No Greater Love…

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved,
he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”
Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.”

John 19:26-27

When I traveled to Israel, I saw examples of the whips used for scourging. Most men couldn’t tolerate the pain of even ten strikes with such a whip. Jesus endured thirty. I saw vines which resembled the thorny crown which was pressed into Jesus’ scalp. The purple cloak draped over Jesus’ torn flesh added to his misery. When onlookers refused their mercy, Pilate handed over Jesus to be crucified. As I walked the path to Calvary, I wondered how anyone made it there to die. I’ve mentioned those nails before, the ones that soldier pounded through Jesus’ wrists. How did he bear that pain?

In spite of all of this, as he hanged on that cross just minutes from death, Jesus opened his heart to those who kept vigil. He opened his heart to us as well. Jesus seemed to think that we all needed to be cared for far more than he did. So it was that Jesus called his mother and his friend to treat one another as family from that day forward. Jesus calls you and me to do the same.

I have no doubt that Jesus would have endured all of this for any one of us. As he hanged dying, Jesus spent himself to find every lost sheep; Jesus extended mercy to all of God’s prodigal children; Jesus offered the ultimate price for the rare pearl. Though the jealousy and fear of some had driven them to see to Jesus’ death, the faith and good will of many others urged him on. When Jesus endured crucifixion, he began to write the rest of the story which he’d tell on Easter morning.

Loving God, there is no greater gift than the love you revealed through Jesus. Thank you.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Those Nails

There they crucified him…
From John 19:18

The Eleventh Station: Jesus Is Nailed to The Cross

I’ve never gotten over the nails. When I visited Israel, our guide showed us examples of nails from the era which were likely similar to those used on Jesus. Accounts which describe ancient crucifixion reference the use of nails or ropes or both. The intent was to lengthen as much as possible the duration of the victim’s suffering. I cannot help shuddering at the thought of one human being driving a nail into the wrist or the foot of another. How could we have evolved -or regressed- to this level of cruelty? Perhaps I cannot get over the nails because they were used on the one person whose entire life among us spoke of love, acceptance, forgiveness and mercy…

The scriptures tell us that Jesus used his time on that cross to continue to care for those he was given to love. One of the men crucified beside Jesus recognized him. For reasons only he knew, the man asked Jesus to remember him when he entered into his kingdom. Jesus responded by promising him that he would have a place in Paradise before the end of that fateful day. Jesus also spoke to his mother and his friend John. He gave them to one another to be family to each other after he was gone. Finally, Jesus forgave those who drove the nails into his body. He knew that they had no idea of what they were actually doing.

Though I will never get over those nails, I will also never get over the realization that I am loved. There is nothing that I or any of us can do which will stop God from loving us.

Loving God, help us to stop crucifying one another. Be with us as we replace every nail in our arsenals with an act of love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

See With God’s Eyes

Throughout my life, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the array of sources which reveal God to me. The people I’ve been given to love top that list. My earliest memories include my parents’ heroic efforts. They were constant reminders of our God who I was assured loved me even more than they did. The affection of my family and friends helped me to see God even more clearly. I came closest to understanding God’s love for me the day I was told my dear husband and I were going to have a baby. Though I knew nothing of the little one who would change our lives forever, I loved him more than anything. This phenomenon recurred after we were told we’d never have another child and yet we did. Once again, unconditional love took root and I came to know God more intimately. As my writing often indicates, I’ve seen God in the wonder of creation. I’ve also discovered God in words both written and sung and in wordless musical compositions. Oddly, I’ve even found God in the dialogue between characters in a sitcom rerun. Did the screenplay writer know what I would find in those words decades later? In the end, I’ve found the most compelling evidence of God’s love for us in the words and works of Jesus.

During Lent, we share some of our richest scripture passages. Their writers skillfully wove together threads of temptation and triumph, suffering and healing, sin and forgiveness. The fabric which resulted offers an image of Jesus who brought peace, hope, acceptance and love to God’s people. Last week, we recalled Jesus’ encounter with the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. Jesus didn’t need the water he requested of her. It was the woman who thirsted for far more thirst-quenching waters. As always, Jesus responded by quenching the thirst he saw within the depths of that woman’s heart. Jesus revived her spirit that she might truly live anew. Today, we turn to Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind. Since birth, this man’s very existence had been tied to sin. In the eyes of the people, the man’s parents must have sinned terribly. To the people, it was their transgressions which prompted God to impose blindness upon their son. In the eyes of the people, this fruit of sinful parents was of little worth. It is no wonder that those who saw the man after his cure failed to recognize him. They’d passed him on the road often, but had never taken the time to look upon his face. It seems to me that they were the blind ones. They were blind to God’s presence within themselves and within one another. They were blind to God’s presence within the man who was born blind. It was Jesus whose vision was intact. Jesus saw every trial and tribulation which devastated the people and which ravaged their spirits almost beyond repair. What draws me to Jesus is his generous response to his contemporaries and to you and me.

I don’t think haphazard thoughts or my vivid imagination allow me to see God in the world around me. It is Jesus who inspires me to see God in everything. More importantly, it is Jesus who inspires me to see God in those I meet along the way. Jesus saw with God’s eyes and he taught his contemporaries just as he teaches us to do the same. When we look with God’s eyes, we see the pain of our coworkers and our neighbors, our friends and our own family members. We see unrest on the other side of the world as well as in our own backyards. Trauma in all of its forms tears at our spirits with marked precision. It also blurs our vision. Even when we attempt to proceed with the clearest of vision, it is sometimes very difficult to find God in the difficulties at hand.

Please don’t let my assessment of things-gone-awry discourage you. Scripture scholars and historians tell us that life was no better in Jesus’ day. Still, Jesus persisted in seeing the people and the situations around him with God’s eyes. Remember, Jesus came into this world as a helpless child, just as each of us does. Jesus grew up in a family much like our own with parents who rarely understood what he was up to. As an adult, Jesus stood out from the crowds around him because he saw things differently. Though many came to appreciate Jesus’ ability to see them with God’s eyes, others responded with contempt. While Jesus rolled up his sleeves to do everything he could to make the lives of those around him what they were meant to be, his adversaries rolled up their sleeves and planned his demise. Jesus’ circumstances were no better than our own, yet he persisted in seeing them with God’s hopeful and loving eyes.

As I consider the new vision the man born blind experienced at Jesus’ hands, I can’t help feeling gratitude for the same gift in my life. After all, it is when I step back to see things with God’s eyes that I find hope. So it is that I hope that I never stop seeing God in everything around me and I wish the same for each one of us. Jesus continues his work through me and through of all us and it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and to make it so.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We’re All In The Same Boat!

Two Sundays ago, I rose early and headed off to church. I hoped to offer a “welcome home” to friends from St. Paul’s who’d returned from Israel a few days earlier. Though I was unable to physically join them on this trip, I traveled with them in spirit. The tour director and fellow tourists had shared this adventure via photo and video posts on Facebook. They’d allowed me to be with them, at least virtually, every step of the way. Though these images indicated that all concerned had enjoyed an amazing trip, I wanted to confirm this for myself. As it happened, the smiles and comments of the six friends I met that morning indicated that they’d experienced the same once-in-a-lifetime adventure I’d enjoyed in Israel. When I returned home, I pulled out the albums which chronicle our trips there. Within minutes, that unexpected sense of peace which greeted me in the Holy Land returned…

For reasons unknown to me, the time I spent in Israel felt very much like a family reunion. Several years earlier, Mike and I had traveled to Croatia to meet his cousins there. Two years ago, we flew to Quebec to meet my dad’s family. Last summer, we traveled to Sicily to visit Mike’s grandparents’ hometown. Each of these encounters left us with a heartwarming sense of belonging. I’d experienced precisely the same in Israel. When I pondered this phenomenon, it occurred to me that going to the Holy Land was a family reunion as well. My own story began there long ago when the one whom they called “Teacher” laid the foundation for everything of importance to me. Jesus revealed the essence of God’s love and our capacity to love one another. I wouldn’t be the person, child, sibling, wife, mom, aunt, grandma and friend I am today if I hadn’t taken these lessons to heart. Though our family trees may not indicate that we share our genealogy, Jesus and I are family just the same. Every encounter with Jesus’ history in the Holy Land proved to be an encounter with my own history as well. When I revisited our photos of The Jesus Boat, I understood why I take today’s passage from Luke’s gospel (Luke 5:1-11) to heart.

We read a great deal about fishermen and boats in the gospels. Though some of his followers abandoned their fishing businesses to follow Jesus, he went back to their boats often to get from place to place, to preach and to rest. Though no one can say with any certainty that Jesus set foot on The Jesus Boat, this vessel is definitely a relic from Jesus’ day. Because it was discovered just north of Magdala and just south of Tabgha, Jesus may have looked upon this boat as he lingered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The boat is displayed in a museum in Kibbutz Ginosar. There I learned of Moshe and Yuval Lufan, brothers and fellow fishermen like Peter and Andrew. They discovered the ancient boat buried in mud near the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I was struck by the excitement of these two who couldn’t hide their amazement over this discovery. Their treasure shook both the archaeological world and the spiritual world to their cores. No one had ever before unearthed such an old vessel in such complete condition. This bit of Jesus’ history is particularly special to me because it gives life to Luke’s telling of Jesus’ adventure with Peter and Andrew, James and John.

As Luke tells it, Jesus had been preaching among a crowd near the Lake of Gennesaret (also called The Sea of Galilee) when he saw Simon washing his nets. Jesus boarded Simon’s boat and asked the fisherman to pull his boat into the water just a short distance from the shore. Simon must have been taken with Jesus because he obliged immediately. After preaching from Simon’s boat for some time, Jesus asked his unsuspecting friend to sail into the deep water and to cast his nets once again. Practical man that he was, Simon pointed out that he’d worked all night in the same area and had caught nothing. Still, Simon did as Jesus asked. Almost immediately, the poor man’s nets became so full that they threatened to tear. Simon’s fellow fishermen came to the rescue as his boat might have sunk under the weight of those fish. Having seen The Jesus Boat first hand, I understand Simon’s fear! Still, small as that boat was, Luke tells us that Simon seemed to fear something else far more than his sinking boat. Witnessing this miracle filled him with absolute awe and trepidation. Simon seemed to wonder, “Who am I to be in the company of this Jesus who can work such wonders?” Indeed, Simon followed this thought with a command to Jesus: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Jesus’ response to the fearful Simon is the reason I take Luke’s account to heart. Though Simon doubted what part he could possibly play in Jesus’ plan, Jesus remained steadfast in his confidence in Simon. Though one day Jesus would rename his humble friend Peter, it was the essence of the old Simon which compelled Jesus to ask him to follow him and to work at his side. Whenever I doubt myself, I must open my ears as Simon did to God’s call. Incapable and unworthy as I may seem to me, I must never doubt my place in God’s world and God’s plan. Nor should you!
©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Ready To Listen…

I breathe a sigh of relief as I recall Holy Week and Easter. Paschal preparations kept many of us here at St. Paul’s extremely busy. Hopefully, the collective efforts of all concerned filled those who prayed with us throughout those holy days with heartfelt inspiration. I’m happy to report that it wasn’t until the week after Easter that my fatigue caught up with me. Though I’d hoped for a day or two to relax, the realities of life dictated otherwise. I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and to address the tasks at hand. In the midst of my efforts, I realized that I had a good deal of writing to attend to as well. I needed two editions of these longer Sunday reflections as a result of my Easter weekend hiatus. I also needed another week of daily reflections to post here.

I admit that I panicked as I grasped for ideas. I’d referenced the last of my notes from our trip to the Holy Land and had to turn to life-after-Israel for inspiration. So it was that, while picking up the house and starting the laundry, I considered the aftermath of the first Easter. After all, the disciples had returned to the realities of life-after-Jesus. Though stray strands of Easter grass, spots on the kitchen floor and the clothes dryer’s buzz attempted to distract me, I quickly found myself in the disciples’ mindset. By noon, I set aside my chores and sat at my computer to write.

Sometimes, the tasks at hand overwhelm us so completely that we miss the joy that lingers within our reach. Much to my good fortune, Jesus’ nudged his way into my thoughts. Just as Jesus responded to the disciples with perfectly timed appearances after his death, he continues to gift each one of us with his gracious and loving presence. Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:35-48) points out how amazingly nearby Jesus always is.

The story begins with two disciples who were recounting to the others what happened to them on their way home from Jerusalem. Distraught over Jesus’ crucifixion, the duo walked home to Emmaus together. After all, there was no reason to remain in the Holy City. All seemed to be lost for the not-so-faithful band who had followed The Teacher. As they commiserated along the way, the two friends met a stranger who asked many questions about what had happened during Passover. The two disciples were amazed that there was anyone in the vicinity who didn’t know what had become of Jesus. They recounted the prior week’s events as best they could, but this stranger pressed on. Finally, this man took the lead and began to cite scripture passages for them. He explained that the events which led to Jesus’ demise fulfilled the prophets’ predictions from generations past. Intrigued, the disciples begged the stranger to remain with them through the night so they could continue their exchange the following day. The man agreed to have supper with them. As they ate, the stranger took bread and broke it, finally revealing himself as Jesus. Luke’s passage begins with the two back in Jerusalem. They’d returned to their friends to share the good news of their encounter with the Lord. Much to their surprise, Jesus appeared in their midst before they’d finished their story. Jesus greeted them with the now-familiar words: “Peace be with you!”

I think it was no accident that this duo traveled together to Emmaus. After all, there is nothing more consoling than to share hard times with a friend who understands. It also seemed only natural for these two to share their good news with the others as well. This is the reason they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell Peter and the rest about their encounter with Jesus. I can’t help recalling the numerous times someone’s presence has helped me through an illness, a loss or an insurmountable mound of worry. Their intentional offers of kindness made all of the difference in the world to me. Jesus’ subsequent appearances were also intentional. Life was difficult for Jesus’ friends after his crucifixion. They needed one another and they needed Jesus more than ever. Still, Jesus ignored the obvious and asked, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see…” Though that should have been quite enough to reassure his friends, Jesus went on to share a meal with them. As they ate together and listened further, Jesus opened them up to many things which they would never have understood on their own. Being in Jesus’ company was all that they needed.

Like the disciples, whether our worries are great or small, we sometimes succumb to despair. Whatever our troubles, they too often push us beyond our capacity to cope. This is when we must open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to the one with whom we share the path. Even when we don’t understand the sorrows which plague us, we must open ourselves to this Jesus who invites us to look and to see that it is he. Just as Jesus sat and listened and consoled his friends after the first Easter, Jesus sits ready to listen to each one of us today and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

All God’s Flowers

In their panic and fright
they thought they were seeing a ghost.

Luke 24:37

While decorating our church for Easter, my husband realized he’d forgetting to buy flowers for our Easter table. As soon as he left church, he went off to purchase those forgotten flowers. He returned home with what he thought was a disappointing handful of yellow tulips. Because he loves plants of every sort, Mike lovingly nestled the small bouquet into a little glass vase. I found them to be just right for our small family gathering though I wondered why Mike thought they were yellow tulips. To me, they looked sweetly and delicately white. By Easter Sunday morning, those delicate buds had blossomed beautifully. In spite of their lack of color (They were white!), they filled that vase and gave unexpected life to our Easter table.

Though my reflections regarding our trip to Israel are coming to a close, the impact of that wonderful experience remains with me. Just as those precious tulips graced our home for a full week, God has graced me through my experience in Israel and through every moment with which I’m blessed.

You and I are much like my husband’s tulips in God’s eyes. God sees us just as we are -yellow, white, brown, black or red. The color of our skin or of our mood is part of what God loves about us. Just as my husband chose that seemingly unwanted bouquet to bring a bit of Easter joy into our home, God singles out you and me to enhance life on this earth, especially the lives of those God has given us to love.

Dear God, thank you for the many surprising ways you remind me that I am loved. Help me to love all of your children as you do.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved