Love One Another

Love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

From John 15:12-13

I admit to lots of anger over the suffering of so many around us. Whether they are my own family and friends nearby or children stricken by illness half a world away, I find it difficult to accept that there’s nothing I can do to help. You see, I’m convinced that we can alleviate some of this world’s suffering if we begin from an inclusive and loving perspective. This isn’t wishful thinking on my part. This is practical thinking.

When we support minimum-wage workers who’ve been laid-off due to the pandemic, we invest in a workforce who will be up and ready to help reopen our economy. When a local restaurant secures a loan to keep employees on the payroll to cook and do carry-outs, we secure one of the staples of our community. When the local barber receives a grant to cover the rent until he can reopen his shop, another neighborhood staple breathes in new life. When we support food pantries and other agencies who reach out to the least among us, we plant seeds of hope along the way.

What a different world this would be if we set aside our own agendas for the good of others! Truly, when we put the suffering ahead of ourselves, we amass goodness for ourselves as well. What a different world this would be if we did lay down our lives for one another. What a different world this would be…

Loving God, you gift us all with the ability to make this world a better place. Help us to realize our potential and to make a positive mark as only we can. And, please dear God, forgive my impatience as I hone my own positive mark-making skills.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Walk With Jesus

I use the calendar on my desk to track my writing efforts. When I complete my Sunday reflections or a daily post, I make a notation on the date it will be published. A calendar page filled with such notations from the first to the last day of the month elicits my best smile and a sigh of relief. I truly enjoy writing, but time crunches often bring more challenges than inspiration. This is the reason my calendar gave me reason to gasp last week. Without warning, the dates changed from green to purple. When I looked more closely, I read Ash Wednesday. I was very much aware of the onset of Lent. I’d helped to plan our Lent activities with our pastor and our liturgy team. I’d also helped to finalize Lent schedule cards we distributed last weekend. Yes, I was very much aware of the onset of Lent. Still, Ash Wednesday? So soon?

I habitually give a good deal of thought to Lent. This year, I began thinking about Lent in mid-January when my husband and I returned to the Holy Land. Our trip preparations had immersed me in Lent. When I studied our itinerary, Jesus’ life unfolded before me. When we disembarked from our plane at the airport in Tel Aviv, the wonders which lay beyond the terminal had already captivated me. While Mike hurried to luggage claim with our tour group, I began a mental journey through Jesus’ homeland. We began this tour in Jerusalem and I was immediately immersed in Lent’s imagery. Though I looked forward to revisiting Nazareth, Capernaum and Magdala, it was the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem which occupied my thoughts. When Jesus rode into that city on what we call Palm Sunday, crowds surrounded him from every direction. By the following Friday, many of those hurrying to get home before Sabbath began likely didn’t take notice. They were too busy to attend to the bleeding man who carried that crossbeam. Crucifixions were frequent in Jesus’ day. Wise citizens who wanted to avoid trouble kept their distance when those less fortunate dragged themselves toward Calvary and certain death.

Though scripture scholars and archaeologists aren’t absolutely certain of Jesus’ birthplace, they can tell us where he grew up and where he began his ministry. We can name the towns where Jesus made friends, preached and touched the suffering. In Jerusalem, I wondered how Jesus was able to hold the people’s attention in the midst of the bustling crowds. In Capernaum, I wondered what it was that drew Peter and Andrew from their fishing boats. In Magdala, what was it that inspired Mary Magdalene to trust this itinerant preacher with her friendship? Everywhere Jesus walked, something drew the suffering from their pain just long enough for them to catch a glimpse of him. All of my life, I’ve asked, “What was it, Jesus, that caused so many to turn to you?” Every Lent, I revisit Jesus’ journey among us to find his response. Never have I been disappointed in what I’ve learned…

Lent 2020 provides us an opportunity to walk with Jesus and to find our own reasons for turning to him. I’ll begin by telling Jesus what I’m up to. “You’ve changed everything for me,” I’ll say, “and I’m going to use these forty days to thank you. In the process, I’ll get to know you even better.” How can I not be drawn to this one who revealed God’s love for us through the parables and lessons he offered? How can I not be drawn to this one whose message found its power in the way he lived? Jesus’ generosity, acceptance, forgiveness, patience, compassion and self-sacrifice left no doubt about God’s love for us and the joy to be found in sharing that love with others. Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that the intensity of my joy and the depth of my sorrow are the direct results of my proximity to Jesus’ message and to God’s love. When I live with Jesus’ words and example in mind, I live my best. When I live with the knowledge that God loves me, I live with joy. I’m certain the same is true for you.

Let’s walk together on this Lenten journey. We can begin each day by inviting Jesus to walk with us just as we do our best to walk with him. Think about all that happened in Nazareth, Capernaum and on the Sea of Galilee. Think about Jesus’ suffering in Jerusalem. With all of this in mind, let’s do our best to love as Jesus loved at every opportunity. Maybe my husband and I can fill the Rice Bowl we took home to support the needy. Maybe we can join in supporting our recent mission appeal. Check your schedule. Do you have the time to pray and to do a bit of of good over the coming weeks? I’ll use that calendar on my desk to keep myself focused, not on my writing progress, but on my loving progress. My husband and I will look for Jesus in our photos from the Holy Land. Let’s all look for Jesus in those God has given us to love. This Lent, I really will get to know Jesus better and so will you!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Truly Wonderful Lives

This is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, the church closes the Christmas Season just as we have in our homes. I admit that I delayed the process for as long as possible. It was only when a local meteorologist promised bearable temperatures that I set aside my reluctance to assist my husband. Because our younger and more daring friend assisted Mike with the outdoor lighting, I tended to the indoors. I urged myself on with this year’s take-down-the-tree viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. Because I began my work in the living room and the television is in the family room, I raised the volume enough to allow me to hear the dialogue while I worked. This film is such a part of me that I can visualize every scene without watching a single frame. While the guys rolled up light strings outdoors, George Bailey and I became reacquainted indoors.

As I boxed ornaments and rolled up my own portion of lights, I celebrated the many people to whom George’s life had made all of the difference in the world. As I absorbed the dialogue, images from George Bailey’s life flooded my memory. The selfless decisions which defined George elicited frequent tears. Though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, I suffered every disappointment with George as though I had no idea that things would work out in the end. “Poor courageous George,” I thought to myself. “If only you realized just how good you are!” And so it went until the movie ended and our Christmas Tree was bare.

When Mike and I finished the tasks at hand, it was time to commit our tree to the parkway. There it would wait for a public works employee to toss it into a truck for the trip to the Land of Mulch. As I considered that barren tree, it occurred to me that George Bailey felt like that tree far too often. He should have felt good about the wonderful things he’d done for others. He saved his brother’s life and that of a sick child who was sent the wrong medicine by a distraught pharmacist. He took over his father’s business to prevent the loss of many jobs and many more homes. He used his own savings to send his brother to college in his place. All the while, George fought temptation in the form of Mr. Potter, the most miserly man in town, to stand up for God’s riff raff. Yes, George Bailey was a good man who gave the working poor and many others something to live for. Finally, when George felt that he had no more to give, the God-of-the-Riff-Raff stepped in through Clarence, a bumbling angel-to-be. If you watch the movie, you can join George in celebrating what truly was a wonderful life. Celebrating our lives on this earth is the point of our celebration of The Baptism of the Lord.

Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17) tells us that John the Baptizer was deeply inspired by Jesus. When Jesus asked to be baptized, John was reluctant to cooperate because he felt Jesus should baptize him. Though pleased with John’s faith, Jesus asked John to baptize him just the same. After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan River, God entered into the scene to announce to all who would hear, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words, proclaimed from the heavens over Jesus, were meant just as readily for John the Baptist, for the George Baileys among us, for you and for me. Though they don’t echo from the clouds above, God speaks these words just as clearly in the depths of our hearts. God’s words resound every time we embrace the difficult, selfless choices that make all of the difference in the world to those around us. When we feel we have no more to give, like George who was tempted to hurl himself off a bridge, God steps in. Though God’s appearance may not be as tangible as that of Clarence, God’s presence is very real.

Though I know how It’s A Wonderful Life will end, I cry through it every time I watch it. This phenomenon repeated itself in Jesus’ life as well. Jesus prayed often. Jesus revealed God’s love in his actions toward those who needed him and in stories like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus knew his life would end well, yet he suffered more disappointment and discouragement along the way than George Bailey. The same is true of you and me. Though our faith tells us that all will be well in the end, we worry inconsolably. When we fail to see the value of what we do, we join George Bailey on that bridge. Still, it’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall George’s joy when his life was given back to him. It’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall God’s words at the baptism of Jesus and realize that they are meant for us as well. “This is my beloved… with whom I am well pleased.” Yes, when we’re on that bridge, our lives are given back to us as well. This happy ending is truly the happiest beginning we will ever know!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Christmas Love

This is Christmas Day. In my parish church, our Nativity scene, a forest of lighted trees and a garden of beautiful poinsettias set the scene. I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to celebrate Christmas. Things were a little different three weeks ago when our parish family immersed itself in Gift Weekend. The sanctuary was filled with packages and gift bags of every size and color. Our statue of Mary was lost behind that mountain of generosity. Rather than today’s folding chairs which provide extra seating, the gathering space was filled with an assortment of bicycles. As that weekend unfolded, I found myself wiping away tears multiple times. I pictured my fellow parishioners shopping with gift tags for those in need in hand. I also imagined this Christmas Day when hundreds of men and women, teens and toddlers will open those gifts with great excitement and appreciation. When I left church that day, my heart was filled with at least as much love as our church building had been. When I arrived at home, I decided I was in the perfect mindset to prepare this Christmas reflection.

As I pondered the miracle of this holy day, I couldn’t shake the images of those gifts and the smiling people who would welcome them. Suddenly, a little boy I met many years ago came to mind. Isaac was an expert regarding matters of the heart and his capacity to love was second to few. Just like my parish’s efforts on Gift Weekend, and throughout the year for that matter, it seemed to me that his generous gesture many Christmases ago captured the spirit and the love with which God touched this earth on the first Christmas Day…

Isaac was one of my students because he needed a little direction in developing his reading skills. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we had the opportunity to talk. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and my students took full advantage of the situation. Isaac was no exception. I knew the latest regarding his mother’s lengthy disabling illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. I knew about his older brother’s return from the military for an early Christmas visit and that Isaac read from a little prayer-book every night. The last day of school 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 retrieved them for their lessons, I asked that they bring their book bags along so they could put away their gifts and forget about them until they arrived at home after school. When I gave Isaac the package with his name on it, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card addressed to him. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his mom and dad wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. Now when Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast, and ready to do his best, though in the same shirt and slacks for the week. Isaac didn’t enjoy the luxuries we sometimes take for granted. Still, his family was rich in love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he said, “I have something for you. I have a gift for you.”

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 finally 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 had planned to trade his dragon for one of his classmate’s coveted collectibles. He 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 that he left the 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 that he could take the 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 two thousand Christmases ago. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents 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!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Someone Needs A Blanket

When the poor one called out, God heard,
and from all his distress God saved him.

Psalm 34:7

Every year, my husband begins our Christmas Tree decorating by trimming its trunk and securing it in its stand. For a day or two afterward, I string the lights and hang ornaments. While I work, my husband contemplates the tree’s lowest branches and the area beneath the tree. With great care, Mike plans the village which will fill that space. I offer meager assistance by unpacking numerous little houses, tiny trees and our crèche. I admit that I delay a bit as I unpack the stable and figures which will be the focal point of our little town of Bethlehem. Though I love the little structures which resemble the buildings of Jesus’ day, I pour over the tiny figures far longer.

I fully expect these tiny figures to answer when I ask what they were feeling back then. Though I can imagine what Mary and Joseph might say, I puzzle over the baby. “How aware where you that day? Were you planning out your life with that first cry in the night or where you simply protesting the cold? ‘Where’s my blanket?’ you might have wailed.” In the midst of my musing, the baby who rests in that tiny manger seems to ask that I leave him to his rest. He sends me off to bring blankets to those who need them far more than he.

As I reflect upon the miracle of God Among Us, I consider who it is who might need a blanket to ease his cold or to comfort her aching soul. That Bethlehem Baby seems insistent that it is up to me to do what I can to provide what is needed.

Loving God, your invitation to love one another sets the tone of every new day. Help me to respond as you would.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Swaddled With Love

Your ways, O Lord, make known to me;
teach me your paths.

Psalm 25:4

While spending the day with our grandson, I noticed his Advent Calendar. Danny has happily joined his older cousins in counting the days until Christmas. Our granddaughters’ calendar features a bare stable and twenty-five numbered pockets. Each pocket contains a stuffed figure which will complete the Nativity scene by Christmas. Every year, the girls take turns placing a little stuffed animal or person in or near the stable. A few years ago, while admiring the partially complete scene, our youngest granddaughter slipped Baby Jesus from the pocket marked December 25. “Look at poor Baby Jesus,” Claire told me. “He didn’t have any baby clothes so his mommy put a towel on him.” I explained that though Mary and Joseph had a hard time finding a place for Jesus to be born, they did bring some very special clothes for him. “This is what babies wore back then. They’re called swaddling cloths.” This year, it was Claire who taught Danny about swaddling clothes.

Though Claire is now the swaddling clothes expert, she has held on to her concern regarding Jesus’ apparent poverty. I pray often that she and all of my grandchildren will always feel concern for those in need. After saying, “Amen,” I promised myself to respond to my own concern by doing something for someone in need today.

Loving God, help me to see your people’s need with your eyes and to respond to them with your heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved