondered what Christmas would be like that year. That day, I recalled the efforts of so many around me who made that Christmas special. They all did their best to ease the sting of my dad’s absence.

My older sister Rita helped our Mom to prepare a special gift for each one of us. On Christmas Eve, our parish priests asked my brother to walk his wagon down to the rectory. Raoul returned with a full wagon carrying a beautifully wrapped package for each of the six of us children. After Christmas dinner with my mom’s side of the family, we went on to Aunt Claire’s and Uncle Steve’s home to celebrate with my dad’s family. My aunt and uncle ushered us to their Christmas Tree for more special gifts which were just for my siblings and me. Though all concerned knew that nothing would replace my dad, they did their best to emulate his love for us. You know, I can’t name most of the gifts I received that year. Nonetheless, I continue to feel the love that came with them. That love has sustained me for a lifetime.

What better way to is there to celebrate Christmas 2018 than to nurture hope and to love?

Generous God, you gifted me with loved ones who fulfilled my hope beyond my dreams and who loved me as you do. Help me to do the same for those I meet along the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Little Child Leads Us…

…the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

My little grandson’s smile drew me in before I realized what the little imp had done. My gloomy attitude, aching sinuses and complete disappointment with so many things in this world meant nothing to the little boy who nuzzled in my arms. As Benjamin smiled in spite of my uncommonly troubled eyes, he seemed to look to look far past them into my very soul. At the same time, he ever so carefully wrapped his tiny fist around my finger. I smiled as I considered how masterfully Ben had accomplished his goal. With that, my headache eased and I pulled Ben a bit closer. This sweet child immediately responded in kind.

In and effort not to disturb Ben’s and my newly found comfort, I asked Grandpa to bring me Ben’s blanket. Ben drifted off to sleep, Grandpa headed outdoors to tend to a chore and I drifted into grateful conversation with our Benevolent Creator. As I spoke, I acknowledged that I’d wasted too much of this particular day attending to my headache and to my worry. Ben had made it obvious that the world was in even better hands than he was and that I needed to appreciate this. With that, it occurred to me -or did God remind me?- that a little child made the same observation two millenniums ago when he was born in that stable in Bethlehem. Indeed, there is always reason to be grateful!

Dear God, as I continue my journey to Christmas, keep me mindful of the gifts to be found in the people you have given me to love, especially the children who keep our hope alive.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Prepare Joyfully!

There shall be no harm or ruin on my holy mountain
for the earth will be filled with the Lord…

From Isaiah 11:9

A few weeks ago, when my husband complained of a sore shoulder, I cringed. Suddenly, five-year-old memories from my own shoulder repair returned. “Ugh! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” I told myself, “especially Mike!” That year, I’d timed the surgery so that Thanksgiving and Christmas preparations would distract me from the painful recovery which I was warned would come. I’d deluded myself into thinking that I’d somehow be of use when it came time to decorate, shop for gifts and bake. As it happened, nothing could have been further from the truth. Fortunately, the pain subsided and I learned to put my incapacity to good use. As a result, I embraced the approaching Christmas Season with contemplative fervor.

As I considered my poor husband’s aching shoulder and his aversion to any intervention at this time of year, I decided to encourage him to do what I’d done five years ago. I announced that, with so much to do, he and I needed to pace ourselves. Happily, this is precisely what we’ve done. We’ve organized, prioritized and simplified just enough to allow ourselves to feel that we actually will be ready for Christmas with time to spare. The best part of this is that our moods inside have been as energizing as the brisk winter breezes which urge us on whenever we’re outdoors. So far, so good!

Will you join me in organizing, prioritizing and simplifying your to do list as well? Trust me. Once you start, this will become easier than you think! I assure you that God’s Christmas Spirit will be with you all the while.

Loving God, help us to anticipate Christmas with your resounding joy!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Amazing Capacity To Love

This past weekend, my husband the good deacon and I headed north in anticipation of our annual Christmas Tree hunt. We drove up a week early to heat up the cabin and to stock it with food for our family’s arrival a few days later. Though this was a whirlwind overnight effort, Mike and I enjoyed every minute of it. There’s something amazingly peaceful about our time at the cabin. These Wisconsin interludes are very inspiring and I do my best writing there. This past weekend was no exception in spite of the time crunch. It was then that I considered what Thanksgiving Day 2018 would bring. It would be my 59th without my dad and Mike’s 36th without his dad. It would be my 15th without my mom and Mike’s 11th without his mom. These losses came to mind because Mike and I had attended the funeral of Deacon Ivan’s dad the previous Monday. Though Mike and I have become accustomed to the empty chairs at our Thanksgiving table, this would be a new experience for our parish deacon and his family. Papa Gaspar would enjoy the holiday elsewhere in the company of his old and newfound friends in eternity.

Since Mike habitually serves as driver for these treks, I’m left to converse, to listen to our favorite oldies and to enjoy the scenery. When we settle into a bit of quiet, I mentally continue whatever writing I’d begun a the cabin. This time, my thoughts returned to Ivan and Arleen and their loved ones. Though I’d come to know Papa Gaspar because he and Ivan’s mom attended Mass at my parish for many years, I didn’t fully appreciate him until I heard his grandson James speak at his funeral. According to James, Papa Gaspar brought a smile and much more to everyone on his path. Though he was a handyman by trade, he was also a handyman at heart. James offered a lifetime of examples of Papa’s impact upon him and all of his loved ones. “What a good soul!” I said to myself several times throughout that eulogy. As we drove home, it occurred to me that though a tear or two might threaten Papa’s family on Thanksgiving Day, they would certainly be lost in the memories which honored the man who yelled, “Tada!” to celebrate even the smallest accomplishment. It seemed to me that Papa Gaspar would interrupt any mourning his family would attempt with snippets of laughter from their time together in this life.

I write with firm resolve regarding Papa Gaspar’s new life in the hereafter because I have no choice. His faith has been evident in Ivan and his grandchildren for as long as I’ve known them and for decades before that. Papa Gaspar’s joyful and tender care of his dear wife in spite of his own frailty taught all concerned that every moment of this life is worth celebrating. Papa Gaspar seemed to know without a doubt that all he did for his family here opened his heart to all God would do for him in the hereafter. Everything Papa Gaspar taught in word and deed was evident in the peace which enveloped his family as they ushered him into eternity with their love and prayers. It seems to me that Papa Gaspar’s life hints at the reasons we celebrate Jesus as Christ the King today.

The Old Testament tells us that God pursued the chosen people with deep and passionate love. Still, in spite of God’s efforts, the people strayed. Neither plagues, nor pleading prophets, nor floods, nor famine softened the people’s hearts. Apparently, we humans needed something far more tangible to teach us of God’s endless devotion. So it was that heaven touched the earth in the person of Jesus. As one of us, Jesus defined the art of relationship-building and peacemaking. Jesus learned his trade within the confines of his own family. It was after thirty years of experiencing the daily trials and tribulations, triumphs and joys of humankind that Jesus set out to teach the entire world how to experience these things within the context of God’s love for us. It is true that Jesus died a horrific death for each one of us. However, it is also true that he lived his life for each one of us, teaching us through everything he said and did. Though Jesus knew he would soon die, he set aside his own fear as he shared his last supper with his friends. Though Jesus knew his friends would desert him, he promised to remain with them and with us always. God sent Jesus to reveal Divine Love to us and this is precisely what Jesus did.

It seems to me that Papa Gaspar took his roles as husband and father, grandfather and great-grandfather quite seriously as well. Though he had no dad of his own, he found the skills he needed to parent his children and to teach them to do the same for their own sons and daughters as well as their neighbors and those others whom they’d meet along the way. If you could take a close look at Deacon Ivan, you’d see just how successful Papa Gaspar has been! So it is that, on this Feast of Christ the King, we celebrate God’s generosity in loving us and in sending Jesus to give flesh and bone to God’s message of love. I’d like to think that we all have a bit of God’s capacity to love within us. Like Papa Gaspar, we simply need to choose to transform that propensity to love into a lifetime of loving one another as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved