It’s Easier When…

Each one speaks from his or her heart’s abundance.
From Luke 6:45

While vacuuming the other day, I rediscovered a storage bin I’d stowed away a while ago. I’d left it untouched because I thought it held my son’s memorabilia. When I looked more closely, I saw that the label on top read “Mary’s Childhood and Teens”. After vacuuming, I returned to that container and the treasures inside…

In my high school yearbook, I discovered handwritten messages from friends and teachers. Familiar faces filled my memory. The message written near Sister Imelda’s picture took me back to freshman year religion class. Sister had observed that we can get a good picture of ourselves by looking at our friends. I took this to mean that our friends mirror who we are. Years later when I taught, I observed that well-behaved kids often gravitated toward one another, while their less cooperative peers did the same. Still, those habitually behaving students were sometimes conned by the allure of unsavory acquaintances. At the same time, placing a troubled child in good company often resulted in unexpected liaisons. These amazing friendships changed everything for the children involved.

Perhaps I missed the meaning of Sister Imelda’s observation. It isn’t that our friends mirror us, but that their company is witness to our openness to one another regardless of our similarities and differences. As I consider the variety of people whose messages fill my yearbook, I turn my thoughts to the variety of people who make up this country of ours and the world at large. Now more than ever, it seems that our openness to one another is key to so many things…

It’s easier to love people whom we get to know. It’s easier to respond to our differences when we realize just how alike we actually are. It’s easier to change things for the better when we work together. It’s easiest to accomplish anything when we give one another a chance.

Dear God, help us to appreciate one another just as you do.

©2020 Mary Penich–All Rights Reserved

God Sows and We Grow

At the moment, I’m perched on the screened porch of our little log cabin in Wisconsin. The dense pine trees suggest that the woodsy expanse before me goes on for miles. Actually, there are farm fields less than a mile away. It occurs to me that local farmers must be extremely happy with their crops this year. Most of the corn stalks anticipated to be “knee high by the 4th of July” surpassed that expectation by a foot. The fields we passed as we drove north from Madison and beyond boasted lush greenery which will hopefully yield abundantly as well. I’m taking a moment in the midst of my musing to offer a prayer for our farmer friends. In spite of the misery that the COVID-19 pandemic sowed around us, farmers persisted in their work.

As I continue to gaze into the trees that flourish around me, my thoughts turn to another instance of amazing and unexpected growth. I could never have predicted what would become of the “seedlings” placed in our care when my husband and I became parents. Though, to me, our sons were the most beautiful babies I’d ever seen, I had no idea of what would become of them when Mike and I brought them home from the hospital. Our older son provided the greater challenge because his parents had never before cared for an infant twenty-four/seven. Somehow we managed by relying upon our instincts, others with parenting experience, our copy of Dr. Spock’s childcare manual and lots of prayer. When our older son was about three years old, doctors told us that he would be our only child. Five years later, they were as surprised as we when we discovered that our younger son was on the way. Though Mike and I had learned enough to welcome Tim into our lives without too much trepidation, we had forgotten enough about infant care to remain humble in this endeavor.

While raising our sons, Mike and I were continually amazed by their growth. Like those thriving fields lying beyond the pine trees at the cabin, our sons grew and thrived in unexpected ways. At the same time, there were occasions when Mike and I worried just as our farmers friends do during droughts or floods. Sometimes, we questioned our methods. Sometimes, we questioned our sons responses to our efforts. Always, we did the best we could and then reminded ourselves that Mike and Tim were always in God’s capable hands. As I gaze into those pine trees which have grown far taller than Mike and I ever expected, I picture our sons. I smile at the thought of these two young men who mean the world to me and I say, “So far, so good.” This is the reason that I look to today’s gospel where Jesus offers the parable of the sower and the seed with much gratitude and with great hope in the things that lie ahead.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 13:1-23), Matthew shares Jesus’ story: A farmer went out to sow. As he did, some seed fell on the path and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. When the sun rose, it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it. Some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirty fold. Dedicated farmers like the one Jesus spoke of are responsible for the lush fields I saw during our drive to the cabin. After assessing elevations and hydration patterns, they planted uniform rows. They planted to achieve the highest yield on the least amount of land. I wonder what a farmer within earshot might think of the sower in Jesus’ story. Who would haphazardly scatter seed as Jesus describes? Who would waste the time and the resources to plant in places where seed seemingly has no chance to grow? I can also ask, “Who would place two precious children in the hands of incompetents like my husband and me?”

It seems to me that the great faith which our indiscriminate Sower-God has in each one of us is the reason. Rather than to predict where fertile ground might lie, Jesus spread his message to everyone: on heavily trodden paths, on rocky ground, in the midst of thorny shrubs as well as on obviously fertile patches. Jesus persisted with every confidence in the quality of the seeds he sowed and with every confidence in his imperfect followers upon whom those seeds fell. God would see to the rest. As I continue to savor the abundant growth around me, joy fills me up. I thank God for our sons and the wonderful wives and grandchildren they’ve added to our family. I thank God for the amazing accomplishments of people everywhere as we work together toward a healthy, just and all-inclusive world. In all of these things, I see that God’s faith in us is as well-placed as our faith in God. It doesn’t matter whether God’s word falls upon the fertile ground of our goodness or the thorny shrubs of our imperfections. The seeds God plants within us have the potential to grow wherever they fall from God’s hand.

©2020 Mary Penich–All Rights Reserved

Time To Be Creative!

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.

Ecclesiastes 3:5

My need for order in my life makes it unlikely that I’ll ever embrace the opportunity to scatter stones. I’m far more likely to arrange them in neat piles or rows. I’m even less likely to choose to be far from embraces. The human touch is extremely important and I cannot imagine ever situating myself far enough from my fellow humans to preclude hugging. Little did I know that COVID-19 would completely undermine this resolve. I don’t know how those who’ve had to leave their loved ones at a hospital’s door have managed to find the courage. I know from experience that I could not…

As I wrote that last sentence, the image of my mom an hour before her death came to mind. When she drifted into a coma, we knew that her time left could be counted in hours. Though my sisters and I had agreed to leave our mom for the night, I couldn’t bring myself to comply. I’d stayed another forty minutes after my sisters left when I finally realized the error of my ways.

You see, when our mom received her diagnosis, she was quite specific regarding where she would spend her last days. She had no intention of breathing her last in any of our homes. She couldn’t bear to leave us with that memory. My presence at her bedside had obviously interfered with my mom’s intent. After kissing her one last time, I drove the thirty-minute ride home. About ten minutes after I arrived, the phone rang. My mom had taken her leave of this earth shortly after I left her.

Our experience with this pandemic has provide a review of this important lesson. Sometimes, we need to leave the proximity of those all-important embraces in order to deal with our most important work. In the end, there are some things which we must attend to alone.

Patient God, be with us as we learn to be creative about loving one another without those all-important embraces.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Welcome Home!

In spite of the cancellations of Independence Day fireworks displays, festivals and picnics, I couldn’t ignore one of my annual rituals. The other night, I seized the opportunity to raid our video library for the copy of Forrest Gump. I nestled into my favorite chair to relive history with my fictional friend. Though the screenplay is quite good, what I enjoy more are the many clips from actual events dispersed throughout the film as the story unfolds.

Though Independence Day 2020 promised to be quite subdued, the date’s impact upon me is tangible. My Dad passed away July 4, 1959, and it was my Uncle Norbert’s birthday. We mourned their sister at her wake July 4, 1989. Though one would expect this holiday to burden me with a dark mood each year, the opposite is true. In spite of their absence this year, fireworks are to blame. Because of these family connections, fireworks displays always speak resurrection to me. This is the reason I continue to be taken by the Forrest Gump scene in which Forrest and his girlfriend Jenny watch the Bicentennial Fireworks of 1976. The Statue of Liberty fills their tiny television screen with all of her glory. Fireworks of every color form a sparkling halo around her head. Is that burst of light in the darkness anything like our movement from this life into the next? Though this particular clip is short, the glimpse of Lady Liberty and her spectacular backdrop sets off fireworks in my mind that linger long after the movie ends.

Still, it isn’t just the fireworks. The Statue of Liberty first conjured noble sentiments within me when I was in high school. I participated in a chorus who performed select vocal pieces for special events. One of these was drawn from The New Colossus, the poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed on the base beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. The poem closes with “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Though patriotism wasn’t always in vogue when I sang those words in the sixties, even then, I couldn’t control the fullness in my heart that swelled every time these words passed through my lips. I admit to those feelings again as I write. Lady Liberty’s proclamation is awesome, indeed. This nation’s display of these mighty words at our shore demands quite a commitment from those of us who call these United States our home.

My mom and her parents were born in this country, though it isn’t many branches back on her family tree where we find immigrants from Canada and Europe. My dad’s parents and some of his siblings were born in Canada. My husband’s grandparents migrated from Croatia and Italy. Our associate pastor Father Joe’s family has roots in Italy as well. Our Pastor Father Chris took Lady Liberty’s invitation (and the Cardinal’s!) to heart when he left the seminary in Poland to finish his studies and serve as a priest here. This concept of welcoming those who wish to make this country their home has always comforted me. Where would any of us be if someone along the way hadn’t welcomed our families with open arms?

Having a place to call home is a basic need that all of humanity shares. Regardless of what happens to us while away, our homes promise us the acceptance, comfort and rest we so desperately need. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché. “Home Sweet Home” proclaims the promise and invitation Jesus extends today. Earlier in his gospel, Matthew shared that Jesus understood our expectations of the places we call home. After engaging in his ministry for a time, Jesus had done well for himself. His followers were coming to understand his message. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. Still, when Jesus returned to his own hometown of Nazareth, he was rejected. Those who once looked upon him like family and as a friend found this new Jesus to be too much to accept and they wanted be rid of him. Perhaps it was in that disappointment that Jesus found reason to share the true meaning of home not long afterward.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:25-30), Matthew tells us that Jesus made his thoughts regarding home quite tangible. Though we might find ourselves rejected as Jesus was, Jesus promises, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Perhaps I’m so taken by fireworks and Lady Liberty because they proclaim quite vividly God’s longing to draw us back home. In the mean time, it’s up to us to welcome, to accept and to comfort those around us. We know the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to take root in others. Today’s gospel challenges us to grasp Lady Liberty’s lamp and to light the way home for one another until we all make our way home to God.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s Time To Love…

A time to love, and a time to hate,
a time of war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:8

In spite of the absence of fireworks displays this Independence Day, this beloved holiday conjures recurring memories which will always be with me…

My husband and I have enjoyed celebrating July 4 since our first summer together as husband and wife. When our sons came along, they added exponentially to these observances. We live very near the center of our community on a cul-de-sac that was once filled with children. As a result, we all enjoyed our local fireworks displays from the comforts of our front yards. This amazing circus added to my affection for this holiday.

My earliest Independence Day memories include my own family’s quest for the nearest and best fireworks displays. This was particularly important July 4, 1959. My dad passed away early that morning and helpful relatives who whisked us away for the annual family picnic no doubt wondered if any sort of celebration was appropriate that night. Though I saw no fireworks that night, I find great solace in the displays I’ve observed every year since. Colorful lights bursting in the black sky above suggest resurrection to me. As I watch, I imagine that my dad’s passing into eternal life must have been a million times more glorious. While the sparkling displays above me consistently dissolve into smoke and ash, my dad’s transformation continues on in eternity.

This year, I’m asking my dad to take advantage of this 61st Anniversary of his first day in heaven. I’m asking him to rally all of the good will at his disposal and to shower it over this country and our entire world. Perhaps his effort will be enough to nudge each of us to do our parts in working toward world peace, especially within our own borders. What a miracle it would be to celebrate July 4, 2020, without a gun being fired or a harsh word spoken anywhere.

Loving God, inspire us to use the gift of our freedom to free this world of conflict and discord wherever we find ourselves.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hospitality… Our Way of Life

While checking email this morning, I came across a reminder from my niece. Angela is going to be married in November. She and her fiancé have planned a very special day for all concerned and they want to make everyone’s participation in this event as enjoyable as possible. While Angela, Dave and some of the family live nearby, many others will travel to celebrate with them. This is the reason Angela sent her note. It includes hotel contact and check-in procedures and information about the area so those interested can plan accordingly. Since Mike and I live only thirty minutes from the location, we won’t need accommodations. Still, I sent Angela my thanks as this information will be very helpful to many of her and Dave’s guests. After clicking “Send”, I looked upward as I’ve done so often during the past three months. “Dear God,” I begged, “please help us to get this pandemic under control so Angela and Dave can enjoy their wedding day with everyone they love around them.”

After adding my “Amen” to that plea, I read today’s scripture passages. I laughed aloud when I saw that hospitality is the underlying theme. I admit that I looked upward once again. This time, I asked, “You are kidding, right? Dear God, we’ve been ordered to be anything but hospitable for the past three months! What am I supposed to…” Determined as I was to complain further to our patient God, thoughts of Angela and Dave interrupted my effort. These two have every intention of being more than hospitable to their guests. In spite of the possible adjustments which may be required by the pandemic, they are doing everything in their power to see to their guests comfort and enjoyment. In the midst of all of this, Angela and Dave aren’t pacing and wringing their hands. They’re simply doing what needs to be done with the hope that all concerned will be able to celebrate with them. As I considered this dear couple’s efforts, I revisited those scripture passages…

It occurs to me that extending and receiving hospitality are basic humans needs and Angela and Dave aren’t alone in their efforts to be hospitable these days. While I’ve done my best to stay-in-place for the past three months, first responders have welcomed the seriously ill into their company. Media images of ambulance drivers and police officers escorting patients into hospitals and clinics replay in my memory. Many restaurant owners who closed their doors in response to the pandemic have kept their kitchens open to feed those doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who’ve had no time to worry about meals. Others who were sequestered in their homes ventured out to deliver parcels to food pantries. Those whose jobs weren’t essential enough to keep them working were welcomed to take home a week’s groceries. Children suddenly banned from school by a virus they didn’t understand were welcomed into virtual classrooms by teachers who did understand. Essential workers placed themselves in jeopardy day after day to welcome the rest of us into their stores and gas stations and pharmacies. When I ventured out on an essential errand, I rediscovered the value of a welcoming smile. Though social distancing was painfully necessary, doing without the smiles of those around me was worse. How I wished I had a cellophane mask so the clerks and cart cleaners and stock persons would know that I was smiling in their directions with deep gratitude.

We might view Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality as a family obligation. We might view the welcome extended to the rest of us by all of these essential workers to be nothing more than what their jobs require of them. The recipients of these kindnesses, however, hold a different opinion. The hospitality of others –their welcoming of us into the moments of their lives– makes our lives livable. In the seemingly ordinary things done for others during these extraordinary times, we’ve helped one another to survive. Though Angela and Dave weren’t necessarily heroic in sending that wedding reminder, they’ve certainly renewed their guests’ hope in better things to come.

Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality and that of all of those I’ve witnessed these past three months mirror God’s intent for each one of us. Today’s scriptures seem to agree. In the first reading (2 Kings 8-11, 14-16a), a woman of influence welcomed Elisha the prophet into her home because he visited the area often and needed a place to stay. She also saw Elisha as God’s beloved. In the second reading (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11), Paul assured us that hospitality offered during this life will be repaid generously in the next. In the gospel (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus asked his disciples to look upon the neediest among us just as that woman looked upon Elisha. Jesus promised that even the smallest efforts to welcome the least of us will be rewarded. Though we don’t need to socialize with every person we meet along our way, we do need to welcome one another into the moments at hand as best we can, masks and all! Today, God invites us to make offering hospitality to one another our way of life.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved