Gifts of Hope and Joy

The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest…

From Isaiah 11:7

My husband and I sometimes grow weary of our full schedules. This is the reason we have happily curtailed our Christmas preparations this year. The truth is that we both enjoy our traditions. As a result, we haven’t “curtailed” our activities as much as we’ve organized our efforts. Preparing our home -both inside and out- for our family and friends is symbolic of our love for each one of them. Giving up any of this would dampen our experience of Christmas. Advent 2017 will lose its luster if we don’t prepare as is our custom. You see, our busyness during the days before Christmas keeps us focused on poor Mary and Joseph as they scrambled to prepare for Jesus’ birth so long ago. It also keeps us focused on the reasons we do what we do for others.

I’m happy to share that we have started our decorating and shopping early. This timing has energized us enough to attend to our “full schedules” with joy rather than angst. Though the phone continues to ring, our good will remains intact. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus ministered so generously to the needy souls who came his way. In offering others hope, Jesus found joy.

I know. I seem to be in a rut with all of this organizing for Advent and Christmas. I have reason for this. My hope is to inspire you to do the same. Enjoy!

Loving God, thank you for the moments of joy that come in the midst of our efforts to care for one another.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Love God, Your Neighbor and You!

In an effort to distract myself from some gnawing worries, I engaged in a bit of therapeutic behavior. Productivity has always been an effective antidote to my frustration, so I headed to our spare bedroom to purge the closet. I invested an hour in this self-help therapy during which I hoped to dispel my fretting. The mementos I unearthed in that closet immersed me into an equally troubling scenario which unfolded almost two decades ago. Little did I realize that this unplanned trip down Memory Lane was precisely what I needed to adjust my perspective.

On the closet’s shelf, I found several textbooks and notebooks which had been my constant companions during the 1998-1999 School Year. This year of intense training impacted both my career and my family life. The career effects unfolded in the expected positive manner. This would have been a thrilling opportunity if its effects on my family life weren’t so difficult. My husband’s response caused him to morph into “the good deacon” that year. While managing life as a school principal and our parish deacon, Mike took on the majority of our household responsibilities. Tim, an eighth grader at the time, happily engaged in pre-graduation and high school prepping. Mike, a senior in college, busied himself lining up the “perfect” job to begin his career. In my absence, the three men in my life rose to the occasion in stellar fashion. As for me, I barely managed survival-mode.

Throughout that year, I continued to staff the desk at Saint Paul’s on weekends, to write this weekly reflection and to complete an annulment case each month. What was I thinking? I joined Mike and the boys for important events which were at a minimum. Though parenting is my favorite role, I probably uttered, “Thank God!” in response. Just prior to Christmas, the stress caught up with me. My colleagues and I had gathered for the last class of the first term. When our professor arrived, we greeted her with smiles and asked about her holiday plans. Our excitement kept us from noticing the books cradled in her arms. When class began, she congratulated us for the productive semester and promised not to keep us for the entire day. Then, she handed each of us a textbook which we were to read by our first class in January. An awkward silence reigned until I spoke up. I’d been living for an uninterrupted Christmas break with my family and it was with tear-filled eyes that I asked, “You are kidding, aren’t you?” In appropriately stern fashion, my professor responded, “You are engaged in doctoral level coursework. This assignment is the least I can expect of you.”

My unfortunate question put an unmistakable damper on our remaining hour together. As soon as my classmates and I left the building, they unanimously congratulated me for my courage in speaking up and chided me for my stupidity in doing so. “Mary, are you crazy? Don’t read the book. Just don’t read it.” They planned to scan the table of contents and index just before that next class. They’d garner enough information to suggest that they’d actually read the book. As they headed to their cars, they laughed over my exchange with the professor. As for me, tears stung my eyes as I drove off. In the end, I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family and I didn’t worry about that book until school started. I had another week before my coursework began again. So, rather than catching up at school and relaxing a bit, I read that book. As it happened, I was the only one who did so. What was worse, after having given the assignment, our professor never referenced the book again. Go figure!

When I found that book on my closet shelf the other day, today’s gospel (Matthew 22:34-40) took on much deeper meaning for me. The passage chronicles one of the Pharisees’ final efforts to discredit Jesus. This time, they asked Jesus which were the greatest of the commandments. Because the Pharisees had made an art of complicating the lives of the faithful, Jesus countered quite simply: The greatest commandments are to love God with all of our hearts, minds and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It seems to me that we love God best when we acknowledge God’s loving presence in our lives. We love our neighbors best when we share that love with them.

During that difficult training year, I allowed my focus on God’s love to blur. I failed to acknowledge God’s appreciation for me just as I am. In the process, I also failed to acknowledge my appreciation for God. I was simply too busy. Though on paper I’d completed a very successful year, I didn’t feel very good about it until I stored those books and notebooks for future reference and got back to attending to the people in my life: my family, my students and the people of St. Paul’s. Oddly enough, when I put all of this into perspective, I was better able to express my love for God and for my neighbors quite tangibly. As for those worries which urged me to clean that closet, I’m putting them into perspective as well.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Respond and Rest

Jesus went into the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know
about it, but he could not escape notice.

Mark 7:24

My husband serves as our “family grocery shopper” most of the time. When I joined him in retirement, I tried to retrieve what had once been my responsibility. After my first few trips to the store, my husband finally asked, “What takes you so long? I can find the stuff on a list twice as long in half the time. What are you doing there?” When I thought about what had transpired on these outings, I realized that, each time, I had run into a neighbor, a someone from church, a former colleague or a friend. Of course, I took the time to chat. Why not? I had all of the time in the world.

I admit that I eventually relinquished my hold on our shopping lists much of the time. As visits to our grandchildren and my writing schedule have increased, I realize that efficient shopping trips are sometimes in order. I also realize that these grocery-store encounters are sometimes unexpectedly important to me or to the person I’ve met along the way.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus’ moments of peace were often disrupted by those who needed him. The same is true of you and me. All that is asked is that we respond as best we can. By the way, we’re also allowed to rest on occasion just a Jesus did.

Dear God, I am grateful that others occasionally need me. Help me to respond with kindness to them and to my own fatigue as needed.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Delights Us

Great are the works of the Lord,
exquisite in all their delights.

Psalm 111:2

A few weeks ago, I admitted that I was as tired as my poor husband was that day. My admittedly self-imposed to-do list had overwhelmed me and I needed a break. So it was that I joined my husband in the family room to relax. It didn’t take long for us to be drawn in by the travel channel. We discovered a series of shows which featured Alaska. The week before, friends had shared that they’re planning a cruise to the 49th State. Ever since, I couldn’t help relishing flashbacks to the wonder we’d encountered there. Though cloudy weather had prevented us from viewing the Aurora Borealis, we encouraged our friends take every opportunity for a potential sighting. Much to my absolute joy, the program my husband and I watched that day featured the Aurora in all its glory.

Though I’m certain that these images didn’t do justice to God’s handiwork, they took our breath away. They gave my husband and me a most welcome distraction from our fatigue. Perhaps they’ve also given us reason to take the time to explore God’s other treasures as well.

Loving God, thank you for the beauty with which you surround us. Thank you also for these little interludes which nudge us to enjoy that beauty as often as we can!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Ignite Hope and Find Joy

Large crowds of people came to him bringing with them cripples,
the deformed, the blind, the mute, and many others besides.
They laid them at his feet and he cured them.

Matthew 15:30

My husband and I sometimes grow weary of our full schedules. It was in the midst of one such bout of fatigue that I suggested that we curtail our Christmas decorating this year. After giving this urging a bit of thought, my husband responded with a suggestion of his own. “Why don’t we just get a head start on it?” he asked. The truth is that we both enjoy this tradition. Preparing our home -both inside and out- for our family and friends is symbolic of our love for each one of them. Giving up any of this would dampen our experience of Christmas. Advent 2015 would have lost its luster as well. Somehow, our busyness these days before Christmas keeps us focused on poor Mary and Joseph as they scrambled to prepare for Jesus’ birth so long ago. It also keeps us focused on the reasons we do what we do for others.

In the end, I agreed with my husband. We started our decorating and shopping early. Amazingly enough, this timing has energized us enough to attend to those “full schedules” with joy rather than angst. Though the phone has continued to ring, our good will remains intact. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus ministered so generously to the needy souls who came his way. In offering others hope, Jesus found joy.

Loving God, thank you for the moments of giving in which we ignite hope in others and find the joy you intend for us all.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peace Be With You!

I smiled as I recalled Holy Week and Easter. Though our Paschal preparations kept many of us at my parish church extremely busy, these days also filled us with heartfelt inspiration. The Easter Vigil gave me reason to walk on air, and I could not help smiling my way through Easter Sunday. It was not until the week after Easter that my fatigue caught up with me. Though I had hoped for a day or two to relax, the realities of life dictated otherwise. I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and address the tasks at hand.

In the midst of my efforts, I realized that I had a good deal of writing to attend to. I needed two editions of my Sunday reflections for our parish bulletin as a result of my Easter weekend hiatus. I also needed a week of daily reflections for this site. I panicked as I grasped for ideas. While picking up the house and starting the laundry, I tried to recapture the Easter joy which had uplifted me so completely. Stray strands of Easter grass, spots on the kitchen floor and the clothes dryer’s buzz distracted me throughout the morning. By noon, I decided to set aside my domestic to-do list. After a quick lunch, I headed to my computer to write.

I admit that I sat in a wordless stupor for some time. I reread the Sunday scriptures and then perused the notes on my desk. Though these things usually ignite ideas which send my fingers dancing across my keyboard, they inspired nothing at the time. I realized I had forgotten to begin my writing with a prayer and whispered, “I need a little help here. What shall I write?” For no particular reason, I got up to walk. I peered out every window in our house, upstairs and down. Whenever I am troubled or at a loss for written words, I turn to the outdoors. Since I did not have the time to go for a walk, my trek around the house had to do. Oddly, when I peeked through each pane of glass, I looked beyond the trees which flank our yard toward my neighbors’ homes. These structures house lifetimes of joys and sorrows. Suddenly, images of July 4th block parties, weddings, weed-pulling and snow shoveling filled me up. “Snow shoveling?” I asked myself. It occurred to me that we neighbors have shared the best times when helping one another to tackle problems large and small together. “Of course!” I shouted as I returned to my writing. With that, my thoughts returned to the Road to Emmaus…

Luke’s gospel (24:35-48) tells us that two disciples, distraught over Jesus’ crucifixion, walked home to Emmaus together. There was no reason to remain in Jerusalem. All seemed to be lost for the not-so-faithful band who had followed Jesus. As they commiserated along the way, the two friends met a stranger who asked many questions about what had happened in Jerusalem. The two were amazed that there was anyone in the vicinity who did not know what had become of Jesus. They recounted the past week as best they could, but this stranger pressed on. Finally, this man took the lead and began to cite scripture passages for them. He explained that the events which led to Jesus’ demise fulfilled the prophets’ predictions from generations past. Intrigued, the disciples begged the stranger to remain with them through the night so they could continue their exchange the following day. The man agreed to have supper with them. As they ate, the stranger took bread and broke it, finally revealing himself as Jesus. Today’s gospel begins with the two back in Jerusalem. They had returned to their friends to share the good news of their encounter with the Lord. They had not yet finished their story when Jesus appeared in their midst. Jesus opened the conversation with the now-familiar words: “Peace be with you.”

I think it was no accident that this duo traveled together to Emmaus. After all, there is nothing more consoling than to share hard times with a friend who understands. It was no accident that they hurried back to Jerusalem to share the good news of their encounter with Jesus with the rest of their friends. I recalled the many times the kindness of my own neighbors helped me through an illness, a loss or an insurmountable mound of snow. It was also no accident that Jesus appeared once again when the disciples were together. Life was difficult for Jesus’ friends after his crucifixion. Still, Jesus asked, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see…” Like the disciples, when our worries are great and when they are small, we also succumb to our troubles. This is precisely when we must respond to Jesus’ invitation: “Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see…” Whether we are on our way to Emmaus, to a funeral or to tackle another mound of snow, indeed, Jesus is here himself and in the friendship of those friends with whom we walk every day. Now this is good reason to hold onto our Easter Joy. Peace be with you!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved