God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s in The Midst of Everything!

Though Christmas 2018 already seems a distant memory, I won’t soon forget my husband’s gift to me. Mike knows that I truly enjoy live theater. After investigating the current shows, he opted to purchase tickets for Fiddler on the Roof. Mike discovered that tickets were still available for the play’s final week. All was going well until it came time to select seats online. The two “best available” options were on the aisle of the first row center on the main floor and on the aisle of the first row center of the loge. Since both sets of tickets were offered at the same price, Mike had no clue which were the better option. Would I prefer to be up close and personal with the cast or to have a panoramic view of the entire stage? Brilliant spouse that he is, Mike decided that my input regarding seats was more important than my being surprised on Christmas morning. When posed with my options, it took only a moment for me to announce, “Front row center for sure!” Two weeks ago, when we made our way to those seats, I knew that we wouldn’t be disappointed. It was during the first scene that lead character Tevye and his fellow villagers made it clear that they were performing just for Mike and me.

Though I can sing most of the show’s tunes from memory, I’d forgotten the details of the plot until Tevye, his family and their neighbors gave life to the story. The drama unfolded in a small early Twentieth Century Russian village where most of the inhabitants were of Jewish heritage. Tevye, husband to Golde and father to five daughters, was steeped in the traditions dictated by his culture and his faith. Tevye’s relationship with God became evident when Tevye revealed his favorite form of prayer. Whenever things were very good, very bad and everywhere in between, Tevye turned his eyes upward to address the Lord God directly. Tevye’s trust in God was so great that, after posing his requests, he always added, “But on the other hand…” Tevye always left the final say to God. Though the rest of the audience seemed to find Tevye’s prayer amusing, I squirmed in my seat. This lovable man’s efforts echoed my own prayer far too closely. I’m embarrassed to admit that Tevye’s sometimes sarcastic tone toward God sounded a bit too familiar. Though I squirmed a little more at this realization, Tevye seemed unperturbed. Every time he turned toward God, Tevye was confident that God heard him, that God was indeed in charge and that God would respond appropriately. Even in the midst of the darkest turns of events, Tevye persisted in his prayer. No one in that village was closer to God than Tevye and I want to be like him in that regard.

I share my encounter with Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof because the mother of Jesus addressed her son with Tevye’s confidents. Today, we hear the passage from John’s gospel (John 2:1-11) which recounts Jesus’ first miracle. Jesus and his family attended their neighbors’ wedding. Not long into the festivities, Mary heard that the couple was running out of wine. She immediately approached Jesus for help. Jesus, who was slowly easing into his ministry, told his mother that “his hour” hadn’t yet come. Mary, seemingly oblivious to her son’s reply, simply told the stewards to do whatever Jesus asked. Like Tevye, Mary was certain that Jesus had heard her, that Jesus was in charge and that Jesus would respond appropriately.

Though none of us know much about the lifetime of interactions Mary and Jesus shared before that wedding. I can tell you that Tevye had experienced a lifetime of grueling toil, persistent poverty and persecution before I met him in the theater that night. His experiences in that small Russian village proved to be very similar to Mary’s and her family’s experience in Nazareth. Though they were God-loving people who followed their faith’s traditions devoutly, Mary’s family endured persecution at the hands of their Roman government and its unscrupulous agents. Yet, in spite of their suffering, Mary and her family turned to God. In their joy and in their sorrow, they had prayed as Tevye learned to pray centuries later. It’s no wonder that Mary turned to Jesus with complete confidence.

If you’ve listened to the news lately or read the paper, if you’ve looked down the street or into your own backyard, you’ve likely seen evidence of joy and evidence of suffering in its too numerous insidious forms. When it comes to things being very good, very bad and everywhere in between, our experiences aren’t very different from those of Tevye’s and Jesus’ families. It seems to me that the moral of the story is this: God hears us, God is indeed in charge and God always does and will continue to respond appropriately. All that we are asked to do in the midst of any situation is the best that we can. Then, we must raise our eyes to heaven up close and personally as Mary and Tevye did. With their confidence, we must invite God into the best and worst times of our lives and into everything in between. The truth is that, whether we turn to God or not, God is with us!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Write Your Gospel!

One of my former students passed away. James was a third grader and I was in the midst of the second year of my teaching career. I’d thought I worked out the wrinkles in my classroom management with my first classroom full of students. However, James’s mischief frequently challenged me to adjust and to improve my approach further. When all was said and done, we ended that school year as friends. James had a good heart and I think he believed that I did, too. When I attended James’s funeral, I learned that I wasn’t the only one to benefit from my association with him. The church was filled with family and friends who are who they are partially as a result of James’s presence in their lives. When he spoke, James’s pastor acknowledged James’s humanity. He recounted the good James had accomplished in spite of it and because of it. When those present responded with a heartfelt “amen” I couldn’t help joining in. James had touched me in unexpected ways as well. I’d become a much better teacher because this young man had forced me to do so.

I don’t think it’s ever easy to speak at such gatherings. Still, James’s pastor seemed comfortable in this role. He knew James and the family he’d left behind. Because James had lived only five decades, his pastor also knew that this was a tough turn of events for all concerned. So it was that he focused upon his respect for this relatively young man. James had made many choices throughout his life and each one impacted his own loved ones and many others. Those choices left many on his path feeling loved and cared for. Those choices empowered others to do more and to become better in ways they never thought possible. The pastor went on to point out that we’re all given amazing opportunities as we live out our lives on this earth. Each one of us writes our story and adds to the stories of others by the way we choose to live. The pastor ended his remarks by suggesting that this is precisely what Jesus did.
 
During the visitation before the funeral that day, I’d spoken with some of James’s family members and friends. Each one shared a bit of his or her grief and a fond memory or two. While I waited for the service to begin, I studied James’s photograph and his obituary printed in the funeral booklet. He’d added several chapters to his story since I’d last seen him. As I walked to my car afterward, I offered a prayer for James and for those who mourned him. I also considered his pastor’s invitation to use our own stories for the good of those around us.

When I sat at my keyboard to prepare this reflection, I realized that the pastor who had spoken so eloquently at James’s funeral echoed something which I’d heard before. A few years ago, the priest who celebrated a friend’s mom’s funeral spoke about her life story as well. In his homily, he called this woman’s story her gospel. He, too, pointed out that God calls us every day. He, too, said that every situation, every encounter and every moment offers us an invitation to respond. How we do so is up to us. As James’s pastor said, none of this is new. Still, when that priest suggested that we look upon our lifetime of responses as our gospels, he truly upped the ante. The gospel writers painstakingly poured over every word they wrote to teach us the things they’d learned from Jesus. St. Paul proved even more prolific in his attempts to do the same. When this priest promoted our life stories to gospels, he challenged us to think in loftier terms. Writing a story is easy enough. Writing a gospel with my actions and attitudes is something else altogether!

The scripture readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time underscore the urgency of getting to work on our gospels. The first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) tells us that God asked Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to urge its inhabitants to change their lives for the better. This reading doesn’t include Jonah’s initial response which was to run away. Fortunately, Jonah discovered that it was impossible to avoid God forever. He finally preached to the people of Nineveh. They heeded Jonah’s gospel and changed their ways. The second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) tells us that Paul offered no consolation to the reluctant. Paul declared in word and deed that life as his contemporaries knew it was changing and the time to adjust was running out. Paul’s audience listened as well. Finally, Mark’s gospel (1:14-20) tells us that Jesus also insisted, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” The gospels which Jonah, Paul and Jesus wrote with their lives agreed that there is no time like the present to take God’s call to heart. It occurs to me that I agree as well. If the occasions when I struggle to fill a page with my words are any indication, I mustn’t waste a minute. I have several chapters to add to my story –I mean my gospel– and so do you. Today’s message seems to be that we all have important gospels to write for one another and we need to begin living them now.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

This Extraordinary Ordinary Life

…the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”
And Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers,
“Do whatever he tells you.”
John 2:3-5

The “mom” in me finds the verbal exchange between Jesus’ and his mother in Luke’s gospel to be quite amusing. Having survived –and actually enjoyed– raising my own sons causes me to wonder what the household of Joseph, Mary and Jesus must have been like. What happened during the thirty years between the Magi’s visit and Jesus’ appearance at the wedding at Cana? Scripture writers offer little help as the resources available to them were limited. Truly, it is remarkable that these early scribes wrote at all. Acquiring the parchment and writing implements necessary to their craft was difficult at best. So it was that when they recorded Jesus’ story they were careful to include what was most important to them. This is the reason the four gospels differ in so many ways. Each of the gospel writers drew from his own experience of Jesus’ life story and each one had a unique audience with whom to share his reflections. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each told Jesus’ story from his own perspective. Unfortunately for me, none of them addressed the thirty years that I wonder about with the exception of Jesus’ adventure in the temple when he was twelve years of age. So it is that I’m left to wonder what Jesus’ life was like before he went public.

It occurs to me that the miracle at the Cana wedding offers us a hint of what may have transpired in the home of Joseph and Mary throughout Jesus’ childhood. The Holy Family must have been good neighbors to the people of Nazareth. After all, Jesus and his mother were invited to the wedding. Jesus attended with his friends, so he must have learned something from his parents’ ability to get along with others. I wonder how it was that Mary came to know that the newlyweds had run out of wine? This is the kind of information a host would keep to himself to avoid embarrassment. Could it be that Mary and her family were known for their willingness to help others? Could it be that the young couple’s steward knew that Mary would find a way to solve their problem?

Though we don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood, these years were precious indeed. It was during this time that Mary and Joseph taught Jesus that the best of human life can be found in the simplest human experiences and in a strong relationship with God. Perhaps picking up playthings and helping to clear the table predisposed Jesus to being a responsible adult. Perhaps this willingness to cooperate helped young Jesus to notice when another was in need. Perhaps being thanked by his parents taught Jesus to be grateful when others were kind to him. Perhaps there were times when the Holy Family chose to do without something so more was left to share with others. Perhaps these choices taught Jesus the generosity characteristic of his encounters with others in adulthood. The possibilities are endless! God entrusted Jesus, truly human and truly divine, to Mary and Joseph, and they raised Jesus as best they could. It seems to me that the results of their work speak for themselves.

The miracles of Jesus are marvelous, for sure. Still, we mustn’t let these incredible events draw our attention away from the very human life which Jesus lived. It is this human life that teaches us that you and I can imitate Jesus here in the real world after all. As for me, I can’t help smiling as I imagine Mary and Joseph telling Jesus for the second time to come in for dinner. When I think about the wedding feast at Cana, I am struck by the tone of Jesus’ debut into public life. He responds to his mother’s request for help precisely the way my son, Tim, has responded to me many a time: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” (Yes, Tim has lightheartedly called me “woman” on occasion.) The very human tone that is characteristic of Jesus’ life encourages us to imitate Jesus’ humanity in our own lives… to love, to forgive, to share, to listen, to heal, and when all is said and done, to leave this world, perhaps with a little fear and certainly with absolute faith in the loving God and that family from Nazareth who await us all.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Gospel

I was quite taken by the priest’s homily at a funeral I recently attended. Though I don’t think it is ever easy to speak at such gatherings, this priest seemed very comfortable in this role. He knew the person we were celebrating quite well and he had great respect for her and the way she had chosen to live her life. So it was that his comments about her flowed freely and beautifully. As he described Trudy and her activities in the parish and among her own family, the priest shared a bit of his own soul as well. Though he may not have intended to do so, Father revealed his excitement over the opportunity given to each of us as we live out our lives on this earth. When he summarized the life of this special woman, Father said, “You know, Trudy wrote her own gospel with the way she lived.” Then he smiled and added, “Maybe this is the point of all of our lives –to write our own gospels by the way we live.” Though Father went on to offer many more bits of wisdom and reminiscing, I couldn’t help holding on to the concept of writing a gospel with my life.
 
After the funeral, I poked my husband and said, “That gospel idea is great. There’s a good article and another good homily in that one!” Apparently, Mike had been listening carefully as well because he pointed out that Father suggested that we write a new gospel of Jesus with our lives -not just any gospel. The idea is to take our belief in Jesus and to live it out –or write it out– with the things we say and do. As we walked to our car, I laughed to myself over all of this. I looked up and shared the obvious with our dear Lord, “I know. Writing that gospel with my words will be the easy part. Writing it with my actions and attitudes is another story.”
 
When I sat at my keyboard to write this reflection, I realized that the priest who spoke so eloquently at Trudy’s funeral had creatively stated something that I’ve known all of my life. Every day, God calls us. Every situation, every encounter, every moment is an invitation to respond. How we do so is up to us. None of this is new. Still, when I look at my lifetime of responses as my gospel, everything changes. The evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John painstakingly poured over every word they wrote to teach their contemporaries and those who would come after them the most important things they had learned from Jesus. St. Paul proved even more prolific in his attempts to share his experience of Jesus. I shiver as I consider the off-the-cuff remarks and reactions which I have offered here and there. I ask myself if these were worthy expressions of my experience of Jesus or something less.
 
The scripture readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time suggest that, if I haven’t taken the time to answer the question I’ve posed to myself, it is time to do so. In the first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10), God asks Jonah to go to the sinful city of Nineveh to urge its inhabitants to change their lives for the better. What this reading doesn’t include is Jonah’s initial response to God’s call. Jonah runs away because he doesn’t want to be a part of reforming non-Jews. In Jonah’s mind, God should have gone ahead and punished these evil-doing foreigners. In the end, Jonah discovers that he cannot elude God forever and that God’s plans will end well. Indeed, the people of Nineveh repented and renewed their relationships with the Lord. In the second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31), Paul offers no consolation to the reluctant as he declares that life as we know it is changing. “The time is running out,” Paul insists. In Mark’s gospel (1:14-20), Jesus is the one who insists, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” The evangelists, Paul and Jesus agree that there is no time like the present to take the gospel -especially the gospel we write with our lives- to heart.
 
As I near the bottom of this page, I realize that there was much more than a good article and another good homily in the priest’s remarks at Trudy’s funeral. Father also offered an important reminder of just how important my faith and my life are in all of this. After all, the things I know about Jesus are the things which will guide me as I write, no, as I live the gospel of Jesus according to me.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved