Celebrate the Present? Yes!

It was a tough morning. I woke with a heavy heart. Just as we were all looking forward to easing out of our stay-in-place regimen, our ailing world was turned upside-down once again. One man’s brutal overreaction to an alleged misdeed robbed another man of his life. This time, that overreaction reached to our collective core. Once again, our lives were placed on lock-down. This time, rather than battling a virus, we battled injustice in an effort to find justice for all concerned. Once again, we found ourselves deeply troubled. Yes, it was a tough morning and my heart ached. As I crawled out of bed, I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all.”

As I considered how next to address the Lord God, I grabbed one of the sources I frequently turn to for inspiration. YOU ARE THE BELOVED* is a book of daily reflections drawn from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen, a favorite author of mine. Because his words always touch me deeply, I opened that book to the day’s date in search of something I could hold onto. I read the title of that morning’s offering aloud: Celebrate in the Present. I quickly responded to myself, “Are you kidding me? The last thing I want to do today is celebrate!” With that, I almost closed the book without reading another word. I write almost because something –okay, Someone– encouraged me to take a second look. I’m most grateful that I did. Thank you, God!

Henri Nouwen’s words that day addressed the core of my dilemma that morning and of all of our heartache these days. When he asked that we celebrate in the present, Nouwen added that it is impossible to celebrate any given moment or event if we don’t fully embrace everything which that moment entails. He wrote that we can’t celebrate Christmas if nothing new is born out of Jesus’ birth. We can’t celebrate Easter if we don’t embrace the promise of new life that comes with it. We can’t celebrate Pentecost if God’s Spirit doesn’t continue to be alive and well among us. When he said to celebrate the present, Nouwen meant that we must be a living part of that present and we must deal with whatever challenges that present sets before us.

Though that passage from Henri Nouwen ended there, I had to consider what he might have written about today’s feast of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. As I wondered, I shook my head with sadness. Those of us with pre-Vatican II roots recall that we once referred to this feast as Corpus Christi. We celebrated by honoring the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Vatican II and many of our spiritual leaders since have reminded us that Jesus also challenged us to become his body and blood for one another, his most holy body and blood to be precise. I admit that I looked upward from my keyboard after writing that and said aloud, “I know. We’re not acting most holy these days.” Regardless of the externals that separate us -our politics, our tendencies to the left or to the right, our likes or dislikes, our upbringing, our social status, our sinfulness or our holiness, even the colors of our skin, we are called to be the body and blood of Jesus together and for one another.

I take my inspiration from Henri Nouwen and one other who inspires me even more so. The scriptures tell us that Jesus habitually shared himself with his contemporaries who were as diverse as we are. At his last supper with them, Jesus washed the feet of twelve very different, but beloved friends, even the friend who denied him and the friend who betrayed him. Jesus refused to distinguish between saints and sinners, women and men, slaves and free persons, Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor. Even prostitutes and tax collectors received his friendship. In each face, Jesus saw God’s handiwork. Jesus spent every ounce of his own body and blood caring for every one whom he met along the way with the hope of inspiring us to do the same. Ever since, Jesus has invited us over and over again to become his body and blood by caring for one another with the same unconditional love.

I woke with a headache and a heartache that morning with good reason. When I whispered, “Please, God, help me. Help us all,” I didn’t expect an immediate answer. Yet, it came. After I closed Nouwen’s book, I took a deep breath, looked upward and sighed. I couldn’t help smiling as I announced to my ever-patient God, “Yes, I’ll celebrate the present. I’ll embrace this heartbreaking, frustrating and frightening time. I’ll spend my body, my blood and my heart in service of those you give me to love.” So it is that I will celebrate the gift of Jesus’ body and blood by becoming Jesus’ body and blood and caring for my fellow humans as he did. I’ll begin by facing the injustice that plagues us today and doing something about it.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2017), You Are The Beloved, p. 72. Convergent Books, Penguin Random House LLC.

Come, Find Me…

Let whoever is simple turn in here…
Come eat of my food and
drink of the wine I have made.

From Proverbs 9:4-5

Three days before we left for Israel, I surprised myself with my packed suitcase and my unexpected calm. Before flying anywhere, I normally fret for days regarding what to bring and how to keep my bag under 50 pounds. This time, I managed to stow everything I needed in a 32-pound mid-size bag. A day later, my husband had done the same. The morning of our departure, we were ready long before our friend arrived to drive us to the airport. All was well.

As we drove along, I enjoyed the view while absentmindedly listening to the news. When the report turned to continuing unrest in the Middle East, my thoughts turned to those earlier trips to Israel. Both times, security in and out was very tight. Yet, both times, I also felt welcomed in this country which is surrounded by its enemies. Though I’d heard that Israel’s own people were often at odds with one another, I’d found that unexpected friendships had been forged among them. As we drove on, I felt an unexplained calm as I looked forward to the next eight days…

In the terminal, my husband and I checked in with our tour leader. Nancy thanked us for joining the group and she made us feel as though our presence made all of the difference in the world to her. When the sunshine pouring into the terminal rested its warm hand on me, I realized that our presence always makes a difference. Wherever I found myself for the next eight days, it was up to me to determine what that difference would be.

Dear God, you infuse every moment you give us with opportunities to find you in one another. Help me to make the most of each of these encounters.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

U… Unity

If a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.

Mark 3:25

U is for Unity. I’ve just returned from a dear friend’s wake. My friend’s family and circle of friends is large and I joined numerous others in offering my support. The many photos displayed indicated that the people she loved and loves are as varied as our human family can be. As I waited to offer my condolences to her husband and sons, I watched their interactions with those ahead of me. Tears flowed freely and smiles were exchanged generously as they consoled those who’d come to support them. It occurred to me as I watched that none of us is perfect. Yet, when it mattered most, this heartbroken family offered their best to every person who came to mourn with them. U is for Unity and this evening we were one in our sorrow.

It seems to me that this should be true wherever we find ourselves. Regardless of the circumstances, we need to see one another as God’s child. We need to love one another as we love ourselves. We need to open our eyes, our minds and our hearts to better understand perspectives which sometimes differ from our own. We need to set aside non-essential details and focus upon the most essential needs of all of our human family and of this world. U is for Unity and this should be especially true of God’s family.

As I imagine my friend enjoying her new home in heaven, I hear her saying, “That’s right, Mary! Now you get it! God has breathed life into billions of children and God loves each one us. God’s only request is that we learn to get along.” My heaven-born friend built community wherever she was quite masterfully. Today, I’m going to try to do the same. Yes, U is for Unity, and I need to do my part to make this a reality when it comes to loving my fellow humans.

Dear God, you love each one of us. Help us to love each other as you do.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Personal Best

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God.
Luke 13:29

As the 2019 Chicago Marathon approaches, I recall our older son’s effort a few years ago. I enjoy walking, but I admit that I’m no athlete. Though my husband maintains a very respectable workout schedule, he doesn’t consider himself to be an athlete. Still, our older son managed to acquire the very best of our gene pool in this regard. Mike has enjoyed participating in sports since his t-ball days. Running became a serious pursuit for him in adulthood. He completed the 2013 Chicago Marathon within a very respectable time-frame. When he ran his second marathon, his only goal was to exceed his personal best and he did.

This reminiscing urged me outdoors for a trek of my own. As I considered what my son accomplished, I pushed myself to walk a bit more briskly and a bit farther. Once I established my pace, I attended to the beauty around me, my constant companion during these jaunts. The sky boasted an amazingly deep blue and the trees showed off their emerging fall colors. The spraying fountain which I pass near our village hall sparkled in the sunshine like an array of diamonds. “Thank you, for all of this!” I prayed.

My son and I embark upon very different journeys when we exercise. Mike attends to what his body tells him, while I attend to the things outside of me. We each do what we must to accomplish our goals and we both feel very good in the end.

Unique demands accompany each of our journeys through this life. God asks only that we deal with these things as we can as best we can and as only we can. This is all that is required.

Gracious God, our personal best -even when it isn’t very good- is all that you ask. Thank you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

There’s Room For Us All!

Brothers and sisters:
You are no longer strangers and sojourners,
but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God…

Ephesians 2:19

Life was tough for the contemporaries of Jesus. The Jewish people endured Roman rule which had little appreciation for the plight of the poor. The people also suffered under the temple hierarchy who valued The Law more than the people for whom The Law had been written. Jesus himself endured the Pharisees’ criticism because they couldn’t see past their own infatuation with rules, regulations and control. It was Jesus’ failure to adhere to ritual cleanliness and his association with outcasts which infuriated these adversaries most.

The good news is that Jesus ignored the criticism and made room for whoever desired his company. He associated with tax collectors and sinners of every sort. He touched lepers and those who were blind. He even saved a woman caught in adultery. He would have done the same for the man involved had he been threatened with stoning as well.

Though you and I aren’t always ostracized quite as dramatically as these, we suffer our own varieties of exclusion, loneliness and despair just the same. The good news for us is that God responds in like manner to you and me. When the rest of the world pushes us away, God embraces us. When no one lifts a finger to help, God lays hands upon us and heals us. When we open ourselves to God’s embrace, our circumstances may not change, but we will.

Gracious God, you are the host who makes room at your table for us all. Thank you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Open Door

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs
under the table eat the family’s leavings.”

Mark 7:24

I grew up in an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Since only the tiniest drop of either bloodline flows through me, I had no preference for either group. The truth is that I envied them both, especially on St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Days when my Irish and Italian friends celebrated their heritage with great flourish. For the most part, I am French Canadian and there was no designated day for me to do the same. Though my family celebrated rich traditions which are the direct result of my ethnicity, as a child, I longed for a more colorful and universal display. Later, new neighbors of African American dissent moved nearby and we became fast friends. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in my envy of those whose ethnicity was celebrated.

This childhood disappointment evolved into a lifetime of effort to honor the plethora of ethnic differences which make our human family the treasure it is. That disappointment also fueled my effort to work around the numerous other differences which often separate us. Perhaps it was providential that I spent my career working with children. My classroom provided the perfect forum in which to honor both our personal uniqueness and our common qualities. Though I left my classroom behind long ago, I find that the lessons I learned there regarding God’s “Open Door Policy” are more important than ever these days.

Welcoming God, it seems that wherever we are we manage to separate ourselves into differing factions. Help me and all of my sisters and brothers to welcome one another into the moments of our lives just as you welcome us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved