How Can I Say This?

Jesus went up to the mountain to pray,
and he spent the night talking to God.

Luke 6:12

I recently participated in a great conversation regarding prayer. As we chatted, those with me shared their favorite means of communicating with God. I repeated what I’ve often shared in this space: I do my best praying while walking outdoors and talking to God in my own words. Since my walks have been less regular these days, I’ve found myself talking to God whenever I’m alone and in the midst of almost everything I’m doing. Still, there have been occasions when I’ve found it impossible to voice my misery or that of someone I’m praying for. When I’m at a loss for the right words, I most often turn to the Book of Psalms. Each of its 150 entries voices sentiments appropriate to either the joyful or the troubling moments which punctuate our lives.

Not long after that conversation, I ran into a friend who’d been there. He couldn’t help telling me about his recent interaction with The Book of Psalms. What he found there had helped him to express himself more meaningfully. My friend reminded me of what I’d said: “When in doubt, go to the psalms.”

When I returned home that day, I pulled out my bible and perused the Book of Psalms for a refresher. Yes, there is a psalm for every occasion under heaven. Take a peek to see for yourself.

Dear God, thank you for the psalmist who spoke so well for us all!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Finally, I Understand!

Each week, I prepare to fill this space by praying for inspiration and then reading the scriptures we’ll hear at the coming Sunday’s Masses. Sometimes, as has been the case today, I reread them several times until the message sinks in. Usually, a recent event which relates to the theme comes to mind and I have my story. Today, I find myself struggling with Luke’s Gospel and I’m not certain of where to go from here. Last Sunday’s passage from Luke included my favorite of Jesus’ parables, The Prodigal Son. Jesus used this story to assure us that the Prodigal Son’s father extended the same loving and merciful welcome to his son which God offers to each one of us over and over again. Much to my dismay, that wonderfully loving and hope-filled parable was preceded and followed by passages which offer difficult and puzzling exhortations from Jesus. So it is that I’ve stopped to pray one more time before continuing…

Here I go… In today’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13), Luke recounts another occasion on which Jesus used a story to teach. Jesus offered the tale of a man who handled the financial affairs of a wealthy landowner. That landowner discovered that his steward had cheated him. So it was that he ordered that steward to account for his actions. The dishonest steward could see that his firing was imminent. Because he was too proud to dig ditches or to beg, the steward took action. To ensure his financial future, he called in his master’s debtors. The steward directed one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies would certainly see to his well-being after his master fired him. During that final accounting, the master marveled at the efforts of his dishonest employee. That wealthy landowner seemed not to be surprised that his steward had found a way to save himself.

Let me explain that when the steward cut the debts of his master’s clients, he did so by the amount which would have been his own commission. Though The Law forbade charging exorbitant interest rates, it was common for stewards to tack their own fees onto their masters’ loans. When the steward erased his share of those loans, he befriended possible benefactors while also seeing to it that his master was fully repaid. Though the steward failed to keep his job, he succeeded in making a bad situation tolerable by cutting everyone’s losses before he moved on. Jesus surprised me by focusing upon the creativity of that steward rather than taking issue with his dishonesty. It occurs to me that perhaps Jesus did this to draw attention to the realities of life in this not-so-perfect world. Perhaps Jesus hoped to encourage us to use our ingenuity to draw some good from the negative circumstances which surround us just as that steward did.

I’d like to think that most of our good deeds don’t stem from our wrong-doing as was the case with the dishonest steward. Nonetheless, our goodness is often inspired by the imperfections of life on this earth. The devastation wielded by Hurricane Dorian overwhelmed its victims in the Bahamas as well as on our own east coast. Wildfires in the west have done the same. Our recent observance of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks provided a stark reminder of the new brand of evil which was born that day. Today’s streamed and broadcast news programs provide ongoing evidence that violence has become a way of life in both faraway countries and nearby communities. Yet, in the midst of all of this suffering, efforts to bring assistance and relief came and continues to come from every direction. Just as they did in response to the 9/11 tragedy, heroes among us roll up their sleeves and pick up the pieces in faraway countries as well as here at home. These generous souls do whatever is needed to make things better as only they can.

Finally, I think I understand Jesus’ point. Finally, Jesus’ focus upon the steward’s dishonesty and his attempt to pick up the pieces and to make things right for himself makes sense. Life in this world is indeed imperfect, sometimes because of our own wrongdoing, sometimes because of the misdeeds of others and sometimes because of circumstances over which none of us have control. Whatever the case, Jesus used the tale of that dishonest steward to encourage us to do something. Jesus asks each of us to be equally creative in making the most of the difficulties at hand. You know, two of my favorite newscasts end each segment by highlighting individuals who demonstrate the amazing capacities we humans have to be our best and to do our best to love and to care for one another. It seems to me that God would like to end each day by recounting with us our own efforts to be our best and to do our best to love and care for one another.

I hope you’ll agree that my prayers for inspiration were answered today. I also hope that you’ll join me in taking this parable to heart. Though the Parable of the Prodigal Son continues to be my favorite, my affection for Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Steward has grown. That prodigal son keeps us ever mindful that God will always love us and God will always forgive us whenever that forgiveness is needed. That conniving steward assures us that even our worst behavior has the potential to accomplish good in God’s scheme of things. There is so much that needs our attention today! Will you join me in picking up the pieces and making something better as only we can?

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Sister’s Life Lessons

Some months ago, I received an email from a high school friend. Nadine had written to tell me that fellow alums were planning a reunion. My classmates and I have reached a milestone anniversary of our graduation from high school and a party is definitely in order! Thoughts of Nadine and many other classmates elicited a smile. After sending a grateful response to that email, I hurried to our calendar to record the date. As soon as I turned to September, I realized that I won’t be able to attend that reunion. The same day, my dear husband will witness the marriage of a very special couple. Mike and I wouldn’t miss their wedding for anything. So it was that I sent Nadine a subsequent email to express my regret. This past week, when I received a follow-up reminder of that reunion, I decided to enjoy a small reunion of my own. I pulled my yearbook from the shelf and nestled into my recliner. As soon as I opened that book, memories filled me up. I admit to some tears as I read the kind comments my classmates and teachers had written to me inside the covers and in the margins of almost every page. The four years we shared were a gift…

After returning my yearbook to its shelf, I checked the Sisters of Mercy website for tidbits regarding my former teachers. As expected, I found that most of them are enjoying the fruits of their labor in the hereafter. When I scrolled down the names of the sisters who’ve passed away, Sister Imelda evoked a smile. Sister Imelda held the dubious honor of serving as my freshman homeroom teacher. This role required her to account for her students’ whereabouts every weekday morning and to immerse us into the freshman religion curriculum. It was during religion class that Sister Imelda left an indelible mark on me. Difficult as it could have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease. She provided a question box for our anonymous queries on any topic. At the beginning of every class, Sister responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk before my own students. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided extremely creative questions. Every time, Sister responded graciously and thoroughly. We’d learned far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of that year. More importantly, by June each of us also saw God in a completely different and truly awesome light.

I continue to embrace Sister Imelda’s image of God because Sister insisted that ours is the God of Love. Rather than guilting us into submission, Sister presented the rules we tried to live by quite practically. She insisted that these guidelines for living served as shields to keep us safe. When we did our best to do the right thing, we stayed close to God. Sister added that our close proximity to God was our most prized possession. “As long as God is nearby,” Sister said, “you’ll be fine.” Of course, we concluded that God’s presence depended upon us. When a classmate submitted an anonymous question regarding God’s proximity when one managed to commit a mortal sin, Sister reassured us. I’ll never forget Sister rising from her seat with her finger pointed at us as she proclaimed, “That’s when God is closest to you and don’t you forget that! God doesn’t want to lose a single one us!” This was probably the first time in my life that I actually believed that God loves me and remains with me regardless of my guilt. On that day, I began to take even the harshest lessons from my religion classes and sermons as reassurances that God remains with me in everything.

Today’s scripture passages and those we’ve encountered in recent weeks are about as unsettling as some of the questions my classmates and I posed to Sister Imelda that year. The passage from Wisdom (Wisdom 9:13-18) tells us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. But what if someone isn’t among the gifted, we wonder. Sister Imelda would say, “God speaks to all of us. We simply need to take the time to listen.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon (Philemon 9-10;12-17), Paul tells his friend how to deal with his runaway slave. Paul had befriended this slave and he wanted the man to remain with him. Because this wasn’t possible, Paul sent the slave back to Philemon and asked Philemon to see his slave in a new light. Paul asked his friend to treat the slave as he would treat Paul himself and he fully expected Philemon to do nothing less. But what if Philemon refused? Sister Imelda would say, “You can’t make choices for other people. You can only give them your best shot, offer them good counsel and pray for the best.” In the end, Philemon did as Paul asked. Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:25-33) further forsakes this world’s view of things. Luke tells us that Jesus called the people to hate everything they held dear in order to free themselves to be disciples. But who can look upon their families and their wealth and walk away from them? Sister Imelda would say, “Jesus used strong examples to show us that it’s really hard to live as he did. All Jesus really asks is that we do our best with what we’re given and that we love one another. That will be enough!”

Sister Imelda’s wisdom has served me well. Though today’s scriptures seem difficult to follow, God’s underlying message urges us on just as Sister Imelda did. Sister Imelda convinced this high school freshman that God loves us though, sometimes, difficult words are necessary to get our attention. In the end, Sister Imelda would say, “As God’s much-loved children, we’re asked to allow God into our lives, to do our best within the circumstances we’re given and to help others to do the same. It’s just that simple!” I couldn’t agree more!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Labor Day and Everyday Blessings

Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.

Luke 4:16

Throughout his life among us, Jesus did many things “according to his custom.” He must have worshiped regularly at the temple because he was well-versed in the scriptures and the goings on within his faith community. His parents must have taught him to pray often because the scriptures offer numerous accounts of Jesus’ efforts to spend quiet moments in prayer. Jesus consistently exhibited good manners because he never left anyone out of his conversations. Jesus also invited shunned outcasts to share a meal with him. His contemporaries referred to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son.” He must have earned this designation by working hard at Joseph’s side to learn his trade well.

You know, Jesus spent the greatest portion of his life doing the ordinary things which make up most of our lives. It seems to me that Jesus would not have spent 30 of his 33 years among us engaged in these ordinary things of there wasn’t something extraordinary about them after all. When Jesus embraced his human existence, he embraced our human existence as well. When Jesus made a holy life of those 30 years as a son, a carpenter and neighbor, he offered us the opportunity to do the same. Though most of us won’t die as Jesus did, we all have the opportunity to live as Jesus lived.

This is Labor Day, the perfect day to celebrate the potential for holiness of our labor and our leisure. How? Do as Jesus did. Do it all with love.

Loving God, thank you for revealing your goodness through the life of Jesus. Help us to transform the ordinary moments of our lives into the extraordinary, just as Jesus did.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Loved Just As We Are

Though I’ve shared my fascination with bubbles before, a recent encounter and today’s scripture passages urge me to revisit this favorite topic. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a supply of bubbles in the cabinet under our kitchen sink. This began decades ago when our older son was a little boy. I introduced Little Mike to the joy of bubble-watching as soon as he was able to notice the bubbles I created around him. There is something magically mesmerizing about these delicately colored spheres. Whether they sail slowly in the still air or flit about in a brisk breeze, bubbles hold our attention until they literally pop out of sight. I’m convinced that our son shared my enthusiasm because he happily chased the bubbles I created. He was particularly pleased when a bubble rested nearby on the lawn, a leaf and sometimes on his own hand. Eventually, our firstborn learned to blow bubbles himself. He was in heaven and so was I! When little brother Tim came along and grew old enough to appreciate bubbles as well, his big brother happily joined his dad and me in our creative efforts. We blew bubbles for Timmy until he also became competent at this amazing art.

Throughout the years since, I’ve replenished my bubble inventory often. I’ve even made room on a shelf in the garage for those larger cylinder-shaped bottles with foot-long wands. When the wind cooperates, they allow me to create the largest and most plentiful bubbles ever. One never knows when bubbles will be needed to add a bit of joy to the moment at hand. As for me, in every instance of bubble-blowing I find myself incapable of suppressing a smile. Last weekend was no exception. Our granddaughters stayed with Grandpa and me while their parents attended a wedding. This trio consists of a seventh grader, a fifth grader and a third grader who usually present themselves as independent and mature preteens -yes, even that third grader! At least this is usually the case until they arrive at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s home. As soon as they walk through the door, they morph into little girls who enjoy playing with blocks and years-old toys. They also share their grandma’s love for blowing bubbles.

So it was that shortly after they arrived that day each of my granddaughters selected a bottle of bubbles from under the kitchen sink. After also taking some bubbles for me, the girls suggested that we head to the playground across the street. There they could run and blow bubbles to their hearts’ content. Since Grandpa would be busy with a wedding rehearsal until dinner, we had plenty of time for this outing. For an amazing hour, we blew bubbles in every direction. When the girls moved on to the playground equipment, I climbed atop a slide just high enough not to threaten by safety. From my above-ground perch, I blew bubbles wherever the girls ran. Those bubbles interrupted their play often. Sometimes, they chased my creations and sometimes they simply watched them float in the air. Perhaps my granddaughters appreciate the miracle of these delightful orbs as much as I.

As I rejoiced in my “bubble blessings” that afternoon, it occurred to me that this phenomenon hints at the delight God finds in each one of us. Though the film on my bubble wand looked the same every time I replenished it, every bubble I created took on its own coloring, shape and size. If I find such joy in breathing life into a bubble of soap film, imagine the elated expectation God feels when another of us emerges to embrace life on this earth! If I relish every moment with a bubble, whether it pops in three seconds or dances in the air for three minutes, imagine how precious each of our lives is to our beloved Creator! Whether we live for decades, an entire century or just a few days, there is never disappointment in the direction or length of our paths. God’s only hope in sending us on our way is that we do the best we can to delight in one another with as much love as we can muster all the while. The best part is that, just as I watch my bubbles for their entire life spans, God watches over every one of us!

I acknowledge that today’s scripture passages suggest some inconsistencies in the way God expresses this love for us. In the first reading, Isaiah (22:19-23) chastised the Hebrews who felt they were the only ones whom God would welcome into the Holy City. Isaiah insisted there was room for many others as well. This realization that God appreciates our differences is good news for us all. In his letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7, 11-13), Paul noted that much suffering would come to those who lived as God’s children. Though Paul described these hard times as God’s discipline, it seems to me that it is we humans who create much of this world’s misery. In the gospel (Luke 13:22-30), Luke tells us that the disciples asked Jesus if only a few would be saved. After offering a bit of caution regarding the propensity of some to think that self-proclaimed good deeds would get them into heaven, Jesus continued: “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” While scripture scholars and preachers explain these passages further, I’m taking a lesson from the miracle of bubbles: In spite of our color, size, shape and path, God delights in our existence. In spite of and because of our uniqueness, God’s affection and good will toward each of us remain intact. God breathes life into us with great hope, far more hope than I breathe into my bubbles. Indeed, God breathes life into each one of us with the full expectation that we will evolve into the amazingly unique souls whom God will welcome home one day.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Hero Among Us

My dear husband and I had been overwhelmed by the tasks at hand for weeks. Then, Mike contracted the flu which evolved into bronchitis and an ear infection. I was medicated for preventative purposes. Still, I managed to catch a cold of my own. In a last-ditch effort to feel healthy again, we retreated to the north for a few days. We’d hoped to leave those pesky contagions behind and to breathe in some fresh Wisconsin air. As it happened, we did relax for most of those three days away. While Mike alternated between watching reruns and napping, I sought refuge in a thick worn paperback which has been with me since sophomore year of college. While Mike snoozed in the recliner across from me, I nuzzled into the corner of the couch. I didn’t turn to the beginning of my book because I didn’t have the time. Rather, I thumbed through hundreds of pages until I came to the section most familiar to me near the end of that book. I looked carefully until I found the passage I needed to read for this writing. Before I began, I turned my eyes and my thoughts heavenward. Though this would be a difficult interlude with the written word, it would also be a source of great peace for me if only I persisted…

A few paragraphs into the narrative, a chill ran down my spine. The passage I poured over hit a little too close to home. Without warning, difficult memories from my own life resurfaced. I looked away from the page to take a deep breath. Still, the tears flowed freely. This story’s hero is near and dear to me and I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that he approached the end of his life. He had maintained a positive and tough exterior while I lamented. I found him tying up loose ends in an attempt to leave those he loved with the best of his wisdom. Though his tone was hopeful, my hero suffered within. Worry regarding the path ahead threatened to shake his faith. His closest companions failed to sense this. When a few began to take notice, the events at hand distracted them from their concern. I had no doubt that my hero’s friends would be completely overwhelmed as the plot continued to unfold.

As I read on through those final pages with my hero, my own trials and tribulations resurfaced. I suppose this occurred because I identify with his story on many levels. He and I seem to approach the things that are most important to us in the same away. He loved his family just as I love my own. He was devoted to his parents whose most poignant lessons came through example rather than words. My parents taught me with their actions as well. My hero was very much at home in his faith because his parents introduced him to God when he was just a baby. My parents did the same. My hero lost his father early on, yet he grew into a devoted son who made his mother proud. Though my dad’s untimely death caused him to miss most of my childhood, I managed to make my mom proud once or twice as well. When those around him faced difficulties, this hero who seems more like a friend consistently stepped up to help. Though I often fail, I really do try to do the same.

When I turned back to my dog-eared text, I was struck by my hero’s persistence in the face of the worst this life had to offer him. Though he occasionally withdrew to regroup and to replenish his soul, he never abandoned his mission. Indeed, he returned every time more convinced than ever that he was walking the right path. I read on to find my hero as he left a holiday dinner. He had bared his soul to his friends regarding his love for them and he’d offered a final gesture of his devotion to each one. When he rose from their dinner table, my hero wondered if any of his friends had grasped his meaning. It was with a heavy heart that he led them out into the night. He left them to rest in a garden and then moved on to an isolated patch to consider what hours ahead would bring. He always turned to his dad on such occasions and that night is no exception. “Abba,” he prayed, “if you are willing, take this cup away from me…” Fear overwhelmed him and he sweated droplets of blood. Still, he turned to his father once again to add, “still, not my will but yours be done.”

With that, I set aside my tattered bible and closed the page on Luke’s passion account (Luke 22:14-23:56). As calamities from my own life flooded my memory, Jesus’ words filled my heart. I realized that I’d survived these things because I’d followed Jesus’ lead with absolute confidence. Every time, I had turned to the parent Jesus and I share, and, every time, God had accompanied me through what lay ahead. Every single time!

This Palm Sunday, as we listen to Jesus’ story, we acknowledge all that Jesus said and did. In Jesus’ life, we find the strength to endure. In his passion and death, we find the hope that urges us on. Jesus never promised that our lives will be easy, but Jesus did promise often that we will never be alone in our efforts. Today and throughout this Holy Week, we celebrate this hero who has shown us the way to live with courage, to die with hope and to rise into the reality of the resurrection which awaits us all.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved