The Mighty Jordan

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

We visited the Jordan River in the midst of terrible flooding. We’d had to reroute a few times because floodwater had blocked the roadway ahead. The Jordan flows freely along Israel’s western border. The Jordan is referenced often in the scriptures and our guide was anxious to lead us to its shore. However, when we arrived, we discovered that the tourist area where many modern-day pilgrims come to be baptized was closed off due to the flooding upstream. Those who’d hoped to step into the Jordan to engage in this ritual were ushered to a platform high above the river’s edge. Never daunted by a challenge, Yossi led us around that platform to a narrow gate several yards away. “Come quickly,” he ordered, “because we don’t want to be followed.” With that, Yossi led us to a deserted bit of shoreline which very much resembled what Jesus saw the day of his own baptism. Though I’d seen this place twice before, it’s significance overwhelmed me.

When Moses looked toward the Promised Land, he saw the Jordan River flowing down from Mount Hermon into the Jordan Valley. When Elijah the Prophet grew old and Elisha prepared to take his place, the two traveled to the Jordan Valley where Elijah’s days among us ended. Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist, last of the prophets of old, called people to repentance on the shores of the Jordan. They sealed their commitments with John’s baptism. The baptizer’s most significant baptism was that of Jesus.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus took his baptism seriously. Afterward, he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public life among us. When Jesus emerged, he returned to John and to that river where the first five of his disciples joined him. As I knelt at that river’s edge, I dipped my fingers into the water. I left it to God to renew me as God sees fit.

Though getting to the shore of the Jordan proved challenging this time around, the result was an amazing encounter. These days, getting through the moments at hand prove challenging as well. It seems that there is a lesson in our Israeli guide’s approach. When our expectations are disrupted, all we need to do is to adjust accordingly. Just as God renewed me at the River Jordan’s edge, God will renew us all if we have the courage to proceed as best we can.

Dear God, as we respond to the challenges as hand, remind us often that you are with us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Truly Wonderful Lives

This is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, the church closes the Christmas Season just as we have in our homes. I admit that I delayed the process for as long as possible. It was only when a local meteorologist promised bearable temperatures that I set aside my reluctance to assist my husband. Because our younger and more daring friend assisted Mike with the outdoor lighting, I tended to the indoors. I urged myself on with this year’s take-down-the-tree viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. Because I began my work in the living room and the television is in the family room, I raised the volume enough to allow me to hear the dialogue while I worked. This film is such a part of me that I can visualize every scene without watching a single frame. While the guys rolled up light strings outdoors, George Bailey and I became reacquainted indoors.

As I boxed ornaments and rolled up my own portion of lights, I celebrated the many people to whom George’s life had made all of the difference in the world. As I absorbed the dialogue, images from George Bailey’s life flooded my memory. The selfless decisions which defined George elicited frequent tears. Though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, I suffered every disappointment with George as though I had no idea that things would work out in the end. “Poor courageous George,” I thought to myself. “If only you realized just how good you are!” And so it went until the movie ended and our Christmas Tree was bare.

When Mike and I finished the tasks at hand, it was time to commit our tree to the parkway. There it would wait for a public works employee to toss it into a truck for the trip to the Land of Mulch. As I considered that barren tree, it occurred to me that George Bailey felt like that tree far too often. He should have felt good about the wonderful things he’d done for others. He saved his brother’s life and that of a sick child who was sent the wrong medicine by a distraught pharmacist. He took over his father’s business to prevent the loss of many jobs and many more homes. He used his own savings to send his brother to college in his place. All the while, George fought temptation in the form of Mr. Potter, the most miserly man in town, to stand up for God’s riff raff. Yes, George Bailey was a good man who gave the working poor and many others something to live for. Finally, when George felt that he had no more to give, the God-of-the-Riff-Raff stepped in through Clarence, a bumbling angel-to-be. If you watch the movie, you can join George in celebrating what truly was a wonderful life. Celebrating our lives on this earth is the point of our celebration of The Baptism of the Lord.

Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17) tells us that John the Baptizer was deeply inspired by Jesus. When Jesus asked to be baptized, John was reluctant to cooperate because he felt Jesus should baptize him. Though pleased with John’s faith, Jesus asked John to baptize him just the same. After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan River, God entered into the scene to announce to all who would hear, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words, proclaimed from the heavens over Jesus, were meant just as readily for John the Baptist, for the George Baileys among us, for you and for me. Though they don’t echo from the clouds above, God speaks these words just as clearly in the depths of our hearts. God’s words resound every time we embrace the difficult, selfless choices that make all of the difference in the world to those around us. When we feel we have no more to give, like George who was tempted to hurl himself off a bridge, God steps in. Though God’s appearance may not be as tangible as that of Clarence, God’s presence is very real.

Though I know how It’s A Wonderful Life will end, I cry through it every time I watch it. This phenomenon repeated itself in Jesus’ life as well. Jesus prayed often. Jesus revealed God’s love in his actions toward those who needed him and in stories like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus knew his life would end well, yet he suffered more disappointment and discouragement along the way than George Bailey. The same is true of you and me. Though our faith tells us that all will be well in the end, we worry inconsolably. When we fail to see the value of what we do, we join George Bailey on that bridge. Still, it’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall George’s joy when his life was given back to him. It’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall God’s words at the baptism of Jesus and realize that they are meant for us as well. “This is my beloved… with whom I am well pleased.” Yes, when we’re on that bridge, our lives are given back to us as well. This happy ending is truly the happiest beginning we will ever know!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

2019… A Year of ???

Only three days of Year 2018 remained when I looked up from my keyboard to discover large flakes of snow falling just beyond the window. I smiled broadly. Because we’d enjoyed spring-like temperatures for a while, this snow took me completely by surprise. Though I noted that there was no accumulation, those flitting flakes were enough to brighten my mood. In spite of the mid-afternoon hour that Friday, I decided to set aside this writing and to run a few errands. Unlike the commuters who’d soon be headed home, I wanted to enjoy the white stuff firsthand. As it happened, the snow fell only ten minutes into my travels. Still, much to my good fortune, that ten-minute interlude was enough to maintain my joyful mood and to fortify me for the long lines which greeted me at each of the stores I visited. Though I waited for twenty-five minutes in one line, I hummed happily all the while. Who would have thought that a bit of snow and running errands would be so uplifting?

While driving home, I was gifted with another surprise. I’d tuned in to the news in spite of the fact that it might darken my mood. In the midst of stock reports and the world and national news, a familiar voice shared an amazing human-interest tidbit. Though this snippet lasted less than a minute, it remained with me all the way home and as I made my way back to my keyboard. With New Year’s Eve and New Year 2019 just 72 hours away, this report focused on New Year’s resolutions. The news anchor explained that one resolution in particular had made an unexpected impact throughout 2018. Apparently, someone had decided to make New Year 2018 the Year of Love. A young woman had resolved to use social media to do this. She’d planned to write a post every day which described someone who meant something special to her. She’d even titled her effort #Year of Love. When asked about her success, the woman shared that it wasn’t difficult to find people to write about. Every day, someone graced her life. She added that 2018 hadn’t provided enough days for her to acknowledge all of the people who’d touched her with their love. As a result, she’s decided to continue these daily acknowledgements throughout New Year 2019. As Ms. Year of Love went on to describe the remarkably varied people she’d featured, I began to recount my own treasure in this regard. I also began to consider how I might make 2019 my own year of something…

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The scriptures tell us that Jesus was about thirty years of age when he spent forty days alone in the desert to consider what lay ahead for him. In spite of encounters with evil during what Jesus hoped would be a reflective interlude, Jesus chose to embrace the path ahead as best he could. Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22) tells us that the people were certainly ready for someone to grace their lives. Many wondered if John the Baptizer might be the messiah for whom they waited. John responded by assuring the crowds that one far greater than he was coming. When Jesus approached John for baptism, poor John did as Jesus asked in spite of feeling completely unworthy to do so. Perhaps to reassure both men and the rest of us, God declared from above, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” After that day, a relieved John continued his preaching. With every word, John pointed his followers in Jesus’ direction while Jesus embraced his mission as only he could. If social media had been available, perhaps Jesus would have dubbed his effort Life of Love.

As I’ve written often, I repeat that there was nothing easy about Jesus’ life among us. Still, Jesus persisted in using his very human circumstances to reveal God’s love and God’s faith in each one of us. Though he was given thirty-three years, Jesus used only the last three to teach and to preach. Until then, he’d invested himself in his life at home with Mary and Joseph, in the neighborhood with this neighbors and in working as an itinerant mason and an itinerant rabbi. It was in those places that Jesus came to fully appreciate those he’d been given to love. When Jesus invested himself in others, Jesus also invested himself in spreading God’s love. Long before Jesus asked John to baptize him, Jesus had made Life of Love his way of doing things. No wonder God was so pleased!

I’m most grateful for the bit of snow which distracted me from this writing and for that well-timed report about the woman who transformed 2018 through her #Year of Love efforts. Most of all, I’m grateful for that much-needed reminder to refine my own plans for New Year 2019. When I consider my too-frequent surrenders to the darkness around me this past year, something –no Someone– urges me to make Year of Joy this year’s effort. If ten minutes of snow succeeded in cheering me up and that twenty-five minute wait in line failed to elicit a groan, finding the joy around me seems doable. Like Jesus, I need to do this as only I can. The truth is that we’re all called to do what only we can throughout these lives of ours. Whatever we choose to be our new year efforts, God asks only that we stick to them as only we can. After all, like Jesus, each one of us is God’s beloved child!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Mighty Little Jordan

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

On this second trip to Israel, we viewed the Jordan River from a different vantage point. Last year, we stood on the shore of one of the river’s narrowest segments. Though it seemed a humble setting for Jesus’ baptism, it also typified the Jesus’ unassuming life. This small segment which I could have easily waded across was as important as the rest of this renowned river. The same was true of Jesus’ life. Even his seemingly insignificant interactions changed lives forever.

This year, we viewed the river nearer the tourist center. As a result, we encountered several groups who had assembled to be baptized or to reenact the baptisms they’d celebrated previously. It was difficult to miss the reverence and enthusiasm of each one as he or she entered the water. I couldn’t help acknowledging that Jesus’ simple baptism continues to impact humankind in amazing ways.

As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. Rather than immersing myself into the river’s bounty, I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, you renew us day in and day out. Help us to take notice of your handiwork and to imitate your goodness humbly, just as Jesus did.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Jordan River

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

The Jordan River flows freely along Israel’s western border. The river is referenced often in the scriptures. Though I stood at its shore near a very narrow portion which I could have easily walked across, the river’s significance overwhelmed me.

When Moses looked toward the Promised Land, he saw the Jordan River flowing down from Mount Hermon into the Jordan Valley. Though Moses never entered the Promised Land, his people did. Not long into their occupancy, they turned to worship idols. Elijah is among the prophets who attempted to guide the people back to God. When Elijah grew old and Elisha prepared to take his place, the two traveled to the Jordan Valley where Elijah’s days among us ended. Just after crossing the Jordan together, the scriptures tell us Elijah was carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot and Elisha returned to continue his work among the people

Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist, last of the prophets of old, called people to repentance on the shores of the Jordan. They sealed their commitments with John’s baptism. The baptizer’s most significant baptism was that of Jesus. The scriptures tell us Jesus took his baptism seriously. Afterward, he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public life among us. When Jesus emerged, he returned to John and that river where the first five of his disciples joined him.

As I stood at the river’s edge, I saw dozens of white-robed people in the distance. They’d come to renew their baptisms in the waters where Jesus began his work. As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, help us to respond to your love by revealing it to all of those we meet along the way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Beloved Child

As I write, the scent of our Fraser Fir makes its way upstairs to the study. I wonder if our Christmas Tree senses that the end is near. I breathe in the tree’s lovely fragrance. This scent compels me to turn toward the living room where our tree will reign for a short while longer. “You’re a good tree,” I say, fully expecting a satisfied nod in return. The tree responds by standing motionless in the light that pours through our living room windows. In the quiet of my heart, I hope that somehow this soon-to-be-recycled bit of creation realizes the joyful presence with which it filled our home this Christmas Season. Before I return to the keyboard, I whisper “Thank you!” to our tree and its Maker.

As I continue to write, it occurs to me that the most important Presence which fills our home each Christmas also awaits a transformation. During Advent and Christmastime, images of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fill us up. Joseph puts his faith in the Lord God in spite of the confusion and betrayal he feels regarding Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Mary, in danger of being found out, puts her own concerns aside to focus upon her cousin who is also with child. Mary sets out to visit her older cousin Elizabeth. When the two women meet, they proclaim their hope in the Lord God as they comfort one another in these difficult times. Afterward, Mary returns home only to discover that she and Joseph must journey to Bethlehem to register for the census. When they finally arrive, there is no room in any of the local inns. A single innkeeper offers Mary and Joseph shelter in the cave where he keeps his livestock. There is nothing pristine or comfortable about this setting. Still, Mary and Joseph welcome Jesus into their humble world with the warmth of their love. After a visit by the Magi and a detour to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath, Joseph, Mary and Jesus make their home in Nazareth. The scriptures tell us that it is there that Jesus grows in wisdom and age and favor before God and humankind. With the exception of twelve-year-old Jesus’ Passover adventure in Jerusalem where he is separated from his parents for a day or two, we know little of what occurs in Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood until his fateful meeting with John the Baptizer.

Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus-the-Young-Man approaches his cousin John for baptism. This meeting with John the Baptizer marks a transformation in Jesus’ life from which there will be no turning back. Jesus enters the water to be baptized with many good people who hear John’s call to make way for the coming of the Lord. While some think that John himself may be the long-awaited messiah, John assures all concerned that one mightier than he is on the horizon. That Mighty One prays quietly at the riverside after his baptism only to be singled out by God who declares, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

When he accepts baptism at the hands of John, Jesus steps into new life. When he is singled out by God, Jesus receives the encouragement he needs to embrace the life that lies before him. Jesus lives out this life with unquestionable goodness. Though the circumstances in which he finds himself are usually difficult at best, Jesus persists. As bad as things seem from the world’s perspective, God’s words provide a soothing mantra: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” So it happens that Jesus lives the life he is meant to live. He endures the agony in the garden, his passion and his death. Jesus embraces the fullness of life on Easter Sunday.

Our lives on this earth are imperfect as well. Fortunately for you and me, our days are also punctuated with transformations –like the Baptism of Jesus– which call our attention to the things that matter most. Before we set out on our own, God singles us out with the same words Jesus heard: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” Though they may not echo from the clouds above, we hear God’s words just the same in the depths of our hearts. They come to life each and every time we make those difficult, selfless choices that make all of the difference in the world to those around us. They also come to life when we need God most.

Though our Christmas Tree will have found its way to the parkway by the time you read this, that unmistakable fragrance will remain. Our tree’s final gift is a lingering reminder that a transformation has occurred in our home and in our hearts. Just as we selected this particular tree to enhance our Christmastime festivities, God has singled out you and me to enhance life on this earth, especially the lives of those God has given us to love.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved