He’s With Us

“Are you the only resident of Jerusalem who does not know
the things that went on here these past few days?”

From Luke 24:17

It was almost two weeks after we returned from Israel when I finally shook my jet-lag. At that point, I was able to look back to savor this experience. I simply had to share this amazing adventure through these posts. In the process, I’ve revisited each site and every encounter with Israel’s people. I truly hope all of these memories remain with me forever!

Ash Wednesday, when I began this effort, I couldn’t think of a better way to observe Lent. I’ve cultivated my friendship with Jesus all of my life. Spending time is his homeland added a new dimension to our connection. As I reviewed our itinerary and the photographs from our trip, I realized that I’d forgotten more than I remembered. While Mike searched for photo ops, I had engaged in quite a bit of internalizing. I couldn’t help taking to heart the things that happened on that hallowed ground so long ago. I couldn’t help stepping into Mary Magdalene’s and Peter’s and Jesus’ sandals. Little did I know at the time that soon we would all wear the sandals of the suffering.

It is Cleopas who poses the question in the scripture passage above. Jesus had disguised himself for this meeting, leaving Poor Cleopas to wonder who it was that knew nothing of Jesus’ death. As I consider their conversation, I feel certain that today no one would have to ask if you or I had heard of COVID-19. As was the case with Cleopas and his friend, the world as we once knew it has been turned upside-down.

The good news is that Cleopas and his friend aren’t the only ones to whom Jesus has shown himself. You and I have two thousand years of Jesus’ influence to rely on. Are we any more miserable than the suffering souls Jesus encountered along the way? Are we any less deserving of Jesus’ love? Jesus doesn’t think so. Like Cleopas and his friend, we aren’t alone on this road…

Loving God, thank you for staying with us through it all!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In God’s Creatively Loving Hands

Happy Easter? Yes! HAPPY EASTER! In spite of all that has occurred since COVID-19 turned this world upside-down, we have reason to rejoice and to be glad on this holy day. Now I admit that I observed Lent 2020 in somewhat nontraditional ways. In was just fifteen days after Ash Wednesday when weekend Masses and group liturgies of any sort were cancelled. Schools were closed, religious education classes were suspended and most of our workplaces adjusted drastically to the threat wielded by this pandemic. At that point, I adjusted my Lenten plan as well. Rather than losing myself in worry over the unknown which lay ahead, I decided to do what I could to make the situation more bearable for all concerned. But how? Because I do my best thinking when I’m busy, I decided to clean off my perpetually messy desk. Perhaps I’d find a bit of inspiration in the chaos…

After assembling “keep” and “recycle” and “shred” piles from the clutter, I was on a roll. I decided to clean up my computer files as well. In the process, I came across “Letter To Jim”. I’d sent this to a fellow writer some time ago. In one of his columns, Jim had lamented the tragic times at hand. He wondered, as we all do, why terrible things happen to us. I’d wondered the same many times over the years which is likely the reason I responded to my friend with the following: “In my life, the most precious moments seem to come in the midst of or in response to tragedy. You have probably noted that my recent reflections have been sprinkled with concern over my mother’s health… I vacillated between praying for her recovery -which seemed impossible to be complete- and her passing -which would have meant sure peace for her. God knew better and gave her a partial recovery that has resulted in some short term memory loss and a completely joyful heart. What more could I have asked for? How could I have known? …which is why we really are obliged to place all of this in God’s hands. What a marvelous craftsman God is who fashions joy from the most hideous pain.”

To be honest, I was surprised by that last sentence. I don’t recall writing it. Because my mom passed away in early 2003, I must have written it in 2002. Nonetheless, I find it to be more true than ever today. Tragedy turns our lives topsy-turvy more often than we care to count. This was the case for Jesus and his unwitting followers that first Holy Week. This has been the case for all of humanity long before Jesus’ coming and throughout history since. COVID-19 offers one of the more dramatic examples of life’s tragedies which we’ve seen in some time. Like you, I’ve wondered such events surrounding my loved ones, neighbors and fellow parishioners can be turned around. I’ve wrung my hands in complete frustration, finally raising a fist to heaven as I quote Jesus on behalf of the suffering about whom I’ve worried so. I’ve prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken ___?”, filling in the blank with the names of numerous people over the years. My frustration has consistently led me to the realization that there are times when all I can do is to pray. It was at those times that I handed over my worry to God “…who fashions joy from the most hideous pain.” Eventually, the problems at hand were resolved. As was the case with my mom’s illness and passing, resolution came in beautifully creative ways only God could have imagined. I believe that it is God’s intent to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic in an equally beautiful and creative way.

I began this reflection with “Happy Easter” because Easter Sunday reminds us that there is joy to be found in the aftermath of the tragic episodes in our lives. Jesus’ passion and death ended with resurrection. God provides the same in the resolution of all of the life altering events we survive. Over the next several weeks, though many more people may become ill, many more others will respond heroically. From each of these challenges, resurrection will follow. Just as doctors and scientists will gain new understanding of this disease with every new case, we will find new understanding of our capacities to endure and our capacities for goodness. In the aftermath of this virus’s assault upon humanity, none of us will return to our past selves. With relief over having survived, we’ll emerge stronger and more fortified than before. Deep within our hearts, we’ll discover a measure of joy far more intense than we’ve ever known.

This is Easter 2020 and, more than ever before, we have reason to embrace Easter Joy. Today, we celebrate God “…who fashions joy from the most hideous pain.” God transformed Jesus’ death into a source of hope for humankind and God promises the same in our victory over COVID-19. Today and every day, may God bless us all with hope in the aftermath of the moments at hand, with love for those God has given us to cherish and with an appreciation for the imperfect moments of our lives that God fashions into joy. Yes! Happy Easter!

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Peace Be With You!

“On Easter morning we can still feel the pains of the world, the pains of our family and friends, the pains of our hearts. Still, all is different because we have met Jesus and He has spoken to us. There is a simple, quiet joy among us and a deep sense of being loved by a love that is stronger, much stronger, than death…”

Henri J. M. Nouwen, in Embraced by God’s Love*

I truly appreciate Henri Nouwen’s words today because they speak to my own Easter experience. Like my friend Henri, I understand that life in this world will never be perfect. Though we’ve had more than two thousand years to contemplate the words and works of Jesus, we haven’t succeeded in fully taking these things to heart. Though we know so much more than Jesus’ disciples knew, many of us don’t respond any more hopefully to this life’s troubles than the disciples responded. Though we believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, we too often join the disciples in wondering what impact this event actually has upon us. We share the disciples’ relief that Jesus is among us once again. Still, we wonder. Peter and the rest actually saw Jesus. You and I haven’t seen him, at least not as clearly as they did. So it is that I find consolation in the scriptures which tell us that, in spite of Jesus’ appearances, the disciples locked up themselves in fear. Not one of them wanted to be the next to hang on a cross. Like the disciples, we attempt to keep ourselves safe as well. We concern ourselves with the things of this world. What is worse is that we keep our concerns to ourselves rather than sharing them with God who truly understands.

The good news on this Easter Sunday is that Jesus appreciated what the disciples had been through just as he understands our troubles today. Jesus knows our fear. Do you remember how earnestly Jesus prayed in the garden after his last supper? Jesus knew that the disciples longed for forgiveness and he recognizes our need to make things right. Remember the father of the prodigal son? When Jesus assured the people that this father forgave everything, he offered a perfect example of the way God forgives us. Jesus knew that when he lost his life his friends lost their hope. Jesus also knows that when life devastates us, it is difficult for us to hold on. So it is that Jesus arrived that first Easter with the words his friends needed to hear most, “Peace be with you!” So it is that Jesus repeats this greeting in the alleluias that greet us today.

You know, if we could see into the hearts of those gathered with us on this Easter Sunday as God sees, we would find unimaginable joy and unimaginable suffering. While joy is tangible in smiles and dancing eyes, suffering hides in quiet comings and goings. Some have joined us today without a wife or a husband, a mother or a father, a son or a daughter or a dear friend who left this world too soon. Some pray for a dying loved one. Some have joined us this Easter Sunday in the grips of a failing marriage or without a paycheck. Some are so lonely that they will try to ignore Easter after they leave church today to avoid the pain. Some will listen to the alleluias ring out while others sing “alleluia” again and again for you and me in spite of their conviction that God cannot possibly intend Easter Joy to be theirs. Some struggle with worry over their children. Some battle illnesses that seem to be winning the war. Some sit among us in sadness, unable to explain even to themselves why they feel the way they do. God, who refuses to leave us alone in good times and in bad, repeats once again the words we most need to hear: “Peace be with you!” God speaks these words as he nestles beside us in whatever our circumstances happen to be at the moment. It is these words which fuel the quiet joy within me because they assure me that I am loved.

Henri Nouwen spent a lifetime in search of the quiet joy and the love of which he often wrote. You and I are here today because we seek the same. We have come because Jesus offers us hope greater than those who came before him could ever have imagined. When Jesus rose from the dead, everything changed. Jesus transformed our hope in the things to come into the knowledge that eternal happiness awaits us all. When we leave church this Easter Sunday, our circumstances will remain the same. What changes is the manner in which we deal with the realities of life. We’ve been reminded that we no longer face these things alone. When we leave church this Easter Sunday, we are encouraged and strengthened by the peace that comes in the loving and compassionate presence of Jesus. Yes, in spite of the fact that everything is not perfect today, I am joyful because God loves me. May God bless you abundantly with the same certainty! Peace be with you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Nouwen, Henri J.M., Embraced by God’s Love (Calendar), Garborg’s, Bloomington, MN, 1998, p. 97

Alleluia!

“Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.”

Matthew 28:5-6

It’s Holy Saturday and Easter’s Eve. Still, I find myself reluctant to move beyond Jesus’ passion and death to celebrate his resurrection. At Lent’s onset, I promised myself that I would spend a bit of time every day getting up close and personal with God. I also promised to bring healing to this world. I hoped to do this for loved ones both nearby and far away. I’ve tried to give meaning to all of this by retracing Jesus’ steps through the last days of his life.

In the process, I’ve come to realize once again that Jesus suffered real pain, real loneliness, real uncertainty regarding his ministry, real fear and real disappointment. Still, when Jesus hanged from the cross, hope lingered and love prevailed. Though much of the world saw a despised failure nailed to that wood, those who knew Jesus knew better. Jesus knew better as well. Jesus reached beyond the skeptics and cynics to offer a place in heaven to the insurgent hanging beside him. Jesus offered the same to you and to me and to all of God’s children through everything he said and did.

This is Holy Saturday and Easter’s Eve. All is not well in the world, nor will it ever be. Nonetheless, all is well with God’s people. Jesus caused those rumblings in the tomb. Jesus returned from that tomb more alive than he had been since Bethlehem. Jesus came to reveal God’s love for us and to assure us that we too will live forever.

You know, I can move beyond Jesus’ suffering and I can sing “alleluia” after all. Jesus insists and I’m very happy to oblige him!

Loving God, Jesus is risen, your promises are fulfilled and eternal life awaits us all! Alleluia!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Spread The Word!

Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,”
and then reported what he had told her.

John 20:18

Recent good news keeps me in “alleluia mode” these days. Good news is hard to keep to oneself. I admit to offering continued updates regarding my grandchildren to anyone who will listen. I’m just as eager when my news might be helpful to others. We’re all willing to spread the word when that word is worth spreading. We share a good book and diet tips that work. We tell our colleagues about inroads we’ve made with the new payroll technology and the new boss. We can’t keep the news of a long-awaited pregnancy or a cancer remission to ourselves for longer than it takes to scroll down to a number on our cell phones. Indeed, good news is a limited commodity in this Twenty-first Century world of ours. So it is that we celebrate it at every opportunity!

The truth is that since the beginning of time, good news has been in short supply on this earth. No wonder we share glad tidings when they come our way. When our circumstances surround us with sorrow and pain, we perk up to listen when words of hope are offered. It occurs to me that though life can be tough, good news is always ours. When we acknowledge God’s presence around us and within us, good news takes on a whole new meaning which endures for the long haul!

Loving God, thank you for breathing hope into every minute of every day.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Spirit Ushers Us Into Springtime

When I turned my calendar to May a few days ago, I lamented the delayed arrival of Spring 2018. Winter boldly lingered far too long into April. Late snows covered the tulip and daffodil sprouts which normally join us in welcoming Easter. My winter-weary soul settled for the floral department displays at the supermarket and the bouquet we purchased there for our Easter table. By the time Easter arrives most years, my dear husband has begun to mentally sketch his spring planting ideas for the flowerbeds and planters around our house. A persistent cold had robbed Mike of even a hint of enthusiasm. I began to worry until he headed off to Ace Hardware for some birdseed and thistle. When he ventured out again that day with our son Tim and our friend Dave to take advantage of an arbor vitae sale, I determined that Mike was indeed ready to embrace spring. At any moment, his annual soliloquy regarding which flowers to plant where would begin. At the same time, I found myself stuck in winter-mode with little relief in sight.

As soon as Mike returned from these errands, he filled the bird-feeders. He hadn’t yet come in from the garage when our feathered friends gathered to partake of their feast. When Mike finally saw them, he smiled at the numerous birds who were making the most of his generosity. He went on to share his amazement over the great quality and price of those arbor vitae. With that, he vacuumed the residual birdseed and dirt from his car while turning his thoughts to this year’s planting strategy. Though Mike normally drives me a little crazy with his commentary and questions regarding our annual flower choices, I found myself genuinely anxious to hear what he had to say in this regard. You see, Mike had finally embraced Spring 2018. As for me, I remained in winter-mode.

When I find myself “stuck” in a less-than-optimum mindset, I seek out good company. Sometimes, I turn to a fellow soul. Sometimes, I turn to a favorite book. Sometimes, I look deep within because I’m convinced that God never leaves us alone. Since my fellow souls were all rejoicing in the spring’s arrival, I picked up a favorite author’s newest book. This writer has unshakable faith in the things to come and every word I read gave me reason to agree. The truth is that I have always agreed. Still, I couldn’t shake the winter cold which remained within me. Though I toyed with setting the book aside to sulk a bit, my inability to leave anything unfinished forced me to read the remaining two pages of the chapter. It was in those few paragraphs that my fellow writer insisted, as he often has, that our mistakes and trials in this life are wonderful opportunities to learn lessons and to become even more ready for life after this life. “Huh!” I said within earshot of the Lord God. “Why am I surprised at not being happy-go-lucky every minute of every day?” With that, I finally realized the point of this reflection.

Today’s scripture passages are all about love. In the first reading from Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:25-48), Peter celebrates God’s affection for us all with great humility and great love. When a fellow follower falls at his feet, Peter invites the man to stand, saying, “I myself am also a human being.” Peter goes on to share that there are no distinctions among the massive family of God’s children as every single one is loved dearly. The second reading (1 John 4:7-10) underscores Peter’s assertion by leaving no doubt regarding God’s love for us. Finally, in John’s gospel (15:9-17), Jesus himself invites us to “ …love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus has chosen each of us and he trusts each of us to behave as his beloved by loving one another. The truth is that, when I read these passages in the midst of my dark mood, I found myself more discouraged then ever. It was only when I returned to the realities of the first Easter that I realized I was not alone in my misery.

Though Jesus had risen from the dead, his disciples found little reason to sing alleluia. In spite of his resurrection, Jesus’ followers were frightened and confused. Though they had seen their Lord literally in the flesh, they remained in hiding for days afterward. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ repeated visits, his ascension into heaven and the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit that they finally understood what had occurred. Finally, when they opened themselves to God’s Spirit, they couldn’t help sharing the good news which Jesus had entrusted to them. When I finally acknowledged that, like Peter, I myself am also a human being, I realized that my wintry mood is only one part of our amazing human experience. Rather than being thrown by the seemingly carefree tone of today’s scripture passages, I needed to commiserate with those who had endured so much beforehand. It was only after their suffering that the disciples came to a place of peace. It was only after opening themselves to God’s Spirit that they felt genuine joy. With that realization, my wintry mood blossomed into springtime…

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved