Authentic in Word and Deed

When you read this, my dear husband and I will have returned from an unexpected second trip to Israel. I write “unexpected” because Mike and I were completely surprised by this opportunity. As it happened, our tour director’s able assistant was unable to accompany her on this year’s trek. As a result, Nancy asked Mike if he would consider coming along to help her to manage the group. My husband-the-traveler immediately responded in the affirmative. It was only after a minute or two that he qualified his response by adding that he should probably check with me before committing. Though I had been habitually reluctant to embark upon flights of serious length, last year’s adventure cured me. The people and places we encountered in Israel touched me deeply. This inspiration diminished any discomfort I’d felt while in air. I told Mike that he absolutely should make the trip and that I would do so as well.

One of the treasures I looked forward to seeing once again was our on-site tour guide. Yossi’s wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life enhanced his commentary throughout. Though it took the entire duration of the tour to get to know Yossi with some depth, our effort was richly rewarded. Yossi didn’t always have access to his country’s treasures. He was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that socialist environment, everyone worked to supply the community with what was needed and that was all that mattered. Yossi celebrated the day his family was able to leave that place to fend for themselves with some autonomy. At the same time, Yossi remained community-minded. He is keenly aware of the plight of the Israeli people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. He acknowledged that, while political conditions indicated otherwise, most of the people who occupy Israel get along with one another. Yossi also considers himself to be a secular Jew. Still, 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 his “secular” status. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts as he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” While watching Yossi interact with those around him, I discovered that nothing was farther from the truth.

Yossi carried his backpack everywhere. Among the items he needed for the day, Yossi included musical instruments: his flute and a tiny guitar-like instrument, perhaps a balalaika. At our first stop in Caesarea, we visited the complex constructed by King Herod more than two thousand years ago. It includes a hippodrome, the ideal setting for the first of many concerts with which Yossi gifted us. Whenever the Spirit moved him, Yossi played. He offered his most precious concert in the Crusader church at Emmaus when he played Schubert’s Ave Maria. Yossi played with his eyes tightly closed as his music drifted heavenward. Yes, Yossi prays.

As I read today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28), I considered what it was that caused Jesus’ contemporaries to take notice of his teaching. Unlike the scribes who lectured in the synagogue week after week, Mark tells us that Jesus offered “a new teaching with authority.” The implication, of course, is that perhaps the scribes weren’t as convincing in what they preached. The scriptures suggest that this was the case because the scribes’ words and actions were a mismatch. Mark tells us that, unlike them, Jesus spoke from the depths of his soul. There was no trepidation or uncertainty in his voice. Perhaps it was this certainty which allowed Jesus to cast out the demon who tormented that man in the crowd. Mark tells us that the demon was certainly convinced of Jesus’ authenticity because the demon addressed Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” Indeed, Jesus not only spoke of the Reign of God; he also made God’s presence in human history a reality through his compassionate responses to those he met along the way. In today’s vernacular, “Jesus talked the talk and he walked the walk.”

When Mike and I toured Israel with Yossi, Yossi didn’t merely share his observations. He illustrated his love for his homeland and for humankind in his every interaction. I determined that Yossi prays because he lives like a man who is attuned to God’s love and concern for us. This is the reason I took Yossi’s words to heart. My association with Yossi gave me a small taste of what those who followed Jesus experienced. In spite of their lowly stature, Jesus shared himself with them. The people took Jesus’ words to heart because he lived what he preached. Little did they know that Jesus truly was the Holy One of God. They had yet to discover that the life of this itinerant tradesman-turned-rabbi would change everything. For you and me, it’s different. We do know Jesus and all that he stands for. So it is that we do our best to live accordingly.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Be Open To The Message

While going through a closet the other day, I came across a small stack of books which I had read with my students years ago. I purchased these favorites because I hoped to share them with my potential grandchildren one day. As I set them aside for my granddaughters, images from my first assignment as a reading teacher came to mind.

When I set up my classroom that August, I promised myself that I would see to it that every one of my students learned to enjoy reading. It was early in the school year when I discovered that this would not be easy. Some of the other children whispered disparaging remarks, rolled their eyes or smirked when I collected my “remedial” students from their classrooms. These children who didn’t need “extra help” seemingly decided that there was something lacking in the children who did. Sadly, I realized that my own students were also inclined to define a pecking order to eliminate any question regarding who needed the most help. The greatest frustration of my teaching career, and of life in general for that matter, has been the willingness of some of us to hurt others by designating them as “outcasts.” This situation was no exception, and I quickly determined that I would do something about it.

I will be forever grateful for the love of books which my Children’s Literature professor passed on to me in college. Sister Mary Wojnicke assured me that, if I could get a child to pick up a book, getting that child to read it would be easy. With this in mind, I attempted to convince my students that their lives would not be complete if they didn’t explore each new book which I found for them. I amazed myself when I convinced a group of fifth graders to read a series of mysteries written at second grade level. These chapter books featured a primary grade detective. Though this would not normally appeal to older readers, I challenged my students to see if this little kid could actually solve a mystery.

After reading three books in the series, my students begged for more. By the end of that year, they were reading at the fourth grade level. Though they had a way to go, they were on the road to reading at grade level by the time they moved on to junior high school. The best part of this was that I didn’t have to lecture the classmates who made fun of my students. Some of them actually asked if they could come to my room to read those “cool” books. Though I couldn’t invite the little imps in for lessons, I did reward their change of heart by reading some of those “cool” books to their entire class. In the end, my students improved their reading skills, their classmates stopped making fun of them, and all concerned were excited, at least some of the time, about books.

In today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28)), it is Jesus who finds a way to share his message. The people are ready and waiting for their Messiah, but are uncertain of where to look for him. On this particular day, Jesus goes to the synagogue to the scriptures and interpret their meaning. Jesus peaks the people’s interest because he teaches both knowledgeably and with an aura of authority. In the midst of Jesus’ lesson, a man stricken with an unclean spirit comes forward. The spirit within the man cries out, “I know who you are -The Holy One of God!” Jesus steps in immediately. Perhaps Jesus hopes that the people will come to know him on their own terms, rather than as the result of this seemingly supernatural encounter. So it is that Jesus orders the spirit to leave the man. When the spirit obeys, the people become more convinced than ever that this Jesus is indeed someone special. Mark tells us that from this day on Jesus’ fame spread throughout all of Galilee.

You know, when I convinced my students to read, I succeeded only because they opened themselves up to my message. Because they believed me, these reluctant readers turned page after page in search of the exciting stories which I assured them they would find. There, they encountered the adventures I had promised and they discovered just how capable they actually were. This is the challenge Jesus offered his neighbors in the synagogue that day and the challenge God extends to us today. If we reach beyond our comfort zones and our own painful places to the opportunities God offers, we will discover just how capable we are of loving God and loving one another. Just as my students transformed themselves into capable readers, we will transform ourselves into Christians who live the message far more capably than we ever expected. In the process, we might also transform this world into the worthy home God intends it to be.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved