God Is With Us… ALWAYS!

Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days, I’ve been on a bit of a roll. Last week, I shared that leisurely mornings have allowed me to organize my thoughts and my heart each day with our benevolent Creator in mind. Almost every day, my husband-the-deacon and I have also made time for a walk outdoors. Even on the cloudiest bad-news days, I’ve managed to find reason to appreciate God’s goodness in it all. I began this paragraph by saying, “Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days…” because the other day was quite different. For perhaps obvious reasons, I vacillated between anger and despair over the suffering and loss caused by our bout with COVID-19 and our inability to work together as one people to fight it. In an effort not to give in to these feelings, I gave Mike a peck on his cheek, grabbed my hoodie and headed outdoors. I fully intended to clear my head and my heart in the process.

That day, the temperature struggled to reach fifty degrees in spite of the sunshine. I stuffed my hands into my pockets as I made my way down our cul-de-sac. I went on toward village hall and into the subdivision to the north. As I walked along the winding streets, a chilling breeze blew open my jacket. I zipped up and pulled my hood over my head. I looked toward the cloudless sky and declared, “Not funny!” Afterward, I picked up my pace just enough to create my own heat as I continued on my way. Eventually, I warmed up and inadvertently began to do what I most often do during my walks. I lost myself in Nature. I looked at the branches of every tree I passed to check on its leaves. Not many months ago, green leaves turned yellow and brown and then fell to the ground to be trampled or blown away. This cycle has continued in the buds and young leaves which now burst forth from charcoal branches overhead. Though the wind continued its brisk assault, I no longer minded.

As I walked on, I looked skyward again. This time, I whispered an apology. I acknowledged that the cold breeze which pushed me along earlier had accomplished much more. Though that breeze gave me a chill, it also gave me the peace and comfort which I’d longed for. I’d fretted so about that virus’s attack on life as we once knew it that I’d forgotten the Source of that life. I’d worried so about our inability to work together in dealing with all of this that I’d forgotten all of the good people who have and continue to do just that. It finally occurred to me that perhaps God has something far more valuable for me to experience during this pandemic than anger and despair. God didn’t cause that virus which wreaks havoc on our lives. However, God did create us with the ability to respond to it. It is God’s faith in us and love for us which breathes life into our efforts. With that, I looked up once again. That time, I said, “Thank you, dear God, for remaining with me and with all of us. Just help us to take notice of your presence more often!” Before I could add an “amen” to my prayer, the wind blew my hood off of my head and pressed my sleeves against my arms. I took that as God’s assurance that I never walk alone. None of us do.

I share all of this as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday with good reason. This is the last day of Easter Season 2020 and what an unusual season this has been! Our lives changed drastically in mid-March when staying-in-place became the norm. Without warning, we lost access to life as we once knew it. The same was true for Jesus’ friends two thousand years ago. The poor disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus and, as their final trip to Jerusalem drew closer, they were in a far worse frame of mind than I was when I set out for my walk the other day. While I had lost my focus for a bit, the disciples were on the verge of losing Jesus. Though we can see light at the end of the tunnel today, Jesus’ followers could not. They watched him taken prisoner, deserted him when he needed them most and then watched him die on that cross from afar. What worse could have happened?

John’s gospel offers a different Pentecost account than the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three speak of Jesus’ resurrection, subsequent appearances and his ascension into heaven. It was after Jesus’ ascension that the Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire and spurred them into action. Today’s gospel from John (20:19-23) ushers us back to the first Easter. It was on that day, when the disciples heard of the empty tomb, yet still hid in absolute fear, that Jesus appeared. It was on that evening, when the circumstances of Jesus suffering and death were fresh in their minds, that Jesus appeared. The first words Jesus spoke were, “Peace be with you!” Like that quiet presence which walked with me the other day, Jesus slipped into that room to walk with his friends through their grief and fear. Jesus added, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” With those words, Jesus promised his friends that they would never ever be alone.

You know, God’s presence isn’t always tangible. Though God used that breezy day to renew my peace, I still sometimes walk in the fearful disciples’ sandals just as we all do. It is during times such as these that we must let go of our worry and embrace Jesus’ Pentecost promise: God’s Spirit is with us when we need God most, now as our new normal unfolds, and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy Week… Wednesday

Then 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

In Israel, the Garden of Gethsemane rests next to the Church of All Nations. I can’t help making my own interpretation of this architectural juxtaposition. The church’s name acknowledges the many countries which contributed to its construction. For me, the church’s name designates much more. Jesus opened his heart to his fellow Jewish people as well as to many others who were ostracized by their communities. Jesus made room for anyone who longed for his company. It seems to me that Jesus was teacher, preacher and caretaker to all nations, just as we should be.

Though this grand church’s architecture draws tourists’ eyes from afar, it is the garden at its side which beckoned me nearer. In this place, Jesus opened his heart to us all once again. When I arrived, I was reluctant to step onto this holy ground. A lifetime of images I’d created in my head and in my heart filled me up as I imagined Jesus’ praying there so long ago. It was Jesus’ custom to go off by himself when he turned to his Abba in prayer and this evening was no exception. Though I cannot know the content of their prior conversations, this night the talk between Father and Son had taken an extremely serious turn. This 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 look out my window this morning, I consider that garden in faraway Israel. Though we have several decades-old trees in our yard, none can compete with the centuries-old olive trees which grace the garden where Jesus committed himself to the trauma of his final days. Still, my relatively youthful trees remind me of Jesus’ endurance. During the most difficult days of his live, Jesus did what he had to do. On this Wednesday of Holy Week, all God asks is that we persist as well. Like Jesus, we must do what we have to do even if that means simply staying home, staying safe and staying well…

Dear God, we know you are with during these difficult days. Thank you!!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

I’m With You…

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

I think it’s important to keep Jesus’ assertion in mind as we continue our worldwide battle against COVID-19. Though none of us can be certain of when that vaccine and cure will be discovered, we can be certain of God’s love for us and of our need to love one another through these difficult days. Like Jesus, it’s up to each of us to do what we can to care for those who share our little corners of this world with us.

Loving God, be with us as we love one another through this very difficult time.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Encouraged and Always Loved

The seeds on good ground are those who
hear the word in a spirit of openness,
retain it, and bear fruit through perseverance.

Luke 8:15

I’m coming to the end of my journal of our trip to Israel. Unfortunately, I didn’t fill that journal as much as I might have this time around. I knew this would likely be my last visit to Jesus’ homeland. As a result, I invested far more time in looking than I invested in writing. So it is that I’m struggling a bit regarding what to share next…

To clear my head, I decided to take a walk. I left my cluttered desk and grabbed my coat and gloves. I even wore a hat. As I made my way in the cold along our neighborhood’s deserted streets, I treated myself to a few moments of inspiration. As I ambled along, the clouds parted for a few seconds and I felt the sun’s warmth on my shoulders. I thoroughly enjoyed this much-needed hug. “You are so good, Dear God!” I said to myself. “You offer consolation everywhere, even here in Gurnee!”

As I basked in the sunshine, my thoughts returned to Israel and to the many unexpected encounters with Jesus which occurred there. Though I realized I was in The Holy Land, I didn’t expect that “holiness” to be tangible. Yet it was. At every turn, I caught glimpses of Jesus’ life and that of his closest friends. Since childhood, I’ve tried to imagine the realities of Jesus’ time among us. My encounter with Jesus’ homeland brought that reality into focus.

With that thought, I headed home to write this for you…

Persistent God, thank you for your encouragement which finds us wherever we are and in the midst of whatever we’re facing in the moment at hand.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Y… Yearning

My soul yearns and pines
for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and my soul
cry out for the living God.

Psalm 84:3

Y is for Yearning. Sometimes, only God will do.

After retiring from his first career as a school principal, my husband worked as a hospice chaplain. This work touched him deeply. Though we consider ourselves to be “God-aware” people, this experience brought new depth in this regard to both of us. Mike observed often that, when a patient seemed to have lost every means of communication, he or she somehow managed to acknowledge prayer. Whether by squeezing a hand, blinking an eye, smiling ever so slightly or whispering an “amen”, each one became present when it was time to pray. Even some patients who endured comas seemed to breathe more calmly when those around them prayed. When all else was said and done, God remained present to each one.

Though most of us are not in need of hospice care at the moment, we are all in need of God. When no one else can comprehend our suffering, it is God who experiences every bit of it with us. When we cannot mouth a single word to explain, God understands. When we cannot breathe without shedding more tears, God is with us.

In times of suffering when I feel that no one understands my heartbreak, I feel completely alone for only a millisecond. Within that instant, I realize that God is with me and that, sometimes, only God will do.

Merciful and loving God, thank you for satisfying my yearning for your presence. Thank you for truly being God With Us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Best Teacher

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.

Psalm 78:1-

Before we began a recent visit with our granddaughters, each one had a few minutes of homework to complete. Though the fifth grader’s word study page was easy-peasy, the seventh grader’s math threw me. Fortunately, she understood precisely what to do. The third grader’s math involved place value which, fortunately, hasn’t changed since I taught third grade. I secretly wished I could sit in on a class with any of my granddaughters, especially that seventh grader!

Early in my teaching career, I developed the skills I needed to reach my students. I began by getting the attention of my students. I then kept their attention by making what I had to say interesting and understandable. Finally, I gave them reason to remember what I shared.

Perhaps this is the reason Jesus repeated his lessons through his parables. When I doubt that I’m loved, I recall the parables of The Good Shepherd, The Pearl of Great Price and The Lost Coin. In each one, everything is set aside in order to pursue that which is lost. The message? Regardless of where I hide, God does whatever it takes to watch over me and to love me. When I doubt that I can possibly be forgiven, I recall the parables of The Prodigal Son, The Unjust Judge and The Friend at Midnight. The message? Regardless of how the world responds to my guilt, God always looks beyond what I have done to embrace me and to encourage me to be begin anew.

It seems to me that Jesus’ effort was well placed. Jesus’ lessons regarding God’s mercy and patience, forgiveness and love will remain with me always.

Generous God, thank you for gifting humankind with such a great teacher. Help us to take Jesus’ lessons to heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved