Thanks for The Inspiration!

We have all been blessed with amazing people in our lives. Whether our acquaintances with them are short-term or last a lifetime, these individuals change us in unexpectedly remarkable ways. I gratefully acknowledge that I’ve been generously blessed in this regard. I honestly have no idea of who I would be if I hadn’t shared the path with the many exceptional souls who have graced my life. The guide who led us during our visits to the Holy Land is counted among them. Yossi claims to be a non-believer who is incapable of praying. Yet, during our time together, Yossi revealed the God of Israel through much of what he said and did…

I never expected to visit Israel’s holy places. That I’ve done so three times surprises me more than you can imagine. My first trip proved to be a homecoming of sorts. Yossi acknowledged early on that Israel is as much our homeland as it is his own. Yossi pointed out that our roots lie deep within Israel’s soil just as his do. Because I’d researched most of our destinations beforehand, I often allowed Yossi’s words to fade into the background while I absorbed the sites before me. I call this encounter a homecoming because I felt that I’d been to Nazareth and Magdala, Capernaum and Jerusalem a hundred times before. I’d visited these places and many others through my parents’ accounts of Jesus’ life, the scriptures, catechism classes, theology courses, several great homilies and good books. Over the years, I’ve developed enduring relationships with Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Martha, Mary and Lazarus to name few. For most of my life, I’d pictured each of them interacting with Jesus. These images came to life with Yossi’s every word regarding Jesus and the God to whom Jesus led the people.

My husband and I returned to Israel a second time to assist with the tour. This time, we helped to keep the group together while Yossi shared his wisdom regarding the sites and the God who seemed with us at every turn. This time, I found myself anticipating Yossi’s commentaries as I’d recalled each one with surprising accuracy. This time, Yossi spoke with greater urgency when he asked us to pray for peace in his country. “I cannot pray,” he reminded us, “so you must do this for me.” This time, I told Yossi often that he talked to God far more eloquently than most people I know. Every time, Yossi smiled shyly before resuming his narrative.

In January, Mike and I traveled to the Holy Land once again. This was an emotional endeavor in many ways. This would likely be our last encounter with Yossi on Israel’s soil. It would be our last opportunity to sail the Sea of Galilee and gaze upon the shoreline Jesus frequented. In Magdala, my tears welled up as the clouds rained upon the synagogue’s ruins. It was there or nearby that Jesus and Mary Magdalene forged the friendship which took them to Calvary. During this trip, I couldn’t help hanging on to Yossi’s every word. Yossi’s descriptions of Jesus’ work, the politics of Jesus’ time and the ruthlessness of the Pharisees tore at my heart. Jesus’ people suffered greatly under Roman rule. Jesus’ people also suffered greatly under the temple hierarchy who used their positions to secure their power and their own comfort at the people’s expense. Yossi shook his head as he acknowledged that much hasn’t changed since Jesus walked among us. “We need Jesus’ God to bring about peace,” Yossi insisted.

I share all of this because you and I are challenged to make the changes Jesus set in motion so long ago and which Yossi hungers for today. Our call begins with Sirach’s (15:15-20) encouragement to trust God. When we trust God, we will work to improve this world because we realize that the outcome which awaits us is worth the effort. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), Paul encouraged his followers to rely upon God’s wisdom rather than that of the world. Paul insisted that when we think as God thinks, we’re equipped to transform this world into God’s image of what it should be. Matthew’s gospel (5:17-37) tells us that Jesus called his disciples to do just that. Jesus listed the commandments one by one and then reinterpreted their meaning. It was not enough not to kill, not to commit adultery and not to lie. The Pharisees did as much. Jesus asked his followers to focus less upon the letter of The Law and more upon the spirit in which The Law was given. Once the disciples embraced the loving God to whom The Law guided them, Jesus knew they would indeed change their world.

It seems to me that Yossi has taken Jesus’ challenge to heart. He never missed an opportunity to remind us to pray and then to work toward peace in his country and here at home. Yes, I have been blessed with many amazing people in my life. I count Yossi among them because he echoes Jesus’ message and the essence of God’s love for us in both his words and his actions. More importantly, Yossi inspires me to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

When Necessary, Walk!

“Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,
leave there and shake the dust off your feet…”

Mark 6:11

I admit it. I find it extremely difficult to shake the dust off my feet. Though I can write-off imprudent causes, I rarely do the same when it comes to my fellow humans. The few instances in which I have done so were the result of impending danger to someone I love.

This propensity to stay connected is partially genetic and partially learned. My parents opened their door to everyone. I recall my mom saying, “I leave the door open. If people choose not to come in, it’s their loss.” Jesus welcomed everyone who crossed his path as well. Since I subscribe to Jesus’ way of life, I try to welcome people as Jesus did.

Still, there are people who really aren’t good for us. They may not cause physical harm, but they take a psychological or spiritual toll on us. I find that if my gut is having a strong reaction to someone, I need to listen. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I need never to speak to this person again. However, it may mean that I should limit our contact as best I can.

I know this seems like an odd topic for a daily reflection. I included it because sometimes good people think that part of “being good” is to allow ourselves to be hurt unnecessarily. Our loving God could not disagree more.

Loving God, as you walk with us, keep us safe and wise. Help us to recognize potential harm and guide us away from its source.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels 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 going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, 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 admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love As Jesus Did

“If I do not perform God’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works.”

John 10:37-38

Throughout my life, I’ve been told often that I’m naive. Still, I continue to trust in the goodness of my fellow humans. I’m not foolish enough to believe that there are no evildoers among us. Still, I do believe that in the right circumstances most of us would choose to do the right thing. So, I persist in trusting those I meet until they give me reason not to do so.

Jesus wasn’t naive at all. He knew that those who questioned his motives were blinded by hatred. Jesus’ threat to the status quo and to the power of his enemies was more than they could tolerate. Though Jesus’ works helped the neediest and most marginalized of his contemporaries, these kindnesses fueled the anger of the temple leaders. If acceptance and mercy soothed the people too much, their fear of the consequences of their alleged sins might dwindle. The scribes and Pharisees power over them might also dwindle. In the face of all of this, Jesus delivered God’s message of love, forgiveness, inclusion and mercy. In the mean time, Jesus’ enemies worked diligently to find a way to dispose of him. Jesus persisted anyway because every person he ecounterd absolutely worth the trouble.

You know, the people Jesus comforted had been looked upon as the drudges of society for much of their lives. Still, Jesus invested his time and his love in them. Though I don’t have Jesus’ capacity to love, I do have my own. So it is that I must persist as well.

Loving God, help us to open our hearts generously to those you have given us to love.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Surrounded By Goodness!

Seek good and not evil,
that you may live.

Amos 5:14

I continued my efforts to purge the clutter from our home by tackling my desk. I admit that I didn’t quite finish the job. Rather, I tended to a stack of notes and clippings which I’d saved for months. A few were more than a year old! In the process, I unearthed a reflection my niece forwarded to me some time ago. Cece’s only comment was, “I thought you’d like this one.”

The reflection was actually a commitment on the part of the author to look for the best in everyone and everything she’d encounter that day. She would expect no proactive activity on the part of others. Rather, she’d seek out goodness, regardless of how well-disguised it might be. While acknowledging the trials and tribulations which might mute the goodness in others, she promised herself that she’s look for that goodness just the same.

I admit that I begin some days with far less optimism than this fellow writer. I also admit that I prefer her optimism to the pessimism which too often lurks beneath the surface in us all. With that admission, I’ve set that reflection on top of my neatly piled notes. This time, I won’t lose it in the piles on my desk. This time, I’ll read it often to remind me to seek out the best in everyone. Thank you, Cece!

Generous God, give us eyes to see and hearts to appreciate the goodness around us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Thank you, Blaise!

I will fulfill my vows…
Psalm 22:26b

During my second visit to the Holy Land, I allowed myself to tune inward on occasion because Israel had become familiar territory to me in some ways. After our return last year, I spent months researching further and writing about this experience. This time, I allowed myself to simply breathe it all in…

One recurring theme was the stance of religious leaders of Jesus’ day and today. The scribes and Pharisees had great influence over the people. They sometimes used their power to leverage Roman rule. At times, temple leaders compromised at the people’s expense to protect their own authority. It was no wonder that, when Jesus began his ministry and embraced the poor and outcasts, the people took notice. Finally, someone who spoke in God’s name also behaved as God asked. Today, similar conflict continues between conservative religious Jews and their more secular counterparts. Everything from world politics to daily life in Israel is affected by this.

You know, a portion of our spirituality results from our interactions with religious leaders. When they exhibit the beliefs we hold dear, they enhance our faith communities and our own relationships with God. When they err, they sometimes drive us away. We respond by finding comfort with other believers in other places or we dismiss these imperfect communities as non-salvageable. We retreat into ourselves to form a mini-community of God and self. While some of my greatest inspiration comes in “God and me” moments, I also benefit greatly from sharing God’s wonder with my family-in-faith.

On this is the Feast of St. Blaise, my thoughts turn to one of my religious leaders, Blaise Cupich. This remarkably humble man leads Catholics throughout Chicagoland and the world in ways great and small. Pope Francis has certainly placed a lot of faith our cardinal! The people of Chicago have done the same because Blaise has consistently walked with them in their joy and in their sorrow. While keeping up with all of this, our Blaise oversees the archdiocese with wisdom and his visible commitment to live as God asks. Those who work in close proximity to our Blaise have great respect for his intelligence and humility, his personal work ethic and his love for us all. I’ve met Blaise Cupich twice. Each time, he behaved as though the moment at hand was the most important of his day. I don’t know how he does it…

Happy Feast Day, Blaise Cupich! I offer you my thanks for all that you do and my prayer that you will remain for as long as the job takes.

Loving God, please be with Blaise Cupich and all of our spiritual leaders as they strive to do your work as you would have them.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved