God Is With Us… ALWAYS!

Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days, I’ve been on a bit of a roll. Last week, I shared that leisurely mornings have allowed me to organize my thoughts and my heart each day with our benevolent Creator in mind. Almost every day, my husband-the-deacon and I have also made time for a walk outdoors. Even on the cloudiest bad-news days, I’ve managed to find reason to appreciate God’s goodness in it all. I began this paragraph by saying, “Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days…” because the other day was quite different. For perhaps obvious reasons, I vacillated between anger and despair over the suffering and loss caused by our bout with COVID-19 and our inability to work together as one people to fight it. In an effort not to give in to these feelings, I gave Mike a peck on his cheek, grabbed my hoodie and headed outdoors. I fully intended to clear my head and my heart in the process.

That day, the temperature struggled to reach fifty degrees in spite of the sunshine. I stuffed my hands into my pockets as I made my way down our cul-de-sac. I went on toward village hall and into the subdivision to the north. As I walked along the winding streets, a chilling breeze blew open my jacket. I zipped up and pulled my hood over my head. I looked toward the cloudless sky and declared, “Not funny!” Afterward, I picked up my pace just enough to create my own heat as I continued on my way. Eventually, I warmed up and inadvertently began to do what I most often do during my walks. I lost myself in Nature. I looked at the branches of every tree I passed to check on its leaves. Not many months ago, green leaves turned yellow and brown and then fell to the ground to be trampled or blown away. This cycle has continued in the buds and young leaves which now burst forth from charcoal branches overhead. Though the wind continued its brisk assault, I no longer minded.

As I walked on, I looked skyward again. This time, I whispered an apology. I acknowledged that the cold breeze which pushed me along earlier had accomplished much more. Though that breeze gave me a chill, it also gave me the peace and comfort which I’d longed for. I’d fretted so about that virus’s attack on life as we once knew it that I’d forgotten the Source of that life. I’d worried so about our inability to work together in dealing with all of this that I’d forgotten all of the good people who have and continue to do just that. It finally occurred to me that perhaps God has something far more valuable for me to experience during this pandemic than anger and despair. God didn’t cause that virus which wreaks havoc on our lives. However, God did create us with the ability to respond to it. It is God’s faith in us and love for us which breathes life into our efforts. With that, I looked up once again. That time, I said, “Thank you, dear God, for remaining with me and with all of us. Just help us to take notice of your presence more often!” Before I could add an “amen” to my prayer, the wind blew my hood off of my head and pressed my sleeves against my arms. I took that as God’s assurance that I never walk alone. None of us do.

I share all of this as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday with good reason. This is the last day of Easter Season 2020 and what an unusual season this has been! Our lives changed drastically in mid-March when staying-in-place became the norm. Without warning, we lost access to life as we once knew it. The same was true for Jesus’ friends two thousand years ago. The poor disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus and, as their final trip to Jerusalem drew closer, they were in a far worse frame of mind than I was when I set out for my walk the other day. While I had lost my focus for a bit, the disciples were on the verge of losing Jesus. Though we can see light at the end of the tunnel today, Jesus’ followers could not. They watched him taken prisoner, deserted him when he needed them most and then watched him die on that cross from afar. What worse could have happened?

John’s gospel offers a different Pentecost account than the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three speak of Jesus’ resurrection, subsequent appearances and his ascension into heaven. It was after Jesus’ ascension that the Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire and spurred them into action. Today’s gospel from John (20:19-23) ushers us back to the first Easter. It was on that day, when the disciples heard of the empty tomb, yet still hid in absolute fear, that Jesus appeared. It was on that evening, when the circumstances of Jesus suffering and death were fresh in their minds, that Jesus appeared. The first words Jesus spoke were, “Peace be with you!” Like that quiet presence which walked with me the other day, Jesus slipped into that room to walk with his friends through their grief and fear. Jesus added, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” With those words, Jesus promised his friends that they would never ever be alone.

You know, God’s presence isn’t always tangible. Though God used that breezy day to renew my peace, I still sometimes walk in the fearful disciples’ sandals just as we all do. It is during times such as these that we must let go of our worry and embrace Jesus’ Pentecost promise: God’s Spirit is with us when we need God most, now as our new normal unfolds, and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rx: Rest As Needed

Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands;
break into song; sing praise.

Psalm 98:4

Whenever we find the time, my husband and I drive north to our favorite getaway, a little log cabin in the woods. Though we always leave plenty of work behind us at home, we give in to these much-needed opportunities to relax. Though I always volunteer to share the driving, I’m grateful that my husband usually doesn’t take me up on my offer. It is then that I sit back and enjoy the view beyond my window. Nature never disappoints. In spite of the almost-three-hour drive, we’re surprisingly refreshed when we arrive.

Though we intend to relax, as soon as we settle in, we often tackle projects which we didn’t get to during prior visits. It’s amazing that we usually make at least twice the progress we would have made on similar projects at home. In the end, we laugh at how little we actually rested. Still, we always feel much better than we did before we left home. On one such occasion, my husband observed, “Maybe we don’t mind all of the work at the cabin because we don’t have to do it. We do it because we want to.” How right he is!

Though we can’t pack up and drive north whenever we feel like it, we can all take much-needed breathers. Whether for five minutes or a few hours, we all deserve our rest. Just ask God about that seventh day of creation!

Gracious God, thank you for sharing your joyful Spirit with us. Give us the wisdom to take the time to revive our spirits as often as needed.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Little Change

“These works that I perform testify on my behalf
that God has sent me.”

From John 5:36

I reluctantly admit to my childhood impatience with the behavior of Jesus’ contemporaries. Because it was so obvious to me at age ten or eleven that Jesus’ lessons, parables and works had to have come from a loving God, I wondered why it was so difficult for the Pharisees to accept them. They knew that all of Israel awaited the Messiah. Foreign astrologers who recognized the sign in the night sky over their own country traveled to faraway Jerusalem in search of Jesus. It seemed to me that, in spite of everything, the Pharisees and many others should have known better than to reject Jesus.

Sadly, I acknowledge that times haven’t changed much. Though we see all that Jesus accomplished from his humble state, we work to accumulate riches. Though we see that Jesus needed no worldly authority to serve us, we vie for power just the same. Though Jesus sought the company of outcasts, we prefer those of higher stature regardless of the condition of their character. Though Jesus set aside his own concerns whenever he was needed, we take care of our own needs first. Though Jesus sought out time for prayer at every opportunity, we complain when our worship service seems dull or a homily lasts too long.

Though times haven’t changed much, there is still time for me to change for the better. There’s still time for all of us to change for the better.

Good and Patient God, I continue to allow my human frailties to keep me from nurturing my better self. Please help me to change me and the ways of this world so they reflect you a bit more accurately.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Find The Joy

Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands;
break into song; sing praise.

Psalm 98:4

My husband and I recently drove up north to our favorite getaway, a little log cabin in the woods. Though we left plenty of work behind at home, we gave in to this much-needed opportunity to relax. Though I always volunteer to share the driving, my husband almost always opts to take the wheel for the duration. I admit that I was grateful that this was the case this time. I happily lay back and enjoyed the view beyond my window. Nature didn’t disappoint as summer’s splendor revealed itself throughout the drive. We made excellent time and were surprisingly refreshed when we arrived.

Though we intended to relax, as soon as we settled in, we each tackled a project which we had let go during prior visits. A few hours and lots of progress later, we realized that dinner time had come and we had made no plans. We opted for the five-minute drive to the nearest restaurant. As we settled in to scan the familiar menu, we laughed at how little we had relaxed that day. Still, we felt much better than we had a few days earlier when we determined that we needed this get-away. My husband observed, “Maybe we didn’t mind all of the work at the cabin because we didn’t have to do it. We did it because we wanted to.” How right he was…

Gracious God, thank you for our capacity to find joy in the most unexpected places.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We NEVER Walk Alone!

A few weeks ago, I finished my umpteenth reading of a favorite book which addresses the afterlife and our own struggles as we make our way there. As I closed the familiar volume, I wondered if the author had written anything more recently. When I entered his name online, images appeared of my now-ragged paperback and two additional titles. I immediately announced to my poor husband that we should expect a package in the next few days as I was ordering both new books and two extra copies of my favorite. Since my copy is no longer suitable to share, I need these extra copies to lend to interested friends. After placing that order, I went to the fullest and most frequently visited shelf of my bookcase. Though I’d intended to purge my collection to make room for my newly discovered prizes, I realized that I couldn’t part with any of my books.

I’ve been a student of death and dying since childhood. By the time I was nine years old, my uncle, both grandfathers and my dad had passed away. My remaining family members responded to these losses with absolute faith in our loved ones’ newfound heavenly bliss and I fully believed them in this regard. Still, when I began college and discovered that there were sources other than the Bible and catechisms to be found which address death and life after death, I immediately enrolled in a class which explored these topics. One of our required textbooks was written by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a medical pioneer who defined the stages of dying as she cared for her terminal patients. Dr. Kubler-Ross is also likely the first medical doctor to admit publicly that she believed her patients’ seemingly incredible stories regarding their near-death experiences and the hereafter. It’s safe to say that I’ve read almost every book written on these topics since. I admit that, when given the chance, I can speak ad infinitum regarding all of this. When asked why I’m so interested in these things, I consistently answer from my heart: “They remind me that this life is do-able and worth all of our effort!”

The numerous determined authors who chronicle the stories of others or who write of their own experiences in these areas do so because they can’t help sharing their remarkable news with all who will listen. My favorite book and its counterparts have certainly added a new dimension to my faith and substantiated my hope regarding eternal life. These writings inspire me to plug away regardless of the difficulties at hand because I know what lies ahead at the end of this journey. I’m quite certain they’ve done the same for many who journey with me.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ efforts in convincing his disciples of the same. Jesus’ years of teaching through both his word and his example had been blurred in the midst of his passion and death and throughout the days which followed. The disciples felt terribly alone. Fear paralyzed them and they hid, wondering all the while if they, too, would hang from a cross. In spite of all that Jesus had said and done, they trembled. Though Jesus could have moved on to heaven without looking back, he returned to encourage his friends. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene to offer her the gift his peace. When Jesus appeared among Peter and the rest, he didn’t chastise or rebuke them for deserting him. He didn’t review his lessons or question their understanding. The first thing Jesus said to them was, “Peace be with you.” Jesus’ purpose throughout these post-resurrection encounters was to fill up the disciples with his enduring presence and his enduring peace. If they believed that Jesus was with them in everything, they would endure. If they believed that they would survive their own deaths as Jesus had, they would prosper. Jesus’ final lesson assured all who would listen that this life is indeed do-able because none of them would be alone in their efforts. One day, each one would cross into eternal life just as well.

The scriptures tell us that, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples returned to hiding. So it was that on the first Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit rushed in with a dramatic reminder of God’s enduring peace and presence in their lives. The wind and rumbling walls quickly drew their attention, renewed their hope and nudged them into action. The fire within them finally ignited fully and urged them out onto the streets of Jerusalem to spread God’s word. Suddenly, the things to come seemed within reach and the disciples’ lives became do-able after all.

As for me, I’ll continue to read about our journeys into the afterlife. Every word will underscore my conviction that God’s peace abounds and that God is with us in everything regardless of how alone we may feel at times. With every page I turn, I will celebrate this reality and reaffirm my conviction that, when all is said and done, this life is do-able and worth all of our effort. None of us will ever walk alone and we’ll all end this journey in God’s good company.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Loved Always and Forever!

It was decades ago…

Early that morning, I was sitting alone in the teachers’ lounge. I needed a few minutes to gather my thoughts before the school day began. My stepdad had been ill and I felt quite certain that he was in the midst of his last hospital stay. I didn’t realize a colleague had joined me until she said, “Mary, are you okay?” I smiled as I assured her that all was well. I must’ve been convincing because she replied, “Then can I ask you to do me a favor? I bought this book for a baby shower gift and I don’t know if it’s appropriate. Will you read it?” Since I felt badly about misrepresenting my state of mind seconds earlier, of course I agreed to help her. This was the day I became acquainted with Robert Munsch’s book, LOVE YOU FOREVER. When I delivered the book to that teacher’s classroom a few minutes later, I tearfully assured her that her purchase was the best baby shower gift I’d ever seen. It also unexpectedly lifted my spirits. After school that day, I clearly recall announcing to my dear husband that I needed to find that book and to purchase a copy of my own…

Year’s later, shortly after our parish was founded, my husband-the-deacon read that book at all of the Masses on our first Mother’s Day together in 1992. Mike’s gathered our children at the foot of the altar to do the same every year since. Though the book might seem to be a cutesy means to keep the children’s attention for a Mother’s Day homily, its message is meant to do far more for us all. When we listen carefully as Mike reads, we who believe in God’s promises can’t help identifying with the outlandish antics of the child and the eternal patience of the mother in the story. By the end of the book, we who believe in eternal life understand that the experiences of this child and parent illustrate precisely the relationship which God offers to each one of us. Let me explain…

From his infancy, Mother finds her helpless baby irresistible and she promises to love him forever. As is the case with us all, it doesn’t take long for this child to become adept at performing in less-than-lovable ways. Mother thinks the worst that can happen is having her watch flushed down the toilet until her toddler grows into boyhood and then his teens with all of the accompanying trials and tribulations. Still, whatever phase her child grows into, Mother repeats her promise to love him forever. Eventually, the young man leaves home for life in the world. In spite of the distance between them, Mother makes her way to her son to repeat her pledge to love him. As is often the case with those of us blessed with “seasoned” parents, the day arrives when Mother can no longer make her way to her son. She calls and invites him to come to her so she might to speak those words of promise to him one more time. You’ll have to read the book to discover what occurs when mother and child meet…

On this Ascension Day, Jesus finds himself in a similar predicament as his time on this earth with his disciples comes to a close. Though we hear different Ascension gospels each year, the core of Jesus’ message remains the same. In Luke’s account (Luke 24:46-53), Jesus says, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Luke impresses upon us Jesus’ promise that God will be with us in everything. In today’s account from Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:15-20), Jesus asks his disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” By sharing the Word, they will assure all who listen of God’s love for them. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus adds his promise, “I will be with you always, until the end of the world.” Jesus promises to remain at their sides through everything. Like the mother in Robert Munsch’s story, Jesus repeats his promise to those he loves over and over again. This is precisely the point of everything Jesus said and did. By the end of the story, you realize that Jesus’ hope is the same as that of the grown child’s mother: That his beloved children accept love and that they learn to love generously in return.

You know, my stepdad passed away not long after I read LOVE YOU FOREVER in the teachers’ lounge that morning. When I bade him my final good-bye, I pictured my stepdad cradled in God’s arms just as that mother had cradled her son and just as that son had eventually cradled his mother. I was convinced that God wouldn’t begin my stepdad’s first day at home in heaven any other way. So it is that I thank you, Robert Munsch, for the poignant glimpse of God’s love which your wonderful book has given me. Thank you, Jesus, for preaching this very lesson every day of your life among us. Thank you, God, for loving each of us through our lifetime journeys home to you. Thank you, Moms (and dad’s!) for doing your best to teach the same!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Munsch, Robert (1986). LOVE YOU FOREVER. Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books.
This book is available in bookstores and online.