Generosity… Practice Makes Perfect!

Last weekend, I shared that I’d gone through two boxes of photos from my childhood while looking for a picture for my sister. This encounter with my past elicited numerous memories which have filled me up ever since. I’m happy to report that each one has warmed my heart in unexpectedly amazing ways. Over the past several days, I’ve looked upward often to thank God for this life of mine. At the same time, I admit to looking into the mirror and thinking that I must be getting old. After all, I’ve been celebrating the good old days an awful lot as of late. Oddly, someone looking in from the outside might question my use of the word “good” regarding my childhood. I grew up in a family which would be considered among the working poor today. Still, though life wasn’t perfect, it was certainly more simple than it might have been as a result of our humble circumstances. Our most precious commodities were the people around us. Though they didn’t have many material goods to offer, they were generous in sharing the gift of themselves. As I read today’s scripture readings I couldn’t help thinking of these giving people who made all of the difference in the world to me.

The reading from Kings (1 Kings 17:1016) tells us that a great famine had devastated the land. A poor widow realized that she had only enough flour and oil left to prepare one more tiny loaf of bread. After consuming this final ration, the woman knew she and her son will surely die from starvation. Still, in spite of her impending demise, the widow responded to Elijah who’d happened by as she gathered sticks for a fire. Though she had no reason to help him, the woman listened to Elijah’s request and his promise of nourishment. With that, she gave Elijah the last of her bread. In the end, Elijah, the widow and her son weathered that yearlong famine. Just as Elijah had promised, God rewarded the woman’s generosity with a jar of flour and a jug of oil which never emptied.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44) introduces a second widow in the temple who was completely unaware of Jesus the Teacher’s presence. At the same time, the woman was very much aware that she stood before her Creator. It was with great reverence for her God that she reached deeply into her meager treasure to retrieve all that she had, two coins worth just a few pennies. Though meaningless in the shadow of the mountain of money contributed by the wealthy, this offering meant everything to the widow because she had nothing else. Though she might have traded those coins for bread, she handed them over to the temple, perhaps to assist a stranger whose need was even greater than her own.

The widows in today’s readings tug at my heartstrings because I’ve lived most of my life in the company of women like them. The widows in my life answered to Mom, Grandma, Ma Mere, Auntie and a host of given names. Over the years, I found that their generosity wasn’t measured in any single event in their respective lives. These precious people placed the needs of others before themselves on an ongoing basis. Since I witnessed her generosity most closely, I’ll tell you about my mom. She ran our household on a tight budget. At age thirty-nine, she’d joined the ranks of the widowed with six children in tow. A monthly death benefit from my dad’s job, my mom’s position at Sears, my sister’s pay from her receptionist job at the parish rectory and my brother’s pay from delivering groceries allowed us to eke by most weeks. Unexpected expenses such as doctors’ visits and outgrown shoes sometimes taxed our resources beyond capacity. Still, my mom dropped her weekly envelope into the collection basket and sent each of us to church with a quarter in our children’s envelopes. My siblings and I each donated one can to the holiday food drive and we sold wrapping paper with everyone else in the neighborhood to support our school. When our sales failed to meet their quota, our mom purchased items enough to allow them to do so. If one of my mom’s sisters found herself short of funds during a given week, my mom offered what was needed to help her sister to get by. Through all of this, my mom taught me her greatest lesson: To be generous.

Now I don’t mean to imply that the only remarkable examples of generosity come through the efforts of the widowed among us. Generosity flows from varied and sometimes unexpected people. What I mean to suggest is that generosity is a habit developed over a lifetime; generosity comes easiest to those who practice it most; and nothing rivals the joy that comes from giving in spite of our own need. My mom embraced these truths because she was convinced that she would be taken care of. She was certain that God’s generosity would always outdo her own. In the end, she was right. When my mom left this world, she didn’t leave behind many material riches. What she did leave is this dutiful daughter who will tell you what my mom found when she entered the hereafter. She found everyone and everything that she’d ever hoped for. It seems to me that our challenge today is to begin to develop our own varieties of generosity and to practice our unique version of this virtue at every opportunity. Though I can’t actually hear her voice, I know my mom is urging me to tell you that you won’t regret your efforts in this regard.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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We Find Our Treasure When We Let Go…

In mid-September, my husband-the-good-deacon and I enjoyed an eight-day tour of Puglia. This quaint Italian wonderland is located on the southeast side of the big boot. After eating, exploring and eating even more, Mike and I questioned the wisdom of adding four additional days to our travel. Happy as we were with the tour, we were tired and wanted to go home. Still, while our fellow tourists boarded that plane back to O’Hare, Mike and I settled in on the smaller aircraft which would take us to Palermo, Sicily. Though the flight lasted less than an hour, fatigue dug in its heels. When our luggage appeared an hour after we landed, we were convinced that we were doomed to four days of misery. With that, we pulled our bags out of the terminal and headed outdoors. Amazingly, it took only a second to spot the young man who was waving and smiling broadly as he called our names. In an instant, our fatigue faded. Mike and I bubbled with joy as walked to Francesco and the four memorable days which awaited us.

Mike met Francesco a few years ago via Facebook and a recommendation regarding his work. The two have communicated all the while via private messages and WhatsApp chats. During this time, Francesco completed a genealogy search for us. Francesco’s enthusiasm suggested that he was as pleased as we were with the results. It was as though Mike’s Sicilian family had become Francesco’s long lost relatives as well. Throughout our time together, this impression proved accurate. Amazingly, while our hopes regarding this visit to Mike’s grandparents’ village were abundantly fulfilled, it was an unexpected encounter in a nearby town which best illustrates the tone of our time in Sicily and the amazing friendships which have resulted.

We spoke about this impending trip with our friends Mary Lou and Dave. Mary Lou shared that her aunt and uncle live in a town close to Mike’s grandparents’ home in Altofonte. On a whim, Mike asked for their address thinking that we might find the time to greet this elderly couple and their daughter. When we mentioned the possibility to Francesco, he promised to make this happen. While Francesco confirmed the directions to Casteldaccia, Mike called Mary Lou to ensure that we’d be welcomed and that we wouldn’t frighten her family. With that, we made our way into their neighborhood. We soon discovered that the house numbers had recently changed and that the address we had was no longer accurate. Fortunately, it was early evening and many of the locals were sitting outdoors. When Francesco asked a gentleman if he knew where Paolo and Maria lived, I noticed a woman a few doors down. She poked her husband and said, “Paolo e Maria?” Sure enough, we’d found Mary Lou’s family!

While Francesco explained our presence, I pulled out my cell phone and retrieved a photo of Mary Lou, Dave and their kids. Before Francesco could complete his explanation, Maria jumped up to greet us. After I shared the photo with her, Maria ran (Yes, she ran!) into the house to get her daughter Angelina. Francesco explained for us that we were so close, we simply had to bring our greetings, smiles and hugs to Mary Lou’s family. Though we were a little nervous about this encounter, it took only seconds for Mike and me to feel that we were among family. We smiled all the while as we shared news regarding Mary Lou and Dave, Valerie and Ryan. Francesco documented this visit with photographs and a video of the hugs I collected for Mary Lou and her family. As for me, I’ve fulfilled my promise to bring those hugs and a full account of our time together all the way home to Gurnee.

I share our Sicilian adventure with you because it gets to the heart of the young man’s problem in today’s gospel (Mark 10:17-30). This rich fellow spent his life carefully adhering to The Law. His well-intentioned heart and his desire to do more drew him to Jesus. Jesus recognized the young man’s goodness and he invited him to give his wealth to the poor and to follow him. This generosity of spirit was beyond the young man’s comprehension. He couldn’t imagine himself without his wealth in hand.

You know, fatigue almost kept Mike and me from embracing the joy we found in Sicily. Mary Lou’s family might have allowed fear to keep them from welcoming us into their home. Rather, it was without hesitation that they embraced us as their own. Their love for Mary Lou compelled them to do nothing less. That truly poor rich man had busied himself so completely with calculating The Law’s dictates and his own profits that he couldn’t imagine opening himself to a different way of life. His material concerns kept him from the joy which awaited him in Jesus and in all of those he’d meet along the way. I wish that young man could have joined us in Paolo and Maria’s home. They would have shown him that when we open our hands to let go, we free ourselves to embrace the best of this life. What we have at the moment is not nearly as valuable as what we will have when we open our hearts to one another.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love You and Love Me

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Mark 12:30-31

This third week of September, the world around me has reached the normalcy that comes with a new school year. The teacher in me impels me to gauge the moment at hand in accord with my life in academia. Since I entered kindergarten, I’ve settled into a comforting routine by this time every year. At least this was true for the years I spent as a student and the years I spent as a teacher and administrator.

This year, I’m having a little trouble finding that comfortable routine. A September vacation and some unexpected events in life around me have disrupted my self-imposed schedule. I can’t seem to organize or to prioritize effectively. When I try, the things I truly want to do still find their way to the bottom of my to-do list. “You’re not getting any younger,” I tell myself. “Something has to give…”

With that realization in mind, I reread the scripture I cited above. I do love God and I try to care for the things God loves. I love my neighbor as best I can and I try to behave accordingly. It occurs to me that God also loves me. If I am going to love others as I love myself, I need to love me. This means that, on occasion, I get to accommodate my own heart’s desire. Nice!

Dear God, I’ll try a little harder to find some balance in my life. Please help me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Alone With God

But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to God in secret.

Matthew 6:6

My grandson recently celebrated his third birthday. Quite a lot has happened since he made his early appearance three years ago. He’s now a happy and healthy big brother who’s just begun preschool. Three years ago, when I was too frightened to predict any of this, I learned a great deal about prayer…

My elder grandson arrived long before his projected due date. There seemed to be little I could do to help his mommy and daddy through this trauma. Grandpa and I assisted here and there while Mom-to-be remained on bed-rest and Dad continued to prep their home for Baby. Still, I could do nothing about the very real possibility that this baby would arrive early, too early. Finally, I heeded Jesus’ suggestion in Matthew’s gospel. Though the house was empty, I retreated to my room to talk to the only One who could make a difference in all of this. In the quiet, I lay my troubles in God’s lap. Oddly, even before I knew the outcome, I felt reassured. In the end, God responded with more than I dared to hope for. Yes, that little boy is just fine!

You know, that trip to the quiet of my room made all of the difference that day so long ago. It reminds me that sometimes I need to steal away from the distractions around me to be alone with God. Though those worries about my grandson are old news today, other concerns require my attention. This time, I’m not wasting my time on worry. This time, I’m spending some precious private moments opening my heart to God.

Loving God, we pray in quiet and in the midst of this life’s chaos, always certain that you are listening.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s All About Loving and Caring

Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go with him for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

Matthew 5:41-42

Sometimes, it seems that those around us have read Matthew’s gospel and have decided to push us to fulfill Jesus’ words to the letter. Though we often feel great sympathy for those in need, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by the numerous demands on our time and resources. Still, we press on to respond as best we can.

It is when I’m on the verge of being overwhelmed in this regard that someone comes along to minister to me. Though my busyness and limited resources are the result of my own choices, this makes no difference to the kind soul who offers comfort. He or she simply says just the right things or spends just enough time listening to ease me through this rough spot. Often, this generous individual rolls up his or her sleeves to help with whatever it is I am trying to do. I walk away from these compassion-filled encounters feeling replenished and revived. So it is that I respond to the next person who needs me in kind.

It seems to me that we’re meant to care for one another and to be cared for by one another until we make it home. Then, God will take over the loving and caring for us all.

Creator God, thank you for giving us hearts to love as you do.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Transform the Negative into Love

Caiaphas said to them, “…it is better for you that one man should die
instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:50

This isn’t my favorite scripture passage. Caiaphas sends a chill down my spine. His words threatened the Good Shepherd who would leave his entire flock to find one lost sheep. He sought the death of the one who inspired the father of the prodigal son. Remember that dad who gave that young man half of his wealth, watched him squander it, forgave him and welcomed him home? Caiaphas mustn’t have heard the parable about the pearl of great price for which a man sold everything. He must have missed the tale of the woman who swept up and dusted her house again and again until she found a single coin which was precious to her. Poor Caiaphas seems to have missed everything of importance which Jesus said because he was blinded and deafened by his desire for stature and power.

You know, there are many people near and far who are distracted by their clouded vision and deaf ears. Some have lost their perspective through selfishness much like Caiaphas. Some suffer distractions wielded upon them by the injustices of our human existence. Caiaphas’ callousness serves as a reminder to me that many people have little about which to rejoice. Today, Caiaphas’ hatred and selfishness encourages me to love as he could not love. Today, Caiaphas, your influence takes a positive turn as you inspire me to make things better for someone who needs to experience God’s love.

Dear God, thank you for using even our weaknesses to teach us to love.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved