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

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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

Jesus’ Prayer

“This is how you are to pray.”
Matthew 6:9

Though I’ve worked to remedy this over the years, I recently caught myself elaborating far too extensively regarding a truly trivial topic. Though I was very tired and not particularly attentive to much of anything, I managed to talk on and on. My friends were kind enough to listen quietly until I interrupted myself. “Who cares about this anyway?” I asked them and me. After a good laugh at myself, I sat back and listened.

Jesus seems to be making a similar point when he teaches his disciples how to pray. In spite of all of the psalms and scripture passages available to him, Jesus chose the few, simple and powerful words which would become the Lord’s Prayer for this lesson. If Jesus composed that prayer today, he might say something this: God, the best parent you will ever have, resides in heaven and is deserving of your praise. Ask that God’s will be done because God’s plans will take you to far better places than your own plans ever will. Ask for your daily bread, to be forgiven and to be kept from temptation because this God will respond to all of your needs. Take God’s care to heart, and forgive one another and care for one another as God does. So be it!

Loving God, Jesus said it best, didn’t he? Teach me to pray selflessly and with absolute faith in your love for me and for all of your children.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Reveal God’s Love

“The works that I’ve given to accomplish,
these works that I perform testify on my behalf
that God has sent me.”

From John 5:36

For just a little while, I’m once again citing my childhood impatience with some of Jesus’ contemporaries. As a pre-teen (I think I’d be a “tween” today), it seemed obvious to me that Jesus’ lessons, parables and works had to have come from a loving God. I wondered often why it was so difficult for the Pharisees to accept the same. They knew that Israel had awaited the Messiah for some time by then. They knew better than the rest of the people the Messiah’s origins and the circumstances of his eventual arrival. Still, they rejected Jesus.

Sadly, I admit that I sometimes do the same… Jesus accomplished amazing things from his humble state, yet I wonder if my retirement will be comfortable. Jesus needed no worldly authority to serve others, but I’m sometimes saddened when others don’t value my input. Jesus habitually sought the company of outcasts. Still, I sometimes seek out the local power-brokers to promote my causes. Jesus set aside his own concerns whenever he was needed. As for me, I sometimes withdraw because I’m tired of doing all that I do. Jesus prayed at every opportunity and I can go for hours without whispering a word to God above.

Though I wish the Pharisees had embraced Jesus rather than rebuffing them, I’m going to forget about their behavior and focus on my own. I know that Jesus revealed our loving God quite accurately and it’s up to me to do the same as best I can.

Good and Patient God, help me to reveal your love as only I can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

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.