What Were You Thinking, Lord?

I don’t think any of us will forget Lent 2020! I wish this was the case because our homilies, parish mission, Stations of the Cross, Lenten Holy Hours and this season’s editions of Something To Think About have been so inspiring. I wish this was the case because we all managed to change a bit for the better as a result of reflecting upon the gift of Jesus’ presence among us. Rather, our memories of these forty days will focus upon the startling adjustments we’ve all made to our daily lives in response to COVID-19. Many of our efforts to observe Lent have been rerouted or derailed as we’ve concentrated on keeping our loved ones and ourselves safe and healthy. Our world has literally been turned topsy-turvy by all of this.

As I attempted to prepare for this writing, my thoughts wandered. I looked upward to pray for our human family as we fight on to find an antidote for those infected by the virus and a vaccine to make the rest of us immune. I went on to pray for my friends and my own extended and immediate family. When I attempted to get back to this writing, I was happily interrupted my a multi-person series of texts from my sisters, niece and nephew. Not long after, our sons surprised Grandpa and me with a three-way FaceTime call. What a joy it was to see that all concerned are safe and well! Suddenly, my upside-down world seemed manageable. As I returned to this writing, I realized that this world has been turned upside-down again and again throughout history. Our human family has survived and even flourished amidst the unexpected again and again. As I considered that first Palm Sunday, it occurred to me that Jesus’ world was turned upside-down as well. I wondered what Jesus was thinking in the midst of all of this. Though I have no way of knowing his thoughts, I imagined Jesus offering his own prayer …

…Judas has warned me. Though he smiles at the crowds, he wrings his hands in the face of Caiaphas and the others in the temple. Judas tells me that I spend too much time with outcasts. He wonders what the poor and the sick and the sinful will do to help our cause. I try to tell him, “Judas, don’t you see that these are the ones who need me?” He doesn’t hear me. Judas is agitated today. Though the crowds wave palms and call my name, Judas tells me to beware. Rumblings of discontent fill the air. While the people make a path for me with their olive branches and capes, the temple guard mumble against me. I know Judas is considering his options. If things continue as they are, Abba, what will he do? Peter, John, Thomas and the others dismiss their worry. They can’t help losing themselves in today’s joy. Abba, what will come of this?

All of this began in the desert. I thought I knew what was coming then. I urged John to baptize me to show the people that change is in store. Peter and Andrew followed me as soon as I called them. When they saw the resolve of these two, the others joined me as well. The people are suffering. They would accept the poverty if they were free of the tyranny. It is no wonder they rejoice in you. That mountainside encounter with Peter, James and John was but a taste of what is to come. Abba, the crowd closes in on us as we walk. This one who chants, “Hosanna!” looks like the woman I met at Jacob’s well. I will always cherish the moment she embraced your love. She continues to live in your name. Bless her with strength for the journey. The man who was blind is another witness to your glory. He repeats the tale of his journey into the light to all who will listen. He understands, Abba, because he once lived in the darkness of isolation. You have blessed me with many reminders of your love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus made their home my own. When it was most difficult to understand, Mary and Martha held onto hope and believed. Now, Jerusalem welcomes me, but will their welcome last? When the darkness comes, Abba, light their way. When the darkness closes in, Abba, light my way…

No, I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts as the crowd cheered him into Jerusalem that day. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus made it to Gethsemane, to Pilate’s hall, through that scourging and along the streets of Jerusalem with a crossbeam on his bleeding shoulders. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus lasted as long as he did on that cross. Jesus’ world was turned upside-down, far more powerfully than ours is today, yet he endured. What I do know is all that Jesus has taught me: That God remains steadfast in loving every one of us; that we must pay this blessing forward by loving one another. This is Lent 2020 and our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces, schools and this church have been turned upside-down by a strange virus. Like Jesus that first Palm Sunday, we aren’t certain of what the coming day or week will bring. Still, like Jesus, we persist because Jesus showed us the way and his Abba walks beside us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Nearby

The Lord is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.

Psalm 145:18

At a recent wake, I picked up a prayer card. This loving offering was provided as a reminder of the person who’d passed away. I keep these mementos together on a bookshelf near my desk. They remind me to pray for and to those who’ve made it to the hereafter. When I added this card to the pile, I noticed a favorite I’d forgotten about. The anonymous prayer on the card expresses the sentiments of one who wishes us all to experience God nearby. This prayer doesn’t ask that others are blessed with a keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. Certainly, these are good places to seek some understanding of God. Still, this prayer asks that we sense God’s presence not only with our psyches, but with our hearts as well. It seems to me that the prayer’s author knows God in the same way that he knows his closest friends. What is more is that God seems to reciprocate this relationship in very tangible ways.

I took that card from the rest and gave it a new home on my desk. It will remind me to pray that each of us will see God with the open and loving eyes of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always.

Dear God, please reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we can’t miss your presence around us and within us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Palm Sunday… So It Begins…

I find that preparing for Holy Week is much like preparing for a family member’s final farewell. The week will be filled with reminiscing, memories good and bad, some regret and a measure of consolation. Holy Week is our opportunity to walk with our loved one through his final moments. Heartbreaking as this will be, we will also lay him in what was meant to be his final resting place. All the while, we’ll consider all that we’ve been through together, what we’re proud of and what we wish we’d done differently. “Holy” is the perfect descriptor for the week we will spend acknowledging Jesus’ loving presence in this world and in our lives.

This Holy Week, I will revisit my walk through the Holy Land. This is Palm Sunday and my thoughts turn to Jerusalem. The people who encountered Jesus offered him a raucous welcome on that first Palm Sunday. Our treks through Jerusalem’s market places gave me a taste of the frenzy in which Jesus must have arrived in the Holy City. Did some of those who cheered Jesus that day also join the crowd who screamed “Crucify him!” later in the week? While considering this possibility, I’ll take a mental trip to the Western Wall. This ancient embankment once served as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. Jesus frequented the temple which rested there. Jesus predicted this temple’s eventual destruction which did occurred at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. It was likely in or near this temple that Judas forged his agreement with the Pharisees to betray Jesus. While in Israel, I prayed at the Western Wall with my fellow pilgrims. Today, I shudder over Judas’ work there. Little did the poor man realize that his regret for this deed would lead him to a far more troubling brink a few days later.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I will consider the life which brought Jesus to this difficult week. Jesus’ lived in difficult times. It is no wonder that the people found hope in what Jesus said and did. When Jesus offered God’s compassionate love as well, how could they resist following him? On Holy Thursday, I’ll revisit Jesus’ last meal with his closest friends. While Judas wrestled with his plan, the disciples made arrangements for Passover. The Franciscan monastery near where this gathering likely took place houses a life-sized sculpture of this unforgettable meal. When I entered, the scene before me took my breath away. Though I attempted to put myself into the mindset of Jesus’ friends, I found it difficult to imagine what they were thinking. They’d shared a good deal of wine as they ate. They’d also shared a good deal of fear since no one was certain of how their Passover observance would end. It was when I turned to a lone statue standing in the shadows of the chapel that I found some consolation. This image of Mary Magdalene portrayed a loving calm which was absent at the table. Mary’s heart surely ached as she watched Jesus and the rest. Still, had she listened so carefully to Jesus’ teaching that she was convinced that the God of Israel would never abandon him? Had she seen Jesus’ strength so often that she knew he would endure until the end? This week, I will meditate with Mary regarding all that she saw in Jesus.

On Good Friday, I will envision three crosses looming above me in the afternoon sun. I will watch as Jesus hangs there with the others who share his death sentence. After dragging the crossbeam of that cross through the narrow and crowded streets of the ancient city, Jesus likely fell before the soldiers who nailed him in place. When the cross was positioned in the ground, Jesus’ flesh tore all the more as he struggled to breathe. There was nothing reverent about the scene which Jesus observed from his wooden deathbed. Soldiers nearby casted lots for Jesus’ clothing. No one was allowed to approach Jesus-the-Insurgent. Nonetheless, many passersby jeered from afar. Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, John and the others likely watched in horror from a small distance. After three very long hours, Jesus completed his work and his suffering in this world.

This is Holy Week. Though there is sadness to share as we walk with Jesus through his last days, there is also joy to be found. Jesus’ story didn’t end on the cross. Jesus’ story didn’t end in the tomb I reverenced in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus’ story continued into the garden outside the tomb where he greeted Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning. Jesus’ story continued in his every appearance thereafter. Jesus’ story continues within you and me and all of God’s people. This is Holy Week. Come, walk with him as his story continues.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A New Perspective

Wait, rather, for the fulfillment of God’s promise,
of which you heard me speak.

From Acts of The Apostles 1:4

Though we never made it to Masada during this second visit to Israel, I’m going to revisit that mountain setting here. Masada is the site of an amazing fortress built sometime between 37 and 31 BCE. Herod, who had been appointed King of Judea by the Romans, oversaw the construction of the complex where he resided. About 75 years after Herod’s death, Jewish rebels took over this refuge. They’d fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple and survived there for three years.

Eventually, the Romans surrounded the settlement with catapults and battering rams. When it became apparent that they would be overpowered, the Jewish leaders determined that they would commit suicide rather than allow the Romans to make them slaves or to murder them far more violently. In the end, the men in the group killed their wives and children and themselves. All of this was related by two surviving women whose husbands perhaps thought better of the idea.

For centuries, Masada served as a symbol of heroism for the Jewish people. New recruits inducted into the Israeli Army were taken to Masada to pledge their loyalty to Israel. Recently, however, this has changed. Increasingly violent incidents of terrorism throughout the world have given our Israeli neighbors reason to pause. Their ancestors’ mass suicide resembles these heinous acts far too closely. So it is that soldiers pledge their allegiance elsewhere. Masada is no longer held up to themselves or to their children as a symbol of bravery.

When our guide shared this revised thinking with us, I found him and his fellow Israelis to be quite brave. It isn’t easy to let go of the things which we’ve held dear even when we realize that they no longer serve our best interests. Yes, change can be difficult, but it can also be life-giving.

Dear God, give me the wisdom to know when to hold on and when to let go.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

So Very Close…

The Lord is near to all…
From Psalm 145:18

I admit that I experienced great relief this past Monday when I looked at my calendar and found that this is indeed the last week of August 2017. It has been a traumatic month on many levels. I felt convinced that turning the page to September will somehow make things better for us all. In the mean time, I returned to a bit of inspiration which has helped me in the past.

I have a collection of prayer cards and bookmarks. Though I’ve discarded others, I’ve kept each of these because of its particular words of wisdom. I purchased one homemade creation at a craft sale some time ago. The anonymous prayer on this bookmark celebrates the author’s experience of God. This prayer doesn’t celebrate the author’s keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. This prayer simply acknowledge’s the author’s awareness of God’s presence with both his or her psyche and heart. It seems to me that this author knows God in the same way that he or she knows an intimate friend. The best part is that God reciprocates this friendship in very tangible ways.

I’ve given that bookmark a new home on my desk. Every day, it encourages me to pray that each of us sees God with the open and loving eyes of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always. Imagine how different August 2017 might have been if this was the case! Imagine what we can accomplish during September 2017 if only we acknowledge that God is with us!

Dear God, please reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we cannot miss your presence around us and within us.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What Was He Thinking?

As I prepare for Holy Week, images from my trip to Israel fill me up. While there, that wonderful and troubled country truly became holy land to me. It was impossible to sail the Sea of Galilee of Galilee without imagining Jesus in a small boat filled with his best friends. It was impossible to walk through Nazareth and Capernaum and up the Mount of the Beatitudes without sensing Jesus’ presence. The little boy who once played among what are now ruins grew into the man who saved his friends embarrassment by providing a bit of wine at their wedding. The same man who wept in the Garden of Gethsemane saved the rest of us from wretched lives by revealing God’s love for us in everything he said and did. If Jesus had done no more, this would have been enough. When I looked over the ancient city of Jerusalem, I repeated the question I’d asked so often during this trip: “What were you thinking, Jesus?” Though I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts, he seems to answer just the same…

Judas cautions me, “Beware!” I know Judas wrestles with himself over what has become of my work. He smiles when the crowds gather to see me. “Approachability is an asset,” Judas says. “It endears you to the people.” Still, Judas worries because I alienate others who might be helpful one day. I spend too much time with outcasts –the poor, the sick, the sinful. Poor dear Judas, don’t you realize that these are the ones for whom I have come? Judas is particularly agitated today because things aren’t going according to his plan. Though the crowds wave palms and praise my name, Judas tells me that I must beware. Rumblings of discontent fill the air. This mule carries me across a path of olive branches and capes, while the temple hierarchy mumble condemnations against me. Judas considers his options at this very moment. If things continue as they are, he will execute his plan. Yes, Father, he will execute his plan. Peter, John, Thomas and the others dismiss their suspicions as they lose themselves in this revelry. Father, they cannot imagine what is to come. Only you and I know what is in store as I make my way into Jerusalem.

As I look back, my battle with evil in the desert seems a distant dream. Not so my trip up the mountainside with Peter, James and John. My muscles relax for a moment as I offer a smile to the crowd. Your Presence fills me up and once again I am transformed within. I know I will endure. One woman who chants, “Hosanna!” looks much like the woman at Jacob’s well. I will always cherish the moment her heart caught fire and she saw you within me. She continues to live in your name, Father. Bless her with strength for the journey. The man who now sees is another witness to your glory. Not a day goes by that he does not repeat the tale of his journey into the light. This one understands, Father, for he lived in physical darkness and the darkness of isolation. He will see to it that every one you place in his path is given a glimpse of you. He cannot help himself, Father, because he is on fire with love for you. I am blessed with so many reminders of your love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus made their home my own, just as they make a home for me in their hearts. When it was most difficult to understand, Mary and Martha held onto hope and believed. What joy will be theirs when they are home with us! Now, Jerusalem welcomes me, Father, and so it begins. When the darkness seems impenetrable, light their way, Father. When the darkness closes in and I can do no more, Father, light my way…

No, I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts as the crowd cheered him into Jerusalem. I can only turn to the words and deeds which brought Jesus to that moment in time to gain some understanding of these events. This one who rode into Jerusalem amidst the crowd who would make him king arrived not many years earlier in a stable. This one who struck fear in the scribes and Pharisees grew into manhood among Nazareth’s poor. With an unshakable commitment to his mission and to us, this one loved us enough to embrace the cross.

All if his life, Jesus insisted that God remains steadfast in loving every one of us. Jesus gathered a motley crew of followers who resemble you and me at our best and at our worst. Through everything he said and did, Jesus taught these disciples and all who would listen how deeply God loves them and how important it is that they pay this blessing forward by loving one another. This Holy Week 2017, our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces, schools and this church become holy land because it is in these places that Jesus repeats these lessons for us all. It is in these places that we get to know Jesus best.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved