Trust In God’s Plans

My husband-the-deacon and I traveled to Puglia, Italy last month. While we were there, Mike and I never concerned ourselves with where we were. We toured with a small group and followed a full itinerary. Our guides led us through lovely and quaint towns which I’d never heard of before this trip. I found each one to be uniquely welcoming. What a pleasure it was to discover them with little effort on our parts! All the while, the only choices Mike and I had to make were how much to eat and which beverages to enjoy with our meals. Though Mike has planned many wonderful trips for us in the past, it was a relief not to have planned this time around. When the tour concluded, Mike and I flew on to Palermo. We continued this adventure by exploring Mike’s grandparents’ birthplace in nearby Altofonte.

The truth is that we were exhausted when we landed in Palermo and we questioned the wisdom of this venture into Sicily. Fortunately, our friends Francesco and Pietro had planned an itinerary to guide us along the way. Somehow, these two managed to get us to exactly where we needed to be with the most unexpectedly amazing results. This began when Francesco met us at the airport, drove us to our hotel and then on to Altofonte. Mike’s grandparents’ church was hosting a festival which we were to attend. Though we knew a week earlier that Mike was assisting as deacon at the evening Mass, we didn’t know that Palermo’s cardinal would be there to celebrate the parish’s two hundred fiftieth birthday. We also didn’t expect the thousands of people who filled the village square. As soon as we arrived, Pietro and his girlfriend Simona met us to introduce Mike to the parish priest. Father Vincenzo ushered Mike to the sacristy where he was outfitted in an alb and stole. The cardinal’s arrival was my cue to join the congregation with Francesco, Pietro and Simona.

Because all of the seats were taken, we stood on the sidelines as the drama unfolded. During the opening hymn, Pietro tapped me on the shoulder. His parents who live on the square insisted that we watch from their balcony. I found my place above the crowd just as Father welcomed the cardinal and the congregation. Though he spoke Italian, my ears perked up when I heard a familiar name. Francesco excitedly translated as Father acknowledged this Deacon Michael Penich who had come all the way from the United States to visit his grandparents’ village and to celebrate that special day. Though I was a distance away, I couldn’t miss the deacon’s smile. Mike had hoped forever that he’d attend his grandparents’ church festival some year, but he never expected to be a part of this remarkable anniversary celebration.

In spite of his non-existent Italian vocabulary, Mike assisted the cardinal throughout the Mass. Afterward, the elderly cardinal departed while the remainder of the clergy, servers, choir and local dignitaries assembled for the procession. Mike and the others led the way for the portable shrine of Mary. It took twenty-four men to carry the beautifully encased painting of Mary which had adorned the church for more than two centuries. As I watched, I prayed that those men would hold tight. One slip and the good deacon would have been crushed! As my friends and I followed along, Francesco determined that we would see more of the mile-long procession if we ducked up and down side streets. With that, he led Simona and me every which way. Every time we stopped, we saw another portion of the thousand-person procession. While Francesco documented it all with some amazing photos, I caught my breath until he led Simona and me up another hill. Did I tell you that Altofonte rests on a mountainside? The celebration ended with a flourish of fireworks in the square. Mike and I watched while enjoying a wonderful meal with Pietro’s family.

I reference our tour and our first day in Altofonte with you because both couldn’t have unfolded more beautifully for Mike and me. We didn’t worry about a thing because we trusted our friends who took care of us. In today’s gospel (Mark 10:35-45), Mark tells us that two of Jesus’ disciples weren’t as trusting of Jesus. James and John concerned themselves with their places among Jesus’ followers. Apparently, the two brothers felt smugly certain of their ranking among the disciples. They considered themselves to be at the top of Jesus’ list. Rather than leaving the planning to Jesus, they insisted upon choosing their own places at his side. I don’t think James and John realized how fortunate they were to be in Jesus’ company. If they’d stopped to enjoy their good fortune, they would have realized that Jesus was already making all of the difference in the world for them. As for Mike and me, we wouldn’t have experienced the fullness of Puglia or Altofonte if we hadn’t relied on the good will of so many others.

In the end, James and John looked beyond their own plans to what Jesus had in store for them. I think they’d tell you today that everything ended well for them. Today, God invites you and me to do the same. Rather than fretting and wringing our hands in the midst of our plans gone awry, God asks us to open our eyes and our hearts to what the moment at hand has in store. Though we can do our best to prepare, sometimes simply embracing the moment that God has prepared for us is enough.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Do Your Best and Trust God!

While sorting through my files, I came across a story someone shared with me almost twenty years ago. Amazed that I’d kept it, I reread the narrative to determine why it had been important to me. When I reached the bottom of the page, I smiled in spite of the tear which trickled down my cheek. As I dabbed it away, I looked upward and whispered a prayer of gratitude. This discovery was perfectly timed because I was hard-pressed to complete a number of these reflections before leaving for our recent trip to Italy. This sweet story addressed not only the disciples’ dilemma in today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:30-37), but also the difficulties which have plagued us within the church, this world of ours and within our own hearts.

The story relates the terrifying adventure of a young boy in Florida. This active little guy swam in the lake behind his house whenever possible. One day, the boy rejoiced in his swim a bit too completely. He’d managed to swim farther from the shore than usual and found himself in close proximity to an alligator. This frightened child frantically paddled toward home, yelling for his mom all the while. His mother, who always listened attentively when her son was outdoors, dropped everything. She arrived just soon enough to see that alligator take hold of her son’s legs as he approached their pier. This determined mother pulled the boy with all of her might while that alligator did the same. Fortunately, a passing farmer heard the commotion, pulled a rifle from the back of his truck and shot it as he ran to help. The startled alligator let go of the boy and hurried away. Though his legs had been badly bitten, the boy survived. Afterward, he sported numerous scars which became a lifelong reminder of the incident.

When a local reporter heard what had happened, he hoped to talk to that brave youngster one day. After waiting for the boy to heal physically and mentally, the reporter requested an interview. While they talked, the man asked about the boy’s scars. The boy quickly pulled up his pant legs to reveal the evidence of his injuries. When the reporter pulled back from what he saw, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Mister! You have to look at my arms. You should see the scars my mom left because she wouldn’t let me go!” Though I don’t know the reporter’s reaction to the boy’s observation, I’m responding with more tears.

In his gospel today Mark tells us Jesus’ words once again troubled the disciples. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” Jesus’ friends didn’t understand. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus’ demise. At the same time, they were afraid to approach Jesus about this. Though Jesus had exhibited his devotion to them at every turn, they worried. Perhaps to distract themselves, they moved on to a far less important topic. “Who’s most important among us?” they wondered. Not long after, Jesus asked what they’d been discussing. When they said nothing, it was Jesus who moved on. He called their attention to a little child whom he hugged. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me, but the One who sent me.” Jesus dismissed his friends’ concern regarding their status and he addressed the heart of the matter: God’s ongoing love for each one of them and God’s call for them to extend that love to one another and to everyone they met along the way.

As I read today’s gospel, I considered the frantic mother who battled with that menacing alligator for her son. Though she’d been busy inside, nothing mattered when she heard her child’s cries. That mother responded to her son when he needed her most. While that alligator certainly left his mark on that little boy, so did his mother. It occurs to me that Jesus was busy with many things as well when he walked among us. Still, when he heard the cries of those who needed him, he abandoned the tasks at hand to respond. Jesus left his mark on everyone he met along the way. Jesus did this to assure all who heard him that God’s love for us is ongoing and complete.

As I prepared to write this reflection, I found myself swimming with that little boy in the proximity of a congregation of menacing alligators. (Did you know that a group of alligators is actually called a congregation?) Those gators seemed to come from every direction to distract me from my family, prepping for our trip and this writing. As I struggled at my keyboard, I looked up in frustration. It was then that I saw a favorite bit of artwork -a rendering of two hands cupped around the face of a child. Before attempting to begin this writing again, I thanked God for the reminder that someone is holding on to me as well. Though scars from this life’s battles sometimes threaten my hope, the scars from God’s grip comfort me. With that, I entrusted the troubles swarming around me to God and I began to write.
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Make The Most of It!

He instructed them to
take nothing on the journey
but a walking stick…

Mark 6:8

When we discovered that our newest grandchild was on the way, we adjusted our travel plans a bit. This grandma will never be out of town when a birth is imminent! Now that our fifth grandchild has arrived, we’re preparing to take our leave for a few days.

My husband has always been an avid fan of the travel section of any newspaper. When we retired, he began to dissect each edition with even greater interest. He kept various pages in a folder for future reference. This effort paid off as his propaganda urged me to commit to our first trip overseas. I used to avoid the planning stage of any trip because my husband’s wanderlust guides him with such precision. The results of his efforts never disappoint. We’ve enjoyed a wonderful time every time we’ve reached our destination. My only issue continues to be those final days of packing. Regardless of my checklists and my care in preparing, I’m convinced that we’ll leave home without some item that we’ll desperately need. Actually, this has never happened!

Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he sent out his disciples with no luggage. Perhaps he didn’t want anything to keep them from making the most of their travels among us. Perhaps he also doesn’t want anything to stop us from making the most of our time here.

Dear God, thank you for the persistent reminders to make the most of our journeys on this earth.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Irresistible God

When Jesus said, “Come after me;
I will make you fishers of men,”
They immediately abandoned their nets
and became his followers.

Mark 1:17-18

My relationship with God began early on. My parents inspired my effort in this regard by taking their own faith to heart. No matter what the circumstances, they found reason to thank God for blessings received or to place the misery of the moment in God’s hands. My parents and all of my family seemed to assume God’s involvement in everything. No matter what, they were convinced that God was aware. They also knew that, in the end, all would work out for the best. Most of the adults I met along the way seemed to share my family’s perspective. When I came across someone whose opinion differed, I contented myself with the knowledge that God loved that person regardless of what he or she thought of God.

I think the adults who inspired my faith took their lead from Jesus’ followers. When I consider how quickly the disciples walked away from their daily lives to follow Jesus, I feel certain that something about Jesus drew them in. Simon and Andrew were successful fishermen who left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Martha and Mary ignored the social mores of the day when they opened their home and hearts to Jesus. Mary Magdalene, a woman of means who made her own way in spite of persistent illness, did the same. Did Jesus do such an amazing job of revealing God’s love and compassion and mercy that his company was irresistible? The God I’ve come to know and love certainly is!

Generous God, thank you for the gift of you. You’ve transformed my life from the moment I first heard your name.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Things That Stay With Us

It was after dinner Monday evening. Since my dear husband and I had spent the day with our grandson, I was fully prepared to snuggle in my recliner until bedtime. Mike sat a few feet away in his own chair with his laptop in position for an email and Facebook check. I would have dozed off as Mike typed away if he hadn’t begun to whistle Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Before I could question Mike’s choice of melodies, I remembered that Danny and I had sung that song several times throughout the day. Danny is allowed to watch an episode or two of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood most days and he’s learned the lyrics to this and a few other favorites. Danny often sings them while we play. As for me, I remember every word because I used to sing those lyrics decades ago with Mr. Rogers and with our own sons. As Mike whistled away, I offered my thanks for Mr. Rogers’ influence during our sons’ formative years and for his continued presence to Danny through Daniel Tiger. I ended my prayer by observing, “Nice that those lyrics have stayed with me.”

Mike stopped whistling as he became engrossed in the evening’s Facebook posts and I dozed off. I awoke only when Mike asked me what my plans were for Tuesday. I didn’t tell him that I’d been napping and that I’d dreamed myself back to my own childhood. I’d been gazing skyward toward the white clouds which lingered above the backyard of my childhood home. Many a summer evening, I sat on a swing with my eyes fixed on the billowing white clusters above me. I loved the clouds because I knew that just beyond them God kept watch over me and my loved ones. Though my parents had never put it quite this way, their continued reliance upon our benevolent Creator assured me of this reality. “Nice that those memories have stayed with me,” I mumbled to myself.

When I finally turned my attention to Mike’s question, I told him that I had nothing special planned except to write. When he went on to ask if I wanted to see a movie and then added that the Mr. Roger’s documentary was available, I jumped at the opportunity. Mike would likely have chosen to see something else since we haven’t been to a movie in some time. Still, in spite of the thirty minute drive we’d have to make for the showing, my very dear husband checked the show times and then asked which one I’d prefer. As for me, I’d already begun to anticipate this viewing because I’d seen snippets a few days earlier. As I considered Mr. Rogers’ contribution to the welfare of so many children, I pictured him in his trademark sweater singing his welcome to the neighborhood to everyone within earshot. “Nice that his kindness has stayed with me,” I thought to myself.

The following day when Mike and I made our way into the theater, I was grateful that the Tuesday afternoon crowd was sparse. If my reaction to the previews I’d seen earlier was any indication, this would be a joyful and tearful afternoon for me. As it happened, the documentary offered far more than I expected. I recalled several of the episodes which were featured. I’d forgotten that Mr. Rogers had tackled tough topics which challenged even the most seasoned parents. He addressed divorce and death, racism and war. He featured persons with disabilities whose different bodies also housed amazing talents. Mr. Rogers explained everything in terms children could understand. At the same time, he reminded the adults who took the time to watch to appreciate the value each one of us brings to this world of ours. Outtakes with the crew revealed Fred Rogers’ humanity and his genuine nature. What we saw in those decades of episodes was indeed the real deal. What we saw in Fred Rogers’ activism in support of children’s television and in support of all of our humanity was the real deal as well. “Nice that the importance of this dear man’s work has stayed with us,” I told Mike on the drive home.

I share all of this because Fred Rogers learned from the best. When he focused upon the most important messages our children need to hear and did his best to see that those truths stayed with them, he did as Jesus did. When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first missions, Jesus hoped a few things would stay with them as well. Mark’s gospel (6:7-13) tells us that Jesus prepared his disciples carefully. After offering them the best of his teaching and the best of his example, Jesus gave a few final directives: Take nothing but a walking stick… Wear sandals and a single tunic… Stay where you are welcomed… Shake off the dust of any place that doesn’t welcome you… I can’t help wondering what Jesus whispered as he watched his best friends walk out into the distance: Remember I am with you… Reveal God’s love in every word and deed… Know that your best is good enough for me… I love you… This passage closes with the happy news of the disciples’ success. Nice that the things Jesus shared stayed with them, isn’t it? Nice that the things Jesus shared stay with you and me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Still God’s Beloved…

You are no longer strangers and sojourners;
you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God…

From Ephesians 2:19

One of my favorite experiences in Israel was being amidst the hustle and bustle of people in the streets of Jerusalem. It was there that I tasted the urgency of Jesus’ contemporaries. Life was tough in Jesus’ day. The Jewish people lived under Roman rule which had little appreciation for the plight of the poor. The people also suffered under the temple hierarchy who valued The Law more than the people for whom The Law had been given. Jesus himself endured the Pharisees’ criticism because they couldn’t see past their infatuation with rules and control. It was Jesus’ failure to adhere to ritual cleanliness and his association with outcasts which infuriated these adversaries most.

The good news is that Jesus ignored the criticism and made room for whoever desired his company. He associated with perceived sinners of every sort. He touched lepers and the blind. He even saved a woman caught in adultery. He would have done the same for the man involved had he been threatened with stoning as well.

Though you and I aren’t often ostracized quite as dramatically as these, we suffer our own varieties of exclusion, loneliness and despair just the same. The good news for us is that God responds in like manner to you and me. When the rest of the world pushes us away, God embraces us. When no one lifts a finger to help, God assures us of the Divine Presence at our sides. The hustle and bustle of our human existence hasn’t changed much over the two millenniums since Jesus walked among us. God’s love for us also hasn’t changed!

Dear God, thank you!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved