Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels made it impossible for me to chase him? His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, at the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” I admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Rules That Matter

The arrival of a new baby quickly turns the lives of all concerned upside-down. Our newest grandchild offers proof positive in this regard. Fortunately, his parents and older brother have adapted quickly and all is well. Some changes aren’t as easy to negotiate. So often, our daily lives are complicated by a difficult diagnosis, an unexpected job loss or a loved ones tough times. I can’t imagine how those in the midst of the wildfires on the west coast and the storms and floods on the east coast have coped. At the same time, violence in neighborhoods across this country continues to upend lives just as brutally. All the while, many others struggle in the grip of difficult realities which have become their daily lot. Though there is much joy to be found throughout our earthly lives, persistent drudgery can be mercilessly discouraging. When I gaze at my new grandson, I can’t help tearing up because the human condition hasn’t evolved much over the centuries. As he sleeps peacefully in my arms, he gives me reason to do all I can to improve life in this world as best I can for him and for us all.

My conviction that things haven’t changed much since we humans took residence on this earth was underscored when my husband and I traveled to Israel. I imagined Jesus making his way through the crowds, sometimes alone, but most often in the company of his friends, curious onlookers and those seeking something beyond their sadness. In Capernaum, Magdala, Nazareth and Tabgha, I envisioned Jesus responding to the sick, the lonely and the downtrodden. Their suffering piqued Jesus’ compassion and his love. He did what he could to ease their pain. My little grandson and all of those whom I’ve been given to love do the same. Whether a family member, neighbor or stranger, I find it very difficult to walk away from his or her troubles. Yes, Jesus, I get it most of the time.

Jesus knew that none of us get it right all of the time. His most pressing concern was to love us and to teach us to love one another. Issues arose when those who should have done this best failed to prioritize love. Oddly, this should have been nothing new to the temple hierarchy who irritated Jesus most in this regard. In today’s reading from Deuteronomy (4:1-2, 6-8), we find Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the people. They’d exhibited hard-heartedness repeatedly while they wandered in the desert and they desperately needed guidance regarding their relationships with one another and with God. In response, God inspired Moses to present the people with ten simple laws. These straightforward principles would guide them in loving God and in loving and caring for one another. The Pharisees knew this story well, yet they grew those ten commands into hundreds of precepts which oppressed the people rather than uplifting them. The second reading from James (1:17-18, 21-22, 27) indicates that this was an ongoing problem. This excerpt was written in response to some in the early church who attempted to put faith alone above their love and concern for one another.

In today’s gospel (Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23), Jesus made his point. The Pharisees once again criticized Jesus for not following the letter of the law regarding temple rituals. They were quite indignant over Jesus’ and his followers’ apparent disregard for these mandates. The disciples ate with ritually unclean hands. When he touched the sick and ostracized who were off-limits in the temple, Jesus himself became ritually unclean as well. Jesus responded to these accusations by pointing out to the Pharisees that they had allowed their devotion to ritual to replace their devotion to God and to God’s people. The Pharisees valued clean hands far more than they valued the people. They valued meticulous obedience to their precepts far more than the people’s heartfelt prayer. Though God had provided the Ten Commandments to guide the people in forming a loving community, the Pharisees separated them into the worthy and the unworthy, the clean and the unclean. So it was that Jesus enlightened them on the matter. Jesus knew that none of us is perfect. He also knew that we make up for our shortcomings in any situation with love. At times, this requires setting aside a rule or two so we can touch a heart just as Jesus would.

As I turn my eyes to my sleeping grandson, I admit that it’s easy to set aside my own agenda for this lovable little child. If only that was the case with everyone I meet along the way! Today, God asks each of us to do just that for all of God’s children, lovable and otherwise. Jesus put it quite simply to the Pharisees and to us all. God asks only that we do our best to be the best we can. When we fail, God asks that we forgive ourselves, forgive one another and get on with the business at hand. God knows better than we that sometimes our role in the business at hand is simply to walk away. That business, by the way, has nothing to do with tracking our failings or those of others. The business at hand has everything to do with loving one another as Jesus did and as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s With Us!

Life has been tough as of late. Throughout the past several weeks, I’ve turned away from numerous newscasts. Each time, I found it impossible to listen to another example of our inhumanity toward one another. My misery hit a crescendo in response to the protests-turned-violent in Charlottesville. Subsequent news offered more of the same while the voice of reason seemed only a whisper. Add to this the reports of crimes which disrupted the lives of numerous innocent people who were simply trying to make their way through another day. These images remained with me until Hurricane Harvey assaulted southeast Texas. I admit that when I turned my eyes heavenward I found it impossible to speak. What could I say that God didn’t already know?

I’ve known and trusted God all of my life. My parents taught me to seek out God in the best and worst of times. When I was happy with my circumstances or those of my loved ones, I looked upward to offer thanks. When I was frightened or saddened about these things, I looked upward and prayed with even greater intensity. This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though God never actually spoke a word to me, I always knew deep down that I had a great ally in God. During my often emotional teens, I sometimes ran the other way. Still, God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for m, though they never actually abandoned me, I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

Fortunately, throughout high school and college, God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. When I took a job, I often rushed from school to make it to work. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to manage my studies, work, life at home and a boyfriend or two (yes, my husband is aware), I continued to make time for Mass. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers which filled my childhood. Still, celebrating Mass in English thrilled me. On weekdays, I often attended noon Mass at college to energize myself for what lay ahead. Though tough times and tragedy punctuated those years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto that relationship with God which had begun almost two decades earlier.

Much to my dismay, the onset of adulthood brought the realization that many people don’t rely upon God for much of anything. Though I knew that I had exerted a good deal of my own effort to arrive at that threshold, I had also found great consolation in God’s company along the way. Apparently, I was naïve is this regard. I’d been truly shocked by the “God is dead” discussions which emerged during my philosophy and theology courses in college. I’d attributed these to each speaker’s need to rebel or to shock rather than to his or her actual beliefs. How wrong I was! I eventually understood that these sentiments had resulted from this world’s seemingly endless misery. These contemporaries believed it was up to God to solve humanity’s problems. When nothing happened, God did appear to be dead to them. As upsetting as our human condition has been, I’ve never actually expected God to fix it. It seemed to me then just as it does today that it is we who need to roll up our sleeves and do something.

I share this because Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-27) addresses Peter’s frustration with a terrible turn of events. Jesus had begun to prepare his friends for the ordeal which would take him from their midst. Peter pulled Jesus aside because the last thing he wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus went on to insist that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life in order to find what matters most. While I understand Jesus’ intent, I also understand Peter’s distress. Things had finally gone right in Peter’s life. Peter knew without a doubt that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Then, before Peter could fully appreciate his good fortune, Jesus took it away by acknowledging the cross which awaited him.

It occurs to me that I need to turn my eyes upward once again. I must acknowledge the goodness in my life with gratitude. Then, I must list the troubles which engulf so many of us. Finally, I must ask God’s help as I determine what I can do to improve our world, both nearby and far away. Just as Peter eventually did, I will accept that there are bumps in the road. Just as Peter did, I will decide whether to jump over them, to walk around them or to get my feet dirty walking through them. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter and to us is steeped in absolute love and absolute confidence in our ability to do something to change this world for the better.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Humble Living

A few weeks ago, a student from a nearby high school approached my pastor to ask if we might help her to collect supplies for a school on the West Side of Chicago. Father Greg was touched by the young woman’s willingness to take on this project and he agreed to allow her to seek our support. Though Mari’s heartwarming talk at each of the weekend Masses was certainly worth our attention, my ears perked up further as soon as I heard mention of St. Malachy’s. It was then that I knew precisely where our donations would go. I’m the product of a West Side of Chicago Catholic School. I attended Presentation School which was located a few miles from St. Malachy’s and I attended high school with several St. Malachy alums.

As Mari spoke, I couldn’t help mentally revisiting those years at Presentation. Mine was one of many blue-collar families who sacrificed whatever was necessary to provide a quality education to their children. At the time, our neighborhood wasn’t much different from that of St. Malachy’s today. Influences on the street compelled even non-Catholic parents to enroll their children in our parish school. When my dad passed away just after I was promoted to third grade, my mom went to work full-time. She did her best to provide the things we needed. This meant that we reused book bags and crayons, pencils and notebooks from the previous school year if they were still serviceable. We purchased only what was truly necessary. Our mandatory uniforms were often hand-me-downs as well. Persnickety rule-follower that I was, it bothered me to wear white blouses which were different from those sold by the uniform company. As far as our teachers were concerned, the blouse’s collar style didn’t matter. For my mom, price tags guided her selections in that regard. When I returned to Mari’s talk, I began to strategize my school supply purchases in an effort to get as much for my money as possible. After all, I knew firsthand the importance of new school supplies!

I admit that I chuckled to myself when Mari set up her collection bins after the services that day. Though she and her mom brought two good-sized plastic containers, there was no way they’d be large enough. By the time I left church, some of you had already returned with school supplies in hand. Every time I stopped in during the week, I noted that the assortment had grown exponentially. The second weekend proved even more amazing. When Mari saw all that you had given, she said that she had enough supplies for two schools!

I’m writing about Mari’s school supply project for two reasons. First, this adventure illustrates once again just how amazingly giving my parish family is. It seems that no matter what is requested, a contingent from of people responds in full force. Sometimes, some of us can respond. Sometimes, others of us can respond. Always, some among us step up to do what needs to be done. Always, this giving is humbly anonymous and overwhelmingly generous. It is also remarkably life-changing for all concerned. This is just the way it is here at my parish and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Secondly, today’s scripture passages describe this phenomenon to a T. In the first reading (Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29), Sirach reminded the people, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God…” Sirach hoped to remind God’s people that living humbly would lead them to true happiness. In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul reminded the people of their good fortune in following the loving ways of Jesus: “…you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God.” Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14) tells us that Jesus echoed all of this with, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled… blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

You know, that mountain of school supplies Mari collected won’t bring about world peace or eliminate poverty. It won’t even guarantee one evening free of violence on the West Side. Still, that mountain of school supplies will empower a school full of children in ways we can only imagine. Perhaps another third grader who’s life has been turned upside-down will be forced to smile when she begins the new year with new pencils, new crayons and a new notebook. This is what humble living is all about: Making this world better one grateful soul at a time.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rules That Matter

The early arrival of our new grandson turned the lives of all concerned upside down. Fortunately, Daniel continues to thrive in his parents’ care. As I offer a prayer of thanksgiving, I acknowledge that life’s surprises should be nothing new to any of us. Every day, rules are made for good reason and rules are broken for good reason. In Daniel’s case, he arrived at God’s appointed time with no regard for the expectations of the rest of us. With that realization in mind, I look around at our untidy house, piles of laundry and the once-blank page which I am currently filling. I temporarily set these things aside because visiting Daniel and his parents at the hospital is a priority these days.

I admit that I felt smugly vindicated when I read the scriptures today. Mark’s gospel offers a favorite vignette of Jesus-the-Rule-Breaker. Jesus did not disregard The Law. His parents raised him to be a devout member of the temple who took God’s wishes to heart. Equally importantly, however, Jesus took God’s love to heart. It was this choice to care for God’s children above all else which caused Jesus to fall into the poor graces of the rule-makers of his day. All of this brings to mind a fictional portrayal of Jesus-the-Rebel whom I encountered years ago in The Joshua Books (which are a very good read!). These narratives chronicle the adventures of the contemporary Jesus of Nazareth who revisits our modern world. Father Joseph Girzone’s rendering of Joshua is very much in keeping with Jesus’ experience in Mark’s gospel (Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23). In JOSHUA IN THE HOLY LAND (Girzone, Joseph F., Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1992), Joshua finds himself in the midst of just such an encounter.

As Father Girzone tells it, it was early Saturday when Joshua walked through an Orthodox settlement. Joshua offended onlookers because he carried a backpack. This was considered “work” which was disallowed on the Sabbath. When Joshua hurried along, seemingly to attend to important business, his quick pace violated the Sabbath once again. Those whom Joshua passed expressed disdain over these violations. It mattered little to them that Joshua was on his way to assist someone who desperately needed him. Joshua pointed out that it was rigidity such as this which prevented his adversaries’ ancient counterparts from recognizing him. The men responded by attempting to do Joshua violence. Apparently, those men determined that violence was allowable on the Sabbath! It was only the unexpected intervention of a friend that saved Joshua from being beaten.

Passages from Deuteronomy and James join Father Girzone and Mark’s gospel in illustrating the intent and the spirit of the law handed down to us through the scriptures and tradition. In Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8, Moses presents the Ten Commandments to the people who had exhibited their hard-heartedness repeatedly. They desperately needed guidance regarding the value of their humanity and their relationships with God. In response, God inspired Moses to present the people with these precepts which would guide them in loving and relying upon God and in loving and cherishing one another. James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27 celebrates the grace that comes in everything God offers from above, especially in the ten simple rules which draw the best of our humanity from within us.

Father Girzone’s Joshua reintroduced the same simple rules to the modern world. Joshua urged the people to consider their use of The Law and their willingness to put love above all else. This Joshua echoes Jesus’ challenge. When the unexpected disrupts our plans and turns our world topsy-turvy, we must adjust the demands we place upon others and ourselves. God asks only that we do our best in the moment at hand. If this requires setting aside a rule or two, so be it. The only thing we are asked not to set aside is our love for one another.

When our little grandson made his way into this world a bit early, his parents, doctors, nurses and the rest of us adjusted as needed to respond. When he arrived in need of a few extra weeks in the hospital, all else gave way to accommodate Daniel’s care. I admit that it is easy to set aside my own agenda for this lovable little child. Today, God asks each of us to do the same for all of God’s children –lovable and otherwise– when they need us most.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Loved

Before I went to kindergarten, I knew God. My parents taught me to say my prayers every night, to attend Mass every Sunday and to seek out God in the best and worst of times. I was almost four years old the first time my family gathered in the living room to pray. My uncle lay in the hospital fighting pneumonia, a tough battle before penicillin became available. Uncle Gee’s severely curved spine complicated matters because he simply couldn’t breathe as deeply as the rest of us. When his prognosis dimmed, we adjusted our prayer. Rather than praying for his speedy recovery, we prayed for my dear uncle’s happy death. A few days later, my dad assured us all that Uncle Gee happily embraced his new home in heaven where he enjoyed perfect health and happiness. Little as I was, I thanked God as best I could for my uncle’s good fortune.

By the time I began second grade, it was my dad who received the dim prognosis. Because he continued to work and both he and my mom kept things as normal as possible around the house, my dad’s last year went rather well. This is the year I received First Communion, so I became immersed in pursuing a relationship with Jesus himself. I liked what I learned about him. Jesus took care of everyone he met, and even after dying on the cross, he continues to take care of us. This was the perfect lesson for a little girl who’d soon lose her dad. I’m certain my mom’s demeanor, her gentleness toward my father and her amazing faith helped me along. I’m also certain that my conviction regarding God’s deep concern in all of this also pulled me through. Many a night after my dad passed away, I prayed tearfully to thank God that my dad was well. I always added that I missed my dad terribly.

This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though our dear Lord never actually spoke a word to me, I always knew deep down that I had a great ally in God. During those emotionally devastating teen years, I sometimes ran the other way. Yet God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me, I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

I’m happy to share that I enjoyed high school and college far more than I might have because God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. I began working at age sixteen and often had to rush from school to make it to my job. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to keep up with my studies, work, life at home and a boyfriend or two, I continued to make time for Mass. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers that characterized my childhood worship. Still, the opportunity to celebrate Mass in English thrilled me. During the week, I often attended noon Mass at the college chapel because this energized me for what lay ahead. Though lots of tough times and tragedy punctuated my high school and college years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto the relationship with God that began so long ago.

I’m sharing all of this because I don’t want you to be misled by the tone of today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-27). When Jesus began to prepare his friends for the inevitable suffering that would take Jesus from their midst, Peter pulled Jesus aside. The last thing Peter wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus went on to insist that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life in order to find what matters most.

While all of this is true, I join Peter in reminding you that, in spite of his failures, my failures and your own, Jesus never abandons any one of us. Though we sometimes try to refuse our crosses, Jesus helps us to carry them just the same. Though we sometimes ignore God’s presence, God never abandons us. Jesus asks only that we allow God to be a part of our lives. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our joy is exponentially greater. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our sorrows are lighter to bear. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter, to you and to me is steeped in absolute love.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved