Just Like You!

“If you then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God in heaven do?”
Inspired by Luke 11:12-13

A kind-hearted friend who is also a compassionate listener wondered if he’d done the right thing…

Someone near and dear to Jack had confessed her conviction that she was completely unforgivable. Before Jack could utter a word of consolation, the woman enumerated her alleged evil-doing and the resulting sorrow which had filled her life. She ended her lengthy monologue with a deluge of tears.

Jack waited some time for the woman’s sobs to fade into whimpering and for her tears to run out. When she had no energy left with which to fight off his consolation, Jack told her that he was glad he could be there for her. Jack also told her that he was quite certain that nothing is unforgivable in God’s eyes. The two sat for several minutes before Jack asked his friend if she felt a little better. She smiled and admitted, “I feel a lot better. Thank you!” When Jack ran into his friend a few days later, she repeated her thanks especially with regard to God’s opinion of her seemingly terrible past. Jack told me that he was thrilled when she said, “I really do think that God loves me.”

As Jack relayed the story, I wondered why he’d asked if he’d done the right thing. Before I could ask, Jack explained. “I always thought I believed that stuff, but when I was telling her about being forgiven, I somehow knew it was true. I’m just a regular guy and I could feel her pain. Doesn’t this mean that God is even better at feeling all of our pain?”

Yes, Jack. Thant’s exactly what it means!!!

Thank you, Loving and Merciful God, for inspiring us to be like you.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Little Acts… Great Love…

Every day we are called to do small things with great love.
Mother Teresa

Sometimes, the smallest kindness changes the world.

It was the first day of school. Two eight-year-olds made their way to the start of the new year. The problem was that Conner, who was anxious to begin the new year just an hour earlier, had lost his nerve and he began to cry. Conner’s autism amplified his fear. Little Christian noticed his schoolmate’s misery. Without delay, he took Conner by the hand. Together, these two new friends made their way into what now would become an amazing first day of school for them both.

Christian’s mom had her phone along when she took her son to school that morning. She likely hoped to capture a photo of him on his first day of second grade. She never suspected that she’d also capture her son offering a measure of kindness powerful enough to change another child’s world. Christian’s small gesture changed my world as well!

Every day, we witness countless acts of love, tiny heroic moments which change lives. Every minute we’re given holds an opportunity to make or to break one another’s spirits and our own. Whenever we choose love over anger, love over impatience, love in spite of our weariness and love in the midst of heartbreak, we do our greatest work. Whenever we take advantage of the tiniest opportunity to do good, we change this world for the better.

Loving God, thank you for making use of everything we do, especially our small, seemingly unimportant efforts. Even these tiny acts make this world a better place.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Sister’s Life Lessons

Some months ago, I received an email from a high school friend. Nadine had written to tell me that fellow alums were planning a reunion. My classmates and I have reached a milestone anniversary of our graduation from high school and a party is definitely in order! Thoughts of Nadine and many other classmates elicited a smile. After sending a grateful response to that email, I hurried to our calendar to record the date. As soon as I turned to September, I realized that I won’t be able to attend that reunion. The same day, my dear husband will witness the marriage of a very special couple. Mike and I wouldn’t miss their wedding for anything. So it was that I sent Nadine a subsequent email to express my regret. This past week, when I received a follow-up reminder of that reunion, I decided to enjoy a small reunion of my own. I pulled my yearbook from the shelf and nestled into my recliner. As soon as I opened that book, memories filled me up. I admit to some tears as I read the kind comments my classmates and teachers had written to me inside the covers and in the margins of almost every page. The four years we shared were a gift…

After returning my yearbook to its shelf, I checked the Sisters of Mercy website for tidbits regarding my former teachers. As expected, I found that most of them are enjoying the fruits of their labor in the hereafter. When I scrolled down the names of the sisters who’ve passed away, Sister Imelda evoked a smile. Sister Imelda held the dubious honor of serving as my freshman homeroom teacher. This role required her to account for her students’ whereabouts every weekday morning and to immerse us into the freshman religion curriculum. It was during religion class that Sister Imelda left an indelible mark on me. Difficult as it could have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease. She provided a question box for our anonymous queries on any topic. At the beginning of every class, Sister responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk before my own students. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided extremely creative questions. Every time, Sister responded graciously and thoroughly. We’d learned far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of that year. More importantly, by June each of us also saw God in a completely different and truly awesome light.

I continue to embrace Sister Imelda’s image of God because Sister insisted that ours is the God of Love. Rather than guilting us into submission, Sister presented the rules we tried to live by quite practically. She insisted that these guidelines for living served as shields to keep us safe. When we did our best to do the right thing, we stayed close to God. Sister added that our close proximity to God was our most prized possession. “As long as God is nearby,” Sister said, “you’ll be fine.” Of course, we concluded that God’s presence depended upon us. When a classmate submitted an anonymous question regarding God’s proximity when one managed to commit a mortal sin, Sister reassured us. I’ll never forget Sister rising from her seat with her finger pointed at us as she proclaimed, “That’s when God is closest to you and don’t you forget that! God doesn’t want to lose a single one us!” This was probably the first time in my life that I actually believed that God loves me and remains with me regardless of my guilt. On that day, I began to take even the harshest lessons from my religion classes and sermons as reassurances that God remains with me in everything.

Today’s scripture passages and those we’ve encountered in recent weeks are about as unsettling as some of the questions my classmates and I posed to Sister Imelda that year. The passage from Wisdom (Wisdom 9:13-18) tells us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. But what if someone isn’t among the gifted, we wonder. Sister Imelda would say, “God speaks to all of us. We simply need to take the time to listen.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon (Philemon 9-10;12-17), Paul tells his friend how to deal with his runaway slave. Paul had befriended this slave and he wanted the man to remain with him. Because this wasn’t possible, Paul sent the slave back to Philemon and asked Philemon to see his slave in a new light. Paul asked his friend to treat the slave as he would treat Paul himself and he fully expected Philemon to do nothing less. But what if Philemon refused? Sister Imelda would say, “You can’t make choices for other people. You can only give them your best shot, offer them good counsel and pray for the best.” In the end, Philemon did as Paul asked. Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:25-33) further forsakes this world’s view of things. Luke tells us that Jesus called the people to hate everything they held dear in order to free themselves to be disciples. But who can look upon their families and their wealth and walk away from them? Sister Imelda would say, “Jesus used strong examples to show us that it’s really hard to live as he did. All Jesus really asks is that we do our best with what we’re given and that we love one another. That will be enough!”

Sister Imelda’s wisdom has served me well. Though today’s scriptures seem difficult to follow, God’s underlying message urges us on just as Sister Imelda did. Sister Imelda convinced this high school freshman that God loves us though, sometimes, difficult words are necessary to get our attention. In the end, Sister Imelda would say, “As God’s much-loved children, we’re asked to allow God into our lives, to do our best within the circumstances we’re given and to help others to do the same. It’s just that simple!” I couldn’t agree more!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share That Thread of Faith!

Though this reflection is somewhat personal to my parish family, I hope it reminds all of us to be there for the people on whom we rely most…

When I checked the date for this writing, it occurred to me that today marks the four-week anniversary of Father Chris’s and Father Joe’s arrival here at St. Paul’s. By now, most of us have experienced a homily or two from each of them as well as a few of their jokes. Corny as they were, I admit that I giggled in response to these humorous offerings. I simply couldn’t resist the new guys’ sincere attempts to ease themselves into our parish family. Sharing a few laughs with us was certainly a good way to start! Still, I can’t ignore the road which lies ahead for them and for us. Down that road, Father Chris and Father Joe will share far more than laughter with us. They’ll pray with us and they’ll celebrate with us. They’ll worry with us and keep vigil with us in tough circumstances. They’ll mourn with us and hold us up when we say goodbye to our loved ones. In addition to all of this “spiritual” activity, Father Chris and Father Joe will engage in the practical day-to-day management tasks which add to most administrators’ gray hair. Fortunately for all concerned, through everything we experience together, a common thread will hold us close. That thread is our faith.

For as long as I can remember, that thread of faith has been an important force in my life. If you’ve sewn on an almost-lost button, you understand the strength hidden in a bit of thread. Isn’t it amazing that it takes only a few inches of this lighter-than-air string to repair a holey sock or a falling hem? The same is true of our faith. Though our own faith may seem as flimsy as a bit of unraveling thread, it’s enough to keep us anchored. It holds us close to those who love us and to those God has given us to love. Most importantly, that tiny strand binds us forever to God. Through thick and thin, through illnesses, losses and our too-frequent failures, that thread holds us close to our Loving Maker. More often than we realize, God tightens the stitches which hold us close. God has done this for me more often than I can count through a chance meeting with a friend, a bird who flits at my window in spite of a brewing storm or a scribbled quote from a soul far more faith-filled than I which I’d ignored until the moment at hand. Always, God pulls at that thread which is my faith until I get the message and behave accordingly.

It seems to me that each of us is called to tighten the thread of faith which binds us to one another and to God. Though we often look to those whom we consider to be “religious” or “holy” or “spiritual” to do the job, God tells us all to do this for our fellow humans. It was twenty-one years ago when I visited a priest who’d been a lifelong friend. I’d known Father Bill O’Connell since I was four years old. By age six, I’d earned permission to walk down the block to our parish rectory to visit him. When I arrived, if he didn’t have an appointment, Father took the time to talk with me. This continued through seventh grade when my family moved. Afterward, I called Father at every opportunity. He also called me when he had people or special intentions for me to pray for. During junior year of college, I called Father to offer my services at his parish for a month the following summer. He immediately invited me to teach English to immigrant children who’d begin school that fall. While there, I met a local teacher who invited me on a date, eventually married me and grew up to become Mike-the-Deacon. As for Father, he witnessed our marriage, baptized our first son and remained a friend through it all. When I visited Father that day twenty-one years ago, he was very sick. Though he’d always held onto the full spool of thread which was his faith, Father admitted to me, “Mary, it’s hard to die…”

What was I to say to the one who’d transformed the tiny thread which was my own faith into a mighty coil of rope? If I’d asked Father that question, he would have reminded me in no uncertain terms that I’d done as much to strengthen his faith as he had done to strengthen mine. Wisely, I didn’t give him the opportunity. Rather, I told my priest-friend that he wasn’t allowed to think about dying. I ordered him to think about the living which he’d embrace very soon and so Father did. Still, while Father was the student during our final moments together, the lifetime of lessons he taught filled me up: Faith defies definition. Some of us profess to be of one faith or another. Some of us associate the depth of faith with the heights of theological training. Some regard faith as an improbable concept because nothing in this world seems worthy of our complete trust. Some rely on their faith for everything, including their next breath, just as Father Bill. In the end, Father taught me that faith is the amazing gift which gives us the courage to carry on.

Today’s gospel (Luke 12:32-48) begins with one of the most faith-filled commands Jesus offered: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy…” Faith is so much more than a feeling of hope in God’s care for us. Indeed, faith is the knowledge that God truly loves us. Father Bill needed me to remind him of this when he faced the final struggle of his life. I’ve needed this reminder many times since. Though I’m convinced that Father Chris and Father Joe each possess faith as mighty as a coil of rope as well, there will be times when they need us just as we need them. All God asks is that we do as Jesus did. All God asks is that we strengthen the thread of faith which binds us to God and to one another by being there for another as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Pray… God Is Listening!

I’ve shared this often, I know… Throughout his time among us, Jesus offered countless revealing glimpses of our generously loving God. As amazing as each of these renderings is, my favorite is Jesus’ portrayal in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The image of that ever-patient and forgiving father who opened his arms to his terribly wayward child is something I’ve held dear all of my life. It is this image of God as my loving parent which encourages me to open my heart to God without reservation or fear. It is this image which encourages me to seek true intimacy in every utterance I send God’s way. I admit that this is a lifelong process which will likely continue well into my venture into the hereafter!

If you’ve been blessed with a close relationship, you understand the implications of intimacy. When we open our hearts to someone special, we hide nothing from him or her. We don’t allow pretenses or formalities or social norms to get in the way of the reality of who we are. When we share ourselves at this level, we put every flaw and every virtue in full view. When God is our partner in such a relationship, even the things we don’t know about ourselves are known to God. Far too frequently, I face the reality that I’m not perfect. When this occurs, I remind myself that God has been well aware of my glaring flaws all along. I know that, in spite of the pettiness or grandeur of my imperfections, God looks upon me with persistent and consistent love. Because God loves me and all of us so completely, I find the courage to approach God with the confidence Abraham exhibited in today’s passage from Genesis (18:20-32).

Did you notice that each time Abraham spoke he found God to be both approachable and compassionate? The author of Genesis carefully portrayed this encounter as a conversation during which God and Abraham walked side-by-side. In spite of being very much aware that he was in God’s presence, Abraham bargained with his Maker. He pleaded for the lives of the innocent inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. God’s apparent anger was in response to the outcries of many righteous people regarding the evil that festered in the two cities. Still, God listened to Abraham. Initially, Abraham asked that the cities be spared if there were just fifty innocent inhabitants. Then, Abraham begged God to preserve forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten innocent lives. Each time, God responded sympathetically. The chapter which follows tells us that God answered Abraham’s plea as the lives of the innocents in those otherwise wretched cities were spared. At the same time, we must remember that God also knew the hearts of the evildoers in Sodom and Gomorrah better than they knew themselves. God knew the reasons they did what they did and God loved them as well. I write this with great confidence because Jesus assured us that God’s mercy is never lost on anyone!

In today’s gospel (Luke 11:1-13), Luke shares another occasion on which Jesus revealed to his disciples the God with whom Abraham was so familiar. Jesus had just finished praying himself when his followers asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus responded with this advice: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.” Afterward, Jesus went on to make this instruction regarding prayer perfectly clear. In the event that the disciples had forgotten the persistence of Abraham and God’s generous response to him, Jesus reminded them in no uncertain terms. Jesus spoke of a man who responded to his neighbor’s need in the middle of the night, not so much out of love as out of weariness at the neighbor’s persistence. Jesus added, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus went on to point out the disciples’ concern for their own children: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” I assure you that the God of Abraham continues to listen and to provide us all that we need as we journey through this life!

As I wrote today, it occurred to me that I’ve found a second image of God which I must treasure at least as much as that of the father who embraced his prodigal son. In today’s passage from Genesis, the author illustrated the possibilities when we open ourselves to God’s embrace just as that regretful son did. In this account, God and Abraham walk side-by-side. There is no question that Abraham is conversing with God as he would with a dear friend. Apparently, Abraham found this to be perfectly natural. It seems to me that God’s close proximity to Abraham was no accident. God’s close proximity to you and me is no accident either. Though that prodigal son was separated from his father for a while, we are never separated from God. God walks side-by-side with each one of us every step of the way. In our goodness and in our wrong-doing, God is with us. In our joy and in our sorrow, God is with us. So it is that we must take Jesus’ lesson regarding prayer to heart. We must ask and seek and knock because, even today, the God of Abraham listens and responds… Always!

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

God’s Good Company

I sought God, and God answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

Loss is tough. Loss occurs in relationships cut short by a misunderstanding or a move. Loss comes in the passing of our loved ones. Loss comes with divorce, even when this choice is mutual. The loss of a familiar workplace or neighborhood brings heartache. When we find ourselves at odds with an institution which once felt as comfortable as home, we find ourselves at a loss as well. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness, hopelessness and solitude consume us in the midst of these events. It seems no one and nothing can fill the emptiness within us.

The good news for all of us is that we don’t face our losses alone. Rather, we find ourselves embraced in sacred moments of sharing. Sometimes, they come in human form through the voice of a knowing friend; in the song of a mother who will love her child forever; in an artist’s rendition of a father hugging his prodigal son; in the kindness of a colleague who takes over simply because she is needed; in the parents and grandparents, spouses and significant others, sisters, brothers and friends who teach us to hold onto one another in the best and worst of times. Sometimes, these sacred moments come in the reassurance we find in the depths of our own hearts. Always, God is with us in every loss. Always, God responds with healing love.

Loving God, thank you for being with us through our losses and everything else!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved