God’s Call to Love

Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

After finalizing Father’s Day plans with our sons and daughters-in-law, I got offline with the hope of tending to some writing. Before opening my file, I glanced toward the window for a peek at summer’s greenery. Nature always inspires me and I expected this glimpse to be no exception. Much to my surprise, my gaze never made it to the huge blue spruce that rests just beyond the glass. A photo on the file cabinet in front of the window caught my attention first. There were our sons with their wives and our grandchildren. Mike and I couldn’t have smiled more broadly as we posed that day. When we’re surrounded by our family, we’re in the happiest of places. It occurred to me that Mike’s and my smiles in that photo might actually have competed with our grins the day we received the news that we were expecting our first baby. Though neither Mike nor I knew much about parenting at the time, we did know that this news was the start of the most important and exciting time of our lives. Over the years, we’ve used many other mostly positive adjectives to describe our stints as Dad and Mom. In the end, we wouldn’t trade these roles for anything. How grateful we are for this family of ours!

When I turned back to my keyboard to open that file, a photo on the bookcase next to me also caught my eye. There I saw the first family which gave me an appetite for the joy I’ve found in my own. This photo was taken when I was six years old. My siblings were fourteen, twelve, four, three and fifteen months. We’d posed in front of our house on Easter Sunday just two years before my dad passed away. I reminded myself of how fortunate I am to have memories of my dad. My youngest sister knows him only from pictures. The next youngest was only five years old when our dad passed away. Though her memories included only a few fleeting images of him, my sister observed more than once that our dad loved her very much. She assured us that this had to be the case because she’d felt the absence of that love ever since. My best “Daddy memory” is bath time. The four youngest of us played together in the tub for as long as our parents could tolerate it or until the water cooled a bit too much. Then, our mom quickly washed and rinsed each of us, usually in the order of our ages. One at a time, we ran across the bathroom floor from our mom to our dad, giggling all the while. Daddy dried us off and dressed us in our pajamas. The goal of all of this was to get us into bed before my dad left for his night shift at the railroad yard. I wondered when we realized that this scene would be repeated only a few more times…

My brother, my sisters and I each responded to the loss of our dad differently. Still, the pain of his absence remains a constant in our lives. This good man, husband and father impacted his family as no one else could have. When we’re touched with great happiness, we miss sharing the good news with him. When we find ourselves in turmoil, we long for the embrace of his caring arms. Sometimes, we simply want to share the mundane details of a boring day with him. Our dad is a very funny guy who would likely turn our monotonous moaning into an amusing anecdote, if only he could. Like my younger sister, I know that our dad loved each of us as best he could. Perhaps the greatest impact of his love for me is manifested in my relationships with my sons. Mike’s dad certainly did the same for him. From the time we knew they were on the way, we loved our sons. When each of them was born, Mike and I felt as though we’d known them forever. We spent every available minute with them. Though this sometimes required very efficient tweaking of our work schedules and adjusting or ignoring our social calendars, we gladly spent our time with our boys. After all, Mike is the only dad our sons will have and I am their only mom.

I cited the quote above from Ezekiel because God’s intent is precise in this message. God created something amazing in each one of us. Just as God took that tender shoot from a cedar tree and planted it in a place where it would flourish, God has planted you and me precisely where we are meant to be. Just as God provided the sun, rain and soil needed to nourish that tree, God does the same for you and me. All the while, God hopes that we will do the same for one another. If you question the value of your life, take it from this daughter that the eight years I shared with my dad meant everything to me. Every day that you have with those you have been given to love is equally valuable. With that, I wish the dads among us a very Happy Father’s Day! I wish the rest of us the grace we need to follow their leads and God’s by nurturing those we’ve been given to love as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Forgiven… Always Loved…

After the funeral of our dear friend’s dad, everyone met for lunch. As friends and family filed in, I considered the love which accompanied them. All concerned would find great comfort in this gathering. As it happened, my husband and I reconnected with mutual friends and our friend’s family members. In the midst of this, one of these friends greeted me with a hug and then shared, “I’m so happy you two are here. I really need to talk to Mike. I’m scared to death about dying and I need to talk to him. Do you think he’d meet me for lunch?” I ignored this woman’s question because I was completely taken aback by her fear. “Oh my gosh! Why are you so afraid?” I asked. Before she could answer, I quoted from the homily my husband had given at the funeral just ninety minutes earlier. “Did you hear what Mike said? Remember the frightened girl in the wagon? Her dad hugged her and reminded her, ‘You’re my baby! You’re my baby!’ That’s what God says to all of us in one way or another when we die and God will say the same thing to you!”

Sadly, neither Mike’s homily nor my words consoled this dear soul. Her eyes filled with tears as she explained God’s anger with her because she hadn’t been to church in a while. Her pastor had hurt her in the midst of a very sensitive situation. When she tried to follow-up, he didn’t take the time to listen. This sweet woman confessed that she couldn’t return to her parish because the pain of it was too much. She assured us, “I know that God is really angry with me. I’m afraid to die because I know I’m going to hell.” It was at this point that my husband chimed in. Mike explained that he wasn’t kidding or offering hollow platitudes when he spoke at the funeral that morning. “Trust me,” Mike said. “There’s nothing you can do to force God to stop loving you. You can choose to walk away, but God never will.” Mike also pointed out that there are other parishes in the area which would happily welcome her. I think our tormented friend believed Mike on both counts because her frown morphed into a smile and her tears disappeared as she returned to her table.

Unfortunately, our wrongdoing is nothing new. Fortunately for us all, the same is true of God’s forgiveness. The scriptures illustrate the worst of our sinfulness and the best of God’s mercy. We can begin with Samuel’s account (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13) of King David who committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. If this wasn’t enough, David sent Uriah to battle in the front lines where he would certainly be killed. After Uriah’s death, Nathan the Prophet called David on his actions. Perceptive man that he was, David admitted his guilt before Nathan and before God. In response, Nathan assured David, “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin…”

In his letter to the Galatians (2:16,19-21), Paul outlined his own struggle with the law. Before encountering Jesus, Paul had murdered numerous Christians because they violated the law in what Paul considered to be essential ways. When Paul realized his misplaced zeal, he admitted, “I died to the law, that I might live for God.” With that, Paul freed himself to share Jesus’ message regarding God’s mercy and love. These passages offer powerful evidence of God’s amazing ability to move beyond our sinfulness. Luke’s gospel speaks to our funeral friend’s dilemma as well.

Luke (7:36-50) chronicles Jesus’ visit to the home of Simon the Pharisee. When Simon welcomed Jesus, he neglected to offer the traditional signs of respect which included a kiss, water for Jesus to wash his feet and anointing him with oil. Still, in spite of his own omissions, Simon became outraged when a woman known for her sinfulness entered the dining room and fell at Jesus’ feet. The woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them with ointment. Since Jesus hadn’t acknowledged the woman’s sinfulness, Simon was convinced that Jesus wasn’t a prophet after all. Fully aware of Simon’s anger and distrust, Jesus asked him who would love his master more, a debtor forgiven a small amount or a debtor forgiven a fortune. Simon responded with the obvious. With that, Jesus closed the discussion: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.”

I’m not certain how my funeral friend’s absence from Mass compares to the infractions of the poor woman who threw herself at Jesus’ feet. What I am sure of is that Simon chose to pass judgment and Jesus did not. My funeral friend’s former pastor chose to pass judgment and God did not. Perhaps my husband the deacon said it best after all: “There’s nothing you can do to force God to stop loving you. You can choose to walk away, but God never will.”

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

All Mighty Cedars

While waiting in line at the grocery store the other day, I watched as the young man at the opposite end of the counter bagged groceries. Having done that job myself throughout high school and college, I appreciated his careful approach. Before I realized what had happened, my thoughts returned to a similar scene from a few decades earlier. At the time, I had focused upon the young man bagging groceries because he looked familiar. When I made my way through the line, I realized that he was a former student. I had taught him at least ten years earlier in third grade. My heart leapt as I observed his precision while doing his job. I smiled at his professional appearance and demeanor. When he looked up from the task at hand, he greeted me without hesitation. “Mrs. Penich, hi! Do you remember me? I’m…” Before he could finish, I announced, “Of course I remember you, Joshua!” With that, this one-time nine-year-old went on to explain that he was working to save for college which would begin the following fall. He also thanked me for being such a great teacher– one whom he would never forget.

I left the grocery store with mixed emotions. You see, Joshua had been one of the students about whom I worried a great deal. He rarely obeyed our classroom rules and was one of the few students whom I sent to the principal’s office. On one such occasion, Joshua actually sassed the principal. I was shocked at the time because he was never disrespectful toward me. He simply didn’t listen. By the end of the year, I had elicited just enough work from Joshua to promote him to fourth grade. Still, when I handed Joshua his final report card, I wasn’t proud of his or my accomplishments. I felt that he was one of those students whom I simply couldn’t reach. When Joshua remarked that I was a great teacher, I felt extremely undeserving of this judgment. I was proud of who Joshua had become, but I also felt that I had done little to help in the process. I asked myself what Joshua could possibly have remembered from our year together…

As I read through today’s first reading, I realized that I had missed a very important element of my relationship with Joshua. It was certainly my responsibility to create an orderly classroom which supported my students’ learning. However, I could not control my students’ responses. Still, I tried. My charges’ parents had sent me the best child they had to offer that year. I taught, disciplined and interacted on many levels with this in mind. This is the reason that I hoped never to give up on any of my students. Though Joshua had challenged my resolve, he apparently didn’t prevent my efforts from taking root. Something else was at work within us both. Ezekiel (17:22-24) tells us, “Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.” For some reason, the Lord God had planted Joshua in my classroom that year. For some reason, in spite of my seemingly ineffective efforts, God saw to it that Joshua became a majestic cedar in his own right, just as God had done for me. Though neither of us was aware at the time, Joshua and I had actually spent quite a productive year together.

It seems to me that God intends to make a majestic cedar of each of one of us. Just as God takes that tender shoot from the crest of the cedar tree and plants it on the mountaintop to flourish, God plants you and me precisely where we are meant to be. God knows well that our circumstances and those with whom we share them will sometimes test God’s loving resolve. Still, God persists just the same. God provides all of the sunshine, rain and nutrients we need to grow into mighty trees and God trusts that you and I will thrive as a result. It seems appropriate to return God’s generosity by offering the same care to one another.

If you question the value of your life, take it from this teacher who is also a daughter, sister, wife, mom, aunt, grandma and friend, that the time we share with others means the world to them and to us. Whether we have an hour, a day, a year or a lifetime with those we have been given to love, it is just enough time to do for one another what God intends. Just ask Joshua and his third grade teacher!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved