God Welcomes Us All

But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 5:44

A dear friend recently suffered a broken heart. While attending a worship service, her zealous pastor made it quite clear that there is only one true church and that those who do not belong to that true church will not enter heaven. Now my friend is a convert to her faith and her entire family is of a different faith. To complicate matters further, a family member is a minister in that “different” faith. The final blow came in the recent passing of someone dear to her who was also a member of that “different” faith.

As I responded to my friend, I admit that my heart vacillated between absolute empathy with her and complete anger with her pastor. In the end, I reassured my friend with everything I know about God’s indiscriminate love and I joined her praying for her pastor.

It seems to me that, just as God has sprinkled this earth with a variety of us humans, God has also revealed the Divine in a variety of ways. God leaves it to us to find what fits and to live accordingly. God also leaves it to us to allow one another the same courtesy.

Loving God, help us to emulate your inclusive and loving ways in our attitudes and actions toward all of your children.

©2019 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

Our Good Shepherd

In spite of the unseasonably cold weather and the snow which had fallen north of the Illinois border, my dear husband and I made a trek in that direction for a few days. Though our transition into Spring 2018 has been an extremely slow process and patches of green were few and far between, the scenery along the way is always a welcome diversion from our daily routines. We sometimes take what Mike calls “the scenic route” in spite of the additional twenty or thirty minutes it adds to our drive. Mike enjoys navigating the county and small-town roads with their leisurely pace and quaint structures all along the way. When we make it to the winding byways nearest the cabin, Mike is in heaven. As for me, I enjoy gazing out the window for the duration. Oddly, though we’ve alternated between our two routes for a quarter century, I’m always fascinated by the things I see along the way. Regardless of numerous previous sightings, every farm and hillside reveals something new to me as we meander by. This time, it was a large herd of sheep which surprised me. The snowfall hadn’t yet melted away and this woolly mass stood firm on what should have been grassy green ground by then.

As I considered the determined band before me, I was certain that I’d never seen this particular pasture before. I refrained from pointing it out to my dear husband because I knew he’d tell me that we’d passed that particular pasture hundreds of times. Rather, I tended to my own musing regarding the amazing gathering which had caught my eye. From my vantage point in the car, each sheep seemed to be a perfectly coiffed specimen. Their woolen coats boasted every shade of beige. Though usually a nondescript color, the beige hues of these sheep accentuated their fluffy appearances. Their color also made them clearly visible against the backdrop of white snow beneath them. I wondered why anyone would send sheep out in the midst of this year’s stubbornly lingering winter. I quickly reminded myself that Wisconsin farmers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to their animals and their crops. So it was that I dismissed my worry and returned to admiring these wooly wonders. “You have to love sheep!” I said to myself. “They’re just so adorable!”

As we drove on, I recalled the sheep with whom I’ve come into close contact over the years. When we visited Mike’s cousins in Croatia, they housed a few sheep on their property. When we visited Brookfield Zoo with our granddaughters, the petting area which includes sheep was a mandatory stop. Last summer, we walked among the sheep at Lambs Farm with our grandson. As I considered these close encounters with my woolly friends, I couldn’t deny the realities of their habitats. In Croatia, at the zoo and at Lambs Farm, certain “aromas” and other “realities” accompanied these seemingly cute and fluffy mammals. We had to watch where we stepped whenever we were near them. When we were close enough to check, we found that these critters’ “fluff” is actually wiry and rough at best. As I reconsidered the sheep we’d past a few miles back, I admitted that if we’d stopped the car long enough to take a walk among them, I might not have found them to be so lovable after all. Still, in spite of this honest observation, I quickly told myself, “But someone I know would do anything for a sheep!” Your and my greatest blessing is the love of our Good Shepherd.

In today’s gospel (John 10:11-18), John shares Jesus’ description of a good shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day because he knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day-in and day-out. As for the sheep, they knew their keepers’ voices and they followed them closely when being led in and out of their pastures. A good shepherd’s diligence allowed his sheep to spend their days in safety. In truth, the shepherd’s uninterrupted presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. In Jesus’ day, no caring shepherd ever allowed his sheep to wander beyond his watchful eyes. Like the shepherds he respected so, Jesus also promised never to allow one of God’s sheep to wander our of his sight or out of his heart.

It occurs to me that in spite of the snow and cold, the Wisconsin farmer who allowed his flock to graze that day wasn’t far from his herd. Perhaps he sensed that they were as stir-crazy as we because of the lingering winter weather and he allowed them the fresh air they craved. Happily for us, Jesus the Good Shepherd senses our every need as well. While we enjoy or endure the moment at hand, Jesus remains to shepherd us with his comforting and healing presence. Though Jesus doesn’t remove the obstacles which are part of our human landscape, Jesus remains. It seems to me that our best response is to welcome Jesus’ company with a word or a “baa” of gratitude.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Like Our Shepherd

While at the grocery store the other day, I met some friends who’d spent the winter months away. After I welcomed them back to beautiful Gurnee, they asked about our trip to Israel. They’ve traveled to Europe, but have never ventured to the Holy Land and were anxious to hear my impressions. This is the reason they patiently endured my fifteen-minute summary of the trip’s highlights. When I realized how long I’d kept them from their shopping, I apologized, thanked them for listening and sent them on their way. As for me, I breezed through the rest of my grocery list with a smile. After loading the car, I nestled into my seat, inserted the key and switched the radio to CD mode. Suddenly, I returned to our tour boat on the Sea of Galilee. While I imagined the hillsides which Jesus frequented so long ago, our boat captain Daniel sang of his newfound love for Jesus. These images remained with me for the rest of the day.

The house was quiet when I returned home, so I stowed the groceries quickly and headed to the study to begin this writing. Because we’re in the midst of the Easter Season, my mental return to Israel was perfectly timed. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the first two scripture passages focus upon the enthusiastic disciples. Peter and the rest couldn’t contain their good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They encouraged all who would listen to open themselves to the Good Shepherd who had paved the way to God for us all. It is John’s gospel (10:1-10) which addresses the nitty-gritty of shepherding and Jesus’ willingness to embrace this role on behalf of each one of us.

In Israel, I discovered that shepherds continue to work on the hillsides where Jesus once walked. Though some must secure other employment to supplement their incomes, modern-day shepherds take this work as seriously as their long-ago contemporaries did. They teach their flocks to follow their voices and their scents. Though a shepherd smells much like his flock by the end of a long day, sheep instinctively sort through the aromas in the air to find him. Christmas card images of shepherds carrying lambs around their necks suggest the shepherds’ affection for these little ones. In reality, shepherds carry wandering lambs over their shoulders until they learn their scent. This gesture indicates far more than fondness for a wayward lamb. It’s a life-saving effort.

John’s gospel tells us that for Jesus every effort on behalf of his sheep was life-giving and life-saving. This is the reason Jesus spoke so harshly regarding those who attempted to steal sheep. These thieves had no intention of caring for their captives. They stole sheep to use them for their own benefit, for food or for sale. They engaged in covert efforts to draw unsuspecting sheep into their grasps because no sheep would approach these interlopers on their own. On that particular day, Jesus referenced the Pharisees in the temple as similar robbers. Rather than getting close to the people, they set themselves apart. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel told of the Pharisees’ repeated questioning of a blind man whom Jesus had cured. When the man attributed this healing to Jesus, the Pharisees labeled him a blasphemer and banished him from the temple. Rather than rejoicing in the man’s newfound sight and the amazing future which lay before him, the Pharisees ostracized him in an effort to avoid giving any credence to Jesus. Jesus responded by making it very clear that there is no room for exclusion in God’s family. Jesus expected everyone who found himself or herself in a position of leadership to remain close enough to the flock to smell like them. This Good Shepherd of ours went on to ask both the leaders and the followers among us to remain close enough to him to recognize him with certainty. If we do as Jesus did, we’ll remain close enough to each other to know one another equally well.

One of the most important lessons I learned while in Israel is that there is great holiness to be found amidst the hustle and hassles of our daily lives. Wherever we were, local people hurried about their business while our guide led us to the amazing sights which, out of necessity, they had learned to ignore. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is surrounded by bustling Jerusalem while Solomon’s Quarry rests beneath this city. In an effort not to miss any of Israel’s treasures, visitors make their way as best they can to enjoy them. It seems to me that we’re asked to make our way as best we can as well. We’re asked to venture through the crowds around us with the eagerness of tourists to find one another. Like our Shepherd, we’re asked to get up close and personal and to care for one another as only you and I can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Place for Everyone

“But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you…”

Matthew 5:44

A few weeks ago, a very dear person shared her heartache with me. She’d attended her aunt’s funeral. During his sermon, the zealous pastor rejoiced over the woman’s strong faith because it certainly earned her a place in heaven. He went on to make it quite clear that there is only one true church and that those who do not belong to that true church will not enter heaven. Later in the service, this pastor announced that those who were not of his faith were not welcome to approach the altar to receive communion. My poor friend was beside herself because her aunt’s children had converted to another faith. Sadly, their reasons were quite legitimate, not that my friend felt that she had the right to judge this. My friend left her aunt’s funeral feeling more distraught than ever. She wished she’d never met that pastor and she resented his callous disregard for her cousins.

As we spoke, I admit that my heart vacillated between absolute empathy with my friend and complete anger with her pastor. In the end, I reassured my friend with everything I know about God’s love and God’s inclusiveness and I promised to pray for her cousins and that pastor.

When we parted ways, I considered Jesus’ stance toward outsiders. Jesus ate with them and shared his love with them -no questions asked. It seems to me that Jesus asks that we do the same at church, in our neighborhoods and homes. Everywhere!

Loving God, help us to welcome one another into our hearts.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Forgiven… Always Loved…

After the funeral of our dear friend’s dad, everyone met for lunch. As friends and family filed in, I considered the love which accompanied them. All concerned would find great comfort in this gathering. As it happened, my husband and I reconnected with mutual friends and our friend’s family members. In the midst of this, one of these friends greeted me with a hug and then shared, “I’m so happy you two are here. I really need to talk to Mike. I’m scared to death about dying and I need to talk to him. Do you think he’d meet me for lunch?” I ignored this woman’s question because I was completely taken aback by her fear. “Oh my gosh! Why are you so afraid?” I asked. Before she could answer, I quoted from the homily my husband had given at the funeral just ninety minutes earlier. “Did you hear what Mike said? Remember the frightened girl in the wagon? Her dad hugged her and reminded her, ‘You’re my baby! You’re my baby!’ That’s what God says to all of us in one way or another when we die and God will say the same thing to you!”

Sadly, neither Mike’s homily nor my words consoled this dear soul. Her eyes filled with tears as she explained God’s anger with her because she hadn’t been to church in a while. Her pastor had hurt her in the midst of a very sensitive situation. When she tried to follow-up, he didn’t take the time to listen. This sweet woman confessed that she couldn’t return to her parish because the pain of it was too much. She assured us, “I know that God is really angry with me. I’m afraid to die because I know I’m going to hell.” It was at this point that my husband chimed in. Mike explained that he wasn’t kidding or offering hollow platitudes when he spoke at the funeral that morning. “Trust me,” Mike said. “There’s nothing you can do to force God to stop loving you. You can choose to walk away, but God never will.” Mike also pointed out that there are other parishes in the area which would happily welcome her. I think our tormented friend believed Mike on both counts because her frown morphed into a smile and her tears disappeared as she returned to her table.

Unfortunately, our wrongdoing is nothing new. Fortunately for us all, the same is true of God’s forgiveness. The scriptures illustrate the worst of our sinfulness and the best of God’s mercy. We can begin with Samuel’s account (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13) of King David who committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. If this wasn’t enough, David sent Uriah to battle in the front lines where he would certainly be killed. After Uriah’s death, Nathan the Prophet called David on his actions. Perceptive man that he was, David admitted his guilt before Nathan and before God. In response, Nathan assured David, “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin…”

In his letter to the Galatians (2:16,19-21), Paul outlined his own struggle with the law. Before encountering Jesus, Paul had murdered numerous Christians because they violated the law in what Paul considered to be essential ways. When Paul realized his misplaced zeal, he admitted, “I died to the law, that I might live for God.” With that, Paul freed himself to share Jesus’ message regarding God’s mercy and love. These passages offer powerful evidence of God’s amazing ability to move beyond our sinfulness. Luke’s gospel speaks to our funeral friend’s dilemma as well.

Luke (7:36-50) chronicles Jesus’ visit to the home of Simon the Pharisee. When Simon welcomed Jesus, he neglected to offer the traditional signs of respect which included a kiss, water for Jesus to wash his feet and anointing him with oil. Still, in spite of his own omissions, Simon became outraged when a woman known for her sinfulness entered the dining room and fell at Jesus’ feet. The woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them with ointment. Since Jesus hadn’t acknowledged the woman’s sinfulness, Simon was convinced that Jesus wasn’t a prophet after all. Fully aware of Simon’s anger and distrust, Jesus asked him who would love his master more, a debtor forgiven a small amount or a debtor forgiven a fortune. Simon responded with the obvious. With that, Jesus closed the discussion: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.”

I’m not certain how my funeral friend’s absence from Mass compares to the infractions of the poor woman who threw herself at Jesus’ feet. What I am sure of is that Simon chose to pass judgment and Jesus did not. My funeral friend’s former pastor chose to pass judgment and God did not. Perhaps my husband the deacon said it best after all: “There’s nothing you can do to force God to stop loving you. You can choose to walk away, but God never will.”

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved