God’s Life-Giving Clouds

Last Sunday, I wrote about those perfect storms which cause our personal varieties of circumstances to rumble and to collide. Such storms disrupt everything in their paths. The morsels of peace which normally keep us anchored are strewn about haphazardly as well. All of this commotion prompts us to wonder if our lives will ever return to normal. Fortunately, though perhaps not as quickly as we’d hoped, the clouds disperse and calmer weather settles in. The Persistent One who lingers within nudges us to look beyond the damage caused by that messy weather. God, who remains with us always, points us toward the new day and the new opportunities which lie just ahead. So it is that we find the strength to reassess, to regroup and to refocus our efforts. Though God doesn’t guarantee clear skies and sunshine every step of the way, God does promise to remain with us all the while.

As for me, I’m happy to have weathered my own perfect storm and I’m most grateful for God’s good company throughout those difficult days. Though I never ever want to repeat that episode in my life, I’m grateful for the perspective it has given me. Every day since has become a precious gift in spite the clouds which threaten perhaps too frequently. The truth is that I’ve found reason to look at the clouds above me and around me with new eyes. After all, these clouds promise the rain which brings life to all of creation. Though clouds yielded far more snow than I liked this winter, that snow provided hours of fun times for the children in my life. It also inspired many good deeds in our neighborhood where we helped one another to dig out of the white stuff so we could all get on with our days. Clouds often keep the sun out of my eyes and those of the good deacon as we drive down Green Bay Road or the tollway to visit our grandchildren. The clouds above give me reason to look upward and to consider the beauty and the majesty which lies beyond them. Though I know God resides within me and around me, nothing draws my eyes heavenward more quickly than a sky full of billowy clouds. The clouds which evolved into my perfect storm certainly caused damage. At the same time, they’ve also inspire a new perspective. Rather than being overwhelmed by the clouds in my life, I’ve learned to use them as opportunities to exercise my ability to carry on. Yes, clouds can be quite a gift to us.

On this Second Sunday of Lent, Luke’s gospel (Luke 9:28-36) recounts the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. By the time Jesus invited Peter, James and John to accompany him up that mountainside, the disciples had come to respect and to love Jesus very much. On that particular day, Jesus chose to reveal something more about himself which simple words could not express. Luke tells us that Jesus’ lessons up to that point had certainly flown in the face of the teachings his friends and all of the people had encountered in the temple. Jesus insisted that God’s people were what mattered most. Whenever necessary, Jesus set aside the stern rules which had caused God’s loved ones so much needless hardship. “The Law was made for man,” Jesus insisted, and not the other way around. If that wasn’t revolutionary enough, that trip up that mountainside provided Peter, James and John a glimpse of the treasure which lay at the end of Jesus’ ministry and at the end of his life. When Jesus took on his “afterlife” appearance in the company of Moses and Elijah, he offered his closest friends a glimpse of the glory which awaits us all. Because he didn’t know what to say about all of this, Peter blurted out something about building a tent to shelter the three marvelous figures before him. It was then that God intervened with a cloud. That cloud began its work by casting a shadow over the disciples. Before Peter could say another word, the cloud surrounded them. Amazingly, it was while they stood in the midst of that seemingly ominous cloud that God spoke. “This is my chosen son; listen to him.” I’m quite certain that this cloudy mountainside encounter with eternity strengthened Peter, James and John throughout the terrible days which followed. After all, on that day, they were assured of their own places among the clouds.

When we find ourselves surrounded by thunderclouds, we need to remember who it was that Peter, James and John found when they suffered the same. Though frightened beyond their senses, they stopped to take notice when God spoke out to them. When God said, “Listen to him,” God reminded Jesus’ friends of all Jesus had taught them about God’s love for them. Through all that lay ahead, God loved them and God stayed with them. The same is true for you and me. Less than 30 days remain of Lent 2019. I encourage you to join me in spending every one of those days listening for God’s voice in the clouds around us. Though it may not come as boldly as it did on that mountainside, God’s voice and God’s love will be there just the same.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Put Our Love For Jesus To Work

We’re just a few days into Lent 2018 and I’m wondering about my progress. I approached Ash Wednesday with my Lenten commitment intact. I decided to use my experience in the Holy Land to guide me through this precious season. In Israel, I looked over our itinerary each morning with great expectation. Because I’d been there before, the sites listed were familiar territory. I didn’t worry about whether or not I wore the right shoes or if I needed to wear layers or if our destination would measure up to the hype in my guidebook. Rather, I pictured what I’d seen the year before and rekindled those unmistakable feelings of belonging which had filled me up. Though this was Jesus’ homeland, I felt that it was my homeland as well. So it was that I embraced every day of this second trip with the certainty that I’d find Jesus or a dear friend of his along the way. Rather than being surprised by the images beyond the tour bus windows, I happily anticipated what I saw. On Ash Wednesday, I told myself that I would approach my Lenten journey in like manner. Rather than being surprised by what lies ahead during the next forty days, I will once again anticipate finding Jesus and many of his dear friends along the way.

I’m happy to report that my unconventional approach to Lent 2018 has been fruitful. Though I’m habitually engaged in one-sided conversations with our Patient Creator, I’ve made the time to listen between every dozen or so lines of my monologue. Though I haven’t “heard” a word in response, I’ve been blessed with a sense that God is indeed attentive to me. Honestly, I’m convinced that God smiles upon our efforts whenever we try to do our best. From the beginning of time, God has pursued humankind with the energy of a young man smitten by the love of his life. God remains at our sides even when we attempt to run away. Through it all, God uses every means to entice us into a relationship. This Lent, I’ve allowed the holy places which Jesus frequented to breathe new life into my relationship with him. After all, it is Jesus who revealed the fullness of Divine Love to us. Though Jesus preached eloquently, his responses to others provided the purest examples of that love. Jesus offered compassion, acceptance and mercy to everyone who crossed his path. Whether a Pharisee who followed him in secret, a despised tax collector, an adulterous woman or an ostracized leper, Jesus welcomed him or her into his company. Jesus peered deeply into each of their troubled hearts and responded with his assurance of God’s abundant love. Indeed, Divine Love has given me much to anticipate and much to accomplish every day this Lent.

Though I’ve heard this account repeatedly since childhood, I find new meaning in the Transfiguration story today. Mark’s gospel (9:2-10) tells us that Jesus led his unsuspecting disciples up a mountainside where Jesus suddenly appeared in a dazzling aura. With Elijah and Moses at his side, Jesus revealed the essence of eternity to his incredulous friends. If this wasn’t enough, that Loving Voice announced from the clouds, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” With those words, the God of Israel underscored everything that Jesus had said and done. I think that poor Peter, James and John were at a disadvantage during this encounter. How could they have anticipated what Jesus revealed to them that day? Still, I’d like to think that they kept that image of Jesus in all of his glory in the back of their minds during the troubled days which lay ahead. Perhaps after witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration, they were equipped to anticipate the things to come with a bit more bravery. Though it proved to be difficult to embrace their troubles much of the time, Jesus had given them something to cling to in the worst of them.

My visits to Israel were amazing on many levels. Still, their most meaningful impact came in the numerous ruins from Jesus’ life among us. His childhood neighborhood, the synagogue where he taught, Magdala, the Sea of Galilee and the Garden of Gethsemane are a few of the places which enhanced my understanding of all that Jesus did. The love which propelled Jesus in those places compels me to anticipate Jesus’ company on the road ahead this Lent and always. That love inspires me to try my best to do my best to respond to others as Jesus did.

Lent 2018 provides each of us a unique opportunity to cling to our own inspiring images of Jesus. The glorious Jesus they encountered on that mountainside gave the disciples the courage to continue to follow him. The humble Jesus who walked among the poor inspired their own service of those in need. After Jesus’ death, it was the disciples who attracted the sick, the suffering and the despised. This Lent, you and I are invited to join the first disciples in savoring Jesus’ friendship and in making Jesus’ ways our own. Jesus leaves it to us to decide how we’ll use our love for him to do this as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Ongoing Gift of Transfiguration

In mid-February, my husband Mike and I spent seven days in the Holy Land. After we decided to join our friend Nancy Gabriele’s tour, I consistently referenced this trek as “our trip to Israel”. Though our itinerary was well-planned and inclusive, I had no idea of what to expect. After all, two thousand years have passed since Jesus’ birth. When I researched each of the sites we would visit, I wondered if any remnants of Jesus’ presence remained at any of them.

Two days before we left, our suitcases were packed. Our son and a neighborhood friend had agreed to manage the mail, trash pick-up and any snow which might assault our driveway while we were away. There was nothing left for us to do except to review our itinerary, recheck our flight status and take a deep breath. Though Mike is always a willing traveler, I found that I was surprisingly calm and actually anxious to be on our way as well. I normally spend pre-flight days fretting over the tiny airplane seat which would hold me captive for the duration. Rather, I was filled with expectation regarding who and what I would discover in Israel. I couldn’t help smiling with the same joy with which I anticipate family gatherings here at home. Oddly, I felt assured that I was about to embark upon a homecoming unlike any I’d experienced before.

Finally, departure day arrived and we headed to O’Hare Airport. Before I knew it, we’d made our way through security, checked in for our flight and settled into our seats on the plane. I immediately pulled out our itinerary. Caesarea, Nazareth, Cana, The Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum and Jerusalem were among the places which seemed oddly familiar to me. The Sea of Galilee, Magdala and Gethsemane brought tears to my eyes as though I’d experienced my own hardships in each of these places. In the midst of my reflection, I prayed that the flight would pass quickly, not out of fear or discomfort, but because I was anxious to breathe in the air and walk the earth which had once sustained my long-ago family. With that, I slept on and off for the duration. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, a man who’d made the flight with us stopped in the midst of our parade to the baggage claim area. Seemingly oblivious to the hurried crowd around him, he knelt and kissed the ground. I smiled as I asked myself why I felt like doing the same. When we paraded out of the terminal, I knew I’d find my long-ago family on the other side.

On this Second Sunday of Lent, we listen once again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. By the time Jesus invited Peter, James and John to accompany him up that mountainside, the disciples had come to respect and to love Jesus very much. On that particular day, Jesus chose to reveal something more about himself which simple words could not express. Jesus’ lessons up to this point had certainly flown in the face of the teachings his friends and all of the people had encountered in the temple. Jesus insisted that what matters most to God is God’s people. Whenever necessary, Jesus had set aside the stern rules which caused God’s loved ones needless hardship. “The Law was made for man,” Jesus insisted, and not the other way around. If that wasn’t revolutionary enough, the trip up that mountainside provided Peter, James and John a glimpse of the treasure which lay at the end of Jesus’ ministry and at the end of his life. When Jesus took on his “after life” appearance, he offered his closest friends a glimpse of the glory which awaits us all. Surely, Peter James and John were never the same after that day. How could they be? Terrible and frightening times followed which eventually stole everything of importance to them. Still, they persisted because that image of Jesus in all of his glory remained etched into their memories and onto their hearts. Imagine the hope in their eyes when Peter, James and John consoled the others with this promise of what would come for them all!

In Israel, I was gifted with a transfiguration of sorts. I peered into the eyes of an Israeli who likely resembled Jesus’ ancestors. I was inches from a tiny oil lamp dated to Jesus’ time. I sailed the Sea of Galilee with a Messianic Jew who found Jesus in the pilgrims he’d met along the way. I walked the path to Gethsemane which was painfully more familiar than I’d hoped. All of this I did in the quiet company of my long-ago family: Jesus and his mother, Mary Magdalene and the others who remain etched into my memory and onto my heart.

Every day, you and I are invited to experience transfiguration in ourselves and in those we’ve been given to love and to care for along the way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Special Place for You and Me

Last Sunday, my husband and I stole away from church a bit early. We usually “hang out” from the first Mass until the last. However, it was Valentine’s Day and we interrupted our Sunday routine with an outing. A friend told us about an art exhibit which he encouraged us to visit. Information online confirmed that this was a “must see” opportunity. By the time we headed to the gallery, the forecasted snow was falling and traffic moved at a snail’s pace. Since Mike drove, I was free to enjoy the view. On the way, I discovered what it is like to see the world from the inside of a snow globe. I delighted in the winter wonderland beyond the glass in spite of the shoveling which would be required a few hours later. I needed to recover from what had been a hectic morning, because I had a busy afternoon in store. I normally allow myself to relax on Sundays. However, I needed to prepare this reflection which I’d neglected the week before.

As Mike drove, I absent-mindedly hummed a hymn we’d sung during Mass that morning. In the process, I recalled the refrain which had caused me to stop singing for a few seconds. I remember telling myself, “There is a wonderful story here!” As I sang on, I memorized the words which had touched me so. This was an easy task because the lyrics echoed precisely what I needed to hear… Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall, and thought of me above all. Though I don’t normally check the composers of the hymns we sing, I looked for their names. I wondered if Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche knew the power of their lyrics. Did they select the title Above All because they somehow knew that these words would melt my heart today? “Yes,” I reminded myself, “God looks upon each of us as the most important person in this world.” When we arrived at the gallery, I realized that I was not alone in my thinking…

The “gallery” is actually a temporarily transformed old factory. The featured exhibit will travel from place to place until a suitable permanent home is found. Though the Smithsonian Institute expressed interest years ago, the artist refused. The docent who guided us shared that, before he died, this artist specified that viewings were to remain free and accessible to as many people as possible, especially to lonely and unloved children. It is no wonder that the he named this work My Father’s Love. Though Mike and I had viewed the artwork online, the actual works took our breath away.

My Father’s Love features numerous biblical images in stunning wood tones. Artist Ed Lantzer created the scenes on thirty four-by-eight-foot wooden panels. These panels are covered entirely with hundreds of thousands of half-inch diamond-shaped wood pieces cut from more than one hundred-fifty varieties of trees. None of the wood was dyed or painted. Each one was selected for its color or texture and each one is essential to the resulting image. Though the images of Creation, the Last Supper, Jesus’ scourging and the Crucifixion drew us in, the tiny wooden pieces which made them up drew us in further. For thirty years, Mr. Lantzer worked without plans or drawings to create what he saw with his heart. Even a team from MIT was unable to decipher the artist’s method in placing each bit of wood precisely where it belonged. Each wooden piece contributed perfectly to the final image.

When we returned from the museum, I turned to Luke’s gospel (Luke 9:28b-36) for further inspiration. Luke tells us that Jesus took Peter, James and John to a mountainside to pray. Minutes into their prayer, Jesus’ face changed and his clothing became dazzling white. As if this wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared as well. This stunned Peter and his friends who were unable to make sense of what they saw. Still, Peter’s desire to do something urged him to offer tents to the holy trio before him. Before he could babble further, a voice bellowed from the clouds, “This is my chosen son; listen to him.” Finally, Peter and the others realized they were precisely where they belonged. God had a message for them above all others. God had revealed that each of them would be an essential part of the things to come.

I’m convinced that it was no accident that we visited that exhibit, that we sang Above All and that I’m writing about Jesus’ Transfiguration today. I haven’t been at my best as of late, and I desperately needed these reminders that I am an important part of a bigger picture. Apparently, no one can bring the color and texture which I bring to God’s masterpiece. The same is true for each one of us. Above all, you and I have a special place in God’s plan and in God’s heart.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Transformed By Love

While reading Matthew’s gospel, my childhood reflections regarding the Transfiguration event interfered with my thoughts. I had a great idea when I sat down to write a few minutes ago, only to have it whisked away by decades old memories that seem to be going nowhere. What was I thinking back then?

From the time I began to pay attention, probably in fourth grade or so, whenever I heard the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, Peter’s, James’ and John’s reactions puzzled me. Good Catholic child that I was, I knew a good deal about saints of all kinds. I was certain that those who reported visions or hearing the voices of Jesus and Mary found the inspiration to do good deeds and to live perfect lives in these encounters. I convinced myself that if I ever heard or saw anything or anyone from heaven, I, too, would live the life of a saint from that moment on.

Since the disciples were privileged to walk, talk and live with Jesus day after day, in my young mind I determined that they should have been the most perfect saints of all. Yet, weeks after hearing the Transfiguration gospel during Lent each year, the Passion followed. The events that led to Jesus’ death left me heartbroken. I found myself overwhelmed because the disciples had forgotten Jesus and deserted him in an effort to save themselves. Sadly, I experienced hopelessness to the extent that a child can. After all, if the disciples who knew Jesus personally failed him, how could I hope to do any better?

Fortunately, my religious development did not end in fourth grade. During the years that followed, I recognized that Peter, James and John were not alone in their trepidation during Jesus’ suffering. Jesus himself appeared to them in the glory of heaven with Moses and Elijah at his side. Jesus heard with them as God’s voice proclaimed, “This is my beloved son…” Jesus also spent countless hours in prayer nurturing his relationship with his Father. Nonetheless, in the hours before he was taken into custody, Jesus wept and perspired blood as he begged his Father to take this cup from him. In the end, I realized that the disciples did the best they could at the time. After all, they were only human. In the end, I found that Jesus did the best he could as well. Because he became one of us, Jesus experienced his passion in human terms. Because he is God, Jesus offered this final lesson in love to illustrate the extent of God’s love for us all.

This Lent, I am compelled to acknowledge all that Jesus did for me in human terms. The scriptures tell us that Jesus suffered crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Historians provide the grisly details of this horrendous death. Jesus was scourged with a whip, likely made of leather straps with pieces of metal tied to the ends. Most men of the time endured less than ten strikes. Jesus endured thirty. The soldiers crowned Jesus with a ring of thorns. Later, they forced Jesus to carry the beam of the cross which rested upon bleeding muscle because much of Jesus’ skin had been torn away. The road to Calvary lacked smooth pavement. Each time Jesus fell, dirt, pebbles and manure likely made their way into his wounds. By the time Jesus stretched out his arms to be nailed to the cross, his physical agony was beyond unbearable. It is no wonder that my childhood hope evaporated at the foot of the cross. Today, it is no wonder that my adult faith, hope and love flourish at the feet of our God-made-man.

My childhood piety prevented me from focusing upon the lifetime through which Jesus found the strength to endure his passion and death. In all he said and did as he walked among the people, Jesus revealed God’s love. If we take to heart the compassion evident in Jesus’ healing and forgiveness, if we take to heart Jesus’ overriding concern for the poor, the heartbroken and those ostracized from the rest of society, and if we take to heart the promise of heaven offered in the miracle of the Transfiguration, we must also take to heart the love expressed in each of these events. As we continue our journeys through Lent, we cannot ignore what I missed as a child –that Jesus did what he did to convince us that we are loved and that we are called to love one another as best we can.

This Lent, our work is simple: to find ways to put aside our own needs, to attend to one another’s needs and to attend to God. Jesus lived and died for each one of us. It is up to us to return Jesus’ favor in kind.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved