A Servant and Caretaker King

Recently, I’ve found that my outdoor excursions aren’t as enjoyable as they were earlier in November. Cold temperatures challenge my ability to dress appropriately. I struggle to layer myself lightly enough to run errands, but warmly enough for those treks from the car to my destination. In the midst of all of this activity, I’ve had to accept the reality that autumn winds have removed most of the colorful leaves which once brightened my way. When I walk between errands or for exercise, I no longer enjoy the array of fall colors which never failed to take my breath away. I also no longer crunch and crackle as I amble along. The leaves I once walked on have been blown or raked into piles. In the midst of errands the other day, I realized that there is a story here.

When I finally returned home that day, I ignored my desk-full of work. Rather, I took what would likely be one of my last outdoor walks this year. Not long after heading out, I noticed a few stubborn leaves clinging with all of their might to otherwise barren branches. As I walked on, I found more determined leaves holding tightly to the trees they called home. In spite of the winds that battered and shook them, they held on. Each one seemed unwilling to give in to the inevitable. I imagined those leaves staring down those mighty gusts. Did they whisper prayers of thanks for every additional second that they were able to hold on? Those seasoned leaves were living their lives to the full as best they could and they weren’t about to let go before they absolutely had to do so.

A few days later, I bundled up, grabbed a rake and went out to the yard. As I tackled the lawn-full of leaves, I found that most of the determined leaves I’d applauded the other day had joined those swept away by the wind and humankind. Only a few remained stuck at the bases of bushes and fences. As I perused the scene, I silently congratulated them all for a job well done. I also acknowledged that their work isn’t complete after all. They’ll rustle and settle and rustle again until the first heavy snow forces them into a final resting place. They’ll lose their leaf-like appearance to decay and they’ll enrich the soil. That soil will nourish the trees which will produce another season’s leaves. Each one will go on to repeat their brave counterparts’ stubborn ritual. Oddly enough, there is story here which renews my understanding of today’s celebration.

This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year and the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. I admit to a smile at this title. Jesus’ affinity for the lowly and the outcasts among us suggests that he prefers the role of servant and caretaker. We’ve spent the year listening to Jesus as he taught us God’s ways. Jesus preached love and forgiveness, joy in the face of poverty and peace in the face of suffering. Jesus worked hard to convince us that God loves us as we are with all of our human frailties intact. While Jesus provided us a lifetime of good example, he also assured us that God expects only what we are able to do, nothing more and nothing less. Jesus walked with the seemingly unworthy and he chastised the presumptuous ones who tried to use his acquaintance to increase their own power or stature. Jesus consistently made time for the poor in spirit and the materially poor. Jesus responded mercifully to the worst of us as he tenderly loved us all. In the end, Jesus hung on a tree with all of his might, stubborn and determined not to let go until his work was finished. I cannot help imagining Jesus pondering the brave leaves who hold onto their trees as he once did. Is Jesus smiling because, just as their work to enrich the soil continues season after season, his work continues in and throughout the lifetime of each one of us?

It seems to me that autumn’s leaves offer an additional lesson regarding this King of the Universe. Our king doesn’t count himself among the powerful and mighty of this world though he is powerful and mighty in his love for us. Today’s gospel (Luke 23:35-43) tells us that Pilate put Jesus’ title as king in writing when he penned the inscription which hung on Jesus’ cross. However, it is Jesus whose selfless life illustrated all that this kingship entails. Like those leaves which beautify every spring, summer and fall and then die to give life to those who come after them, Jesus lived and then died and now lives again to give life to you and me.

Indeed, we have a good deal to celebrate. Today, our relationships with Jesus take on new life. We go out into the autumn air with an invitation to share that renewed life. If trees-full of leaves can so generously grace us throughout the year, how much more can we grace one another’s existence? If Jesus could cling so lovingly to that cross and to the lifetime which led him to it, can we also bring our love to the moments at hand? Can we grace those around us with the best we have to offer just as autumn’s leaves grace us? Just as Jesus graces us? If we try, I have no doubt that those around us will catch glimpses of Jesus all along the way!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Fuels Our Hope

I surprised myself the other day when I woke an hour later than usual. Before I could tell myself that I must have needed the extra sleep, a slit of light at the window caught my eye. “Thank you for the sunshine,” I whispered. Though the snow that coated everything on Halloween had long since disappeared, clouds and cold temperatures lingered for days afterward. What a thrill is was to open the shades to embrace this new day! Since my dear husband had already headed to the kitchen for coffee, I stayed at the window to admire the crisp and sunny November morning. “Ah,” I told myself, “Maybe Mike and the boys won’t freeze today!” On this beautiful Saturday, our sons planned to whisk their dad away to celebrate his birthday. They’d visit a favorite brewery and then move on to dinner. This remained top secret until Mike arrived at the designated establishment with our out-of-town friend Matt. Only when the two were greeted with a “Happy Birthday!” by our sons did Mike realize he was being surprised. As for me, I was thrilled to be a part of this undercover operation. All the while, I recounted the decades of days I’ve had with this husband of mine. Where has the time has gone, Lord?

Change has been a constant throughout our life together. Mike lived in North Chicago and I lived in real Chicago when we met. A year later, we married and I left the city to move north. The good news was that I secured a job I loved in the North Chicago Schools where Mike also worked. The bad news was that I left my family and friends to do this. A few years into our union, we found a house that was just right. However, that find also required my commitment to become a working mom when a child came along. A few years later, we were thrilled by our older son’s arrival. Four months later, I tearfully dropped off Mikie at our babysitter’s home and then drove on to work. Our second son didn’t come along for quite some time. Fertility issues had delayed his eventual miraculous arrival. This time, I returned to work when Timmy was two and Mikie was ten. Throughout the years that followed, Mikie morphed into Mike and Timmy grew into Tim. Throughout those years, the good deacon was ordained, the 9/11 tragedy occurred and we both lost our moms. Our kids fought off the usual illnesses, my sister was diagnosed with lung cancer and we lost her. Several other precious loved ones succumbed to a variety of illnesses and old age. Our sons graduated college and moved on to good jobs. They married wonderful young women who joined them in giving us five much-loved grandchildren. All the while, the world’s troubles remained and, in some cases, worsened. Our own troubles came and went as well. We didn’t escape our own illnesses, job-related woes and concerns regarding church. Still, I give thanks that life has been oddly joyful and sweet. At the same time, I feel a little out of place in the peacefulness of it all. Are you trying to tell me something, Lord?

When I finally joined Mike in the kitchen that morning, I drifted toward the window to admire the bright blue sky. It would soon hide behind gray clouds. Sadly, I had to acknowledge that the same beautiful sky too often reigns over ominously sad and troubled days for us all. So many weren’t particularly peaceful at that moment. I imagined the sounds of gunfire and explosions across the ocean. I cringed as merciless winds and crackling embers continued their assault on the west coast. A friend who battles leukemia girded himself to fight all that this enemy has in store. Another friend hoped for love with absolute uncertainty regarding how to proceed. The world’s poor hoped for very little as their struggles persisted. A childless couple hoped their child would soon come. I took one last peek at the slowly disappearing blue above. Are you telling me something here, Lord?

I told myself that generations have come and gone under this sky and that more will do the same in the years, decades and centuries ahead. Oddly joyful and oddly sweet days will continue to punctuate human history, just as moments of despair and sadness will leave their marks. As I considered the tough times which touched my own life, I was amazed that I continued to find cause to feel genuinely grateful. Even in my sorrow, I’d been blessed. Trying times will always be a part of our experience on this earth. At the same time, recovery from these things will also always be a part of our lives here. You are telling me something, Lord!

When I sat at my keyboard to begin this writing, sunshine reappeared for a just a few seconds. “Where is that coming from?” I asked as I read the scriptures for this day. The readings from Malachi (3:19-20) and Luke (21:5-19) explain: We must never ever lose heart, especially when we’re tempted by despair. God insists that, regardless of our suffering here, peace and joy are the mainstay of heaven. God insists that these blessings aren’t a matter of hope. They are reality. Every day, God finds ways to fuel our hope until it is fully realized in eternity.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Saints One and All!

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your mind…
You Shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

From Matthew 22:34-40

All Saints Day brings me hope this year. I’ve read accounts by two favorites which shine a bright light on the realities of trying to be good. Not long ago, I referenced St. Therese of Lisieux who managed to make an art of turning small aggravations into opportunities to love. Life wasn’t always a picnic for Therese, her loved ones and her fellow nuns. Still, she made the very best of her efforts to be good during the twenty-four years she was given.

Anther woman with a similar name once said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love…” Mother Teresa of Calcutta left her family’s wealth behind to become a sister. While in training, she saw the poorest of the poor just beyond the convent’s windows. She begged her superiors to allow her to work with God’s poor. Eventually, the little nun who later became Mother Teresa began her own congregation of sisters whose only work is to serve the poor. After Mother Teresa’s death, her writings were released. I was surprised to learn that this obviously holy woman lived much of her adult life with doubt regarding God’s love for her. Still, she went about the business of caring for those she was given to love.

It seems to me that, in spite of our smallness, we can accomplish much good as well. You and I will likely never minister to our fellow sisters as Therese did or to the poor in the streets of Calcutta as Mother Teresa did. Still, we can interact with those we meet along the way with love.

Dear God, on this All Saints Day, remind us that our small efforts to be good are enough to earn our sainthood.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Take a Peek and Jump!

I was hard pressed and was falling,
but the Lord helped me.

Psalm 118:13

As I gazed out the kitchen window, I noticed a little bird perched near a hole in our bird house. My feathered friend peered into that hole several times, but didn’t enter. I wondered if he was debating whether or not to move in. I didn’t question his uncertainty because this bird house is a new addition to our backyard since the squirrels made a mess of the last one. The man who built this replica for us had added a few squirrel-deterrents which will hopefully keep it safe for the birds. Still, that little bird seemed wise not to jump into a questionable living situation.

A while later, I returned to the window to see if that bird persisted in his indecision. To my amazement, he was sitting in the bird house peeking out. I watched for several minutes as his head disappeared and reappeared over and over again. Apparently, he had found his new digs to be suitable after all.

Sometimes, I question new opportunities as well. I take a peek and investigate, but my feet remain planted where I am. I’m not as courageous as that little bird who took that leap of faith and found himself a new home. So it is that I look upward in my fear to find strength and courage. There I find our loving God who promises always to light the way.

Generous God, our lives are an amazing gift. Give me the courage to embrace every opportunity to make the most of my digs here until I occupy my perfect home with you.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

No Singing?

Sing out, O heavens, and rejoice, O earth,
break forth into song, you mountains.
For the Lord comforts his people
and shows mercy to his afflicted.

Isaiah 49:13

“No singing, Grandma. No singing.” Lauren spoke very politely. Still, her eyes betrayed the seriousness of her request. Though we were enjoying our playtime together, Lauren did not want me to express this joy in song. “Okay, Lauren,” I replied. “I won’t sing any more.” We continued to play, and it was not long before I absent-mindedly began to hum. Lauren looked sternly in my direction as she added, “Grandma, no humming either.”

This scenario repeated itself several times and Lauren never voiced her reason for not wanting me to sing while we played. I have a respectable singing voice, so I don’t think it was the quality of my performance which bothered her. For reasons unknown to me, Lauren simply chose to play without benefit of song. As for me, I sing at every opportunity. I sing most often in celebration of blessings great and small. The truth is that I also sing when I cannot express my grief in a more meaningful way. In my mind, there is a song for every occasion.

Don’t worry, Lauren. I don’t burst into song in the aisle of the grocery store. I sing when I am alone with God and when I am with others whom I love and who love me.

Compassionate God, thank you for listening to my every word, whether it is spoken, sung or offered silently from my heart.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Seek and Proclaim The Lord

I have just returned from numerous errands. The January cold imposed a chill on me in spite of my warm coat. As I hurried into the house, I assessed our Christmas decorations. Fraser fir needles threatened to overtake the living room rug. Still, I whispered a compliment to our drooping tree. “You served us well this year.” With that, I hung my coat in the closet and sat by the tree for a while. Though I shivered in spite of the humming furnace, I soon forgot my discomfort as I perused the tree from top to bottom. My eyes eventually rested on the crèche below. I wondered what Mary and Joseph were doing two millennia ago. What was their life like after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the trials and tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah?

Our Christmas cards and carols offer peace-filled images of those early days with Jesus. They tell us that angels sang on that silent and holy night. Shepherds responded with awe. The drummer boy drummed. Night Wind asked Little Lamb, “Do you see what I see?” A more recent composition inquires, “Mary, did you know?” Beautiful as they are, our cards and carols overlook much of the reality of the First Christmas. For Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ arrival was an emotional and trying time. Still, the months and years that followed tested Mary and Joseph even more harshly.

On this Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we attend to the astrologers who traveled a terribly long distance to find Jesus. They amazed Mary and Joseph with their reverence for the child. Little did any of them realize that this visit extended Jesus’ ministry to the entire world, far beyond his own Jewish community. Unfortunately, the Magi’s unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. When they stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about the newborn king, the Magi inadvertently alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Fortunately, the three were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. While the Magi shared the good news of Jesus’ birth in their own country, Herod responded with the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two, thus ridding himself of the potential king. Peace on earth, indeed…

Joseph, a wise man as well, also listened to an angel who directed him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The Holy Family remained there until an angel brought news of Herod’s death. Though Joseph hoped to return to Judea, he found that Herod’s son occupied the throne. To avoid any possible threat to Jesus, Joseph moved his family to Galilee and settled in Nazareth. There, Joseph and Mary raised Jesus to be a devout Jew and a good carpenter. The next mention of Jesus in the scriptures is a trip to Jerusalem during Passover when Jesus stayed behind to study in the temple while his parents journeyed home. After this passage, the gospels lapse again until Jesus’ public ministry which began at age thirty. That shiver takes hold of me again as I consider how Mary and Joseph helped Jesus to prepare for that day.

I allowed myself several minutes with our Christmas Tree before beginning this writing. As I reflect upon the Epiphany of the Lord, I consider Jesus’ impact on this world of ours. Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives because of Jesus. The Magi carried the good news to places where it would otherwise have remained unknown because they sought out Jesus. Jesus’ ministry turned his own world topsy-turvy. It also changed the course of human history. Jesus’ arrival has impacted my life as well.

So it is that I ask myself how I share Jesus’ influence with those around me. My husband and I truly enjoy preparing our home for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. If I am honest, I must admit that everything I do speaks what my heart cannot put into words. Every action I initiate and every response to life around me testifies to Jesus’ presence in my life more than anything I might say aloud or in my writing. It seems to me that today’s feast provides me the opportunity to assess what it is that these actions and responses are saying. Am I revealing Jesus’ message of love and mercy, forgiveness and welcome? I am grateful that I have all of New Year 2015 to respond!

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved