Thanks for The Inspiration!

We have all been blessed with amazing people in our lives. Whether our acquaintances with them are short-term or last a lifetime, these individuals change us in unexpectedly remarkable ways. I gratefully acknowledge that I’ve been generously blessed in this regard. I honestly have no idea of who I would be if I hadn’t shared the path with the many exceptional souls who have graced my life. The guide who led us during our visits to the Holy Land is counted among them. Yossi claims to be a non-believer who is incapable of praying. Yet, during our time together, Yossi revealed the God of Israel through much of what he said and did…

I never expected to visit Israel’s holy places. That I’ve done so three times surprises me more than you can imagine. My first trip proved to be a homecoming of sorts. Yossi acknowledged early on that Israel is as much our homeland as it is his own. Yossi pointed out that our roots lie deep within Israel’s soil just as his do. Because I’d researched most of our destinations beforehand, I often allowed Yossi’s words to fade into the background while I absorbed the sites before me. I call this encounter a homecoming because I felt that I’d been to Nazareth and Magdala, Capernaum and Jerusalem a hundred times before. I’d visited these places and many others through my parents’ accounts of Jesus’ life, the scriptures, catechism classes, theology courses, several great homilies and good books. Over the years, I’ve developed enduring relationships with Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Martha, Mary and Lazarus to name few. For most of my life, I’d pictured each of them interacting with Jesus. These images came to life with Yossi’s every word regarding Jesus and the God to whom Jesus led the people.

My husband and I returned to Israel a second time to assist with the tour. This time, we helped to keep the group together while Yossi shared his wisdom regarding the sites and the God who seemed with us at every turn. This time, I found myself anticipating Yossi’s commentaries as I’d recalled each one with surprising accuracy. This time, Yossi spoke with greater urgency when he asked us to pray for peace in his country. “I cannot pray,” he reminded us, “so you must do this for me.” This time, I told Yossi often that he talked to God far more eloquently than most people I know. Every time, Yossi smiled shyly before resuming his narrative.

In January, Mike and I traveled to the Holy Land once again. This was an emotional endeavor in many ways. This would likely be our last encounter with Yossi on Israel’s soil. It would be our last opportunity to sail the Sea of Galilee and gaze upon the shoreline Jesus frequented. In Magdala, my tears welled up as the clouds rained upon the synagogue’s ruins. It was there or nearby that Jesus and Mary Magdalene forged the friendship which took them to Calvary. During this trip, I couldn’t help hanging on to Yossi’s every word. Yossi’s descriptions of Jesus’ work, the politics of Jesus’ time and the ruthlessness of the Pharisees tore at my heart. Jesus’ people suffered greatly under Roman rule. Jesus’ people also suffered greatly under the temple hierarchy who used their positions to secure their power and their own comfort at the people’s expense. Yossi shook his head as he acknowledged that much hasn’t changed since Jesus walked among us. “We need Jesus’ God to bring about peace,” Yossi insisted.

I share all of this because you and I are challenged to make the changes Jesus set in motion so long ago and which Yossi hungers for today. Our call begins with Sirach’s (15:15-20) encouragement to trust God. When we trust God, we will work to improve this world because we realize that the outcome which awaits us is worth the effort. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), Paul encouraged his followers to rely upon God’s wisdom rather than that of the world. Paul insisted that when we think as God thinks, we’re equipped to transform this world into God’s image of what it should be. Matthew’s gospel (5:17-37) tells us that Jesus called his disciples to do just that. Jesus listed the commandments one by one and then reinterpreted their meaning. It was not enough not to kill, not to commit adultery and not to lie. The Pharisees did as much. Jesus asked his followers to focus less upon the letter of The Law and more upon the spirit in which The Law was given. Once the disciples embraced the loving God to whom The Law guided them, Jesus knew they would indeed change their world.

It seems to me that Yossi has taken Jesus’ challenge to heart. He never missed an opportunity to remind us to pray and then to work toward peace in his country and here at home. Yes, I have been blessed with many amazing people in my life. I count Yossi among them because he echoes Jesus’ message and the essence of God’s love for us in both his words and his actions. More importantly, Yossi inspires me to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Be Attentive To God’s Voice

It’s been two weeks since village employees picked up our discarded Christmas Tree and delivered it to The Land of Mulch. The good news is that this relocation will allow that tree to be transformed and to continue to be of very good use. Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to transform some of our no-longer-needed possessions into useful commodities as well. In the process, I’ve filled one box for the St. Vincent De Paul Store and I’ve started to fill another. Those extra dishes, cookware and flatware were easy to part with. I happily packed up the clothing I no longer need as well. It’s my book collection which encourages me to hold on with all of my might!

If a book has remained in my possession after a single reading, it’s something special. If a book remains after a second reading, it is counted among my lifelong friends. I have a set of mystery novels whose plots unfold in familiar Chicago neighborhoods. I met their author a few times at various book signings and when he visited a nearby parish. Because I share his perspective regarding God’s love for us, those encounters merited my effort. Yes, I’m keeping this collection. My Christmas-themed books and the story behind my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, are all keepers as well. I know I’ve mentioned my books regarding near-death experiences and the afterlife in previous reflections. Of course, they will remain on my bookshelf. Though my faith tells me what I need to know in this regard, those who have ventured into the hereafter and then returned to tell us what they encountered there never cease to amaze me. Who and what they encountered there provide additional evidence that God is indeed our most loving caretaker. I’ve also kept a few past copies of a daily devotional which I’ve read for almost thirty years. Several authors contribute to these annuals and I like to see how their thinking evolves over time. I also have copies of my own Advent and Lent devotionals. After all, I have to check up on my own evolving thoughts as well. Sometimes, I surprise myself!

I celebrate these written treasures today because each one brings good news into my life. Sometimes, the words these writers have strung together open me up to ideas I’ve never considered. Sometimes, their words give me reason to revisit the truths lying deep within me. Sometimes, they simply underscore the things I already know. Whatever the case, I find inspiration, grace and love in their work. On this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, the scriptures invite us to celebrate the good news to be found in the written word on an even greater scale.

In the first reading (Nehemiah 8:2-6; 8-10), Nehemiah announces to Israel that the long-awaited end to the Babylonian exile has finally come. The people gather before their priest Ezra as he reads from the Book of The Law. This encounter with the written word is particularly moving to those present as they prepare themselves to live outside of the bonds of slavery. Finally, they reside on their own soil and enjoy the freedom to worship as they choose to. The words Ezra reads provide sustenance to their once starving souls. Paul shares good news as well through his prolific writing. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12-30), Paul reminds the people that they haven’t been estranged from God’s word by an external enemy. Rather, the Corinthians have estranged themselves from one another through their jealousy regarding one another’s gifts. With carefully crafted words, Paul reminds his followers that each one of them is cherished by God, uniquely gifted by God, and called by God to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as only they can. Luke’s gospel (1:1-4; 4:14-21) underscores the power of the written word as well. Luke shares that Jesus revealed his mission through a deeply moving passage which he read from the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus used the prophet’s writing to assure the people that it is he who has come to bring comfort to all, even the most lowly among them. Though the people to whom Ezra, Paul and Jesus addressed had experienced seemingly insurmountable difficulties, they drew near to these three to find the nourishment God provided through the written word.

I contemplate the written word at every opportunity because it is one of the special places where God’s voice whispers to me. Today, as we celebrate the gift of God’s voice in scripture, we open ourselves to God’s inspiration, grace and love wherever we encounter them. You know, God speaks to us in many beautiful and unexpected ways. If your soul is hungry for a bit of peace or consolation, a taste of joy or comfort, open yourself up to God’s presence. Whether you turn to scripture writers or the written words of the many other wonderful people who reveal God through their insights and experiences, you will find what you need. Indeed, God uses all of creation, including my shelf full of books and us imperfect humans, to nurture us and to love us as only God can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Write Your Gospel!

One of my former students passed away. James was a third grader and I was in the midst of the second year of my teaching career. I’d thought I worked out the wrinkles in my classroom management with my first classroom full of students. However, James’s mischief frequently challenged me to adjust and to improve my approach further. When all was said and done, we ended that school year as friends. James had a good heart and I think he believed that I did, too. When I attended James’s funeral, I learned that I wasn’t the only one to benefit from my association with him. The church was filled with family and friends who are who they are partially as a result of James’s presence in their lives. When he spoke, James’s pastor acknowledged James’s humanity. He recounted the good James had accomplished in spite of it and because of it. When those present responded with a heartfelt “amen” I couldn’t help joining in. James had touched me in unexpected ways as well. I’d become a much better teacher because this young man had forced me to do so.

I don’t think it’s ever easy to speak at such gatherings. Still, James’s pastor seemed comfortable in this role. He knew James and the family he’d left behind. Because James had lived only five decades, his pastor also knew that this was a tough turn of events for all concerned. So it was that he focused upon his respect for this relatively young man. James had made many choices throughout his life and each one impacted his own loved ones and many others. Those choices left many on his path feeling loved and cared for. Those choices empowered others to do more and to become better in ways they never thought possible. The pastor went on to point out that we’re all given amazing opportunities as we live out our lives on this earth. Each one of us writes our story and adds to the stories of others by the way we choose to live. The pastor ended his remarks by suggesting that this is precisely what Jesus did.
 
During the visitation before the funeral that day, I’d spoken with some of James’s family members and friends. Each one shared a bit of his or her grief and a fond memory or two. While I waited for the service to begin, I studied James’s photograph and his obituary printed in the funeral booklet. He’d added several chapters to his story since I’d last seen him. As I walked to my car afterward, I offered a prayer for James and for those who mourned him. I also considered his pastor’s invitation to use our own stories for the good of those around us.

When I sat at my keyboard to prepare this reflection, I realized that the pastor who had spoken so eloquently at James’s funeral echoed something which I’d heard before. A few years ago, the priest who celebrated a friend’s mom’s funeral spoke about her life story as well. In his homily, he called this woman’s story her gospel. He, too, pointed out that God calls us every day. He, too, said that every situation, every encounter and every moment offers us an invitation to respond. How we do so is up to us. As James’s pastor said, none of this is new. Still, when that priest suggested that we look upon our lifetime of responses as our gospels, he truly upped the ante. The gospel writers painstakingly poured over every word they wrote to teach us the things they’d learned from Jesus. St. Paul proved even more prolific in his attempts to do the same. When this priest promoted our life stories to gospels, he challenged us to think in loftier terms. Writing a story is easy enough. Writing a gospel with my actions and attitudes is something else altogether!

The scripture readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time underscore the urgency of getting to work on our gospels. The first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) tells us that God asked Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to urge its inhabitants to change their lives for the better. This reading doesn’t include Jonah’s initial response which was to run away. Fortunately, Jonah discovered that it was impossible to avoid God forever. He finally preached to the people of Nineveh. They heeded Jonah’s gospel and changed their ways. The second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) tells us that Paul offered no consolation to the reluctant. Paul declared in word and deed that life as his contemporaries knew it was changing and the time to adjust was running out. Paul’s audience listened as well. Finally, Mark’s gospel (1:14-20) tells us that Jesus also insisted, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” The gospels which Jonah, Paul and Jesus wrote with their lives agreed that there is no time like the present to take God’s call to heart. It occurs to me that I agree as well. If the occasions when I struggle to fill a page with my words are any indication, I mustn’t waste a minute. I have several chapters to add to my story –I mean my gospel– and so do you. Today’s message seems to be that we all have important gospels to write for one another and we need to begin living them now.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Repair The World

A few months ago, I heard about a very busy professional who truly took her faith to heart. Full as her schedule has always been, this woman committed herself early on to making a serious difference in the world. Though her occupation immersed her in public service, she felt impelled to do more than what was required of her in her workplace. I eventually learned that this woman was of the Jewish Faith and that the concept ofTikkun Olam (Tee KOON oh LUHM) inspired her to repair the world around her as best she could. Since I have a propensity to try to fix things, I decided I had much to learn from this wise person.

I was already familiar with the Jewish concept of mitzvah. Over the past few years, two young neighbors prepared in earnest for their Bat Mitzvahs. They studied the Torah carefully in order to read those sacred words with understanding and without error on their special days. They also refined their understanding of their faith and put it into action by doing good deeds for others. These mitzvahs were visible signs of the progress they’d made as they aspired to become devout Jewish women. Today, the girls’ younger brother is engaged in the same rigors as he prepares for his Bar Mitzvah. The woman I’d heard about continues the work she began at her own Bat Mitzvah through her current efforts.

Tikkun Olam is new to me. These words are Hebrew for “repair the world”. Though scholars of the Jewish faith can certainly explain the history of this term far better than I, for this writing I’m relying on the current understanding of many devout Jews. They view Tikkun Olam as a challenge. This concept inspires them to do as much as possible to repair the world in meaningful and lasting ways. In the process, these good people hope to make this world all that God intended it to be. While each of them engages in good deeds, they do so strategically to ensure that their efforts have lasting impacts. Busy as the woman I read about is, she takes her faith to the next level. She allows her faith to give purpose to everything she does. Her efforts make a world of difference to many.

I share all of this with you because you and I are also challenged to repair the world. Our call begins with encouragement in a passage from Sirach (Sirach 15:15-20). The writer insists that if we trust God we will live. If we truly believe this, we work to improve this world because the outcome which awaits us all is worth our effort. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), Paul encourages his followers to do as he has done by relying upon God’s wisdom rather than the wisdom of the world. When we think as God thinks, we cannot help transforming this world into God’s image of what it should be.

When I read this passage from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 5:17-37), I couldn’t help laughing. I wondered if Jesus was driven by the same concept which spurred on the woman I’d heard about. Was Jesus referencing Tikkun Olam? Just as this woman continues to do more than what is expected, Jesus called his disciples to do the same. Jesus listed the commandments one by one. Though the crowd before him had heard these precepts countless times before, Jesus reinterpreted their meaning. Jesus explained that it was no longer enough not to kill, not to commit adultery and not to lie. The scribes and Pharisees did as much. Jesus asked his followers to focus less upon the letter of The Law and more upon the spirit in which The Law was given. Once the disciples breathed in the meaning of these precepts, Jesus knew they would be impelled to do even more. Today, Jesus asks us to absorb the spirit of his teaching as well. Like that wonderful Jewish woman who is repairing the world as best she can, Jesus invites you and me to do the same.

We need only to stream the daily news, pick up a newspaper or click on our televisions or radios to assess our world’s need for repair. Sometimes, we can look in our own backyards to find the same. It seems to me that the ancient Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam had a very necessary place in Jesus’ world and it has a very necessary place in our world today. It’s up to you and me to repair the world one good deed at a time.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Enough Bologna For Us All

My husband and I stole away for a few days to “chill.” I can’t help laughing as I type because this is precisely what we did. We left frigid Gurnee temperatures to enter the deeper-freeze up north. A quick stop for lunch on the way prompted us to question the wisdom if this trip. Still, we pressed on to that little cabin in the woods which promised a bit of relief from the world’s troubles. A serious bout with melancholy took root when I said good-bye to Christmas 2015 and welcomed New Year. The 2016 Calendar before me promised little regarding peace on this earth. In spite of the cold, I needed this time away to revive my spirit before I completely gave in to my discouragement.

When we arrived at the cabin, the cold forced us to empty the car in record time. Though we often raise the thermostat and then head out for an hour or two, staying put under a warm afghan seemed the wiser choice that day. Mike perused the local television offerings from the couch while I nuzzled into the recliner. I continued to brood about the human condition, wondering if my usually optimistic outlook was nothing more than a bunch of bologna. Since nothing on television interested me, I decided to revisit the stack of books on the coffee table. I didn’t get past the little red book on top because it’s title offered an appropriate antidote for my mood: CHRISTMAS MIRACLES. “Huh!” I prayed. “Lord, I’d like a yearlong miracle!”

After a few paragraphs, I remembered that this book is a collection of true stories. The narrative I chose to reread had appealed to me the first time around because I share experiences with the main character. This little girl often visited her grandmother for extended stays. Though the woman employed servants, she prided herself in caring for her granddaughter herself. This care included preparing lunch. Because Grandmother knew that children love bologna, she served the little girl a bologna sandwich every single day. In truth, the girl didn’t like bologna at all. Still, she ate each and every bite to please her grandmother. I’ve never liked bologna, so I understand this little girl’s sacrifice. A few years later, Grandmother passed away. Again, I understood because I lost three of my grandparents and my dad by this age. Life afterward was difficult for my counterpart and for me. By the time this child entered college, she was on her own and destitute. She had no money for food, much less the coming semester’s tuition. One day, as she stared into her bare refrigerator, the girl decided to write a bad check to the grocer in order to purchase food. Though she placed only a few items into her basket, the girl abandoned the idea and ran from the store. She couldn’t steal. She returned to her apartment and headed for the near-empty carton of milk which was the sole occupant of her refrigerator. When she opened the door, she found the milk and a large package of bologna. Though she had no idea of where that gift of bologna had come from, it sustained her just long enough.

On this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we celebrate. Today might better be titled “Good News Sunday” because the readings from Nehemiah (8:2-6; 8-10), 1 Corinthians (12:12-30) and Luke (1:1-4; 4:14-21) remind us that we are all cherished and blessed by God. When Nehemiah announced the end of the Babylonian exile, the people gathered before their priest Ezra as he read from The Law. That day, they renewed their covenant with God which began with Moses on Mount Sinai. Ezra invited the people to feast on that holy day because they were gathered back into God’s embrace. Paul shared good news as well in his letter to the Corinthians. Though not estranged by an external enemy, the Corinthians had divided themselves with jealousy. Paul reminded them that they were all gifted and cherished by God. Each of them was necessary to complete their community. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus assured the people that he came to bring comfort as well, even to the most lowly. In each of these scenarios, God’s people had suffered seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Still, they turned to God because the only hope worth embracing is the hope God offers. For them, the Good News came in God’s merciful love and acceptance of each one.

It matters little whether the bologna in CHRISTMAS MIRACLES* came in the unseen kindness of a concerned neighbor or in a grandmother’s loving reach from beyond. The result was miraculous in either case. The girl found the means to finish school and she went on to enjoy a wonderful life. As I contemplate my concern regarding the future of this world and its people, it occurs to me that miracles aren’t reserved for the scriptures or the characters in heartwarming stories. Gifts of “bologna” appear in all of our circumstances. They sustain us just long enough to deal with the troubles at hand and then to get on with our own wonderful lives.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Jamie C. Miller, Laura Lewis and Jennifer Basye, CHRISTMAS MIRACLES (William Morrow & Company, Inc., NY, NY 10019, 1997); available at Amazon.com