Holy Land, Indeed!

Jesus left the temple precincts then,
and his disciples came up and pointed out
to him the buildings of the temple area…

Matthew 24:1

While in Israel, we traveled from place to place on a coach bus. I appreciated the large windows which allowed me to take in everything we passed along the way. Throughout these “between site” rides, our guide often provided additional commentary regarding the sites we’d just left, the places we approached and modern-day life in Israel. I appreciated all of this as Yossi is a fountain of rich information which he shared with generosity and great passion.

Though I carried a small journal with me throughout each of our trips, I wrote very little in it this time around. I found it more difficult than ever to put my feelings about the sights and sounds and people around me into words. I found it exponentially more difficult to express the deep connection I felt with them all. Before I realized what had happened, my trip to “Israel” had become my trip to the “Holy Land”. All that I learned about this place, whether of a religious or a secular nature, revealed some aspect of Jesus, his people and the God whom Jesus revealed to us.

Knowing how deeply this experience has effected me, I can only imagine what it was like to encounter Jesus in the flesh. Perhaps I have…

Loving God, thank you for allowing me to see your face in the sights and sounds and people of that precious place.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share The Treasure

I hope you aren’t tiring of reading about my experiences in the Holy Land because I don’t think I’ll ever tire of writing about the treasures I encountered there. It’s difficult to keep good news of any kind to oneself: A cancer remission, a seemingly impossible pregnancy, a job promotion or a scholarship to the college of ones choice. The list goes on and on. I once used this space to share my elation over finding a ring which I thought I’d lost forever. My heart danced when that ring appeared in a drawer I’d searched several times beforehand. The treasures I rediscovered in the Holy Land are at least as valuable and I simply have to share the joy they bring me with you.

Now I realize that this is Lent and that our focus this season is both penitential and transformational. Since childhood, I’ve hoped to emerge from these forty days as an improved version of myself. I tried to do my best within the moments at hand on each of those days. I also attempted to get to know Jesus more intimately as I plodded along. My visits to Jesus’ homeland added an unexpected dimension to my efforts. I’ve always believed that Jesus remains nearby. Nonetheless, when I walked the streets of Nazareth and Capernaum, Magdala and Jerusalem, Jesus’ presence took on unexpected clarity.

I found myself immersed in Jesus’ daily life along with his family and his closest friends. As I walked among the descendants of Jesus’ contemporaries, I felt their urgency. Each one had a place to be. Whether on the way to a joyful encounter or a dreaded interaction, all concerned hurried along. As for me, I imagined those who walked these streets with Jesus. There were the curious ones who’d heard of this new teacher and the sick who hoped that they might find a cure in him. I imagined those with no hope who reluctantly searched just once more for peace in their lives. I imagined those isolated and lonely souls who turned to Jesus because they had no place else to go. Those who shared the streets of Israel with me really didn’t look much different than I. Yet each one spoke a tale of Jesus’ compassionate love. How can I not share this treasure at every opportunity?

On this Second Sunday of Lent, we listen once again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9). By the time Jesus invited Peter, James and John to accompany him up that mountainside, the disciples had begun to appreciate the treasure they had found in him. On that particular day, Jesus chose to reveal something quite remarkable about himself. Jesus’ lessons up to that point included his parables, references to the scriptures and to The Law and his own interpretation of these things. More importantly, Jesus had reinforced every word with his own example. Jesus left no doubt that generously loving one another is the most efficient means to living righteously and to loving God. On that mountainside, Jesus gifted Peter, James and John with a glimpse of the treasure which lay at the end of Jesus’ ministry and at the end of his life. When Jesus took on his “after life” appearance, he offered his closest friends a glimpse of the glory which awaited them as well.

I’m certain that Peter, James and John were never the same after that day. They survived the terrible events which eventually stole Jesus from them because that image of Jesus in his glory remained etched into their memories and onto their hearts. Though Jesus cautioned his three friends not to speak of what they’d seen until he’d risen, I imagine that Peter, James and John shared this treasure long beforehand. It’s difficult to keep such treasures to oneself. I’m convinced of this because of my own eagerness to share my experience of Jesus in his homeland.

It was in Jesus’ homeland that I was gifted with a transfiguration of sorts as well. I peered into the eyes of an Israeli who likely resembled Jesus’ ancestors. I was inches from a tiny oil lamp dated to Jesus’ time and referenced in his parables. I sailed the Sea of Galilee with a Jewish man who had found Jesus in the pilgrims he’d met on his boat. I walked the path to Gethsemane which was painfully more familiar than I’d hoped it would be. All of this I did in the quiet company of Jesus and Peter, James and John and the rest. Yes, the love which propelled Jesus along his way was quite tangible in the ruins around me. That love touched Peter, James and John on the mountainside. How can I not share the treasure of that love which touches you and me today?

Lent 2020 provides each of us the opportunity to rediscover the treasure which is Jesus’ life among us. Jesus himself invites us to take his words and works to heart, to recognize God’s unconditional love for us and to share these treasures at every opportunity.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Find The Time

All who touched him got well.
From Mark 6:56

Lent 2020 begins tomorrow. Every year, I try to set aside these forty days much the way a couple sets aside time to be together. If my husband and I are smart enough to retreat in order to nurture our love for each other, it makes sense to do the same in our relationships with God. So it is that I’m attempting to recapture the zeal of my childhood Lents by planning ahead for this special walk to Easter.

I’m at an advantage this year because images of Jesus’ homeland are etched into my memory. While in the Holy Land, I couldn’t help seeing Jesus’ shadow among the crowds in Jerusalem, in the dusty desert, near the synagogue in Magdala and on the paths winding through Capernaum. The gospels leave little doubt regarding Jesus’ popularity with ordinary people. His palpable presence everywhere I turned touched my heart. Though the temple hierarchy saw Jesus as a threat and the Romans considered him a nuisance, those of little or no stature -including me- find everything in him. This is the reason Lent is so precious to me. It gives me the time to get to know more about that irresistible Jesus who doesn’t need a thing from any of us, but who longs for our company just the same.

Today, let’s begin to plot our Lenten journeys. On Ash Wednesday, let’s assume our places among Jesus’ contemporaries. Let’s seek him out in every nook and cranny we pass along the way. Let’s seek him out in those we love, in those who love us and in those who need our love more desperately than ever. Trust, he will be in all of those places.

Dear God, as I prepare for my Lenten journey, encourage me with a glimpse of that heart which is blind to my imperfections and loves me as I am.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

W… Write

God is good and upright
and God shows us the way.
God guides the humble to justice
and teaches the humble goodness.

Psalm 25:8-9

W is for Write. Though I do most of my writing at my keyboard, I was recently reminded that I write perhaps more effectively with my attitudes, words and actions. Though I would like to leave something significant to posterity in written form, the truths I share through my life will be far more long-lasting. A wise priest once shared that perhaps the point of all of our lives is to write a gospel by the way we live. Though he made this comment years ago, I can’t seem to let go of this gospel-writing challenge. Just as no book store owner can predict who will pick up and browse through the best sellers, travel books and bibles in stock, I cannot predict who will read my attitudes, my next word or the things I do at any given moment. Whether I opt to or not, I’m writing my gospel with every breath I take. Since I can’t choose who will “read” what I produce at any given moment, it makes sense to me to take this project to heart.

I find this all a bit frightening as I’ve uttered some things which I hope will be forgotten and I’ve done some things that I wish I could undo. Unfortunately, I cannot edit these things out of my life. I find some consolation in the knowledge that my fellow humans share a bit of this regret with me at one time or another. So it is that we must all proceed with writing our lives’ gospels and we must do so with heartfelt determination. May we encourage one another when the results are positive and may we edit one another mercifully when we haven’t done our best. Yes, W is for Write. May we all write with care.

Loving God, be with us as we write the pages of our lives. Help us to reveal your wonder in everything we say and do.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©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