Called To Be Shepherds

I truly enjoy the scripture passages we share throughout the Easter Season. They celebrate Jesus’ life among us by echoing his most important lessons. While Jesus’ message regarding God’s love for us is best taught by his example, his parables and discourses run a very close second in illustrating God’s affection for you and me. This is especially true this Mother’s Day. Today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:27-30) is a mere sixty-two words in length. It’s among the shortest gospels we read throughout the church year. Still, in spite of its brevity, these few lines offer a powerful account of God’s love for us. This passage portrays Jesus in his preferred role, that of a shepherd. The shepherd-mom in me understands completely. When Jesus said, “I know you,” he confirmed that his love reaches to our very cores and that nothing will ever change this. His followers understood completely as well. Just as I understand the relationship between mother and child, they knew the significance of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep.

Still, some of Jesus’ contemporaries resented shepherds. These hired hands had little education and even less money than their needy neighbors. The temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their work made it impossible for them to fulfill The Law’s demands. Shepherds often failed to keep the Sabbath and to eat within the dietary constraints of their faith because they remained with their sheep most of the time. At the same time, wealthy sheep owners found dedicated shepherds to be indispensable. In spite of their meager wages, shepherds dutifully and lovingly guarded the sheep in their care day in and day out. The sheep knew their keepers’ voices. There was never any confusion when it came time to be led in or out of the pasture. Sheep spent their days in the peace that came with their shepherd’s diligent protection. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, their shepherds persisted in protecting them. Sheep in the company of a good shepherd lived their entire lifetimes contentedly and completely unaware of the danger which lurked beyond their pasture.

I find this Mother’s Day reading of John’s gospel to be well-timed. It encourages us to acknowledge the relationship between Jesus’ work of caring for us and our own work of caring for one another. What a comfort it is to be nurtured with selfless love! As for me, I find great consolation in God’s presence. Jesus’ words and works have convinced me that God walks with me everywhere regardless of the danger which lies ahead. Being cared for so completely has empowered me to try to do the same for those I meet along the way. The same is true for us all. Whenever we recognize that we’re cared for, we can’t help moving beyond our roles as sheep to the challenge of shepherding one another. We can’t resist sharing what we’ve been given. Fortunately for you and me, we needn’t look far to see how Twenty-first Century shepherds care for those they’ve been given to love. Role models of every sort surround us.

For most of us, these lessons begin with our mothers. From the moment we make our homes in their wombs, we change our mothers’ lives forever. In spite of the physical symptoms of pregnancy, these courageous women reorganize their homes and their lives to make places for us. Their persistent fatigue is no match for the persistence of their love. They love us and nurture us for as long as it is necessary and for a long time thereafter. God’s incapacity to forget us is mirrored splendidly in the shepherd-mothers among us. And what of our shepherd-dads who stand with our moms to offer us their love? We’re also blessed with shepherd-friends who consistently respond with just what we need. Consider the friend whom we see far too infrequently, yet who always picks up the conversation as though it began just minutes earlier. Whether it’s a bad hair day or a bad weight phase makes no difference because our friends love us. They attend to the needs of our hearts. Shepherd-coworkers support us in kind. When the tedium or the insanity of our jobs threaten to drive us to the unemployment line, these even-tempered and dedicated colleagues urge us on. Their smiles in the midst of trauma, their steady hands upon our drooped shoulders and their willingness to try just one more thing before giving up make all of the difference to us. Their company on the road to Friday makes our work week tolerable and even enjoyable. We accomplish much more than we might have because they are with us. Yes, this life offers endless opportunities for us to share our shepherding skills.

Shepherd-spouses, shepherd-children, shepherd-siblings and shepherd-significant others, shepherd-neighbors, shepherd-priests, shepherd-deacons and shepherd-friends bless us. Shepherd-coworkers and shepherd-grandparents, shepherd-moms, shepherd-dads and shepherd-volunteers nurture us. With them, we muddle through the unhappiness of life and we bask in life’s joy. Again and again, we find ourselves hoisted upon the shoulders of the our Shepherd-God who is present in the good shepherds around us. Afterward, we climb down, fortified with peace and a joy which simply must be shared. We straighten our own shoulders and stand tall, ready to shepherd when we’re called. Today, let’s echo God’s message to us all: I love you! Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Shepherding!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Freedom to Worship

Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and follow after it.

Psalm 34:15

I recently overheard a young man mumbling about church. Apparently, his experience included far too many references to hell and damnation and far too few regarding community and caring and love. Because I know him reasonably well, I decided to pursue a conversation. Because he knows me reasonably well, he eventually worked up the courage to ask me why I still go to church.

After what evolved into a very productive and pleasant exchange, we went our separate ways. With us, we carried our understanding and respect for one another. In the end, we had agreed that all of us are free to relate to our loving Creator as best we can in our own ways. Some will be guided by a community of believers; some will be guided by other experiences; we’ll all be guided by our hearts.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a more-than-tolerant family within a diverse community. In the process, I met many good people who happened to look or to behave or to believe differently than I did. Still, they were very good people. The more my world expanded, the more these differences increased. Still, I encountered very good people who looked or behaved or believed differently than I did. It seems to me that God is pleased with all of our efforts when they cause us to turn from evil, to do good, to seek peace and to love one another.

Patient God, thank you for making each of us unique and for giving us all the freedom to live and to love you accordingly.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Making Things Right Again and Again…

I find it very difficult to be at odds with just about anyone. The truth is that I’m happiest when the people around me not only get along, but also enjoy one another. This propensity to be at peace with my fellow humans is likely a remnant from lessons offered by my parents, extended family and teachers far too long ago. In spite of the passage of time, their insistence that I love everyone remains etched in my memory. My parents taught me through their words and their example. They were sweetly affectionate toward one another and each let us know in his and her own way that we were loved as well. They also made it clear that we were to love one another accordingly. As a result, my sisters, brother and I were expected not to fight. When we did, our mom brought the error of our ways to our immediate attention. She reminded whichever of us were the culprits that we needed to have “charity” in our hearts. Eventually, I accepted that there was something to this “getting along” business. Ever since, I’ve tried to live accordingly. At times, I’ve experienced great success. At times, I’ve failed miserably. My successful attempts resulted in the relationships I’ve enjoyed throughout the years. My failures resulted in lost intimacy, lost trust, lost understanding, lost companionship, lost friendship, lost… You get the idea.

Though I’ve stored these losses in the recesses of my memory, the most minimal prompts return them to the forefront of my psyche. In an instant, the pain is back in full force. I find myself reviewing my mistakes. Over and over again, I ask myself what else I would have, could have or should have done to make things end differently. Sometimes, I truthfully answer that I did my best. I found it necessary to shake the dust from my sandals and to move on because I could do no more. Jesus himself offered this alternative when nothing else was possible. Sometimes, I shamefully answer that I was too fearful, too proud, too stubborn or too shallow to see the alternatives, much less to respond accordingly. On these occasions, the guilt sets in and I ask myself once again how I can make things right. My failures in this regard make today’s gospel (John 21:1-19) a most welcome reminder of Jesus’ position regarding such quandaries.

John tells us that the disciples had set out to fish for the day. Perhaps this was their attempt to regroup and to come to some understanding regarding all that had happened to Jesus before and after his death. Perhaps they hoped that this excursion into familiar waters would clear their heads. Perhaps they hoped to revisit the time when life was simpler and a torn net was their greatest worry. So it was that the disciples embraced their former trade. They were fishers-of-people turned fishers-of-fish once again. As it happened, after hours at sea, their nets remained empty. Their hearts remained empty of the peace they sought as well. The good news is that this wasn’t the case for long. In the midst of their disappointment, a voice called from the shore. The man who spoke invited the disciples to throw their nets to the other side of the boat. This familiar suggestion revealed immediately that the man on the shore was no stranger. Do you remember? Jesus told his friends to do the same thing on a less-than-productive day when he first met them. Unable to contain himself, Peter dove into the water and swam to Jesus. The others made their way in the boat with their net full of fish. When they arrived, they found that Jesus had prepared a small fire so they could share a meal with him. During this third appearance after his death, Jesus offered each of the disciples the bread and fish he had ready for them. Through this shared meal, Jesus assured his friends that they were one family again. Jesus also invited each one to get on with God’s work by serving others just as he had served them.

Though all had gone quite well during this happy reunion between Jesus and his friends, a bit of unfinished business remained between Jesus and Peter. If my own experience has taught me anything, it assures me that guilt is a pesky reminder of our misdeeds and that Peter hadn’t quite gotten over his guilt regarding his denial of Jesus. Perceptive and loving friend that he was, Jesus didn’t allow Peter to carry this burden with him. Rather, he gave Peter the opportunity to make things right again. Jesus asked The Rock in whom he’d placed so much faith, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter embraced the opportunity when he responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Still, Jesus repeated, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter responded again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Finally, Jesus asked a third time, “Do you love me?” Poor Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter’s heart had filled with remorse the moment he realized that he’d denied Jesus three times. So it was that Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to express his love three times. To seal their friendship, Jesus charged Peter with his greatest work: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.” Jesus’ unconditional love allowed Peter to put his failures behind him and to get on with simply doing the best he could. How grateful I am to acknowledge that his same love allows you and me to do the same!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Respond Lovingly

Light shines through the darkness for the upright;
God is gracious and merciful and just.

Psalm 112:4

A few days before Easter, I was completely overwhelmed. I’d thought I was managing my to-do list. However, several times when I’d finished a project, details were changed. So it was that I had to revisit that list and re-do what I’d done. The day before Easter, my spirit needed a lift. Normally, my husband heads out that morning to join the truly pleasant and dedicated crew who decorate church for our Easter liturgies. That day, I joined them as well because I knew that their company was just what I needed. As we worked through the morning, we chatted and laughed and admired one another’s contributions. Those wonderful people have no idea of all that they did for me simply by allowing me to work alongside them.

It seems to me that this is what being good is all about: Doing our best to respond lovingly to those we meet along the way. Many times, our smiles will be enough. Occasionally, time spent just listening will do the trick. Sometimes, we will need to give of our talents or our treasure to make things right for a suffering soul. Whatever the case, it seems to me that our honest responses to the moments at hand serve us well. It seems to me that those internal urges that nudge us toward our good deeds are strategically placed by our very wise Creator.

Creator God, you fashioned us with a natural desire to do good. Clear our vision and increase our sensitivity so we never miss an invitation from you to do something for another.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserve

Healing… Always A Possibility!

“Those who are healthy do not need a physician,
but the sick do.”

Luke 5:31

The other day, my husband returned home as our most recent snowfall ended. He had a quick lunch and then headed outdoors. He’d had a rough time the day before as he’d presided at the funeral of a good man whose death came unexpectedly. In an effort to be helpful and perhaps ease his pain a bit, I pulled on my coat and boots and followed him. Mike started the snowblower while I grabbed my trusty shovel. Though the snowblower’s roar prevented any conversation between us, we were together. When the job was finished, Mike was feeling much better and so was I. Healing came as unexpectedly as the loss of our friend had.

You know, the same can occur wherever we find ourselves with another of God’s kids. We have partners, family and friends, neighbors, work colleagues and classmates at school. We belong to faith communities, social clubs, service organizations and sports teams. We also enjoy our friendships with God: Just God and you; just God and me. It seems to me that it is our relationships with God which fuel our efforts to bring healing to those we’ve been given to love.

It’s reasonably easy to bring healing to my husband. After decades together, I can read him and respond accordingly. This isn’t necessarily the case with others. Still, we can pull on our coats and grab our shovels to help a fellow soul to clear the path ahead. After all, healing may be unexpected, but it’s always a possibility!

Dear God, help us to be generous with our love and to share that love with those who need it most.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

There’s Room for Everyone!

“For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah 56:7

I attended a meeting a few weeks ago where we attempted to finalize our parish’s Christmas preparations. In the process, we chuckled over our futile attempts each year to provide seating for everyone who will come to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Though such discussions sometimes include comments regarding the Christmas and Easter “Birds” whose only appearances for worship occur on these two holy days, this wasn’t the case. Rather, our head usher and others came up with more ingenious ways to squeeze in as many chairs as possible. Each one intends to make all of God’s children welcome as best he or she can.

All concerned work extremely hard to prepare our beautifully adorned church, amazing music and engaging liturgy. Everyone from our youngest parish children to our devoted seniors is involved. Our hope is that we’ll assist all of those who join us in feeling welcomed as they gather to pray together. After all, it’s Christmas!

Loving God, you open your house to all who come to your door. While some of us feel free to knock often, there are others who shy away. Please reveal yourself in our efforts as we prepare for Christmas so that all of your children realize that they are welcome to your home any time and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved