Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels made it impossible for me to chase him? His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, at the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” I admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Blessed!

Bless the Lord, O my soul;
and forget not all his benefits.

Psalm 103:2

It was a dreary Monday. As my husband backed the car out of the garage, large drops of rain assaulted our windshield. “I thought it wasn’t going to rain any more,” I grumbled. “It’s not supposed to,” Mike added, “but it is.” When we arrived at our destination, the rain had stopped. I looked upward and whispered, “Thank you!” Much to my surprise, this errand took only ten minutes. When we returned to the outdoors, I discovered that the dark gray clouds above were keeping their rain to themselves. “Wow!” I said aloud. Once again, I looked up and whispered, “Thank you!”

Later, I decided to run another errand. I headed to the bank with change which our parish children had collected for the poor. The gray sky continued to offer no further precipitation as I carted in containers filled with change. All was well until the coin machine sputtered and then stopped. After twenty-minutes of cleaning and adjusting, the teller decided they’d need a service call. He redeemed my receipt for the change taken, I thanked him for his effort and headed to a second bank. Much to my surprise, the same thing happened. When the teller assured me that this coin machine simply needed servicing, I laughed aloud. When I explained what had happened earlier, the young man couldn’t resist chuckling with me. With that, I carried those heavy containers back to my car for another day. Once again, there was no rain and I repeated my thanks.

When I sat to begin this writing, gentle tapping drew my eyes to the window. Those gray clouds had given way and rain began to fall. How could I not thank God for this oddly satisfying morning?

Creator God, thank you for giving us hearts which recognize your blessings in all their forms.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Humble Living

A few weeks ago, a student from a nearby high school approached my pastor to ask if we might help her to collect supplies for a school on the West Side of Chicago. Father Greg was touched by the young woman’s willingness to take on this project and he agreed to allow her to seek our support. Though Mari’s heartwarming talk at each of the weekend Masses was certainly worth our attention, my ears perked up further as soon as I heard mention of St. Malachy’s. It was then that I knew precisely where our donations would go. I’m the product of a West Side of Chicago Catholic School. I attended Presentation School which was located a few miles from St. Malachy’s and I attended high school with several St. Malachy alums.

As Mari spoke, I couldn’t help mentally revisiting those years at Presentation. Mine was one of many blue-collar families who sacrificed whatever was necessary to provide a quality education to their children. At the time, our neighborhood wasn’t much different from that of St. Malachy’s today. Influences on the street compelled even non-Catholic parents to enroll their children in our parish school. When my dad passed away just after I was promoted to third grade, my mom went to work full-time. She did her best to provide the things we needed. This meant that we reused book bags and crayons, pencils and notebooks from the previous school year if they were still serviceable. We purchased only what was truly necessary. Our mandatory uniforms were often hand-me-downs as well. Persnickety rule-follower that I was, it bothered me to wear white blouses which were different from those sold by the uniform company. As far as our teachers were concerned, the blouse’s collar style didn’t matter. For my mom, price tags guided her selections in that regard. When I returned to Mari’s talk, I began to strategize my school supply purchases in an effort to get as much for my money as possible. After all, I knew firsthand the importance of new school supplies!

I admit that I chuckled to myself when Mari set up her collection bins after the services that day. Though she and her mom brought two good-sized plastic containers, there was no way they’d be large enough. By the time I left church, some of you had already returned with school supplies in hand. Every time I stopped in during the week, I noted that the assortment had grown exponentially. The second weekend proved even more amazing. When Mari saw all that you had given, she said that she had enough supplies for two schools!

I’m writing about Mari’s school supply project for two reasons. First, this adventure illustrates once again just how amazingly giving my parish family is. It seems that no matter what is requested, a contingent from of people responds in full force. Sometimes, some of us can respond. Sometimes, others of us can respond. Always, some among us step up to do what needs to be done. Always, this giving is humbly anonymous and overwhelmingly generous. It is also remarkably life-changing for all concerned. This is just the way it is here at my parish and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Secondly, today’s scripture passages describe this phenomenon to a T. In the first reading (Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29), Sirach reminded the people, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God…” Sirach hoped to remind God’s people that living humbly would lead them to true happiness. In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul reminded the people of their good fortune in following the loving ways of Jesus: “…you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God.” Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14) tells us that Jesus echoed all of this with, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled… blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

You know, that mountain of school supplies Mari collected won’t bring about world peace or eliminate poverty. It won’t even guarantee one evening free of violence on the West Side. Still, that mountain of school supplies will empower a school full of children in ways we can only imagine. Perhaps another third grader who’s life has been turned upside-down will be forced to smile when she begins the new year with new pencils, new crayons and a new notebook. This is what humble living is all about: Making this world better one grateful soul at a time.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Wow!!!

Two weeks ago, I arrived uncharacteristically early for Sunday Mass. As was the case for many of us, the May calendar hanging in our kitchen had been full. I hadn’t been early for anything in weeks. So it was that on that beautiful sunny morning I felt most grateful for those precious moments of leisurely prayer.

I took advantage of the opportunity by admitting to the Lord God that I had been engaged in a bout with crankiness. The reasons for my angst were justified. Worse yet, there was nothing I could do to change these things. As a result, I’d become frustrated and irritable. While the sun poured into church that May morning, I asked God to shower me with a bit of wisdom as well. I needed to refocus and to regroup. An attitude adjustment was also in order. Just a hint of assurance that these situations would improve to a tolerable level seemed almost too much to ask for in the grand scheme of things. Still, I prayed on. I had ended my prayer with hope for the best by the time the opening hymn was announced.

I normally enjoy singing and I was grateful that this particular selection was familiar. Knowing the lyrics helped me to sing on in spite of the distractions that gnawed at me. Afterward, as I replaced the hymnal in its rack, someone behind me whispered, “Wow!” and then giggled almost inaudibly. As we moved on with the liturgy, I glanced back and saw a smiling gentlemen. I smiled to myself as I responded to the Lord, Have Mercy. After the Gloria, I heard another “Wow!” accompanied by that little giggle. This happened again at the beginning of the gospel. Afterward, my pastor began his homily with the proclamation, “Beautiful day, short homily!” The man in the pew behind me responded this time with a giggle, another “Wow!” and another giggle. This “wow” was not unexpected as I assumed many of us were doing a mental “happy dance” in response. After all, the day was indeed gorgeous and in need our immediate attention!

As it happened, Father Ray’s words were to the point, to a very inspiring point which touched me deeply. When I looked heavenward to whisper a quiet “Thank you,” the man behind me offered another joyful “Wow!” And, yes, he giggled as well. It was then that it hit me: If I truly appreciated what I have, I would giggle and say “wow” at least as often as my happy friend had done that morning. After Mass, I thanked that cheerful worshiper for his inspiration. I explained that our encounter had to be in answer to my prayer because he’d certainly and unexpectedly lifted my spirit. I also told him that there was a good story in all of this, and indeed there is…

In today’s first reading (1 Kings 17:17-24), Elijah the Prophet is housed and fed by a poor widow and her son. In the midst of his stay, the boy becomes ill and dies. The frantic woman asks the prophet how he can be a man of God if he allows this. Fortunately, Elijah takes God’s love to heart and he begs the Almighty to restore the woman’s son which God does. In the second reading (Galatians 1:11-19), Paul tries to explain his preaching. He’d spent his career persecuting Jesus’ followers. Paul was a good man deeply committed to the traditions he’d been raised with. Only an otherworldly encounter with Jesus was able to open his heart to the loving God whom Jesus had preached. Afterward, Paul could not help sharing this good news with all who would listen. In the gospel (Luke 7:11-17), Jesus responds to a widow who has lost her son with the compassion of Elijah. Because he knows the depth of this woman’s sorrow better than she knows it herself, Jesus raises the young man and returns him to his mother. God’s compassion, that intimate knowledge of all that troubles us, compels Elijah, Paul and Jesus to comfort the rest of us as best they can.

I repeat often that God loves us, yet I sometimes forget this in the midst of my troubles. I write often that God knows us better than we know ourselves. Still, I feel alone in my sadness. I insist that God is aware of everything that happens because of us and to us. Nonetheless, I wring my hands as I wonder why God ignores me at such trying times. Then a man says “wow” and giggles a bit in church and God puts everything into perspective. If we appreciate all that we have, especially God’s absolute love for us, we will find something to elicit a “wow” and to make us giggle with joy in everything.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved