We NEVER Walk Alone!

A few weeks ago, I finished my umpteenth reading of a favorite book which addresses the afterlife and our own struggles as we make our way there. As I closed the familiar volume, I wondered if the author had written anything more recently. When I entered his name online, images appeared of my now-ragged paperback and two additional titles. I immediately announced to my poor husband that we should expect a package in the next few days as I was ordering both new books and two extra copies of my favorite. Since my copy is no longer suitable to share, I need these extra copies to lend to interested friends. After placing that order, I went to the fullest and most frequently visited shelf of my bookcase. Though I’d intended to purge my collection to make room for my newly discovered prizes, I realized that I couldn’t part with any of my books.

I’ve been a student of death and dying since childhood. By the time I was nine years old, my uncle, both grandfathers and my dad had passed away. My remaining family members responded to these losses with absolute faith in our loved ones’ newfound heavenly bliss and I fully believed them in this regard. Still, when I began college and discovered that there were sources other than the Bible and catechisms to be found which address death and life after death, I immediately enrolled in a class which explored these topics. One of our required textbooks was written by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a medical pioneer who defined the stages of dying as she cared for her terminal patients. Dr. Kubler-Ross is also likely the first medical doctor to admit publicly that she believed her patients’ seemingly incredible stories regarding their near-death experiences and the hereafter. It’s safe to say that I’ve read almost every book written on these topics since. I admit that, when given the chance, I can speak ad infinitum regarding all of this. When asked why I’m so interested in these things, I consistently answer from my heart: “They remind me that this life is do-able and worth all of our effort!”

The numerous determined authors who chronicle the stories of others or who write of their own experiences in these areas do so because they can’t help sharing their remarkable news with all who will listen. My favorite book and its counterparts have certainly added a new dimension to my faith and substantiated my hope regarding eternal life. These writings inspire me to plug away regardless of the difficulties at hand because I know what lies ahead at the end of this journey. I’m quite certain they’ve done the same for many who journey with me.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ efforts in convincing his disciples of the same. Jesus’ years of teaching through both his word and his example had been blurred in the midst of his passion and death and throughout the days which followed. The disciples felt terribly alone. Fear paralyzed them and they hid, wondering all the while if they, too, would hang from a cross. In spite of all that Jesus had said and done, they trembled. Though Jesus could have moved on to heaven without looking back, he returned to encourage his friends. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene to offer her the gift his peace. When Jesus appeared among Peter and the rest, he didn’t chastise or rebuke them for deserting him. He didn’t review his lessons or question their understanding. The first thing Jesus said to them was, “Peace be with you.” Jesus’ purpose throughout these post-resurrection encounters was to fill up the disciples with his enduring presence and his enduring peace. If they believed that Jesus was with them in everything, they would endure. If they believed that they would survive their own deaths as Jesus had, they would prosper. Jesus’ final lesson assured all who would listen that this life is indeed do-able because none of them would be alone in their efforts. One day, each one would cross into eternal life just as well.

The scriptures tell us that, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples returned to hiding. So it was that on the first Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit rushed in with a dramatic reminder of God’s enduring peace and presence in their lives. The wind and rumbling walls quickly drew their attention, renewed their hope and nudged them into action. The fire within them finally ignited fully and urged them out onto the streets of Jerusalem to spread God’s word. Suddenly, the things to come seemed within reach and the disciples’ lives became do-able after all.

As for me, I’ll continue to read about our journeys into the afterlife. Every word will underscore my conviction that God’s peace abounds and that God is with us in everything regardless of how alone we may feel at times. With every page I turn, I will celebrate this reality and reaffirm my conviction that, when all is said and done, this life is do-able and worth all of our effort. None of us will ever walk alone and we’ll all end this journey in God’s good company.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Loved Always and Forever!

It was decades ago…

Early that morning, I was sitting alone in the teachers’ lounge. I needed a few minutes to gather my thoughts before the school day began. My stepdad had been ill and I felt quite certain that he was in the midst of his last hospital stay. I didn’t realize a colleague had joined me until she said, “Mary, are you okay?” I smiled as I assured her that all was well. I must’ve been convincing because she replied, “Then can I ask you to do me a favor? I bought this book for a baby shower gift and I don’t know if it’s appropriate. Will you read it?” Since I felt badly about misrepresenting my state of mind seconds earlier, of course I agreed to help her. This was the day I became acquainted with Robert Munsch’s book, LOVE YOU FOREVER. When I delivered the book to that teacher’s classroom a few minutes later, I tearfully assured her that her purchase was the best baby shower gift I’d ever seen. It also unexpectedly lifted my spirits. After school that day, I clearly recall announcing to my dear husband that I needed to find that book and to purchase a copy of my own…

Year’s later, shortly after our parish was founded, my husband-the-deacon read that book at all of the Masses on our first Mother’s Day together in 1992. Mike’s gathered our children at the foot of the altar to do the same every year since. Though the book might seem to be a cutesy means to keep the children’s attention for a Mother’s Day homily, its message is meant to do far more for us all. When we listen carefully as Mike reads, we who believe in God’s promises can’t help identifying with the outlandish antics of the child and the eternal patience of the mother in the story. By the end of the book, we who believe in eternal life understand that the experiences of this child and parent illustrate precisely the relationship which God offers to each one of us. Let me explain…

From his infancy, Mother finds her helpless baby irresistible and she promises to love him forever. As is the case with us all, it doesn’t take long for this child to become adept at performing in less-than-lovable ways. Mother thinks the worst that can happen is having her watch flushed down the toilet until her toddler grows into boyhood and then his teens with all of the accompanying trials and tribulations. Still, whatever phase her child grows into, Mother repeats her promise to love him forever. Eventually, the young man leaves home for life in the world. In spite of the distance between them, Mother makes her way to her son to repeat her pledge to love him. As is often the case with those of us blessed with “seasoned” parents, the day arrives when Mother can no longer make her way to her son. She calls and invites him to come to her so she might to speak those words of promise to him one more time. You’ll have to read the book to discover what occurs when mother and child meet…

On this Ascension Day, Jesus finds himself in a similar predicament as his time on this earth with his disciples comes to a close. Though we hear different Ascension gospels each year, the core of Jesus’ message remains the same. In Luke’s account (Luke 24:46-53), Jesus says, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Luke impresses upon us Jesus’ promise that God will be with us in everything. In today’s account from Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:15-20), Jesus asks his disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” By sharing the Word, they will assure all who listen of God’s love for them. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus adds his promise, “I will be with you always, until the end of the world.” Jesus promises to remain at their sides through everything. Like the mother in Robert Munsch’s story, Jesus repeats his promise to those he loves over and over again. This is precisely the point of everything Jesus said and did. By the end of the story, you realize that Jesus’ hope is the same as that of the grown child’s mother: That his beloved children accept love and that they learn to love generously in return.

You know, my stepdad passed away not long after I read LOVE YOU FOREVER in the teachers’ lounge that morning. When I bade him my final good-bye, I pictured my stepdad cradled in God’s arms just as that mother had cradled her son and just as that son had eventually cradled his mother. I was convinced that God wouldn’t begin my stepdad’s first day at home in heaven any other way. So it is that I thank you, Robert Munsch, for the poignant glimpse of God’s love which your wonderful book has given me. Thank you, Jesus, for preaching this very lesson every day of your life among us. Thank you, God, for loving each of us through our lifetime journeys home to you. Thank you, Moms (and dad’s!) for doing your best to teach the same!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Munsch, Robert (1986). LOVE YOU FOREVER. Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books.
This book is available in bookstores and online.

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

Always Encouraged!

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. I admit to struggling a bit regarding what to share next. To clear my head, I decided to engage in a mindless errand. I left my cluttered desk and grabbed my car-wash coupon. My car was a mess. Though I habitually keep the interior free of clutter, the exterior hasn’t been washed for over a month. While treating my vehicle to a serious cleaning, I treated myself to a few moments of inspiration.

The waiting area at the car wash was empty so I settled into the chair of my choice. I picked one which allowed by back to face the window. While I waited, 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 in a car-wash!”

As I basked in the sunshine, my thoughts returned to Israel and 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, I retrieved my car and headed home to write.

Persistent God, thank you for your encouragement which finds us wherever we are.

©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

Our Faithful Guardian

He leads me in right paths…
From Psalm 23:3

When I consider the state of the world around me and of my own heart, I sometimes wonder why God bothers. Though God gifts humankind in ways more numerous than the grains of sand which cover this earth’s beaches, we manage to misuse our gifts in equally bountiful ways.

Fortunately for me, God takes note of my discouragement long before it morphs into something unmanageable. In the midst of my laments, images of kindnesses great and small distract my thinking. Moments in nature, in the company of those I love, at prayer and at peace with the tasks at hand compel me to utter words of thanks without much thought. While I remain baffled at this transition from discouragement to contentment, God leans back and admires this bit of Divine Handiwork.

As I consider Psalm 23 once again, I understand. God will never cease to lead us in right paths because it is in God’s nature to do so. When one loves as completely as God does, one never EVER gives up on the objects of that love!

Loving God, thank you for your ongoing encouragement in things great and small. Remind me never to give up on this world because you will never give up on a single one of us.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved