Like Martha and Mary

With list in hand, I headed to my car for a quick trip to the grocery store. I drove out of the neighborhood toward Washington Street in an effort to save time by avoiding the construction on Grand Avenue. Unfortunately, rather than continuing west on Washington, I turned south onto Milwaukee Avenue toward Gages Lake Road and St. Paul’s. I asked myself aloud, “What are you doing?” Of course, I already knew the answer. I’d taken this route to our parish home for twenty-plus years and I’m a creature of habit. With that, I smiled over my time-consuming blunder and continued on my way. I turned onto Gages Lake Road and eventually passed the parish house. While driving along, I wondered how the new guys were doing. In an effort not to leave things to chance, I whispered a prayer for Father Chris and Father Joe. “Be with them, Lord. This is a big parish with lots of people and lots to do!”

Earlier that morning, I’d read today’s scripture passages. I usually let them steep a bit in my psyche before writing. After whispering that prayer for our new priests, I couldn’t help thinking about today’s gospel (Luke 10:38-42). Luke tells us of Jesus’ visit to the home of his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Throughout Jesus’ stay, Martha found herself caught up in a flurry of activity. Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries prided themselves in offering hospitality to those who graced their homes with their company and Martha was no exception. She intended to put forth her best effort for Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, was so taken with Jesus’ presence that she joined her brother and the others as they listened to Jesus’ every word. Mary perched herself at Jesus’ feet for his entire stay. Needless to say, Mary’s failure to assist with the tasks at hand frustrated Martha as she also loved Jesus very much. So it was that Martha complained to Jesus about her sister. Poor Martha was completely taken by surprise with Jesus’ response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

I admit that this gospel has always been a puzzling favorite of mine. I’ve often wondered what else Jesus might have said if Martha had responded by sitting at Jesus’ feet as well. What if Martha had determined that there would be no meal for her hungry guests as she also wanted to enjoy Jesus’ company? By the time I made it to the grocery store parking lot, I’d come to my standard conclusion after contemplating this gospel. We’re given a lifetime of opportunities to behave as Mary and as Martha and each one is a necessary and important gift.

While grabbing a cart and ambling over to the produce aisle, my thoughts returned to Father Chris and Father Joe. Their move into our parish house has certainly involved a whirlwind of activity. They’ve moved their belongings into a new home and they’ve moved themselves into new roles. Father Chris Ciastoń was an associate pastor just a few weeks ago. Today, he is in charge. Father Joe Curtis served as pastor until just a few weeks ago. Today, he is second-in-command. One minute, they’re arranging clothing in their new closets. The next minute, one is taking a call regarding a visit to a sick parishioner, while the other is consoling a heartbroken soul. They’re discussing the church thermostats and how to better manage the indoor climate, while also considering their first homilies here. They’re asking and responding to endless questions. They’re also asking themselves how to prioritize their to-do lists. One minute, the two run like Martha to tend to the practicalities which keep life in the parish running smoothly. The next minute, they pause like Mary to offer their company to you or me or any one of us who needs them. By the time I made it to the pasta aisle, I’d determined that Jesus had made a valid point to Martha. However, strong woman that she was, Martha certainly validated her efforts on Jesus’ behalf. Martha provided Jesus and his friends that much-needed meal, taking in Jesus’ every word all the while. I’m quite certain that Martha knew as much about loving others as Mary did… perhaps more!

By the time I’d driven home and stowed those groceries, Jesus’ experience with Mary and Martha had filled me with inspiration enough to fill this space. It had also filled me with the courage to give our unsuspecting Father Chris and Father Joe something to think about… Father Chris, we’re thrilled that you had the generosity to leave your beloved home in Poland to pursue the priesthood here in the Archdiocese of Chicago. That this choice has brought you to St. Paul’s is a much-appreciated blessing to us. Father Chris, though you know the wisdom of this gospel passage better than I, I cannot help myself. Please know that we hope to share years of Mary moments with you as we get to know one another. Also, know that we promise to roll up our sleeves and to work at your side in the midst of the Martha moments. Those Martha moments will be far more plentiful than you can ever imagine! In the end, we will emulate both of Jesus’ friends as we become your friends. Father Joe, how can we thank you for retiring as pastor and than assuming your role as associate pastor to Father Chris? You know too well the work involved, yet you’ve come to minister, pray and play among us! Like Martha, you two deserve Jesus’ reminder to enjoy those God has given you to love here, while also getting to the work at hand as best you can. I think I speak for all of our parish family as I write, “Welcome, Father Chris and Father Joe! We look forward to spending years of Mary times and Martha times with you both. After all, when we spend time with one another, both working and playing, we spend our time as Jesus did.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Passion for Goodness

Though I’ve frequently referenced my efforts to purge our home of the things we no longer need, this daunting task is far from completion. A few weeks ago, after I attended a retirement gathering, I was compelled to renew my efforts. I decided to focus on remnants from my own retirement. It had been a while since I stowed my desk name plate and some other items which made my office my own and I decided this would be a good place to start.

When I opened the box labeled RETIREMENT, I found a congratulatory plaque, my old business cards and the last school directory in which I was listed. I’d actually kept my final appointment book as well. I flipped through the pages and rediscovered the variety of activities that filled my days back then. When I read Teen Court Meeting and Suicide Prevention Task Force, a tear formed. Suddenly, I was immersed in a passionate discussion regarding youth offenses with local police chiefs, high school students and school district administrators. Just as quickly, I moved on to a meeting with the coroner, school social workers and mourning family members. I’d joined them to develop suicide education and prevention programs. I always left such gatherings with my adrenalin pumping. I was determined to do something which would have a positive impact upon the issue at hand. In the end, I did all that I could.

Needless to say, I didn’t do much purging that day. Rather, I turned my attention to this writing. The scripture passages cited exude passion and I found that my encounter with that memorabilia had placed me in the appropriate frame of mind to address this topic. I was extremely passionate regarding my work in education and the numerous causes which drew me in. I admit that I’m equally passionate regarding the issues we face today. The suffering featured in newscasts and headlines shakes me to my core. Perhaps it’s my status as a retiree which makes these things seem even more urgent than the issues I encountered as a teacher and administrator. My husband can assure you that I often speak aloud to the news anchor on hand in spite of the fact that I’m not being heard. While reading the paper, I’m equally verbose. Apparently, retiring from my career in education didn’t include retiring my passion for what I deem to be right and good. Today’s scriptures indicate that I’m not alone in this regard.

Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus were driven by their passion as well. They determined what was right and good and they shared their convictions regardless of the expense to themselves. Today’s first reading (Jeremiah 23:1-6) vividly illustrates Jeremiah’s anger. He didn’t take kindly to those who scattered the people and shirked their responsibility to care for them. His people had been devastated by their lack of leadership and their sense of loss. They’d been left with no one to cling to in their fear. Shepherds entrusted with sheep risked everything to protect their animals. Jeremiah insisted that those entrusted with God’s people are expected to do no less.

Paul echoed Jeremiah’s passion. Today’s second reading (Ephesians 2:13-18) is one of Paul’s many reminders that God’s presence in our lives is a treasure to be cherished. It is this presence which gives meaning to all that we do. Paul’s passion stemmed from a single encounter with Jesus. That pivotal meeting knocked Paul to the ground from which he rose a changed man. Paul couldn’t contain the peace which flowed from knowing that God was with him. As a result, he exhibited Jeremiah’s passion for God’s promises and God’s people in all that he said and did. Paul’s passion was fueled further by the example of Jesus who set aside everything to care for weary souls.

Jesus’ passion is undeniable. Today’s gospel (Mark 6:30-34) recounts the disciples’ return after having been sent off two by two to minister to the people. When they reunited with Jesus, the disciples excitedly reported all of the good works they’d accomplished. While Jesus shared their excitement, he also shared their fatigue. Exhilarated as they were, Jesus knew that they needed to rest. With that, he led the tiny band to a boat which would carry them off for a bit of seclusion. Of course, when the people heard of this parting, they set out on foot to the very place where Jesus and the disciples hoped to rest in solitude. Tired as he was, when the ever-attentive Jesus saw the crowd, the gospel tells us, “…his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Jesus’ love for God’s people diminished his fatigue. His passion for what was right and good energized Jesus enough to minister to each and every one.

Today, those charged with caring for God’s people succeed at times and they fail at times. Like Jeremiah and Paul, you and I are called to add to the successes and to intervene when things run amok. When we allow our passion for what is right and good to lead us, we make positive differences in ways we may never realize. All the while, God is with us to rekindle our passion and to renew our energy along the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Great Hope

Last Sunday I begged your indulgence of my rather lengthy post regarding The 25th Anniversary of my parish’s founding. Today, I offer a glimpse into that wonderful day…

Last Monday evening, I revisited our parish’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration through photographs taken by a dear parishioner. Ken should have been exhausted after his efforts throughout Mass and the festivities which followed. Still, on Sunday afternoon, he dropped off three disks of images from the event. My dear husband and I alerted Father Greg with the hope that Ken’s work will be shared in today’s bulletin. At the time, I didn’t realize that Ken had also emailed the photo files to Mike and me. It was early Monday morning while taking care of email that I discovered these treasures. After spending the day looking after our grandson, I returned home to revisit what had proven to be a remarkable event for our parish family.

As I viewed the photographs, I smiled and shed tears simultaneously. Familiar faces elicited fond memories of special times together and of those who are no longer with us. Some have moved to accommodate their families, careers or other personal circumstances. Some have moved on to bigger and better things in the hereafter. I smiled at images of “vintage” parishioners, our newest members and many in-between. As I considered each one, I wondered aloud, “Where would we be without them?” I followed that query with a prayer of thanksgiving for them all. From the beginning, our intent was to be a welcoming parish and our first pastor Father Farrell led us in seeing to it that this remained the case. As I poured over those photographs, it occurred to me that these efforts to welcome have made all of the difference in the world. It also occurred to me that Cardinal Cupich seemed quite intent upon encouraging us to continue making that difference for many years to come. Since Father Greg followed my husband’s urging to repeat the substance of Cardinal Cupich’s homily during last Sunday’s Masses, I’m going to do the same. I’m taking the cardinal’s encouraging smile in Ken’s photographs as his permission to do so.

Cardinal Cupich cited Jesus’ parable regarding the extravagantly indiscriminate sower who planted wherever his seeds happened to fall. Birds might have eaten the seeds which landed on a shallow path. Weeds might have choked seedlings which sprouted among them. Seeds which fell on rocky ground might not have found soil enough to take root. Only the seed sown in rich soil had a reasonable chance to grow. Still, that sower threw seeds everywhere! Homilists often consider the sower to be God and the seeds to be humankind. Their conclusion is that we who hear must ensure as best we can that we are the good soil which allows God’s word to grow and to flourish within us. Cardinal Cupich took a different approach. The cardinal urged each one of us to become the sower. In his scenario, the seeds are our love and kindness, our good deeds and our hospitality, our compassion and our consolation. The good cardinal asked us to sow these things just as lavishly and just as indiscriminately as the sower in Jesus’ parable. He asked us to do so wherever we find ourselves without judging whether the recipient is shallow or thorny, desert-dry or deserving. He invited us to plant our goodness wherever we can whether or not we deem it to be a fruitful endeavor. Cardinal Cupich certainly gave me something to think about and something to take to heart. This dear man asked me and all of us to have the courage and the generosity to love as God loves.

When I turned to today’s gospel (Matthew 13:24-30), I found a bit of the wisdom behind Cardinal Cupich’s homily. In this account, Jesus spoke of another sower who planted his seed quite carefully. After seeing to it that he had provided the best conditions for a bumper yield, an enemy came in the night and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the man’s workers reported this, they offered to pull up the weeds to save the crop, but the sower thought better of it. He didn’t wish to lose a single plant in the process. So it was that he allowed both wheat and weeds to thrive until harvest. Only then would he take up the good plants and discard the rest. In this parable, I find God to be the sower who planted those wheat seeds in the best of conditions with absolute faith in their fruitfulness.

When that alleged enemy planted weeds among the wheat, rather than thwarting that careful farmer’s efforts, perhaps he simply challenged his creativity. Perhaps the sower allowed the weeds to thrive because he could put them to good use as well. Might they feed his animals or protect the seeds of a new crop from the blistering sun? Might they be fashioned into grass roofs for huts for the poor? We simply don’t know and it is this uncertainty which fills me with the greatest hope of all. Whether I am wheat or weed, in a rocky patch, dry as a desert or in fertile mode, God watches and waits for me to be fruitful. Even when I don’t know where I’m headed, God sees the potential which lies in me alone. When I returned to Ken’s photos for another peek, I caught a glimpse of the potential God sees. God looks upon you, just as I look upon these amazing photos, with the same loving and hope-filled eyes. Cardinal Cupich is right! It’s time for us all to sow!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Now Who’s At The Door?

Two weeks ago, our new pastor delivered his first homily as our new leader. Since I attend to the scriptures when preparing to fill this space each week, I was anxious to hear what Father Greg had to say about the passages from Isaiah, Galatians and Luke. About a minute into Father Greg’s homily, I knew I would not be disappointed.

Father Greg began by asking a musician from the choir to come forward with an instrument. At one Mass, Julie came with her flute. At another, Joe came with his trumpet. At another, Father Greg went to Ruth and the piano. Each time, he asked our choir director what the next hymn would be and then he tried to play it on the instrument at hand. We all had to acknowledge that Father Greg didn’t do very well. However, when the musicians attempted the same hymn, each one played beautifully. At that point, Father Greg noted that it takes practice to hone our talents and to use them well. Father Greg would sound like a musician only if he practiced. Father Greg went on to remind us of what we’d heard in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul told his followers that he’d taken on the ways of Jesus so thoroughly that he bore his scars. Yes, Paul had practiced what Jesus taught so well that he began to look like Jesus. At this point I asked myself, “Wow! How did he come up with that?”

I had no time to answer my question because Father Greg had moved on to the gospel. That Sunday, we read Luke’s chronicle of Jesus sending out the seventy-two disciples. Father Greg observed that we likely think Jesus sent his people off to towns everywhere to prepare the way for him. Immediately after I mentally agreed with that assessment, Father Greg insisted that this wasn’t the case. Rather, he said Jesus sent those disciples to our doors to help us to practice using our gifts so that we, too, will become more like Jesus. Once again I asked myself, “Wow! How did he come up with that?”

This time, I didn’t answer my question because Father Greg immediately explained. “Your doorbell rings and some of the disciples are there. This time, it’s your in-laws who’ve come to teach you patience and perhaps forgiveness. They go home and the doorbell rings again. This time, it’s your boss who’s come to teach you humility. The boss leaves and the doorbell rings again. This time, it’s your spouse and your children and your friends. They’ve come to teach you love.” And on it went until Father Greg predicted that the doorbell will ring one last time. “This time,” he said, “It will be Jesus. He’ll see that you’ve done an amazing job working on your gifts and using them for others. This is when Jesus will say, ‘Wow! You look just like me!’”

I know. Two weeks have passed since my pastor shared all of this and you’re wondering why I’m repeating his homily now. The reason is simple. Luke’s gospel (10:38-42) tells us that Father Greg’s prediction that Jesus will one day come to our doors actually occurred. Unfortunately for those who answered, there was a bit of confusion regarding how to respond.

Jesus visited the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. They loved Jesus very much and did their best to live and to love as Jesus asked. When Jesus arrived at their door, both sisters were overwhelmed with joy. Martha was the detail person who saw to it that everything was perfect for this visit. Though Jesus had arrived, Martha continued her flurry of activity. The local people prided themselves in offering hospitality to those who graced their homes and Martha took this responsibility to heart. It was Mary who couldn’t take her eyes off of Jesus from the moment he arrived. She didn’t want to waste a millisecond of this visit. As soon as Jesus made himself comfortable, Mary sat at his feet where she remained for the duration. When poor Martha realized her dilemma, she complained to Jesus. Martha likely expected Jesus to order Mary to help her. As it happened, Jesus stunned Martha with his response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Though I certainly sympathize with Martha who was simply trying to welcome Jesus with the appropriate fanfare, I also understand the reasons Mary nestled at Jesus’ feet. She loved Jesus and his teachings and she’d done her best to live accordingly. When Jesus arrived at her door, Mary couldn’t help taking advantage of the moment to embrace Jesus. I’d like to think that Martha took Jesus’ comment to heart and that she joined her sister in enjoying Jesus’ company. I’d also like to think that my pastor is correct about Jesus’ appearance at our doors. When the time comes, may we all have the sense -and the heart- of Mary to embrace the moment and to embrace Jesus forever.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Great Love

I spent the afternoon shopping for three upcoming baby showers, a birthday and a wedding. While selecting greeting cards to accompany my gifts, I realized that I will attend one shower on the anniversary of my sister’s passing. I checked the invitation I had brought along and wondered if there would be time after that shower to gather with my family. I also wondered why I didn’t realize this earlier. I looked up, fully confident that my sister was giving me that “look” and told her, “You were the planner, Cecele. You would have checked the calendar and arranged a gathering a month ago!” Tears threatened as I walked to my car. Those tears won the battle as I stowed my packages in the trunk. So it was that I put the key into the ignition, opened my window and sat for a while. I was suddenly grateful that my propensity to walk had encouraged me to park at the unoccupied end of the parking lot. No one would stop to ask if I was alright because I was quite alone…

I allowed memories of my sister’s final illness to fill me up. I recalled those early conversations with her doctors when Cecele prefaced every conversation with “I’m a planner.” She explained that she needed to know her options and what to expect all along the way. Though it took a few appointments to get their full compliance, my sister’s doctors and everyone else involved learned that they needed to tell her everything. This proved especially helpful when new cancer growth and other complications seriously threatened the success of further chemotherapy. When the doctor told Cecele that he understood if she opted out of treatment, my weary sister quickly responded that she’d had enough.

Though this memory increased my tear-flow, I smiled. My husband had been working as a hospice chaplain at the time and Cecele invited us to join her and her son for the first meeting with the hospice nurse. As it happened, my sister-the-planner didn’t need our assistance. Cecele had done her homework, asked the right questions and shared the pertinent information. With that, she and her nurse planned for her journey home while the rest of us watched with gratitude and admiration.

Getting her hospice personnel and services in place returned some consistency and routine to Cecele’s days. Everyone’s fatigue waned a bit as there were no more long drives for appointments or treatment. The absence of chemotherapy and its side effects increased Cecele’s energy temporarily. Challenges arose in the form of changing priorities. While Cecele’s interest in small talk diminished, her desire for her family’s company remained strong. She concentrated on solidifying her relationships with those she loved for the long haul. Though Cecele was very much aware of the life that awaited her, she also knew all that she was giving up. Many things which she had looked forward to would never be. It was extremely difficult for her to look beyond that terrible loss. Still, my sister smiled often to assure us that everything would be okay. I often wondered how she did it. Later, I realized that Cecele had taken to heart what the rest of us sometimes forget in the midst of our troubles. Peace had nudged its way into her heart and clarified everything. No matter how earth-shattering her circumstances seemed, Cecele understood that God remained with her to sustain her through it all. With that, I wiped away the last of my tears, turned on the ignition and headed home.

While unloading my packages at home, it occurred to me that I hadn’t attended to this writing. I ran up to the study to look over the scriptures. It was in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:30-34) that I found one of my favorite images of Jesus. At the time, Jesus hoped to usher his weary friends to a deserted place where they could find some much needed rest. Unfortunately, the crowds who looked for their own comfort in Jesus also followed him. Mark tells us that, tired as he was, when Jesus saw the people gathered before him, “…his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Throughout her illness, God’s heart was moved with pity and great love for my sister as well. When she breathed her last, God’s heart was moved again, this time to welcome her home and to console the rest of us who mourned her. Let there be no doubt in any of us that, every minute of every day, God’s heart is moved with pity and with great love for us all.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Seedlings

Our eldest granddaughter recently celebrated her seventh birthday. It is difficult to believe that this is the same child who spent much of her first birthday party clinging to Mommy and Daddy. Only after some serious coaxing did Ellie allow Daddy to hand her off to Grandpa that day. After a few minutes in Grandpa’s arms, Ellie found the courage to enjoy her party. Grandpa has always been good at soothing little ones. Was it that long ago when he held little Mike through that terrible thunderstorm? Was it that long ago when this same child nuzzled closely to me as we watched Ghostbusters? Was it that long ago when Mike and Timmy nestled with us in the basement during that tornado threat?

Some of the most tender moments which occur between parents and their children are the results of uncertainty and fear. In their parents’ embrace, children find comfort in carefully chosen words which promise that everything will be all right. It seems to me that some of the most tender moments which occur between God and us are the result of uncertainty and fear as well. Throughout God’s relationship with humankind, God has spoken words meant to comfort, to soothe and to encourage. When Adam and Eve left the security of Eden, God knew every detail of the rocky path that lay before them and their descendants. The scriptures relate numerous instances when God spoke through prophets, kings and ordinary folk to make the people a bit less fearful and far more hopeful regarding the things to come.

The Book of Wisdom (12:13, 16-19) offers one such attempt. While the author affirmed that God is the Source of Justice and the Master of Might, he quickly added that God rules with leniency. God offers mercy, clemency and forgiveness. Regardless of how often or how badly our Old Testament counterparts strayed from their paths, God invited them again and again to return to God’s ways. In Romans 8:26-27, Paul shares his own experience of God’s constancy. Paul recognized and understood his followers’ weaknesses because he had experienced his own frailty. Paul witnessed firsthand God’s boundless mercy and endless love, and he wanted all within earshot to realize that God extended these things to them as well. Paul added that God also helps us with our prayer. When we find it impossible to express our uncertainty and fear for ourselves, God’s Holy Spirit speaks for us. It is this Spirit who makes known all that we hold in our aching hearts.

Like the little children among us, our uncertainty and fear sometimes force us to seek comfort outside of ourselves. These are the reasons parents hold tightly to their frightened children to console them. These are the reasons God’s arms opened to our Old Testament sisters and brothers again and again. These are the reasons that Jesus offered hope to the eager crowds who surrounded him. In his gospel (Matthew 13:24-43), Matthew tells us that Jesus hoped to convince those who would listen of God’s promises. Jesus spoke of the man whose enemies invaded his fields to sow weeds among the wheat. The man’s faith in the fruitfulness of his own plants was so great that he refused to allow his workers to pull up the weeds sown by the culprits. Rather than endanger the potential of his own seedlings, the man allowed the weeds to thrive beside them. The weeds would be dealt with later because the man’s seedlings had only one opportunity to make it in this world. Though the weeds were ever present, the man saw to it that his seedlings had everything they needed to thrive. And so they did!

The care and embrace of a parent make all of the difference in the world to a frightened child. Mommy’s and Daddy’s well-placed concern soothed our granddaughter just enough to free her to enjoy her first birthday party. I would like to think that our well-placed concern allowed my husband and me to raise two reasonably happy and secure young men who will do the same for their children. Just the same, God’s care and embrace make all of the difference in the world to you and me. Though the weeds which interfere with our lives will always be there, God gives us everything we need to thrive in spite of them. Just as we promise to do our best to keep our children safe, God promises to do whatever it takes to keep us safe as we make our way through life on this earth.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved