God Is With Us… ALWAYS!

Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days, I’ve been on a bit of a roll. Last week, I shared that leisurely mornings have allowed me to organize my thoughts and my heart each day with our benevolent Creator in mind. Almost every day, my husband-the-deacon and I have also made time for a walk outdoors. Even on the cloudiest bad-news days, I’ve managed to find reason to appreciate God’s goodness in it all. I began this paragraph by saying, “Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days…” because the other day was quite different. For perhaps obvious reasons, I vacillated between anger and despair over the suffering and loss caused by our bout with COVID-19 and our inability to work together as one people to fight it. In an effort not to give in to these feelings, I gave Mike a peck on his cheek, grabbed my hoodie and headed outdoors. I fully intended to clear my head and my heart in the process.

That day, the temperature struggled to reach fifty degrees in spite of the sunshine. I stuffed my hands into my pockets as I made my way down our cul-de-sac. I went on toward village hall and into the subdivision to the north. As I walked along the winding streets, a chilling breeze blew open my jacket. I zipped up and pulled my hood over my head. I looked toward the cloudless sky and declared, “Not funny!” Afterward, I picked up my pace just enough to create my own heat as I continued on my way. Eventually, I warmed up and inadvertently began to do what I most often do during my walks. I lost myself in Nature. I looked at the branches of every tree I passed to check on its leaves. Not many months ago, green leaves turned yellow and brown and then fell to the ground to be trampled or blown away. This cycle has continued in the buds and young leaves which now burst forth from charcoal branches overhead. Though the wind continued its brisk assault, I no longer minded.

As I walked on, I looked skyward again. This time, I whispered an apology. I acknowledged that the cold breeze which pushed me along earlier had accomplished much more. Though that breeze gave me a chill, it also gave me the peace and comfort which I’d longed for. I’d fretted so about that virus’s attack on life as we once knew it that I’d forgotten the Source of that life. I’d worried so about our inability to work together in dealing with all of this that I’d forgotten all of the good people who have and continue to do just that. It finally occurred to me that perhaps God has something far more valuable for me to experience during this pandemic than anger and despair. God didn’t cause that virus which wreaks havoc on our lives. However, God did create us with the ability to respond to it. It is God’s faith in us and love for us which breathes life into our efforts. With that, I looked up once again. That time, I said, “Thank you, dear God, for remaining with me and with all of us. Just help us to take notice of your presence more often!” Before I could add an “amen” to my prayer, the wind blew my hood off of my head and pressed my sleeves against my arms. I took that as God’s assurance that I never walk alone. None of us do.

I share all of this as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday with good reason. This is the last day of Easter Season 2020 and what an unusual season this has been! Our lives changed drastically in mid-March when staying-in-place became the norm. Without warning, we lost access to life as we once knew it. The same was true for Jesus’ friends two thousand years ago. The poor disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus and, as their final trip to Jerusalem drew closer, they were in a far worse frame of mind than I was when I set out for my walk the other day. While I had lost my focus for a bit, the disciples were on the verge of losing Jesus. Though we can see light at the end of the tunnel today, Jesus’ followers could not. They watched him taken prisoner, deserted him when he needed them most and then watched him die on that cross from afar. What worse could have happened?

John’s gospel offers a different Pentecost account than the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three speak of Jesus’ resurrection, subsequent appearances and his ascension into heaven. It was after Jesus’ ascension that the Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire and spurred them into action. Today’s gospel from John (20:19-23) ushers us back to the first Easter. It was on that day, when the disciples heard of the empty tomb, yet still hid in absolute fear, that Jesus appeared. It was on that evening, when the circumstances of Jesus suffering and death were fresh in their minds, that Jesus appeared. The first words Jesus spoke were, “Peace be with you!” Like that quiet presence which walked with me the other day, Jesus slipped into that room to walk with his friends through their grief and fear. Jesus added, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” With those words, Jesus promised his friends that they would never ever be alone.

You know, God’s presence isn’t always tangible. Though God used that breezy day to renew my peace, I still sometimes walk in the fearful disciples’ sandals just as we all do. It is during times such as these that we must let go of our worry and embrace Jesus’ Pentecost promise: God’s Spirit is with us when we need God most, now as our new normal unfolds, and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always With Us!

“Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked
to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?”

From Luke 24:32

Because my husband diligently chronicled our trip to Israel with wonderful photographs, we purchased two albums for his handiwork. We realize that in this the digital age we can enjoy our memories in full color on our laptop. Still, having them in hand where we can linger over each one is a luxury we’re not ready to give up. We keep our photo albums on display in our family room. This prompts visitors and us to enjoy them often.

While looking through those albums one stay-at-home day, I came across photos of the church and monastery we visited in Emmaus. I also revisited Luke’s gospel which tells us about Cleopas and his companion who had just left Jerusalem and traveled along a road to Emmaus. It wasn’t long after Jesus’ death and they were discussing all that had happened during those dark days. As they walked, they encountered a stranger. Though everyone they’d met in Jerusalem was affected in some way by Jesus’ death, this man seemed to know nothing of it. After explaining along the way, this man offered his sense of those events. When trio eventually stopped to eat together, this stranger broke bread just as the disciples said Jesus had done. Cleopas and his friend immediately realized who this stranger was. Jesus had been with them all the while!

Throughout what remains of this COVID-19 era and for a long time afterward, we will have ample opportunity to discuss all that is and has occurred. Between those conversations, we’ll do our best to keep ourselves and our loved ones safely at home. Hopefully, we’ll also find the time to pray. It seems to me that every time we take the time to talk to God, we become more certain, like Cleopas and his friend, that God is with us all the while!

Loving God, help us never to forget that you are with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy Week… Monday

And when he entered Jerusalem
the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”

Matthew 21:10

While in Israel, our arrival in Jerusalem startled me a bit. This first stop on our tour was at least as frenetic as downtown Chicago on Black Friday. Though all of the places on our itinerary were well-populated, the crowds in Jerusalem rushed in every direction for as far as I could see. It occurred to me that Jesus’ contemporaries felt the same every year as Passover approached. Devout Jewish people filled the holy city to observe this solemn feast. It was Friday when we toured Jerusalem. Sabbath would begin at sunset which prompted the frenzy in the markets. Everyone rushed to complete their errands before the shops closed a few hours later.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that Sunday so long ago, I imagine he was anxious as well. It wasn’t the shopping which concerned Jesus that day. It was we who were on his mind. He had worked tirelessly to reveal God’s loving and compassionate ways. Still, many remained who didn’t understand. Sadly, I don’t always behave as though I understand. As I looked into those crowds in Jerusalem that day, I wondered if they appreciated the thinking behind their Sabbath preparations. When I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window, I wondered if I appreciated the thinking behind what Jesus had done for me.

It seems to me that it’s more important than ever to focus upon all that God has done for us. The gifts of this earth, of one another and our very lives seem more precious than ever. After tending to our loved ones with whom we’re sharing close quarters these days, we might turn our eyes upward and tend to that Ever-present Loved One who remains with us through it all.

Dear God, thank you for loving me through today’s troubles and through whatever lies ahead. I love you, too.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always In Good Company

“My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.”
John 13:33

While in Israel, I overheard two travelers from another group consoling one another over a friend who was unable to join them for their trip. The person who couldn’t travel with them had been ill and didn’t recover as quickly as they’d hoped. Because these three considered this trip to Israel to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, this turn of events anguished them all. The two who had made it consoled one another with their promise to pray at every holy place they visited for the person they’d unwillingly left behind. Their tone indicated that this illness might be their friend’s last.

As Holy Week approaches, I imagine conversations regarding Jesus’ situation among his friends. I suppose none of them were anxious to return to Jerusalem with so much uncertainty regarding Jesus’ work. Where would Jesus’ teaching take him? Where would it take them? Was Judas already expressing concern regarding all of this? Were the others happy to follow their teacher or were they struggling with worry as well?

Those fellow travelers found consolation in praying for their sick friend. She would be with them in spirit as they expressed their concern for her to God. The poor disciples weren’t as adept at prayer as those travelers who had to leave their friend behind. Though they had Jesus in their midst, they weren’t certain of what to make of his presence in their lives. Though they’d witnessed so much, they’re weren’t privy to The Big Picture.

These days, I find myself in the shoes of the uncertain disciples. Like them, I sometimes wonder what will come next. It is then that I focus on The Big Picture. It is then that I remind myself that God is with us all regardless of where this journey with COVID-19 takes us next.

Loving God, help me to be patient with others and with myself as we puzzle over all of this. Help us to remember that you are with us though it all.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Alive Again!

I hope this reference to our visit to the Holy Land eases each of us away from our current worries for a little while…

When we sailed on the Sea of Galilee, I couldn’t help smiling. I knew this adventure would be a high point of this trip. It was more than unlikely that we had followed the precise route Jesus had taken with his fishermen disciples when they sailed this sea. Still, the water beneath me, the sky above me and the hills in the distance were all part of the view Jesus enjoyed every time he ventured out onto Peter’s or another friend’s boat. Archaeologists tell us that the Israeli sailors who hosted us likely resemble Jesus and his contemporaries. Though their contemporary clothing suggested otherwise, their love for that boat, the water beneath them and the priceless view all around them ushered me back to Jesus’ day.

On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we retell the story of Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus. Though Lazarus succumbed to serious illness and seemed lost to all who loved him, the scriptures tell us that Jesus changed everything for all concerned when he raised Lazarus from the dead. As I consider what Jesus did for Lazarus that day, I cannot miss the similarity between this event and what occurred with another of Jesus’ friends these two thousand years later. Though this would be my third voyage with Daniel Carmel, I knew I would never tire of sharing the story of how his newfound life with Jesus came about.

Daniel was born to a young unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman who gave him up for adoption. The secular Jewish family who made him their own had no faith to share with Daniel. However, they did have a lot of love and a happy home to share with their new son. Daniel and his family lived in the port city of Haifa. This proximity to water inspired Daniel’s love for the sea and his desire to become a boat captain one day. Daniel’s family also nurtured his love for music. They gifted him with a set of drums early on. Though Daniel enjoyed a nurturing upbringing, he endured a personal crisis while in his twenties. This death of sorts urged Daniel onto a quest deep within himself. Because his family hadn’t kept his adoption secret, Daniel continued his internal exploration by finding his birth family. Daniel found not only his mother, but also four siblings. With the hope of building relationships with them, Daniel relocated nearby. He stayed in a Kibbutz and found a job on a tour boat.

When I first heard this, I recalled our tour guide’s experience growing up in a Kibbutz. There was no talk of God there. I assumed Daniel’s newfound family were Orthodox Jews as his birth mother had been, so there would be no talk of Jesus with them. Offering tours of “holy” places is big business and certainly not a religious experience for local Jewish and Palestinian businessmen. I puzzled over what it was that prompted Daniel to take that extreme step toward Jesus. Amazingly enough, Daniel discovered Jesus’ tangible presence on the Sea of Galilee just as I had. For five years, he listened to his passengers talk about their belief in Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew) as they sailed. All the while, Daniel absorbed the prayers, the music and the scripture passages they shared. Every day, Daniel pondered all that he saw and heard. In the end, Daniel couldn’t help being moved. Something within Daniel came to life the day he realized that he also believed in Yeshua. Indeed, Yeshua had become Daniel’s most precious and life-giving treasure.

Daniel shares this treasure through his testimony and his music during boat tours and concerts in churches. Daniel sings the hymns which first inspired him. He has translated them into Hebrew for other Messianic Jewish believers to enjoy. Jesus’ passion for sharing God’s love is very much alive in Daniel. He expresses that passion in all he says and does in spite of being ostracized by many of his fellow Jews, secular and religious, who resent his belief in Jesus. As for me, Daniel’s music eases me into Jesus’ company every time I hear it.

It seems that Jesus has done for Daniel what he did for Lazarus so long ago. John’s gospel (John 11:1-45) tells us that, when Lazarus died, Jesus went to Lazarus’ sisters to comfort them. Martha and Mary responded by insisting that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been with him. How many times I’ve looked upward and declared the same, “If you were here, things would be different!” Daniel Carmel insists that Jesus is with us, that his miracle was repeated in him and that it is repeated in you and me every time we survive one of the major and minor tragedies of this life. The best part of all of this is that we can imitate Jesus’ miracle in our own efforts to renew the lives of those we’ve been given to love. Today, this seems to be more important than ever!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

That Special Boat

He called them, and immediately they
abandoned their boat and their father to follow him.

From Matthew 4:21-22

While in Israel I had an encounter with a true relic which touched me deeply. Let me tell you about The Jesus Boat…

We read a good 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 set eyes on this boat as he lingered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The day we sailed the Sea of Galilee, we also visited Kibbutz Ginosar where the Jesus boat is displayed. Before seeing it, we watched a short film which told the tale of Moshe and Yuval Lufan, brothers and fellow fishermen who discovered the ancient boat buried in mud near the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Though I’m certain their parts in the film were well rehearsed, neither brother could hide his excitement over this discovery. Their treasure had shaken both the archaeological world and the spiritual world to their cores because no one had ever unearthed such an old vessel in such complete condition.

Though the science behind The Jesus Boat’s preservation is fascinating, I am more fascinated by Jesus’ presence in all of this. Once again, it matters little to me whether or not Jesus sailed in this particular boat. What does matter to me is the glimpse into Jesus’ daily life and the lives of those he loved which this boat afforded me. When I gazed upon that ancient relic, I imagined Jesus out on the water with his friends. That day, I experienced just a bit of the amazing adventure that must have been!

Current events compel me to acknowledge that the contemporaries of Jesus also suffered. Though in Israel I recalled the best times Jesus enjoyed on his friends’ boat, I must remember that they and that beloved boat also endured terrible storms. Do you remember the gospel story of Peter and the others who feared for their lives as they were being tossed from wave wave to wave by a powerful gale? In the midst of it all, Jesus suddenly appeared on the water. Though I don’t expect Jesus to embark on foot across Lake Michigan to ease my worries today, I do expect that he remains close enough to hear every prayer I utter. Best of all, he responds. Speak up, because he’s listening to you as well.

Dear God, thank you for being present in the joys and the sorrows of life on this earth. Hear our prayers and those of all of your people.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved