Always Good Enough For God

While dressing for a funeral the other day, I opened my jewelry box in search of a small locket which holds a widow’s mite. When I traveled to Israel for the first time, this is the only souvenir I purchased. Though this two thousand-year-old coin was worth less than a penny in Jesus’ day, it is very precious to me. The scriptures tell us that Jesus observed a widow offering a coin like this in the temple. While others gave riches far beyond her means, Jesus considered that woman’s offering to be much more generous because it was all she had. The woman had given from her want, not from her surplus.

I chose to wear my widow’s mite to the funeral because the woman being honored reminds me of the woman Jesus met in the temple that day. As I fastened my locket, I imagined God wrapping loving arms around my friend. She’d given the very best she could in spite of the difficulties she’d encountered along the way. I imagined God embracing her and saying, “Well done and welcome home, my friend!”

As I grabbed my purse and slipped into my shoes, I considered my own efforts as of late. I’ve been cranky and impatient. Though I’d like to think I know better, the pandemic has taken its toll on me. When I add my worry regarding recent natural disasters, ongoing injustice and the national discord in this country, I find that I’m brimming with the wrong sentiments. I asked myself what I’ve done as of late to improve things. Before I could answer, Someone urged me to touch the widow’s mite I wore. That Someone seemed to say, “Doing your best in easy and in difficult times really is good enough for me!”

In today’s gospel (Matthew 22:15-21), Matthew wrote that, once again, the Pharisees attempted to test Jesus and, once again, Jesus referenced a coin to teach a lesson. The Pharisees were prepared to do whatever necessary to discredit Jesus before the people and before the governing Romans. Perhaps they could rid themselves of Jesus once and for all. On that occasion, they posed a question regarding taxes: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus advised them not to pay what the Romans demanded, he would place himself in civil jeopardy. If Jesus told the people that they must pay their taxes, he seemingly encouraged their homage to a false god -the Roman emperor- by offering this monetary sacrifice. In the end, the not-so-crafty Pharisees underestimated Jesus. Jesus asked to see a Roman coin and then posed his own question: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When the Pharisees answered, “Caesar’s,” Jesus told them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Though a widow’s mite was too insignificant a coin to have born Caesar’s image, it proved to be just right for the widow who wished to do her duty to support the temple. In a sense, she actually “repaid to Caesar” that day because the temple’s monetary demands of the Jewish people were quite burdensome. At the same time, that widow did a good deal to care for the loved ones around her. It was through these instances of loving those God had given her to love that she repaid to God. Like that widow and Jesus’ other contemporaries, you and I “repay to Caesar” every day. Some of us report to our workplaces, while others work from home. Regardless of our locations, we get the job done. We file our taxes and we vote. We obey traffic laws and adhere to the tenets of common courtesy. These days, we also wear masks to care for one another. We manage the nitty-gritty of life as required by the order of things. At the same time, we care for our significant others, our families and friends. We also care for many whom we don’t know through a variety of acts of charity. In all of these things, we also repay to God.

As I consider the events of today’s gospel, I wonder when the Pharisees lost sight of repaying to God. When did they sacrifice their efforts to be good people for the assurance that they would keep their wealth and their power over others? When did they decide that being their best simply wasn’t enough for them? Though I can’t answer for the Pharisees, I can turn to that widow in the temple and to my friend who passed away for some guidance. The widow repaid Caesar with that tiny coin and she repaid God with her best efforts to care for others. My friend repaid to Caesar by being a dedicated employee and a good citizen. She repaid to God by doing her best to be a good spouse, mom and grandma, a good friend, a religious ed teacher, a great cook and a music lover. When illness robbed her of her personality and her ability to relate to others, she did her best not to be of trouble. Though she didn’t realize it in this life, I’m certain that my friend has been assured in heaven that she repaid to Caesar and to God in stellar manner.

This is the reason my widow’s mite is so precious to me. Every time I look at it, I hear, “It’s good enough, Mary. You’re good enough!” Today and every day, God offers the same message to each one of us. Though we or those around us sometimes question our efforts, God smiles and urges us on. Though repaying to Caesar can be a pain at times, repaying to God isn’t that difficult after all…

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

You Can Count On God!

Though there is nothing typical about my life these days, I have held on to my morning routine. After whispering a prayer of thanks for the new day, I count. Because my lower back is full of arthritis, I complete four exercises before I get out of bed. I count forty reps for each one. When I get up, I lie on the floor to complete four additional exercises which require a firm surface. Once again, I count forty reps for each one. Years ago, my physical therapist assured me that the results would be worth the effort. She was absolutely correct because my back rarely bothers me. Finally, I stand for one shoulder exercise which keeps that temperamental joint moving appropriately since surgery some years ago. And, yes, I count to forty for that as well.

In spite of the benefits of these exercises, I grow weary of the counting. I tried singing my way through each movement. Unfortunately, this left me with no idea of the number of reps I’d actually completed. I tried timing my efforts only to discover that I do them at a different pace each time. I even tried praying my way through them only to find that I couldn’t give appropriate attention to either activity. As I write, I imagine that the serious workout buffs and trainers among you will respond to all of this with, “Mary, just count and be done with it!” I smile as I admit that you’re right. Still, I find a morsel of vindication in Peter’s frustration with counting and in God’s lack of interest in the same…

In last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), Peter asked Jesus if it was enough to forgive his brother seven times. Poor Peter certainly didn’t expect Jesus to respond that he must forgive his brother not only seven times, but seventy-seven times. Jesus’ point was that the number of times we must forgive one another’s transgressions cannot be counted. We must forgive whenever it’s necessary. As I reconsider my morning exercises, I admit to being grateful that my forty reps of each one are enough. Poor Peter wasn’t as fortunate!

In today’s gospel (Matthew 20:1-16), Matthew tells us that Jesus presented another counting scenario in a parable. On this occasion, Jesus told the disciples that the kingdom of heaven operates like the vineyard of a certain landowner. That landowner went out early one morning to seek laborers. When he found a group who agreed to the standard daily wage, he sent them off to work. An hour later, he hired more workers to whom he promised a fair wage. The man hired additional workers at noon, at three o’clock and then at five o’clock. When the workday ended at six o’clock, the landowner told his foreman to pay all of the laborers beginning with those hired last. The foreman paid each man the standard day’s wage. When they realized what was happening, the laborers at the end of the line who were hired first began to count up their profits. If those who worked only one hour were given a full day’s wage, they could only imagine what they’d receive for the ten hours they’d worked. Ten times the daily wage was quite a sum! Much to their dismay, the foreman ignored their calculations and paid these laborers the standard day’s wage as well. When the men grumbled, the landowner reminded them that they’d been given exactly what they’d agreed to. The landowner then scolded them for resenting his generosity toward the other men. Those who worked only six or three or one hour had families to feed and debts to pay as well. The landowner had simply given them all what they needed to survive.

I’m truly relieved by that landowner’s choice to ignore the numbers when it came to providing for his workers. I’m even more relieved by Jesus’ insistence that this is precisely the way God operates when it comes to you and me. Though I’m compelled by my potentially aching body to count those reps when I exercise each morning, God isn’t compelled to count a thing. As sorely miserable as our efforts may be, God doesn’t keep score regarding them. God’s main interest is the moment at hand and our use of that precious gift. Every time we do the right thing, we accomplish good. In the process, we improve God’s vineyard as we and those around us blossom in unexpectedly beautiful ways.

Today, God continues to be the landowner who seeks laborers to tend to the fields of this life. God is pleased with those of us who begin our labor at daybreak and give our all for the duration. At the same time, God continues the search for more laborers. Every time another accepts God’s invitation to do the best he or she can, God is pleased. God’s entire vineyard benefits from these seemingly delayed efforts. The lesson here is that God isn’t counting the hours we work. Rather, God celebrates the quality of our labor whenever it is the best we have to offer at the time. Now that’s something we can all count on!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Do A Little Good…

That is my joy and it is complete.
John 3:29

From the time I realized what a nun was, I wanted to enter the convent just as two of my dad’s sisters had. Still, though my Catholic education provided the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with nuns over the years, I never did become one of them. Oddly, it was while working on a summer project with the sisters that they encouraged me to accept a date with a young man from the parish. Though this puzzled me at the time, their counsel proved providential. I happily invited these sisters to our wedding the following summer!

You know, I was drawn to the sisters because of the good they accomplished. Nothing appealed to me more than to live a life of service as they did. This seemed the easiest way to be of service twenty-four/seven. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that God’s call to help others has less to do with ones marital status than the status of ones heart. My husband and I and our kids have found amazing and unexpected ways to answer that call wherever we are.

God offers the same opportunity to each of us every moment of every day. A little child who pulls down his mask to smile at his crying little brother does God’s work. A teen who dismisses the temptation to party and organizes a socially-distanced soccer game does God’s work. A corporate VP who runs an efficient Zoom meeting so he can peek at his kids while they attend online school does God’s work. Whenever we do our best in the moment at hand, we do God’s work.

Loving God, help us to find ways to do good all day long.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Prime Directive

After scanning the newspaper and half-listening to the morning news, I determined that I’d given enough time to this world’s woes. I decided to improve my mood by raking up the branches strewn about by last week’s storm. After only twenty minutes’ effort, I was dripping with perspiration. As I ambled back into the house to cool off, I told myself that those branches would be better left for another day. I poured myself a glass of water and sat. I attempted to be productive by reading today’s scripture passages in preparation for this writing. Afterward, I set my book aside and turned on the television. Perhaps a mindless interlude would allow my creativity to take form. The channel was set to H & I (Heroes and Icons) which is my husband’s favorite oldies station. I found myself in the midst of a well-worn episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As soon as the inhabitant of a primitive planet announced, “You! You are the Picard!”, I realized that I’d found my inspiration…

My husband-the-deacon has preached homilies for thirty-two years. I’ve written my reflections for twenty-eight of those years. Throughout that time, Mike has shared ideas with me while serving as my part-time proof-reader. Still, we’ve never offered the same interpretation of a given week’s scriptures. Though we agreed on the focus of the passages, we shared the wisdom drawn from them quite differently. At least this was the case until today. When I heard, “You! You are the Picard!”, I knew I had to repeat a homily Mike offered several years ago. Mike has been an avid Star Trek fan throughout the original television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Star Trek movies. Years ago, when the episode I happened upon today was originally televised, Mike announced, “There’s a good homily in that one!” Mike filed that information away until months later when he read the gospel we hear today. He was very excited because it provided the perfect setting for his Star Trek-inspired message. When he was fully prepared, Mike asked my opinion regarding the suitability of a Star Trek scenario for this purpose. After assuring him that this would be fine, he smiled and I wrote something completely unrelated.

The following Sunday, Mike shared his love for all things Star Trek. He went on to reference that episode when Captain Jean-Luc Picard had a startling encounter with an alien race. While the inhabitants of this strange planet looked human, they were quite primitive. This was particularly troubling to the captain because, when exploring new worlds, the crew was bound by The Prime Directive. This regulation indicated that they must never interfere with the development of alien cultures. They were never to impose their own technological, scientific and other intellectual evolution upon people who hadn’t yet discovered such things on their own. In this case, the aliens inadvertently witnessed the capabilities of the landing party before the crew realized what had happened. Their arrival in a large ship with bright lights and seemingly magical powers resembled the coming of this people’s god as described in their holy writings. When the planet’s natives approached the captain and he identified himself, they dropped to their knees. Without hesitation, their leader announced, “You! You are the Picard!” The poor captain was beside himself because he had indeed violated The Prime Directive. Captain Picard was even more upset because he was looked upon as a god, an extremely uncomfortable role for any of us. Fortunately, which is always the case in a Star Trek episode, everything ended well, as did Mike’s homily that weekend.

In his gospel (Matthew 16:13-20), Matthew chronicled a conversation between Jesus and his closest friends which had a similar outcome. Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” Some responded with what they’d heard on the street, that Jesus may have been John the Baptizer or the prophet Elijah. While they were quite willing to repeat what had come from the lips of others, none would declare what was in his heart. Finally, Simon exclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” When he acknowledged Jesus’ identity, Simon changed everything. Suddenly, Jesus’ often-outspoken and sometimes-unthinking student had become Jesus’ spokesperson. Suddenly, Simon’s life took on new meaning because he recognized God Among Us. When Simon was renamed Peter, he didn’t fully understand the logistics of his new role. Nonetheless, he certainly understood what it meant to have Jesus at his side. As for Jesus, he didn’t have to say, “I am the Christ,” because Simon Peter said it for him.

Though Captain Picard flinched a bit at representing God to those primitive people, he eventually found a way to use their acceptance of him to guide them onto the right path. When Peter found himself saying, “You, you are the Christ!”, he may have wondered, “I’m with the Christ! Now what do I do?” The scriptures tell us that Jesus guided Peter as well. As a result, Peter was truly instrumental in revealing God’s love to this world of ours. It seems to me that our prime directive is to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

With Us Always

I’ve tried to use my stay-in-place time productively. At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity to begin each of these seventy-plus days in a leisurely fashion. Before the pandemic, I woke each morning, turned my eyes upward and offered a quick “Thank you for the sleep!” to our benevolent Creator. Each time, I promised to have a lengthier conversation when time permitted later in the day. Then, I’d turn toward my husband to offer or receive a good morning kiss. Afterward, I did the mandated exercises which maintain my back’s flexibility. Finally, I’d quickly read through the day’s pages from two favorite devotionals. By that time, Mike had finished his morning allotment of coffee. We’d have breakfast together and then get on to the given day’s agenda.

Since the pandemic’s onset, leisurely mornings have allowed me to insert more than a single-sentence prayer into my morning routine. While that morning kiss and my exercise continue, I take more time reading my devotionals. On occasion, I read a selection twice or more because the writer’s insight merits a second or third look. Best of all, that one-line prayer has evolved into a conversation which I hope will be a part of every new day I’m given. I exercise on the floor in our room near a large window. These days, I take the time to stand at that window to absorb the beauty beyond the glass. Even on rainy days, I can’t help appreciating God’s goodness in it all. As upset as I’ve been by the loss and suffering caused by our world’s bout with COVID-19, I cannot miss God’s presence in it all. The view beyond my window renews that awareness every day.

I share all of this as we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus because our situation these days is quite similar to that of Jesus’ friends two millenniums ago. Though Jesus and his companions shared many good and happy times together, they also suffered uncertainty and much worse. Some of the temple hierarchy were puzzled by Jesus’ teachings while others resented everything Jesus stood for. A few Romans listened with some interest to what Jesus had to say. Remember the centurion who sought a cure for his dying child? However, most had no use for anyone who might cause unrest among the people. Jesus received a good deal of attention from those who had no one else to turn to. At the same time, he upset the keepers of The Law whenever he associated with anyone they considered to be unworthy or unclean. The closer Jesus and his followers came to their last trip to Jerusalem, the closer they were to Jesus’ demise. The disciples were uncertain of what was to come and they wrung their hands with worry. We’ve spent more than seventy days battling this pandemic and we continue to worry as well.

It occurs to me that this is the reason Jesus closed his time with his disciples with reassurance regarding his absolute faith in and love for each one of them. Jesus reminded his friends of the most important aspects of his teaching. If they took his words to heart, every day they lived would be a God-filled day for them. Though we hear a different Ascension gospel each year, the essence of Jesus’ message remains the same. Luke (Luke 24:46-53) shares that Jesus said, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Jesus assured his friends that God would be with them in everything. Mark (Mark 16:15-20) tells us that Jesus asked his disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” They were to go out to assure all who listened of God’s love for them. In today’s account from Matthew (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus added his promise, “I will be with you always, until the end of the world.” None of us would be left to carry on alone. John’s gospel ends without reference to the Ascension. When John’s gospel is read on Ascension Day, Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper is cited: “Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus’ prayer included his companions who walked with him and all of us who would eventually be touched by their efforts.

When news of the gradual reopening of our state and of our local churches surfaced, my emotions fluctuated between relief and worry. I was thrilled with the possibility of returning to a bit of normalcy and I worried about the consequences if we fail to ease into these efforts safely. Like Jesus’ disciples, I am more than ambivalent regarding the things to come. And, like Jesus’ disciples, I am reassured. God patiently and lovingly remains with me throughout these trying days. It is God who draws me to that window every morning and to the loving exchanges which follow. Whether I speak of goodness or the evil which threatens, my accomplishments or failures, my relief or worry, God listens attentively to every word. You see, on that Ascension Day when Jesus assured his disciples that he would be with them always, he assured us of the same. God is indeed with us and there God will remain!
©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

L… Love

You shall love the Lord your God
with your whole heart,
with your whole soul,
and with your whole mind….
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

From Matthew 22:37-38

L is for Love. This is a tough one. I don’t have a bit of trouble loving God. Though I admit to having had words with our patient Lord, this is the result of my certainty of God’s love for me. God invited me into a relationship. When I accepted, I committed myself to being completely honest in this regard. This is my only choice. After all, if I don’t share my true feelings, God knows them nonetheless.

Early on, a wise teacher shared that there is something lovable about every one of us and that it is up to us to discover what this is. This observation has helped me a great deal over the years. Though I don’t have a flawless track record, I can honestly say that I don’t hate anyone. Still, though I love my neighbor in theory, putting that love into practice sometimes poses a challenge. The good news here is that I try.

The toughest part is loving my neighbor as I love myself. When this New Year 2020 became reality, I resolved to work at being less judgmental. What I must be clear about is that much of that judgment is directed toward myself. If I fail to love myself enough to allow myself the luxury of being a frail human, how can I love my neighbors enough to allow them to do the same? God loves me and God is amazingly patient with me. I must learn to do the same.

Love is a tricky endeavor at best. Still, it’s the best work we can do and the best source of true happiness. The passage from Matthew above isn’t a directive. It’s an invitation to heaven on earth.

Loving God, thank you for creating us in your image, especially when it comes to our ability love.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved