Important Work

“Go home to your family and make it clear to them
all that God has done for you.”

From Mark 5:19

While growing up, I had visions of grandeur regarding what I would do with my life. I wanted to solve the problems of the world. I wanted to end wars. I wanted to fight against prejudice and injustice. I wanted to end poverty. I wanted to work with special needs children. I wanted to become a nurse. I wanted to teach…

When things began to fall into place, the path before me became less cluttered. I learned to value the seemingly mundane vocations that in reality make all of the difference in the world. A good person who deals fairly and kindly with those around her brings peace to our world. Generous couples who allow their love to spill over onto to those around them bring love to the world. Parents who nurture their children with their time and attention bring hope to this world. Caring for those we have been given to love -both near an afar- is the most important work we can do.

Though it’s taken me a lifetime, I finally get it!

Loving and Generous God, sometimes I wonder if I’m doing my loved ones or this world any good. Thank you for the precious moments with them which dispel my doubt.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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U is for Unity

These are my mother and brothers and sisters.
Whoever lives as God asks is family to me.

From Mark 3:34-35

U is for Unity. A few week’s ago, we gathered at my nephew’s home. His sister lives in California and was home for a visit. Ralph invited us over to see her. Our family is quite large. These days, it’s difficult to gather us in one place at any one time. Still, almost thirty of us came out to visit with Cece and one another that day. What fun! My own siblings and I have grown into very different people, yet we each manage to bring our own variety of joy to these gatherings. The same is true of my nieces and nephews and my own sons. Though they all set out to form friendships and families of their own, they find their way back to their roots to reconnect with the family which gave them their start. For me, the best part of these gatherings is watching familial interactions unfold. How nice it is that we still manage to get along!

It seems to me that this should also be true of our human family. God breathed life into every one of us with the hope that we’d live these lives to the fullest. We needn’t congregate in the same worship places or in any worship place at all to express our appreciation. It seems to me that we do need to respect one another and to see one another as God’s children. We need to love one another as we love ourselves. We need to open our eyes, our minds and our hearts to better understand perspectives which sometimes differ from our own. Understanding our differences doesn’t mean that we have to embrace them. It does mean that we must learn to coexist amidst our varying points of view. I do this best when I set aside the non-essential details of these things and focus upon the most essential needs of this world.

God has breathed life into billions of unique children since time began and God loves each and every one. God’s only request is the same as that of any loving parent. God asks only that we learn to get along.

Loving God, you love each one of us. Help us to work together to transform the world we share into a fitting home for us all.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Enough in God’s Eyes

The other day, I turned our house upside-down because I’d lost my widow’s mite. When my dear husband and I traveled to Israel last February, this was the only souvenir I purchased. My two thousand-year-old coin is preserved in a simple locket which I wear often. Though it was worth less than a penny in its day, it is very precious to me. The scriptures tell us that while visiting the temple one day Jesus observed a widow making an offering. Though others gave riches far beyond her means, Jesus considered this poor woman’s offering to be far more generous because it was all that she had. In spite of her coin’s minimal value in the grand scheme of things, Jesus found it to be most precious. This woman had given from her want, not from her surplus. In Jesus’ eyes, her offering was far more than good enough.

This woman’s story spoke to me because I often wonder if my efforts are good enough. My little coin has been a constant reminder that, if I’ve done my best, it is absolutely good enough in God’s eyes. This is the reason I was completely crestfallen when I realized the locket was missing. This is the reason I searched for over an hour until I finally located the necklace. It was lying on the clothing in my top dresser drawer. I must have knocked it in there while grabbing my watch and wedding ring that morning. I admit that the prospect of having lost this coin elicited some tears. I also admit to doing a bit of a happy dance when I found it.

In his gospel (Matthew 22:15-21), Matthew tells us that the Pharisees attempted to test Jesus with a coin of the same era as my widow’s mite. Their hope was to trick Jesus into saying something which would make him appear to be a trouble-making insurgent. The Pharisees were prepared to do whatever was necessary to discredit Jesus before the people and before the governing Romans. They wanted to be rid of Jesus once and for all. On this 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 political jeopardy. If Jesus told the people that they must pay their taxes, he counseled them to offer homage to the Roman emperor who considered himself a god. Once again, the not-so-crafty Pharisees underestimated Jesus. Jesus requested a Roman coin of them and then asked: “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…”

You and I “repay to Caesar” every day. We go to work and tend to the tasks at hand. We file our taxes, vote and serve as jurors. We obey traffic laws and adhere to the tenets of common courtesy. We buy groceries, gasoline, clothing and homes. We manage the nitty-gritty of life as required by the order of things. At the same time, we pursue the things which matter to us: our significant others, our families and the things we love to do. In the process, we tend to the task of repaying “…to God what belongs to God.”

As crazy-busy as life can be at times, our circumstances sometimes force us into reflection. There are times when we must stop long enough to make sense of the world around us and the world within us. The loss of a loved one is a prime example of such an opportunity. Those left behind wonder how they’ll function without these special people at their sides. The same occurs at varying levels whenever unforeseen tragedy, violence or change touches us. I can only imagine what those who’ve been affected by the hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires continue to endure. Those touched by the shooting in Las Vegas mirror what so many victims of violence must overcome. Even Jesus stole away when he was overly pained. Jesus reflected in order to reconnect with who he was and we must do the same. The good news for us all is that these moments of reflection often morph into prayer.

As I consider the events of today’s gospel, I wonder when the Pharisees lost sight of rendering to God. When was it that they sacrificed their efforts to be good for the assurance that they would keep their wealth and their power over the people? When did they decide that being good simply wasn’t enough for them? At the same time, I wonder about my own efforts. When I was a little girl, my parents, teachers and favorite adults smiled in response to my doing my best. As we mature, these reassurances seem to lessen with each passing year and we learn quickly to question our efforts. This is the reason my widow’s mite is precious to me. Every time I look at it I hear, “It’s good enough, Mary. You’re good enough!” You know, God offers the same message to each one of us. Though we or those around us sometimes question are efforts, God smiles and urges us on. Perhaps rendering to God isn’t as difficult as we sometimes think. After all, whenever we do our best, God says, “It’s good enough!”

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Opt To Be 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 as two of my dad’s sisters had.

As it happened, though I spent a lot of time with nuns over the years, I never did become one of them. Oddly, it was during a summer away with the sisters that they encouraged me to accept a date with a young man who volunteered at the parish we were assisting. Though this puzzled me at the time, their counsel proved providential. I happily invited these sisters to my 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 in service of God 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 service has less to do with ones marital status than the status of ones heart. Both my husband and I have found amazing and unexpected ways to make God’s work our own wherever we are.

God offers the same opportunity to each of us every moment of every day. A little child who befriends an outcast at preschool does God’s work. A teen who dismisses the temptation to shop-lift though her friends frequently get away with it does God’s work. An unhappy corporate VP who forgoes drinks at lunch so he can get through the afternoon and home early enough to see his kids does God’s work. Whenever we do our best in the moment at hand, we do God’s work.

Loving God, help us to reveal your goodness and love in everything we do.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Not Counting, Thank Goodness!

After whispering a prayer of thanks for the new day, I begin what remains of each new day with counting. An ages-old lower back issue compels me to complete four exercises before I get out of bed. I count forty reps for each one. My physical therapist at the time assured me that the results would be worth the effort. Since my arthritic back rarely bothers me, I assume that she was absolutely correct. When I get up, I lie on the floor to complete four more exercises which require a firm surface. Once again, I count forty reps for each one. Finally, I stand for one shoulder exercise which has kept it 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 effort left me with no idea of the number of reps I’d actually completed. I tried timing my efforts only to discover that, for unknown reasons, I do them at different rates 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 to myself that you’re absolutely right. Still, I find a morsel of vindication in the apostle Peter’s frustration with counting and 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 times seven times. Of course, Jesus’ point was that the number of times we must forgive one another’s transgressions cannot be counted. We must forgive whenever it’s required regardless of how frequently this necessity presents itself. 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), Jesus presents another “counting” scenario in the form of a parable. On this occasion, Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom of heaven operates like the vineyard of a certain landowner. That landowner went out early in the morning to seek laborers. He found a group who agreed upon the standard daily wage and sent them off to work. An hour later, he hired more workers to whom he promised to pay a fair wage. The landowner 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 began by paying 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 fortunes. 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 a tidy 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 had agreed to. The landowner went on to scold 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 simply gave them all what was necessary to survive.

I admit to being 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, even when these occurrences are few and far between, we add to our own goodness. In the process, we improve God’s vineyard by helping those around us and ourselves to blossom in unexpectedly beautiful ways.

Today, God continues as the landowner who seeks laborers to tend to the fields of this life. God is pleased with those among 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 work at being the best he or she can be, God is pleased. That brave soul and God’s entire vineyard benefit 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 you and I can count on!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

You, You are my God!

My husband-the-deacon has been ordained for twenty-nine years and has preached homilies all the while. I have written this reflection for my parish bulletin for twenty-five of those years. In the process, Mike has occasionally run an idea past me. He’s also served as my part-time proof-reader. Still, we have never offered the same interpretation of a given week’s scriptures. While we’ve rarely disagreed on the focus of the passages, we have shared the wisdom we’ve drawn from them quite differently. This has been the case until today. When I read today’s gospel, I recalled a homily Mike preached at least a dozen years ago. Though I had no intention of echoing his sentiments in this reflection, I couldn’t shake the image of Mike walking back and forth in front of the altar as he spoke. After setting the scene, he suddenly stopped to say, “You! You are the Picard!” Let me explain…

My dear husband is an avid Star Trek fan. This began with the original television series and continued through Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Star Trek movies. Some years ago, after a rerun of The Next Generation, Mike announced, “There’s a good homily in that one!” Apparently, Mike filed that information away until months later when he read the same gospel we hear today in preparation for his preaching. He was very excited when he realized that would be the week he’d deliver his Star Trek-inspired homily. As for me, my thoughts and I headed in another direction as I ran up the stairs and sat at my keyboard to write. Though I can’t recall how I progressed that day, I can tell you that Mike had his homily fully prepared within a few hours. His only request of me was my opinion regarding the suitability of a Star Trek scenario for this purpose. After assuring him that this would be more than fine, I returned to my writing.

The following Sunday, Mike shared his love of Star Trek and Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s startling encounter with an alien race. Though the inhabitants of this planet in a distant galaxy looked human, they were quite primitive even by our 2017 standards. This was particularly troubling to Captain Picard and his crew. While exploring new worlds, they were bound by The Prime Directive which 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 had not yet discovered such things on their own. In this case, the aliens had witnessed the capabilities of the captain and his landing party before they realized what had happened. Much to their dismay, the crew’s arrival in bright lights and their seemingly magical powers closely resembled the “coming” of this people’s god as described in their holy writings. When the planet’s natives approached the good captain to offer their welcome, they dropped to their knees. Without hesitation, their leader announced, “You! You are the Picard!” The captain was beside himself because he had inadvertently violated The Prime Directive. Captain Picard was even more upset because he was being 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 today’s gospel (Matthew 16:13-20), Matthew chronicled a conversation between Jesus and his closest friends. Eventually, 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 except Peter. “You are the Christ,” Simon Peter proclaimed, “the Son of the Living God.” When he acknowledged God’s presence, Peter changed everything. Suddenly, Peter was much more than the often-outspoken and sometimes-unthinking student of an itinerant rabbi. Suddenly, Peter’s life took on new meaning because of his close association with God. Though Peter failed to fully understand the logistics of that relationship, he certainly understood what it meant to have Jesus at his side.

Though Captain Picard flinched a bit at representing a god to those primitive people, he eventually found a way to use their acceptance of him to guide them onto the right path. In the end, he left their culture intact while leaving them a little better off than they were before they had met. Poor Peter quickly found himself in a similar predicament. He may have wondered, “I’m with the Christ! Now what am I to do?” The scriptures tell us that though Peter’s subsequent efforts weren’t always perfect, he was certainly instrumental in revealing God’s love to this world. It seems to me that our prime directive is to do the same as best we can and as only we can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved