Welcome Home!

In spite of the cancellations of Independence Day fireworks displays, festivals and picnics, I couldn’t ignore one of my annual rituals. The other night, I seized the opportunity to raid our video library for the copy of Forrest Gump. I nestled into my favorite chair to relive history with my fictional friend. Though the screenplay is quite good, what I enjoy more are the many clips from actual events dispersed throughout the film as the story unfolds.

Though Independence Day 2020 promised to be quite subdued, the date’s impact upon me is tangible. My Dad passed away July 4, 1959, and it was my Uncle Norbert’s birthday. We mourned their sister at her wake July 4, 1989. Though one would expect this holiday to burden me with a dark mood each year, the opposite is true. In spite of their absence this year, fireworks are to blame. Because of these family connections, fireworks displays always speak resurrection to me. This is the reason I continue to be taken by the Forrest Gump scene in which Forrest and his girlfriend Jenny watch the Bicentennial Fireworks of 1976. The Statue of Liberty fills their tiny television screen with all of her glory. Fireworks of every color form a sparkling halo around her head. Is that burst of light in the darkness anything like our movement from this life into the next? Though this particular clip is short, the glimpse of Lady Liberty and her spectacular backdrop sets off fireworks in my mind that linger long after the movie ends.

Still, it isn’t just the fireworks. The Statue of Liberty first conjured noble sentiments within me when I was in high school. I participated in a chorus who performed select vocal pieces for special events. One of these was drawn from The New Colossus, the poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed on the base beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. The poem closes with “…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.” Though patriotism wasn’t always in vogue when I sang those words in the sixties, even then, I couldn’t control the fullness in my heart that swelled every time these words passed through my lips. I admit to those feelings again as I write. Lady Liberty’s proclamation is awesome, indeed. This nation’s display of these mighty words at our shore demands quite a commitment from those of us who call these United States our home.

My mom and her parents were born in this country, though it isn’t many branches back on her family tree where we find immigrants from Canada and Europe. My dad’s parents and some of his siblings were born in Canada. My husband’s grandparents migrated from Croatia and Italy. Our associate pastor Father Joe’s family has roots in Italy as well. Our Pastor Father Chris took Lady Liberty’s invitation (and the Cardinal’s!) to heart when he left the seminary in Poland to finish his studies and serve as a priest here. This concept of welcoming those who wish to make this country their home has always comforted me. Where would any of us be if someone along the way hadn’t welcomed our families with open arms?

Having a place to call home is a basic need that all of humanity shares. Regardless of what happens to us while away, our homes promise us the acceptance, comfort and rest we so desperately need. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché. “Home Sweet Home” proclaims the promise and invitation Jesus extends today. Earlier in his gospel, Matthew shared that Jesus understood our expectations of the places we call home. After engaging in his ministry for a time, Jesus had done well for himself. His followers were coming to understand his message. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. Still, when Jesus returned to his own hometown of Nazareth, he was rejected. Those who once looked upon him like family and as a friend found this new Jesus to be too much to accept and they wanted be rid of him. Perhaps it was in that disappointment that Jesus found reason to share the true meaning of home not long afterward.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:25-30), Matthew tells us that Jesus made his thoughts regarding home quite tangible. Though we might find ourselves rejected as Jesus was, Jesus promises, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Perhaps I’m so taken by fireworks and Lady Liberty because they proclaim quite vividly God’s longing to draw us back home. In the mean time, it’s up to us to welcome, to accept and to comfort those around us. We know the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to take root in others. Today’s gospel challenges us to grasp Lady Liberty’s lamp and to light the way home for one another until we all make our way home to God.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hospitality… Our Way of Life

While checking email this morning, I came across a reminder from my niece. Angela is going to be married in November. She and her fiancé have planned a very special day for all concerned and they want to make everyone’s participation in this event as enjoyable as possible. While Angela, Dave and some of the family live nearby, many others will travel to celebrate with them. This is the reason Angela sent her note. It includes hotel contact and check-in procedures and information about the area so those interested can plan accordingly. Since Mike and I live only thirty minutes from the location, we won’t need accommodations. Still, I sent Angela my thanks as this information will be very helpful to many of her and Dave’s guests. After clicking “Send”, I looked upward as I’ve done so often during the past three months. “Dear God,” I begged, “please help us to get this pandemic under control so Angela and Dave can enjoy their wedding day with everyone they love around them.”

After adding my “Amen” to that plea, I read today’s scripture passages. I laughed aloud when I saw that hospitality is the underlying theme. I admit that I looked upward once again. This time, I asked, “You are kidding, right? Dear God, we’ve been ordered to be anything but hospitable for the past three months! What am I supposed to…” Determined as I was to complain further to our patient God, thoughts of Angela and Dave interrupted my effort. These two have every intention of being more than hospitable to their guests. In spite of the possible adjustments which may be required by the pandemic, they are doing everything in their power to see to their guests comfort and enjoyment. In the midst of all of this, Angela and Dave aren’t pacing and wringing their hands. They’re simply doing what needs to be done with the hope that all concerned will be able to celebrate with them. As I considered this dear couple’s efforts, I revisited those scripture passages…

It occurs to me that extending and receiving hospitality are basic humans needs and Angela and Dave aren’t alone in their efforts to be hospitable these days. While I’ve done my best to stay-in-place for the past three months, first responders have welcomed the seriously ill into their company. Media images of ambulance drivers and police officers escorting patients into hospitals and clinics replay in my memory. Many restaurant owners who closed their doors in response to the pandemic have kept their kitchens open to feed those doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who’ve had no time to worry about meals. Others who were sequestered in their homes ventured out to deliver parcels to food pantries. Those whose jobs weren’t essential enough to keep them working were welcomed to take home a week’s groceries. Children suddenly banned from school by a virus they didn’t understand were welcomed into virtual classrooms by teachers who did understand. Essential workers placed themselves in jeopardy day after day to welcome the rest of us into their stores and gas stations and pharmacies. When I ventured out on an essential errand, I rediscovered the value of a welcoming smile. Though social distancing was painfully necessary, doing without the smiles of those around me was worse. How I wished I had a cellophane mask so the clerks and cart cleaners and stock persons would know that I was smiling in their directions with deep gratitude.

We might view Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality as a family obligation. We might view the welcome extended to the rest of us by all of these essential workers to be nothing more than what their jobs require of them. The recipients of these kindnesses, however, hold a different opinion. The hospitality of others –their welcoming of us into the moments of their lives– makes our lives livable. In the seemingly ordinary things done for others during these extraordinary times, we’ve helped one another to survive. Though Angela and Dave weren’t necessarily heroic in sending that wedding reminder, they’ve certainly renewed their guests’ hope in better things to come.

Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality and that of all of those I’ve witnessed these past three months mirror God’s intent for each one of us. Today’s scriptures seem to agree. In the first reading (2 Kings 8-11, 14-16a), a woman of influence welcomed Elisha the prophet into her home because he visited the area often and needed a place to stay. She also saw Elisha as God’s beloved. In the second reading (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11), Paul assured us that hospitality offered during this life will be repaid generously in the next. In the gospel (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus asked his disciples to look upon the neediest among us just as that woman looked upon Elisha. Jesus promised that even the smallest efforts to welcome the least of us will be rewarded. Though we don’t need to socialize with every person we meet along our way, we do need to welcome one another into the moments at hand as best we can, masks and all! Today, God invites us to make offering hospitality to one another our way of life.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate the Present? Yes!

It was a tough morning. I woke with a heavy heart. Just as we were all looking forward to easing out of our stay-in-place regimen, our ailing world was turned upside-down once again. One man’s brutal overreaction to an alleged misdeed robbed another man of his life. This time, that overreaction reached to our collective core. Once again, our lives were placed on lock-down. This time, rather than battling a virus, we battled injustice in an effort to find justice for all concerned. Once again, we found ourselves deeply troubled. Yes, it was a tough morning and my heart ached. As I crawled out of bed, I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all.”

As I considered how next to address the Lord God, I grabbed one of the sources I frequently turn to for inspiration. YOU ARE THE BELOVED* is a book of daily reflections drawn from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen, a favorite author of mine. Because his words always touch me deeply, I opened that book to the day’s date in search of something I could hold onto. I read the title of that morning’s offering aloud: Celebrate in the Present. I quickly responded to myself, “Are you kidding me? The last thing I want to do today is celebrate!” With that, I almost closed the book without reading another word. I write almost because something –okay, Someone– encouraged me to take a second look. I’m most grateful that I did. Thank you, God!

Henri Nouwen’s words that day addressed the core of my dilemma that morning and of all of our heartache these days. When he asked that we celebrate in the present, Nouwen added that it is impossible to celebrate any given moment or event if we don’t fully embrace everything which that moment entails. He wrote that we can’t celebrate Christmas if nothing new is born out of Jesus’ birth. We can’t celebrate Easter if we don’t embrace the promise of new life that comes with it. We can’t celebrate Pentecost if God’s Spirit doesn’t continue to be alive and well among us. When he said to celebrate the present, Nouwen meant that we must be a living part of that present and we must deal with whatever challenges that present sets before us.

Though that passage from Henri Nouwen ended there, I had to consider what he might have written about today’s feast of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. As I wondered, I shook my head with sadness. Those of us with pre-Vatican II roots recall that we once referred to this feast as Corpus Christi. We celebrated by honoring the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Vatican II and many of our spiritual leaders since have reminded us that Jesus also challenged us to become his body and blood for one another, his most holy body and blood to be precise. I admit that I looked upward from my keyboard after writing that and said aloud, “I know. We’re not acting most holy these days.” Regardless of the externals that separate us -our politics, our tendencies to the left or to the right, our likes or dislikes, our upbringing, our social status, our sinfulness or our holiness, even the colors of our skin, we are called to be the body and blood of Jesus together and for one another.

I take my inspiration from Henri Nouwen and one other who inspires me even more so. The scriptures tell us that Jesus habitually shared himself with his contemporaries who were as diverse as we are. At his last supper with them, Jesus washed the feet of twelve very different, but beloved friends, even the friend who denied him and the friend who betrayed him. Jesus refused to distinguish between saints and sinners, women and men, slaves and free persons, Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor. Even prostitutes and tax collectors received his friendship. In each face, Jesus saw God’s handiwork. Jesus spent every ounce of his own body and blood caring for every one whom he met along the way with the hope of inspiring us to do the same. Ever since, Jesus has invited us over and over again to become his body and blood by caring for one another with the same unconditional love.

I woke with a headache and a heartache that morning with good reason. When I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all,” I didn’t expect an immediate answer. Yet, it came. After I closed Nouwen’s book, I took a deep breath, looked upward and sighed. I couldn’t help smiling as I announced to my ever-patient God, “Yes, I’ll celebrate the present. I’ll embrace this heartbreaking, frustrating and frightening time. I’ll spend my body, my blood and my heart in service of those you give me to love.” So it is that I will celebrate the gift of Jesus’ body and blood by becoming Jesus’ body and blood and caring for my fellow humans as he did. I’ll begin by facing the injustice that plagues us today and doing something about it.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2017), You Are The Beloved, p. 72. Convergent Books, Penguin Random House LLC.

Examples of Love

Set an example…
in speech, conduct, love, faith, and honesty.

From 1 Timothy 4:12

While walking outdoors the other day, fellow walkers and I carefully navigated around each other to maintain social distancing. Though some of us had masks dangling below our chins, none were needed as we allowed one another our space. Actually, this was the case until a family of four approached in the distance. We were nearing a narrow stretch which made social distancing difficult. When I realized the predicament, I pulled up my mask and then retraced my steps until I found a spot wide enough to allow us all to pass safely.

As that family walked by, the dad thanked me for the extra effort. He added, “I didn’t think we’d run into anyone so we left our masks at home. So sorry!” As we parted ways, one of the children commented, “So stupid, Dad. I hate wearing a mask.” I admit that I stopped to tie my shoe because I wanted to hear how Dad responded. How sweet it was to hear his reply. ” I don’t like wearing a mask either,” he said, “but I don’t like seeing anyone get sick, especially you guys. I wear my mask for you and Mom.”

I smiled as I stood to continue that walk. It occurred to me that parents everywhere are offering their children lessons which none of us ever imagined would be necessary. You know, the weeks and months ahead are going to be tough as we adjust to some type of normalcy. As for me, I’m going to try not to worry about this too much because of selfless people like that dad who are in this with me. When we care about one another, we have a chance.

Loving God, you are goodness and you are love. Be with us as we bring both to our efforts to heal this world by caring for one another.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Characters

“I have found you and
with my holy oil I anoint you…”

From Psalm 89:21

A few days ago, I referenced a childhood photograph which conjured up a regretful memory. Today, a second look at that photo brought a smile to my face. My brother, my four sisters and I are posed on the steps of our front porch. We’re dressed in our Easter finery. On such occasions, a family gathering of some magnitude followed. Such celebrations usually spilled out onto that porch if the weather was at all bearable. Since my parents had eighteen siblings between them, our extended family included an amazing variety of characters. I write “characters” with appreciative thoughts of each one!

Characters of every sort enrich my life. Family, neighbors, schoolmates and church friends account for many. By the time I was sixteen and took my first job at a grocery store, I was quite adept at interacting with others. This came to good use in college, when I eventually married and began my teaching career. All the while, I enjoyed the characters whom I met along the way.

Most precious are the moments I’ve shared individually. These encounters allowed glimpses of others which I might have missed in a crowd. It’s likely that many of these special people have no idea of their contribution to my humble existence. Still, each one reminds me in one way or another that we are all God’s anointed ones. Each of us is a unique gift to those around us and to this world. Yes, we are all God’s characters, sent to enrich others along the way. As we ease back into our new normal, may we all share the best of our characters as only we can!

Dear God, stay with us as we renew our appreciation of ourselves, of one another and of our world.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peace Be With Us All

“The works that God gave me to accomplish,
these works that I perform testify that God has sent me.”

John 5:36

Wasn’t it just yesterday that I wrote about the peace with which I begin each day? Though I’m grateful that God’s peace stays with me much of the time, this is sometimes not the case. Today, I’m more than impatient with a few of my fellow humans. Though I believe God loves us just as we are, I’m having a little trouble following God’s good example. I just watched a news report which I wish I’d missed. Those featured seem to have forgotten that we’re all God’s people. I shouldn’t have allowed these few to distract me from the remarkable good that is being accomplished by so many these days. Yet, I did!

Determined to change my attitude, I ran upstairs to take another peek out of the window which inspires my morning talks with God. Before I said a word, childhood memories regarding some of Jesus’ contemporaries filled me up. Before I could ask the point of all of this, the eleven-year-old I used to be came to mind. She was extremely impatient with the Pharisees who had no use for Jesus. This younger me was convinced that Jesus’ words and works had come from a loving God and she wondered why it was so difficult for the Pharisees to see this.

As I consider my current frustration, I acknowledge that times haven’t changed much. I’d revived my eleven-year-old frustration. I’d also lost the peace that resides not only beyond that window, but also deep within me. With that, I’m renewing my resolve to find that peace once again. I’ll pray for those who’d frustrated me so. I’ll also do what I can to bring peace to my little corner of this world.

Good and Patient God, help me to do just that!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved