Overflowing With Hope

In spite of the persistent pandemic which continues to turn our lives upside-down and which sours my disposition far more often than I should allow, I couldn’t help smiling when I began writing this reflection. Before I sat at my keyboard, I’d read today’s scripture passages. The first reading from Wisdom (6:12-16) and the second from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18) offer a good deal of encouragement which certainly lightened my mood. Still, it was the passage from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) which elicited audible laughter. Suddenly, I found myself back in fifth grade in the midst of a serious discussion with our parish priest regarding the parable we hear Jesus offer today.

At the ripe age of ten, I’d determined that Jesus was completely wrong in his presentation of his Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Jesus told the people that ten virgins waited dutifully for a bridegroom’s arrival at his wedding. Jesus considered five of the virgins (we call them bridesmaids today) to be wise because they brought their lamps to light the groom’s way and extra oil in preparation for the wedding. They left nothing to chance as their wait for the groom might have been longer than expected. They were prepared to relight their lamps if they needed to in order to guide his way. Jesus went on to explain that he considered the five remaining virgins to be foolish. They had arrived with only their lamps and the oil that filled them. They had made no provisions for the possibility that the groom might be late.

Though I normally found myself in full agreement with what Jesus and my parish priest had to say, I had no patience with either one when it came to these ten young women who I felt had done their best to prepare for that wedding. I found myself in total disagreement with both of their assessments of the situation. I explained to Father that I felt sorry for the foolish virgins. After all, the groom was about to be married and it was his responsibility to be on time for his wedding. The oil in the foolish virgins’ lamps should have been enough. In my young mind, I found the groom to be foolish and quite rude for being inexcusably late on such an important day!

Though I won’t admit how many decades have passed since my original interpretation of this parable, I will share that the wisdom of biblical scholars and many good homilies have enlightened my thinking along the way. I learned that the bridegroom in this parable represented Jesus and that the wedding banquet is God’s Kingdom. The wise virgins were those who opened their hearts and welcomed God into their lives. The foolish virgins missed the opportunity because they weren’t quite ready for what God had to offer them and each of us. When we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, we assume the roles of the wise virgins. We’re ready to embrace what God has in store, always full of hope regarding what is to come. I admit to considering myself to be among these wise ones most of the time. I consider myself to be very blessed. When sorrow touches my life, I usually find my way. I look deep within where God, who promises always to be with me, resides. In my darkest moments, I find God there. Yes, I’ve been one of the wise ones holding tightly to the lamp of my faith which overflows with the oil of perpetual hope. How could I ever walk with the foolish ones? Me? Oh yes…

Patient and kind readers that you are, you have born witness to many of the difficult times which have threatened to drain the oil of hope from my lamp. Over the years, I’ve expressed my sadness over so many things… circumstances while I was teaching that hurt children, yet couldn’t be changed in spite of my hard work; worries over family members, friends and fellow parishioners whose names I disguised, but whose difficulties I couldn’t erase. I shared my difficult journey through my mom’s final illness and passing. Recently, I’ve shared my frustration with being unable to remold Year 2020 for us all. In the midst of these troubles, I’ve joined the foolish virgins with barely a drop of oil left to keep the flame of hope burning within me. Yet, somehow, that the oil was replenished by a kind word, an unexpected show of support or some other unmistakable sign that I wasn’t alone. God lived through all of this with me and the hope that God would remain assured me that all would be well in the end.

Whenever difficulties plague me, the hope within me and in the eyes of those around me urges me on. Our common willingness to try, try again strengthens my resolve to move beyond the misery at hand. Our parish family and all of God’s human family have suffered serious illness, lost employment, ailing parents and broken marriages. Some have buried a child. While our loved ones stand quietly beside us, knowing we can never completely heal one another’s pain, we live on, allowing the oil of our hope to be filled once again by God who remains within us. I laughed as I wrote today because this one-time ten-year-old is so grateful and thrilled to have finally learned what Jesus’ parable means to me and to us all…

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

“THERE” With God

When I woke that day, I’d planned to get through my morning routine in record time. Afterward, I’d proof this week’s reflection and send it off to meet an early deadline. Well, that was the case until the morning news sent me in another direction. I’d begun watching just in time to see a reporter standing in the midst of smoldering rubble. He was describing what he saw for miles around -one of the many western state towns burned to the ground by wildfires. That report was followed by an update regarding Hurricane Sally’s assault upon the gulf states. As I watched, my frustration regarding life-with-COVID-19 took a back seat and I opened my heart to those suffering all around me.

Suddenly, I found myself in that overwhelmingly painful place we visit when our heartache gets the best of us. I’d been there before. I know many of you have been there as well because you’ve shared your stories with me. “There” is that place far beyond disappointment and well past anger. “There” is that place where our misery gives way to tears as we wonder what to do next. I’m writing of those times when you or I or a loved one has done everything right only to discover that, in spite of our best efforts, our situation has gone completely wrong. After watching subsequent news reports, I was certain that those suffering these disasters questioned the wrong-turn in their reality as well. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who experienced the same…
 
Jesus’ landowner was a knowledgeable businessperson. He’d done everything necessary to net a healthy crop of grapes from his property. Jesus told his audience that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” It seemed that this landowner was a person of means accustomed to engaging in such transactions. He’d employed tenants to whom he gave housing and a living wage. In return, they would tend to his vineyard. Those tenants enjoyed the opportunity to live respectably and the landowner increased his holdings. That arrangement seemed to be a productive deal for all concerned.

Unfortunately, the tenants didn’t live up to their agreement and they wanted far more than their fair share. At harvest time, when the landowner sent his servants to retrieve his share of the grapes, two of them were beaten and one was killed. What should have been a simple settling of accounts developed into an ugly scenario. When the landowner sent a second cohort to gather what was his, they were met with violence as well. Completely shocked by all of this, the landowner sent his son to settle the matter. He was certain that the tenants would respect his family member and hand over what was due. Sadly, the tenants viewed the young man as an obstacle. Those tenants killed the man’s son hoping to secure even more of the landowner’s riches for themselves.
 
Honestly, I would never have predicted this end to Jesus’ parable. The landowner had behaved appropriately in every way. He was a good businessperson who paid his employees justly. When things went completely wrong and he lost his own son, what was he to do? When Jesus posed this very question to his followers, they responded, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Though I understand what Jesus’ followers were getting at, I can’t let go of the reality that nothing would bring back the landowner’s son. If I’d been in the landowner’s shoes, I would have been able to do nothing more than to weep over the senseless loss of my child until my tears ran out. Neither future tenants nor bountiful harvests nor successful business deals of any sort would have filled the emptiness within me. The families of those lost in recent wildfires, to COVID-19 and to senseless violence in every form likely share these sentiments.
 
After puzzling over this parable, I found that I don’t like scenarios which so accurately echo the heartache we suffer today. Though I’m reluctant to analyze Jesus’ words, this suffering compels me to do just that. Finally, deep within, I realize that God makes sense of everything. Deep within, I realize that God shares that “sense” with us whenever we open our hearts to God. It is God’s sense of things which makes it impossible for me to leave that landowner in his misery. It is God’s sense of things which insists that this isn’t the end for those hurt by wildfires and injustice and a virus.

Though Jesus didn’t offer an outcome to his parable, I will. I say that the landowner left his tenants to the authorities and then he moved on. He could find no solace in further bloodshed because his son’s death had robbed him of too much. I say that the landowner found a way to get past his trauma because God entered into his story to assure him that he wasn’t alone. I say that God helped him to embrace this life once again. Finally, I say that God will do the same for us for as long as our suffering lasts. God entered into your story and mine the day God breathed life into us. This is the reason that, as difficult as this life can be, we somehow pull ourselves up to begin anew. Actually, it is God who offers the hand we hold as we try, try, try again.

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

God Really Is Good!

She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd
and put her hand on his cloak. “If I just touch his clothing,”
she thought, “I will get well.”

Mark 5:27-28

After looking out the window for inspiration with no results, I decided to look upward to offer a prayer. In the process, I caught a glimpse of Sister Gerard. I couldn’t help responding, “God is good!” Sister Gerard is my great-aunt who passed away more than forty years ago. No, I did NOT see a vision of her. What I did see is a nun doll -a worthy replica. I call her “Sister Gerard” in my aunt’s honor. I said, “God is good” because Sister Gerard frequently uttered this phrase in response to the blessings in her life…

After further reflection regarding my aunt and after thanking God for the inspiration, I must add that Sister Gerard also exclaimed “God is good!” in the face of tragedies both large and small. This dear woman was convinced that God infused goodness into the best and worst of times and into everything in between.

Today, I’m going to take a lesson from Sister Gerard. In spite of the pandemic, political unrest and our ongoing inability to treat one another as God’s family, I’m going to find reason to praise God. Like Sister Gerard, I’m going to look for God’s favor in every moment which lies ahead.

The woman in Mark’s gospel who struggled through the crowd to touch Jesus’ cloak endured ongoing misery much like we are. Still, like Sister Gerard, she also knew that God’s goodness was within reach. This woman’s efforts paved the way for you and me to reach for the same. Like that woman and like Sister Gerard, when we look carefully into the moment at hand we will find that, indeed, God is good!

Good God, thank you for everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peace Begins With Us

A peaceful heart create in me, O God;
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.

Psalm 51:12

Though it has been 19 years, the date continues to send a chill up my spine. Like I do, you likely recall precise details of where you were when you realized what had happened in New York City, Arlington County, Virginia and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The good to be found in all of this unfolded among us during the days that followed. Uncommon selflessness and generosity became the norm. Political differences fell to the wayside. We joined hands as one people to do everything possible to bring about healing.

I was convinced then just as I am convinced today that our world is in dire need of peace. Our sisters and brothers who were directly touched on 9/11 can attest to this. Those of us touched by tragedy of so many kinds since then as well as our current battle with this pandemic agree with this assessment. If this isn’t enough, daily news reports of the violence we inflict upon one another underscore our need to rid our world of violence and to embrace peace once and for all.

My mom reminded me often that charity begins at home. She expected me to show my own family the kindness that I so willingly extended to others. Today, I remind myself that peace begins at home: in our world, in our country, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our families and, most importantly, in our hearts. Today, I remind myself to do something to infuse peace into every moment I’m given.

Loving God, help us. Give us hearts which desire peace and hands which extend that peace to all whom we meet along the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let’s Do It!

Life in this world continues to be tough. While I immersed myself in the news earlier on in this pandemic, I’m watching fewer newscasts these days. I’m also scanning the daily newspaper and reading it a bit more selectively. It’s simply too difficult to acknowledge all of the suffering around us. My misery hit a crescendo with the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Ongoing inequities place our more vulnerable neighbors at risk of illness and so much more. This adds to my angst. While news reports loudly echo more of the same, the voice of reason seems only a whisper. Crime continues to disrupt the lives of innocent people simply trying to make their way through another day. Add to that another round of wild fires assaulting California. Though I’ve turned my eyes heavenward more often than ever, I’ve found it impossible to speak. What can I say about these things that God doesn’t already know?

I’ve trusted God all of my life. This began when I observed my parents turning to God in the best and worst of times. When I was happy with my circumstances or those of my loved ones, I looked upward to offer thanks. When I was frightened or saddened about these things, I looked upward and prayed with even greater intensity. This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though God never actually spoke aloud to me, I always knew deep down that God was my greatest ally. During my often emotional teens, I sometimes ran the other way. Still, God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me (though they never actually abandoned me), I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

Fortunately, throughout high school and college, God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. When I took my first job, I rushed out of school and headed to work. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to manage my studies, employment, life at home and a boyfriend or two (yes, Mike is aware), I continued to make time for worship. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers which filled my childhood. Eventually celebrating the liturgy in English thrilled me. On weekdays, I often attended noon Mass at college to energize myself for what lay ahead. Though tough times and tragedy punctuated those years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto that relationship with God which had begun two decades earlier.

Much to my dismay, the onset of adulthood brought the realization that many people don’t rely upon God for much of anything. While I’d worked hard to prepare for life in this world, I had also found great consolation in God’s company along the way. Apparently, I was naïve is this regard. I was truly shocked by the “God is dead” discussions which emerged during my philosophy and theology courses during college. I attributed what I heard to each speaker’s need to rebel or to shock rather than to his or her actual beliefs. How wrong I was! I eventually understood that these sentiments had resulted from this world’s seemingly endless misery. Some of my contemporaries believed that it is up to God to solve humanity’s problems. When nothing happened, they surmised that God is indeed dead. As for me, as upsetting as our human condition has been throughout my life, I’ve never actually expected God to fix it. It seemed to me then, just as it does today, that it is we who need to roll up our sleeves and to do something.

I share all of this because today’s excerpt from Matthew’s gospel (16:21-27) addresses a turn of events which frustrated Peter even more so than my classmates had been. Jesus had begun to prepare his friends for the ordeal which would take him from them. Peter pulled Jesus aside because the last thing he wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus insisted that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life to find what matters most. While I understand Jesus’ intent, I also understand Peter’s distress. Things had finally gone right in Peter’s life. Peter knew without a doubt that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Then, before Peter could fully enjoy his good fortune, Jesus took it away by acknowledging the cross which awaited him.

I think it’s time to turn my eyes upward once again. After giving thanks for the goodness in my life, I will list the troubles which engulf us. Then, I will ask God’s help as I determine what I can do to improve things, both nearby and far away. Just as Peter eventually did, I need to accept that there are bumps in the road. Just like Peter, I must decide whether to jump over those bumps, to walk around them or to get my feet dirty by walking through them. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter and to us is steeped in absolute love and absolute confidence. Jesus is convinced of our ability to do something to change this world for the better. Like Peter, let’s do it!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Prime Directive

After scanning the newspaper and half-listening to the morning news, I determined that I’d given enough time to this world’s woes. I decided to improve my mood by raking up the branches strewn about by last week’s storm. After only twenty minutes’ effort, I was dripping with perspiration. As I ambled back into the house to cool off, I told myself that those branches would be better left for another day. I poured myself a glass of water and sat. I attempted to be productive by reading today’s scripture passages in preparation for this writing. Afterward, I set my book aside and turned on the television. Perhaps a mindless interlude would allow my creativity to take form. The channel was set to H & I (Heroes and Icons) which is my husband’s favorite oldies station. I found myself in the midst of a well-worn episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As soon as the inhabitant of a primitive planet announced, “You! You are the Picard!”, I realized that I’d found my inspiration…

My husband-the-deacon has preached homilies for thirty-two years. I’ve written my reflections for twenty-eight of those years. Throughout that time, Mike has shared ideas with me while serving as my part-time proof-reader. Still, we’ve never offered the same interpretation of a given week’s scriptures. Though we agreed on the focus of the passages, we shared the wisdom drawn from them quite differently. At least this was the case until today. When I heard, “You! You are the Picard!”, I knew I had to repeat a homily Mike offered several years ago. Mike has been an avid Star Trek fan throughout the original television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Star Trek movies. Years ago, when the episode I happened upon today was originally televised, Mike announced, “There’s a good homily in that one!” Mike filed that information away until months later when he read the gospel we hear today. He was very excited because it provided the perfect setting for his Star Trek-inspired message. When he was fully prepared, Mike asked my opinion regarding the suitability of a Star Trek scenario for this purpose. After assuring him that this would be fine, he smiled and I wrote something completely unrelated.

The following Sunday, Mike shared his love for all things Star Trek. He went on to reference that episode when Captain Jean-Luc Picard had a startling encounter with an alien race. While the inhabitants of this strange planet looked human, they were quite primitive. This was particularly troubling to the captain because, when exploring new worlds, the crew was bound by The Prime Directive. This regulation indicated that they must never interfere with the development of alien cultures. They were never to impose their own technological, scientific and other intellectual evolution upon people who hadn’t yet discovered such things on their own. In this case, the aliens inadvertently witnessed the capabilities of the landing party before the crew realized what had happened. Their arrival in a large ship with bright lights and seemingly magical powers resembled the coming of this people’s god as described in their holy writings. When the planet’s natives approached the captain and he identified himself, they dropped to their knees. Without hesitation, their leader announced, “You! You are the Picard!” The poor captain was beside himself because he had indeed violated The Prime Directive. Captain Picard was even more upset because he was looked upon as a god, an extremely uncomfortable role for any of us. Fortunately, which is always the case in a Star Trek episode, everything ended well, as did Mike’s homily that weekend.

In his gospel (Matthew 16:13-20), Matthew chronicled a conversation between Jesus and his closest friends which had a similar outcome. Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” Some responded with what they’d heard on the street, that Jesus may have been John the Baptizer or the prophet Elijah. While they were quite willing to repeat what had come from the lips of others, none would declare what was in his heart. Finally, Simon exclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” When he acknowledged Jesus’ identity, Simon changed everything. Suddenly, Jesus’ often-outspoken and sometimes-unthinking student had become Jesus’ spokesperson. Suddenly, Simon’s life took on new meaning because he recognized God Among Us. When Simon was renamed Peter, he didn’t fully understand the logistics of his new role. Nonetheless, he certainly understood what it meant to have Jesus at his side. As for Jesus, he didn’t have to say, “I am the Christ,” because Simon Peter said it for him.

Though Captain Picard flinched a bit at representing God to those primitive people, he eventually found a way to use their acceptance of him to guide them onto the right path. When Peter found himself saying, “You, you are the Christ!”, he may have wondered, “I’m with the Christ! Now what do I do?” The scriptures tell us that Jesus guided Peter as well. As a result, Peter was truly instrumental in revealing God’s love to this world of ours. It seems to me that our prime directive is to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved