Welcome, Neighbor!

“Love one another.”
From John 13:34

The other day, I watched an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with my grandsons. The show is well done and has been the source of many discussions between me and the kids. It elicited precious memories. Daniel Tiger is one of Fred Roger’s make-believe friends from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which I watched with my own sons too many decades ago. That effort wasn’t wasted as I truly tried to emulate Mr. Roger’s welcoming ways in my own life. His wisdom inspired my efforts, especially throughout my teaching career…

My most frustrating experiences were the result of observing stubborn or mean-spirited adults who refused to welcome others into the moment at hand as a neighbor would: A teacher who misrepresented a student rather than admit an error; a principal who refused to support a teacher whom she simply didn’t care for; a lunch monitor whose demeanor was less-than-welcoming toward “those” kids; a custodian who took his time when certain teachers called for help. This list exists in one form or another in just about every human institution, I know. How much more we’d accomplish if only we’d welcome one another as Fred Rogers -and Jesus- suggested.

Luke’s gospel tells us that a hungry homeless man, covered with sores, died on a rich man’s doorstep. He might have survived if the rich man had only welcomed him in. Today, God asks us to take notice of those above us, those below us and those who walk at our sides. “Take notice and welcome them all,” God says.

Patient God, I sometimes fail to offer your welcome. Please help me to see everyone around me with your loving eyes and to respond to each one with your loving heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Destination: Heaven!

In spite of the heavy traffic, I smiled as we crept along the tollway. Since my dear husband was driving, I’d been taking in the view along the way. Though there wasn’t much more to see than the other vehicles on the road, I was enjoying myself. I wondered about the drivers who hurried along with us. What was it that urged them along their way? I hoped each one would find what he or she hoped for at the end of the drive. Eventually, a semi cab interrupted this musing. It looked rather odd without its trailer in tow. As I wondered who thought up the ingenious design which allowed that trucker to sleep in his rig, I noticed some very large lettering printed across its back. “Destination: Heaven” it said. I wondered what impelled this man to proclaim his final stop to the rest of us. Were the other drivers who shared the road with us heading toward the same end? As Mike continued to make his way through the dense traffic, I asked myself, “What is that trucker’s idea of heaven? What about those other drivers? What about me?”

Since our first grandchild was born, I’ve said at least a thousand times, “I’m in grandma heaven!” Our grandchildren bring Mike and me great joy. I admit to savoring every minute that I spend with each of them. When I gathered for an afternoon with my sisters not long ago, one remarked, “Mmmm. This is heaven!” Though I’m certain she was pleased with our company, her comment was in response to the bit of Godiva chocolate she’d slipped into her mouth. How she loves chocolate! The other day, a friend remarked that she’d been in cruise heaven because she hadn’t set her alarm clock the entire time she was away. Currently, Cub fans find themselves in and out of baseball heaven as their lovable team edges nearer to and then farther from possible post-season play. After the Bears opening game, I won’t mention the possibility of football heaven unless, of course, you’re a Packer fan! I suppose each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are immersed in one type of heaven or another. Sometimes, the possibility seems completely out of reach and we dismiss it as pure folly. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that, if only this or that circumstance would conform to our wishes, we’d be in the heaven of our choosing.

In today’s gospel (Luke 15:1-32), Luke tells us that Jesus once told the story a young man who defined and then redefined heaven for himself much the way we do. The young man and his brother lived on the family farm with their father. They worked hand in hand with their dad in order to maintain their prosperous land. Apparently, this arrangement wasn’t the young man’s idea of heaven. He failed to find fulfillment in a hard day’s work and in the fruits of the fields around him. Heaven was something quite different to him. He wanted that heaven so badly that he forsook his own father’s life to get it. You see, the young man asked his father for his portion of his inheritance. When he did this, this son wasn’t simply asking for an advance on his allowance or for a small loan. This son was asking his father to behave as though he was dead and to give him what would be his upon his father’s death. Scripture scholars tell us that the young man could neither insult nor hurt his father more deeply than he did by voicing his demand. It was as though this son said to his father, “I can’t wait for you to die. Behave as you’re dead now and give me what is mine!”

Though you or I might have responded to the young man far differently, that father complied with his son’s wishes. That father gave his son the equivalent of what he would have inherited had this father died that day. With no regret, the young man immediately set out to find the heaven which he’d defined for himself. He invested his inheritance in partying. He spent every penny surrounding himself with the right people, especially those who saw things his way and those who brought him pleasure. He ate the best food and drank the finest wine with his store-bought acquaintances. The young man enjoyed it all without lifting a finger except, of course, to open his money bag to keep things the way he liked them. Eventually, the young man’s resources ran out and he was left without food, friends and finances. In the midst of starvation, he offered himself for hire to a landowner who took him on to tend to his pigs. As he stood in the mud surrounded by swine, the young man considered his predicament and how recklessly wasteful he’d been. He’d not only squandered his inheritance, but he’d also discarded the most important relationships in his life. Full of sorrow and regret, this lost son adjusted his perception of heaven. He set out for the place that once was his home. There, he would beg for a job beside the servants. Though he knew even this was too much to ask, the young man hoped against hope that he would find a parcel of heaven in the shadow of his father’s house. When the young man finally made it home, he was overwhelmed by the heaven he found in his loving father’s embrace.

I wish I’d been among the people who listened as Jesus told the prodigal son’s story. I wish I could have looked into Jesus’ eyes as he described the joy of welcoming home a lost child. In those eyes, I might have caught a glimpse of what my truck driver friend so boldly proclaimed for the rest of us to see. You know, “Destination: Heaven” is listed on each of our itineraries. Though heaven may escape us much of the time during this life, in the end, we will not escape heaven. Our Loving God waits with outstretched arms to warmly embrace every child, prodigal or otherwise, who comes home. On that day, we will actually find heaven just as Jesus promised.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Little Acts… Great Love…

Every day we are called to do small things with great love.
Mother Teresa

Sometimes, the smallest kindness changes the world.

It was the first day of school. Two eight-year-olds made their way to the start of the new year. The problem was that Conner, who was anxious to begin the new year just an hour earlier, had lost his nerve and he began to cry. Conner’s autism amplified his fear. Little Christian noticed his schoolmate’s misery. Without delay, he took Conner by the hand. Together, these two new friends made their way into what now would become an amazing first day of school for them both.

Christian’s mom had her phone along when she took her son to school that morning. She likely hoped to capture a photo of him on his first day of second grade. She never suspected that she’d also capture her son offering a measure of kindness powerful enough to change another child’s world. Christian’s small gesture changed my world as well!

Every day, we witness countless acts of love, tiny heroic moments which change lives. Every minute we’re given holds an opportunity to make or to break one another’s spirits and our own. Whenever we choose love over anger, love over impatience, love in spite of our weariness and love in the midst of heartbreak, we do our greatest work. Whenever we take advantage of the tiniest opportunity to do good, we change this world for the better.

Loving God, thank you for making use of everything we do, especially our small, seemingly unimportant efforts. Even these tiny acts make this world a better place.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Lifetime of Second Chances

God created us in God’s image…
God looked at everything God created and found it to be very good.”

From Genesis 1

The treasures I recall from my childhood include our children’s bible. This huge book consisted of cardboard front and back covers which held together several small booklets. A new booklet arrived in the mail every month. Each time, my mom carefully removed the bible’s cardboard cover, inserted the new booklet and then replaced the cover. Afterward, my sisters and I poured over this newest addition where colorful pictures adorned every page. When we were finished, I always returned to the first booklet’s story of Creation, Adam and Eve, the snake and that forbidden tree. Eden looked amazing to me, at least as grand as heaven. “Why,” I often asked myself, “would Adam and Eve turn away from God who gave them so much?”

Life in this troubled world of ours answers that question every day. It’s lucky for us that God never returns the favor when we walk away. God simply watches with great expectations as we feebly do our best to make things right again. God also waits with arms outstretched for our return.

A friend recently shared a story from his childhood which illustrates this point. My friend was about twelve years old when he’d made a mess of a small chore. His ever-patient mom offered him the opportunity to try it again. My friend was so encouraged by his mother’s faith in him that, the second time around, he completed the task perfectly. My friend shared this story to make a point. “You know,” he said, “God gives us all a lifetime of second chances just like my mom!” I couldn’t agree more.

Generous God, thank you for the second and third and twenty-ninth chances which you offer us day in and day out. Give us the wisdom to embrace every opportunity to begin anew.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share That Thread of Faith!

Though this reflection is somewhat personal to my parish family, I hope it reminds all of us to be there for the people on whom we rely most…

When I checked the date for this writing, it occurred to me that today marks the four-week anniversary of Father Chris’s and Father Joe’s arrival here at St. Paul’s. By now, most of us have experienced a homily or two from each of them as well as a few of their jokes. Corny as they were, I admit that I giggled in response to these humorous offerings. I simply couldn’t resist the new guys’ sincere attempts to ease themselves into our parish family. Sharing a few laughs with us was certainly a good way to start! Still, I can’t ignore the road which lies ahead for them and for us. Down that road, Father Chris and Father Joe will share far more than laughter with us. They’ll pray with us and they’ll celebrate with us. They’ll worry with us and keep vigil with us in tough circumstances. They’ll mourn with us and hold us up when we say goodbye to our loved ones. In addition to all of this “spiritual” activity, Father Chris and Father Joe will engage in the practical day-to-day management tasks which add to most administrators’ gray hair. Fortunately for all concerned, through everything we experience together, a common thread will hold us close. That thread is our faith.

For as long as I can remember, that thread of faith has been an important force in my life. If you’ve sewn on an almost-lost button, you understand the strength hidden in a bit of thread. Isn’t it amazing that it takes only a few inches of this lighter-than-air string to repair a holey sock or a falling hem? The same is true of our faith. Though our own faith may seem as flimsy as a bit of unraveling thread, it’s enough to keep us anchored. It holds us close to those who love us and to those God has given us to love. Most importantly, that tiny strand binds us forever to God. Through thick and thin, through illnesses, losses and our too-frequent failures, that thread holds us close to our Loving Maker. More often than we realize, God tightens the stitches which hold us close. God has done this for me more often than I can count through a chance meeting with a friend, a bird who flits at my window in spite of a brewing storm or a scribbled quote from a soul far more faith-filled than I which I’d ignored until the moment at hand. Always, God pulls at that thread which is my faith until I get the message and behave accordingly.

It seems to me that each of us is called to tighten the thread of faith which binds us to one another and to God. Though we often look to those whom we consider to be “religious” or “holy” or “spiritual” to do the job, God tells us all to do this for our fellow humans. It was twenty-one years ago when I visited a priest who’d been a lifelong friend. I’d known Father Bill O’Connell since I was four years old. By age six, I’d earned permission to walk down the block to our parish rectory to visit him. When I arrived, if he didn’t have an appointment, Father took the time to talk with me. This continued through seventh grade when my family moved. Afterward, I called Father at every opportunity. He also called me when he had people or special intentions for me to pray for. During junior year of college, I called Father to offer my services at his parish for a month the following summer. He immediately invited me to teach English to immigrant children who’d begin school that fall. While there, I met a local teacher who invited me on a date, eventually married me and grew up to become Mike-the-Deacon. As for Father, he witnessed our marriage, baptized our first son and remained a friend through it all. When I visited Father that day twenty-one years ago, he was very sick. Though he’d always held onto the full spool of thread which was his faith, Father admitted to me, “Mary, it’s hard to die…”

What was I to say to the one who’d transformed the tiny thread which was my own faith into a mighty coil of rope? If I’d asked Father that question, he would have reminded me in no uncertain terms that I’d done as much to strengthen his faith as he had done to strengthen mine. Wisely, I didn’t give him the opportunity. Rather, I told my priest-friend that he wasn’t allowed to think about dying. I ordered him to think about the living which he’d embrace very soon and so Father did. Still, while Father was the student during our final moments together, the lifetime of lessons he taught filled me up: Faith defies definition. Some of us profess to be of one faith or another. Some of us associate the depth of faith with the heights of theological training. Some regard faith as an improbable concept because nothing in this world seems worthy of our complete trust. Some rely on their faith for everything, including their next breath, just as Father Bill. In the end, Father taught me that faith is the amazing gift which gives us the courage to carry on.

Today’s gospel (Luke 12:32-48) begins with one of the most faith-filled commands Jesus offered: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy…” Faith is so much more than a feeling of hope in God’s care for us. Indeed, faith is the knowledge that God truly loves us. Father Bill needed me to remind him of this when he faced the final struggle of his life. I’ve needed this reminder many times since. Though I’m convinced that Father Chris and Father Joe each possess faith as mighty as a coil of rope as well, there will be times when they need us just as we need them. All God asks is that we do as Jesus did. All God asks is that we strengthen the thread of faith which binds us to God and to one another by being there for another as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s Time!

There is an appointed time for everything
and a time for every affair under the heavens.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

Time management is almost always an issue. If you interact with others in any way, you understand. In my case, even when I set aside a day or a few hours for my own use, I find that a persistent headache or a more persistent worry can derail my plans. This is the reason I’ve cited one of my favorite scripture passages for guidance.

This verse from Ecclesiastes indicates that there is time for everything. Still, throughout my entire life to date, I’ve never had time for everything. In spite of this fact, when it comes to time allotment, we all have important input. At age sixteen, I decided that I would likely not be a “straight A” student because I had to devote time to the part-time job which would fund my college education. Once I came to this realization, I balanced school and work more effectively. In the end, I maintained my grades and entered college with a scholarship and savings enough to keep me there.

Today, because time-allotment is an issue once again, I prioritize my concerns once again. The time my husband and I set aside to spend with our grandchildren is etched in stone -our choice. The book stored in that computer file, my head and my heart, which I’ve promised to finish is also a priority -my choice. Life-at-large always demands a measure of our time regardless of whose choices are involved. In the end, God asks only that we use the time at hand as best we can.

God of Love, be with us through all of this life’s the appointed times.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved