Did You Notice?

I’d just driven onto our block when I noticed our friend half-running down the sidewalk behind her dog. I would write that Cindy was walking Duke, but the truth is that Duke was walking her. I couldn’t help smiling because Duke was behaving exactly like my husband’s and my first and only dog. Now our friend Cindy is quite athletic and perfectly capable of managing that large Labrador Retriever. It was the end of their walk and they were headed home. I’m certain that by that time Cindy had allowed Duke the luxury of running ahead of her. As for Mike’s and my dog, though he was half the size of Duke, he managed to lead us everywhere. Our difficulties with Ernie began during the drive home from the pet shop. That sweet little cocker-beagle-poodle-terrier mix refused to stay put. He repeatedly crawled out of the box he was to occupy all the way home.

Mike and I were married only ten months when we met Ernie. We were both teachers who managed our students quite well. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the same for our dog. Ernie failed doggie kindergarten because his owners failed to practice commands and reward his successes with any consistency. Did I mention that we thought everything Ernie did was cute? Eventually, our poor dog was saved by a good friend who told us that we were terrible parents! She generously took Ernie for a single afternoon and taught him everything he needed to know. She taught his owners a few things as well. In the end, Ernie wasn’t a prefect dog, but he was far more well-behaved than Mike and I deserved him to be.

During our fourteen years with Ernie, he taught us far more than we taught him. More importantly, we didn’t make the same mistakes with our sons that we did with our pet. This is likely because we honed our parenting skills while dealing with our dog. Yet, in spite of sacrificing himself for our kids, Ernie loved us unconditionally and seemed content to be part of our family. Ernie’s greatest attribute was his ability to notice just about everything around him. Ernie knew the mail carrier would arrive shortly though he or she wasn’t on our block yet. Ernie growled quietly long before I noticed a stranger approaching. He also paced in anticipation of Mike’s arrival even before the garage door opened. Ernie always sensed when a crying baby had woken me once too often on a given night. As I sat nursing my little son, Ernie nuzzled at my feet. “You’re not alone,” he seemed to say. When the extended family visited, Ernie made a beeline to my stepdad the first time they met. How did Ernie know that Bill was a dog-lover? When Mike’s father passed away, did Ernie sense Mike’s sadness? He climbed onto the couch next to my dear husband seemingly because he somehow knew Mike needed him. When Mike was away for a late night meeting or out of town at a conference, Ernie plopped himself on the floor on my side of the bed to assure me that he was keeping watch. Sometimes, Ernie attended to the details of this life far more carefully than I did.

In today’s gospel (Luke 16:19-31), Luke shares Jesus’ story of a rich man who missed a bit too much of what transpired around him. This man spent his time and his wealth quite freely on himself. He gorged himself on spectacular food and drink while failing to notice Lazarus who lay dying on his doorstep. The rich man was so taken with the luxuries which surrounded him that he didn’t notice the many other people who might have graced his life, especially those in need. Sadly, only the neighborhood dogs noticed Lazarus. Only they stopped to tend to their suffering neighbor and to lick his wounds. Did Ernie’s canine counterparts somehow know that Lazarus might have recovered if he’d been given the scraps from his rich neighbor’s table? Jesus went on to share that both men eventually passed away and entered into eternal life. Lazarus rested contentedly in the embrace of Abraham, while the rich man wallowed in pain and was desperate with thirst. When the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a few drops of water, Abraham couldn’t comply. Lazarus couldn’t enter the netherworld and the rich man couldn’t enter heaven. The point of Jesus’ story was that if the rich man had noticed his suffering neighbor life would have been much better for both of them. If only the rich man had noticed! He would have found his way to Abraham’s embrace.

I admit that Ernie drove me crazy much of the time. However, I also admit that Ernie comforted Mike and me far more. That little dog showed us that a well-timed nuzzle, sufficient food, a safe place to lay his head and the encouraging love of those who cared for him were all he needed. All that any of us need to be happy is the same. Once again, we’re invited to take notice of the people we’ve been given to love and to care for them as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Welcome

When a friend shared the highlights of his trip to New York City, I smiled knowingly at almost everything he said. I was impressed that he’d managed to take in as much during his adventure as my husband and I had done in two trips to the Big Apple. This conversation prompted me to unearth the photos which chronicle our New York stay. Though this writing awaited me, I allowed those photos to lead my reminiscing for a full half-hour. When I finally turned to today’s scripture passages, I realized that time had been very well-spent. Let me begin by telling you about those trips…

During our first stay, we lodged near Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. I recalled that I couldn’t contain my excitement when I found that we were able to see the Statue of Liberty from our hotel room. During our second visit, we stayed in Times Square. These locations gave us the opportunity to see the city from two completely different perspectives. Though tourists filled Battery Park, its lush green expanses and proximity to the harbor kept it from feeling crowded. Though Times Square can only be described as frenetic, it proved to be truly inviting in its own colorful way.

Times Square teems with people from dawn to dusk and into the wee hours of the morning. Bright lights and sidewalk vendors provide some of the color and scents unique to this amazing hub of activity. Before that trip, a friend had told me that her favorite Times Square activity had been people-watching. She traveled to New York fairly often. Whenever she was there, she made her way to the two-story McDonald’s where she sat by a second floor window. From that perch above the sidewalk, she enjoyed the wave of humankind which passed by. When my husband and I were there, we quickly understood my friend’s fascination. Mike remarked that he heard people speaking a number of different languages. As for me, I saw amazingly chiseled faces with long and short noses, high and mid-placed cheek bones and very full and very thin lips. Numerous shades of hair color topped my fellow humans as they made their way. I wonder what those passers-by saw as I passed them by.

Though we’d spent most of our stay in Time’s Square during that second trip, we ventured off to the World Trade Center site. We stopped to pray in St. Paul’s Chapel/Trinity Church which had miraculously survived the horror of September 11, 2001. Afterward, we went on to Battery Park to re-acquaint ourselves with Lady Liberty. I immediately walked to the base of the statue where Emma Lazarus’ poem is displayed. Its words speak Lady Liberty’s welcome to all who come her way: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Tears stung my eyes that day just as they do today. I stopped typing just long enough to whisper my thanks that I have a place to find solace when I’m feeling tired and tempest-tost and poor. There’s a space reserved for this purpose just for me in God’s heart.

Today’s readings from Numbers (11:25-29) and Mark’s gospel (9:38-43, 45, 47-48) underscore our welcome into God’s unconditional love for each one of us. Numbers tells us that Moses’ followers complained because two among them hadn’t blessed with the spirit of Moses, yet they received the gift of prophesy like the rest. Joshua told Moses to stop those who seemed to have no business doing God’s work. While Joshua questioned the authenticity of those interlopers, Moses declared that he wished all of the people exhibited those powers. In the gospel, this phenomenon repeated itself. John complained that an outsider had healed someone in Jesus’ name. John grumbled that he told the man to stop, but he didn’t. Jesus repeated Moses’ response. “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, Jesus told John to leave the man alone!

It seems to me that the greatest gift which accompanies our humanity is the place you and I hold in God’s heart and the company we share with one another. God fashioned the differences which make us who we are. Who are we not to love what God has created? Perhaps Mike and I were so taken by the truly diverse population of Times Square because each person who passed us by illustrated the uniqueness of God’s best work. Perhaps I’m so taken with Lady Liberty’s words of welcome because they echo God’s invitation to you and me to seek refuge in God’s embrace when nothing else will do. How touched we should be that God trusts us to spread the good news of this welcome to everyone we meet along the way!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Make A World of Difference

Recently, when our parish church was in the midst of a renovation, I peeked inside to check progress. In the process, I couldn’t help noticing the paint crew’s care as they worked. They covered every piece of immovable furniture and then sanded, stained and painted as carefully as possible. One morning while the painters worked in full earnest, my husband the deacon prepared for a small funeral. Before the family arrived, Mike asked the crew if they would avoid sanding and other noisy tasks until afterward. Much to Mike’s amazement, the crew reverently waited outside until the liturgy ended. As soon as the family left, the painters hurried back in to work. This small effort made a world of difference to those who mourned that day.

Throughout this project, our weekday morning Masses were celebrated in the gathering space. Our usual setting for donuts, coffee and juice temporarily resembled a cozy chapel. This transformation resulted from some original thinking on our pastor’s part and the efforts of both staff and volunteers. All concerned saw to it that everything needed for Mass during the week was in place after our last Sunday Mass. Every Saturday morning, these items were returned to the church for the weekend. At times, large scaffolds kept us from our usual routines during Mass. Still, the choir sang above them, communion ministers worked around them, ushers guided baskets through them and our preaching priests and deacons spoke beneath them and beside them. Had the ladder been in place, I know one deacon who was prepared to speak from atop them! In spite of all of these small adjustments, we worshiped with reverence and a bit of pride at having prayed together in the midst of what may have seemed to be a mess. All of our efforts to make the best of this made a world of difference.

In the midst of this renovation, our young associate pastor had a small renovation of his own. He endured surgery for a bit of colon cancer. The good news is that it was at the earliest possible stage. The better news is that surgery went extremely well and his doctors expect a full recovery. Throughout his recuperation, our pastor saw to all of those little things which life-after-surgery entails. This made a world of difference to Father Dave who then concentrated on getting well. As I consider the cooperation between these two, I can’t help recalling the similar care Father Dave offered to our former pastor when he needed it most. The efforts of our young priest made a world of difference to our ailing pastor.

I share these bits and pieces of my parish’s recent history because they illustrate the importance of our smallest efforts to do good. Luke’s gospel (16:19-31) does the same. Luke tells us that Jesus addressed the Pharisees with a parable about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man lived in luxury and indulged himself without restraint. He barred no expense in seeing to his own pleasure as this was his sole concern. Just beyond his front door lay Lazarus, a beggar. Lazarus was in poor health and his body was covered with sores. He was so weak from hunger that he could no longer move. The only attention Lazarus received was from dogs wandering the street who licked his wounds. Though the scraps from the rich man’s table would have provided the nourishment Lazarus needed, the rich man didn’t share them because he didn’t notice that Lazarus was there. You know the rest of the story. What a world of difference it would have made if the rich man had only seen…

Today, my parish begins the rest of its story. Father Greg will be officially installed as our pastor. I use the adverb “officially” because he has been on the job since July 1. As he told us in his first homily, this journey began when Father Greg made the seemingly inconsequential decision to pick up a fork in the road –literally! The Carmelites gave meaning to that little fork when they invited Father Greg to serve as our pastor. Father Greg has given meaning to his response ever since. Though the rich man failed to notice Lazarus at his front door, Father Greg seems to notice everything at his door. Though Lazarus eventually died because no one noticed, my parish family will thrive because Father Greg responds to whatever he sees as best he can.

No one can promise that any of our lives will be perfect and worry free. Still, I do promise that if we do whatever we can whenever we can as best we can, we will make a world of difference for our parishes and homes and workplaces and families and for all whom we’ve been given to love.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We’re In This Together

My husband and I just returned home from a visit with our new grandson. We truly enjoy spending time with Daniel’s parents, too. Still, I must acknowledge that Daniel was the focus of this visit. You see, this was the first time that little Daniel appeared to be a typical newborn to me. Though it has been only six days since our last visit, I noticed these changes immediately. Daniel has gained more weight and is well beyond that five-pound milestone. He has traded his preemie clothing for his newborn wardrobe. Though Daniel has always been alert, his facial expressions and movement attest to his continuing development and health. His absolute delight at feeding time reassured me further. During the drive home, I didn’t say much to my poor husband because I was busy expressing gratitude to God. Finally, I was able to let go of the worry which had overwhelmed me since Daniel’s premature birth.

After completing my prayer, I remarked to my husband that I didn’t miss those long drives to the hospital in Chicago. Nonetheless, we both agreed that, in spite of that drive, we will be forever grateful to the staff at Prentice Women’s Hospital. They took amazing care of Daniel and his mom and dad. This made all of the difference because the hospital served as their home-base for twenty-four days.

By our third visit, we began to feel at home there as well. Regardless of when we arrived, this bustling environment teemed with people. Visitors, employees and new patients streamed from the parking lot to the hospital and down dozens of corridors leading to places we would never explore. Every time we navigated our way to the elevators, I was struck by the variety of people who journeyed with us. I heard French, German and Spanish, Polish, Chinese, an African dialect and British and Australian accents. Chicagoans’ offerings of American English quickly revealed their South and West and North Side roots. I encountered chiseled faces with long and short noses, high and mid-placed cheek bones, very full and very thin lips. I can’t begin to list the numerous shades of hair color that topped my fellow humans as we made our way. Every time we visited the hospital, I remarked to my husband that we were truly in the midst of a melting pot of God’s children. And, in spite of our varied appearances and languages, our eyes betrayed to all who noticed the common concern which brought each of us to this place of healing.

I share our hospital adventures because they echo the message found in the scriptures. Passages from Numbers (11:25-29) and Mark’s gospel (9:38-48) underscore God’s unconditional love for each one of us. Numbers tells us that Moses’ followers complained because two among them who were not blessed with the spirit of Moses had received the gift of prophesy like the rest. Joshua went so far as to tell Moses to stop the two who had no business doing God’s work. While Joshua questioned who the two interlopers thought they were by acting in God’s name, Moses declared that he wished all of the people did the same.

In Mark’s gospel, a similar situation unfolded. In this case, it was John who complained that an outsider had healed in Jesus’ name. John reported to Jesus that he told the man to stop, but the man refused. Jesus responded just as Moses did. “Do not prevent him,” Jesus said. “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” In other words, leave him alone! God is far more concerned with the hearts of those who do good than with their varied exteriors or affiliations.

You know, when Daniel’s parents drove to the hospital in search of the timely and safe delivery of their baby, they didn’t scrutinize the physical attributes or religious affiliations of their caretakers. They trusted that the Prentice Hospital staff would respond to their needs skillfully and appropriately. Indeed, they were not disappointed by their sisters and brothers in this human family of ours. This grandma is most grateful that God has fashioned the differences which make us who we are. Each of our carefully designated gifts is counted among the tools we need to heal, to encourage and to love one another along the way. Little Daniel offers amazing proof of power of the gifts which we bring to one another.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Try and Try Again

For the past few months, my husband has referred to our home as Wedding Central. Though, as a deacon, he normally witnesses only two or three weddings per year, by the end of this year, he will have witnessed twelve. The good news is that he has enjoyed working with the couples involved who seem happy and prepared to take on this commitment. The better news is that several of the couples are personal friends, so both Mike and I have or will be present at their nuptials.

Whenever I attend a wedding, tears fall in tiny trails down my cheeks. Some of the tears come with memories of our own wedding. My thoughts just before I walked down the aisle and throughout the ceremony remain a vivid memory. When I witness another couple exchanging their promises to love, honor and cherish, the successes of our marriage bring tears of joy. Unfortunately, these happy tears are tempered by tears of sadness over our failures in this regard. Each time, I end these melancholy bouts with three prayers. I pray that the newlywed couple of the day will not be discouraged by the failures that are a part of all of our relationships. I pray that the two will hold on to the love which brought them together and that they will continue to nurture it. Finally, I pray that they discover the art of keeping joy alive in their relationship. My husband and I have managed to stay together for four decades, mostly due to our feeble attempts at all of these.

I share these wedding reflections because we have much to learn from our experiences within marriage and within all of our important relationships. Even when a marriage fails, it mirrors the journeys on this earth which will take us home to God. We fall in love with our seemingly ideal partner with the expectation of a successful relationship. Because we are human, we meet many obstacles along the way. When we encounter rocks on our paths, forks in the road and washed away bridges, we recalculate our route and carry on. We will never get anywhere in our relationships or on our journeys if we fail to reassess, regroup and try again along the way. Even when our renewed efforts require us to walk away from a relationship, they contribute to our progress. It seems to me that this is the point of most of what Jesus has to say about life on this earth and about God’s love for us.

Matthew’s gospel (21:28-32) reports another of Jesus’ parables. On this occasion, Jesus spoke of a vineyard owner with two sons. One day, the man asked the first to work his vineyard. This son refused, but later had a change of heart. He went out to the vineyard and did as his father asked. When the man asked his second son to work, the young man immediately agreed to do so. However, this son never lifted a finger. Jesus asked those listening which young man did his father’s will. All who were present agreed that the son who worked was the righteous one, in spite of his initial response. Ah, “in spite of his initial response!” Jesus recognized that failure at one time or another is inevitable. Jesus also recognized that our opportunity to turn things around is also inevitable. When Jesus remarked that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of heaven, he was not condoning their sinfulness. Rather, he condoned what they did after they engaged in this wrong-doing. In spite of their sketchy pasts, the tax collectors and prostitutes took Jesus’ message to heart. They reassessed, regrouped and tried again. Jesus promised that similar effort by the rest of us will be rewarded as well.

I admit that I haven’t minded being a part of Wedding Central 2014. Though the good deacon bears the brunt of the paperwork, marriage prep and wedding rehearsals, we share the joy and the hope which come with witnessing the commitments of these couples. When they promise their love for a lifetime, they also pledge to reassess, regroup and try again when they fail. Like Jesus’ parable, these couples remind us that this is all any of us can hope for: To do our best, to acknowledge our errors, to make amends when we fail, and to know, regardless of how often we repeat this process, that God loves us. Yes, even when we fail, God loves us.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved