2019… A Year of ???

Only three days of Year 2018 remained when I looked up from my keyboard to discover large flakes of snow falling just beyond the window. I smiled broadly. Because we’d enjoyed spring-like temperatures for a while, this snow took me completely by surprise. Though I noted that there was no accumulation, those flitting flakes were enough to brighten my mood. In spite of the mid-afternoon hour that Friday, I decided to set aside this writing and to run a few errands. Unlike the commuters who’d soon be headed home, I wanted to enjoy the white stuff firsthand. As it happened, the snow fell only ten minutes into my travels. Still, much to my good fortune, that ten-minute interlude was enough to maintain my joyful mood and to fortify me for the long lines which greeted me at each of the stores I visited. Though I waited for twenty-five minutes in one line, I hummed happily all the while. Who would have thought that a bit of snow and running errands would be so uplifting?

While driving home, I was gifted with another surprise. I’d tuned in to the news in spite of the fact that it might darken my mood. In the midst of stock reports and the world and national news, a familiar voice shared an amazing human-interest tidbit. Though this snippet lasted less than a minute, it remained with me all the way home and as I made my way back to my keyboard. With New Year’s Eve and New Year 2019 just 72 hours away, this report focused on New Year’s resolutions. The news anchor explained that one resolution in particular had made an unexpected impact throughout 2018. Apparently, someone had decided to make New Year 2018 the Year of Love. A young woman had resolved to use social media to do this. She’d planned to write a post every day which described someone who meant something special to her. She’d even titled her effort #Year of Love. When asked about her success, the woman shared that it wasn’t difficult to find people to write about. Every day, someone graced her life. She added that 2018 hadn’t provided enough days for her to acknowledge all of the people who’d touched her with their love. As a result, she’s decided to continue these daily acknowledgements throughout New Year 2019. As Ms. Year of Love went on to describe the remarkably varied people she’d featured, I began to recount my own treasure in this regard. I also began to consider how I might make 2019 my own year of something…

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The scriptures tell us that Jesus was about thirty years of age when he spent forty days alone in the desert to consider what lay ahead for him. In spite of encounters with evil during what Jesus hoped would be a reflective interlude, Jesus chose to embrace the path ahead as best he could. Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22) tells us that the people were certainly ready for someone to grace their lives. Many wondered if John the Baptizer might be the messiah for whom they waited. John responded by assuring the crowds that one far greater than he was coming. When Jesus approached John for baptism, poor John did as Jesus asked in spite of feeling completely unworthy to do so. Perhaps to reassure both men and the rest of us, God declared from above, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” After that day, a relieved John continued his preaching. With every word, John pointed his followers in Jesus’ direction while Jesus embraced his mission as only he could. If social media had been available, perhaps Jesus would have dubbed his effort Life of Love.

As I’ve written often, I repeat that there was nothing easy about Jesus’ life among us. Still, Jesus persisted in using his very human circumstances to reveal God’s love and God’s faith in each one of us. Though he was given thirty-three years, Jesus used only the last three to teach and to preach. Until then, he’d invested himself in his life at home with Mary and Joseph, in the neighborhood with this neighbors and in working as an itinerant mason and an itinerant rabbi. It was in those places that Jesus came to fully appreciate those he’d been given to love. When Jesus invested himself in others, Jesus also invested himself in spreading God’s love. Long before Jesus asked John to baptize him, Jesus had made Life of Love his way of doing things. No wonder God was so pleased!

I’m most grateful for the bit of snow which distracted me from this writing and for that well-timed report about the woman who transformed 2018 through her #Year of Love efforts. Most of all, I’m grateful for that much-needed reminder to refine my own plans for New Year 2019. When I consider my too-frequent surrenders to the darkness around me this past year, something –no Someone– urges me to make Year of Joy this year’s effort. If ten minutes of snow succeeded in cheering me up and that twenty-five minute wait in line failed to elicit a groan, finding the joy around me seems doable. Like Jesus, I need to do this as only I can. The truth is that we’re all called to do what only we can throughout these lives of ours. Whatever we choose to be our new year efforts, God asks only that we stick to them as only we can. After all, like Jesus, each one of us is God’s beloved child!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Bring Joy… Find Joy!

That is my joy, and it is complete.
John 3:29-30

A recent conversation with a friend who was once a nun unearthed memories of my own aspirations in that regard. 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, she often responded that she would be thrilled if one of her five daughters did just that.

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

In spite of my marital state, my desire to emulate the good sisters’ service ethic has remained with me. Fortunately, my husband shares a similar perspective. For all of our married life, we’ve been service-oriented. Like my friend and the other nuns whom Mike and I encountered along the way, we’ve found amazing and unexpected ways to be of help to those we’ve met along the way.

The moral of the story? Find a way to do something for someone. Though it may not seem like fun at the onset, whatever you do will bring you joy!

Dear God, you never cease to surprise us with opportunities. Help each of us to respond generously to your heartfelt invitation to care for one another.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share God’s Treasure

Though my mom passed away in 2003, my sisters and I finally dealt with the last box of her things at a family gathering in early December. This single cardboard carton holds the costume jewelry which had become our mom’s hallmark. My sister Rita had meticulously sorted and bagged each item so it can be sold or donated. Rita left it to me to determine what to do as she’d done quite enough in this regard. When I took the box to the door, I turned to ask my sister about a little gold ring my mom had allowed me to wear for very special dates while I was in high school and college. This very thin band sports two tiny rubies and a small pearl, none of which may be authentic. All of us had gone through my mom’s jewelry several times and we never came across that ring. Though I’d assumed long ago that it had been lost, I had to ask about it one last time. My sister assured me that the ring wasn’t among my mom’s treasures. With that, I stowed the box in my car and headed home.

A few weeks later, I took out a wreath pin to wear for a Christmas gathering. Because it has gold-colored trim, I searched for gold earrings. I didn’t have much time to spare and I was becoming more annoyed with each passing minute of my search. I did find two small boxes of gold jewelry which hadn’t seen the light of day in quite some time. I thumbed through the first where I found two gold hoops of different sizes. Though it occurred to me to wear them with the hope that no one would compare earlobes, I decided to look in the other box for matching earrings. While thumbing through the contents, I found a matching pair. When I took out the earrings, I noticed something dangling from one of them. When I looked closer, I couldn’t believe what I saw: My mom’s little gold ring! I immediately called to my dear husband, “Mike, I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I’ve found my mother’s ring!” The poor man had to listen as I recounted my sisters’ and my years-long search for this elusive bit of jewelry. How had it gotten into that little box? I hadn’t seen that ring since before my mom passed away.

Needless to say, I wore my mom’s ring that evening. I also repeated my tale regarding this amazing discovery several times throughout that party. The following morning, I shared my good news again in the gathering space here at St. Paul’s. All the while, I pictured my mom smiling broadly. That little ring was a gift from my father. She loved that ring and she wore it often. My occasional requests to wear that ring signaled to my mom that I really liked the boy I was dating at the time. My mom’s permission to wear that little gold band signaled to me that my mom loved me and that she trusted me with her treasures. I still can’t get over my good fortune in all of this and I still can’t help sharing this good news with anyone who will listen.

It occurs to me that our treasures aren’t meant to be hoarded and good news is meant to be shared. The scripture passages we hear today echo these sentiments. The Old Testament chronicles God’s attempts to share everything with us. When centuries of attempts to build a relationship with us humans failed, God sent Jesus to give a voice to God’s intent and to give flesh and bone to God’s love. In the first reading (Isaiah 60:1-6), Isaiah called Jerusalem to celebrate this amazing relationship with God. Isaiah insisted that God’s presence among the people made them shine bright enough to guide all of the world in God’s direction. God commissioned Israel to welcome all who would join them as God’s family. The second reading (Ephesians 3:2-3a; 5-6) underscores Isaiah’s proclamation. The author who wrote with Paul’s authority reminded the people “…that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This news of the inclusion of all continues through Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:1-12). Matthew noted that when Joseph and Mary welcomed the Magi, they offered their relationship with God to the entire world. When the Magi returned to their homes, they carried this good news to all whom they met along their way. The treasure they’d discovered far out-valued my little gold ring and they shared it as generously as my mom had.

On this Feast of the Epiphany, we’re invited to celebrate God’s love for us in precisely the same way. Though we’ve packed away our Christmas decorations, God asks us to carry the good news of Jesus coming and God’s love for us wherever we go. God asks us to be modern-day Magi who share the treasure we’ve discovered. Like Jesus, our words and our deeds speak of God’s love to our neighbors, our coworkers and grocery cashiers, to everyone we meet at school and here at St. Paul’s and to our own spouses, children and loved ones. The treasure we find on this Feast of the Epiphany is the same treasure that I found in being allowed to wear my mom’s ring: God’s love and God’s trust in us to share that love with the rest of God’s family.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Inspire Hope

Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!

Isaiah 35:4

The temperature had risen enough to coax me outdoors to our driveway. There were a few patches of ice there and on the sidewalk which needed to be broken up. If I tended to these nuisances right away, the sun would melt them out of existence.

As I worked at the task at hand, a group of children ran out of the school across the way for recess. I smiled as I imagined their teachers thanking God for weather warm enough to allow for this reprieve from managing their classrooms. This was no criticism as I thanked God often for the same over the years. The joyful bantering that filled the air turned my thoughts to Christmas Past in my own classroom…

Most of my students counted the days to Christmas with great relish. Every year, however, one or two of my students dreaded this departure from their daily routines. These children lived in dire poverty. School lunches were the best of their meals and our simple class parties were the best of their Christmases. Too often, the lack of material treasures in their lives paled in the shadow of their lack of love and security. The adults around them, burdened with their own troubles, missed the hurt and hopelessness growing in their children’s eyes.

As I chopped the ice in my driveway, I prayed for these special children who appreciated the little gifts I hid in their backpacks almost as much as they appreciated my attention throughout the day at school. Though I didn’t have the resources to alleviate all of their poverty, I did manage to ignite a bit of hope in these amazingly resilient children.

If a needy child is pulling at your heartstrings this Christmas, respond. I assure you that you won’t regret it. Neither will that little one!

God of hope, let this child share your love with my smile and your hope with what I’m able to share.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate Hope and Love

“Anyone who hears my words
and puts them into practice
is like the wise man who built his house on rock.”

Matthew 7:21

Christmas preparations always pique my nostalgia. I’d finished the day’s errands and allowed myself the time to reminisce a bit. My musing drew me back to Christmas 1959, just five months after my dad passed away. I was only eight years old and I wondered what Christmas would be like that year. That day, I recalled the efforts of so many around me who made that Christmas special. They all did their best to ease the sting of my dad’s absence.

My older sister Rita helped our Mom to prepare a special gift for each one of us. On Christmas Eve, our parish priests asked my brother to walk his wagon down to the rectory. Raoul returned with a full wagon carrying a beautifully wrapped package for each of the six of us children. After Christmas dinner with my mom’s side of the family, we went on to Aunt Claire’s and Uncle Steve’s home to celebrate with my dad’s family. My aunt and uncle ushered us to their Christmas Tree for more special gifts which were just for my siblings and me. Though all concerned knew that nothing would replace my dad, they did their best to emulate his love for us. You know, I can’t name most of the gifts I received that year. Nonetheless, I continue to feel the love that came with them. That love has sustained me for a lifetime.

What better way to is there to celebrate Christmas 2018 than to nurture hope and to love?

Generous God, you gifted me with loved ones who fulfilled my hope beyond my dreams and who loved me as you do. Help me to do the same for those I meet along the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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