I’m Here…

Caiaphas said to them, “You know nothing,
nor do you consider that it is better for you
that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:49-50

Of all of the places I visited in Israel, I found Jerusalem to be the most unsettling. Its present-day inhabitants seemed more hurried and focused on the moment at hand than their counterparts in less populated areas. I imagined that Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem were more taxing than the time spent in other places as well. As Palm Sunday approaches, images from the Holy Land and the first Holy Week swirl about in my mind. I wasn’t in Jerusalem two thousand years ago and I don’t know what my response to Jesus would have been if I’d been there. I am here now and I can only be certain of my response to Jesus today. Still, I’ll turn back time and imagine myself in Jesus’ company long ago…

While Jesus and the disciples prepared to enter Jerusalem, Caiaphas unfolded his plan. He was determined to see to the demise of Jesus-The Trouble-Maker who interfered with the high priest’s hold on the people. Poor Caiaphas had missed everything of importance that Jesus said regarding God’s mercy and inclusiveness and unconditional love. Poor Caiaphas was blinded and deafened by his desire to maintain his stature and his power. Caiaphas missed Jesus’ assertion that each one of us, including Caiaphas, is worth anything and everything Jesus would endure in coming week.

As for me, I’ve decided to turn the tables on Jesus as well. Rather than waiting for him to find me, I will find Jesus in his hour of need.

Merciful God, though I wasn’t present to make the choice to be with Jesus that first Holy Week, I’m here today.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Alive Again!

Though I’m echoing sentiments I’ve already shared regarding my visits to Israel, they merit repeating. During our first trip, I quickly discovered that the precise locations of the events of Jesus’ life didn’t concern me. Breathing the air Jesus breathed and walking in the places where Jesus walked were quite enough for me. Being among people who resembled Jesus, his family, his neighbors and his disciples touched me deeply. During last year’s trip, I became attuned to what Jesus’ life may actually have been like. This year, a picture of Jesus of Nazareth formed within me. With every passing day, I felt I’d come to know Jesus more intimately than I ever had before. We were on the Sea of Galilee when I began to fully appreciate this remarkable phenomenon.

Last year, our guide Yossi had made special arrangements for this voyage. He’d insisted that we sail on Daniel’s boat. This year, though Daniel had taken the day off, he ventured out to offer us the tour we were promised. How relieved I was when I saw Daniel at the helm! After we made our way out onto the water, I settled in as Jesus might have two millenniums ago while Daniel shared his music and his story. The now-familiar tale of this remarkable man served as the backdrop to my own musing regarding the time Jesus spent on the shores of this historic body of water…

Daniel is a Messianic Jew who believes that there is no more waiting for the messiah. Daniel was born to a young unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman who gave her son up for adoption to a secular Jewish family. Though his family had no faith to share, they provided Daniel with a loving home in the port city of Haifa. This proximity to the water inspired Daniel’s love for the sea and his desire to become a boat captain one day. Daniel’s family also nurtured his love for music by gifting him with a set of drums early on. Unfortunately, Daniel endured a personal crisis as a young man. This death of sorts urged Daniel onto a quest deep within himself. Because his family hadn’t kept his adoption secret, Daniel continued his journey by finding his birth family: his mother and four siblings. After meeting them, Daniel relocated nearby. He stayed in a Kibbutz and found a job on a tour boat.

I recalled our tour guide Yossi’s experience growing up in a Kibbutz. There was no talk of God there. I assumed that Daniel’s newfound family were Orthodox Jews as his birth mother had been, so there would be no talk of Jesus with them. Also, offering tours of “holy” places is big business and certainly not a religious experience for local Jews and Palestinians. What was it then that prompted Daniel to take that extreme step toward Jesus? Apparently, Daniel discovered Jesus’ tangible presence on the Sea of Galilee just as I had. For five years, he listened to his passengers talk about their belief in Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew) as they sailed. All the while, Daniel absorbed the prayers, the music and the scripture passages they shared. Every day, Daniel pondered all that he saw and heard. In the end, Daniel couldn’t help being moved. Something within Daniel came to life the day he realized that he also believed in Yeshua. Yeshua had become Daniel’s most precious and life-giving treasure.

Daniel responds to Jesus’ presence in his life by sharing his music and his story during tours. My second encounter with Daniel transformed Jesus to the Yeshua of long ago. Daniel, Yossi and the Israelis I passed in the marketplaces, our hotels and at the sites we visited aren’t very different from the people who inhabited these places with Jesus. Daniel is ostracized by well-intentioned Jews who feel he has forsaken his faith. Yossi puzzles over local politics just as Jesus’ followers and his enemies did. Today’s Israeli’s struggle, just as people always have, to care for their families, to live peacefully and to at least taste the freedom to follow their hearts’ desires.

I share all of this because Jesus seems to have done for Daniel what he did for Lazarus two thousand years ago. Today, John’s gospel (John 11:1-45) tells us that Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus had taken ill and died. When Jesus went to Lazarus’ sisters to comfort them, Martha and Mary insisted that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been with him. Do you know how many times I’ve looked upward to declare, “If you were here, things would be different!” Raising Lazarus was among Jesus’ greatest miracles. Daniel insists that this miracle was repeated in him when he welcomed Jesus into his life. I know that this miracle has been repeated within me every time I’ve survived one of the major and minor tragedies of my life. Jesus brings each of us back to life over and over again. The best part of all of this is that we can imitate Jesus’ miracle. Like Jesus, we can renew the lives of those we meet along the way as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In Jesus’ Footsteps

Jesus went with them to a place called
Gethsemane. He said to his disciples,
“Stay here while I go over there and pray.”

Matthew 26:36

This year, we returned to the Garden of Gethsemane. The garden rests next to the Church of All Nations. During last year’s visit, I thought I’d taken in every detail of the garden and the church. As I retraced my steps, I found that I was mistaken.

Though I’d walked in Jesus’ footsteps for days, it was Gethsemane which beckoned me to more. Walking this hallowed ground left me yearning for something I couldn’t identify. It was in this place that Jesus poured out his heart. It was here after his last supper that the talk between Father and Son took an ominous turn. That night, Jesus understood far too clearly all that was in store for him. That night, after consulting with his Father one last time, Jesus chose to continue the journey which has made all of the difference in this world to me and to us all.

As I walked away from the garden to visit the church, I couldn’t shake my uneasiness. Finally, while walking along a lushly planted path, a large stone grotto startled me. “How could I have missed this last year?” I’d hardly finished my question when I saw the small brass-colored sculpture nestled in the rock. This tiny bit of artwork depicts a forlorn Jesus draped over a tree stump with his head buried in his arms. At that moment, I knew that Jesus would have done it all just for me. Jesus would have done it all for any one of us. Walking in Jesus’ footsteps suddenly took on new meaning.

This is the reason I began Lent 2018 determined to acknowledge Jesus’ friendship every day. It’s the least I can do after the time he spent with me in Israel and everywhere else I’ve been.

Dear Jesus, thank you!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A New Perspective

Wait, rather, for the fulfillment of God’s promise,
of which you heard me speak.

From Acts of The Apostles 1:4

Though we never made it to Masada during this second visit to Israel, I’m going to revisit that mountain setting here. Masada is the site of an amazing fortress built sometime between 37 and 31 BCE. Herod, who had been appointed King of Judea by the Romans, oversaw the construction of the complex where he resided. About 75 years after Herod’s death, Jewish rebels took over this refuge. They’d fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple and survived there for three years.

Eventually, the Romans surrounded the settlement with catapults and battering rams. When it became apparent that they would be overpowered, the Jewish leaders determined that they would commit suicide rather than allow the Romans to make them slaves or to murder them far more violently. In the end, the men in the group killed their wives and children and themselves. All of this was related by two surviving women whose husbands perhaps thought better of the idea.

For centuries, Masada served as a symbol of heroism for the Jewish people. New recruits inducted into the Israeli Army were taken to Masada to pledge their loyalty to Israel. Recently, however, this has changed. Increasingly violent incidents of terrorism throughout the world have given our Israeli neighbors reason to pause. Their ancestors’ mass suicide resembles these heinous acts far too closely. So it is that soldiers pledge their allegiance elsewhere. Masada is no longer held up to themselves or to their children as a symbol of bravery.

When our guide shared this revised thinking with us, I found him and his fellow Israelis to be quite brave. It isn’t easy to let go of the things which we’ve held dear even when we realize that they no longer serve our best interests. Yes, change can be difficult, but it can also be life-giving.

Dear God, give me the wisdom to know when to hold on and when to let go.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Mighty Little Jordan

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

On this second trip to Israel, we viewed the Jordan River from a different vantage point. Last year, we stood on the shore of one of the river’s narrowest segments. Though it seemed a humble setting for Jesus’ baptism, it also typified the Jesus’ unassuming life. This small segment which I could have easily waded across was as important as the rest of this renowned river. The same was true of Jesus’ life. Even his seemingly insignificant interactions changed lives forever.

This year, we viewed the river nearer the tourist center. As a result, we encountered several groups who had assembled to be baptized or to reenact the baptisms they’d celebrated previously. It was difficult to miss the reverence and enthusiasm of each one as he or she entered the water. I couldn’t help acknowledging that Jesus’ simple baptism continues to impact humankind in amazing ways.

As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. Rather than immersing myself into the river’s bounty, I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, you renew us day in and day out. Help us to take notice of your handiwork and to imitate your goodness humbly, just as Jesus did.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Was It The Wine?

The waiter in charge tasted the water made wine,
without knowing where it had come from; only the waiters knew,
since they had drawn the water.

John 2:9

I couldn’t help smiling as our guide read John’s account of Jesus’ miracle at Cana. I imagined an annoyed Jesus addressing his mother as “Woman” because he allegedly had no intention of performing a miracle at this local gathering. Still, Mary persisted and simply told the waiters to do whatever Jesus asked. The rest of the story gave me reason not to be concerned by the uncertainty of where this miracle occurred. Though two beautiful churches claim to reside on the actual site where Jesus changed water into wine, modern scholars concur that another village, slightly farther from Nazareth and which lies in ruins today, is more likely the site. While I breathed in the air of today’s Cana, I celebrated that miracle in spite of my distance from its likely setting.

Our guide piqued my interest further with his explanation of the language used to describe all that had occurred. Yossi told us that the waiters filled each wine jar to its “brim”. Yossi explained that the word for “brim” actually means “lip”. Yossi said, “Think about this. There is more here than meets the eye. The wine went from the lip of the jar to the lip of the mouth. Those who drank used their lip or their language to express what they received. The real miracle is that those who drank recognized Jesus for who he was and then they talked about it.”

My self-proclaimed secular Jewish guide had given me much more to consider regarding this event. It wasn’t the wine, but the receptiveness of those who recognized Jesus which made this encounter remarkable.

Generous God, help me to recognize your presence in everything.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved