Our Good Shepherd

In spite of the unseasonably cold weather and the snow which had fallen north of the Illinois border, my dear husband and I made a trek in that direction for a few days. Though our transition into Spring 2018 has been an extremely slow process and patches of green were few and far between, the scenery along the way is always a welcome diversion from our daily routines. We sometimes take what Mike calls “the scenic route” in spite of the additional twenty or thirty minutes it adds to our drive. Mike enjoys navigating the county and small-town roads with their leisurely pace and quaint structures all along the way. When we make it to the winding byways nearest the cabin, Mike is in heaven. As for me, I enjoy gazing out the window for the duration. Oddly, though we’ve alternated between our two routes for a quarter century, I’m always fascinated by the things I see along the way. Regardless of numerous previous sightings, every farm and hillside reveals something new to me as we meander by. This time, it was a large herd of sheep which surprised me. The snowfall hadn’t yet melted away and this woolly mass stood firm on what should have been grassy green ground by then.

As I considered the determined band before me, I was certain that I’d never seen this particular pasture before. I refrained from pointing it out to my dear husband because I knew he’d tell me that we’d passed that particular pasture hundreds of times. Rather, I tended to my own musing regarding the amazing gathering which had caught my eye. From my vantage point in the car, each sheep seemed to be a perfectly coiffed specimen. Their woolen coats boasted every shade of beige. Though usually a nondescript color, the beige hues of these sheep accentuated their fluffy appearances. Their color also made them clearly visible against the backdrop of white snow beneath them. I wondered why anyone would send sheep out in the midst of this year’s stubbornly lingering winter. I quickly reminded myself that Wisconsin farmers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to their animals and their crops. So it was that I dismissed my worry and returned to admiring these wooly wonders. “You have to love sheep!” I said to myself. “They’re just so adorable!”

As we drove on, I recalled the sheep with whom I’ve come into close contact over the years. When we visited Mike’s cousins in Croatia, they housed a few sheep on their property. When we visited Brookfield Zoo with our granddaughters, the petting area which includes sheep was a mandatory stop. Last summer, we walked among the sheep at Lambs Farm with our grandson. As I considered these close encounters with my woolly friends, I couldn’t deny the realities of their habitats. In Croatia, at the zoo and at Lambs Farm, certain “aromas” and other “realities” accompanied these seemingly cute and fluffy mammals. We had to watch where we stepped whenever we were near them. When we were close enough to check, we found that these critters’ “fluff” is actually wiry and rough at best. As I reconsidered the sheep we’d past a few miles back, I admitted that if we’d stopped the car long enough to take a walk among them, I might not have found them to be so lovable after all. Still, in spite of this honest observation, I quickly told myself, “But someone I know would do anything for a sheep!” Your and my greatest blessing is the love of our Good Shepherd.

In today’s gospel (John 10:11-18), John shares Jesus’ description of a good shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day because he knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day-in and day-out. As for the sheep, they knew their keepers’ voices and they followed them closely when being led in and out of their pastures. A good shepherd’s diligence allowed his sheep to spend their days in safety. In truth, the shepherd’s uninterrupted presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. In Jesus’ day, no caring shepherd ever allowed his sheep to wander beyond his watchful eyes. Like the shepherds he respected so, Jesus also promised never to allow one of God’s sheep to wander our of his sight or out of his heart.

It occurs to me that in spite of the snow and cold, the Wisconsin farmer who allowed his flock to graze that day wasn’t far from his herd. Perhaps he sensed that they were as stir-crazy as we because of the lingering winter weather and he allowed them the fresh air they craved. Happily for us, Jesus the Good Shepherd senses our every need as well. While we enjoy or endure the moment at hand, Jesus remains to shepherd us with his comforting and healing presence. Though Jesus doesn’t remove the obstacles which are part of our human landscape, Jesus remains. It seems to me that our best response is to welcome Jesus’ company with a word or a “baa” of gratitude.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Respond!

Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.
He stooped down but could see nothing but the wrappings.
So he went away full of amazement at what had occurred.

Luke 24:12

Though we left Jerusalem on a Monday night, we ended our journey in a restaurant filled with diners. Throughout our tour, busy Israelis moved among and around us as they tended to their daily routines. That evening, they engaged in well-deserved leisure at the onset of a new workweek while we reminisced.

Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis in Jesus’ day as well, especially during Passover. Devout people flocked there to observe this sacred feast in the temple. Faithful as they were, many of them didn’t acknowledge Jesus’ crucifixion. Though some had met Jesus and even marveled at his words, many others were oblivious to the itinerant teacher who had somehow managed to get himself crucified. Yet, in spite of these mixed reviews, Jesus’ words and works remain in the hearts of more than two billion people who consider themselves Christians today. Even some who profess no faith regard Jesus’ example as revolutionary and inspiring.

When Peter discovered those burial cloths in Jesus’ tomb, I imagine he vacillated between feelings of awe and ambivalence. Though thrilled at the possibility that Jesus had actually risen, how could Peter not ask himself, “What now?” Like we who rejoiced and were glad just a day ago, Peter had to determine how he would respond to Jesus’ presence in his life. As we know, Peter’s response morphed from fear to absolute joy over the days and weeks and months that followed.

Today, I wonder how my response to Jesus’ presence in my life will evolve…

Patient God, when I ask myself, “What now?” be with me as I sort through my own ambivalence and fear and awe.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rejoice! Be Glad! Respond!

Alleluia! Rejoice and be glad! Today, we are more aware than ever of God’s unending love for us. The events of the first Easter plant seeds of unshakable hope in the hearts of all who have heard Jesus’ name. If we take nothing else from Jesus’ final days, we must at least begin to appreciate the joy which awaits us. Jesus suffered the worst our earthly existence has to offer, yet he endured. When Jesus breathed his last on that wooden cross, he opened his eyes once again to life with his Father. Today, Jesus continues to rejoice in the fruits of his thirty-three years among us. After we persevere through the seemingly tragic events of our lives, we will do as Jesus does. I write “Alleluia!” and “Rejoice and be glad!” because, when Jesus rose from the dead, he illustrated as precisely as possible all that awaits you and me.

This year, I began my Lenten Journey one month early. In mid-January, I returned to Israel for a second visit. This unexpected opportunity allowed me to delve a bit more deeply into the story behind the Holy Land’s now-familiar sites. This time, I felt very much at home in Nazareth and Magdala, at the Sea of Galilee, in Capernaum and Jerusalem. This time, I moved beyond my awe regarding these places to being completely rapt by Jesus himself. You know, Jesus literally made all of the difference in the world to humankind. Through his life among us, Jesus changed everything. As our guide shared the scriptures and his own archaeological and historical perspectives regarding Jesus’ time among us, I felt I had finally begun to understand. I began this reflection with an invitation to rejoice and be glad. It occurs to me that Jesus calls us to take one step further. Jesus asks that we rejoice and be glad and that we respond to his loving presence in our lives.

Whether we revisit Jesus’ time among us in the holy Land, in the scriptures or in the quiet of our hearts, we find innumerable examples of Jesus’ unconditional love. We also find that those whom Jesus touched responded in remarkable ways. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well became extraordinary when she responded by accepting Jesus’ presence in her life. She was so taken with Jesus that she ran off to tell anyone who would listen of their encounter. When Jesus cured the man born blind, the man responded with deep gratitude and then shared his good fortune with all who would listen as well. He told not only his neighbors, but also the priests in the temple. While the priests responded by expelling the now-sighted man from his place of worship, the man left filled with absolute faith in God who had gifted him with new life. In every case, those Jesus healed responded by embracing their second chances with Jesus at their sides. Though he was crucified just three years into his ministry, Jesus remained with those he was given to love until they joined him in eternity.

Today, the love which brought peace to the woman at the well is extended to us. The love which gave sight to the man born blind invites us to see with new eyes as well. The love which transformed their lives is ours today. All that God asks on this Feast of Jesus’ Resurrection is that we rejoice and be glad and that we respond by welcoming God into our lives. Though we may not have invested ourselves in failed relationships and we may not suffer from physical blindness, we have all suffered in our own way. Whether physical maladies afflict us or our loved ones, their pain and the toll they take are very real. Though our physical vision may need only a tweak, we have all been blinded by our attitudes and our emotions, our desires and our regret. We have all failed to see God’s love for us at one time or another because our suffering has clouded our perspective. These are the times when God is most insistent that we look to the cross and remember that Jesus would have endured it all for any one of us.

In Jerusalem, I peered into the tomb which biblical scholars, historians and archeologists believe to be the burial site of Jesus. As I stared into the darkness, I imagined Mary Magdalene peering into this place on the first Easter morning. Though she didn’t yet realize that she had reason to rejoice and be glad, she had certainly responded to Jesus’ presence in her life. Nothing would have kept Mary from going to the tomb that morning to minister to the one who had changed her life forever. Today, we rejoice and are glad with Mary and the rest. Just as they did, we’ve come to understand and to celebrate because the life which comes after this life is worth all of our effort. Today, Jesus and all of those who have gone before us invite us to respond to this amazing news.

This is Easter Sunday and today we begin our own quests to live with the Risen Jesus at our sides. Today, we rejoice and we are truly glad! But, most of all, we respond wholeheartedly because Jesus remains with us through whatever will come our way today and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Struggling Neighbors

Blessed too are the sorrowing;
they shall be consoled.

Matthew 5:4

I’ve already shared that one of the highlights of both trips to Israel was our guide Yossi. Though he repeated often that he is a secular Jew, he occasionally addressed God’s place among the Israeli people and within his own life. Yossi was raised in a socialist Kibbutz and was taught from very early on that there is no God. His and the community’s hard work for the common good were what mattered. Even after his family left that setting, he was given little reason to make room for God in his life. Though Yossi didn’t say that this was the case for himself, he shared that many of his fellow Jews look at the tragedy of the Holocaust as reason to deny God’s existence. “How can we be the Chosen People,” they ask, “when God allowed this to happen.” They conclude that there is no God.

Still, Yossi recognizes our right to relate to God, or not to do so, as we choose. Yossi certainly respected his friend Daniel Carmel’s choice to become a Messianic Jew. He also passionately read from our scriptures to highlight the numerous sites we visited. Yossi’s animated explanations of Jesus’ work implied a more than casual interest in The Man from Galilee. Then there were Yossi’s frequent requests that we pray for the people of Israel. “Pray for peace among us,” Yossi repeated. All the while, Yossi did his part to smooth relations between his countrymen. He brought us to a Palestinian restaurant, an Arab gift shop and cafe, a Catholic church and Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox Jewish family.
Regardless of the troubles which beset each group, Yossi remarked, “They are just like us. All they want is the chance to work hard and to bring home food for their families.”

Loving God, help us to do our part to achieve world peace just as Yossi does.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

By Peaceful Means…

The Lord’s fire came down and consumed the holocaust…”
From 1 Kings 18:38

After leaving Caesarea and our stop at the Baha’i Gardens, we drove to Mount Carmel. Our guide explained that the word “Carmel” comes from two Hebrew words for “vineyard” and “God”. This mountain’s plush greenery had earned it the title of God’s vineyard. Though people had lived in the mount’s caves in prehistoric times, my knowledge of Mount Carmel begins with the Prophet Elijah.

The scriptures tell us Elijah had become impatient with Israel. Their king had married a Phoenician. The people’s religious practices and ties to the God of Israel weakened as they turned their attention to the queen’s idol Baal. Elijah responded by challenging the priests of Baal. They were to build an altar, place a sacrifice upon it and ask Baal to provide the fire to burn this offering. Though 450 priests prayed fervently, their sacrifice remained unlit. Elijah built an altar as well. He prayed that the God of Israel would set his sacrifice afire. Though Elijah had doused everything with water to make his point, a bolt of lightning ignited it. Elijah ended this encounter by slaughtering all of Baal’s priests.

Though he shared this story during my last visit to the Holy Land, our guide didn’t do so this time. Perhaps the unrest in nearby countries inspired this omission. Yossi is no fan of bloodshed; nor am I. Scripture writers sometimes adjusted settings or numbers or events to illustrate a point and this account seems to be no exception. In the end, Elijah did what he felt he needed to do to turn his people back to their Lord. Unfortunately, today’s world is unsettled by many who claim to do the same in God’s name.

I need to reveal God’s presence among us more peacefully. When I live with compassion and generosity, love my neighbors, care for them and respect them, I say best what needs to be said about our Beloved Creator.

Loving and Patient God, help us to love you and to love one another as best we can and help us to promote peace all the while.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What You Do Matters!

Blessed are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.

Matthew 5:8

The recent hours I’ve spent outdoors have given me plenty of time to reflect. Since our seasonal planting is finished, I went for a much-needed walk through our neighborhood this afternoon. As soon as I left our cul-de-sac, I found that my neighbors have been busy with their yards as well. With every step, I discovered another reason to smile.

Unfortunately, my revelry was short-lived. I’d allowed my mind to wander back to the newscast I’d turned off before leaving the house. The report offered another example of we human’s persistent inability to get along. I grew up with visions of grandeur regarding what I would do with my life. I wanted to solve the problems of the world. I wanted to end wars. I wanted to fight against prejudice and injustice. I wanted to end poverty. I wanted to do so much. On that particular day, I wanted to do something to make a difference somewhere and somehow. Actually, I want the same thing every day.

Fortunately, I’d walked far enough to allow myself plenty of time to find a solution on the way home. It was during this trek back that these things occurred to me: A good person who deals fairly and kindly with those around her brings peace to our world. Generous couples who allow their love to spill over onto to those around them bring love to the world. Parents who nurture their children with their time and attention bring hope to this world. Caring for those we have been given to love is the most important work we can do regardless of the form that caring takes.

O Lord, thank you for reminding us that our efforts do matter.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved