God’s Call to Love

Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

After finalizing Father’s Day plans with our sons and daughters-in-law, I got offline with the hope of tending to some writing. Before opening my file, I glanced toward the window for a peek at summer’s greenery. Nature always inspires me and I expected this glimpse to be no exception. Much to my surprise, my gaze never made it to the huge blue spruce that rests just beyond the glass. A photo on the file cabinet in front of the window caught my attention first. There were our sons with their wives and our grandchildren. Mike and I couldn’t have smiled more broadly as we posed that day. When we’re surrounded by our family, we’re in the happiest of places. It occurred to me that Mike’s and my smiles in that photo might actually have competed with our grins the day we received the news that we were expecting our first baby. Though neither Mike nor I knew much about parenting at the time, we did know that this news was the start of the most important and exciting time of our lives. Over the years, we’ve used many other mostly positive adjectives to describe our stints as Dad and Mom. In the end, we wouldn’t trade these roles for anything. How grateful we are for this family of ours!

When I turned back to my keyboard to open that file, a photo on the bookcase next to me also caught my eye. There I saw the first family which gave me an appetite for the joy I’ve found in my own. This photo was taken when I was six years old. My siblings were fourteen, twelve, four, three and fifteen months. We’d posed in front of our house on Easter Sunday just two years before my dad passed away. I reminded myself of how fortunate I am to have memories of my dad. My youngest sister knows him only from pictures. The next youngest was only five years old when our dad passed away. Though her memories included only a few fleeting images of him, my sister observed more than once that our dad loved her very much. She assured us that this had to be the case because she’d felt the absence of that love ever since. My best “Daddy memory” is bath time. The four youngest of us played together in the tub for as long as our parents could tolerate it or until the water cooled a bit too much. Then, our mom quickly washed and rinsed each of us, usually in the order of our ages. One at a time, we ran across the bathroom floor from our mom to our dad, giggling all the while. Daddy dried us off and dressed us in our pajamas. The goal of all of this was to get us into bed before my dad left for his night shift at the railroad yard. I wondered when we realized that this scene would be repeated only a few more times…

My brother, my sisters and I each responded to the loss of our dad differently. Still, the pain of his absence remains a constant in our lives. This good man, husband and father impacted his family as no one else could have. When we’re touched with great happiness, we miss sharing the good news with him. When we find ourselves in turmoil, we long for the embrace of his caring arms. Sometimes, we simply want to share the mundane details of a boring day with him. Our dad is a very funny guy who would likely turn our monotonous moaning into an amusing anecdote, if only he could. Like my younger sister, I know that our dad loved each of us as best he could. Perhaps the greatest impact of his love for me is manifested in my relationships with my sons. Mike’s dad certainly did the same for him. From the time we knew they were on the way, we loved our sons. When each of them was born, Mike and I felt as though we’d known them forever. We spent every available minute with them. Though this sometimes required very efficient tweaking of our work schedules and adjusting or ignoring our social calendars, we gladly spent our time with our boys. After all, Mike is the only dad our sons will have and I am their only mom.

I cited the quote above from Ezekiel because God’s intent is precise in this message. God created something amazing in each one of us. Just as God took that tender shoot from a cedar tree and planted it in a place where it would flourish, God has planted you and me precisely where we are meant to be. Just as God provided the sun, rain and soil needed to nourish that tree, God does the same for you and me. All the while, God hopes that we will do the same for one another. If you question the value of your life, take it from this daughter that the eight years I shared with my dad meant everything to me. Every day that you have with those you have been given to love is equally valuable. With that, I wish the dads among us a very Happy Father’s Day! I wish the rest of us the grace we need to follow their leads and God’s by nurturing those we’ve been given to love as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Back To The Basics

God shall rescue the poor when they cry out,
and the afflicted when they have no one to help them.

Psalm 72:12

I enjoyed teaching in spite of those occasional days when both my students and I were not at our best. On such days, I learned not to become angry. Rather, I acknowledged all of our humanity and the troubles which sometimes accompany it. With that, the kids and I took deep breaths and moved on. Near the end of the school year, these days threatened to increase in frequency because all concerned where in dire need of summer break. It was then that I found a creative and productive way to lighten our collective mood.

It was late May when I challenged my second graders to list an alphabet’s worth of things which they hoped to do during the coming summer. Afterward, they wrote short paragraphs and drew illustrations for each entry. In the end, I stapled these into each child’s “My Summer Wishes” book. This effort provided ample subject matter which carried over into most of our lessons during those last days of school. It also netted a precious memento of each child’s hope for better things to come.

Not long afterward, I remembered this alphabetic effort. To ease myself through a trying time, I used one letter per day to designate one of God’s gifts to me. This little exercise changed my attitude and truly led me to a much better result than I expected. Tomorrow, I’m going to return to the basics. It will be the first of twenty-six days of reflections inspired by the ABCs.

Loving God, regardless of the troubles which beset us, from A to Z, you face them with us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Care for God’s Kids

This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
John 15:17

Though I’ve been retired for a while, I’m blessed with friends who continue to work very hard for our children. They include teachers and administrators and secretaries, crossing guards and parent volunteers who take their work with children to heart. One of these friends continues to work with a coalition I belonged to “way back when”. The truth is that I envy his opportunity to do something about an issue which continues to weigh heavily on me.

This group concerns itself with after-school activities and crime prevention. The statistics regarding high-crime time periods and those involved indicate that after-school hours when children and teens have the least supervision are the most concerning. Gang-awareness experts tell us that otherwise “good kids” who lack consistent support from family or other supportive relationships are easily recruited by gangs. In light of all of this, those involved continue to seek funding for after-school activities and in-school support and mentoring for the children who need them most.

Regardless of the many things which keep us busy, we adults are responsible for the children in our lives. Whether they are whining toddlers or sarcastic teens, they need our support and our love. Obviously, our own children come first as we are the only parents they have. Still, the nieces and nephews, neighbors, acquaintances and students who haven’t yet reached adulthood also need the encouragement we can offer. These small efforts can counteract the sadness or feelings of worthlessness which might otherwise lead these youngsters astray. It’s all about feeling loved and appreciated, you know?

Patient God, give us the generosity and the courage to share your love with the children whom you have placed in our care.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Planters

Act justly, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
From Micah 6:8

I’m a “smiler” by nature. When I pass by people at the mall or anywhere else, I almost always add a smile to the encounter. I even smile at the greenery and creatures I pass while walking outdoors. Neither drizzle nor a cloudy sky dampens my fascination with the beauty around me.

This is the reason I was taken aback by the students in the new school to which I was assigned some years ago. My office was located at one end of the building while the school office and the children I worked with were located at the other. Needless to say, I walked the halls numerous times per day. Every time, I passed dozens of students. What concerned me was the lack of smiles -or any acknowledgement for that matter- which I noted along the way. When I offered a “good morning” as I passed, the kids registered genuine surprise. It took many of them a week or two before they began to respond in kind. About a month into the school year, a colleague asked me why the students I passed in the hallway always greeted me. I told her that they were simply returning the favor.

You know, if we truly desire peace and justice for this world of ours, we need to plant the seeds of that peace and justice wherever we find ourselves. A few small seedlings here and there will grow into a flowerbed and then a garden and perhaps a forest one day. To get there, though, we must first plant the seeds.

Loving God, be with us as we work to bring peace and justice to others. Small as we are, we can plant seeds of greatness everywhere.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Teach God’s Little Ones Well…

The child grew and became strong in spirit…
Luke 1:80

My husband enjoys numerous friends on Facebook many of whom are former students of ours. He was a school principal in the school district where I taught. As a result, we often interacted with the same students in spite of our assignments in different buildings. Occasionally, one of these kids dared to ask me about the difference in Mike’s and my demeanor. They noted that I seemed far more cheerful than he most of the time. I always laughed while explaining that my role as a reading teacher was far less taxing than my husband’s role as principal of 500 or more students. Though the kids never quite understood at the time, their Facebook interactions with their former principal indicate that, now that they are parents, they understand completely.

Several years ago, I was fascinated by the title of a book written about all of the things we learn in kindergarten. The author asserted that he’d learned everything he needed to know for the rest of his life during that first year of his education. Though I’d like to think that my husband and I added to our students’ wisdom long after kindergarten, I do understand what this author was getting at. It seems to me that we need to be ever-mindful of the lessons we offer the children in our midst. The things learned at home, at school and everywhere else when we’re young have lifelong ramifications. As adults, it’s up to us to ensure that our example offers our best to all of the children who grace our lives.

Loving God, help us to teach the children among us as you would.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Weeds or Blossoms, We’re Loved!

As I wrote, tiny bits of hail tapped the windows. I wondered if they were intentionally distracting me or if it was I who needed to intentionally concentrate more fully on the task at hand. I’d been out in the misty weather earlier that morning before the hail made its way to my window and then onto the pavement where it danced wildly. Yes, I did get up from my desk to watch that performance. Because it wasn’t enough of a distraction, I walked downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. Afterward, I stopped at the patio door to peer out at the hail a while longer. As those tiny balls of ice melted into nothingness, I noticed a green sprout growing between two bricks in the patio. Before I could say a word, my husband observed, “You know that’s a dandelion, don’t you?” After looking more closely for myself, I responded. “Huh! The first sign of spring and it’s a dandelion. I hope this isn’t an omen of the things to come!” With that, I returned to this writing and today’s gospel (John 15:1-8) where Jesus compares himself to a vine. I looked upward and prayed, “I much prefer vines to weeds, Lord. Thank you!”

Decades ago, this preference for non-weeds caused me some trouble. I was in second grade and it was the first week of May. Our teacher, my classmates and I busied ourselves preparing an altar to honor Mary. Sister provided blue satin fabric for the background, flowers fashioned into a crown and a statue of the Mother of Jesus. To me, the altar would be complete when we added a vase of flowers. Another second grader had brought in a handful of weeds which he thought were spring flowers. Though I didn’t know much about such things, I knew that those particular sprouts weren’t flowers. They looked just like the pesky dandelion buds which plagued our backyard.

As I walked home after school that day, the scent of lilacs overwhelmed me. There were so many flowers growing on the hedge beside me that I was certain no one would mind if I “borrowed” a few. They would complete our May Altar perfectly. So it was that during the hour of daylight which remained after dinner, I set out to gather lilacs. There wasn’t a soul around which didn’t actually matter to me. I was on a mission. I headed to that hedge with my mother’s pinking sheers, the only scissors I could find, and a large paper bag. I immediately began my search for perfect lilacs. Some were too short-stemmed to stand in a vase. Others had buds that hadn’t yet opened. Still others had begun to brown. After several minutes of snipping, I stood in the dusk with a bag and a sidewalk full of lilacs. I had single-handedly cut every bloom that I could reach. In my earnest effort to replace my classmate’s budding weeds with flowers, I’d made a terrible mess and an even more terrible mistake.

My lack of appreciation for this misdeed disappeared quickly. All of the houses on our block rested just a few feet from the sidewalk except one. This house was set back so far that its rear entrance opened just steps from the alley. A huge overgrown front yard protected the house from neighborhood eyes. The unkempt trees, shrubs, wild grasses and weeds gave the place a ghostly aura. The bravest of our neighborhood teens refused to scale the fence which protected what we called The Big Yard even if this meant losing a prized softball. The Big Yard scared every one of us except in the springtime. This was when that eerie hedge which bordered the sidewalk transformed The Big Yard into Lilac Heaven. As I prepared to take my leave from that precious hedge, the sound of shuffling steps caused me to freeze in place. As The Big Yard’s gate creaked open, I drenched myself in tears. The shuffling resumed until a bent figure stopped before me. The tiniest and oldest woman I’d ever seen turned her eyes to the mounds of lilacs strewn across the walk. Without a word, she knelt in the blossoms and scooped them up close to herself as if in an attempt to revive them. When she realized I’d robbed each branch of its life, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. Her tears fell as profusely as my own. After what seemed an eternity, she turned to say, “Of all the things that grow in this yard, I love the lilacs most. My yard is nothing but weeds except for these flowers, you know. Waiting for them to bloom is what gets me through our terrible winters.”

In the end, my newly discovered neighbor forgave my thievery. She allowed me to think that the plaster statue which adorned my second grade classroom would benefit far more from the flowers than she. Somehow, I knew better. I should have appreciated my classmate’s weeds as Mary would have. I should have known that my neighbor appreciated her lilacs even more than I did. It is this childhood misadventure which inspires my appreciation for the Vine which sustains us all. Jesus remains in our company whether we present ourselves as flowers or weeds. Just as my neighbor’s lilacs eased her through a lifetime of tough winters, Jesus stays to sustain us through everything which threatens us along the way. All we’re asked in return is to sustain one another whether we’re blooming beautifully like those lilacs or being pesky like my backyard’s weeds.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved