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

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S is for…

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased…

From Isaiah 42:1

S is for Service. When I was a little girl, I was usually the first to raise my hand when a teacher asked for assistance. At home, though I disliked my own chores, I happily volunteered when my mom requested help with a non-mandatory task. I jumped at the opportunity to do something for her especially after my dad passed away. Young as I was, I quickly discovered that, of all of the joy I’d experienced, the best of it was the result of being of service to someone.

Our lives are filled with opportunities to serve. I’ve been a spouse, parent, teacher, colleague, daughter to an elderly mom and sister to dying siblings, an ear for a troubled soul and an all-purpose volunteer. I’ve rescued a wayward can of soup that rolled out of a fellow shopper’s bag and a twenty-dollar bill that fell out of another’s wallet. I’ve even extinguished the burning hair of a wedding guest who stood a bit too close to a lighted candle. Your list of everyday and life-time service would fill a space much larger than this. Whenever we respond to those God has given us to love, we serve.

The joy that resulted from my helpful efforts as a child has remained with me. Though it’s nice to be thanked on occasion, the joy comes either way. Perhaps this is God’s way of assuring us that God is indeed pleased with us and all that we do!

Thank you, Good and Gracious God, for giving us loving and caring hearts like your own.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Q is for…

Be still, and know that I am God…
From Psalm 46:10

Q is for Quiet. Moments of quiet are amazing gifts. I relish the quiet around me. When I’m home alone, the television is off and other noisy distractions are scarce. I’m a master at creating a quiet environment. Still, this isn’t the best of the quiet I’ve experienced. I consider myself most fortunate when I experience that internal quiet where I encounter God.

This is the quiet that often comes in unexpected places at unexpected times. As I struggled to write this afternoon, I realized that I needed a measure of quiet with God if I was going to produce anything. I ventured outdoors to walk under the sunny sky in a brisk breeze. Oddly, though I could hear leaves rustling the entire time, I found precisely what I needed. Creation’s sound effects didn’t keep this inner quiet at bay. Though I didn’t utter a single prayer all the while, I felt God was listening to my every thought, breath and heartbeat.

Q is for quiet… that wonderful quiet in which I come to know God almost as well as God knows me.

Dear God, thank you for filling the quiet with your loving presence.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Call to Love

Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

After finalizing Father’s Day plans with our sons and daughters-in-law, I got offline with the hope of tending to some writing. Before opening my file, I glanced toward the window for a peek at summer’s greenery. Nature always inspires me and I expected this glimpse to be no exception. Much to my surprise, my gaze never made it to the huge blue spruce that rests just beyond the glass. A photo on the file cabinet in front of the window caught my attention first. There were our sons with their wives and our grandchildren. Mike and I couldn’t have smiled more broadly as we posed that day. When we’re surrounded by our family, we’re in the happiest of places. It occurred to me that Mike’s and my smiles in that photo might actually have competed with our grins the day we received the news that we were expecting our first baby. Though neither Mike nor I knew much about parenting at the time, we did know that this news was the start of the most important and exciting time of our lives. Over the years, we’ve used many other mostly positive adjectives to describe our stints as Dad and Mom. In the end, we wouldn’t trade these roles for anything. How grateful we are for this family of ours!

When I turned back to my keyboard to open that file, a photo on the bookcase next to me also caught my eye. There I saw the first family which gave me an appetite for the joy I’ve found in my own. This photo was taken when I was six years old. My siblings were fourteen, twelve, four, three and fifteen months. We’d posed in front of our house on Easter Sunday just two years before my dad passed away. I reminded myself of how fortunate I am to have memories of my dad. My youngest sister knows him only from pictures. The next youngest was only five years old when our dad passed away. Though her memories included only a few fleeting images of him, my sister observed more than once that our dad loved her very much. She assured us that this had to be the case because she’d felt the absence of that love ever since. My best “Daddy memory” is bath time. The four youngest of us played together in the tub for as long as our parents could tolerate it or until the water cooled a bit too much. Then, our mom quickly washed and rinsed each of us, usually in the order of our ages. One at a time, we ran across the bathroom floor from our mom to our dad, giggling all the while. Daddy dried us off and dressed us in our pajamas. The goal of all of this was to get us into bed before my dad left for his night shift at the railroad yard. I wondered when we realized that this scene would be repeated only a few more times…

My brother, my sisters and I each responded to the loss of our dad differently. Still, the pain of his absence remains a constant in our lives. This good man, husband and father impacted his family as no one else could have. When we’re touched with great happiness, we miss sharing the good news with him. When we find ourselves in turmoil, we long for the embrace of his caring arms. Sometimes, we simply want to share the mundane details of a boring day with him. Our dad is a very funny guy who would likely turn our monotonous moaning into an amusing anecdote, if only he could. Like my younger sister, I know that our dad loved each of us as best he could. Perhaps the greatest impact of his love for me is manifested in my relationships with my sons. Mike’s dad certainly did the same for him. From the time we knew they were on the way, we loved our sons. When each of them was born, Mike and I felt as though we’d known them forever. We spent every available minute with them. Though this sometimes required very efficient tweaking of our work schedules and adjusting or ignoring our social calendars, we gladly spent our time with our boys. After all, Mike is the only dad our sons will have and I am their only mom.

I cited the quote above from Ezekiel because God’s intent is precise in this message. God created something amazing in each one of us. Just as God took that tender shoot from a cedar tree and planted it in a place where it would flourish, God has planted you and me precisely where we are meant to be. Just as God provided the sun, rain and soil needed to nourish that tree, God does the same for you and me. All the while, God hopes that we will do the same for one another. If you question the value of your life, take it from this daughter that the eight years I shared with my dad meant everything to me. Every day that you have with those you have been given to love is equally valuable. With that, I wish the dads among us a very Happy Father’s Day! I wish the rest of us the grace we need to follow their leads and God’s by nurturing those we’ve been given to love as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Extraordinary Reality

As I sat at my keyboard to begin this reflection, I remembered that I needed to return a phone call to a long-distance friend. I dialed her number with the hope of offering her and her seriously ill husband some support and consolation. Though I’m not certain that I helped either of them, I assure you that my friend helped me. She calmly shared her conviction that things will unfold as best they can and as they are meant to be. This elicited a few tears on my end of the conversation. My friend has no idea that her efforts to be compassionate, wise and strong while easing her family through this difficult time also brought comfort to me. Her practical approach to dealing with her possibly life-changing circumstances gave me reason to pause. There isn’t much that is earth-shattering in my life, yet I’ve recently found myself in panic-mode. As I set down the phone after that conversation, it occurred to me that my friend had embraced two extraordinary realities. Though I’ve shared both in recent reflections, I seemed to have loosened my own grip on these encouraging truths.

When I returned to my keyboard, I lamented the fact that my friend and her husband aren’t alone in their suffering. Each of us can list loved ones near and far who are plagued with difficulties. When we consider our own struggles and those of many of this world’s people, it’s difficult to see the point of it all. In an effort to open my eyes to what my friend seems to see so clearly, I’m taking another look at those encouraging truths which make all of the difference in everything. The first is God’s presence within us. Wherever we are, God is as well. Whether or not we acknowledge God, God remains. The second truth is that a peace-filled eternity awaits each of us. When we complete our earthly journeys, we will share an everlasting home with God. The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time offers a timely opportunity to celebrate these gifts because they can transform our ordinary lives into so much more. When I remind myself of these things, the obstacles in my path become manageable and the joy in my life grows.

The scripture readings for the next several Sundays in Ordinary Time focus upon the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary trials and tribulations of earthly life. This week’s selections are no exception. In the passage from Genesis (3:9-15), God approached Adam and Eve after the two had eaten from the one tree in the Garden of Eden which they were told to avoid. Adam provided a classic example of our human frailty when he blamed Eve for his disobedience. Eve did the same when she blamed the serpent for her sin. Though God first turned to the serpent to deal with his wrongdoing, God dealt with Adam and Eve as well. God sent them off with the clothes on their backs and the stubborn pride they’d harbored in their hearts. “If you think you know best,” God seemed to say, “get by on your own.” In the gospel (Mark 3:20-35), Jesus exhibited a similar mindset. Some of the people questioned Jesus and suggested that he was possessed. Jesus responded by pointing out that one possessed by a demon cannot also cast out a demon because he would be fighting against himself. Jesus observed, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The people’s comments so disturbed Jesus that he added, though all sins would be forgiven, blasphemy against God’s Spirit would never be forgiven.

Fortunately, in the second reading from 2 Corinthians (4:13-5:1) Paul put the apparent harshness of both our Creator and of Jesus into perspective. In the end, God didn’t leave Adam and Eve on their own and Jesus went on to remind the people that God’s love is absolute and that God’s capacity to forgive is unlimited. 2 Corinthians is a compilation of five letters in which Paul responded to the internal and external suffering around him and within himself. Paul reminded his followers that, regardless of the suffering we endure, God continues to renew us within. Paul added that, even when we find no inner peace here, the peace found in the hereafter is worth all of our effort.

I admit that my initial reaction to these passages was frustration. I have great difficulty with images of a vindictive and unforgiving God. In the face of these descriptors, I had to remind myself that these stern portrayals were offered to a specific audience at a specific time. Perhaps they resulted from frustration with a thick-headed people who had forgotten that God was in their midst. I also have great difficulty with the suffering of both loved ones and of all people for whom relief seems improbable. So it is that in the midst of my difficulty, I turn to the lesson which my friend taught me during that phone call earlier today: Though none of us knows what the next week or day or hour will bring, we do know that God is with us in everything. Though none of us is certain that we will find even a morsel of joy in the moment at hand or in the moments awaiting us down the road, we do know that God will shower us with eternal joy at the end of this life’s journey.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

I is for…

God replied to Moses: I am who I am.
From Exodus 3:14

I is for I AM. We humans assign numerous names to God. Those who reference the Torah or Bible are familiar with the passage I’ve cited in which God chooses to be called “I AM.” I find great consolation in this name because it is offered in the active present tense. This name leaves no doubt that God is, was and forever will be. Though our lives pass more quickly than we care to acknowledge, I AM will never pass from the moment at hand. It seems to me that, since I AM is the only constant of which we can be certain, it makes sense to acknowledge God’s presence with regularity and with gratitude.

Some days, God and I are in conversation from morning until night. This is a good thing, except for my propensity to monopolize the exchange which means that it’s one-sided. This isn’t because God has nothing to say, but because I rarely give God the opportunity to speak. Still, God finds ways to get my attention. These efforts come most often in the beauty of nature, in an unexpected encounter with a fellow human, in a great idea or in encouraging words. Yes, just as God is always with us, God always finds ways to get our attention.

It seems to me that I best show my gratitude for God’s ongoing presence by making that presence known. Rather than announcing that I AM has sent me their way, I can reveal God’s presence to others through my own loving presence to them.

Loving God, please be as tangible as ever in our efforts to love for one another.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved