Destination: Heaven!

In spite of the heavy traffic, I smiled as we crept along the tollway. Since my dear husband was driving, I’d been taking in the view along the way. Though there wasn’t much more to see than the other vehicles on the road, I was enjoying myself. I wondered about the drivers who hurried along with us. What was it that urged them along their way? I hoped each one would find what he or she hoped for at the end of the drive. Eventually, a semi cab interrupted this musing. It looked rather odd without its trailer in tow. As I wondered who thought up the ingenious design which allowed that trucker to sleep in his rig, I noticed some very large lettering printed across its back. “Destination: Heaven” it said. I wondered what impelled this man to proclaim his final stop to the rest of us. Were the other drivers who shared the road with us heading toward the same end? As Mike continued to make his way through the dense traffic, I asked myself, “What is that trucker’s idea of heaven? What about those other drivers? What about me?”

Since our first grandchild was born, I’ve said at least a thousand times, “I’m in grandma heaven!” Our grandchildren bring Mike and me great joy. I admit to savoring every minute that I spend with each of them. When I gathered for an afternoon with my sisters not long ago, one remarked, “Mmmm. This is heaven!” Though I’m certain she was pleased with our company, her comment was in response to the bit of Godiva chocolate she’d slipped into her mouth. How she loves chocolate! The other day, a friend remarked that she’d been in cruise heaven because she hadn’t set her alarm clock the entire time she was away. Currently, Cub fans find themselves in and out of baseball heaven as their lovable team edges nearer to and then farther from possible post-season play. After the Bears opening game, I won’t mention the possibility of football heaven unless, of course, you’re a Packer fan! I suppose each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are immersed in one type of heaven or another. Sometimes, the possibility seems completely out of reach and we dismiss it as pure folly. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that, if only this or that circumstance would conform to our wishes, we’d be in the heaven of our choosing.

In today’s gospel (Luke 15:1-32), Luke tells us that Jesus once told the story a young man who defined and then redefined heaven for himself much the way we do. The young man and his brother lived on the family farm with their father. They worked hand in hand with their dad in order to maintain their prosperous land. Apparently, this arrangement wasn’t the young man’s idea of heaven. He failed to find fulfillment in a hard day’s work and in the fruits of the fields around him. Heaven was something quite different to him. He wanted that heaven so badly that he forsook his own father’s life to get it. You see, the young man asked his father for his portion of his inheritance. When he did this, this son wasn’t simply asking for an advance on his allowance or for a small loan. This son was asking his father to behave as though he was dead and to give him what would be his upon his father’s death. Scripture scholars tell us that the young man could neither insult nor hurt his father more deeply than he did by voicing his demand. It was as though this son said to his father, “I can’t wait for you to die. Behave as you’re dead now and give me what is mine!”

Though you or I might have responded to the young man far differently, that father complied with his son’s wishes. That father gave his son the equivalent of what he would have inherited had this father died that day. With no regret, the young man immediately set out to find the heaven which he’d defined for himself. He invested his inheritance in partying. He spent every penny surrounding himself with the right people, especially those who saw things his way and those who brought him pleasure. He ate the best food and drank the finest wine with his store-bought acquaintances. The young man enjoyed it all without lifting a finger except, of course, to open his money bag to keep things the way he liked them. Eventually, the young man’s resources ran out and he was left without food, friends and finances. In the midst of starvation, he offered himself for hire to a landowner who took him on to tend to his pigs. As he stood in the mud surrounded by swine, the young man considered his predicament and how recklessly wasteful he’d been. He’d not only squandered his inheritance, but he’d also discarded the most important relationships in his life. Full of sorrow and regret, this lost son adjusted his perception of heaven. He set out for the place that once was his home. There, he would beg for a job beside the servants. Though he knew even this was too much to ask, the young man hoped against hope that he would find a parcel of heaven in the shadow of his father’s house. When the young man finally made it home, he was overwhelmed by the heaven he found in his loving father’s embrace.

I wish I’d been among the people who listened as Jesus told the prodigal son’s story. I wish I could have looked into Jesus’ eyes as he described the joy of welcoming home a lost child. In those eyes, I might have caught a glimpse of what my truck driver friend so boldly proclaimed for the rest of us to see. You know, “Destination: Heaven” is listed on each of our itineraries. Though heaven may escape us much of the time during this life, in the end, we will not escape heaven. Our Loving God waits with outstretched arms to warmly embrace every child, prodigal or otherwise, who comes home. On that day, we will actually find heaven just as Jesus promised.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Who Am I?

It’s been more than a dozen years since my husband began to search for his Croatian cousins. Mike was raised next door to his dad’s parents who migrated from their homeland as teens. This close proximity made Mike privy to bits and pieces of his grandparents’ story which no one else heard. It’s no wonder he engaged in a years-long search to find the family his grandparents had left behind. After extensive research, numerous phone calls and a letter to his grandfather’s childhood parish, it was his cousins’ parish priest who provided their contact information. All of this resulted in an amazing visit with Mike’s family in Krasic, Croatia. We’ve been in contact with these wonderful new additions to our family ever since.

Though I wish I could tell you that Mike was satisfied with these efforts to discover his roots, I cannot. Some years later, he began a similar search on his mother’s side of the family. Though Mike didn’t live next door, he visited his grandmother often at her home just a few miles away. Mike’s maternal grandfather had passed away just prior to Mike’s birth. As a result, his grandmother looked upon him as a blessing who filled the hole in her heart. As a child, Mike listened intently to this grandmother’s stories as well. Like those Croatian tales, they stoked his curiosity regarding his grandparents’ life in their homeland. So it was that the research, phone calls and correspondence began again. A few years ago, we spent a week in Sicily and a day in Mike’s grandparents’ village. Our friend Onofrio arranged for his Sicilian army buddy Gianfranco and his wife Aurora to explore Altofonte with us that day. This enjoyable adventure provided Mike with far more information. It also added many more questions to his need-to-know list.

Today, Mike and I are in Sicily. This time, two locals are exploring Altofonte with us. While researching via the internet, Mike came across a high school student’s video which featured her hometown. When Mike commented that his grandparents were born there, Pietro joined in the conversation. He shared that he lives in Altofonte and might be able to find additional information for Mike. Since that first online meeting, Pietro was elected councilman in Altofonte and he and Mike have communicated regularly regarding local news as well as Mike’s family history. In the mean time, Mike discovered the Sicilian Genealogy page on Facebook. Someone used the page to request on site help in discovering her family roots. When law student Francesco came highly recommended, Mike decided to contact him. In the midst of his studies, Francesco engages in genealogy searches as a hobby. At this writing, Mike and I are anxious to meet these two in person. Mike is anxious to meet his grandparents’ history in person as well.

Since I packed my bags to join him in this undertaking, I think it’s obvious that I support Mike’s efforts in this regard. I spent my childhood listening to my family stories, too, and I certainly appreciate their value. The difference, I think, is that I’ve never felt the need to know more. I loved my parents who made me who I am today. My grandparents, aunts and uncles were the frosting on the cake who enhanced my parents’ influence. Of course, my own siblings and my sixty-plus cousins added to the mix as well. I’ve never wondered where I came from or who I am because I felt that I knew. The truth is that, until this writing, I continued to feel this way. It is the question Jesus posed in Mark’s gospel ( 8:27-35) which urges me to acknowledge that I have more to learn after all…

Mark tells us that, as they walked between villages, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” I’m fairly certain that Jesus knew how he would answer this question. Our Loving Creator meant everything to Jesus and he had made his people’s history his own. Jesus knew from whence he’d come and he lived accordingly. Perhaps Jesus posed the question to help his disciples to discover who they were and where they were on this life’s journey. They’d enjoyed friendships with Jesus and they’d witnessed his preaching, his miracles and his compassion. Still, they also shook their heads at some of what Jesus said and did. When Jesus posed his question, most of them didn’t have the courage to express what they felt. They merely quoted what they’d heard from others. Only Peter stepped up to say, “You are the Christ.” When he identified Jesus, Peter identified himself. Peter was willing to follow wherever Jesus lead him because in knowing Jesus he came to know himself. Though Peter balked when Jesus spoke of his suffering, Peter remained. Though Peter denied Jesus during his passion, he embraced their friendship at the foot of the cross. By the time Peter joined Jesus in eternity, Peter knew exactly who he was.

Discovering his extended family has enriched Mike’s sense of self beyond expectations. I think Mike will agree that his relationship with God defines him even more so. As for me, I have much to learn from my relationship with God and my own history as well. One day, I’ll really know who God is and I’ll really know me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Heaven

A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent the day with our little grandson. The cool morning temperatures coaxed us outdoors for a walk to a nearby park. When we arrived, we discovered several pieces of playground equipment which were appropriate for very little children. Though Danny couldn’t negotiate any of them alone, with Grandpa’s and my help, he thoroughly enjoyed the baby swing, a very small slide, the seesaw and a rocking turtle. Danny’s smile grew with each new adventure. In the midst of all of this, Grandpa Mike announced, “Danny’s in playground heaven!”

Later that day, when Grandpa went off to run errands, Danny and I took another walk to that park. This time, I brought along a bottle of bubbles. After enjoying those wonderful pint-sized rides once again, I put Danny back into his stroller. From there, he watched intently as I created a sea of bubbles for him. Danny tried hard to touch the bubbles which came close. When he missed, he watched as they sailed away. I admit that I did the same thing. Though Danny’s smile indicated that he might have been in “bubble heaven”, I was certainly there.

It seems to me that each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are in one type of heaven or another. Cubs fans are in “baseball heaven” these days, while White Sox and Bears fans hope to be in their own variety of heaven sooner than later. Many of us long for “job heaven” while many others hope for “relationship heaven”. The list is endless. Sometimes, these possibilities seem out of reach and we dismiss them as pure folly. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that if conditions conformed to our wishes, we would be in heaven after all. At times, we’re so convinced that we’ll do anything and everything to make it so.

In Luke’s gospel (15:1-32), Jesus referenced “lost sheep heaven” and “lost coin heaven” and “rich heir heaven”. In the first two scenarios, Jesus described people who’d lost things which were very dear to them and who worked very hard to find these treasures once again. A man with a herd of one hundred sheep left ninety-nine to search for one lost animal. He ventured onto treacherous terrain to bring that little wanderer home. When he found him, the man called his friends to celebrate with him. A woman who discovered she’d lost one of ten precious coins turned her house upside-down to find it. When she succeeded, she too called her friends to celebrate with her. In the third scenario, the young man who desired to be in “rich heir heaven” was seeking something which wasn’t actually his. Still, he pressed on.

The young man who desired “rich heir heaven” asked his father for his inheritance. Though he could have requested an advance on his allowance or a small loan, this son asked his father to behave as though he was dead. He asked his father to give him what would be rightfully his upon his father’s death. In Jesus’ day, this young man could neither insult nor hurt his father more deeply than he did by making this demand. Nonetheless, though his son’s demand was completely out of line, this father complied. And so it was that the young man pursued “heaven” for himself.

He spent every penny surrounding himself with the right people: those who saw things his way and who brought him pleasure of one kind or another. He ate and drank well without lifting a finger except, of course, to open his money bag to keep things the way he liked them. Eventually, the young man’s money ran out. He was left with neither food nor finances nor friends. “Rich heir heaven” faded into nothingness. Finally, he agreed to tend pigs with the hope of securing a bit of food for himself. When no one came to his aid, the young man realized that he had not only squandered his inheritance, but had also discarded the most precious relationships in his life. Full of sorrow and regret, this lost son adjusted his perception of heaven. He set out for the place that once was his home to beg for a job beside the servants. He would happily exchanged “rich heir heaven” for “lowly servant heaven” in a heartbeat. Fortunately for the young man, his father envisioned “my beloved children heaven” where all of his family would dwell in peaceful love.

I wish I had been among the people who listened as Jesus told the prodigal son’s story for the first time. I wish I could have looked into Jesus’ eyes as he described the joy of welcoming a lost child home. In those eyes, I might have caught a glimpse of God’s Heaven: That place where, one day, you and I will discover “heaven” in its fullest, truest and most awesomely wonderful form.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

You Are the One

My Sunday posts also appear in my parish church’s weekly bulletin. Each week, I prepare for this writing by reading the scriptures for the coming Sunday a few days before I sit at my keyboard. Eventually, an indication of how the scriptures relate to this life emerges and I write. Afterward, I submit this reflection to our bulletin editor. I also print copies to mail to some family, friends, home-bound and former parishioners who don’t have access to email. Finally, I email the current edition to others who are online.

This past week, I emailed frantically because I realized that I had accomplished nothing on my personal “to do” list. I was so annoyed with myself that I expressed my frustration in the last of these emails. I moaned that I have been feeling a little out of sorts mentally and that I cannot seem to organize my time. I confessed that it has been quite some time since I added a single page to a daily devotional I began writing more than a year ago. I also shared that I hoped to keep myself on task with some kind of schedule. Finally, I asked for prayers in regard to my schedule and the uncharacteristic lack of organization which plagues me these days. After sending off that last email, I shut down my computer, set aside my “to do” list and headed outdoors for a walk.

I walked down the block where a cool breeze met me. It lingered just long enough to dispel the humidity. I picked up my pace and as the breeze continued. Before I knew it, I had made my way into the subdivision next to ours where tree branches swayed in the breeze that now seemed to wrap itself around me. I thought of nothing of consequence as I plodded along. I simply enjoyed the breeze and the sunlight that danced its way through the leaves and onto the sidewalk before me. Some time later, cars pulling into driveways prompted me to check my watch. I had been walking for forty minutes and it was time to head home.

Before getting to the chores that awaited me, I checked my email. Much to my surprise, three friends had already replied to my frustrated moans. One observed that she was happy to see that I am human, as she often experiences the same things. The second promised her prayers and assured me that I would figure things out because the Lord is with me. The third detailed many things that I have accomplished to date and then reminded me that I am retired. She wrote, “You have this incredible freedom of life that is unknown to you. Breathe it in and decide how you want to spend it…there is no rush…It truly is a wonderful problem in the world of problems.” And so it is…

I’ve walked every day since and I am “breathing it in.” Breezes continues to accompany me, and sunshine continues to dance through the leaves above me. The difference is that I HAVE given much thought to things consequential. Indeed, I walked in preparation for this writing, mulling over this week’s passage from Mark’s gospel (8:27-35)…

Mark tell us that, as Jesus and the disciples walked along, Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples rattled off the series of names they had heard whispered in the crowds. Afterward, Jesus asked the far more important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Before anyone else could utter a word, Peter declared, “You are the Christ!” Oddly, though Peter recognized that Jesus was the One for whom the people had been waiting, he failed to understand what this meant for Jesus. Jesus’ life would not include the political power and the prestige which the people longed for. Rather, Jesus would suffer terribly and then die. Poor Peter didn’t understand that knowing who Jesus actually is makes all of the difference in this world and the next.

As I ponder poor Peter’s dilemma, I consider my own answer to Jesus query. “Who do you say that I am?” If you are asking me, Lord, this is my response: You are the one who has loved me for as long as I can remember through my mom and dad, my brother and sisters, the large family that has filled my life, the friends I have met along the way, my husband, my children and my grandchildren. You are the one who has convinced me that you appreciate what I do with a well-intentioned heart and that whatever evil I have done is never too much to be forgiven. You are the one who fills me with hope even when life seems hopeless. You are the one who makes this life doable with glimpses of the things to come in the good people and the blessings that surround me. Organized or not, on schedule or not, you are the one, Lord, who finds my life and all of our lives to be of great value. Oh yes, Lord, you are the one!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved