See With God’s Eyes

Throughout my life, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the array of sources which reveal God to me. The people I’ve been given to love top that list. My earliest memories include my parents’ heroic efforts. They were constant reminders of our God who I was assured loved me even more than they did. The affection of my family and friends helped me to see God even more clearly. I came closest to understanding God’s love for me the day I was told my dear husband and I were going to have a baby. Though I knew nothing of the little one who would change our lives forever, I loved him more than anything. This phenomenon recurred after we were told we’d never have another child and yet we did. Once again, unconditional love took root and I came to know God more intimately. As my writing often indicates, I’ve seen God in the wonder of creation. I’ve also discovered God in words both written and sung and in wordless musical compositions. Oddly, I’ve even found God in the dialogue between characters in a sitcom rerun. Did the screenplay writer know what I would find in those words decades later? In the end, I’ve found the most compelling evidence of God’s love for us in the words and works of Jesus.

During Lent, we share some of our richest scripture passages. Their writers skillfully wove together threads of temptation and triumph, suffering and healing, sin and forgiveness. The fabric which resulted offers an image of Jesus who brought peace, hope, acceptance and love to God’s people. Last week, we recalled Jesus’ encounter with the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. Jesus didn’t need the water he requested of her. It was the woman who thirsted for far more thirst-quenching waters. As always, Jesus responded by quenching the thirst he saw within the depths of that woman’s heart. Jesus revived her spirit that she might truly live anew. Today, we turn to Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind. Since birth, this man’s very existence had been tied to sin. In the eyes of the people, the man’s parents must have sinned terribly. To the people, it was their transgressions which prompted God to impose blindness upon their son. In the eyes of the people, this fruit of sinful parents was of little worth. It is no wonder that those who saw the man after his cure failed to recognize him. They’d passed him on the road often, but had never taken the time to look upon his face. It seems to me that they were the blind ones. They were blind to God’s presence within themselves and within one another. They were blind to God’s presence within the man who was born blind. It was Jesus whose vision was intact. Jesus saw every trial and tribulation which devastated the people and which ravaged their spirits almost beyond repair. What draws me to Jesus is his generous response to his contemporaries and to you and me.

I don’t think haphazard thoughts or my vivid imagination allow me to see God in the world around me. It is Jesus who inspires me to see God in everything. More importantly, it is Jesus who inspires me to see God in those I meet along the way. Jesus saw with God’s eyes and he taught his contemporaries just as he teaches us to do the same. When we look with God’s eyes, we see the pain of our coworkers and our neighbors, our friends and our own family members. We see unrest on the other side of the world as well as in our own backyards. Trauma in all of its forms tears at our spirits with marked precision. It also blurs our vision. Even when we attempt to proceed with the clearest of vision, it is sometimes very difficult to find God in the difficulties at hand.

Please don’t let my assessment of things-gone-awry discourage you. Scripture scholars and historians tell us that life was no better in Jesus’ day. Still, Jesus persisted in seeing the people and the situations around him with God’s eyes. Remember, Jesus came into this world as a helpless child, just as each of us does. Jesus grew up in a family much like our own with parents who rarely understood what he was up to. As an adult, Jesus stood out from the crowds around him because he saw things differently. Though many came to appreciate Jesus’ ability to see them with God’s eyes, others responded with contempt. While Jesus rolled up his sleeves to do everything he could to make the lives of those around him what they were meant to be, his adversaries rolled up their sleeves and planned his demise. Jesus’ circumstances were no better than our own, yet he persisted in seeing them with God’s hopeful and loving eyes.

As I consider the new vision the man born blind experienced at Jesus’ hands, I can’t help feeling gratitude for the same gift in my life. After all, it is when I step back to see things with God’s eyes that I find hope. So it is that I hope that I never stop seeing God in everything around me and I wish the same for each one of us. Jesus continues his work through me and through of all us and it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and to make it so.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Advertisements

Never Blind To God’s Love

A few weeks ago, my husband-the-deacon surprised me with an “honorable mention” in his homily. Mike shared that he’s noticed that I occasionally become cranky when the tasks at hand threaten to overwhelm me. He quickly added that he’s also discovered that I’ve found ways to alleviate my angst when this occurs. I walk outdoors or browse through our family photo albums to put things into perspective and to transform my mood. The gospel that day featured Jesus’ transfiguration and Mike hoped to encourage us all to transform ourselves and one another when our troubles threaten to get the best of us. Because I was relieved by the harmless nature of Mike’s homily reference, I didn’t tell him that he neglected to share the third means by which I transform my worries into peace of mind: I write. I set aside everything and return to my book. This manuscript chronicles my life and its focus is the ongoing influence my loved ones, my church and God have had on me. Returning to these transforming episodes even for a few paragraphs puts the woes of the present in perspective. Afterward, I embrace what lies ahead with new energy and new eyes.

Most recently, these therapeutic writing sessions have been influenced by our trip to Israel. Though this was our second venture to Jesus’ homeland, I experienced something new every day. While the ruins and other attractions hadn’t changed, my appreciation of them had. I moved beyond the externals before me to the life Jesus actually led. The images offered by religious artwork don’t always portray the realities of life in Jesus’ day. As our guide often said, “This is a crazy place. But we do our best.” Jesus lived in crazy times as well. As the locals scurried about to tend to the business at hand, I imagined Jesus peering beyond the determined faces of his contemporaries and into their hearts. Jesus always found ways to open the eyes of those around him to God’s love. He’s done the same for me all of my life. Recently, an unexpected encounter unearthed memories I’d buried long ago. I was so taken aback that I shared my misery with my poor husband: “Back then, nothing could have prepared me for what happened and I didn’t know what to do!” Oddly, just speaking those words reminded me of how far I’ve come since. That evening, I returned to my manuscript. Though I’m only on page 93, those pages offer a lifetime of examples of the “new eyes” God has given me. Happily, these eyes remain open to God’s love no matter what!

Today, John’s gospel (John 9:1-41) promises new eyes to anyone who makes the effort to turn his or her attention to God. In this passage, it is the man born blind who focused the people’s attention on Jesus. This man kept a daily vigil at the side of the road. Though he saw nothing with his clouded vision, he sensed activities of every sort around him. The blind man’s persistence likely irritated passersby into providing the few coins and morsels of food which helped him to survive each day. On the day John references, this man sensed that something was different. On that day, he knew that someone in the crowd passing him would provide far more than a day’s sustenance. It didn’t take the blind man long to recognize his hero. Fortunately for the blind man, it didn’t take Jesus any time at all to recognize him.

What must it have been like when Jesus smeared that bit of mud over the man’s eyelids? I don’t think the man flinched a bit. Did he sense the power in Jesus’ fingers? When he rinsed his eyes in the Pool of Siloam as Jesus asked, did the man feel the love which brought him his first glimpse of the light of day and the light of God? When questioned by onlookers, the man attributed his cure to “that man they call Jesus.” When the Pharisees inquired about the cure, the man referred to Jesus as “a prophet.” This event caused such a raucous that even the man’s parents were brought in for interrogation. In their fear, they referred the Pharisees back to their son who called Jesus “the Son of Man.” The Pharisees failed to appreciate the blind man’s new vision. Rather, they rewarded the man’s faith by casting him out of the temple only to meet Jesus once again. It was during this second encounter that Jesus became much more than a prophet. In this encounter, the man who was once blind saw God.

In Mike’s homily, he referenced those occasions when I forget to view my world with the new eyes God has given me. I’m not always like that blind man who didn’t miss a thing. When Jesus crossed his lonely and painful path, the blind man used his new eyes and he saw Jesus for who he was: The embodiment of God’s love for him. When Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind to this love, Jesus opened our eyes to the same. The blind man happily learned that it isn’t up to us humans to judge who is worthy of God’s love because God loves us all. It also isn’t’ up to us to determine who is worthy of our love. Our task is to move beyond the blindness of the Pharisees, to see who is in need of our love and to share it freely.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Like Our Shepherd

While at the grocery store the other day, I met some friends who’d spent the winter months away. After I welcomed them back to beautiful Gurnee, they asked about our trip to Israel. They’ve traveled to Europe, but have never ventured to the Holy Land and were anxious to hear my impressions. This is the reason they patiently endured my fifteen-minute summary of the trip’s highlights. When I realized how long I’d kept them from their shopping, I apologized, thanked them for listening and sent them on their way. As for me, I breezed through the rest of my grocery list with a smile. After loading the car, I nestled into my seat, inserted the key and switched the radio to CD mode. Suddenly, I returned to our tour boat on the Sea of Galilee. While I imagined the hillsides which Jesus frequented so long ago, our boat captain Daniel sang of his newfound love for Jesus. These images remained with me for the rest of the day.

The house was quiet when I returned home, so I stowed the groceries quickly and headed to the study to begin this writing. Because we’re in the midst of the Easter Season, my mental return to Israel was perfectly timed. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the first two scripture passages focus upon the enthusiastic disciples. Peter and the rest couldn’t contain their good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They encouraged all who would listen to open themselves to the Good Shepherd who had paved the way to God for us all. It is John’s gospel (10:1-10) which addresses the nitty-gritty of shepherding and Jesus’ willingness to embrace this role on behalf of each one of us.

In Israel, I discovered that shepherds continue to work on the hillsides where Jesus once walked. Though some must secure other employment to supplement their incomes, modern-day shepherds take this work as seriously as their long-ago contemporaries did. They teach their flocks to follow their voices and their scents. Though a shepherd smells much like his flock by the end of a long day, sheep instinctively sort through the aromas in the air to find him. Christmas card images of shepherds carrying lambs around their necks suggest the shepherds’ affection for these little ones. In reality, shepherds carry wandering lambs over their shoulders until they learn their scent. This gesture indicates far more than fondness for a wayward lamb. It’s a life-saving effort.

John’s gospel tells us that for Jesus every effort on behalf of his sheep was life-giving and life-saving. This is the reason Jesus spoke so harshly regarding those who attempted to steal sheep. These thieves had no intention of caring for their captives. They stole sheep to use them for their own benefit, for food or for sale. They engaged in covert efforts to draw unsuspecting sheep into their grasps because no sheep would approach these interlopers on their own. On that particular day, Jesus referenced the Pharisees in the temple as similar robbers. Rather than getting close to the people, they set themselves apart. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel told of the Pharisees’ repeated questioning of a blind man whom Jesus had cured. When the man attributed this healing to Jesus, the Pharisees labeled him a blasphemer and banished him from the temple. Rather than rejoicing in the man’s newfound sight and the amazing future which lay before him, the Pharisees ostracized him in an effort to avoid giving any credence to Jesus. Jesus responded by making it very clear that there is no room for exclusion in God’s family. Jesus expected everyone who found himself or herself in a position of leadership to remain close enough to the flock to smell like them. This Good Shepherd of ours went on to ask both the leaders and the followers among us to remain close enough to him to recognize him with certainty. If we do as Jesus did, we’ll remain close enough to each other to know one another equally well.

One of the most important lessons I learned while in Israel is that there is great holiness to be found amidst the hustle and hassles of our daily lives. Wherever we were, local people hurried about their business while our guide led us to the amazing sights which, out of necessity, they had learned to ignore. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is surrounded by bustling Jerusalem while Solomon’s Quarry rests beneath this city. In an effort not to miss any of Israel’s treasures, visitors make their way as best they can to enjoy them. It seems to me that we’re asked to make our way as best we can as well. We’re asked to venture through the crowds around us with the eagerness of tourists to find one another. Like our Shepherd, we’re asked to get up close and personal and to care for one another as only you and I can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Can You See Me Now?

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about someone we met in Israel. Though he could see as well as the rest of us, our new friend was deprived of his vision from birth just like the man born blind. Still, he had much to add to the memorable adventure my dear husband and I enjoyed there. We know our tour director Nancy well as she is a parishioner here at St. Paul’s. As a result, we were certain this trip would be everything we expected. Our tour guide was another matter. Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life in general. While he provided amazing commentary throughout, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi smiled all the while as he revealed Israel’s treasures one by one.

We eventually discovered that Yossi didn’t always have access to those treasures. He was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that socialist community, everyone worked to supply everyone with what they needed. In his case, Yossi observed people who were inclined to take all they needed, but who chose not to work. These “lazy ones” soured Yossi’s view of this lifestyle and unwittingly inspired his dedicated work ethic. Yossi celebrated the day his family was able to leave that place to fend for themselves with some autonomy. At the same time, Yossi remained community-minded. He’s keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. Yossi also considers himself to be a secular Jew. Still, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of his “secular” status. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts as he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Yossi carried his backpack everywhere. Among the items he needed for the day, Yossi carried musical instruments. Some days, Yossi sported his flute. Other days, he carried a tiny guitar-like instrument, perhaps a balalaika. At our first stop in Caesarea, we visited the complex constructed by King Herod more than two thousand years ago. It includes a hippodrome, the ideal setting for the first of many concerts with which Yossi gifted us. Yossi did this throughout our tour whenever the Spirit moved him –and I mean that literally! Yossi offered his most precious concert in Emmaus in the Crusader church there. He surprised me for my birthday with Schubert’s Ave Maria. I tried to sing along, but was so taken with this gesture that I could only listen. Yossi played with his eyes tightly closed as his music drifted heavenward. I knew then that Yossi prays, though perhaps he doesn’t see this.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his iPad and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi read passages he’d chosen to bring us back to the Teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide called himself a “secular” Jew because he didn’t want to be confused with “religious” Hasidic Jews. Yossi found them overbearing. In Yossi’s mind, they seem to have “blinded” themselves with rules and regulations. They’ve lost sight of their concern for all of God’s people because these rules have taken precedence over everything and everyone else. In Jerusalem, Yossi lead us to a Christian church where a small community of Messianic Jews worship. When he introduced the woman who would tell us about her fellow Jews who believe in Jesus, she turned to Yossi to insist that he could offer the same explanation effortlessly. Yossi only smiled as he urged her on.

John’s gospel (John 9:1-41) tells us that the man born blind was completely misunderstood by his neighbors and the temple authorities. They saw his parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction on their son. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. Only Jesus looked through the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. It occurs to me that Jesus is doing the same for Yossi. Though he was robbed of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz, something -or Someone- impels Yossi to open his eyes to the gifts God offers him today. Yossi read those scripture passages with the passion of a true believer. The things Yossi shared came from deep within his heart. Yossi inspired me as much as the places we visited in Israel, perhaps more so. In the end, it seems to me that Yossi is far closer to God than he lets on, so close that it’s impossible for him to hide this. In spite of Yossi’s once-impaired vision, God is hard at work within him, just as God is working within you and me.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Heaven

In spite of the heavy traffic, I couldn’t help smiling as we crept along the toll way last week. Since I was not the driver, I’d been looking out the window. There wasn’t much more to see than the other vehicles on the road. Eventually, a semi cab caught my eye. It looked rather odd without a huge trailer in tow. As I wondered who thought up the ingenious design that allows truckers to sleep in their rigs, I noticed the large lettering printed across the back of the truck. “Destination: Heaven,” it said. I wondered what impelled this man to proclaim his destination to the rest of us. I also wondered what his idea of heaven might be…

Since our grandchildren began their arrival, I admit to announcing often, “I’m in grandma heaven.” Our grandchildren have certainly brought us great joy, and I treasure every minute that I can spend with each one of them. When we gathered for family birthdays a few weeks ago, my sister remarked, “Mmmm. This is heaven,” as she bit into a piece of candy. How she loves milk chocolate! The other day, a friend remarked that he was in heaven on a recent cruise because he didn’t set his alarm clock once the entire time he was away. The Rickets Family seems to be in “baseball heaven” as they continue their plans for Wrigley Field improvements. If recent sound bytes and news clips are to be believed, candidates for a plethora of public offices long for their own bits of “political heaven.” I suppose each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are in one type of heaven or another. Sometimes, the possibility seems completely out of reach. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that if only things go this way or that, if conditions conform to our wishes, we will be in heaven. At times, we are so convinced that we do anything and everything to make it so.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:1-32), the young man about whom Jesus speaks defined and then redefined heaven for himself much the way we do. He and his brother lived on the family farm with their father. They worked hand in hand with one another and with the hired help 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 and he wanted it so badly that he forsook his own father’s life to get it. You see, when the young man asked for his portion of his inheritance, he was not asking for an advance on his allowance or for a small loan. This son asked his father to behave as though he was dead and to give him what would be his upon his father’s death. This young man couldn’t have hurt or insulted his father more deeply than he did by making this demand. Nonetheless, the young man’s father complied by giving the young man his money.

The young man set out immediately to find heaven for himself. He invested his inheritance in partying and surrounding himself with the “right people” -those who saw things his way and 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. In the end, the young man’s resources ran out and he was left with neither food nor finances nor friends. Starving, he offered himself for hire to a local landowner who took him on to tend pigs. Though his hunger was obvious, no one offered the young man a crumb. As he stood in the mud surrounded by swine, the young man realized how recklessly wasteful he had been. He not only squandered his inheritance, but he 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 to beg for a job beside the servants. Though he knew even this was too much to ask, the young man hoped to find comfort in the shadow of his father’s house. Indeed, when the young man arrived, he found heaven in the truest sense.

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. For 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. The truth is that “Destination: Heaven” is the final stop on each of our itineraries. Though heaven may escape us much of the time here on this earth, in the end, we will not escape heaven. The Father, who so warmly embraced that prodigal child, waits again with open arms. One day, God will welcome each of us with an equally comforting embrace.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Time For Everything

A childhood friend who shares my nostalgic tendencies recently sent me the link to a YouTube video. I rarely click email links, but I was thrilled to go to this one. It took me to a recording of Turn! Turn! Turn! which was recorded by The Byrds in 1965. When I clicked the “play” arrow and sat back to listen, I was not disappointed. The Byrds put the words from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 to music almost verbatim. At the time, this American Folk Rock Band performed the song to promote world peace. In my case, every time I listen, the musical score and those amazingly simple words fill me with inexplicable peace.

For those not familiar with the lyrics, every verse begins, “To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. And a time for every purpose under heaven.” If you look at the song lyrics or the scripture passage, you’ll find that there is a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, to reap, to kill, to heal, to laugh and to weep. There is also a time to build up and to take down, to dance and to mourn. According to Ecclesiastes and the Byrds, there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Both the song and the scripture passage end with the assertion that there is also a time for peace. Insisting that this was the case even in the tumultuous 60s, the Byrds added, “I swear it’s not too late.” Ecclesiastes is not among the scripture readings we’ll hear at Mass this weekend. Still, it seems to me that the Ordinary Time gospels from recent weeks and today indicate that Jesus is very much aware of the timing of the events of his life.

After much prayer and reflection, Jesus went to his cousin John to be baptized. It was time for Jesus to begin his public life. Jesus also attended the wedding in Cana with his friends. Very much aware of timing herself, Mary sought out Jesus’ help when the couple involved ran out of wine. If she acted quickly enough, they would suffer no embarrassment over this turn of events. Jesus initially seemed unhappy with Mary’s timing. Still, on second thought, he abided by his mother’s wishes and turned water into wine. At the same time, Jesus’ friends realized it was time to allow their belief in Jesus’ friendship to grow into belief in his ministry. In today’s gospel (Luke 4:21-30), Luke tells us that Jesus found himself in the midst of seemingly poor timing when he preached for the first time in his home town of Nazareth…

In the synagogue where he grew up, Jesus read this passage from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor.” Afterward, Jesus set aside the scroll and told the people that this saying had come to fruition before them. His neighbors marveled at his knowledge of the scriptures, but they also wondered why Jesus performed no good works among them. After all, those closest to Jesus certainly deserved a miracle or two. Apparently, Jesus felt the timing wasn’t right. Rather than offering a miracle, Jesus responded with a lesson. Jesus insisted that ones proximity to a temple or preacher, priest or prophet, bible or scroll has little to do with ones relationship with God. It is the generosity of a person’s spirit which speaks volumes. When we reach beyond the confines of our own comfort zones and our own time zones to those who need us most, we demonstrate our proximity to God quite clearly. Sadly, the timing wasn’t right for Jesus’ neighbors. They weren’t ready to recognize the joy to be found in aligning ourselves with God’s timing and with God’s love. They didn’t understand that, whether the opportunity is a one-minute encounter with a homeless person or a lifelong relationship, it is always the right time to love as God loves.

I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes join Jesus’ neighbors in failing to take advantage of God’s timing. When I look back upon the happiest and the most trying episodes of my life, I realize that there truly is a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time to be born and a time to die. In between those two events, God sees to it that there is also time enough to plant, to reap, to heal, to laugh and to weep, to build up and to take down, to dance, to mourn and to love. God sees to it that there is always time enough to transform our little corners of the world with love -just as Jesus did and as only we can.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved