Rocky Roads and Plush Paths

When we visited Israel a few weeks ago, we visited Megiddo National Park on our first tour day. This place has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with good reason. It served as a strategic land route and stronghold long before biblical times. As a result, Megiddo’s history includes an ongoing series of battles for its control. Modern day archaeological digs have revealed thirty layers of ruins which illustrate the remarkable fortifications which protected this place, complex water systems and the lavish lifestyles of those who occupied it. Perhaps it is no wonder that this place is also known as Armageddon where many Christians believe the final battle between good and evil at the end of the world will occur. There certainly has been enough strife there to set the tone! Still, as I looked over the area, I prayed that this won’t be the case. For me, Megiddo is a beautiful illustration of life on this earth and there is much to be learned from its geography and its people.

I lost sight of Megiddo’s troubled history as I gazed across the seemingly endless expanse of ruins and rocks before me. Though these images spoke to several millenniums of hardship, the palm trees and other green plants which poked their way upward and out of the rocky terrain suggested hope to me. When I looked further to unexpectedly wide and verdant pastures of green nestled between those rocky expanses, I realized that I’d encountered hope-fulfilled. The thousands of generations who occupied this area so long ago knew the value of what they’d found. They realized the promise this location offered and happily invested the hard work which made this place a prosperous home for them. Those fortresses, waterways and palaces served them well. Unfortunately, as is too often the case with us humans, the prospect of sharing this wonderful place was incomprehensible and, time after time, war raged until each subsequent victor called this place home.

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings invite us to assess the rocky ways and plush expanses which lie before us. As is always the case, God leaves it up to us to choose what we will do with what we find. The first reading from Exodus (17:3-7) tells us that God’s people didn’t do well in this regard. Moses had led them from the grips of slavery in Egypt and was taking them on to the Promised Land. Still, they complained incessantly. Rather than trusting God and perhaps doing a little more to help themselves, they threatened Moses. In fear and disgust, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of their disrespect and complete lack of faith, God provided water that they might live.

In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings that had come with Christ’s death. Their lives lay in the blood and water which flowed from Christ’s side on the cross. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. All the while, Paul assured them that God remained to nourish and to revive them. They needed only to look in God’s direction.

As I gazed over the stark contrasts in Megiddo that day, I couldn’t help seeing the vibrant patches of hope which sustain us as we walk the rocky roads which punctuate our lives. Today’s passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) gets to the heart of what I discovered. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rests at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman with a request for water. Jews avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Sharing a drink of water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more than a simple drink in return. If she acknowledged what was before her, the woman would experience life anew. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture to this woman regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply asked that she open herself to hope in something far better for herself. In the end, this simple conversation quenched the woman’s thirst so completely that she spread Jesus’ good news throughout her town. Many turned to Jesus that day because the Samaritan Woman led them beyond their own rocky roads to the green expanses she’d found through Jesus.

I never expected a visit to Armageddon to inspire me with such hope. Though this site has been tainted with thousands of years of bloodshed, it has also been blessed with the hope of innumerable generations who appreciated its potential. You and I suffer just as the Samaritan woman did. More importantly, like her, you and I have also caught God’s eye. God’s offer of a new beginning stands for us as well, today and always!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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God’s Patient and Nurturing Love

While baby-sitting for our little grandson, Grandpa and I noticed the lovely flower resting on a table in the living room. After putting Danny to bed for a nap and bidding Grandpa farewell as he headed out to run errands, I decided to enjoy a bit of respite. Though I normally retreat to the family room with a book in hand, I felt the need to spend time in the presence of that beautiful plant. Some years ago, it was an equally compelling blossom which taught me an unforgettable lesson about God’s persistent care and God’s faith in our potential to accomplish the spectacular…

It was a few weeks before Christmas when I made my annual purchase of a Christmas Amaryllis potting kit. Each year, after my husband planted and watered the bulb, I kept watch until the bulb produced an amazing blossom. These blooms always appeared just in time to add a flourish to our Yuletide decor. One year, after I made this purchase, I left the boxed bulb and pot in the garage because we were in the midst of decorating for Christmas. I planned to retrieve the kit when we were ready to plant. Unfortunately, in our decorating frenzy, several items in the garage were rearranged and the kit was inadvertently buried. I rediscovered it two months later while looking for something else. Because Mike knows far more about plants and their care than I do, I brought the kit into the house and asked if we should bother planting it. Mike reminded me of the year we were given an Easter Amaryllis and went on to say, “Maybe it was just a Christmas Amaryllis that someone re-gifted. Let’s see what happens.”

Because Mike was too busy to deal with the plant for a few days, I decided to help in this effort. I remember convincing myself that I could take on this minimal gardening task as I opened the box. When I found the pot, a very large bulb and a little mud-like disk about the size of a hockey puck, I was disappointed. Whoever had put this kit together had forgotten the potting soil. The list of enclosed items included potting medium and I had none. Determined, I headed to the garage to look for potting soil. After a fruitless search, I was tempted to abandon this project. However, I was on a mission. I looked at the box to see if the type of soil was noted so I could purchase it. As I reread, I discovered that the disk I mistakenly called fertilizer was actually freeze-dried soil which would expand to fill the pot. I hit my forehead and murmured “Duh!” as I returned to planting. I placed the “soil” in the pot and added water. I set the bulb in the expanding soil and held it in place as I added more water. The soil covered it by half as it made its way to the rim. I placed the pot by the kitchen window and cleaned up my mess. That night, after I checked the bulb to be certain it hadn’t fallen over, I went to bed with a contented smile.

Though Mike is the resident gardener, I dutifully checked that Amaryllis bulb every morning and after work each day. I also informed him that I would keep the soil moist to the touch. Within a few days, a bit of green stem rewarded my effort. Every day afterward, I encouraged that stem to grow upright. One day, I noticed the bud at the top of the stem. I’ll never forget catching my first glimpse of the red and white blossom which give this particular Amaryllis its name. While sitting with that inspiring flower in my grandson’s living room, it occurred to me that my planting adventure had actually brought one of Jesus’ most beloved parables to life.

My persistent care of that once-troublesome bulb mirrors God’s care for us in spite of the troubles we cause one another and ourselves. When God asks us to acknowledge our missteps and our sins, God also promises to nurture us through our attempts to set things right again and to grow from our mistakes. In today’s gospel (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus illustrates God’s persistent care for and faith in us with the parable of the unproductive fig tree. After chastising the people for once again missing the point of his words, Jesus offered his story. He told the crowd that an orchard owner grew impatient with a fig tree which had not yielded fruit for three years. The man ordered his gardener to cut down the tree so it wouldn’t drain the soil of nutrients. The gardener pleaded with his employer to allow him just one more year to cultivate the tree. If after a year of careful attention the tree failed to bear fruit, the gardener promised to cut it down. The orchard owner placed his faith in that gardener and spared the tree.

Just the same, God leaves us in Jesus’ hands to be pruned and nourished. Much to our good fortune, Jesus spent what remained of his life among us transforming us through his love and his example. With complete faith in our ability to respond, God patiently waits for the spectacular blossoms which will come to life in you and in me.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved