Close Enough…

Upon disembarking Jesus saw a vast crowd.
He pitied them for they were like sheep without a shepherd
and he began to teach them at great length.

Mark 6:34

In Israel, when we arrived at Tabgha, our guide shared that this is the place where many believe Jesus fed the multitudes with a few fish and loaves of bread. As we drove off to the next site, I nuzzled into my seat on the bus. It had been a long day and I wondered what was it like to be among the crowds who saw all that Jesus did? What must it have been like to get to know him more personally?

A community of Jewish Christians likely occupied the area from Jesus’ time for perhaps four centuries. Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim from 380 C.E., wrote her observations when she visited this place. She’d found rock formations which were considered memorials of the three events which occurred there: the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding with loaves and fishes and a post-resurrection appearance to the apostles. Though it is possible that all three events occurred as was believed, modern scholars suggest that this may not be the case.

Once again, I found that the location of Jesus’ activities meant far less to me than all that he did. Though Jesus may not have taught in this place, he certainly taught with his every word and deed wherever he walked. Though the loaves and fish may not have fed a full five thousand that day, Jesus certainly exhibited his compassion for the people in a memorable way. Perhaps this also wasn’t a place Jesus visited after he rose from the dead. His assertion that there is life after this life lives on regardless.

At the end of that day, I gave thanks for this opportunity to walk where Jesus walked, to breathe the air Jesus breathed and to see the sights Jesus saw. Whether as near as his closest friends or as distant as the crowds who watched from afar, simply being there mattered to me.

Being there for one another is just as important these days. Though we must engage in social distancing for all of our safety, we can get closer via a phone call, a text, a note or an email. Be creative and share the love!

Dear God, thank you for the gift of Jesus’ life among us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

Miracle Enough…

Jesus performed the first of his signs at Cana in Galilee…
From John 2:11

While in Israel, our archaeologist-guide did his best to give us pertinent information regarding sites we visited. Cana was no exception. We drove through modern Cana in the midst of a traffic jam. Heavy rainfall had closed some roads causing this dilemma. As usual, our guide Yossi made the most of the situation. As the bus crawled along, Yossi spoke…

Yossi shared that there are three possibilities regarding the location of Jesus’ first miracle. Though two beautiful churches claim to rest on the site where Jesus changed water into wine at his friends’ wedding, modern scholars prefer another village which lies in ruins today. It is located slightly farther from Nazareth than today’s Cana. Another miracle attributed to the area is the cure of a Roman official’s son. The man turned to Jesus because his son lay dying with no hope of a cure. The man’s faith touched Jesus who sent him home with the promise that his son would recover.

I found myself unconcerned with the actual settings of these events. It was enough for me to walk in places where Jesus likely walked. Whether or not he performed miracles on the premises was insignificant. It is miracle enough for me to know that Jesus lived among us long enough to reveal God’s essence to us. Jesus did this with enough detail to allow me and many others over the centuries to get the idea.

If we take nothing more from Jesus’ life than his insistence that we are cherished by a benevolent and merciful God and that we should love one another as we love ourselves, we have taken enough. It is up to us to live accordingly.

Generous God, help me to celebrate your presence with those who see you and help me to reveal your presence to those who haven’t yet discovered you.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Make Your Difference Now

Yes, it is coming and shall be fulfilled,
says the Lord God. This is the day I have decreed.

Ezekiel 39:8

During our prior visits to Israel, we visited Megiddo-Armageddon. This time, other sites were added to our itinerary. As a result, we did a slow drive-by of this location. This didn’t disappoint me. You see, that beautiful park is said to be the eventual setting of the final battle at the end of the world. Biblical references to the end times have never drawn me in. This world is a difficult place. I can’t imagine that this world’s “last days” can bring any worse than the atrocities so many have suffered throughout human history. So it is that I look beyond these references to more hopeful passages. It is my hope for better things to come which sustains me.

The optimist in me is convinced that, if I am present for this final unraveling of human history, it will end in God’s favor. Though more fundamental believers will cringe at my next sentence, I would be dishonest if I didn’t write it. I cannot concern myself with the end times because the most important times in my life are the series of moments I’m given today and every day. It’s up to me to use every one of those moments to love and to appreciate God’s gifts to me and to love and care for my neighbor as myself.

Of course, what happens in the end is important. However, what we do before the end is just as important. We really can make all of the difference in the world!

Compassionate God, only you know where we are headed. Be with us every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let Us Pray…

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faith…

Galatians 5:22

I’ve shared before that one of the most precious and inspiring treasures we encountered in Israel was our tour guide Yossi. Though this was our third trip to Israel, we never tired of Yossi’s commentaries regarding the sites before us, his homeland, Jesus and life in this world. Every encounter revealed another facet of this remarkable man.

Remember, Yossi was raised in an Israeli kibbutz where communism ruled and God was extinct. He describes himself as an atheist who loves his country, but who is also acutely aware of its flaws. Yossi asked us often to pray for his people as all concerned needed to set aside their differences. They needed to live in peace. Now Yossi is an archaeologist and a professor of this subject at the university. Still, his scientific and non-religious background never kept him from asking us to pray…

When we visited one of the Holy Land’s beautiful churches, Yossi pulled his flute from his backpack. This dear man who claimed not to know God settled himself in the sanctuary to play. As Yossi blew into his flute, he closed his eyes. Each note fulled that church and our hearts. A visible peace enveloped Yossi. I whispered to myself, “You may think you’re an atheist, Yossi, but just now you’re closer to God than many of us will ever be. Thank you for allowing me into your holy space.”

Yossi thought he couldn’t pray. Yet he spoke to God quite clearly through his music. Sometimes, you and I feel distant from God as well. Sometimes, life’s circumstances or the troubles brewing deep within us seem to rob us of God’s presence in our lives. It is during these times that we must do as Yossi did that day. We must settle into the sanctuary which is our hearts and pour out our hearts to God. Just as Yossi likely discovered that day, God is far closer to us than we know.

Dear God, thank you for remaining with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

G… God

For this is our God,
and we are the people God shepherds,
the flock whom God guides.

Psalm 95:7

G is for God… and goodness, grace, generosity, gentleness, gift, gladness, glory, gospel, grandeur, gratitude, growth, gumption and a gaggle of other descriptors which apply to the God I have come to know and love.

Regardless of the name you prefer or the context in which you pray, God is all of these things and more for you, for me and for every soul blessed with the gift of life. Whether we were raised down the street from our church as I was or were never exposed to anything remotely similar, God is here for us.

For me, the evidence lies deep within. I’ve been aware of God’s presence in my life for as long as I can remember. If you are searching for more concrete evidence, consider this. Numerous books have been published and countless other references have been cited in the distant and recent past regarding encounters with life after this life. Many have passed through death’s threshold and returned to share their experiences. Whether a believer, an agnostic or an atheist beforehand, these travelers to the Other Side speak of the unconditional love, peace and acceptance which greeted them. Most conclude with great certainty that they have met God.

Though most of us will never return from this journey, we are gifted with God’s loving presence in our lives today. For me, the implications are twofold. First, I must cultivate my relationship with God as this is the source of the greatest joy I know this life. Second, I must share the benefits of this relationship by cultivating my relationships with those God has given me to love. After all, the best gifts are those which we share.

Generous and Gracious God, thank you for you.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved