Finally, I Understand!

Each week, I prepare to fill this space by praying for inspiration and then reading the scriptures we’ll hear at the coming Sunday’s Masses. Sometimes, as has been the case today, I reread them several times until the message sinks in. Usually, a recent event which relates to the theme comes to mind and I have my story. Today, I find myself struggling with Luke’s Gospel and I’m not certain of where to go from here. Last Sunday’s passage from Luke included my favorite of Jesus’ parables, The Prodigal Son. Jesus used this story to assure us that the Prodigal Son’s father extended the same loving and merciful welcome to his son which God offers to each one of us over and over again. Much to my dismay, that wonderfully loving and hope-filled parable was preceded and followed by passages which offer difficult and puzzling exhortations from Jesus. So it is that I’ve stopped to pray one more time before continuing…

Here I go… In today’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13), Luke recounts another occasion on which Jesus used a story to teach. Jesus offered the tale of a man who handled the financial affairs of a wealthy landowner. That landowner discovered that his steward had cheated him. So it was that he ordered that steward to account for his actions. The dishonest steward could see that his firing was imminent. Because he was too proud to dig ditches or to beg, the steward took action. To ensure his financial future, he called in his master’s debtors. The steward directed one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies would certainly see to his well-being after his master fired him. During that final accounting, the master marveled at the efforts of his dishonest employee. That wealthy landowner seemed not to be surprised that his steward had found a way to save himself.

Let me explain that when the steward cut the debts of his master’s clients, he did so by the amount which would have been his own commission. Though The Law forbade charging exorbitant interest rates, it was common for stewards to tack their own fees onto their masters’ loans. When the steward erased his share of those loans, he befriended possible benefactors while also seeing to it that his master was fully repaid. Though the steward failed to keep his job, he succeeded in making a bad situation tolerable by cutting everyone’s losses before he moved on. Jesus surprised me by focusing upon the creativity of that steward rather than taking issue with his dishonesty. It occurs to me that perhaps Jesus did this to draw attention to the realities of life in this not-so-perfect world. Perhaps Jesus hoped to encourage us to use our ingenuity to draw some good from the negative circumstances which surround us just as that steward did.

I’d like to think that most of our good deeds don’t stem from our wrong-doing as was the case with the dishonest steward. Nonetheless, our goodness is often inspired by the imperfections of life on this earth. The devastation wielded by Hurricane Dorian overwhelmed its victims in the Bahamas as well as on our own east coast. Wildfires in the west have done the same. Our recent observance of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks provided a stark reminder of the new brand of evil which was born that day. Today’s streamed and broadcast news programs provide ongoing evidence that violence has become a way of life in both faraway countries and nearby communities. Yet, in the midst of all of this suffering, efforts to bring assistance and relief came and continues to come from every direction. Just as they did in response to the 9/11 tragedy, heroes among us roll up their sleeves and pick up the pieces in faraway countries as well as here at home. These generous souls do whatever is needed to make things better as only they can.

Finally, I think I understand Jesus’ point. Finally, Jesus’ focus upon the steward’s dishonesty and his attempt to pick up the pieces and to make things right for himself makes sense. Life in this world is indeed imperfect, sometimes because of our own wrongdoing, sometimes because of the misdeeds of others and sometimes because of circumstances over which none of us have control. Whatever the case, Jesus used the tale of that dishonest steward to encourage us to do something. Jesus asks each of us to be equally creative in making the most of the difficulties at hand. You know, two of my favorite newscasts end each segment by highlighting individuals who demonstrate the amazing capacities we humans have to be our best and to do our best to love and to care for one another. It seems to me that God would like to end each day by recounting with us our own efforts to be our best and to do our best to love and care for one another.

I hope you’ll agree that my prayers for inspiration were answered today. I also hope that you’ll join me in taking this parable to heart. Though the Parable of the Prodigal Son continues to be my favorite, my affection for Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Steward has grown. That prodigal son keeps us ever mindful that God will always love us and God will always forgive us whenever that forgiveness is needed. That conniving steward assures us that even our worst behavior has the potential to accomplish good in God’s scheme of things. There is so much that needs our attention today! Will you join me in picking up the pieces and making something better as only we can?

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Do Your Best and Trust God!

While sorting through my files, I came across a story someone shared with me almost twenty years ago. Amazed that I’d kept it, I reread the narrative to determine why it had been important to me. When I reached the bottom of the page, I smiled in spite of the tear which trickled down my cheek. As I dabbed it away, I looked upward and whispered a prayer of gratitude. This discovery was perfectly timed because I was hard-pressed to complete a number of these reflections before leaving for our recent trip to Italy. This sweet story addressed not only the disciples’ dilemma in today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:30-37), but also the difficulties which have plagued us within the church, this world of ours and within our own hearts.

The story relates the terrifying adventure of a young boy in Florida. This active little guy swam in the lake behind his house whenever possible. One day, the boy rejoiced in his swim a bit too completely. He’d managed to swim farther from the shore than usual and found himself in close proximity to an alligator. This frightened child frantically paddled toward home, yelling for his mom all the while. His mother, who always listened attentively when her son was outdoors, dropped everything. She arrived just soon enough to see that alligator take hold of her son’s legs as he approached their pier. This determined mother pulled the boy with all of her might while that alligator did the same. Fortunately, a passing farmer heard the commotion, pulled a rifle from the back of his truck and shot it as he ran to help. The startled alligator let go of the boy and hurried away. Though his legs had been badly bitten, the boy survived. Afterward, he sported numerous scars which became a lifelong reminder of the incident.

When a local reporter heard what had happened, he hoped to talk to that brave youngster one day. After waiting for the boy to heal physically and mentally, the reporter requested an interview. While they talked, the man asked about the boy’s scars. The boy quickly pulled up his pant legs to reveal the evidence of his injuries. When the reporter pulled back from what he saw, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Mister! You have to look at my arms. You should see the scars my mom left because she wouldn’t let me go!” Though I don’t know the reporter’s reaction to the boy’s observation, I’m responding with more tears.

In his gospel today Mark tells us Jesus’ words once again troubled the disciples. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” Jesus’ friends didn’t understand. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus’ demise. At the same time, they were afraid to approach Jesus about this. Though Jesus had exhibited his devotion to them at every turn, they worried. Perhaps to distract themselves, they moved on to a far less important topic. “Who’s most important among us?” they wondered. Not long after, Jesus asked what they’d been discussing. When they said nothing, it was Jesus who moved on. He called their attention to a little child whom he hugged. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me, but the One who sent me.” Jesus dismissed his friends’ concern regarding their status and he addressed the heart of the matter: God’s ongoing love for each one of them and God’s call for them to extend that love to one another and to everyone they met along the way.

As I read today’s gospel, I considered the frantic mother who battled with that menacing alligator for her son. Though she’d been busy inside, nothing mattered when she heard her child’s cries. That mother responded to her son when he needed her most. While that alligator certainly left his mark on that little boy, so did his mother. It occurs to me that Jesus was busy with many things as well when he walked among us. Still, when he heard the cries of those who needed him, he abandoned the tasks at hand to respond. Jesus left his mark on everyone he met along the way. Jesus did this to assure all who heard him that God’s love for us is ongoing and complete.

As I prepared to write this reflection, I found myself swimming with that little boy in the proximity of a congregation of menacing alligators. (Did you know that a group of alligators is actually called a congregation?) Those gators seemed to come from every direction to distract me from my family, prepping for our trip and this writing. As I struggled at my keyboard, I looked up in frustration. It was then that I saw a favorite bit of artwork -a rendering of two hands cupped around the face of a child. Before attempting to begin this writing again, I thanked God for the reminder that someone is holding on to me as well. Though scars from this life’s battles sometimes threaten my hope, the scars from God’s grip comfort me. With that, I entrusted the troubles swarming around me to God and I began to write.
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Not Counting, Thank Goodness!

After whispering a prayer of thanks for the new day, I begin what remains of each new day with counting. An ages-old lower back issue compels me to complete four exercises before I get out of bed. I count forty reps for each one. My physical therapist at the time assured me that the results would be worth the effort. Since my arthritic back rarely bothers me, I assume that she was absolutely correct. When I get up, I lie on the floor to complete four more exercises which require a firm surface. Once again, I count forty reps for each one. Finally, I stand for one shoulder exercise which has kept it moving appropriately since surgery some years ago. And, yes, I count to forty for that as well.

In spite of the benefits of these exercises, I grow weary of the counting. I tried singing my way through each movement. Unfortunately, this effort left me with no idea of the number of reps I’d actually completed. I tried timing my efforts only to discover that, for unknown reasons, I do them at different rates each time. I even tried praying my way through them only to find that I couldn’t give appropriate attention to either activity. As I write, I imagine that the serious workout buffs and trainers among you will respond to all of this with, “Mary, just count and be done with it!” I smile as I admit to myself that you’re absolutely right. Still, I find a morsel of vindication in the apostle Peter’s frustration with counting and God’s lack of interest in the same…

In last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), Peter asked Jesus if it was enough to forgive his brother seven times. Poor Peter certainly didn’t expect Jesus to respond that he must forgive his brother not only seven times, but seventy times seven times. Of course, Jesus’ point was that the number of times we must forgive one another’s transgressions cannot be counted. We must forgive whenever it’s required regardless of how frequently this necessity presents itself. As I reconsider my morning exercises, I admit to being grateful that my forty reps of each one are enough. Poor Peter wasn’t as fortunate!

In today’s gospel (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus presents another “counting” scenario in the form of a parable. On this occasion, Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom of heaven operates like the vineyard of a certain landowner. That landowner went out early in the morning to seek laborers. He found a group who agreed upon the standard daily wage and sent them off to work. An hour later, he hired more workers to whom he promised to pay a fair wage. The landowner hired additional workers at noon, at three o’clock and then at five o’clock. When the workday ended at six o’clock, the landowner told his foreman to pay all of the laborers, beginning with those hired last.

The foreman began by paying each man the standard day’s wage. When they realized what was happening, the laborers at the end of the line who were hired first began to count up their fortunes. If those who worked only one hour were given a full day’s wage, they could only imagine what they’d receive for the ten hours they’d worked. Ten times the daily wage was a tidy sum! Much to their dismay, the foreman ignored their calculations and paid these laborers the standard day’s wage as well. When the men grumbled, the landowner reminded them that they’d been given exactly what they had agreed to. The landowner went on to scold them for resenting his generosity toward the other men. Those who worked only six or three or one hour had families to feed and debts to pay as well. The landowner simply gave them all what was necessary to survive.

I admit to being relieved by that landowner’s choice to ignore the numbers when it came to providing for his workers. I’m even more relieved by Jesus’ insistence that this is precisely the way God operates when it comes to you and me. Though I’m compelled by my potentially aching body to count those reps when I exercise each morning, God isn’t compelled to count a thing. As sorely miserable as our efforts may be, God doesn’t keep score regarding them. God’s main interest is the moment at hand and our use of that precious gift. Every time we do the right thing, even when these occurrences are few and far between, we add to our own goodness. In the process, we improve God’s vineyard by helping those around us and ourselves to blossom in unexpectedly beautiful ways.

Today, God continues as the landowner who seeks laborers to tend to the fields of this life. God is pleased with those among us who begin our labor at daybreak and give our all for the duration. At the same time, God continues the search for more laborers. Every time another accepts God’s invitation to work at being the best he or she can be, God is pleased. That brave soul and God’s entire vineyard benefit from these seemingly delayed efforts. The lesson here is that God isn’t counting the hours we work. Rather, God celebrates the quality of our labor whenever it is the best we have to offer at the time. Now that’s something you and I can count on!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love Away The Hatred

Each week, I mail my Sunday reflections to several people who don’t have access to them via my parish bulletin or online. I include a little note with my greetings and a bit of current news. When I did so last week, I shared with one friend that I intentionally didn’t acknowledge the anniversary of September 11. That date marks an extremely painful time for us. Much to my dismay, many equivalent evils beset our world these days. I simply didn’t know where to begin. However, as soon as I sent off that note, I felt compelled to make an attempt. I had read Luke’s gospel and found myself troubled by Jesus’ words as well. Jesus seemed to hold up a man who was no more than a petty thief. Why highlight his crafty evildoing? I had to attempt to understand…

As Luke (Luke 16:1-13) tells it, Jesus offered a parable regarding a steward who cheated his master. When the master discovered this, he called in the man for an accounting after which he planned to fire him. The dishonest steward understood his predicament. Because he refused to dig ditches or beg, the steward took action. To insure his future, he went to his master’s debtors. He directed one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies would see to his comfort when this ugly incident eventually led to his unemployment. During the final accounting, the master marveled at the efforts of the steward. The master wasn’t surprised that the man had found a way to save himself. In this parable, Jesus focused upon the creativity of the dishonest man. As I wondered what lesson could be found here, I wondered again. Was Jesus suggesting that the rest of us should be equally creative when it comes to doing good?

Last Sunday’s anniversary of 9-11 gives me much to consider in this regard. Most of us have vivid recollections of our whereabouts when we heard the news. The worst of my memories include the school half-full of military children where I worked. I cannot forget my fear as I considered that the nearby naval installation might be a subsequent target. How would we tell our students that their parents had perished? How would we help them all? At the same time, I recalled what happened here at Saint Paul’s the following weekend. I watched carefully as we gathered to pray. Our interactions with one another were somehow different. Was it my imagination or were young parents holding their babies a bit closer? Was it my imagination or were more children perched upon a parent’s knee than sat fidgeting at their sides? Was it my imagination or did couples hold hands long before and long after we recited the Lord’s Prayer? Was it my imagination or did those to whom I offered the Eucharist have an intense longing in their eyes, a longing I felt deeply with them?

In its most creative state, my imagination is incapable of conjuring images as wholesome and Godlike as those which unfolded before me in this church that weekend and for many weeks afterward. Indeed, our entire country responded as one people united to love our wounds away. Nothing nourishes the human spirit more than love graciously offered and love graciously received. The only antidote to haunting deeds of evil at its worst is love. If we are to conquer the horror which unfolded fifteen years ago and the evil which threatens today, we must mobilize without delay. I’ve often heard, “Pray as though everything depends upon God and work as though everything depends upon you.” Today, an alternative seems appropriate: Pray as though everything depends upon God, and love as though everything depends upon you because, indeed, it does.

Those who plotted the 9/11 attack and the many who have followed in their footsteps acted with unwavering conviction. Their commitment, though twisted and perverted, was unquestionable. Like the devious steward in today’s gospel, they did precisely what was necessary to achieve their goals. Our challenge is to counter evil in this world with equally passionate resolve. Like the determined forces who propagate hatred, we must be determined forces who extend love to all of God’s people. We must mobilize as individuals, families, neighborhoods, parishes, towns, a country and a world. We must teach our children and re-teach ourselves to love as completely as evildoers hate. Like the steward’s master, Jesus challenges us to take an accounting of the things we have been up to as of late. More importantly, Jesus asks that we are passionate and creative –like that steward– not in the ways of evil, but in the ways we find to love one another. Though my 9/11 reflection may be a week late, it’s never too late to commit ourselves to love.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Say It and Live It

While updating our photo album, I realized I hadn’t added pictures from our granddaughters’ first days of school. Our daughter-in-law is quite a photographer and she always captures the best of this momentous day each year. Before checking my email for the photo files, I asked my dear husband to find them on Facebook. Together, we revisited the onset of this school year which will dominate our conversations with the girls until June. The girls’ ventures into preschool, first and third grades brought to mind the joy and the challenges my own students and I faced not so long ago.

It was with great expectation that I welcomed my new students. As we gathered on the blacktop outside our assigned entrance to the school, I watched old friendships rekindle and new friendships ignite. Sometimes, old rivalries also surfaced and new conflicts threatened. I tried not to make judgments regarding any of the children’s behavior on that first day. I also tried to nip any negativity in the bud.

When the morning bell rang and the children filed indoors to their new classroom, I allowed them to choose their seats. I explained that this was a temporary arrangement. I would “adjust” their seating as needed to best accommodate learning and productivity. If sitting near a friend did not interfere with our work, a student could expect to sit near that friend for a very long time. I also addressed those all-important restroom breaks and walks to the lunchroom early on to ease any apprehension regarding these rituals. After sharing these essentials, I went on to offer the first of many lectures my students would endure regarding appropriate school behaviors. I explained that we were all to treat others as we wished to be treated. We were also to behave as we would if the persons we respect most in the world were watching us. I pointed out that we would get to know one another best by observing the way we acted. My use of the pronoun “we” was intentional as I learned early on that children can detect a hypocrite a mile away. Finally, I predicted that those who cooperated, were good sports, gave others a second chance and exhibited kindness would make many friends. I warned that negative behaviors toward others usually resulted in the opposite. In the end, my students and I started each new year with a better than average chance for success.

I share these first-day-of-school memories because they echo today’s scripture readings. The passages from the Book of Wisdom (2:22, 27-30), James’ epistle (3:16-4:3) and Mark’s gospel (9:30-37) each address behavior. In this case, the behavior of those who count themselves among God’s people is the focus. The author of Wisdom quotes the wicked who detail the evil they will do to the “just one” because “according to his own words, God will take care of him.” I am most grateful that my students refrained from testing my theories with such ill will! James leaves no doubt regarding his observation that we expose the sentiments we hold in our hearts through our behaviors. Just as the wicked knew what to expect from the just one, James tells us that those who observe us know what to expect from us as well. “Your actions speak louder than your words,” I told my students. Though the scripture reference escaped them, I’m happy to share that the intent of these words did not. Mark’s gospel indicates that my students responded a bit more favorably to my lectures than the disciples responded to Jesus on that occasion.

Jesus and his friends had just begun a trip through Galilee. Jesus hoped to use this time together to review an important lesson: The Messiah’s work would evolve far differently than that of the political and military hero so many hoped for. This Messiah would endure great suffering and death before he achieved glory. Yet, in spite of the gravity of this subject, the disciples moved on to a far more pressing topic -their positions of importance. Jesus had just instructed them regarding the necessity of humility and servitude. Still, the disciples argued about who was greatest among them. So it was that Jesus summoned a child to illustrate the power of putting others before oneself and of serving the most humble of God’s people. Jesus insisted that only by behaving as he did would the disciples find true fulfillment and power. Today, you and I review this lesson. While our Teacher is pleased with our ability to listen, Jesus will be more pleased when we put what we hear to good use in our interactions with and service to one another.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Pick Up The Pieces

I prepare my Sunday posts by reading the scriptures for the coming Sunday’s liturgy. Sometimes, as has been the case today, I reread them several times until the message sinks in. Usually, a recent event which relates to the theme comes to mind and I have my story. Today, I find myself struggling with the gospel, and I am not quite sure where to go from here.

Luke (16:1-13) tells us that Jesus once again uses a story to teach. Jesus shares the tale of a man who handles the financial affairs of a wealthy landowner. The landowner discovers that this steward has cheated him. He calls in the man for an accounting of his deeds after which he plans to fire him. The dishonest steward understands his predicament. Because he is too proud to dig ditches or to beg, the steward takes action.

To insure his future, this steward calls in his master’s debtors. He directs one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies will see to his comfort when this ugly incident is resolved. During the final accounting, the master marvels at the efforts of his dishonest steward. The master seems not to be surprised that the steward found a way to save himself.

Actually, this steward cut the debts of his master’s clients by the amount that would have been his own commission. Though the Law forbids the use of exorbitant interest rates, it is common in Jesus’ day for stewards to tack their own fees onto their masters’ loans. When the steward erases his share of these loans, he befriends possible benefactors while also seeing to it that his master is fully repaid. In the end, though the steward fails to retain his job, he succeeds in making a bad situation a little better by cutting everyone’s losses before he moves on. In this parable, Jesus surprises me a bit by focusing upon the creativity of the dishonest steward rather than condemning his sin. Perhaps Jesus hopes to call my attention to the reality of life in this not-so-perfect world of ours.

This past week, I busied myself organizing photos from my husband’s and my recent trip to Alaska. I continued to smile over our 40th Anniversary celebration, too. Current events included the onset of the new school year for our granddaughters and a much-anticipated family wedding. As a result, I have not focused at all upon the not-so-perfect aspects of life -which explains my difficulty with today’s gospel. I am not in the appropriate frame of mind to deal with either the steward’s dishonesty or his attempt to pick up the pieces and to make things right again. Perhaps I am reluctant to acknowledge the imperfections of the world because it feels good not to worry for a change.

Still, reading the paper, listening to the news and responding to an email from a friend in need of prayers have re-acquainted me with reality. I have a long list of people, causes and intentions for which to pray. As I add to my list the graces needed to make this world a bit more livable and lovable, I find that I do need to hear what Jesus has to say about picking up the pieces and making things right again.

Indeed, each of us needs to hear and to understand that life in this world is not perfect. Perfection awaits us in heaven. However, each of us also needs to hear and to understand that we can make the most of our lives in ways which will fill us and those around us with grace. Indeed, each of us experiences God’s Spirit, God’s love and God’s life every time we pick up the pieces and start again.

The steward in Luke’s gospel did precisely what was necessary to make things right in the end. When he left his master’s service, his final act was an honest one. Our challenge is to counter the imperfections of this world and those we find within ourselves with equal resolve. When we do so, we improve our little corners of this world as only we can.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved