The Leper Within

Our return trip to Israel stirred memories of our first adventure there. As was the case last time, it rained a bit for a few days. Still, I appreciated the weather. The fifty and sixty-degree temperatures provided welcomed relief from the cold we’d left behind in Gurnee. Our guide Yossi shared our gratitude for the weather. However, it was the rainfall which pleased him. Israel currently suffers with a drought and Yossi viewed every raindrop as a precious commodity. While driving between sites, I marveled once again at the stark contrasts in Israel’s geography. Because Yossi’s commentary was familiar this time around, I concentrated more fully on the view beyond my window. A short bus trip often carried us through both rocky stretches of desert and lush greenery. While the bulk of Israel’s population fills its flourishing cities, a persistent remnant of its citizenry abides in the desert. Those who make their homes in these arid conditions are particularly attentive to any decrease in rainfall. Their struggles multiply when this occurs. So it was that this rainfall was a much appreciated blessing.

Community takes on great importance for desert-dwellers. Their survival depends upon their supportive interactions with one another. One of our fellow tourists is a seasoned traveler who has learned a great deal along the way. She was familiar with a sort of “desert code of hospitality” which compels those who dwell there to welcome travelers. Offering shelter to one who happens by is simply the humane thing to do. Yossi pointed out that though some who inhabit these tiny hamlets voiced displeasure with government supported settlements which abutted their property, they eventually welcomed these newcomers as well. Their new neighbors’ efforts have provided improved irrigation, fresh crops and work opportunities for them. In spite of the difficult conditions, these cooperative efforts have transformed vast lifeless parcels into productive green oases. I smiled each time I passed one of these Bedouin settlements. “What amazing things God’s people can do,” I thought, “when we work together,”

Today’s scripture passages drew my thoughts back to those unlikely desert communities. Both today and in ancient times, relationships with ones neighbors made the difference between survival and extinction. This is the reason a leper’s plight was so completely devastating. Leprosy was one of the most dreaded afflictions encountered by our Old Testament counterparts. Today’s passage from Leviticus (13:1-2, 44-46) tells us that isolation was the indisputable remedy for the disease. Though being plucked away from ones life and loved ones did nothing for the leper, isolating him or her from others protected the community from the same fate. The people felt no sympathy for lepers because they considered sin to be the cause of their disease. They believed that those afflicted were simply living out the consequences of evildoing on the parts of their parents or themselves. Centuries later, Jesus’ contemporaries treated lepers with equal contempt. In today’s gospel (Mark 1:40-45), Mark tells us of a leper who ignored the law’s mandates to remain isolated and who boldly approached Jesus. This man had lost everything and he had nothing more to lose. Jesus welcomed the poor man in spite of the sores which betrayed his disease. Then, somehow through his ravaged skin, this leper felt the warmth of Jesus’ love. Somehow, in spite of the hatred and disdain in the eyes of his neighbors, this man saw acceptance in Jesus’ eyes. Somehow, this leper found the courage to kneel before his Lord. Moved with compassion for this suffering soul, Jesus cured him with a single touch.

I think each of us can recall moments when we’ve felt the misery of the lepers chronicled by Leviticus and Mark. Painful circumstances chip away at our spirits. They wound us both psychologically and physically. Sometimes, they isolate us from those whom we need most. Fortunately for us all, Jesus recognizes our pain. Jesus separates the appearances of things from the reality of our suffering and Jesus heals us. Though our recoveries may not be as visually dramatic as that of the leper, we do recover.

The desert communities I observed in Israel will continue to flourish because of their unlikely liaisons. Those involved have set aside their religious, political and cultural differences in order to dwell with one another on common ground. Today and every day, you and I are invited to do the same. Though each of us has a bit of that loathsome leper within us, we also carry a bit of Jesus everywhere we go. Like the leper who couldn’t keep his healing a secret, we share our good news with those whom we meet along the way. Through one act of kindness after another, we bring life to the deserts of suffering which afflict us all.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Lovingly Grateful

One of them, realizing that he had been cured,
came back praising God in a loud voice.

Luke 17:15

Since the dawn of my teens, I’ve saved mementos of every sort. This began with my report cards and the little holy cards or medals the sisters offered in recognition of a job well done. Later, I added letters, notes and greeting cards to this collection. Occasionally, I look through these treasures in search of the smile and fullness of heart I know they’ll elicit. Each item has spoken love to me since the day I received it and I’m grateful beyond words. Still, I know that I mustn’t ever be grateful beyond two extremely powerful words: Thank you!

The tale of the lepers who begged Jesus to heal them underscores my appreciation for gratitude. Because Jesus felt their pain, he did as they asked. Jesus sent them off to show themselves to the priests of the temple in order to be declared clean. When he realized his cure, one leper raced back to express his gratitude. I have no doubt that this grateful leper treasured this encounter for the rest of his life.

We are extremely fortunate to have the capacity to love and to be grateful for that love. It’s humbling to realize the impact our love has upon others. It’s even more humbling to realize that our love likely empowers others to offer the same to someone else.

Loving God, thank you for empowering us to enrich this life with our love and gratitude toward one another.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

K… Kindness, Unexpected, Life-Giving Kindness

Because he had cured many, all who had
afflictions kept pushing toward him to touch him.

Mark 3:10

K is for Kindness. Unexpected kindness is the most effective variety of this virtue. When I’m not at my best, an unexpected bit of TLC brightens the moment for all concerned. I became a recipient of random kindnesses early on in my life. When I woke my mom in the middle of the night with a childhood woe, she responded with patience and love. She returned me to my room and tucked me into my bed with a second good-night kiss. Thoughtful teachers responded to my rare transgressions with understanding rather than anger. Their mercy encouraged me to be my best. When life became more complicated through my teens and into adulthood, I responded far more positively to a kind word than to a less-than-civil reprimand. The good news in all of this is that I took these lessons in kindness to heart. When I became a teacher and a parent, I found that my students and my own children responded best when kindness set the tone of our interactions.

You know, it’s easy to extend kindness to the people we love and to those who offer the same courtesy to us. Unfortunately, those whose names aren’t on our “A List” likely need our kindness most. We need only to look Jesus’ way to find examples of kindness offered indiscriminately. Each one changed a life and this world forever.

Gracious God, thank you for giving us the capacity to be kind. Inspire us to do so, especially when it is most difficult and most needed.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love First

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat and walk.”
Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked.

John 5:8-9

The scriptures make it quite clear that Jesus couldn’t resist a troubled soul. On the occasion cited above, Jesus assisted a man confined to a mat on the ground. Though the man somehow found his way to the healing waters of Bethesda, he could find no one to help him into the pool. Every time he seemed close, someone else went in before him. Jesus noted the poor man’s predicament and offered him far more than could be found in the pool. The man accepted Jesus’ gesture with absolute faith.

Jesus’ good deed drew the attention of the Pharisees because it occurred on the Sabbath. When Jesus cured the man and then instructed him to pick up his mat and walk, he violated the Sabbath by causing the man to carry his mat. When the Pharisees saw the man doing this, they chastised him. When they discovered that Jesus was responsible, the Pharisees began to plot against this troublemaker who seemed oblivious of The Law. Jesus responded to the Pharisees in kind, pointing out their error in placing The Law above the basic needs of God’s people.

I admit that my greatest frustration with the Church and organized religion in general is our propensity to confine God, God’s goodness and God’s blessings to our limited understanding. When in doubt, it seems to me that the best we can do is to make love and the well-being of others our top priorities.

Patient God, thank you for our capacity to love. When we’re motivated by love, we always get things right.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Truly Understood…

“You may go; your son will live.”
The man believed what Jesus said to him and left
John 4:50

It has taken me a lifetime to imitate the man about whom John wrote the words above. I’m sorry to admit that I succeed only some of the time. This man was a royal official, likely quite used to having his every need met without question. At the time, the man’s child lay dying. He had likely tapped every resource at his disposal to find a cure. Still, in spite of his position, he could do nothing to save his son. In desperation, the man turned to Jesus for help. Something he’d heard about Jesus convinced him to do so. When Jesus instructed him to go home because his son was recovering, the man believed Jesus and went home. He was not disappointed.

I cannot be sure of what this royal official learned about Jesus before he approached him for help. However, I’m quite certain that he knew only the tiniest fraction of what we have come to know in the two millenniums since. Still, in the face of two thousand plus years of proof of God’s love for us in more than a billion lifetimes, there are times when I doubt.

The better news is that, when I come to my senses, I do believe and I am at peace. Though the man who sought Jesus’ help expected results, I most often expect only a sympathetic ear. Knowing that God understands my troubles makes them manageable. Knowing that God understands my troubles gives me the strength to carry on.

Compassionate God, strengthen our faith in your constant companionship and care. Help us to simply believe and be on our way.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Happiness to Come…

My renewed need to purge our home of non-necessities nudged me up the stairs to our spare bedroom. This was a huge mistake as that particular room is likely the most nostalgic place in our house. The wall of antique pictures of great-grandparents and grandparents and photos from my husband’s and my childhood eased the urgency I’d felt just a minute earlier. When I finally opened the first dresser drawer, I found one of the treasures my mom left when she passed away. As I paged through the seventy-four-year-old album, I rediscovered my mom’s bridal shower and wedding greeting cards. Suddenly, I realized that my definition of non-necessities was evolving quickly. My parents were married in October and I couldn’t resist this opportunity to celebrate their anniversary once again…

As I gently perused the yellowed cards, I was taken aback by their diminutive size. Most are no larger than three inches by four inches. One is just two inches by two. Still, these tiny cards carry grand wishes. Single phrases added to the manufactured verses spoke eloquently of love felt for my mom and dad. I imagined my someday-to-be-parents smiling over this album which teemed with kindness. As I read the various signatures, images of loved ones filled me up. “Auntie C. Dionne” clarified the origins of my propensity to address all of my aunts as “Auntie.” Isabelle, who attended my mom’s bridal shower, wrote a lovely poem to accompany her gift. Perhaps she inspired my mom always to add a note to her greeting cards. Emily Gutchick’s signature confirmed that she was married before my mom and dad. Her name also conjured fond memories of my first dance with a boy -her son, Bobby.

Telegrams from Auntie Lucille and Uncle Leonard, Mr. and Mrs. Belanger and soon-to-be Uncle Clarence underscored everyone’s excitement over this union. My dad’s co-workers sent their greetings as well. Perhaps the most touching message came from the president of the company where my mother worked: “Dear Rita: I am happy to learn that you are to be married on Saturday and want to extend my best wishes to you and your husband. May your wedded life be full of joy and happiness. Do not let the present gloomy world conditions put a damper on your hopes and ambitions. Marriage is a wonderful venture in life and I know it is going to mean much happiness to you both in the years to come. With kindest regards, I remain… W. R. Barker”.

My parents married on October 17, 1942. World War II raged and times were tough. Family members and friends served in the military. Damage done by a bout with rheumatic fever kept my dad from joining them. My mom had been working for years by then. She took a job during high school and continued after graduation because her family needed this added income. My mom’s greatest regret was her inability to attend college. Neither she nor her parents could afford the tuition. I’m certain that meeting my dad dulled the sting of that unrealized dream as a new dream took shape in their relationship. Indeed, my parents’ wedding day proved to be the first of 6112 amazing days together. It seems Mr. Barker predicted the joy which lay ahead. His greeting summed up everything that we can hope for in this life: A measure of happiness, the love of others, encouragement in spite of troubling times and friends who are always at our sides. Apparently, my mom appreciated Mr. Barker’s sentiments because his letter is displayed quite beautifully in her album.

Mr. Barker’s touching words reflect the empathy Jesus exhibits in Luke’s gospel (Luke 17:11-19). As he walked along, Jesus encountered ten lepers who cried out, “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” Jesus looked upon them and felt their pain as only Jesus could. With little ado, Jesus sent the men off to show themselves to the priests of the temple. On the way, one leper realized he was cured. He raced back, fell at Jesus’ feet and worshiped him. Though the others knew by then that they, too, were healed, only this man recognized the more significant blessing. He had encountered the Lord! Not only his body, but his spirit as well had been made whole. Jesus knew that a healthy spirit would flourish in spite of gloomy world conditions. Nothing would ever again discourage this man’s hope and ambition. So it was that he returned to say, “Thank you, Lord!”

As I consider the greeting cards which fill my mother’s album, I realize she kept them to remember the love which surrounded her and my dad throughout their life together. Just as the leper’s cure reminded him of God’s presence in his life, my mother’s album kept her cognizant of the loved ones who walked this life’s journey with her. It seems to me that Mr. Barker described perfectly how we are to respond to the miracle we celebrate today: We must never allow gloomy world conditions to put a damper on our hopes and ambitions. Life is a wonderful venture which will mean much happiness to us in the days to come –on this earth and in heaven above.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved