Your Truly Valuable Life

While sorting through yet another shelf in my bookcase, I came across something a fellow writer introduced me to more than a decade ago. I couldn’t help smiling as I thumbed through a few pages. This book had enticed me to read three others by the same author. For One More Day, Tuesdays with Morrie and Have a Little Faith are remarkable reads. Still, the fourth book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, made me a true fan. I set down that book and ran to my computer. “I wonder if he’s written anything new,” I asked myself. As soon as I searched his name, an entry appeared which read, “Mitch Albom new book 2018.” When I clicked on the link, I found the summary of an interview with the author. As I read, I happily discovered that Mitch Albom has written a subsequent book, The Next Person You Meet In Heaven. It’s a sequel to the beloved tale which hooked me. Because it’ll be available in October, I turned my calendar to that page and made a note: Look for Albom’s book! With that, I remembered that this writing needed attention. So it was that I left my cluttered bookshelf for another day…

As I considered today’s feast, I realized that my encounter with those books was providential. John the Baptist was Jesus’ much beloved cousin whose life made an amazing difference to his contemporaries. Though John likely had no idea of the extent of his impact, his parents new that he was destined for greatness from the very beginning. God knew the same. Mitch Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, chronicles the last hours in the life of Eddie, an elderly man who wasn’t at all certain that he’d accomplished anything of value in his life. The story which unfolds dispels Eddie’s doubt and that of the rest of us in this regard.

Eddie had spent his adult years working at an amusement park. He married his first love, but sadly enough he and Marguerite were unable to have children. When Marguerite passed away at the onset of their middle years, Eddie was left completely alone. At this point, he was convinced that nothing else in his life mattered. Loneliness filled the decades which followed. Sadness over a life seemingly wasted compounded Eddie’s loneliness. He wondered why he’d been born at all. The mistakes made and the opportunities missed which punctuated Eddie’s memory compounded his misery. The single distraction that numbed his pain was his work. Every day, Eddie moved through a cycle of meticulous safety checks on the rides in the amusement park which employed him. It was Eddie’s expert knowledge of that work which brought about his passing. After he breathed his last, Eddie encountered five people waiting for him on his way to heaven. Each one shared a lesson which helped Eddie to understand the true meaning of life –not just any life, but Eddie’s particular life among his fellow humans.

Life-changing experiences often involve the very question Eddie asked himself when his wife passed away. When we look over our shoulders at our past accomplishments and our failures, they seem not to add up to much of anything. For some reason, we focus upon the rocks and ruts on the road we’ve traveled while being completely oblivious of the flowers and trees we’ve planted along the way. Like Eddie, we overlook the growth and the goodness which resulted from the hard times we’ve survived. Sadly, this focus on the negatives behind us too often keeps us from embracing the opportunities which lie ahead. Fortunately, as was the case with Eddie, we come to our senses through the support of those who love us and a bit of Divine Intervention.

You know, when John the Baptist was conceived, his parents had no doubt regarding the value of his life. John’s mother Elizabeth is the cousin of Jesus’ mother. She became pregnant in her old age which was viewed as an amazing blessing. Pregnant herself, Mary journeyed a long distance to visit Elizabeth. Later, when Elizabeth gave birth, the scriptures tell us that an angel rendered the child’s name to his parents. When the baby’s father presented that given name, he couldn’t help glorifying God. Those present whispered among themselves that John must have been destined for great things because God was already present in the little boy’s life.

The early days of our lives aren’t chronicled in scripture. Still, when God breathed life into us, God sent us on our way to live meaningfully as well. John the Baptist’s greatness was evident in his determination to do the work which God had set before him. Somehow, John knew that God was with him all the while. You and I are invited to embrace the work of our lives as well. Had Eddie opened his eyes a bit earlier, he would have seen the value of his seemingly mundane existence. As it happened, the five people Eddie met in heaven explained everything and Eddie finally experienced peace. You and I needn’t wait for heaven to find meaning in our lives. God reveals it again and again through our simple, yet powerful encounters with every soul we meet along the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Advertisements

God Always Listens…

God looked down from the holy height,
from heaven God beheld the earth,
to hear the groaning…

From Psalm 102:20-21

When I was a child, people often asked me to pray on their behalf. I obliged as best I could. Every night, I said my prayers. This was more my mother’s doing than my own. When she tucked me into bed, she’d always ask, “Did you say your prayers?” If I had, I proudly acknowledged this. If I hadn’t, I admitted my omission and quickly began. Sometimes, though I told my mom that I already said my prayers, she mentioned that I might want to offer an extra prayer for someone who was sick or who had something difficult to deal with. Again, I happily obliged. I was pleased that someone thought my prayers were helpful.

Over the years, difficulties which seemed not to be alleviated by my prayers gave me reason to question this effort. I wondered far too often if prayer did any good at all. Fortunately, I eventually realized that presenting a laundry list of requests to God isn’t all there is to prayer. I finally learned to listen. Rather then voicing what God already knew, I invited God to look into my heart for my troubles and those I carried for others. Though I wasn’t always sure of what my prayer accomplished, just knowing that God was aware changed everything for me. Though I rarely knew what, I knew for certain God would see to everything in God’s good time.

Generous God, inspire us with your persistence, that we will always turn to you in our need and with our gratitude.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

All God’s Flowers

In their panic and fright
they thought they were seeing a ghost.

Luke 24:37

While decorating our church for Easter, my husband realized he’d forgetting to buy flowers for our Easter table. As soon as he left church, he went off to purchase those forgotten flowers. He returned home with what he thought was a disappointing handful of yellow tulips. Because he loves plants of every sort, Mike lovingly nestled the small bouquet into a little glass vase. I found them to be just right for our small family gathering though I wondered why Mike thought they were yellow tulips. To me, they looked sweetly and delicately white. By Easter Sunday morning, those delicate buds had blossomed beautifully. In spite of their lack of color (They were white!), they filled that vase and gave unexpected life to our Easter table.

Though my reflections regarding our trip to Israel are coming to a close, the impact of that wonderful experience remains with me. Just as those precious tulips graced our home for a full week, God has graced me through my experience in Israel and through every moment with which I’m blessed.

You and I are much like my husband’s tulips in God’s eyes. God sees us just as we are -yellow, white, brown, black or red. The color of our skin or of our mood is part of what God loves about us. Just as my husband chose that seemingly unwanted bouquet to bring a bit of Easter joy into our home, God singles out you and me to enhance life on this earth, especially the lives of those God has given us to love.

Dear God, thank you for the many surprising ways you remind me that I am loved. Help me to love all of your children as you do.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing during Mass a few weeks ago. We’d just returned from our second visit to Israel. My husband-the-deacon was preaching that day and he began his homily with a story about our older son’s response to our first Israel trip. When we shared our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile and announced, “Well, Mom, it’s been a good run.” Though I assured our firstborn that I’d never travel to an unsafe destination, I sensed that he was at least a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his feigned smile stayed with me until we arrived in Israel last year and found ourselves to be completely outside of harm’s way. Our Israeli guide and our Palestinian bus driver joined our tour director Nancy in seeing to our worry-free travel the entire time. This year’s adventure proved to be equally secure and enjoyable. After sharing all of this, Mike went on to the point of his homily. I missed the bulk of the poor man’s message because my mind drifted back to Israel. I couldn’t shake the notion that Jesus’ homeland hasn’t changed much since our first visit there. I also think that it hasn’t changed much since Jesus lived there.

Though Israel’s politics sometimes suggests otherwise, the variety of people who make up that nation’s diverse population cooperate on many levels every day. They do their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Our guide Yossi often commented, “All they want is to work and provide a home and food and a life for their children. This is what we all want.” Yossi certainly supports this effort through his work as he guided us to an Italian mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, the Israeli Museum, Muslim shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. I’ve shared before that Yossi is a gifted musician. When he treated us to his selections in these venues, he included the best of his own Israeli pieces, Christian classics and the favorites of those who hosted us. Each of these encounters spoke to the people’s successful efforts to co-exist on the job, in their neighborhoods and as friends. How could my thoughts not turn to Jesus efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings speak to Jesus’ efforts, Yossi’s efforts and all of our efforts when we try to build community in our little corners of the world. In the first reading from Exodus (17:3-7), Moses deals with the grumbling Israelites who seem to have forgotten that they were led from the grips of slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout this journey and threatened Moses at the time due to the bitterness of the water at hand. With disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s complete lack of faith, God provided the water they craved. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings which flowed like water from Jesus. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. Paul assured them that, all the while, God remained with them.

It is the passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) which gets to the heart of what I discovered while among the people of Israel. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rested at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman by asking her for a drink of water. At the time, the Jewish People avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Jesus’ request for water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more in return than a sip of water merited. When this woman ignored societal barriers and acknowledged Jesus, her life changed forever. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply accepted her as she was and asked that she open her heart to something more. In the end, this conversation touched the woman so deeply that she couldn’t help spreading Jesus’ good news throughout her town. As it happened, many turned to Jesus that day because the woman from Samaria shared her good fortune indiscriminately with them all.

I never expected my visits to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and message to me. I would never have guessed that the efforts of Palestinians and Jews, Muslims and Arabs, Christians and agnostics of every sort to live and work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, Israel’s people work diligently to build community among themselves. It seems to me that Jesus asked the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she opened her heart to this Jewish Teacher’s message of love and mercy, the woman couldn’t help doing good in response. This Lent 2018, you and I are invited to open our hearts and to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Gift of Peace

Salvation is nearer now than we first believed;
…the day is at hand.

From Romans 13:11

Some days ago, I shared that a young man I taught long ago had passed away. Though Robert was eight years old when I taught him, his fifty-one years seemed young to me as well. Because I also know Robert’s older sister whom I’d taught the year before him, I attended his funeral. I’d hoped to bring a bit of consolation to her and to all of Robert’s family.

I admit that from the moment I turned onto the street where their church is located, I felt as though I was headed home. I’d lived in this community when I was first married and I taught there for thirty years. When I entered the church, this homecoming took on a life of its own. Though I thought I knew only Robert’s sister, I encountered several familiar faces among those gathered there. After paying my respects, I settled into a pew to pray with them all.

As it happened, though I intended to be the bearer of consolation and encouragement, I was the recipient. In the kindness extended to me and in the pastor’s words to the family, I clearly heard…

“Have you forgotten that I am with you?
I know what’s bothering you.
You can’t do everything.
I’ve commissioned others to help. Let them!
Just do your best where you are. That’s all I ever ask.
I will take care of the rest.”

Though the pastor’s words were meant for Robert’s grieving family, he also spoke to me.

Loving God, thank you also for leading me to Robert’s funeral. Since I took so much from their special moment, please bless Robert and his family doubly today.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Where God Lives

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

While growing up, I lived around the corner and down the block from our parish church. This close proximity allowed me the opportunity to drop in whenever I felt the need. I took the term “God’s House” seriously and literally. I knew in my heart that when I went into church I was in the company of the Almighty. I also knew that I was always welcomed there. I felt quite assured of this because high above the sanctuary in the domed ceiling the words of Matthew 11:28 were written in gold. What more assurance did I need?

As I grew older, I discovered that God also abides within each one of us. Regardless of how pressing an issue might be, I could talk to God wherever I was, not only in church. Though I still popped into church for impromptu visits, I learned to pray in earnest wherever I was when circumstances merited this. I’m happy to share that it has become a lifelong habit to converse with God in good times and in bad wherever I am and whenever I’m not talking to someone else. I enjoy sharing these special moments with God whether I’m visiting at the church I call God’s House or in God’s home within me.

Loving God, thank you for inviting me into your consoling company wherever I am.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved