Rich In God’s Love

See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For God hears the poor,
and God spurns not those who are in chains.

Psalm 69:33-35

When the media features items regarding the poor, we assume that the term references those with dire material needs and this is often the case. Still, God’s definition of “the poor” is all-inclusive. Whether our needs are material or spiritual, God attends to us. Sometimes, we seem to be doing well in the world’s eyes only to discover the need deep within us where it matters most. Just as the materially poor climb a slippery slope when it comes to establishing a secure life for themselves and their loved ones, others of us sometimes lose our grip on the things which are truly most important to us.

It seems to me that we are all counted among God’s poor at one time or another. This much-loved group includes us whenever this life robs us of the things we need to carry on. Whether we are lacking money enough for a loaf of bread or energy enough to care for our aging parent, God knows our need and shares our concern. Whether we are besought by the enemy before us or by the demons within us, God stands at our sides. Whether a physical or mental or emotional illness plagues us, God understands our predicament. In spite of our many needs, God always provides love enough for us to get by.

Loving God, you recognize our poverty in all of its forms. Thank you for your generous response.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Speak and Listen

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.”
From Mark 7:6

A friend recently shared that he’s made serious progress when it comes to prayer. Somehow, he’s managed to set aside the hustle and hassles of daily life in order to spend quality time meditating. The results are obvious in his demeanor and his writing. I envied his peacefulness and wondered how I could capture a bit of it for myself.

I admit that I babble in God’s direction all day long. I also admit that I don’t always take the time to sit, to reflect and to listen to what God has to say to me. The other day while babysitting our grandsons, I decided to do something about this. As soon as I was certain they were asleep, I tiptoed to the family room and nestled into his parents’ recliner. While trying to focus myself, I caught a glimpse of the large print which hangs on their fireplace. The photo features a lovely lighthouse surrounded by amazingly beautiful clouds which punctuate a heavenly blue sky. A wooden path leads to the lighthouse and I imagined myself strolling happily upon it. I couldn’t wait to meet God who I imagined waited just as eagerly for me. Within a few moments, I’d entered into that lovely setting where I poured out my heart. For the rest of my grandsons’ naps, I sat in silence and listened. Finally, God had the opportunity speak. Finally, I was at peace.

Good and Gracious God, thank you for your unlimited patience. Though I allow many things to keep me from spending time with you, you are always with me.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rich In God’s Eyes

Some months after Marie passed away, her daughters sorted through her things. They’d allowed their mourning to ease a bit before dealing with this daunting task. The day they gathered, they lovingly and practically decided what to keep, what to pass on to Marie’s grandchildren and what to give away. All the while, these sisters shared many laughs and shed lots of tears over the memories which surfaced as they worked. An item that drew their attention spoke to one of Marie’s lifelong interests. It was a framed needlepoint rendering of a gray-haired woman sitting next to a mound of assorted fabric. Next to the woman, someone had meticulously stitched, “She who dies with the most fabric wins.” One of Marie’s daughters had gifted her mom with this artwork because Marie purchased fabric whenever it was offered at a good price. Marie’s walk-in closet was literally filled with the stuff when she left her condo for the last time.

Now Marie wasn’t a compulsive buyer. She always purchased fabric with a project in mind. When her daughters were growing up, Marie fashioned most of their clothes and her own. She also upholstered furniture, sewed drapes and did alterations for various family members. Among Marie’s favorite projects were the bridesmaids dresses she fashioned for her daughters’ weddings and the items she sewed for veterans confined to area VA Hospitals. Marie made lap blankets to warm the vets who spent their days in wheelchairs. She made neck pillows for those who were bedridden. She made ditty bags in which all of them could store their personal items for safekeeping. Marie never let anything go to waste. Years after her daughters’ weddings, Marie recycled those old bridesmaid dresses by using their fabric for these same items for women vets. Marie made good use of everything fabric-related. A few years before she passed away, Marie’s hands began to ache with arthritis. When she found that she could clothe herself with purchased items as inexpensively as with what she made for herself, Marie limited her sewing to items for the veterans. Marie determined that she’d use her stockpile in service of those most in need. Though she left her condo with that full closet, she’d actually used most of the fabric she’d collected over the years. Her daughters were quite certain that she had a plan in mind for every leftover bit of it.

Interestingly enough, though sewing was a huge part of Marie’s life, she moved on to other things after she left her condo. Marie concentrated on the new business at hand. She’d taken up residence with one of her daughters and her focus became being a good house-guest. It was Marie’s goal to cause as little disruption as possible in the lives of all concerned. Her sons-in-law agreed that Marie was easy to have around. When Marie was diagnosed with cancer, her life’s work changed once again. Marie’s new goal became to live the life she had left to the fullest just as she always had. All the while, her generosity continued to be evident. Marie enjoyed daily activities in her hospice setting, was a good patient when she needed care, provided upbeat company to her fellow residents, held onto her dignity at all costs and assured her daughters that she was absolutely fine. After four months, Marie left this world peacefully.

In his gospel (Luke 12:13-21), Luke shares Jesus’ parable of the rich man. This fellow seemed to believe, “Whoever dies with the most stuff wins.” Jesus told his friends, “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.’” The poor rich man didn’t understand the blessing that wealth of any sort is meant to be. He busied himself with building up storehouses of his own treasure rather than using what he had to enrich those God had given him to love. Poor rich man that he was, he didn’t enjoy loving others as much as he enjoyed loving himself. Poor rich man that he was, he didn’t understand at all the things that truly matter and the things that should have mattered to him.

Through everything that she said and did, Marie gave new meaning to her daughter’s needlepoint gift. Marie’s efforts echoed the message Jesus shared with his disciples that day. She who dies with the most fabric does win when she does as Marie did. Whether sticking to her meager budget by sewing for herself, clothing her children or making things for her vets, Marie used her wealth of talent well. Even that leftover stockpile served others after Marie’s passing because her daughters saw to it. It seems to me that the moral of the story is this: Whether we’ve been blessed with the ability to sew or to listen, with a kind heart, a healthy stock portfolio, patience or… you get the idea. God asks only that we take as good care of others as we do of ourselves with what we have. The truth is that I learned this firsthand. I’m the one who purchased that little needlepoint artwork. Marie is my mom.

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Watchful and Trusting!

Was not the hand of the Lord upon that child?
From Luke 1:66

When I arrived home after a bit of Christmas shopping, I paused in the driveway to take in our Christmas decorations. Though we’ll never win a decorating contest, my husband and I do our best to acknowledge the season through our outdoor display. Five years ago, Mike stopped climbing onto the roof above the garage to string lights on our second floor eaves. We both agreed that it was more important for him to make in to Christmas Day unscathed. Lighting the first floor eaves is enough. One year later, I slipped on the ice at ground level while stringing lights on a tree which was shorter than I am. This resulted in a laceration to my scalp and twelve staples to close it.

As I drove into the garage, I shuddered at this memory. The truth is that my fall had caused me to feel uncharacteristically vulnerable. At the time, I wondered if I’d reached the age when this type of thing might occur more frequently. The possibility unnerved me as I plan to be a capable and independent Mom and Grandma for many more years.

As I retrieved my packages from the car, I did what I always do when I’m concerned. I turned my eyes upward, not to share my worry, but to express my gratitude. I thanked God that nothing particularly threatening has happened in recent history. Mike has stayed off of the roof and I’ve watched more carefully for ice patches and many other of this life’s obstacles.

Dearest God, thank you for giving us the wisdom to learn something new and helpful every day even from our falls!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Do Your Best and Trust God!

While sorting through my files, I came across a story someone shared with me almost twenty years ago. Amazed that I’d kept it, I reread the narrative to determine why it had been important to me. When I reached the bottom of the page, I smiled in spite of the tear which trickled down my cheek. As I dabbed it away, I looked upward and whispered a prayer of gratitude. This discovery was perfectly timed because I was hard-pressed to complete a number of these reflections before leaving for our recent trip to Italy. This sweet story addressed not only the disciples’ dilemma in today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:30-37), but also the difficulties which have plagued us within the church, this world of ours and within our own hearts.

The story relates the terrifying adventure of a young boy in Florida. This active little guy swam in the lake behind his house whenever possible. One day, the boy rejoiced in his swim a bit too completely. He’d managed to swim farther from the shore than usual and found himself in close proximity to an alligator. This frightened child frantically paddled toward home, yelling for his mom all the while. His mother, who always listened attentively when her son was outdoors, dropped everything. She arrived just soon enough to see that alligator take hold of her son’s legs as he approached their pier. This determined mother pulled the boy with all of her might while that alligator did the same. Fortunately, a passing farmer heard the commotion, pulled a rifle from the back of his truck and shot it as he ran to help. The startled alligator let go of the boy and hurried away. Though his legs had been badly bitten, the boy survived. Afterward, he sported numerous scars which became a lifelong reminder of the incident.

When a local reporter heard what had happened, he hoped to talk to that brave youngster one day. After waiting for the boy to heal physically and mentally, the reporter requested an interview. While they talked, the man asked about the boy’s scars. The boy quickly pulled up his pant legs to reveal the evidence of his injuries. When the reporter pulled back from what he saw, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Mister! You have to look at my arms. You should see the scars my mom left because she wouldn’t let me go!” Though I don’t know the reporter’s reaction to the boy’s observation, I’m responding with more tears.

In his gospel today Mark tells us Jesus’ words once again troubled the disciples. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” Jesus’ friends didn’t understand. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus’ demise. At the same time, they were afraid to approach Jesus about this. Though Jesus had exhibited his devotion to them at every turn, they worried. Perhaps to distract themselves, they moved on to a far less important topic. “Who’s most important among us?” they wondered. Not long after, Jesus asked what they’d been discussing. When they said nothing, it was Jesus who moved on. He called their attention to a little child whom he hugged. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me, but the One who sent me.” Jesus dismissed his friends’ concern regarding their status and he addressed the heart of the matter: God’s ongoing love for each one of them and God’s call for them to extend that love to one another and to everyone they met along the way.

As I read today’s gospel, I considered the frantic mother who battled with that menacing alligator for her son. Though she’d been busy inside, nothing mattered when she heard her child’s cries. That mother responded to her son when he needed her most. While that alligator certainly left his mark on that little boy, so did his mother. It occurs to me that Jesus was busy with many things as well when he walked among us. Still, when he heard the cries of those who needed him, he abandoned the tasks at hand to respond. Jesus left his mark on everyone he met along the way. Jesus did this to assure all who heard him that God’s love for us is ongoing and complete.

As I prepared to write this reflection, I found myself swimming with that little boy in the proximity of a congregation of menacing alligators. (Did you know that a group of alligators is actually called a congregation?) Those gators seemed to come from every direction to distract me from my family, prepping for our trip and this writing. As I struggled at my keyboard, I looked up in frustration. It was then that I saw a favorite bit of artwork -a rendering of two hands cupped around the face of a child. Before attempting to begin this writing again, I thanked God for the reminder that someone is holding on to me as well. Though scars from this life’s battles sometimes threaten my hope, the scars from God’s grip comfort me. With that, I entrusted the troubles swarming around me to God and I began to write.
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Spread God’s Love…

By September of my senior year in high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. A few years earlier, I’d volunteered to assist a religious education team from the diocese who was developing a program for special children. They were ready to pilot their work and needed a few high school volunteers to assist with preparing and tending to their teaching space each week. Because I had a special place in my heart for the children who would be involved, I embraced this opportunity. When a classmate and I arrived for our orientation, I knew immediately that this was the place for me. The sister, priest and lay people involved cared deeply for the children who were referred to as their special friends. My classmate and I were charged with preparing the environment and acting as gofers during the sessions. Busy as we were, I couldn’t help watching as the helper catechists and children interacted. When the lead catechist offered the day’s message, I found myself attending with as much interest as the children. My only regret was that I didn’t have the training at the time to do the same. After assisting on the sidelines for the next two years, I determined that this would be my life’s work.

At the onset of senior year, I applied to potential colleges. On each application, I listed “special religious education” as my major of choice. This was in spite of the fact that there was no such major at the time. Eventually, I determined that a double major was in order: Special Education and Theology. This would certainly provide the tools I needed to achieve my objective. By the time I began college the following fall, the special religious education program in the Archdiocese of Chicago had debuted as SPRED and I debuted as a helper catechist. In spite of commuting to classes every day and working as close to full-time hours as possible, I served in this capacity throughout all four years of college. Though I’d tweaked my majors and my career path by this time, my SPRED friends, both the children and the adults, had made indelible impressions on me which remain to this day.

I’m sharing this chapter of my personal history with good reason. My SPRED experience offered me an encounter with God’s love and an example of what moments spent with Jesus must have been like. The SPRED catechists prepared together for every lesson. They worked hard to ensure that the environment, the topic of the day and their own hearts were ready to be shared with the young souls in their care. Their top priority was to reveal God’s love to the children as tangibly as possible. Every gathering began with activities which calmed the children and freed them to attend to the day’s message. I recall sitting with my special friend as we molded clay or poured rice from a pitcher to a bowl for as long as it took for him to relax and to focus. It was during these activities that the one-to-one relationship between adult and child grew into a special friendship. When we gathered as a group, the children were attentive and ready to receive the good news of the day. These SPRED encounters offered me a taste of heaven which I’ve only rarely recaptured. I had no doubt that God sat with us all the while. This is the reason God sent Jesus to walk among us. Like my SPRED friends, we needed tangible evidence of God’s love as well.

Today, Mark’s gospel (Mark 5:21-43) places Jesus in the midst of a pressing crowd. If the masses of people who scurry about the Holy Land today are any indication, keeping that crowd’s attention was no easy task. Still, in the midst of the circus around him, Jesus drew them in. Somehow, Jesus’ loving and perceptive awareness of each one urged them nearer to hear more. On this particular occasion, Jairus, a synagogue official, made his way through the throng and knelt before Jesus. His young daughter lay dying and Jairus was convinced that Jesus could help her. Jairus’ request was remarkable because religious leaders constantly questioned Jesus’ behavior and his authority. Still, in spite of their doubt, Jesus’ work had touched Jairus’ heart and this was enough. While Jesus and the crowd moved toward Jairus’ home, a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for more than a decade pushed her way to him. Jesus’ loving ways had filled this woman with such hope that she wished only to touch his cloak. This touch would certainly be enough to heal her. Amazingly, that boisterous crowd failed to distract Jesus from this woman. As soon as she touched his garment, Jesus felt the woman’s presence. At the same instant, the woman was healed. Afterward, Jesus continued on to Jairus’ home where they were told the girl had already died. Jesus reassured Jairus and then went to his child and said, “Little girl, I say to you arise!” And so she did…

My experiences with SPRED touched me deeply because they mirrored Jesus’ work among us. My fellow SPRED catechists’ presence to their special friends echoed God’s presence to each one of us just as Jesus had. Everyone was welcome. Everyone was taken as he or she was. Everyone was given as much time as needed to open up to the message of the day. Though SPRED didn’t become my life’s work after all, spreading all that my special friends taught me about God’s love has become just that.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved