It’s Still Christmastime

Following this, they selected Stephen
who was filled with faith and the Holy Spirit…”

From Acts of the Apostles 6:5

I normally enjoy the day after Christmas. What a gift this is! By this time, our Christmas preparations have come to fruition in one way or another. This year, I’m particularly grateful for this day on which we begin the count to Christmas 2021! I feel quite certain that we will have much to celebrate next Christmas!

In the mean time, I ponder the past two days and I give thanks. Many enjoyed Christmas because of the selfless adherence of others to mask-wearing, social distancing and handwashing. Many others welcome the New Year because of the ongoing efforts of first responders and healthcare workers. For all of these generous efforts, I give thanks. In gratitude, I will do my best to add my own positive efforts to the mix as generously as possible. I’ll also pray for all concerned.

Perhaps we all need to extend the Christmas Season for as long as possible this year. We can do this by being the best we can be. On this Feast of St. Stephen, I’ll strive to be as good and just a soul as Stephen was. Like the good Stephen, I will try to take all that God’s love means to this world to heart and to share that love at every opportunity. In the process, I may just bring a bit of Christmas to each of the 364 days until Christmas 2021.

Dear God, thank you for the gifts of Christmas 2020 and for the gift of the first Christmas. Your love has truly changed all of our lives and this world forever!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

You Can Count On God!

Though there is nothing typical about my life these days, I have held on to my morning routine. After whispering a prayer of thanks for the new day, I count. Because my lower back is full of arthritis, I complete four exercises before I get out of bed. I count forty reps for each one. When I get up, I lie on the floor to complete four additional exercises which require a firm surface. Once again, I count forty reps for each one. Years ago, my physical therapist assured me that the results would be worth the effort. She was absolutely correct because my back rarely bothers me. Finally, I stand for one shoulder exercise which keeps that temperamental joint moving appropriately since surgery some years ago. And, yes, I count to forty for that as well.

In spite of the benefits of these exercises, I grow weary of the counting. I tried singing my way through each movement. Unfortunately, this left me with no idea of the number of reps I’d actually completed. I tried timing my efforts only to discover that I do them at a different pace each time. I even tried praying my way through them only to find that I couldn’t give appropriate attention to either activity. As I write, I imagine that the serious workout buffs and trainers among you will respond to all of this with, “Mary, just count and be done with it!” I smile as I admit that you’re right. Still, I find a morsel of vindication in Peter’s frustration with counting and in God’s lack of interest in the same…

In last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), Peter asked Jesus if it was enough to forgive his brother seven times. Poor Peter certainly didn’t expect Jesus to respond that he must forgive his brother not only seven times, but seventy-seven times. Jesus’ point was that the number of times we must forgive one another’s transgressions cannot be counted. We must forgive whenever it’s necessary. As I reconsider my morning exercises, I admit to being grateful that my forty reps of each one are enough. Poor Peter wasn’t as fortunate!

In today’s gospel (Matthew 20:1-16), Matthew tells us that Jesus presented another counting scenario in a parable. On this occasion, Jesus told the disciples that the kingdom of heaven operates like the vineyard of a certain landowner. That landowner went out early one morning to seek laborers. When he found a group who agreed to the standard daily wage, he sent them off to work. An hour later, he hired more workers to whom he promised a fair wage. The man hired additional workers at noon, at three o’clock and then at five o’clock. When the workday ended at six o’clock, the landowner told his foreman to pay all of the laborers beginning with those hired last. The foreman paid each man the standard day’s wage. When they realized what was happening, the laborers at the end of the line who were hired first began to count up their profits. If those who worked only one hour were given a full day’s wage, they could only imagine what they’d receive for the ten hours they’d worked. Ten times the daily wage was quite a sum! Much to their dismay, the foreman ignored their calculations and paid these laborers the standard day’s wage as well. When the men grumbled, the landowner reminded them that they’d been given exactly what they’d agreed to. The landowner then scolded them for resenting his generosity toward the other men. Those who worked only six or three or one hour had families to feed and debts to pay as well. The landowner had simply given them all what they needed to survive.

I’m truly relieved by that landowner’s choice to ignore the numbers when it came to providing for his workers. I’m even more relieved by Jesus’ insistence that this is precisely the way God operates when it comes to you and me. Though I’m compelled by my potentially aching body to count those reps when I exercise each morning, God isn’t compelled to count a thing. As sorely miserable as our efforts may be, God doesn’t keep score regarding them. God’s main interest is the moment at hand and our use of that precious gift. Every time we do the right thing, we accomplish good. In the process, we improve God’s vineyard as we and those around us blossom in unexpectedly beautiful ways.

Today, God continues to be the landowner who seeks laborers to tend to the fields of this life. God is pleased with those of us who begin our labor at daybreak and give our all for the duration. At the same time, God continues the search for more laborers. Every time another accepts God’s invitation to do the best he or she can, God is pleased. God’s entire vineyard benefits from these seemingly delayed efforts. The lesson here is that God isn’t counting the hours we work. Rather, God celebrates the quality of our labor whenever it is the best we have to offer at the time. Now that’s something we can all count on!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Look and See!

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about our visits to the Holy Land, especially this past year’s adventure. Because it is unlikely that I’ll travel there again, I was careful to listen to our guide’s every word and to take in everything within view as completely as possible. I didn’t want to miss even the tiniest detail of the sites before me. I was pleasantly surprised by both my clear recollections of the things I’d seen before and my appreciation of the new sites added to this year’s itinerary. Each one elicited heartfelt gratitude as images of Jesus’ place in all of this filled me up. I thanked God often for gifting me with perceptive eyes and a perceptive heart which served me well for the duration of this trip.

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we revisit the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind, my thoughts turn to a contemporary who was deprived of his vision from birth much like the man whom Jesus met that day so long ago. This person was our tour guide Yossi. As I’ve mentioned before, Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life. While he provided amazing commentary throughout our tour, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi always smiled as he revealed Israel’s treasures to us one by one. Eventually, we discovered that Yossi’s vision of life in Jesus’ homeland wasn’t always as clear and acute as it was when we met him…

Yossi was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that communist setting, there was neither time nor place for talk of God. Though Yossi’s family eventually left to live and work independently, they also remained independent from God. With his blindness toward his Creator intact, Yossi grew into a successful hardworking and community-minded Israeli. He continues to be keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. In spite of his secular status, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of Yossi’s alleged lack of faith. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts because he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his tablet and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi reverently read passages which featured this teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide considered himself to be secular because he didn’t want to be confused with the religious Hasidic Jewish people. In Yossi’s mind, they were the blind ones who saw nothing beyond the rules and regulations dictated by their faith. They seemed to have lost sight of the needs of others because stringent rules took precedence over everything and everyone else. In contrast, Yossi lead us to the home of a couple who have dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel among the Jewish people. Jacob and Elisheva found a great treasure in Jesus and they do all they can to open the eyes of others to Jesus’ message. Though they suffer both subtle and overt persecution, the couple persists in revealing the gifts they’ve found in Jesus to all who will listen. “We can only open their eyes,” Elisheva said. “It is up to them to look and see.” As she spoke, I wondered, “Had Yossi opened his eyes and seen?”

It seems that his neighbors and the temple authorities were the blind ones when it came to the plight of the unseeing man in today’s gospel. These misguided souls saw the man’s parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction upon him. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. It was Jesus who looked beyond the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. Jesus saw precisely what God sees whenever God peers into an aching heart. Jesus saw a suffering soul whose only need was God’s healing love and Jesus went on to share that love with him. The man’s cure was an unexpected bonus.

While listening to Yossi, it occurred to me that an encounter with Jesus along the way had likely done the same for him. Though he was deprived of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz and grew into adulthood, something urged Yossi to open his eyes. When he did, Yossi saw the gifts God offers to us all. Like the man born blind, Yossi was changed forever in the process. Even without eyes to see, the blind man recognized Jesus as an emissary of God’s love. In spite of his Godless upbringing, Yossi recognizes the same. How fortunate you and I are to be blessed with that same vision of God’s healing love!

It seems to me that it is more important than ever for us to keep our visions of God’s healing love in the forefront for ourselves and for those who share this difficult time with us. While we do our best to keep our loved ones and ourselves healthy and safe, we also pray that those infected with the virus and the brave souls who care for them also find consolation in God who remains at their sides.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

More Christmas!

Following this, they selected Stephen,
a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit…”

From Acts of the Apostles 6:5

I enjoy the day after Christmas. What a gift this is! Our Christmas preparations have come to fruition in one way or another. Today, there is nothing more to do than to continue to enjoy the successes of our celebrations and, perhaps, to clean up a bit. As I ponder all that went well yesterday, I give thanks. Truly, I’m generously blessed. In gratitude, I insist to myself that I will disregard anything which was not to my liking or is out of my control. At the same time, I will pray for all concerned, including myself. After all, I’m the only one over whom I have jurisdiction.

In spite of the imperfections of my life, I hope to celebrate for a very long time the God who offered heaven to us from the hands of a little baby. Today, on this Feast of St. Stephen, I hope to be known as a good and just soul just as Stephen was. Like the good Stephen, I hope to take all that Jesus means to this world to heart and to share these things generously. Like the good Stephen, I hope to present a worthy heart -as best mine can be- to God one day. In the process, I hope to bring a bit of Christmas to every day.

Dear God, thank you for the gifts of Christmas 2019 and for the Gift of the first Christmas. Jesus truly changed my life and this world forever!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

See With God’s Eyes

Throughout my life, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the array of sources which reveal God to me. The people I’ve been given to love top that list. My earliest memories include my parents’ heroic efforts. They were constant reminders of our God who I was assured loved me even more than they did. The affection of my family and friends helped me to see God even more clearly. I came closest to understanding God’s love for me the day I was told my dear husband and I were going to have a baby. Though I knew nothing of the little one who would change our lives forever, I loved him more than anything. This phenomenon recurred after we were told we’d never have another child and yet we did. Once again, unconditional love took root and I came to know God more intimately. As my writing often indicates, I’ve seen God in the wonder of creation. I’ve also discovered God in words both written and sung and in wordless musical compositions. Oddly, I’ve even found God in the dialogue between characters in a sitcom rerun. Did the screenplay writer know what I would find in those words decades later? In the end, I’ve found the most compelling evidence of God’s love for us in the words and works of Jesus.

During Lent, we share some of our richest scripture passages. Their writers skillfully wove together threads of temptation and triumph, suffering and healing, sin and forgiveness. The fabric which resulted offers an image of Jesus who brought peace, hope, acceptance and love to God’s people. Last week, we recalled Jesus’ encounter with the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. Jesus didn’t need the water he requested of her. It was the woman who thirsted for far more thirst-quenching waters. As always, Jesus responded by quenching the thirst he saw within the depths of that woman’s heart. Jesus revived her spirit that she might truly live anew. Today, we turn to Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind. Since birth, this man’s very existence had been tied to sin. In the eyes of the people, the man’s parents must have sinned terribly. To the people, it was their transgressions which prompted God to impose blindness upon their son. In the eyes of the people, this fruit of sinful parents was of little worth. It is no wonder that those who saw the man after his cure failed to recognize him. They’d passed him on the road often, but had never taken the time to look upon his face. It seems to me that they were the blind ones. They were blind to God’s presence within themselves and within one another. They were blind to God’s presence within the man who was born blind. It was Jesus whose vision was intact. Jesus saw every trial and tribulation which devastated the people and which ravaged their spirits almost beyond repair. What draws me to Jesus is his generous response to his contemporaries and to you and me.

I don’t think haphazard thoughts or my vivid imagination allow me to see God in the world around me. It is Jesus who inspires me to see God in everything. More importantly, it is Jesus who inspires me to see God in those I meet along the way. Jesus saw with God’s eyes and he taught his contemporaries just as he teaches us to do the same. When we look with God’s eyes, we see the pain of our coworkers and our neighbors, our friends and our own family members. We see unrest on the other side of the world as well as in our own backyards. Trauma in all of its forms tears at our spirits with marked precision. It also blurs our vision. Even when we attempt to proceed with the clearest of vision, it is sometimes very difficult to find God in the difficulties at hand.

Please don’t let my assessment of things-gone-awry discourage you. Scripture scholars and historians tell us that life was no better in Jesus’ day. Still, Jesus persisted in seeing the people and the situations around him with God’s eyes. Remember, Jesus came into this world as a helpless child, just as each of us does. Jesus grew up in a family much like our own with parents who rarely understood what he was up to. As an adult, Jesus stood out from the crowds around him because he saw things differently. Though many came to appreciate Jesus’ ability to see them with God’s eyes, others responded with contempt. While Jesus rolled up his sleeves to do everything he could to make the lives of those around him what they were meant to be, his adversaries rolled up their sleeves and planned his demise. Jesus’ circumstances were no better than our own, yet he persisted in seeing them with God’s hopeful and loving eyes.

As I consider the new vision the man born blind experienced at Jesus’ hands, I can’t help feeling gratitude for the same gift in my life. After all, it is when I step back to see things with God’s eyes that I find hope. So it is that I hope that I never stop seeing God in everything around me and I wish the same for each one of us. Jesus continues his work through me and through of all us and it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and to make it so.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

L is for Love

Love the Lord your God
with your whole heart,
with your whole soul,
and with your whole mind….
Love your neighbor as yourself.

From Matthew 22:37-38

L is for Love. This is a tough one. I don’t have a bit of trouble loving God. Though I admit to having had words with our patient Creator, this is the result of my certainty of God’s love for me. God invited me into a relationship. When I accepted, I committed myself to being completely honest in our interactions. This is my only choice. After all, if I don’t share my true feelings, God knows them nonetheless.

Early on, a wise teacher shared that there is something lovable about every one of us and that it’s up to us to discover what this is. This observation has helped me a great deal over the years. Though I don’t have a flawless track record, I can honestly say that I don’t hate anyone. Still, though I love my neighbor in theory, putting that love into practice sometimes poses a challenge. The good news here is that I try.

The toughest part is loving my neighbor as I love myself. I shared weeks ago that I planned to work at being less judgmental throughout New Year 2019. What I may not have been clear about is that much of that judgment is directed at myself. If I fail to love myself enough to allow myself the luxury of being a frail human, how can I love my neighbors enough to allow them to do the same?

Love is a tricky endeavor at best. Still, it’s the best work we can do and the best source of true happiness. The passage from Matthew above isn’t a directive. It’s an invitation to heaven on earth.

Loving God, thank you for creating us in your image, especially when it comes to our ability love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved