God With Us

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

Loss is tough. Loss occurs in relationships cut short by a misunderstanding or a move. Loss comes in the passing of our loved ones. Loss comes with divorce, even when this choice is mutual. The loss of a familiar workplace or neighborhood brings heartache. When we find ourselves at odds with an institution which once felt as comfortable as home, we find ourselves at a loss as well. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness, hopelessness and solitude consume us in the midst of our losses, and it seems no one and nothing can fill the emptiness within us.

I’m most grateful to acknowledge that when we face loss in our lives we never face it alone. Rather, we find ourselves embraced in sacred moments of sharing. Sometimes, they come in human form through the voice of a knowing friend; in the song of a mother who will love her child forever; in an artist’s rendition of our weakest selves embraced by God’s all-loving arms; in the kindness of a colleague who takes over simply because she is needed; in the parents and grandparents, spouses and significant others, sisters, brothers and friends who teach us to hold onto one another in the best and worst of times. Sometimes, these sacred moments come in the reassurance we find in the depths of our own hearts. Always, God sees to it that we don’t experience loss alone. Always, God is with us to offer healing and love.

Loving God, thank you for being with us in everything!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Weeds or Blossoms, We’re Loved!

As I wrote, tiny bits of hail tapped the windows. I wondered if they were intentionally distracting me or if it was I who needed to intentionally concentrate more fully on the task at hand. I’d been out in the misty weather earlier that morning before the hail made its way to my window and then onto the pavement where it danced wildly. Yes, I did get up from my desk to watch that performance. Because it wasn’t enough of a distraction, I walked downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. Afterward, I stopped at the patio door to peer out at the hail a while longer. As those tiny balls of ice melted into nothingness, I noticed a green sprout growing between two bricks in the patio. Before I could say a word, my husband observed, “You know that’s a dandelion, don’t you?” After looking more closely for myself, I responded. “Huh! The first sign of spring and it’s a dandelion. I hope this isn’t an omen of the things to come!” With that, I returned to this writing and today’s gospel (John 15:1-8) where Jesus compares himself to a vine. I looked upward and prayed, “I much prefer vines to weeds, Lord. Thank you!”

Decades ago, this preference for non-weeds caused me some trouble. I was in second grade and it was the first week of May. Our teacher, my classmates and I busied ourselves preparing an altar to honor Mary. Sister provided blue satin fabric for the background, flowers fashioned into a crown and a statue of the Mother of Jesus. To me, the altar would be complete when we added a vase of flowers. Another second grader had brought in a handful of weeds which he thought were spring flowers. Though I didn’t know much about such things, I knew that those particular sprouts weren’t flowers. They looked just like the pesky dandelion buds which plagued our backyard.

As I walked home after school that day, the scent of lilacs overwhelmed me. There were so many flowers growing on the hedge beside me that I was certain no one would mind if I “borrowed” a few. They would complete our May Altar perfectly. So it was that during the hour of daylight which remained after dinner, I set out to gather lilacs. There wasn’t a soul around which didn’t actually matter to me. I was on a mission. I headed to that hedge with my mother’s pinking sheers, the only scissors I could find, and a large paper bag. I immediately began my search for perfect lilacs. Some were too short-stemmed to stand in a vase. Others had buds that hadn’t yet opened. Still others had begun to brown. After several minutes of snipping, I stood in the dusk with a bag and a sidewalk full of lilacs. I had single-handedly cut every bloom that I could reach. In my earnest effort to replace my classmate’s budding weeds with flowers, I’d made a terrible mess and an even more terrible mistake.

My lack of appreciation for this misdeed disappeared quickly. All of the houses on our block rested just a few feet from the sidewalk except one. This house was set back so far that its rear entrance opened just steps from the alley. A huge overgrown front yard protected the house from neighborhood eyes. The unkempt trees, shrubs, wild grasses and weeds gave the place a ghostly aura. The bravest of our neighborhood teens refused to scale the fence which protected what we called The Big Yard even if this meant losing a prized softball. The Big Yard scared every one of us except in the springtime. This was when that eerie hedge which bordered the sidewalk transformed The Big Yard into Lilac Heaven. As I prepared to take my leave from that precious hedge, the sound of shuffling steps caused me to freeze in place. As The Big Yard’s gate creaked open, I drenched myself in tears. The shuffling resumed until a bent figure stopped before me. The tiniest and oldest woman I’d ever seen turned her eyes to the mounds of lilacs strewn across the walk. Without a word, she knelt in the blossoms and scooped them up close to herself as if in an attempt to revive them. When she realized I’d robbed each branch of its life, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. Her tears fell as profusely as my own. After what seemed an eternity, she turned to say, “Of all the things that grow in this yard, I love the lilacs most. My yard is nothing but weeds except for these flowers, you know. Waiting for them to bloom is what gets me through our terrible winters.”

In the end, my newly discovered neighbor forgave my thievery. She allowed me to think that the plaster statue which adorned my second grade classroom would benefit far more from the flowers than she. Somehow, I knew better. I should have appreciated my classmate’s weeds as Mary would have. I should have known that my neighbor appreciated her lilacs even more than I did. It is this childhood misadventure which inspires my appreciation for the Vine which sustains us all. Jesus remains in our company whether we present ourselves as flowers or weeds. Just as my neighbor’s lilacs eased her through a lifetime of tough winters, Jesus stays to sustain us through everything which threatens us along the way. All we’re asked in return is to sustain one another whether we’re blooming beautifully like those lilacs or being pesky like my backyard’s weeds.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s Time…

A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

Ecclesiastes 3:6

The calendar on my desk must stay.
The yellowed notes from graduate school must go.
Greeting cards from our sons, their wives and our granddaughters must stay.
The unneeded clothing pile I created last month must finally go.

You get the idea, but not all of it. I need to go through the same sort of “checklist” when it comes to the things I do. Some activities, like spending time with my family, are non-negotiable. I engage in time with them whenever and wherever they present themselves and as often as possible. Other activities, like cooking and doing the laundry, must stay as well ad infinitum. Still others, however, need to be sorted and categorized and ranked. I need to determine what I will continue to do and what I will pass on.

Do you remember that book I mentioned a few posts ago? It still sits partially in a computer file, partially in my head and mostly in my heart. In the end, it’s up to me to determine what my life’s work will be. Of one thing I’m certain: That book is part of my life’s work.

What’s your life’s work? A peek deep within will give you a hint, a very helpful hint…

Patient God, once again I turn to you for guidance. Light my way so I can see the signs and respond generously.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Come To The Table

How great is the goodness, O Lord,
which you have in store for those who turn to you.

Psalm 31:20

In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate First Communions in our parish. Though I spent my life teaching, I always find myself searching for the appropriate words to share regarding this special event. I often reflect upon our gathering to pray together each weekend. The cohesiveness that comes with our common walk to the altar for Communion touches me deeply. Regardless of what separates us outside– our politics, our tendencies to the left or to the right, our likes and dislikes, our opinions regarding just about everything– when we approach God’s table, we are God’s children in the truest sense. Indeed, we are one.

I occasionally have the opportunity to serve as a communion minister. Each time, I’m amazed by the beauty in the unique faces who approach our common table. Not one of us is exactly like another. Even the identical twins among us cannot hide their uniqueness. Still, we are welcome, every one of us, to break bread. Indeed, there is always a place for us at God’s table.

Perhaps I shouldn’t fret about finding the words to describe what we share at God’s table. To make the message clear, I need only to exhibit the welcome which God intends to be extended to every one of us.

Loving God, you set a place at your table for each of us. Help those of us who have been around for a while to welcome and encourage our sisters and brothers who may be reluctant to partake of your hospitality.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Thank you, Blaise!

I will fulfill my vows…
Psalm 22:26b

During my second visit to the Holy Land, I allowed myself to tune inward on occasion because Israel had become familiar territory to me in some ways. After our return last year, I spent months researching further and writing about this experience. This time, I allowed myself to simply breathe it all in…

One recurring theme was the stance of religious leaders of Jesus’ day and today. The scribes and Pharisees had great influence over the people. They sometimes used their power to leverage Roman rule. At times, temple leaders compromised at the people’s expense to protect their own authority. It was no wonder that, when Jesus began his ministry and embraced the poor and outcasts, the people took notice. Finally, someone who spoke in God’s name also behaved as God asked. Today, similar conflict continues between conservative religious Jews and their more secular counterparts. Everything from world politics to daily life in Israel is affected by this.

You know, a portion of our spirituality results from our interactions with religious leaders. When they exhibit the beliefs we hold dear, they enhance our faith communities and our own relationships with God. When they err, they sometimes drive us away. We respond by finding comfort with other believers in other places or we dismiss these imperfect communities as non-salvageable. We retreat into ourselves to form a mini-community of God and self. While some of my greatest inspiration comes in “God and me” moments, I also benefit greatly from sharing God’s wonder with my family-in-faith.

On this is the Feast of St. Blaise, my thoughts turn to one of my religious leaders, Blaise Cupich. This remarkably humble man leads Catholics throughout Chicagoland and the world in ways great and small. Pope Francis has certainly placed a lot of faith our cardinal! The people of Chicago have done the same because Blaise has consistently walked with them in their joy and in their sorrow. While keeping up with all of this, our Blaise oversees the archdiocese with wisdom and his visible commitment to live as God asks. Those who work in close proximity to our Blaise have great respect for his intelligence and humility, his personal work ethic and his love for us all. I’ve met Blaise Cupich twice. Each time, he behaved as though the moment at hand was the most important of his day. I don’t know how he does it…

Happy Feast Day, Blaise Cupich! I offer you my thanks for all that you do and my prayer that you will remain for as long as the job takes.

Loving God, please be with Blaise Cupich and all of our spiritual leaders as they strive to do your work as you would have them.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Loved Much

Therefore I tell you, her sins
are forgiven —for she loved much.

From Luke 7:47

My parish’s Respect Life Ministry recently sponsored their annual Baby Bottle Campaign. They provide empty baby bottles which we’re invited to fill with spare change. Cash and checks are also happily accepted. This effort provides assistance to women in the midst of difficult pregnancies. Whether they face single parenthood, poverty or a combination of issues, they receive help in providing for their babies. I happily support this effort. I’ve always believed that if we showed ourselves to be a more compassionate society, women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy would be more likely ask for help than for an abortion. Unfortunately, our willingness to pass judgment is sometimes more visible to these poor souls than our willingness to walk with them.

It’s been two years since Pope Francis issued a statement regarding those who have chosen to have an abortion. Still, I will never forget his merciful words…

“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision… The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails… Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option… I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

You know, I’ve spent a lifetime getting to know our loving and merciful God who never chooses to be alienated from any of us. Francis put into words the message Jesus spent a lifetime teaching and the message which drives my writing and all that I do: God loves us no matter what. God asks only that we do our best in the moment at hand as only we can. When we do good, we rejoice. When we fail, we acknowledge our guilt, ask God’s forgiveness and begin anew.

Dear God, thank you for your deep love for us. Bless Francis and us today and every day with the courage and strength to teach this world your merciful ways.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved