With Us Always

I’ve tried to use my stay-in-place time productively. At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity to begin each of these seventy-plus days in a leisurely fashion. Before the pandemic, I woke each morning, turned my eyes upward and offered a quick “Thank you for the sleep!” to our benevolent Creator. Each time, I promised to have a lengthier conversation when time permitted later in the day. Then, I’d turn toward my husband to offer or receive a good morning kiss. Afterward, I did the mandated exercises which maintain my back’s flexibility. Finally, I’d quickly read through the day’s pages from two favorite devotionals. By that time, Mike had finished his morning allotment of coffee. We’d have breakfast together and then get on to the given day’s agenda.

Since the pandemic’s onset, leisurely mornings have allowed me to insert more than a single-sentence prayer into my morning routine. While that morning kiss and my exercise continue, I take more time reading my devotionals. On occasion, I read a selection twice or more because the writer’s insight merits a second or third look. Best of all, that one-line prayer has evolved into a conversation which I hope will be a part of every new day I’m given. I exercise on the floor in our room near a large window. These days, I take the time to stand at that window to absorb the beauty beyond the glass. Even on rainy days, I can’t help appreciating God’s goodness in it all. As upset as I’ve been by the loss and suffering caused by our world’s bout with COVID-19, I cannot miss God’s presence in it all. The view beyond my window renews that awareness every day.

I share all of this as we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus because our situation these days is quite similar to that of Jesus’ friends two millenniums ago. Though Jesus and his companions shared many good and happy times together, they also suffered uncertainty and much worse. Some of the temple hierarchy were puzzled by Jesus’ teachings while others resented everything Jesus stood for. A few Romans listened with some interest to what Jesus had to say. Remember the centurion who sought a cure for his dying child? However, most had no use for anyone who might cause unrest among the people. Jesus received a good deal of attention from those who had no one else to turn to. At the same time, he upset the keepers of The Law whenever he associated with anyone they considered to be unworthy or unclean. The closer Jesus and his followers came to their last trip to Jerusalem, the closer they were to Jesus’ demise. The disciples were uncertain of what was to come and they wrung their hands with worry. We’ve spent more than seventy days battling this pandemic and we continue to worry as well.

It occurs to me that this is the reason Jesus closed his time with his disciples with reassurance regarding his absolute faith in and love for each one of them. Jesus reminded his friends of the most important aspects of his teaching. If they took his words to heart, every day they lived would be a God-filled day for them. Though we hear a different Ascension gospel each year, the essence of Jesus’ message remains the same. Luke (Luke 24:46-53) shares that Jesus said, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Jesus assured his friends that God would be with them in everything. Mark (Mark 16:15-20) tells us that Jesus asked his disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” They were to go out to assure all who listened of God’s love for them. In today’s account from Matthew (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus added his promise, “I will be with you always, until the end of the world.” None of us would be left to carry on alone. John’s gospel ends without reference to the Ascension. When John’s gospel is read on Ascension Day, Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper is cited: “Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus’ prayer included his companions who walked with him and all of us who would eventually be touched by their efforts.

When news of the gradual reopening of our state and of our local churches surfaced, my emotions fluctuated between relief and worry. I was thrilled with the possibility of returning to a bit of normalcy and I worried about the consequences if we fail to ease into these efforts safely. Like Jesus’ disciples, I am more than ambivalent regarding the things to come. And, like Jesus’ disciples, I am reassured. God patiently and lovingly remains with me throughout these trying days. It is God who draws me to that window every morning and to the loving exchanges which follow. Whether I speak of goodness or the evil which threatens, my accomplishments or failures, my relief or worry, God listens attentively to every word. You see, on that Ascension Day when Jesus assured his disciples that he would be with them always, he assured us of the same. God is indeed with us and there God will remain!
©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We’re Never Alone

Last weekend, we celebrated my great-niece’s college graduation. This was quite a feat since all concerned were and still are confined to our various homes. Violet worked very hard to complete her degree in stellar fashion. This effort included an internship in her chosen field of public health. Who knew that the COVID-19 pandemic would be a part of Violet’s hands-on experience? Needless to say, the timeliness of Violet’s graduation wasn’t lost on those of us who love her. With all of this in mind, Violet’s dad organized an alternative tribute to his daughter. Ralph is a consummate techie and his sister Cece is a successful art director. These two combined their talents to create a virtual celebration for Violet. This began with a request of family and friends to submit short congratulatory videos for Violet. It ended with an amazing video collage of quality moments with the most important people in Violet’s life.

On what would have been Violet’s graduation day, Ralph organized a drive-by of local family and friends. After much horn-tooting and window-waving, Violet and her immediate family went inside to view the university’s virtual graduation ceremony. It was after this that Ralph presented Violet with her video. We who contributed to this effort received a link so we could also enjoy the final product. Afterward, Ralph shared that Violet cried tears of joy throughout the entire viewing. As I watched, I understood Violet’s heartfelt response. She had received a priceless graduation gift which will remain with her forever. Actually, the relationships which made that video possible are what will remain with Violet forever.

During this stay-in-place era, our relationships with those we’ve been given to love sustain us. We can all name high school and college seniors who have been deprived of their long-awaited graduation ceremonies. My husband-the-deacon has worked with several disappointed couples who must reschedule upcoming weddings. Confirmation and First Communion liturgies for hundreds of children have also been delayed. Then there are the more difficult events which have had to unfold without benefit of the communities of loved ones we’ve come to rely upon. Those who regularly visit loved ones in nursing homes are no longer admitted. The seriously ill endure hospital stays without loved ones at their sides. Even grandparents who often stop by to give Mom and Dad a break must remain at a distance. Those whose loved ones have moved on to the next life have had to bid their farewells with only a handful of family at their sides. Yes, our relationships with those we’ve been given to love are extremely important these days, just as they’ve been since the beginning of time.

When I turned to today’s scripture passages, I found that the followers of Jesus experienced much of the fear, loneliness and uncertainty which we experience today. The first reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) celebrates the happiness and contentment of those who embrace the opportunity to live with one another in loving community. The second reading (1 Peter 3:15-18) assures all concerned that, even when our lives take devastating turns, God provides more of what we need than we might ever have expected. Though this is very good news, I found the most consolation regarding life in this COVID-19 assailed world in the gospel. Jesus addressed the worst of our despair when he promised, “I will not leave you orphans…” John’s gospel (John 14:15-21) is arranged a bit differently than those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John gathered what he felt were Jesus’ most important teachings and placed them where no one could miss them, at the Last Supper. It was then that Jesus assured his friends that he would never leave them alone in spite of their abandoning him during the worst of his suffering.

You know, Violet’s unconventional graduation celebration underscores the significance of Jesus’ promise never to leave us orphans. In everything he said and did, Jesus illustrated God’s love for us. Every one of his interactions demonstrated just how important our loved ones are to us and how important we are to them. Even in the midst of this pandemic, there is no doubt in Violet’s mind that she is loved. Her dad, Aunt Cece and the rest of us saw to that. A typical graduation party wouldn’t have provided the opportunity for so many of us to share our feelings with Violet on such an intimate level. Because of this pandemic, she knows! The same is true regarding all of our hardships these days. We wouldn’t know the depths of our capacities to love and to care for one another if we hadn’t been challenged as we are. Our greatest consolation is that we truly are in this together -with those we’ve been given to love, with those who love us, and with God! God never leaves a single one of us an orphan.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In This Together With Jesus!

Sometimes, our worries overwhelm us so completely that we miss the joy that lingers within reach. We wonder where God can possibly be in all of this. Today, Luke, the masterful narrator, reminds us of how amazingly nearby God actually is…

In his gospel (Luke 24:13-35), Luke tells us that Cleopas and a friend left Jerusalem for Emmaus a few days after Jesus’ death. The two men were still reeling over the events of the past week. They shook their heads and fretted over what might have been and what had actually occurred. Jesus had offered such hope to the people! They rallied to welcome him when he arrived in Jerusalem. No one suspected that he would be crucified five days later. Then, as they mourned Jesus, some of the women reported seeing a vision of angels at his empty tomb. The disciples who ran to the tomb afterward found the scene just as the women had described it. When Cleopas and his companion embarked upon that seven mile walk to Emmaus, they puzzled over whether to mourn or to celebrate.

Just a short distance into their walk, the two encountered a stranger who confused them further. When this man acknowledged that he knew nothing of what had happened at Calvary, the two disciples wondered how anyone near Jerusalem could have missed the news of Jesus’ death. Little did these two realize that they knew far less of what had occurred than their new acquaintance did. After listening to Cleopas explain, the stranger responded with a few lessons of his own. He spoke of Moses and the prophets who followed Moses. He explained the references the prophets had made to the Christ. This stranger made it quite clear that what had happened should have been no surprise to those who studied the scriptures. This suffering was predicted as was the messiah’s glory. When the stranger completed his lesson, he prepared to leave Cleopas and his friend until they pressed him to stay and to share their evening meal. It was when they gathered at the table that the stranger broke bread just as Jesus had. How excited the two were when they recognized that Jesus had been with them all the while!

You and I have walked with Cleopas and his companion on occasion throughout our lives. Over the past forty or so days, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to shake our heads and to fret over developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply staying at home has been challenging for many of us, especially since there is so much to be done elsewhere. Troubles within our workplaces and the lack of jobs weigh heavily upon us. Illnesses that once seemed manageable have been exacerbated by our inability to keep up with once easy-to-access care. Those who battle emotional and spiritual illnesses too often have only themselves to rely upon. Healthcare workers and first responders on the front-line in this battle find themselves exhausted all of the time. Others who provide vital necessities such as food and gasoline and furnace repairs never signed up for such hazardous duty, yet they serve the rest of us bravely. The list of those called to serve above and beyond is very, very long.

During the Easter Season, we normally put our hearts and souls into living the joy that comes with knowing that life after this life is a reality for us. When the worst of our earthly woes threaten, we habitually return to God’s promise of better things to come for consolation. After all, Jesus gave us living proof that everything he endured was worth the new life he embraced afterward. Jesus went on to assure us that the same is true for us. No matter what this life entails, what comes afterward is worth it all. Still, this Easter Season, we find ourselves worrying and wondering. Like Cleopas and his friend, we reel with sadness as we puzzle over all of this. “Why? Why? Why?” we ask. Yet, like Cleopas and his companion, we don’t completely succumb to our fear. We could ignore those who need us, but we don’t. Like Cleopas, we look beyond our own needs to care for one another. It is in this caring that we celebrate Easter Joy after all.

When they realized that it was Jesus who had walked with them, Cleopas and his friend returned to Jerusalem to tell the others. How could they keep this good news to themselves? You know, our encounters with Jesus aren’t usually as dramatic as Cleopas’ experience, but today they are. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, news and other special programs continuously report the heroic efforts of people just like you and I. Like Cleopas and his friend, they hurry to individuals and families, to the ill and the needy to do what they can. Though the magnitude of need threatens to overwhelm, they persist. Like Cleopas and his friend, we really are in this together. And, as he was for Cleopas and his friend, Jesus is with us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Fear Not…

I sought God, and God answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

While wheeling our recyclables to the street, a glass bottle re-positioned itself and crashed to the bottom of the cart. It made a loud unexpected crash which startled me. When I realized what had happened, I had to laugh at my response. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d dropped my Snapple bottle into our son’s recycle bin which resulted in a similar crash which brought our younger grandson to tears. Fortunately, Ben responded to my embrace and my assurances that all would be well. This little episode brought to mind tender moments with our own sons long ago.

Some of the most meaningful interactions between parents and children result from uncertainty and fear. A parent’s embrace and a few well-chosen words bring the assurance that, indeed, everything will be all right. When parents’ words aren’t enough and their children continue to shiver and shake, they simply hold their little ones tightly for as long as it takes to bring them peace.

During these difficult times, we who are God’s children aren’t very different from our own. Sometimes, no matter how well-chosen God’s words are, we find it difficult to take them in. Uncertainty and fear overwhelm us. For these very reasons, God promises simply to be with us.

I thought I was old enough and wise enough not to be frightened by much. Nonetheless, the devastation COVID-19 has imposed upon our world threatens to do just that. Since my parents’ laps aren’t available, I turn to God for consolation. It is in God’s embrace that I’m reminded of the terrible events which have shaped human history since time began. Throughout these episodes, we supported one another as best we could and as only we could. Today, God asks that we simply do our best to do as much. In the mean time, God will make good on that promise to remain with us all the while.

Loving God, thank you for embracing us in our joy, in our fear and in everything.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate Easter… Really!

Then they recounted what had happened on the road and
how they had come to know him in the breaking of the bread.

Luke 24:35

Of all the places we visited throughout our trips to Israel, Emmaus is a favorite. Emmaus provides weary pilgrims who venture there a peaceful interlude. The grounds of St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey are both tranquil and full of life. The abbey is located in the Muslim village of Abu Gosh along one of the oldest roads linking Jerusalem to the coast. When we arrived, several young people had gathered there for a program. Still, this didn’t diminish the tranquility which embraced us when we arrived.

After allowing us time to enjoy the outdoors, our guide ushered us into the historic church. Beautiful as it was, Yossi assured us that more awaited us on the lower level. It was there that we discovered an ancient stream which flowed freely as it had in Jesus’ day. Listening to the same the soothing rush of water which Jesus’ contemporaries heard was a gift to be cherished.

The disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus aren’t the only ones gifted with such encounters. Whenever we open ourselves to one another and to the beauty around us, we cannot help meeting God. This is the reason we must celebrate Easter in the midst of our battle against COVID-19. What occurred to Jesus after he was laid in that tomb is meant to inspire us all! God promises you and me no less than Jesus’ Easter miracle. Difficult as these days may be, it is Easter hope which should set the tone for these and all of the days of our lives. Even on the worst of these days, it really does help me!

Loving God, reveal a bit of yourself to each of us every day!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Z… Zenith

Great is God and wholly
to be praised in the city.
God’s holy mountain, fairest of heights,
is the joy of all the earth.

Psalm 48:2-3ab

Z is for Zenith. Zenith… the high point, the point directly overhead, the peak, the pinnacle, the summit. As the psalmist wrote, the fairest of heights. When good things happen to us we say that our spirits are high or that we are uplifted. Though I don’t think there is actually a direction toward heaven, I turn my eyes upward to pray. I reference my loved ones “up there” and I visualize God and the heavenly cohort looking down from above upon me.

God’s “above-ness” does not imply in any way that God is unwilling to dirty those Divine Hands with the troubles of this world. Oddly, God’s assigned position “above” never stops me from pulling God down into the worst of messes. More importantly, this position “above” never stops God from responding. No, our God who loves us from the fairest of heights also loves us from the deepest of trenches. No wonder God is the joy of all the earth!

Today, I thank you for making your way through this alphabet of reflections with me. Though I fretted a bit about actually taking us from A to Z, God intervened often. The good people around me, the wonders of creation and the scriptures never ceased to inspire. Indeed, God is the joy of all the earth and the source of joy for me!

Loving God, thank you for lighting the way as we journey through this life and home to you. Your presence throughout this ABC side-trip has been most tangible. It is also most appreciated. Thank you for using me to spread your love. Use us all to light the way to your holy mountain.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved