Overflowing With Hope

In spite of the persistent pandemic which continues to turn our lives upside-down and which sours my disposition far more often than I should allow, I couldn’t help smiling when I began writing this reflection. Before I sat at my keyboard, I’d read today’s scripture passages. The first reading from Wisdom (6:12-16) and the second from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18) offer a good deal of encouragement which certainly lightened my mood. Still, it was the passage from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) which elicited audible laughter. Suddenly, I found myself back in fifth grade in the midst of a serious discussion with our parish priest regarding the parable we hear Jesus offer today.

At the ripe age of ten, I’d determined that Jesus was completely wrong in his presentation of his Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Jesus told the people that ten virgins waited dutifully for a bridegroom’s arrival at his wedding. Jesus considered five of the virgins (we call them bridesmaids today) to be wise because they brought their lamps to light the groom’s way and extra oil in preparation for the wedding. They left nothing to chance as their wait for the groom might have been longer than expected. They were prepared to relight their lamps if they needed to in order to guide his way. Jesus went on to explain that he considered the five remaining virgins to be foolish. They had arrived with only their lamps and the oil that filled them. They had made no provisions for the possibility that the groom might be late.

Though I normally found myself in full agreement with what Jesus and my parish priest had to say, I had no patience with either one when it came to these ten young women who I felt had done their best to prepare for that wedding. I found myself in total disagreement with both of their assessments of the situation. I explained to Father that I felt sorry for the foolish virgins. After all, the groom was about to be married and it was his responsibility to be on time for his wedding. The oil in the foolish virgins’ lamps should have been enough. In my young mind, I found the groom to be foolish and quite rude for being inexcusably late on such an important day!

Though I won’t admit how many decades have passed since my original interpretation of this parable, I will share that the wisdom of biblical scholars and many good homilies have enlightened my thinking along the way. I learned that the bridegroom in this parable represented Jesus and that the wedding banquet is God’s Kingdom. The wise virgins were those who opened their hearts and welcomed God into their lives. The foolish virgins missed the opportunity because they weren’t quite ready for what God had to offer them and each of us. When we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, we assume the roles of the wise virgins. We’re ready to embrace what God has in store, always full of hope regarding what is to come. I admit to considering myself to be among these wise ones most of the time. I consider myself to be very blessed. When sorrow touches my life, I usually find my way. I look deep within where God, who promises always to be with me, resides. In my darkest moments, I find God there. Yes, I’ve been one of the wise ones holding tightly to the lamp of my faith which overflows with the oil of perpetual hope. How could I ever walk with the foolish ones? Me? Oh yes…

Patient and kind readers that you are, you have born witness to many of the difficult times which have threatened to drain the oil of hope from my lamp. Over the years, I’ve expressed my sadness over so many things… circumstances while I was teaching that hurt children, yet couldn’t be changed in spite of my hard work; worries over family members, friends and fellow parishioners whose names I disguised, but whose difficulties I couldn’t erase. I shared my difficult journey through my mom’s final illness and passing. Recently, I’ve shared my frustration with being unable to remold Year 2020 for us all. In the midst of these troubles, I’ve joined the foolish virgins with barely a drop of oil left to keep the flame of hope burning within me. Yet, somehow, that the oil was replenished by a kind word, an unexpected show of support or some other unmistakable sign that I wasn’t alone. God lived through all of this with me and the hope that God would remain assured me that all would be well in the end.

Whenever difficulties plague me, the hope within me and in the eyes of those around me urges me on. Our common willingness to try, try again strengthens my resolve to move beyond the misery at hand. Our parish family and all of God’s human family have suffered serious illness, lost employment, ailing parents and broken marriages. Some have buried a child. While our loved ones stand quietly beside us, knowing we can never completely heal one another’s pain, we live on, allowing the oil of our hope to be filled once again by God who remains within us. I laughed as I wrote today because this one-time ten-year-old is so grateful and thrilled to have finally learned what Jesus’ parable means to me and to us all…

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

“THERE” With God

When I woke that day, I’d planned to get through my morning routine in record time. Afterward, I’d proof this week’s reflection and send it off to meet an early deadline. Well, that was the case until the morning news sent me in another direction. I’d begun watching just in time to see a reporter standing in the midst of smoldering rubble. He was describing what he saw for miles around -one of the many western state towns burned to the ground by wildfires. That report was followed by an update regarding Hurricane Sally’s assault upon the gulf states. As I watched, my frustration regarding life-with-COVID-19 took a back seat and I opened my heart to those suffering all around me.

Suddenly, I found myself in that overwhelmingly painful place we visit when our heartache gets the best of us. I’d been there before. I know many of you have been there as well because you’ve shared your stories with me. “There” is that place far beyond disappointment and well past anger. “There” is that place where our misery gives way to tears as we wonder what to do next. I’m writing of those times when you or I or a loved one has done everything right only to discover that, in spite of our best efforts, our situation has gone completely wrong. After watching subsequent news reports, I was certain that those suffering these disasters questioned the wrong-turn in their reality as well. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who experienced the same…
Jesus’ landowner was a knowledgeable businessperson. He’d done everything necessary to net a healthy crop of grapes from his property. Jesus told his audience that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” It seemed that this landowner was a person of means accustomed to engaging in such transactions. He’d employed tenants to whom he gave housing and a living wage. In return, they would tend to his vineyard. Those tenants enjoyed the opportunity to live respectably and the landowner increased his holdings. That arrangement seemed to be a productive deal for all concerned.

Unfortunately, the tenants didn’t live up to their agreement and they wanted far more than their fair share. At harvest time, when the landowner sent his servants to retrieve his share of the grapes, two of them were beaten and one was killed. What should have been a simple settling of accounts developed into an ugly scenario. When the landowner sent a second cohort to gather what was his, they were met with violence as well. Completely shocked by all of this, the landowner sent his son to settle the matter. He was certain that the tenants would respect his family member and hand over what was due. Sadly, the tenants viewed the young man as an obstacle. Those tenants killed the man’s son hoping to secure even more of the landowner’s riches for themselves.
Honestly, I would never have predicted this end to Jesus’ parable. The landowner had behaved appropriately in every way. He was a good businessperson who paid his employees justly. When things went completely wrong and he lost his own son, what was he to do? When Jesus posed this very question to his followers, they responded, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Though I understand what Jesus’ followers were getting at, I can’t let go of the reality that nothing would bring back the landowner’s son. If I’d been in the landowner’s shoes, I would have been able to do nothing more than to weep over the senseless loss of my child until my tears ran out. Neither future tenants nor bountiful harvests nor successful business deals of any sort would have filled the emptiness within me. The families of those lost in recent wildfires, to COVID-19 and to senseless violence in every form likely share these sentiments.
After puzzling over this parable, I found that I don’t like scenarios which so accurately echo the heartache we suffer today. Though I’m reluctant to analyze Jesus’ words, this suffering compels me to do just that. Finally, deep within, I realize that God makes sense of everything. Deep within, I realize that God shares that “sense” with us whenever we open our hearts to God. It is God’s sense of things which makes it impossible for me to leave that landowner in his misery. It is God’s sense of things which insists that this isn’t the end for those hurt by wildfires and injustice and a virus.

Though Jesus didn’t offer an outcome to his parable, I will. I say that the landowner left his tenants to the authorities and then he moved on. He could find no solace in further bloodshed because his son’s death had robbed him of too much. I say that the landowner found a way to get past his trauma because God entered into his story to assure him that he wasn’t alone. I say that God helped him to embrace this life once again. Finally, I say that God will do the same for us for as long as our suffering lasts. God entered into your story and mine the day God breathed life into us. This is the reason that, as difficult as this life can be, we somehow pull ourselves up to begin anew. Actually, it is God who offers the hand we hold as we try, try, try again.

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Love One Another

“…The commandments, ‘You shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ …love is the fulfillment of the law.
From today’s second reading, Romans 13:8-10.

Jesus said to his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector…”
From today’s gospel, Matthew 18:15-20.

I cite these excerpts from today’s scriptures to illustrate the gravity of my concern as of late. If you read Something To Think About or my daily posts* with any regularity, you’ve likely noticed that I’ve been struggling with the terrible suffering which continues to engulf our world. While I have absolutely no doubt that God is with us in all of this, I wrestle with my own apparent helplessness. Again and again, I wonder what I can do to improve things for others both nearby and faraway. Loving one another is serious business and forgiving one another is serious business. Too often, both are also extremely difficult. Still, I truly believe that we humans have the capacity to allow love to drive our efforts to improve life in our divisive and pandemic-ridden world. The problem is that current events illustrate quite vividly just how creative we humans can be when it comes to finding ways to hurt one another. Difficult as they are, love and forgiveness are particularly necessary just now.

Those who wrote today’s scriptures were no strangers to humanity’s imperfections. Why else would they have been so adamant in their directives regarding how to react to those who wronged them? These passages read like an owner’s manual to forgiving and getting along. “Try this, then this and then this,” they say. Jesus seemed to offer an alternative to forgiveness when he told his disciples how to deal with someone who’d done wrong and who didn’t respond to their help. Jesus ordered “…treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector…” The Jewish people of Jesus’ day hated Gentiles and tax collectors. Jesus, on the other hand, loved these outcasts. In God’s scheme of things, there is no alternative to forgiveness after all. When dealing with one who did wrong, the disciples weren’t to exile that person. Rather, they were bound to offer every means of reconciliation to him or her.

Loving one another is serious, difficult business, especially when the damage done seems beyond repair. When an offense stretches the limits of our endurance and the offender is someone we perhaps don’t love as we should, what are we to do? According to the “manual” above, we must do something and we must act without delay. According to Jesus, we are to behave toward both just as Jesus did. Jesus became indignant and angry in the face of wrongdoing and we are allowed our anger as well. Still, Jesus forgave Peter for questioning what was to come. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery. Jesus forgave the wrongdoing of the blind man and the crippled man before he cured them. Jesus forgave the soldiers who nailed him to the cross and Jesus forgave the criminal who hanged beside him. When Jesus asked his followers to treat the seemingly unrepentant as one would treat a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus asked that they forgive them and love them just as he did.

You know, loving one another and forgiving one another is seriously difficult business, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of a world full of suffering. Whether we argue with those around us or wrestle with ourselves deep within, when we calm down and listen, answers do come. While God seldom uses words, God does inspire and empower you and me to bring God’s loving presence into the situation at hand. Though none of us can promise a miraculous cure for COVID-19, the overnight rebuilding of hurricane ravaged cities and rejuvenation of burnt forests, an end to poverty and a loved one’s depression and the ongoing racial inequities which plague this country, we can bring love to the moment at hand. More often than not, we will manage to do something which makes a very important difference just when and where it’s needed.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Enjoy The Water!

…by a word, he cured all the sick.”
From Matthew 8:17

I sat mindlessly tapping my fingers on the table. Dare I write again that the pandemic and all of its fallout had my attention once again? As I considered my options, I realized that there is little I can do to alleviate much of anything in regard to these things.

Just outside my window, a large robin plopped himself into our bird bath. He fluttered his wings for several seconds, splashing water every which way. Though I knew he couldn’t hear me, I remarked to my feathered friend, “It certainly doesn’t take much to make you happy!” Even before I finished this sentence, I realized that the same is true for all of us. Just as that water stands available for my robin friend whenever he chooses to enjoy it, all that we need awaits us.

You know, being loved and cared for is the best any of us can hope for. Being loved and cared for makes everything we encounter doable. Branches and boulders and viruses and social unrest clutter the road before us. Still, we manage to do what we can about these things and then to climb over or to plod around what we must leave in others hands. All the while, we’re not alone. Though we may only occasionally choose to bathe in the waters of God’s loving care, God remains twenty-four/seven to offer that care just the same.

Dear God, give us the wisdom of my robin friend, that we may also bathe in the waters of your love at every opportunity.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s With Us… Always!

When the poor one called out, God heard,
and from all her distress, God saved her.

Psalm 34:7

When I walk alone, I take along a mask. Occasionally, I cross paths in spaces where social distancing is difficult. The other day, my mask came in handy when a fellow walker offered greetings from across the street. When I realized that the “Hello” she uttered from behind her mask was tearful, I invited her to a nearby patch of green where we could talk. She sweetly maintained a six-foot distance as she poured out her heart to me.

My own heart immediately ached for this her. She felt engulfed in sadness and found it difficult to look beyond herself for hope. I assured her that this is the very reason that God dwells within each one of us. Regardless of the danger which threatens from the outside, God remains steadfast deep inside. She looked up with blinking eyes. After considering this for a few minutes, my friend considered her dilemma. “You know, in spite of everything, I somehow knew that I wasn’t alone. You’re telling me what I already knew was true.”

After voicing her gratitude, my friend continued on her way. As I walked on, it occurred to me that I’ve too often sounded like her. Darkness has distorted my perspective as well. I also failed to see who has been with me all the while.

Though it’s often difficult, we all need to turn our attention away from the clamor which threatens and to sit quietly in God’s loving presence. Whether or not we acknowledge our heart’s Loving Tenant doesn’t matter to God. God cares for us either way. Still, when we do acknowledge God within us, we find consolation in simply knowing that we aren’t alone.

Dear God, thank you for making your home within each one of us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Called and Loved By Name

When our grandchildren visit, they habitually make their way to our piano. They pull out our sons’ earliest music books and do their best to play a song or two. Recently, our grandson Danny selected the sheet music for CHEERS*. Because he doesn’t yet read music, Danny made no attempt to play the song. Danny’s fingers simply danced across the keys as though he’s been playing for years. Though his tune wasn’t at all recognizable, his enthusiasm was undeniable. Before putting away the music, I played and sang CHEERS just once for old times’ sake. My dear husband was an avid fan of the television show of the same name. He was drawn in immediately because the setting for the sitcom was an extremely welcoming establishment in Boston of the same name. As the theme song insists, Cheers was the place where everybody knows your name. We all like to be recognized by someone wherever we are and the unique individuals who made up Cheers’ clientele indicate that we all have hope in this regard.

As I returned that sheet music to its place, I mulled over this sense of belonging which we all long for. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face during this pandemic is our loss of community. Many who have jobs have been working from their home offices, bedrooms and quiet corners of their basements. Others who venture out to their essential jobs do what they must. All the while, they stay as far as possible from others though they’d much rather enjoy their coworkers and their clientele. Within our own homes, we sanitize our hands and everything we’ve brought along with us before settling in. Unfortunate people who contract the virus and become seriously ill are banished to hospitals. Those who have no symptoms isolate at home as best they can in order to keep their families safe. The rest of us keep safe distances from fellow shoppers at the grocery store and from our neighbors down the block. Here at St. Paul’s, a mighty group of staff and volunteers has seen to it that our church is as germ-free as possible. They also seat us safely when we arrive for Mass, baptisms, weddings and funerals. Everyone’s efforts have allowed us finally to celebrate last spring’s First Communion and Confirmation liturgies and to welcome our RCIA candidates into the Church. Once again, we can gather where Somebody knows our names far more intimately than we might expect.

Today’s scripture passages speak clearly about just how deeply God values our names and our places within God’s family. In the first reading (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7), Isaiah tells us that in God’s eyes we all belong. The prophet quotes God’s assertion that “…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah might have added, “And my world shall be called a home for all people!” Paul echoed these sentiments when he called himself “the apostle of the Gentiles” who were once excluded from the local faith community. In Matthew’s gospel (15:21-28), Jesus provided a somewhat puzzling example of God’s desire for our company. According to Matthew, Jesus appeared to be uncharacteristically arrogant in his attitude toward a Canaanite woman. She wasn’t one of his followers, yet she approached Jesus for a miracle. Jesus responded by acknowledging this woman as an outsider. He claimed that she had no business seeking the favor of the God of Israel. The woman argued that even dogs are allowed to eat crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables. With that, Jesus applauded this woman’s great faith and he cured her daughter. Now before you question Jesus’ less-than-welcoming attitude, let me explain. Men of Jesus’ day never engaged women in such intellectual banter, at least not publicly. Though Jesus seemed cruel in his remarks, he actually showed great respect for this woman’s wisdom and stature by arguing with her. Jesus honored this woman further when he rewarded her profound faith with her daughter’s cure. As I consider God’s home where everybody knows your name, I imagine the Canaanite woman smiling as Jesus called her over to welcome her in…

This weekend, our parish family has the opportunity to acknowledge some special names as well. This past Wednesday, our fellow parishioner Brent was ordained a deacon. This much-anticipated event marked the culmination of the four years Deacon Brent and his wife Cassie attended classes in preparation for this role. In addition, Brent completed special projects, spiritual formation and field experience. This event also marks the expansion of Brent’s and Cassie’s commitment to our parish family. Though I know we already know their names, this weekend, we do what Jesus did for the Canaanite woman. We welcome Brent and Cassie as they expand their roles among us as a diaconate couple. We also thank Cassie for continuing her work as Communion Minister coordinator throughout all of this. How grateful we are that, like Jesus, Brent and Cassie will remind us that God does know our names and that God welcomes us into the one community that COVID-19 cannot disrupt. Whatever our circumstances, Brent and Cassie will insist that this is God’s home, God knows our names and we all belong!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Cheers (Where Everybody Knows Your Name): by Gary Portnoy & Judy Hart Angelo; Copyright 1982, ADDAX MUSIC CO., INC.