Welcome Home!

In spite of the cancellations of Independence Day fireworks displays, festivals and picnics, I couldn’t ignore one of my annual rituals. The other night, I seized the opportunity to raid our video library for the copy of Forrest Gump. I nestled into my favorite chair to relive history with my fictional friend. Though the screenplay is quite good, what I enjoy more are the many clips from actual events dispersed throughout the film as the story unfolds.

Though Independence Day 2020 promised to be quite subdued, the date’s impact upon me is tangible. My Dad passed away July 4, 1959, and it was my Uncle Norbert’s birthday. We mourned their sister at her wake July 4, 1989. Though one would expect this holiday to burden me with a dark mood each year, the opposite is true. In spite of their absence this year, fireworks are to blame. Because of these family connections, fireworks displays always speak resurrection to me. This is the reason I continue to be taken by the Forrest Gump scene in which Forrest and his girlfriend Jenny watch the Bicentennial Fireworks of 1976. The Statue of Liberty fills their tiny television screen with all of her glory. Fireworks of every color form a sparkling halo around her head. Is that burst of light in the darkness anything like our movement from this life into the next? Though this particular clip is short, the glimpse of Lady Liberty and her spectacular backdrop sets off fireworks in my mind that linger long after the movie ends.

Still, it isn’t just the fireworks. The Statue of Liberty first conjured noble sentiments within me when I was in high school. I participated in a chorus who performed select vocal pieces for special events. One of these was drawn from The New Colossus, the poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed on the base beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. The poem closes with “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Though patriotism wasn’t always in vogue when I sang those words in the sixties, even then, I couldn’t control the fullness in my heart that swelled every time these words passed through my lips. I admit to those feelings again as I write. Lady Liberty’s proclamation is awesome, indeed. This nation’s display of these mighty words at our shore demands quite a commitment from those of us who call these United States our home.

My mom and her parents were born in this country, though it isn’t many branches back on her family tree where we find immigrants from Canada and Europe. My dad’s parents and some of his siblings were born in Canada. My husband’s grandparents migrated from Croatia and Italy. Our associate pastor Father Joe’s family has roots in Italy as well. Our Pastor Father Chris took Lady Liberty’s invitation (and the Cardinal’s!) to heart when he left the seminary in Poland to finish his studies and serve as a priest here. This concept of welcoming those who wish to make this country their home has always comforted me. Where would any of us be if someone along the way hadn’t welcomed our families with open arms?

Having a place to call home is a basic need that all of humanity shares. Regardless of what happens to us while away, our homes promise us the acceptance, comfort and rest we so desperately need. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché. “Home Sweet Home” proclaims the promise and invitation Jesus extends today. Earlier in his gospel, Matthew shared that Jesus understood our expectations of the places we call home. After engaging in his ministry for a time, Jesus had done well for himself. His followers were coming to understand his message. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. Still, when Jesus returned to his own hometown of Nazareth, he was rejected. Those who once looked upon him like family and as a friend found this new Jesus to be too much to accept and they wanted be rid of him. Perhaps it was in that disappointment that Jesus found reason to share the true meaning of home not long afterward.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:25-30), Matthew tells us that Jesus made his thoughts regarding home quite tangible. Though we might find ourselves rejected as Jesus was, Jesus promises, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Perhaps I’m so taken by fireworks and Lady Liberty because they proclaim quite vividly God’s longing to draw us back home. In the mean time, it’s up to us to welcome, to accept and to comfort those around us. We know the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to take root in others. Today’s gospel challenges us to grasp Lady Liberty’s lamp and to light the way home for one another until we all make our way home to God.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hospitality… Our Way of Life

While checking email this morning, I came across a reminder from my niece. Angela is going to be married in November. She and her fiancé have planned a very special day for all concerned and they want to make everyone’s participation in this event as enjoyable as possible. While Angela, Dave and some of the family live nearby, many others will travel to celebrate with them. This is the reason Angela sent her note. It includes hotel contact and check-in procedures and information about the area so those interested can plan accordingly. Since Mike and I live only thirty minutes from the location, we won’t need accommodations. Still, I sent Angela my thanks as this information will be very helpful to many of her and Dave’s guests. After clicking “Send”, I looked upward as I’ve done so often during the past three months. “Dear God,” I begged, “please help us to get this pandemic under control so Angela and Dave can enjoy their wedding day with everyone they love around them.”

After adding my “Amen” to that plea, I read today’s scripture passages. I laughed aloud when I saw that hospitality is the underlying theme. I admit that I looked upward once again. This time, I asked, “You are kidding, right? Dear God, we’ve been ordered to be anything but hospitable for the past three months! What am I supposed to…” Determined as I was to complain further to our patient God, thoughts of Angela and Dave interrupted my effort. These two have every intention of being more than hospitable to their guests. In spite of the possible adjustments which may be required by the pandemic, they are doing everything in their power to see to their guests comfort and enjoyment. In the midst of all of this, Angela and Dave aren’t pacing and wringing their hands. They’re simply doing what needs to be done with the hope that all concerned will be able to celebrate with them. As I considered this dear couple’s efforts, I revisited those scripture passages…

It occurs to me that extending and receiving hospitality are basic humans needs and Angela and Dave aren’t alone in their efforts to be hospitable these days. While I’ve done my best to stay-in-place for the past three months, first responders have welcomed the seriously ill into their company. Media images of ambulance drivers and police officers escorting patients into hospitals and clinics replay in my memory. Many restaurant owners who closed their doors in response to the pandemic have kept their kitchens open to feed those doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who’ve had no time to worry about meals. Others who were sequestered in their homes ventured out to deliver parcels to food pantries. Those whose jobs weren’t essential enough to keep them working were welcomed to take home a week’s groceries. Children suddenly banned from school by a virus they didn’t understand were welcomed into virtual classrooms by teachers who did understand. Essential workers placed themselves in jeopardy day after day to welcome the rest of us into their stores and gas stations and pharmacies. When I ventured out on an essential errand, I rediscovered the value of a welcoming smile. Though social distancing was painfully necessary, doing without the smiles of those around me was worse. How I wished I had a cellophane mask so the clerks and cart cleaners and stock persons would know that I was smiling in their directions with deep gratitude.

We might view Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality as a family obligation. We might view the welcome extended to the rest of us by all of these essential workers to be nothing more than what their jobs require of them. The recipients of these kindnesses, however, hold a different opinion. The hospitality of others –their welcoming of us into the moments of their lives– makes our lives livable. In the seemingly ordinary things done for others during these extraordinary times, we’ve helped one another to survive. Though Angela and Dave weren’t necessarily heroic in sending that wedding reminder, they’ve certainly renewed their guests’ hope in better things to come.

Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality and that of all of those I’ve witnessed these past three months mirror God’s intent for each one of us. Today’s scriptures seem to agree. In the first reading (2 Kings 8-11, 14-16a), a woman of influence welcomed Elisha the prophet into her home because he visited the area often and needed a place to stay. She also saw Elisha as God’s beloved. In the second reading (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11), Paul assured us that hospitality offered during this life will be repaid generously in the next. In the gospel (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus asked his disciples to look upon the neediest among us just as that woman looked upon Elisha. Jesus promised that even the smallest efforts to welcome the least of us will be rewarded. Though we don’t need to socialize with every person we meet along our way, we do need to welcome one another into the moments at hand as best we can, masks and all! Today, God invites us to make offering hospitality to one another our way of life.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Open Door

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs
under the table eat the family’s leavings.”

Mark 7:24

I grew up in an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Since only the tiniest drop of either bloodline flows through me, I had no preference for either group. The truth is that I envied them both, especially on St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Days when my Irish and Italian friends celebrated their heritage with great flourish. For the most part, I am French Canadian and there was no designated day for me to do the same. Though my family celebrated rich traditions which are the direct result of my ethnicity, as a child, I longed for a more colorful and universal display. Later, new neighbors of African American dissent moved nearby and we became fast friends. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in my envy of those whose ethnicity was celebrated.

This childhood disappointment evolved into a lifetime of effort to honor the plethora of ethnic differences which make our human family the treasure it is. That disappointment also fueled my effort to work around the numerous other differences which often separate us. Perhaps it was providential that I spent my career working with children. My classroom provided the perfect forum in which to honor both our personal uniqueness and our common qualities. Though I left my classroom behind long ago, I find that the lessons I learned there regarding God’s “Open Door Policy” are more important than ever these days.

Welcoming God, it seems that wherever we are we manage to separate ourselves into differing factions. Help me and all of my sisters and brothers to welcome one another into the moments of our lives just as you welcome us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Power of Hospitality

Hospitality mirrors God’s Presence among us in powerful ways! The events of this life which are most precious to me are the products of hospitality. Each one involved a welcoming of sorts. Each one enriched me in lasting ways which continue to affect all that I say, all that I write and all that I do. These experiences of hospitality were most often the result of the unexpected kindness of others. In each instance, it would have been appropriate to leave me in the shadows. I’m happy to share that, much to my good fortune, something or Someone inspired these welcoming souls to allow me into their company…

As challenging as they proved to be, my parents persisted in hosting family gatherings. The “immediate family” included both sets of grandparents and all of the little ones their combined offspring of twenty had produced. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners required two very large turkeys and an abundance of side dishes and desserts. Immediate family members occupied every chair in the house and most of the floor space. There was no place to go that wasn’t filled with chatter and the clanging of dinnerware. There was no place to go that didn’t ring with laughter and resound with joy. When our guests left, my parents and we children continued to celebrate the day’s events as we cleaned up the last bits of evidence that the house had indeed been overrun. Interestingly enough, my childhood dreams of heaven –and sometimes those of adulthood– resemble these gatherings where everyone seems so much at home and so very happy. Hospitality reflects God’s Presence among us in powerful ways!

My mom, my extremely perceptive aunts and our neighborhood priest mastered another form of hospitality more challenging than hosting a feast for a houseful of guests. They extended their hospitality at far more difficult times. At ages four, six and nine years and many times in between, I woke my mother in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. She held my hand as she walked me back to my bed to tuck me in. If I hadn’t said my prayers earlier, she helped me to do so before returning to her own bed for some much-needed rest. It wasn’t until my own offspring woke me during the night that I realized how God-like my mother had been in her kindness to me during the wee hours…

Like their sister, my aunts extended their hospitality to me as well. Fortunately, I accosted them only during daylight hours! I habitually sat on the fringes of their conversations when the men of the family gathered in the kitchen for card games and the kids headed outdoors to play. I knew very well that I should’ve left. These special women had a right to engage in their adult family talk. Yet, I stayed. I hung onto their every word and they allowed me to do so. Occasionally, they acknowledged my presence with a compliment regarding how grown up I was. At ten years of age, this was high praise…

Our poor parish priest didn’t fare as luckily as my aunts who had to put up with me only during their visits. The poor man made the mistake of telling me that I could stop at the rectory to see him “any time”. After my dad passed, “any time” became “all of the time”. Still, in spite of the frequency of my intrusions, Father always greeted me with a smile. Hospitality reflects God’s Presence among us in powerful ways!

In today’s first reading (2 Kings 8-11, 14-16a), a woman of influence who welcomes Elisha into her home does so because she recognizes that he is “a holy man of God”. In the gospel (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus asks his disciples to look upon their needy brethren with the same respect this woman extended to Elisha. Jesus requests our hospitality –our complete acceptance and respect– for those around us who need us most. In the second reading (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11), Paul assures us that our hospitality of one another during this life will be repaid with great flourish in the next.

One might view my parents’ hospitality and my mother’s patience with me as family obligations. One might see the efforts of my aunts and our parish priest as small talk aimed at getting a pesky little girl out of their hair. The recipient of this kindness holds a differing opinion. These experiences of hospitality filled my life with unexpected joy and a very real awareness of God’s presence. Our seemingly ordinary efforts to extend our hospitality to those who need us most hold the potential to do the same. Yes, our hospitality toward one another reflects God’s Presence among us in truly powerful ways!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Open Door

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs
under the table eat the family’s leavings.”

Mark 7:24

I grew up in an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Since only the tiniest drop of either bloodline flows through me, I had no preference for either group. The truth is that I envied them both, especially on St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Days when my Irish and Italian friends celebrated their heritage with great flourish. For the most part, I am French Canadian and there was no designated day for me to do the same. Though my family celebrated rich traditions which are the direct result of my ethnicity, as a child, I longed for a more colorful and universal display.

This childhood disappointment evolved into a lifetime of effort to overlook ethnicity and the numerous other differences which often separate us. Perhaps it was providential that I spent my career working with children. My classroom provided the perfect forum in which to honor both our personal uniqueness and our common qualities. Though I left my classroom behind long ago, I find that the lessons I learned there regarding God’s Open Door Policy” are more important than ever.

Welcoming God, wherever we are, we manage to separate ourselves into differing factions. Help me and all of my sisters and brothers to welcome one another into the moments of our lives as you welcome us.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Invite Them All

My daily walks take me past our neighborhood elementary school. Normally, as I walk by, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for my teaching career which ended with a four-year stint as an administrator. Though I truly enjoyed most of the time I spent in education, I also offer a prayer of thanksgiving for my retirement. As I passed the school this morning, I watched as the principal and teachers managed school bus drills. I chuckled as I listened to the familiar directives repeated at the onset of every new year. Without warning, a tear slid down my cheek as thoughts of numerous first days past flooded my memory. One such day says it all…

Everywhere on the opening day, teachers flank the entrance and surrounding grounds of our schools long before the children begin to arrive. Some of the children may be unfamiliar with the environment, and some may need a reminder that order will prevail. Thus, my teaching colleagues wait to greet the new year’s students.

Eventually, the children make their way to the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approach with confidence- returning students who did well last year. They know where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulge with supplies in anticipation of anything the new teacher might ask of them. Others arrive with their hands wrapped tightly around a hand much larger than their own. Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa brings a bit of reassurance. That older, experienced hand prevents the tears that would otherwise flow freely. For some, who reluctantly inch toward school, tears flow regardless of the company. The presence or absence of a significant adult makes no difference. The onset of a new year frightens them to death. Older siblings warned them of the dangers to be found in school –mean teachers, hard work, and the really strict principal. No matter what, these poor unfortunates expect the worst.

The children I worried about most on my tour of first day duty were always the last ones outside. They feared crossing the threshold into a new year, and they hid wherever they could. These children attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did most of their homework, but never quite finished because it seemed too hard. Without special help, they would have failed the most important subjects. One year in particular, I found several of these children in the midst of their avoidance behavior. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to the dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoed feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed started to walk home, refusing to endure failure once again.

Because I did not have a classroom of my own, I was charged with gathering these creative imps. I tended first to the young man bolting home. Jonah was a big boy who had a rough year last time around. I knew him because he received extra support in literacy learning. Jonah actually made excellent progress with his reading teacher. I marveled at the pre– and post-test scores that proclaimed the eighteen months of growth he had achieved. He moved from first to third grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration that must have eaten away at him. His more competent peers skated by with only six, eight or ten months’ growth because that was enough for them. I wondered with Jonah why he was not rewarded for his success when it was greater than that of most of the other students.

With this question in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, his good nature impelled Jonah to stop as he recognized that my dress shoes made it impossible for me to chase him. His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t goin’ in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned eighteen months worth of reading in only nine months. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes, smiling just a bit. “That’s why I got that paper, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” “Does she like that paper?” I asked. “Me and her both like it,” Jonah told me as I walked him to the door. Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again.

One by one, I coaxed the other reluctant children from their various hiding places. One by one, they allowed me to convince them of the special talents only they possessed. One by one, they risked everything to enter their classrooms with hope. One by one, they gave meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work in with them.

At the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I beg your pardon, Lord, but, if this is so, I have already experienced resurrection because nothing can repay me more than Jonah already has.

Let none of us overlook the treasure to be found in the company of those this world considers to be castaways. It is in our association with these favored ones that we witness God’s greatest investment in all of our goodness.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved