The Mighty Jordan

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

We visited the Jordan River in the midst of terrible flooding. We’d had to reroute a few times because floodwater had blocked the roadway ahead. The Jordan flows freely along Israel’s western border. The Jordan is referenced often in the scriptures and our guide was anxious to lead us to its shore. However, when we arrived, we discovered that the tourist area where many modern-day pilgrims come to be baptized was closed off due to the flooding upstream. Those who’d hoped to step into the Jordan to engage in this ritual were ushered to a platform high above the river’s edge. Never daunted by a challenge, Yossi led us around that platform to a narrow gate several yards away. “Come quickly,” he ordered, “because we don’t want to be followed.” With that, Yossi led us to a deserted bit of shoreline which very much resembled what Jesus saw the day of his own baptism. Though I’d seen this place twice before, it’s significance overwhelmed me.

When Moses looked toward the Promised Land, he saw the Jordan River flowing down from Mount Hermon into the Jordan Valley. When Elijah the Prophet grew old and Elisha prepared to take his place, the two traveled to the Jordan Valley where Elijah’s days among us ended. Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist, last of the prophets of old, called people to repentance on the shores of the Jordan. They sealed their commitments with John’s baptism. The baptizer’s most significant baptism was that of Jesus.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus took his baptism seriously. Afterward, he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public life among us. When Jesus emerged, he returned to John and to that river where the first five of his disciples joined him. As I knelt at that river’s edge, I dipped my fingers into the water. I left it to God to renew me as God sees fit.

Though getting to the shore of the Jordan proved challenging this time around, the result was an amazing encounter. These days, getting through the moments at hand prove challenging as well. It seems that there is a lesson in our Israeli guide’s approach. When our expectations are disrupted, all we need to do is to adjust accordingly. Just as God renewed me at the River Jordan’s edge, God will renew us all if we have the courage to proceed as best we can.

Dear God, as we respond to the challenges as hand, remind us often that you are with us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God With Us… ALWAYS!

Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.

Psalm 51:14

I’m grateful for those who read my work. Though I’m usually unsure of what will result when I sit at my keyboard, I write with purpose and with conviction. For some reason, I feel that this is what I’m meant to do. Sometimes, I feel that this is more God’s idea than my own.

I’ve spent a lifetime sorting out my experiences of God. I’m awed by God’s enduring presence, mercy and love. These gifts remain consistent regardless of the issues I may deal with at one time or another with my faith, my Church, my loved ones, my not-so-loved ones, my situation, myself… You get the idea. My point is that God never abandons us. Regardless of the mess we may make of things at a given point in time, God’s love remains. When I find myself feeling unlike one of God’s children, I echo the psalmist’s words cited above. I acknowledge my frailty and I ask God to take over for me for as long as needed.

I write about these things because we all struggle at one time or another. I find peace in my ability to offer a bit of peace to another suffering soul. Because their discouragement touches my human heart deeply, I become more convinced than ever of how lovingly and encouragingly God listens and suffers with us.

When our troubles are too heavy to carry alone, we simply have to turn them over to God.

Loving and Merciful God, touch the aching hearts of those who need you. Remind us that you are with us in everything.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Truly Wonderful Lives

This is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, the church closes the Christmas Season just as we have in our homes. I admit that I delayed the process for as long as possible. It was only when a local meteorologist promised bearable temperatures that I set aside my reluctance to assist my husband. Because our younger and more daring friend assisted Mike with the outdoor lighting, I tended to the indoors. I urged myself on with this year’s take-down-the-tree viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. Because I began my work in the living room and the television is in the family room, I raised the volume enough to allow me to hear the dialogue while I worked. This film is such a part of me that I can visualize every scene without watching a single frame. While the guys rolled up light strings outdoors, George Bailey and I became reacquainted indoors.

As I boxed ornaments and rolled up my own portion of lights, I celebrated the many people to whom George’s life had made all of the difference in the world. As I absorbed the dialogue, images from George Bailey’s life flooded my memory. The selfless decisions which defined George elicited frequent tears. Though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, I suffered every disappointment with George as though I had no idea that things would work out in the end. “Poor courageous George,” I thought to myself. “If only you realized just how good you are!” And so it went until the movie ended and our Christmas Tree was bare.

When Mike and I finished the tasks at hand, it was time to commit our tree to the parkway. There it would wait for a public works employee to toss it into a truck for the trip to the Land of Mulch. As I considered that barren tree, it occurred to me that George Bailey felt like that tree far too often. He should have felt good about the wonderful things he’d done for others. He saved his brother’s life and that of a sick child who was sent the wrong medicine by a distraught pharmacist. He took over his father’s business to prevent the loss of many jobs and many more homes. He used his own savings to send his brother to college in his place. All the while, George fought temptation in the form of Mr. Potter, the most miserly man in town, to stand up for God’s riff raff. Yes, George Bailey was a good man who gave the working poor and many others something to live for. Finally, when George felt that he had no more to give, the God-of-the-Riff-Raff stepped in through Clarence, a bumbling angel-to-be. If you watch the movie, you can join George in celebrating what truly was a wonderful life. Celebrating our lives on this earth is the point of our celebration of The Baptism of the Lord.

Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17) tells us that John the Baptizer was deeply inspired by Jesus. When Jesus asked to be baptized, John was reluctant to cooperate because he felt Jesus should baptize him. Though pleased with John’s faith, Jesus asked John to baptize him just the same. After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan River, God entered into the scene to announce to all who would hear, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words, proclaimed from the heavens over Jesus, were meant just as readily for John the Baptist, for the George Baileys among us, for you and for me. Though they don’t echo from the clouds above, God speaks these words just as clearly in the depths of our hearts. God’s words resound every time we embrace the difficult, selfless choices that make all of the difference in the world to those around us. When we feel we have no more to give, like George who was tempted to hurl himself off a bridge, God steps in. Though God’s appearance may not be as tangible as that of Clarence, God’s presence is very real.

Though I know how It’s A Wonderful Life will end, I cry through it every time I watch it. This phenomenon repeated itself in Jesus’ life as well. Jesus prayed often. Jesus revealed God’s love in his actions toward those who needed him and in stories like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus knew his life would end well, yet he suffered more disappointment and discouragement along the way than George Bailey. The same is true of you and me. Though our faith tells us that all will be well in the end, we worry inconsolably. When we fail to see the value of what we do, we join George Bailey on that bridge. Still, it’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall George’s joy when his life was given back to him. It’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall God’s words at the baptism of Jesus and realize that they are meant for us as well. “This is my beloved… with whom I am well pleased.” Yes, when we’re on that bridge, our lives are given back to us as well. This happy ending is truly the happiest beginning we will ever know!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Run Your Race

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south…

From Luke 13:29

This year’s Chicago Marathon was held on a particularly cold Sunday. Nonetheless, runners from everywhere came to test their endurance. I’m not an athlete so I have great respect for these runner’ accomplishments.

The other day, thoughts of marathon runners nudged me out the door for a trek of my own. As I considered what they accomplish over and over again, I pushed myself to walk a bit more briskly and a bit farther. The cool temperatures urged me on as well. Once I established my pace, I attended to the beauty around me. The sky boasted an amazingly deep blue and the trees showed off their vibrant colors. The spraying fountain which I passed near our village hall sparkled in the sunshine like an array of diamonds. “Thank you, for all of this!” I prayed.

You know, marathon runners and I embark upon very different journeys when we head outdoors. While they attend to improving their personal best, I tend to the things outside of me. We each do what is necessary to accomplish our goals. In the end, all concerned feel very good about what we’ve done.

Each of our journeys through this life brings unique demands. All God asks is that we tend to these things as only we can and as best we can. This is all that is asked of any of us.

Gracious God, thank you for your unique call to each of us. May our efforts be a blessing to all whom we meet along the way.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Difficult Endeavor

Often, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor… Today, Luke’s gospel (12:49-53) tells us that Jesus made this quite clear. I admit that this passage had been among the most troubling and difficult for me to understand over the years. I prefer Jesus’ lessons regarding love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I treasure the image Jesus put forth of God as Abba, our dad who considers us all God’s children and God’s family. Yet, in this gospel, Jesus announced, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on this earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father…” I didn’t continue this quote because I’m certain you get the idea. Why, just a few weeks after teaching us to be true neighbors (Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan?), did Jesus change course? It occurs to me that Jesus may have done this to prepare us for what certainly lies ahead. Perhaps Jesus hoped to offer us encouragement for those times when we’d have to proceed alone because even our loved ones fail to understand.

This past Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the last event of Mary’s life. Today’s gospel nudged my thoughts toward Mary’s lifetime. Before she left this life, Mary experienced years of uncertainly, anguish and even division among her loved ones while trying to do the right thing. This likely began when the angel invited Mary to become the mother of Jesus. Mary knew what the scriptures taught regarding the long-awaited messiah. Like her contemporaries, Mary didn’t expect that messiah to be born to a powerless and impoverished maiden. When you and I are faced with difficult choices or forced into relentless suffering, we can turn to two thousand years of Christianity for inspiration. We endure and we rise above our suffering because we’ve learned to do so from Mary’s own son. Unfortunately, poor Mary found herself in uncharted territory when that angel asked her to enter into an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Seeking her parents’ understanding was quite a hurdle to overcome! What of her unsuspecting fiancé? What of her faithful fellow Jewish believers who might have seen this as cause to stone her? Still, in spite of the uncertainty, Mary followed her heart armed only with her faith in God’s presence at her side.

After Jesus’ birth, Joseph shared Mary’s faithfulness to God and to the child whom they would raise together. It was in their home that Jesus developed into the person who enriched human history with everlasting results. What wonderful examples this laborer father and peasant mother must have been! What difficult discussions they must have had beyond earshot of their son! Joseph and Mary nurtured Jesus within a family who seemed typical of those who inhabited Nazareth. Like neighboring couples, Mary and Joseph didn’t necessarily agree on every aspect of Jesus’ upbringing. Imagine the conversations which streamed through their work and leisure. Imagine the laughter and worry they shared at mealtime. Imagine the talks between Jesus and his mother and father before bedtime. Poor Mary and Joseph were certainly blessed by their child, but he also overwhelmed them. In the end, whatever occurred between these three has made all of the difference in this world to the rest of us.

While Mary survived Jesus’ childhood, she couldn’t have predicted what life after Joseph’s death would be like. Nor could she have imagined the triumphs and troubles which followed Jesus throughout his ministry. What did her neighbors say when Jesus left the widowed Mary to pursue his work? What did these friends say when they heard tidbits of Jesus’ teaching during the weeks, months and years that followed? Who warned Mary of the horror that threatened when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time? Somehow, Mary was among the people who crowded the way as Jesus plodded along that path to Calvary. Somehow, Mary found her place at Jesus’ cross. As she stood helplessly beneath him, did Mary question her choices regarding Jesus’ upbringing? Did Mary mourn missed opportunities to urge he son in another direction? Did Mary question her faith in the seemingly faraway Abba who stood by through all of this? The mother in me can imagine nothing worse than standing at the foot of my son’s cross. Still, though Mary Magdalene, Joanna, John and others may others have attempted to usher Mary away for her safety, none succeeded. Mary had agreed to be Jesus’ mother and she held onto that title until the end. Yes, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor.

Perhaps Jesus’ insisted that he’d come to divide us because he’d learned early on that even those closest to us don’t always understand the reasons we do what we do. Mary and Joseph set out to parent Jesus with no assurances. Jesus set out to do his Abba’s work with no assurances. The disciples who first heard this one-time laborer’s preaching followed without guarantees. The man born blind and Mary Magdalene opened their hearts to Jesus with no regard for what others thought. In the end, each one opted to do what he or she felt called to do just as Jesus had. This life can be harsh at times. Just as Jesus prepared us to bask in God’s love for us and our love for one another, he prepared us for the troubles we’d encounter along the way. When unrest and division occur as a result of our doing the right thing, Jesus assures us that the good that follows will outlast it all. Jesus proved this beyond a doubt, don’t you think?

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

D… Depth!

Jesus said to them,
“Come after me and I will make you fishers of people!”

Mark 1:17

D is for Depth. I’ve often wondered if Jesus appreciated the irony of the situation when he called Simon and Andrew to follow him. They were already experts regarding what lay beneath the surface. After all, they were successful fishermen. Still, Jesus asked them to cast their nets into much deeper waters. Jesus asked them to set their sights upon fellow souls…

It seems to me that I deal best with the challenges before me when I look beneath the surface as well. Many things aren’t as they seem. Just as Simon and Andrew made a science of studying the waters to determine where best to cast their nets, I must study the circumstances and people around me before casting a word or deed in their direction. When a quick response is necessary, I rely on God to guide me just as Jesus guided his followers. However, when I’m blessed with the time to plan ahead, it’s up to me to use that time well.

Depth… Of all of God’s gifts, I think I truly appreciate the understanding of another soul. What a gift it is when someone delves beneath the surface to discover what actually makes me tick! What a gift it is when I care enough to allow another to share the depths of his or her spirit with me!

Dear God, you understand us to depths of our cores. Help us to cast our nets with care as we seek to discover the gifts deep within all of those you have given us to love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved