Something To Look Forward To

“I assure you, there is no one
born of woman greater than John.
Yet the least born into the kingdom of God
is greater than he.”

Luke 7:28

While working on our Christmas Cards, memories of Christmases Past filled me up. For decades year after year, our large family gathered to celebrate this favorite of all holy days. As I went through my addresses, I was struck hard by the number of family members we’ve lost, the most recent to COVID-19.

Oddly enough, these lost loved ones give me reason to celebrate the numerous wonderful memories I’ve shared with each one. I admit that I amused myself by imagining each of their current activities at home with God. Though I miss each one, I can’t in good conscience wish any of them back here and away from the wonder that they’ve found in their life after this life.

Apparently, the gift of our loved ones in heaven didn’t escape Jesus either. When Jesus acknowledged the greatness of his cousin John the Baptist, he acknowledged the greatness of anyone who makes it home to God. In the process, Jesus offered us more hope than we could ever have imagined.

Generous God, it is with great joy that I anticipate our celebration of the birth of Jesus. His coming revealed your unconditional love and your amazing plans for each one of us. Thank you!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Source of Hope and Joy

We’ve come to know the drill because it’s repeated far too frequently. If you have a seriously ill family member or friend, you understand. If you’ve followed the journeys of those stricken with COVID-19, you understand. Flurries of tests, email and Facebook messages keep those involved informed. Extended family members and friends worry, cheer and pray fervently for the ones who fight to get well. These battles are too often uphill journeys which take their tolls on both body and spirit. Those on the periphery continue their day-to-day lives as they pray and offer encouragement. It’s difficult not to become impatient with God in situations like this.

This time, I’ve managed to set aside my anxiety and to engage our loving God in heartfelt conversation. After voicing the litany of reasons for which newly developed vaccines and healthcare must be delivered with Godspeed, I listen for direction. Afterward, I do my best to comply. This compliance involves the continuation of my prayer in full earnest, not only for those who are ill, but also for their families, friends and caregivers. My compliance also requires that, while I pray for physical improvements, I also pray for the spiritual wellbeing of all concerned. Those who are ill and their loved ones are suffering more than should be possible. Still, some of them find the strength to sense God’s embrace in all of this. “I am here,” God insists and they respond with eager hope.

Though they’re unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I continue to be amazed by the suffering. Though their circumstances are uncertain, they, their loved ones and their caretakers respond to every upturn with joy. How can I not follow the example of these brave souls? I can’t! So, like them, I acknowledge God’s presence in today’s uncertainty as I put the final touches on our Christmas decorations and prepare our Christmas cards. At first, it was difficult to extend glad tidings in the midst of this world’s worry. However, when I considered the determined attitudes of the sick, their caretakers and their families, I chided myself. “You know, if you really believe what you say you believe…” Then I added, “This is what our lives are about. We live, we love, we fall, we get up and we do it all again. Sometimes, these episodes end with lessons learned and new beginnings. Sometimes, they end with a trip to heaven. Every time, these stories unfold with God at our sides.

This weekend, a pink candle flickers among the purple candles in our parish Advent wreath. Whether we attend Mass in person or watch online, that pink wax pillar announces to us all that this is Gaudete or “Joyful” Sunday. Though we’re in the midst of misery as we wait for better things, we’re called to rejoice. The suffering around us who so generously share their stories of triumph and loss inspire us all to wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity to find the joy around us today. The words of the suffering provide the backdrop for the blessings and losses which have brought joy into all of our lives in one way or another. Today’s scripture passages do the same…

In the first reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11), Isaiah shares our good fortune with all who will listen. The prophet’s worry had also morphed into hope which eventually evolved into joy. Isaiah knew well that he and all of God’s people were molded by God’s hands and aligned with God’s heart. So it was that Isaiah proclaimed, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because God has anointed me; God has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord…” Isaiah understood God’s intent and he preached tirelessly to help all of God’s people to realize the same. In his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), Paul put it quite simply: “Rejoice always!” Finally, John’s gospel (1:6-8, 19-28) tells us that John the Baptist repeated Isaiah’s message with unshakable conviction. John knew that what Isaiah foretold would come to fruition in Jesus. Like Isaiah and Paul, John did all he could to convince God’s people of the joy which would eventually overshadow their suffering.

This third week of Advent and the rest of our lives begin today with Joyful Sunday. While those who are ill, their caretakers and families continue their battles, the rest of us pray for them as we deal with our own troubles. Those suffering around us find strength in the hopeful joy within themselves and within their loved ones. On this Joyful Sunday, you and I are invited to do the same. God’s presence in all of our lives remains steadfast and strong. Perhaps the best we can do with what remains of Advent 2020 is to share these glad tidings with those we meet along our way. Though none of us knows the direction our lives will take in the next minute, hour or day, we can be certain of God’s love, God’s embrace and the joy to be found in God’s company.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Blessed Are We!

When I woke that morning, I was quite relieved to see the rainy weather. The conditions outdoors absolved me of running the few errands I allow myself these days. With that, I decided to take care of a few phone calls, catch up on email, finish the laundry and attend to this writing. I’d convinced myself that this was the most productive and satisfying way to spend the day until I looked out the patio doors on my way to the kitchen for breakfast. Raindrops pelted the blanket of leaves which covered our lawn. A gentle breeze nudged tree branches just enough to shake another layer of fall color to the ground.

“If I could do exactly what I want to do,” I told myself, “I’d go out and rake the leaves in the rain.” I smiled as I imagined my poor husband’s face when he’d drive up to the mounds of wet leaves that would greet him in the parkway. I smiled more broadly when I recalled raking leaves with our sons not so long ago. What fun it was to watch them flit about the yard, happily dismantling our leaf hills. Indeed, though rainy-day raking would have left me soaked to the bone, that autumn adventure would have been worth the trouble. Afterward, those efforts would have given me very good reason to huddle at the kitchen table with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book.

I looked longingly out the window as I finished my oatmeal. Much to my dismay, the eagerness with which I’d begun that day had disappeared in short order. I had a long to-do list which didn’t allow me the luxury of raking those leaves. So it was that I started the laundry and then clicked my way through email. The phone rang three times during the first hour and a new email popped up every time I tried to get offline. Though those loads of laundry began to disappear, each cycle ended at the most inopportune moment. By the time I finished folding the clothes I’d retrieved from the dryer, I’d forgotten the brilliant ideas which would have made that day’s writing much easier. Though I’d started my chores by 8:30 that morning, I didn’t give a thought to this reflection until 3:15. It was then that I retreated to my favorite chair to treat myself to another view of our leaf-blanketed yard before perusing today’s scripture passages.

I admit that I smiled when I realized that the rain had continued to fall and that the breeze had continued to shake leaves from our trees as I read. I laughed aloud over my desire to rake leaves that day. Had I actually done so, it would have mattered little because our trees held on to countless more leaves which will find their way to earth over the next few weeks. Images of my sons and me traipsing through those leaves filled me up once again. This time, Grandpa and our granddaughters and grandsons joined us.

Finally, the resentment with which I’d approached most of that day’s tasks subsided. When I finally turned to those scripture passages, I smiled again, this time more broadly than before because I remembered that I was preparing to write for All Saints Day. Since childhood, I’ve loved this feast day because it acknowledges God’s greatest gift to us. All Saints Day is a celebration of God’s promise of eternal life, eternal life that is fulfilled in those who have already joined God’s good company and promised to the rest of us who continue to struggle along our way. After reading today’s gospel, I realized that a day full of demands was a small, but important step that I took in God’s direction.

Matthew’s gospel (5:1-12a) tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, his compassion penetrated their sadness. Jesus understood too well the burdens we carry as we make our way on this earth. On that day, Jesus saw everything that weighed upon the hearts of the people. So it was that he offered them peace. When Jesus taught the beatitudes, he spoke to the things that rob us of our joy just now and to the reward that awaits us because we endure: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy… Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Once again, I find myself humbled by God’s concern for us. I find myself a bit embarrassed, too. After all, that busy day pales in the shadow of the trials and tribulations that touch so many of God’s people. When I consider all that the saints, both canonized and those I’ve known in my lifetime, have endured on their journeys back to God, I wonder what it was that I thought I had to complain about. So it is that I celebrate All Saints Day with deep gratitude. After all, you and I have been promised a home in eternity with God. When we acknowledge all that awaits us, how much easier it is to plod along in the midst of Year 2020 and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Surrounded By God’s Love

You dwell in God’ house;
You abide in God’s love.

Psalm 91:1

After purging a few drawers and part of a closet, I folded and bagged our unneeded clothing. Though some items no longer fit us, they are in excellent condition and will serve a few of God’s more slender children quite well. In the process, I might have bristled over the extra pounds I’ve found during these stay-in-place days. But, oddly enough, I didn’t. As I filled those bags with these wearable treasures, I encountered God in a wonderfully uplifting way. While carrying them out to my car, I realized I was sharing what I had with enthusiasm, the enthusiasm with which I believe God loves us. It was awesome!

As I contemplated this awesomeness, it occurred to me that I might have missed this gift at another moment in time. You know as well as I that life has been tough since COVID-19 took up residence among us. The resulting hardship burdening so many people has tested my appreciation for God’s plan in all of this. Though I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, a good reason, I also know that too many of my fellow humans are suffering greatly these days. Knowing that there really isn’t much I can do to help adds to my angst. It was with this mindset intact that I’d begun to purge those drawers and that closet. It was with this mindset intact that God dispelled my brooding with a taste of Divine Love.

Finally, it occurs to me that God is quite aware of all of our suffering. Just as God used my purging to remind me of how much I am loved, God works through each one of us to bring the same message to those who need it most. Even when we fail to cooperate in God’s work, God finds a way to say, “I love you!”

Thank you, Dear God, for your love!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Best Kept Promise

“Amen, amen, I say to you…
the dead will hear the voice of God.”

From John 5:28

I believe that I make peace with the passing of my loved ones for good reason. From very early on, my parents assured me that those who neared death were destined for absolute happiness and health in heaven. As I grew older and came to appreciate the suffering of those left behind, I held on to my parents’ promises and my own conviction that heaven is indeed worth the pain of this temporary separation. Over the years, I’ve found further consolation in the wonderful accounts offered by those gifted with Near Death Experiences. These people who have tasted life after this life assure us all that my parents’ promises from long ago are well-founded.

A close encounter with this phenomenon came at the hands of my mom. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a prognosis of four months. After acknowledging that she had lived a good and long life, my mother’s only wish was to be independent for as long as possible. As it happened, she remained miraculously pain-free and medication-free, except for her insulin, until the end. It was during her final week among us that my mom mentioned the beautiful voices. She also remarked that her sisters were waiting for her. The morning of the day she passed, I asked my mom if she was afraid. Her face glowed when she answered, “Oh no, Mary. It’s beautiful over there!”

Even in the midst of our battle with COVID-19, I can’t deny it. Heaven truly is worth the wait!

Loving God, thank you for so many amazing glimpses of the wonder which lies ahead.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share Your Wisdom Generously

Therefore I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded and God’s wisdom came to me.

Wisdom 7:7

Times are tough. When we lose a loved one and cannot mourn with those who love us, our pain is amplified beyond measure. Though I couldn’t be with a friend in this situation, I sent her a favorite book which might bring her a measure of peace. I spent far more time than necessary perusing the literary treasures which fill my bookshelves because I needed peace as well. Just reading the titles by these favorite authors eased my own worry.

Though our encounters weren’t face-to-face, these amazing authors changed my life. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross pioneered near-death experience studies. I first encountered her work during a college class on death and dying. The good doctor’s scientific research regarding life after this life underscored what I already believed to be true. Though she endured ridicule from the medical community, Kübler-Ross persisted. In the decades since, many medical professionals have substantiated and added to her research. More recent works by Dr. Eben Alexander and Dr. Mary C. Neal, now in my collection, describe their own near death experiences in detail.

While in college, I also read Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. This amazing man’s stalwart spirit sustained him through one of human history’s most heinous episodes. Just reading his name strengthened me for the day.

A decade ago, I encountered another author whose bravery took a slightly different turn. George Anderson was a very young boy when he almost lost his life to a terrible illness. When he recovered, little George realized that he’d endured this ordeal in the company of “friends” whom others were unable to see. This connection with loved ones and saints no longer present in this life set George apart in painful ways. When he reached adulthood, he realized that contact with these precious souls brought him closer to God. His book WALKING IN THE GARDEN OF SOULS has brought me the most consolation of all. His is the book I chose to share with my friend.

These authors aren’t the only ones meant to share their wisdom. You and I are also called to inspire others by revealing the treasures in our hearts. What better way is there to lead one another toward our new normal?

Generous God, be with us as we inspire one another with our personal varieties of wisdom.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved