You’re A Gift!

Tell it to your children,
and your children to their children,
and their children to the next generation.

Joel 1:3

My family didn’t close Year 2020 with our usual gatherings. Rather than sharing in meals, the latest family news and game-playing, we celebrated via a Zoom meeting and lots of phone calls, emails and texts. Fun as this was, the absence of in-person contact gave me reason to spend a few minutes at our family picture wall.

This collection features recent photos and some which date back to my childhood. Many of those pictured have passed away including my parents, sister and brother who have joined the heavenly host. Many remain with me in this life. Each one has given me a lifetime of reasons to miss their physical presence.

As I stared at those photos, I longed to be in close proximity to each one pictured. Whether they have “moved on” or suffer through this pandemic with me today, each of “my people” has touched my life as no one else has or ever will. Each one, with his foibles and her imperfections, will never be replaced. Each one adds or added something special to my life and to life on this earth which no one else will replicate or replace. As I eased away from that wall to tend to dinner, I whispered a prayer of thanks for them all.

This New Year 2021, may we all be good souls who inspire others to thrive because of our goodness and in spite of our imperfections. May each of us continue to generously share ourselves and our gifts with one another.

Thank you, dear God, for the gift of our relationships which so creatively brighten our lives.

©2021 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Task At Hand

That is my joy, and it is complete.
God’s ways will increase as I make them my own.

Inspired by John 3:29-30

I’d just finished a thank you note to a friend who was once in the convent when memories of my own aspirations in this regard emerged. Though my friend found that a different calling better suited her, she continues to treasure the years she spent with her “sisters”. From the time I realized who the nuns and sisters were, I wanted to join them as well. When discussing this with my mom, I often shared potential “sister names” which I might have liked. My mom always responded with a smile. She would have been thrilled if one of her five daughters had done so.

As it happened, I spent a lot of time with these dedicated women over the years. This included an entire summer during college. Still, I never did become one of them. Oddly, it was during that very summer that my “sister friends” encouraged me to accept a date with the young man who eventually became my husband. Who would have known?

Oddly, marital state hasn’t lessened my desire to emulate the good sisters’ work among us. Fortunately, my husband not only supports my ministry, but also joins me in it. Like my friend and the other nuns whom I’ve encountered along the way, Mike and I have found amazing and unexpected ways to make God’s work our own.

Dear God, you never cease to surprise us with the direction of your call. During New Year 2021, help us to respond generously to your heartfelt invitation to join in your loving work, especially when it comes to healing one another in the midst of this pandemic.

©2021 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Perfect Timing

As I write, the scent of our Fraser Fir makes its way upstairs. As I breathe in the tree’s lovely fragrance, the light strings on the railing behind me come to life. I remind myself that Christmas lights from every direction inside and outside will do the same during the next few minutes. This possibility compels me to turn toward the living room where our tree will reign for a few more days. Since the tree’s lights aren’t on a timer, I walk down to the living room to turn them on. “You’re a good tree,” I say, fully expecting a satisfied nod in return. The tree responds by standing motionless as the lights along our eaves turn on. Not long afterward, the lights on the trees out front follow suit. Soon, all of lights that my dear husband and I hung weeks ago are aglow once again.

From time to time, it has occurred to me to urge Mike to coordinate the timers that control our Christmas lighting. However, an experience the week before Christmas indicated that Mike’s serendipitous timing is a very good thing. I’d been upstairs wrapping gifts. Though we’d made some online purchases which had arrived, one of our granddaughters’ gifts was delayed and I had only a picture of it to wrap for them. Because I wanted Ellie, Lauren and Claire to enjoy the surprise, I wrapped three boxes, each one inside the next. After spending an inordinate amount of time on those nested packages, I realized that I’d forgotten to include the picture in the smallest one which would be opened last. Ugh! I told myself, “It’s 2020. What did you expect?” With that, I opened boxes number 1, number 2 and number 3 only to find the picture in that last package. The picture I thought I’d left out was actually a misprint which I obviously should have recycled earlier. Ugh! “Yes, it’s 2020 all right!”

With that, I allowed myself to darken my mood further by mentally rehashing our collective misery throughout Year 2020’s pandemic. As I headed downstairs, the lighted garland on the railing blinked on. “Nice,” I said to myself. “I needed that.” As I walked on to the kitchen, the tree on our patio lit up. It’s glowing branches urged a smile from me. I opened the refrigerator to get my daily dose of Snapple, but was distracted when the lights on our porch went on. Every year, Mike and I find a small tree to decorate for our screened porch because we can see it from our dinner table. That tree’s lights glow warmly around the vintage nativity figures at its feet -one of my favorite Christmas scenes. As I reflected on those worn images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, my discouraged mood left me. It was then that the tiny tree near our kitchen table lit up.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t truly appreciated the efforts of the one who set the timers that control our Christmas lighting or the One who inspired him. That day, I determined that I’ll never ask Mike to coordinate those timers. You see, after I flipped the switch in the living room to light up our Christmas Tree, I raised the blinds behind the tree. Just then, the lights on our bushes went aglow. Our mailbox at the curb prompted me to save Mike the trouble of getting the mail. I emptied the mailbox just as the lights over the garage burst into color. With my spirit completely uplifted, I went back upstairs to finish wrapping the last of our gifts. As I taped a tag onto the last gift, I wondered if my dear husband was onto something with his seemingly haphazard timing of our Christmas lights. Each sudden burst of color emitted beauty in its own right which invited me to set aside my sadness and to enter into the joy of Christmas 2020. If our Christmas lights had lit simultaneously, I might have missed some of this amazing show and the uplifting grace that came with each click of a timer. No, I will never mention the serendipitous timing of our Christmas lights to Mike because I want to enjoy this light show again and again and again!

The unexpected bursts of light which I experienced that afternoon have much to say about today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. John the Baptist preached at length about the coming of the messiah, the long-awaited one who was far greater than he. John proclaimed that he wasn’t worthy to tie the strap of Jesus’ sandal. Yet, when Jesus began his public life, he went first to John to seek baptism. In all that Jesus said and did afterward, he continued to deliver the unexpected. Jesus chose fishermen rather than scholars to be his followers and he invited women to listen as well. Jesus preached of humility, the poor in spirit, peacemakers and those who mourn. Rather seeking out the powerful, Jesus told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth and the light that would shine for others.

Jesus shed a completely different light on God’s plans for us than what those who awaited him expected. Just as our oddly timed Christmas lights set everything around me aglow, our most troubling circumstances take on an amazing aura when we allow God to enter into them. None of us need to wait until Christmas 2021 for the light show. As Jesus showed us, God lights our lives in the most unexpected ways at just the right times. Just watch!

©2021 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Keep Love’s Fire Burning!

While searching my computer files for photos, I came across a painting I’d encountered nine years ago. Though this style of artwork isn’t normally among my favorites, the story behind this particular image touched my heart. I was introduced to this painting by a dear friend, Father Ludger Moliter. A decade ago, when my husband and I visited his Croatian cousin who served as a priest in Germany, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend. Ludger had ties to Chicago because he’d participated in a study of parish life between his diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mike’s cousin rightly determined that we and Ludger would have a good deal to talk about and we became fast friends. We’ve been in touch ever since. Ludger reads these daily reflections and shares his thoughts regarding current events and his favorite homilies. In the midst of all of this, Ludger shared this painting and highlights from the homily which it inspired…

I’m drawn to the details of Ludger’s message and this painting because both offer fitting inspiration as we embrace New Year 2021. The artwork is a fifteenth century effort by Konrad von Soest entitled Christi Geburt or Birth of Christ. It depicts Mary holding the newborn Jesus. Mary is completely enamored by her child. At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor. The poor man’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the fire’s flames with his breath. Honestly, though this scene appears almost comical in the painting, it depicts the significance of Joseph’s efforts quite beautifully. If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats. If little Jesus hadn’t been protected from the night’s cold, he might not have survived his birth day, much less the days and years which followed. Ludger’s homily explained that, yes, we need to adore and to appreciate God’s presence among us and God’s gifts. At the same time, however, Ludger added that we must also appreciate our responsibility to do what needs to be done to care for one another. Like Joseph, it’s up to us to keep the fire burning for those we’ve been given to love.

Ludger’s words offered a vivid reminder of the realities of Jesus’ birth. Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty or comfort to be found in overcrowded Bethlehem. Mary’s impending delivery likely left the preparation of their quarters entirely to Joseph. Imagine the poor man running between Mary and the innkeeper as he attempted to secure what they needed. Imagine Joseph spreading a blanket and perhaps his own cloak to fashion a bed for Mary. Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed to swaddle their baby upon his arrival. Imagine Joseph glancing at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her to give birth. And, after all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep Mary and Jesus warm. That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of moments of awe and fire-stoking for both Mary and Joseph. All the while, their love for Jesus never wavered just as the demands of living out that love also never wavered.

As we’ve discovered during Year 2020 and many years prior, the same is true for all of us who do our best to love God and those God has given us to love. The Magi, whom we celebrate today, offered an amazing example of this commitment. They gambled everything to follow that unique star because the possibility of encountering the king they sought was worth their effort. Though these astrologers eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there. To spread the news of whom they’d found, the Magi evaded Herod who promised to rid the world of this child-opponent. Still, when the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king with their contemporaries. The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to share Jesus’ news had a tough time as well. Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message of love in a hostile world.

I’m thrilled that I once again found the painting which Father Ludger cited so many years ago because it offers fitting inspiration as we embrace the hope and challenges of New Year 2021. This quaint work reminds us all that we need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as von Soest depicts them. Like Mary, we need to acknowledge the gift of God in our lives. What generous love it is that compels God to care for us so deeply! Like Joseph, that same love fills us up and compels us to love one another with as much of God’s generosity and depth as we can muster in the moments at hand. Yes, as my dear friend Ludger observed, every attempt to love one another draws us close to the fire, where we puff up our cheeks and keep the fire of love burning as only we can. Just as Mary’s and Joseph’s efforts sustained Jesus, our efforts will sustain our sisters and brothers this new year and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Merry Christmas!

On this unusual Christmas Day, I’m sharing the story of a little boy who taught me that we can celebrate Christmas even in the midst of our troubles…

Isaac became my student because he needed help with reading. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we talked. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and Isaac took full advantage of the situation. He told me about his mother’s debilitating illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. Isaac told me about his older brother in the military and that he read from a little prayer-book every night. Just before winter break, Isaac shared something very special which remains with me today.

I’d purchased a small Christmas gift for each of my students. When I gave Isaac his package, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his parents wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. When Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast and ready to do his best. He also wore the same shirt and slacks for the week. Though Isaac didn’t enjoy any luxuries, his family was rich with love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he announced, “I have something for you, too.”

Isaac took me completely by surprise. His dad was among the working poor and certainly couldn’t afford gifts for his children’s teachers. I understood when Isaac reached into his bag and pulled out a green two-headed dragon. I told Isaac that it was a great dragon, but that I would be very happy just knowing that he enjoyed playing with it. Still, Isaac persisted. “I was going to trade it for Poke’mon, but I want you to have it instead.” At the time, anything Poke’mon was a valued commodity. Isaac abandoned this plan to show his reading teacher how much he cared for her.

When I finally composed myself, I asked Isaac if his mom or dad would mind his leaving that toy with me. “Oh, no, Mrs. P. They would want me to give it to you. It’s for Christmas.” With that, Isaac and I made a prominent place on my bookshelf for that dragon. Afterward, I told Isaac he could take that dragon home anytime he wanted to. “Are you taking your present back?” he asked. “Never,” I told him. Isaac responded, “Neither am I.” I kept that two-headed dragon for more than a decade. After Isaac had been promoted from eighth grade and graduated high school, I gave it to another little boy who needed a taste of the love which filled Isaac’s heart.

God touched this world with selfless love that first Christmas. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents had paid attention and they passed on what they learned to their son. Isaac paid attention and he passed on what he learned to me. Today, we pay attention as well. Now, it is up to us to pass on what we’ve learned as we tend lovingly to those we meet along the way. Merry Christmas!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hints of Christmas Joy

Summoning two of his disciples,
John sent them to ask Jesus,
“Are you he who is to come
or are we to expect someone else?”

Luke 7:19

While doing my best to share the peace with which I’ve been blessed, I can’t help turning my attention to Christmas Joy. Though we won’t be hosting our typical Christmas gatherings, the house is decorated as it always is. My husband the deacon has been working on his reading of the children’s Christmas Story. Rather than gathering in church to watch children reenact the Nativity, Mike will read while the children’s drawings of Christmas scenes are streamed online. In the mean time, I’m preparing my Christmas reflection.

I breathe deeply every time I pass our Christmas Tree. I haven’t many gifts to wrap because we’ve agreed as a family to limit our shopping this year. As a result, our budget includes more than I’d hoped for those who need a little boost just now. Though we’ve had to do so via Facetime and Zoom, I’ve spent quality time with my family.

So it is that, in spite of the world’s troubles both near and far, I’m experiencing tangible joy. When John the Baptist posed the question above to Jesus, Jesus answered with absolute proof of better things to come: “The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Two millenniums later, God hints at those better things as well. While we all invest our hope in new vaccines and a victory over COVID-19, we also celebrate the loving care which we give and receive every day.

Dear God, thank you for the joy which comes in the goodness of others and in our own good deeds.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved