It’s All About Love

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Things seem not to have changed much since Charles Dickens penned these words to open the first chapter of A TALE OF TWO CITIES*. Dickens released his book chapter by chapter in a weekly journal he debuted in March 1859. I dreaded tackling this book when it was assigned reading in high school. However, in the wake of recent news, I find Dickens’s opening observations to be quite pertinent. It seems that these sentiments have described the human experience since the beginning of time…

October 27, 2018 was a truly enjoyable Saturday until it wasn’t. That morning, a man driven by hatred shot his way into a Pittsburgh synagogue where he murdered eleven worshipers. He wounded six others in the process. When I heard this news, I immediately lost interest in the M&M packets I was pouring into the large bowl near our front door. Donning my most-orange flannel shirt to greet Gurnee’s trick-or-treaters no longer amused me. Though the aroma of beef stew simmering in our crock pot did its best to entice me, I had no appetite. What should have been a carefree day had morphed into a period of mourning over the loss of yet another measure of our humanity. I found myself in the worst of times.

In spite of the amazingly polite and appreciative trick-or-treaters who frequented our door, my thoughts returned to that synagogue and to similar events which have rocked my world. It was April 1968, when another of our fellow humans assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A heartbroken junior in high school, I couldn’t accept that any one of us could respond to the author of the I Have a Dream Speech with such hatred. A few years later, some friends were drafted to serve in Vietnam, while others thanked God that their birth dates allowed them to avoid the war and remain in college. I wrote often to the guys in the service while I protested the war here at home. I loved my friends in Vietnam and I marched as I did to bring them home as quickly as possible. The shooting at Kent State in May 1970 tore me apart once again. I cringed as I wondered how our home turf had also become a war zone. Those who lost their lives in that synagogue weren’t given the time to ask that question. Our neighbors in violence-ridden neighborhoods tell us that they’ve lived in a war zone forever. So I ask, “Dear God, will it ever be the best of times?”

Before I continue, I acknowledge with genuine gratitude and joy that we’ve all been blessed with the best of times at one time or another. Perhaps this is the reason it’s so difficult to accept the terrible events which hurt us so. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus embraced his work among us with such fervor. Jesus himself was born among us in the worst of times. Roman occupiers mercilessly lorded it over the Jewish people throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Herod was a tyrant who inspired ruthlessness in those who served him. When Jesus’ parents settled in Nazareth, their tiny town was overcrowded and unsafe. Still, Joseph and Mary provided Jesus a happy home there where he learned firsthand about the love of God and the love of his neighbors. Through his parents, Jesus came to know our Benevolent Creator who, above all else, loves us and wishes us the best in this life and in the hereafter. Yes, even Jesus found that the best of times can be elusive. Jesus endured the worst of times just as often as we do.

In today’s gospel (Mark 13:24-32), Mark indicates that Jesus was sometimes quite dramatic in his response to the evils around him. Jesus told the people, “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “And they will see the Son of Man coming from the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds.” Jesus seemed to say to them and to us, “Yes, this too shall pass!” Jesus knew God’s love and God’s intent for our happiness firsthand. This is the reason Jesus came. This is the reason Jesus shared in our trial and tribulations, pointing out all the while the joy to be found in God’s love for us, in loving God and in loving one another. When happier times seemed too elusive to imagine, Jesus called the people’s attention to the joy to be found in the things to come. Jesus assured all who would listen that the worst of times served to make the best of times all the sweeter!

When I look back upon the difficult times in my life, I’m amazed that I made it through them. At the same time, when I look back upon the happiest times of my life, I’m amazed at my capacity for joy. Though I’m tempted to wonder what God was thinking in all of this, I need only to turn to Jesus. Jesus would be first to say, “Love, Mary. In the best of times and the worst of times, it’s all about love.”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Charles Dickens, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Book the First, The Period, page 1, March 1859.

Beloved King

In an effort to organize my thoughts for this writing, I decided to ignore the mist in the air and to head outdoors for a much-needed walk. I reread today’s scripture passages and then bundled up for my trek into autumn. Much to my surprise, I found that the threat of rain had retreated and the clouds had separated just enough to allow an occasional glimpse of blue. I whispered a prayer of thanks for my good fortune and then set my pace for the duration. In an effort to clear my head, I set aside today’s topic and concentrated on the fleeting color around me. Recent winds, my dear husband and our diligent neighbors had removed most of the leaves along the way. The few which remained on the sidewalk made no sound as I walked over them. The morning’s drizzle had robbed them of their crackling crunch. Still, I gave thanks for their once-brilliant color which had so generously gifted us all.

As I walked, I noticed a few stubborn leaves clinging with all of their might to otherwise barren branches. As I continued on, I saw that several more determined leaves held tightly to the trees they called home. Each one seemed unwilling to give in to the inevitable. I imagined these leaves mustering their strength in the face of the cold wind and giving thanks for every additional second during which they remained in place. Those determined leaves had lived life to the full as best they could and they weren’t about to let go before they absolutely had to do so. Those leaves which clung so tightly to their branches weren’t in alone their efforts. I also discovered a smattering of their counterparts nuzzled close to the bases of bushes and fences. I congratulated them for a job well done. I also reminded them that their work on this earth isn’t finished. They will swirl and settle and swirl in the air again until the first heavy snow forces them into a final resting place. While they will eventually lose their leaf-like appearance to decay, they will also enrich the soil. That soil will nourish the trees which will produce another season’s leaves. These new leaves will repeat their brave predecessors’ purposeful ritual.

In spite of my effort to clear my head, those leafy encounters filled my head with a renewed understanding of today’s feast day. For this I was also most grateful. Today, we observe the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year which is The Feast of Christ the King. This timing is intentional. We’ve spent the year reading and listening to scripture passages which recount Jesus’ life and his teachings. Jesus used both his word and his example to teach God’s ways. Jesus preached love, mercy and forgiveness, joy in the face of poverty and peace in the face of suffering. Jesus worked very hard at convincing those he met along the way that God loves us just as we are with all of our human frailties intact. This is the reason Jesus publicly referenced God as his Abba, his Daddy, and the reason Jesus invited us to do the same. While Jesus provided a lifetime of good example, he assured us again and again that God expects only what we are able to do, nothing more and nothing less. Jesus spent his time with the seemingly unworthy, shunning the presumptuous ones who attempted to use his acquaintance to increase their stature. Jesus loved the poor in spirit and the materially poor and he always made time for them. In the end, Jesus hung on a tree with all of his might, determined not to let go until he had to let go. On this Feast of Christ the King, I imagine Jesus pondering the brave leaves who hold onto their trees as he once did. I imagine Jesus smiling because he knows that just as their work to enrich the soil continues season after season and year after year, his work continues in and through the lives of all of God’s children. Yes, through you and me.

As I considered the innumerable reasons I have to give thanks for Jesus’ impact upon my life, his presumed kingship never entered my mind. I researched the history of today’s feast because I wondered why we call attention to the one title which Jesus seemed least anxious to acquire. I discovered that in the grand scheme of church history this feast is relatively new. This observance was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Pius served during extremely difficult times when communism and fascist governments threatened many. Pius hoped that this feast would draw attention away from those political bullies and toward Jesus who ruled with the authentic power of God’s love. When I consider Jesus’ kingship in this light, I find good reason to celebrate.

On this Feast of Christ the King, I rejoice in the many lessons I found among this year’s crop of leaves. Their brave journeys through spring’s budding, summer’s lush exuberance and fall’s decay opened my eyes once again to the wonder to be found in Jesus’ life. So it is that today I celebrate Jesus, our Jesus who clung to a tree to complete his life and to let go of it, just as you and I will do. Even more so, I celebrate the life Jesus lived before letting go of that tree, for it is that life which teaches me how to live and how to love as God asks.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Heavenly Hospitality

Be glad and rejoice,
for your reward is great in heaven…

From Matthew 5:12

Throughout that week in Israel, our guide Yossi provided numerous opportunities for us to mingle with the local people. He did so in Akko by arranging our visit to an authentic Turkish bath. The centuries-old building which housed the facility sported a deceptively small entrance. As we made our way indoors, we saw that the tiny reception area gave way to several spacious chambers where patrons relaxed.

Before beginning our tour, the owner insisted upon welcoming each of us with a small glass of exotic juice. He was very proud of this setting and he wanted us to relax and to enjoy our time with him. Because several clients were engaged in the facility’s offerings, we were asked to observe quietly so as not to intrude upon their relaxation. We obliged as every one of us would have happily volunteered for a demonstration. The patrons seemed oblivious to our presence as they were thoroughly engrossed in their various treatments.

From the moment we entered that Turkish bath, it was evident that the comfort of every visitor was of the utmost importance. Though the owner knew that none of us would have the time to purchase the bath’s services, he welcomed us just the same. In spite of the warmth which permeated that place, I shivered a bit as I observed the ancient brick walls which surrounded us. I almost said aloud, “This place is as old as God!” Though those words were best left unsaid, these aren’t: That Turkish bath owner had inadvertently given us a taste of the welcome God will extend to each of us one day.

Generous God, thank you for your many subtle reminders
of all that we have to look forward to.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Lessons In The Snow

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:1

In spite of the cold, I treated myself to a stroll through the neighborhood. Snow piles on either side of the walk reached well above my knees. There would be no cutting corners this time around. The occasional blocked sidewalk caused me to detour into the street where the village snowplows left a clear path. It was there that I discovered the gray-stained snow that I would otherwise have missed. When I returned to the sidewalk, images of that gray snow remained with me. I found myself identifying with its lost luster. “You’re still snow,” I whispered reassuringly.

I smiled as I recalled reassuring voices from my past who made similar observations. The encouragement I felt was tangible. As I walked on, I sought out similarly afflicted bits of nature: A mighty birch bent low under heavy snow; the invisible pond near Village Hall which hid under a blanket of white; that row of proud arbor vitae reduced to a mass of tangled branches pointing everywhere but up. “Don’t worry,” I promised. “You’ll all be back to normal before spring.”

You know, when God created this earth, God also created a great source of hope for humankind. In the greatness and foibles of nature, God revealed the greatness and foibles which beset us all. When we take the time to learn from the gifts around us, we find great encouragement, amazing mercy and God’s awesome unconditional love. We also find the promise of another chance it become our best selves again.

Thank you, Creative God, for the gifts of Nature and for the lessons in life which we find among them.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

F… Faith, in God and in Us!

God remembers forever this covenant
which is binding for a thousand generations…

Psalm 105:8

F is for Faith. I learned very early on that faith is a far greater gift than the various religious denominations which sometimes unite us and sometimes separate us. Faith is that awareness deep within of God’s presence in our lives. Whether we view God as a distant entity, a constant and nearby companion or as someone quite different from either, it is our faith which tells us that God is.

For me, faith is life-giving and life-saving. It seems to me that it is the faith deep within us which urges us in the direction of our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in the first place. I find many precious people who nourish me in my faith community. Their presence sustains me in the best and the worst of times. Sometimes, those who aren’t in touch with their faith turn to our faith communities for guidance in unearthing this precious gift. I think that we help them best when we welcome them tenderly and without judgment. That tenderness may be the closest experience to God that they have had. That tenderness may be just what is needed to bring life to the faith that once lay dormant within them.

My faith is the most powerful catalyst in my life. This reality has nothing to do with fear of punishment or divine reprisals. It has everything to do with my conviction that God loves me without reservation. You see, I’m not the only one with faith. God has faith in me! And in you, too!!!

Faithful God, my faith in you is strong because your faithfulness to me and to us all is everlasting. Help us always to remember that YOU ARE and that YOU LOVE.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God…

That morning, I woke with a sense of gratitude in anticipation of Thanksgiving Day. My husband and I will host this year and I can hardly wait. We will also celebrate his and our son’s birthdays which fall on Monday and Thursday. I smiled as I determined that two cupcakes will have to accompany the pie so neither one is denied a birthday cake and at least one candle to extinguish. In the midst of this musing, I made a mental list of the gifts for which I am most grateful. My family and numerous others whom I have been given to love topped that list. God has been extremely generous to me in this regard. God has been extremely generous to me regarding everything!

God… It occurred to me that it comes naturally to me to include God in every aspect of my life. “When did this relationship begin?” I asked myself. After my dear husband left to tend to some errands, I decided to answer my question in the chilly, but sunny outdoors. As I walked along, I recalled the childhood nighttime prayers which I offered to seek forgiveness for the day’s misdeeds and blessings for those in need. Our family is large and at least one of us required prayers much of the time. Back then, I relied upon our Creator God for everything and these nighttime litanies always began with, “Dear God…” Later, when First Communion approached and my catechism classes focused upon Jesus, things changed. Though I held on to my awe for the God who made us and tended to all of our needs, I was also completely taken in by this Son of God who became one of us and who experienced our trials and tribulations firsthand.

Jesus, son of Mary, grew up in the small village of Nazareth. Jesus, cousin to John the Baptizer, worked as an apprentice carpenter with his foster-father Joseph. Jesus, friend to the couple who married at Cana, helped out when their wine ran out. Jesus the Rabbi taught with great authority in the temple which made him a threat to the temple hierarchy and a source of inspiration to the people. Jesus the Storyteller used his parables to reveal God’s compassion, mercy and love. Jesus was hope personified to the hemorrhaging woman, the blind man, the lepers, the paralytic, Martha and Mary and the thief who hung on a cross next to him. Jesus was life itself to the woman caught in adultery, to Jairus’ daughter and to Lazarus. Jesus the Servant washed his friends’ feet at their last supper together. Jesus the Risen Lord made the promise of life everlasting a reality for the rest of us. During that autumn walk, it occurred to me that becoming better acquainted with Jesus was an absolute game-changer in my life. Until then, I had made many assumptions about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. My faith assured me that God offered all of these things to me on an ongoing basis. When I encountered Jesus and learned of all that he did for those around him, my assumptions about God came to life. I no longer needed to rely upon my faith because Jesus showed me that everything I believed about God’s love for me was absolutely true.

As I walked toward home, I returned my thoughts to Thanksgiving and to God’s presence in my life. It occurred to me that even my deep sense of gratitude is the result of my acquaintance with God’s Son. When I sat at my desk to begin this writing, I determined that today’s Feast of Christ the King is the perfect end to the Church Year, the perfect beginning to Thanksgiving Week and the perfect prelude to the Advent Season which begins next Sunday.

You know, none of us can predict all that today will bring, much less the coming week or month or year. What we can be certain of is God’s affection for each of us. If you doubt God’s love for you, turn to the life of the beloved king whom we honor today. Though Jesus shied away from this title with all of his might, Jesus embraced every opportunity to reign among the people in the midst of the wear and tear of their lives. Jesus revealed Divine Love so perfectly that he could not pass by a soul in need without stopping to help. The same is true today.

Meeting Jesus has helped me to experience God’s love quite tangibly in the joyful and the troubling times of my life. On this Feast of Christ the King, I celebrate this Son of God with gratitude, and I invite you to do the same. After all, Jesus’ words and works assure us all of how precious we are in God’s loving eyes. Jesus’ words and works assure us that all will be well in the end.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved