Put Our Love For Jesus To Work

We’re just a few days into Lent 2018 and I’m wondering about my progress. I approached Ash Wednesday with my Lenten commitment intact. I decided to use my experience in the Holy Land to guide me through this precious season. In Israel, I looked over our itinerary each morning with great expectation. Because I’d been there before, the sites listed were familiar territory. I didn’t worry about whether or not I wore the right shoes or if I needed to wear layers or if our destination would measure up to the hype in my guidebook. Rather, I pictured what I’d seen the year before and rekindled those unmistakable feelings of belonging which had filled me up. Though this was Jesus’ homeland, I felt that it was my homeland as well. So it was that I embraced every day of this second trip with the certainty that I’d find Jesus or a dear friend of his along the way. Rather than being surprised by the images beyond the tour bus windows, I happily anticipated what I saw. On Ash Wednesday, I told myself that I would approach my Lenten journey in like manner. Rather than being surprised by what lies ahead during the next forty days, I will once again anticipate finding Jesus and many of his dear friends along the way.

I’m happy to report that my unconventional approach to Lent 2018 has been fruitful. Though I’m habitually engaged in one-sided conversations with our Patient Creator, I’ve made the time to listen between every dozen or so lines of my monologue. Though I haven’t “heard” a word in response, I’ve been blessed with a sense that God is indeed attentive to me. Honestly, I’m convinced that God smiles upon our efforts whenever we try to do our best. From the beginning of time, God has pursued humankind with the energy of a young man smitten by the love of his life. God remains at our sides even when we attempt to run away. Through it all, God uses every means to entice us into a relationship. This Lent, I’ve allowed the holy places which Jesus frequented to breathe new life into my relationship with him. After all, it is Jesus who revealed the fullness of Divine Love to us. Though Jesus preached eloquently, his responses to others provided the purest examples of that love. Jesus offered compassion, acceptance and mercy to everyone who crossed his path. Whether a Pharisee who followed him in secret, a despised tax collector, an adulterous woman or an ostracized leper, Jesus welcomed him or her into his company. Jesus peered deeply into each of their troubled hearts and responded with his assurance of God’s abundant love. Indeed, Divine Love has given me much to anticipate and much to accomplish every day this Lent.

Though I’ve heard this account repeatedly since childhood, I find new meaning in the Transfiguration story today. Mark’s gospel (9:2-10) tells us that Jesus led his unsuspecting disciples up a mountainside where Jesus suddenly appeared in a dazzling aura. With Elijah and Moses at his side, Jesus revealed the essence of eternity to his incredulous friends. If this wasn’t enough, that Loving Voice announced from the clouds, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” With those words, the God of Israel underscored everything that Jesus had said and done. I think that poor Peter, James and John were at a disadvantage during this encounter. How could they have anticipated what Jesus revealed to them that day? Still, I’d like to think that they kept that image of Jesus in all of his glory in the back of their minds during the troubled days which lay ahead. Perhaps after witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration, they were equipped to anticipate the things to come with a bit more bravery. Though it proved to be difficult to embrace their troubles much of the time, Jesus had given them something to cling to in the worst of them.

My visits to Israel were amazing on many levels. Still, their most meaningful impact came in the numerous ruins from Jesus’ life among us. His childhood neighborhood, the synagogue where he taught, Magdala, the Sea of Galilee and the Garden of Gethsemane are a few of the places which enhanced my understanding of all that Jesus did. The love which propelled Jesus in those places compels me to anticipate Jesus’ company on the road ahead this Lent and always. That love inspires me to try my best to do my best to respond to others as Jesus did.

Lent 2018 provides each of us a unique opportunity to cling to our own inspiring images of Jesus. The glorious Jesus they encountered on that mountainside gave the disciples the courage to continue to follow him. The humble Jesus who walked among the poor inspired their own service of those in need. After Jesus’ death, it was the disciples who attracted the sick, the suffering and the despised. This Lent, you and I are invited to join the first disciples in savoring Jesus’ friendship and in making Jesus’ ways our own. Jesus leaves it to us to decide how we’ll use our love for him to do this as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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The Leper Within

Our return trip to Israel stirred memories of our first adventure there. As was the case last time, it rained a bit for a few days. Still, I appreciated the weather. The fifty and sixty-degree temperatures provided welcomed relief from the cold we’d left behind in Gurnee. Our guide Yossi shared our gratitude for the weather. However, it was the rainfall which pleased him. Israel currently suffers with a drought and Yossi viewed every raindrop as a precious commodity. While driving between sites, I marveled once again at the stark contrasts in Israel’s geography. Because Yossi’s commentary was familiar this time around, I concentrated more fully on the view beyond my window. A short bus trip often carried us through both rocky stretches of desert and lush greenery. While the bulk of Israel’s population fills its flourishing cities, a persistent remnant of its citizenry abides in the desert. Those who make their homes in these arid conditions are particularly attentive to any decrease in rainfall. Their struggles multiply when this occurs. So it was that this rainfall was a much appreciated blessing.

Community takes on great importance for desert-dwellers. Their survival depends upon their supportive interactions with one another. One of our fellow tourists is a seasoned traveler who has learned a great deal along the way. She was familiar with a sort of “desert code of hospitality” which compels those who dwell there to welcome travelers. Offering shelter to one who happens by is simply the humane thing to do. Yossi pointed out that though some who inhabit these tiny hamlets voiced displeasure with government supported settlements which abutted their property, they eventually welcomed these newcomers as well. Their new neighbors’ efforts have provided improved irrigation, fresh crops and work opportunities for them. In spite of the difficult conditions, these cooperative efforts have transformed vast lifeless parcels into productive green oases. I smiled each time I passed one of these Bedouin settlements. “What amazing things God’s people can do,” I thought, “when we work together,”

Today’s scripture passages drew my thoughts back to those unlikely desert communities. Both today and in ancient times, relationships with ones neighbors made the difference between survival and extinction. This is the reason a leper’s plight was so completely devastating. Leprosy was one of the most dreaded afflictions encountered by our Old Testament counterparts. Today’s passage from Leviticus (13:1-2, 44-46) tells us that isolation was the indisputable remedy for the disease. Though being plucked away from ones life and loved ones did nothing for the leper, isolating him or her from others protected the community from the same fate. The people felt no sympathy for lepers because they considered sin to be the cause of their disease. They believed that those afflicted were simply living out the consequences of evildoing on the parts of their parents or themselves. Centuries later, Jesus’ contemporaries treated lepers with equal contempt. In today’s gospel (Mark 1:40-45), Mark tells us of a leper who ignored the law’s mandates to remain isolated and who boldly approached Jesus. This man had lost everything and he had nothing more to lose. Jesus welcomed the poor man in spite of the sores which betrayed his disease. Then, somehow through his ravaged skin, this leper felt the warmth of Jesus’ love. Somehow, in spite of the hatred and disdain in the eyes of his neighbors, this man saw acceptance in Jesus’ eyes. Somehow, this leper found the courage to kneel before his Lord. Moved with compassion for this suffering soul, Jesus cured him with a single touch.

I think each of us can recall moments when we’ve felt the misery of the lepers chronicled by Leviticus and Mark. Painful circumstances chip away at our spirits. They wound us both psychologically and physically. Sometimes, they isolate us from those whom we need most. Fortunately for us all, Jesus recognizes our pain. Jesus separates the appearances of things from the reality of our suffering and Jesus heals us. Though our recoveries may not be as visually dramatic as that of the leper, we do recover.

The desert communities I observed in Israel will continue to flourish because of their unlikely liaisons. Those involved have set aside their religious, political and cultural differences in order to dwell with one another on common ground. Today and every day, you and I are invited to do the same. Though each of us has a bit of that loathsome leper within us, we also carry a bit of Jesus everywhere we go. Like the leper who couldn’t keep his healing a secret, we share our good news with those whom we meet along the way. Through one act of kindness after another, we bring life to the deserts of suffering which afflict us all.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hallowed Ground

When Jesus finished instructing his twelve disciples,
he left that locality to teach in their towns..

Matthew 11:1

While in Israel, we traveled from place to place on a coach bus. I am most grateful for Yani, our endearing and enduring bus driver, who delivered us safely to our numerous destinations. Yani’s careful driving freed me to appreciate the large windows which allowed me to take in everything we passed along the way. Throughout these “between site” rides, our guide also enhanced our travels. Yossi used this time to provide additional commentary regarding the sites we’d just left, the places we approached and modern-day life in Israel. I appreciated this as Yossi is a fountain of rich information which he shares with generosity and great passion.

I carried a small journal with me throughout this trip just as I had during our first trip. Last year, I managed to scribble only a few notes on four pages of that little notebook. This year, my improved note-taking netted several more pages. Still, I found it difficult 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, this second trip to “Israel” had become a second trip to the “Holy Land”. This place has come to mean a great deal to me. All that I learned about Israel, whether of a religious or a secular nature, revealed an aspect of Jesus, his people and the God whom Jesus revealed to us all. Of course it is holy land!

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

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

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Write Your Gospel!

One of my former students passed away. James was a third grader and I was in the midst of the second year of my teaching career. I’d thought I worked out the wrinkles in my classroom management with my first classroom full of students. However, James’s mischief frequently challenged me to adjust and to improve my approach further. When all was said and done, we ended that school year as friends. James had a good heart and I think he believed that I did, too. When I attended James’s funeral, I learned that I wasn’t the only one to benefit from my association with him. The church was filled with family and friends who are who they are partially as a result of James’s presence in their lives. When he spoke, James’s pastor acknowledged James’s humanity. He recounted the good James had accomplished in spite of it and because of it. When those present responded with a heartfelt “amen” I couldn’t help joining in. James had touched me in unexpected ways as well. I’d become a much better teacher because this young man had forced me to do so.

I don’t think it’s ever easy to speak at such gatherings. Still, James’s pastor seemed comfortable in this role. He knew James and the family he’d left behind. Because James had lived only five decades, his pastor also knew that this was a tough turn of events for all concerned. So it was that he focused upon his respect for this relatively young man. James had made many choices throughout his life and each one impacted his own loved ones and many others. Those choices left many on his path feeling loved and cared for. Those choices empowered others to do more and to become better in ways they never thought possible. The pastor went on to point out that we’re all given amazing opportunities as we live out our lives on this earth. Each one of us writes our story and adds to the stories of others by the way we choose to live. The pastor ended his remarks by suggesting that this is precisely what Jesus did.
 
During the visitation before the funeral that day, I’d spoken with some of James’s family members and friends. Each one shared a bit of his or her grief and a fond memory or two. While I waited for the service to begin, I studied James’s photograph and his obituary printed in the funeral booklet. He’d added several chapters to his story since I’d last seen him. As I walked to my car afterward, I offered a prayer for James and for those who mourned him. I also considered his pastor’s invitation to use our own stories for the good of those around us.

When I sat at my keyboard to prepare this reflection, I realized that the pastor who had spoken so eloquently at James’s funeral echoed something which I’d heard before. A few years ago, the priest who celebrated a friend’s mom’s funeral spoke about her life story as well. In his homily, he called this woman’s story her gospel. He, too, pointed out that God calls us every day. He, too, said that every situation, every encounter and every moment offers us an invitation to respond. How we do so is up to us. As James’s pastor said, none of this is new. Still, when that priest suggested that we look upon our lifetime of responses as our gospels, he truly upped the ante. The gospel writers painstakingly poured over every word they wrote to teach us the things they’d learned from Jesus. St. Paul proved even more prolific in his attempts to do the same. When this priest promoted our life stories to gospels, he challenged us to think in loftier terms. Writing a story is easy enough. Writing a gospel with my actions and attitudes is something else altogether!

The scripture readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time underscore the urgency of getting to work on our gospels. The first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) tells us that God asked Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to urge its inhabitants to change their lives for the better. This reading doesn’t include Jonah’s initial response which was to run away. Fortunately, Jonah discovered that it was impossible to avoid God forever. He finally preached to the people of Nineveh. They heeded Jonah’s gospel and changed their ways. The second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) tells us that Paul offered no consolation to the reluctant. Paul declared in word and deed that life as his contemporaries knew it was changing and the time to adjust was running out. Paul’s audience listened as well. Finally, Mark’s gospel (1:14-20) tells us that Jesus also insisted, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” The gospels which Jonah, Paul and Jesus wrote with their lives agreed that there is no time like the present to take God’s call to heart. It occurs to me that I agree as well. If the occasions when I struggle to fill a page with my words are any indication, I mustn’t waste a minute. I have several chapters to add to my story –I mean my gospel– and so do you. Today’s message seems to be that we all have important gospels to write for one another and we need to begin living them now.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share the News!

Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,”
and then shared what he had told her.

John 20:18

While mulling over the coming year, I considered possible projects for our parish families. I’m part of a committee who deal with such things. Last year, we prepared for Christmas and Easter by engaging in various acts of generosity to assist those in need. I found myself overwhelmed by the kindnesses which seemed to grow with every passing week. I admit that recent events near and far compel me to long for the Christmas Spirit and Easter’s “alleluias”. I recall commenting often regarding my fellow parishioners’ good deeds. After all, good news really is hard to keep to oneself.

I admit to offering updates regarding our grandchildren to anyone who will listen. I’m just as eager when my news might be helpful to others. We’re all willing to spread the word when that word is worth spreading. We share a good book and diet tips that work. We tell our colleagues about inroads we’ve made with the new payroll technology and the new boss. We can’t keep the news of a long-awaited pregnancy or a cancer remission to ourselves for longer than it takes to scroll down to a number on our cell phones. I suppose this is the case today because good news is a limited commodity in this Twenty-first Century world of ours. The truth is that good news has been in short supply since the beginning of time. No wonder we share glad tidings whenever they come our way.

With that in mind, I share these glad tidings today: Regardless of what occurs around us and within us, God’s presence is the single consistency which we can always count on and, one day, God will turn all of our trials into good news!

Loving God, thank you for breathing your life into every minute of every day.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Ongoing Gift of Transfiguration

In mid-February, my husband Mike and I spent seven days in the Holy Land. After we decided to join our friend Nancy Gabriele’s tour, I consistently referenced this trek as “our trip to Israel”. Though our itinerary was well-planned and inclusive, I had no idea of what to expect. After all, two thousand years have passed since Jesus’ birth. When I researched each of the sites we would visit, I wondered if any remnants of Jesus’ presence remained at any of them.

Two days before we left, our suitcases were packed. Our son and a neighborhood friend had agreed to manage the mail, trash pick-up and any snow which might assault our driveway while we were away. There was nothing left for us to do except to review our itinerary, recheck our flight status and take a deep breath. Though Mike is always a willing traveler, I found that I was surprisingly calm and actually anxious to be on our way as well. I normally spend pre-flight days fretting over the tiny airplane seat which would hold me captive for the duration. Rather, I was filled with expectation regarding who and what I would discover in Israel. I couldn’t help smiling with the same joy with which I anticipate family gatherings here at home. Oddly, I felt assured that I was about to embark upon a homecoming unlike any I’d experienced before.

Finally, departure day arrived and we headed to O’Hare Airport. Before I knew it, we’d made our way through security, checked in for our flight and settled into our seats on the plane. I immediately pulled out our itinerary. Caesarea, Nazareth, Cana, The Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum and Jerusalem were among the places which seemed oddly familiar to me. The Sea of Galilee, Magdala and Gethsemane brought tears to my eyes as though I’d experienced my own hardships in each of these places. In the midst of my reflection, I prayed that the flight would pass quickly, not out of fear or discomfort, but because I was anxious to breathe in the air and walk the earth which had once sustained my long-ago family. With that, I slept on and off for the duration. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, a man who’d made the flight with us stopped in the midst of our parade to the baggage claim area. Seemingly oblivious to the hurried crowd around him, he knelt and kissed the ground. I smiled as I asked myself why I felt like doing the same. When we paraded out of the terminal, I knew I’d find my long-ago family on the other side.

On this Second Sunday of Lent, we listen once again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. By the time Jesus invited Peter, James and John to accompany him up that mountainside, the disciples had come to respect and to love Jesus very much. On that particular day, Jesus chose to reveal something more about himself which simple words could not express. Jesus’ lessons up to this point had certainly flown in the face of the teachings his friends and all of the people had encountered in the temple. Jesus insisted that what matters most to God is God’s people. Whenever necessary, Jesus had set aside the stern rules which caused God’s loved ones needless hardship. “The Law was made for man,” Jesus insisted, and not the other way around. If that wasn’t revolutionary enough, the trip up that mountainside provided Peter, James and John 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 awaits us all. Surely, Peter James and John were never the same after that day. How could they be? Terrible and frightening times followed which eventually stole everything of importance to them. Still, they persisted because that image of Jesus in all of his glory remained etched into their memories and onto their hearts. Imagine the hope in their eyes when Peter, James and John consoled the others with this promise of what would come for them all!

In Israel, I was gifted with a transfiguration of sorts. 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. I sailed the Sea of Galilee with a Messianic Jew who found Jesus in the pilgrims he’d met along the way. I walked the path to Gethsemane which was painfully more familiar than I’d hoped. All of this I did in the quiet company of my long-ago family: Jesus and his mother, Mary Magdalene and the others who remain etched into my memory and onto my heart.

Every day, you and I are invited to experience transfiguration in ourselves and in those we’ve been given to love and to care for along the way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved