No Doubt…

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

John 4:50

I’ve spent my entire life worrying about sick loved ones and I admit that it has taken me a lifetime to imitate the man about whom John wrote. I must also admit that I’ve succeeded only some of the time…

The man who approached Jesus on behalf of his dying son was a royal official. He was likely quite used to having his every need met without question. When his child lay dying, he certainly tapped every resource at his disposal to find a cure. In spite of his powerful position, when all else failed, he went to Jesus for help. Something he’d heard or seen encouraged him to do this. When Jesus instructed him to go home because his son was recovering, because the man believed, he went home. John tells us this man wasn’t disappointed.

I’m not sure of what this royal official learned about Jesus before he approached him for help. I am quite certain that this man knew only a tiny fraction of what we’ve come to know about Jesus and God’s love for us in the two millenniums since. Still, in the face of this contemplation and proof of God’s love in more than a billion lifetimes, we doubt.

Earlier this Lent, I wrote about healing, our efforts to heal ourselves and to heal one another. It seems to me that we’ll do our best work in this regard when we ask God to be a part of our work. Like that royal official, we won’t be disappointed.

Loving God, help us to embrace your healing and to share it with one another.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Powerful Words

I turned our calendar to March to confirm the date of Ash Wednesday. I also noted that we won’t celebrate Easter until April 21. I used my words to offer a prayer of gratitude. Easter’s relatively late arrival allows me the time to catch my breath before tackling my abundant to-do list. In an effort to shorten that list, I read the scripture passages we hear today to prepare for this writing. As I read, I found that Sirach and Jesus (Sirach 27:4-7; Luke 6:39-45) had a good deal to say about the power of our words. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:54-58) chimed in to address the disbelief of some who questioned Jesus’ words. As I read, it occurred to me that I’ve put my own words to use in surprising ways over the decades. Though I hope my words have been positive for the most part, there have been times when their tone has been just the opposite. It was Lent 1987 when I expressed my dismay to God regarding Easter’s late arrival that year…

My stepdad had battled emphysema for some time and the disease finally threatened to get the best of him. Bill had become bedridden and my mom was heartsick. Caring for Bill at home would be impossible if he couldn’t walk. Though she was both a sturdy woman and a great nurse, my mom still couldn’t manage Bill’s six-foot frame without some assistance from him. Bill was heartsick as well. If he couldn’t go home with my mom, he wanted to go home to God. Bill didn’t use his words to express this. He simply stopped eating. He also kept his eyes closed except to glance lovingly at my mom when he thought no one was looking. I was heartsick, too. So it was that I repeated the same insistent prayer: Bill’s had a tough time. He’s suffered enough. Dear God, please take him home. My mom took great care of my own dad, and now she’s doing the same for my step-dad. You’re asking too much of her. Dear God, please take him home. Jesus cured the suffering who came to him. I don’t even want a cure. Just take him home! When my desperation hit its peak, I shamelessly added: You claim to be our loving parent. If Bill was my son, I’d take him home for Easter!

Lent 1987 seemed to drag on and on. Time always passes at a snail’s pace when our loved ones are suffering. I admit that I used the words of my mournful prayer over and over again throughout the majority of those forty days. As it happened, we celebrated my stepdad’s funeral the Tuesday before Easter. Later that week, I completed Lent 1987 by attending the Holy Week liturgies at our parish church. I missed most of what unfolded because I’d morphed from a weary and worried daughter into a weary and numb mourner. I didn’t use my words for much of anything after Bill’s funeral. It was during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday that I realized I’d been operating on autopilot. I felt exhausted and empty and I wasn’t sure of where to turn. As the deacon sang the Exultet to announce Jesus’ resurrection, something drew my eyes to the large crucifix over the altar. It had been covered with a purple cloth during Lent and I wondered why that purple remained. Suddenly, in the midst of an alleluia, the servers pulled some invisible wires which hung from the cloth. When that cloth fell, it revealed the most beautiful lilies I’d ever seen. Those lovely flowers covered the crucifix from top to bottom and from left to right. Their ivory blossoms glowed in the brightly lit sanctuary, leaving no hint of the suffering corpus hidden behind them. This amazing image took my breath away. Though I thought I couldn’t shed another tear that week, my eyes filled up. I felt alive again! Then it hit me. God had welcomed my stepdad home for Easter. Bill had been gone an entire week and I’d failed to use my words to say “Thank you!” Still, God welcomed me home as well. In spite of my ingratitude and my insolent tone beforehand, God gave me new life in the form of some well-placed Easter lilies. Those flowers spoke of renewed life to me and I couldn’t have asked for more!

Lent 2019 begins this week on Ash Wednesday. This year, we’re invited to use our words to help ourselves and those we’ve been given to love throughout our Lenten Mission. The words I chose to address our loving God on my stepdad’s behalf were clumsy at best. Still, they expressed my genuine effort to walk through my stepdad’s illness and passing in God’s good company. My words were also heard. God hears everything we say or think or feel or write. This is the reason our parish is providing us a little blue booklet entitled MY LENTEN MISSION. It is meant to guide all of us who’d like to use our words to find healing for ourselves, for one another and for our suffering world. We each approach Lent 2019 with a unique variety of burdens. As we deal with these things, we also search for ways to be productive family members, friends, coworkers, caretakers and to fulfill a multitude of other roles. Our mission booklets provide daily excerpts from the Lenten gospels and one or two related reflection questions. There is space to use our words to respond. Afterward, healing activities are suggested. The best part is that this booklet isn’t a homework assignment which will be graded on Easter Sunday. Rather, it is one small, but mighty tool which will hopefully guide each one of us on our mission toward a truly peace-filled Easter and a truly healed heart.

Though Lent 1987 remains etched in my memory, the words those Easter Lilies spoke to me are etched into my heart. My prayers have never again been quite so desperate because I’ve allowed God’s words to draw me closer, just as those lilies did. Perhaps Lent 2019 will reveal the healing we’re all searching for. Perhaps the lilies of Easter 2019 will speak words of new life to us all. Can any of us ask for more?

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

For those of you who don’t attend my church and won’t receive MY LENTEN MISSION, I encourage you take some time every day to communicate with God as only you can. The words exchanged between you and God are far more powerful than you’ll ever know in this life! Have lots of good talks with God!

Put 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

Though this conviction took root when I was a child, I continue to be convinced that Jesus couldn’t resist a troubled soul. On the occasion cited above, Jesus assisted a man whose at least partial paralysis confined him to a mat which lay 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 that 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 work by carrying his mat. When the Pharisees saw the man do this, they chastised him. When they discovered that Jesus was responsible, the Pharisees began to plot against this troublemaker who seemed oblivious to The Law. Jesus responded to the Pharisees in kind, pointing out their error in placing The Law above the basic needs of one 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. We issue edicts and attempt to enforce rules which sometimes get in the way of our service to one another. It seems to me that, when in doubt, the best we can do is to make love and the well-being of those we’ve been given to love our top priorities.

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

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Home Really Is Where Our Hearts Are

My granddaughters recently spent a weekend with Grandpa and me. All the while, the girls kept us running. In an effort to sap a bit of their endless energy, we walked to a nearby playground. It was the perfect haven for the girls to climb, run, slide and swing with abandon. Grandpa and I watched from the swings until we were drafted into their play. This merry-making continued throughout the afternoon, our walk home and the remainder of their stay with us. When I wondered aloud how I kept up with classrooms filled with equally energetic children, my dear husband reminded me that I was a few years younger when I did so. I reluctantly admitted, “I suppose so…”

The week after the girls left, a bout with nostalgia beckoned me back to that playground in spite of the rain that threatened. Since no one else was silly enough to risk being soaked, I reclaimed the swing I’d occupied a few days earlier. When I taught, I occasionally took a turn swinging with the children just to assure them that I enjoyed playing, too. When I was a little girl, I did the same on the well-worn swings in my backyard. Those swings also served as my favorite place to contemplate life. As I sat on that swing, I found myself in need of doing just that.

I gave in to my mood as I slowly eased myself back and forth. The seemingly endless misery which had punctuated the news from both nearby and afar had filled me with melancholy. I wondered if the approach of Independence Day 2018 had contributed to those feelings. My Dad passed away the morning of July 4, 1959; it is my late uncle’s birthday and we attended my Aunt Rita’s wake on this date some years later. Perhaps it was my anticipation of the fireworks which would soon brighten the night sky. This family connection inspires fireworks anytime and anywhere to shout “resurrection” to me. I secretly wished that someone nearby would engage in a preemptive launch to test his or her Independence Day contraband. When no one obliged, I closed my eyes to visualize fireworks from my past, from childhood, from the bicentennial celebration in Washington D. C, and those that touched us all ten months after September 11, 2001. I’ll never forget the Statue of Liberty standing in all of her glory as fireworks of every color formed a sparkling halo around her head.

Unfortunately, that mental image of Lady Liberty intensified my unrest. When I was in high school chorus, we sang an inspiring selection drawn from the inscription at Lady Liberty’s feet: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the restless refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, your homeless tempest-tossed to me… I lift my lamp beside the golden shore. Patriotism meant many different things when I sang those words in the sixties. Still, I couldn’t deny the fullness which swelled up in my heart every time these words passed my lips. Those feelings emerged again as I sat on that swing. This nation’s willingness to display these mighty words at our shore has demanded quite a commitment from all who call this country our home. As I continued to swing back and forth, I wondered how we will fulfill this commitment in the days ahead. Before I could begin my list of suggestions, a drop of rain hit my forehead and trickled down my nose. When several additional drops quickly followed, I abandoned that swing and ran home.

Having a place to call home is a basic need which we all share. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché to be immortalized by crafters. Indeed, this author’s wisdom explains Jesus’ pain in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:1-6). It was early in his ministry and Jesus had done well. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. In the passage cited, Jesus had returned home to the place he’d grown up among his loving parents and neighbors. There, Jesus would be himself. There, Jesus would relax and share his message without restraint. Sadly, as it happened, it was there that Jesus experienced unexpected and painful rejection. Jesus’ community believed he was simply too good to be true. They chose to dismiss Jesus rather than to recognize that God had been at work in and through their neighbor. That lack of acceptance pushed Jesus away to continue his mission elsewhere.

Every new day brings us opportunities to welcome, to support and to comfort one another. Each of us knows the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to touch others. God calls us to be the torches which light the way home for all of our sisters and brothers. Whether here at home in Lake County, in a city across the country or on another continent, we are each called to care for those we meet along the way. You know, Jesus was most at home in the places where he was accepted and where he was free to lovingly serve God’s people. We are most at home when we experience and when we do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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