Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing. A fellow parishioner had just read my reflection which referenced our recent trip to Israel. Though this person was touched by what I’d written, he quickly asked, “But was it safe there?” After assuring him that the good deacon and I always felt secure in Jesus’ homeland, I shared our older son’s response to our first trip to Israel. When Mike and I announced our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile. He looked me in the eyes and declared, “Well, Mom, it’s been a good run.” Though I assured our firstborn that I’d never travel to an unsafe destination, I sensed that he was more than a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his half-hearted smile stayed with me until we returned home safely. Though we remained completely outside of harm’s way throughout our visits to the Holy Land, I do understand our son’s concerns beforehand. I wondered if Jesus’ mother shared our son’s worry when Jesus left home for the streets of Cana and Capernaum. The truth is that, in many ways, Jesus’ homeland hasn’t changed much since Jesus lived there.

Though Israel’s politics sometimes suggests otherwise, the variety of people who make up that nation’s diverse population interact on many levels every day. Our Jewish Israeli guide Yossi and our Palestinian bus driver worked very well together. Day after day, they join their fellow citizens in doing their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Yossi observed often, “All they want is to work and provide a home and food and a life for their children. This is what we all want.” Yossi certainly supported this effort as he guided us to a Muslim monastery, an Italian Catholic mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the West Bank, Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, Arab shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. Each of these encounters spoke to the people’s successful efforts to co-exist on the job, in their neighborhoods and as friends. How could my thoughts not turn to Jesus’ similar efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scriptures address all of our efforts to build community in our little corners of the world. The first reading (Exodus 17:3-7) tells us how Moses dealt with the grumbling Israelites who seemed to have forgotten that they’d been led from the grips of slavery and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout their journey. They went so far as to threaten Moses when they deemed the available drinking water too bitter to drink. Filled with disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s lack of faith, God provided the water they craved. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings which their ancestors in the desert had overlooked. Those blessings flowed like water from Jesus and from themselves when they sustained one another. Above all, Paul insisted that God remained with them.

It is the passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) which gets to the heart of what I discovered while among the people of Israel. John shared the details of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria. As he rested at Jacob’s well, Jesus surprised the woman by asking her for a drink of water. At the time, Jewish people avoided association with Samaritan people at all costs. Jesus’ request for water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more in return than a sip of water merited. When this woman ignored societal barriers and acknowledged Jesus, her life changed forever. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or twelfth chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply accepted her as she was and asked that she open her heart to something more. In the end, that encounter touched the woman so deeply that she couldn’t help spreading Jesus’ good news throughout her town. As it happened, many turned to Jesus that day because the woman from Samaria indiscriminately shared her good fortune with them all.

I never expected our treks to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and lessons to me. I would never have guessed that the efforts of Palestinians and Jews, Muslims and Arabs, Christians and agnostics of every sort to live and to work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, the majority of Israel’s people diligently invest themselves in building community. It seems that Jesus invited the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she shared the Jewish rabbi’s message of love and mercy, the woman inspired others to do the same. This Lent, as I try to open my heart more completely to Jesus, that wise and brave Samaritan woman nudges me along. Her eagerness to share all that Jesus had done for her inspires me to find ways to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Good Company

I sought God, and God answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

Loss is tough. Loss occurs in relationships cut short by a misunderstanding or a move. Loss comes in the passing of our loved ones. Loss comes with divorce, even when this choice is mutual. The loss of a familiar workplace or neighborhood brings heartache. When we find ourselves at odds with an institution which once felt as comfortable as home, we find ourselves at a loss as well. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness, hopelessness and solitude consume us in the midst of these events. It seems no one and nothing can fill the emptiness within us.

The good news for all of us is that we don’t face our losses alone. Rather, we find ourselves embraced in sacred moments of sharing. Sometimes, they come in human form through the voice of a knowing friend; in the song of a mother who will love her child forever; in an artist’s rendition of a father hugging his prodigal son; in the kindness of a colleague who takes over simply because she is needed; in the parents and grandparents, spouses and significant others, sisters, brothers and friends who teach us to hold onto one another in the best and worst of times. Sometimes, these sacred moments come in the reassurance we find in the depths of our own hearts. Always, God is with us in every loss. Always, God responds with healing love.

Loving God, thank you for being with us through our losses and everything else!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Water, Water Everywhere!*

As of late, I’ve been taken with meteorological images. I’ve shared my experience with a perfect storm and the multifaceted clouds which so often surround us. Though we most often associate storms and clouds with troubling circumstances, both can also be the source of new life and joy. Though I hobbled a bit during and after my bout with that storm, the sunshine which followed penetrated my spirit with renewed energy. Clouds in the aftermath revealed unexpected blessings. The rain which has fallen since has helped as well by washing away lingering debris. That rain also softened the ground beneath my feet just enough to allow new seedlings to poke their way through. What a beautiful addition to the landscape around me! Yes, I’ve weathered that storm, I’ve found encouragement in the clouds and I’ve been renewed by the rain! What more can I ask for? It occurs to me that, as always, God has been quite generous. Since this is the case, I’ll answer my own question. There is nothing more for me to ask for. So it is that, today, I turn my eyes upward to ask, “Lord, what is it that you’re asking of me?”

My propensity not to allow God time enough to respond to my questions failed to come to fruition this time around. Apparently, God’s eagerness was greater than my own because I was immediately inspired. Thank you, Lord! That inspiration suggested that, though it comes to us in the midst of inclement weather, water is the most precious commodity Creation has to offer, with the exception of course, of those God has given us to love. With that, I turned to today’s scripture readings. There I found it: Water, water, everywhere!* Each passage invites us to dance in the rain and to embrace the waters of God’s presence in our lives. If my recent history is any indication, this is truly life-giving advice.

The reading from Exodus (17:3-7) chronicles Moses’ distress as he stood before the unruly Israelites. Though God had promised to lead them to “…a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey,” they’d found themselves dying of thirst. Rather than trusting God who had already delivered them from the bondage of Egypt, the people grumbled and threatened Moses. In fear and disgust, Moses begged God for help before the people took matters into their own hands. Fortunately, and in spite of their faithlessness, God provided the water they so desperately needed. Sadly, it took many more similar encounters to convince the people that God’s presence among them was far more plentiful than the water God had provided. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to drink of the blessings which came with the death of Jesus. This one from Galilee had outstretched his arms for each one of them. In the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side on the cross, new life abounded. Indeed, through both his life among them and his death, Jesus offered the waters of new life. Through this water, God remained to forgive and to revive, that each one would thrive, if only they chose to drink in God’s presence.

If God’s intent to ensure that we flourish through the waters of eternal life isn’t yet clear, John’s gospel (4:5-42) certainly makes it so. John wrote of Jesus’ encounter with a woman from Samaria as he rested at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman when he asked her for a drink of water. At the time, the Jewish people avoided any association with Samaritans. Sharing a drink of water crossed lines better left undisturbed. Nonetheless, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more than a simple drink in return. Much to her surprise, Jesus promised the woman eternal life. Impossible as this seemed, the woman allowed Jesus to explain. This woman was so taken with Jesus’ openness and his absolute acceptance of her that she couldn’t walk away from him. It was at Jacob’s well which was replenished by rain from heaven above that Jesus extended a second chance to this woman. Had this been her sixth or twelfth or thirty-third chance, Jesus would have offered it as freely. Once again, God forgave and revived that another of God’s children might thrive, if only she chose to do so. That wise Samaritan woman did just that!

At one time or another, we all find ourselves in the midst of perfect storms, surrounded my clouds and far more rainfall than we care to deal with. It’s difficult not to give up when we’re deluged by these things. Still, God insists that the joy and the sorrow, the comedy and the tragedies which make up our lives are of great concern to this Loving Parent of ours. All the while, God waits patiently to quench our thirst, to forgive and to revive, if only we choose to accept God’s kindness. Though I may seem to be writing from my own choices to dance in the waters of God’s love for me, I find myself apologizing to God far more often than I care to admit for having done just the opposite. I worry and I tread water until I become more overwhelmed than ever. Sometimes, it is only when I’m far too thirsty and weary and desperate to go on that I turn to God. And, just as generously as God responded to the Israelites and the woman at the well, God revives me with a cupful of Divine Love. I am fully convinced that God waits with another cupful for me, just as God waits with another cup filled with Divine Love just for you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*From Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

God Responds With Love… Always!

The good deacon and I returned from a wonderful trip to Italy several days ago. For reasons unknown to me, I continue to struggle with a bit of jet-lag at the moment. I’ve found it difficult to settle into the routines which had structured my days before our travel. I puzzled over this while I walked the neighborhood. When I returned home with no insight, I retreated to our backyard. I ambled about the patio to bid my farewell to the colorful flowers and greenery which had delighted me this past summer. As always, my dear husband had put his green thumb to good use in selecting, arranging and nurturing the annuals which surround our home. Early every October, Mike reluctantly pulls up his handiwork, making mental notes about the coming year’s selections all the while. As I said good-bye to my floral friends, I added my apologies for ignoring them for days at a time. Before we left for our vacation, worry regarding many things had drawn me to my knees and away from much else. As I considered the flowers which would soon take their leave, I found myself painfully aware of this life’s fragility.

I went into the house for a glass of water and attempted to set aside my melancholy. I tried to focus on the things I had to do, especially this writing. As I drank that cool water, I wished that a few drops of inspiration would fill me up as well. With that, I refilled my glass. Rather than heading to my keyboard, I went out to our screened porch. I sat to gaze at the flowers of Summer 2018 for a while longer. Though I’m usually invigorated by our annual fall cleanup, I was glad that we wouldn’t get to it for a few more days. In spite of my affection for winter, the thought of losing everything in sight to make way for snow pained me. In spite of my certainty regarding the potential contained in every falling leaf, the leaves strewn about our yard distressed me as well. Though the browning petals and stems which Mike will soon pull from our flowerbeds also promised new life to next year’s plantings, melancholy overwhelmed me…

Sometimes, when life as we know it is threatened, pain engulfs us and threatens to rob us of our hope. For me, this is most often true when the solutions to the problems at hand are beyond my grasp. When I finally and reluctantly admit that there is nothing I can do on my own, I turn to God. Over the years, I’ve learned to take God’s love for us very personally. From the time I was a child, I’ve known that God’s love remains with us in the best and worst of times and through everything which occurs in between. It seems that I’ve known forever that hopelessness simply isn’t an option for God’s loved ones and that we are all God’s loved ones. With that in mind, I looked at our drooping blossoms differently. I looked at my worries differently, too. I admitted that I’d allowed these things to take their toll for far too long. I also admitted that pouring out my heart to God made all of the difference in the world. Pained as I was, I finally acknowledged that all will unfold as it should. Just as our dying flowers will nourish next spring’s growth, God’s presence in the midst of my troubles nourishes me.

I’m sharing all of this with you because I don’t want you to be thrown by Jesus’ stance in today’s gospel (Mark 10:2-16). Mark portrays Jesus with a stern and uncompromising attitude. I want to be certain that you realize that Jesus directed this harshness toward the Pharisees and not toward God’s suffering people. The Pharisees relentlessly attempted to trap Jesus in blasphemy. On this occasion, they tested Jesus with questions regarding divorce. Jesus’ response made it clear that he understood The Law regarding this issue. Jesus also made it clear that God’s intent is to support us in our loving relationships with one another. After this discussion, Jesus continued to respond with love and compassion to those he met along the way, including those steeped in marital strife.

God, who knows our suffering better than we know it ourselves, offers the same to you and me. Whether the life of a loved one or the life of a cherished relationship is threatened, God experiences our dread with us. It’s not God’s intent to cause those of us who’ve experienced divorce to squirm in our pews today. The decades I’ve spent assisting people with the annulment process have provided me a glimpse into their pain. Though my heart aches in response, God understands the pain of a failing marriage far better than I. Our human relationships can be sources of great joy and God asks that we do our best to nurture that joy. When these relationships become sources of great sorrow, God asks that we address this sorrow honestly. Sometimes, we can work through the sorrow and return to our joy. Sometimes, we have no choice but to walk away. In either case, we do so in the presence of our loving God. On the occasion I describe above, it took me far too long to turn my worries over to God. I encourage you not to make the same mistake!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love… Worthwhile Work!

Love is patient and love is kind…
From 1 Corinthians 13:4

This month, my husband and I celebrate a bit of a milestone in our marriage. Happy Anniversary, Dear!

Fifteen years into our marriage, Mike was ordained a deacon. As a result, he can witness marriages. As for me, I assist divorced persons with the church’s annulment process. Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two regarding both scenarios. I’ve come to believe that those whose marriages succeed find themselves integrating the bliss of their best days and the sadness of their worst arguments with their efforts to love one another. In the end, these fortunate souls view their partners both realistically and lovingly as much as possible and they proceed accordingly with love.

I’ve also learned that there are many reasons that some marriages don’t succeed. At times neither party has made the necessary commitment. At times, two very good people simply shouldn’t have taken their relationship to this lifelong level. At times, in spite of the stellar efforts of one party, the other simply does not or cannot live up to the responsibilities of marriage. Finally, domestic violence or other circumstances deem the relationship unhealthy at best. In the end, God wishes happiness to us all. I’m grateful to have been able to help those in these types of circumstances to pick up the pieces and to move on.

You know, God wishes us happiness in all of our relationships. This is the reason God asks us to be patient and kind and to do our best to coexist with all the love that we can muster for the long haul.

Loving God, thank you for trusting us with the amazingly difficult, yet life-giving ability to love.

God With Us

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

Loss is tough. Loss occurs in relationships cut short by a misunderstanding or a move. Loss comes in the passing of our loved ones. Loss comes with divorce, even when this choice is mutual. The loss of a familiar workplace or neighborhood brings heartache. When we find ourselves at odds with an institution which once felt as comfortable as home, we find ourselves at a loss as well. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness, hopelessness and solitude consume us in the midst of our losses, and it seems no one and nothing can fill the emptiness within us.

I’m most grateful to acknowledge that when we face loss in our lives we never face it alone. Rather, we find ourselves embraced in sacred moments of sharing. Sometimes, they come in human form through the voice of a knowing friend; in the song of a mother who will love her child forever; in an artist’s rendition of our weakest selves embraced by God’s all-loving arms; in the kindness of a colleague who takes over simply because she is needed; in the parents and grandparents, spouses and significant others, sisters, brothers and friends who teach us to hold onto one another in the best and worst of times. Sometimes, these sacred moments come in the reassurance we find in the depths of our own hearts. Always, God sees to it that we don’t experience loss alone. Always, God is with us to offer healing and love.

Loving God, thank you for being with us in everything!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved