Keep Love’s Fire Burning!

While searching my computer files for photos, I came across a painting I’d encountered nine years ago. Though this style of artwork isn’t normally among my favorites, the story behind this particular image touched my heart. I was introduced to this painting by a dear friend, Father Ludger Moliter. A decade ago, when my husband and I visited his Croatian cousin who served as a priest in Germany, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend. Ludger had ties to Chicago because he’d participated in a study of parish life between his diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mike’s cousin rightly determined that we and Ludger would have a good deal to talk about and we became fast friends. We’ve been in touch ever since. Ludger reads these daily reflections and shares his thoughts regarding current events and his favorite homilies. In the midst of all of this, Ludger shared this painting and highlights from the homily which it inspired…

I’m drawn to the details of Ludger’s message and this painting because both offer fitting inspiration as we embrace New Year 2021. The artwork is a fifteenth century effort by Konrad von Soest entitled Christi Geburt or Birth of Christ. It depicts Mary holding the newborn Jesus. Mary is completely enamored by her child. At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor. The poor man’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the fire’s flames with his breath. Honestly, though this scene appears almost comical in the painting, it depicts the significance of Joseph’s efforts quite beautifully. If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats. If little Jesus hadn’t been protected from the night’s cold, he might not have survived his birth day, much less the days and years which followed. Ludger’s homily explained that, yes, we need to adore and to appreciate God’s presence among us and God’s gifts. At the same time, however, Ludger added that we must also appreciate our responsibility to do what needs to be done to care for one another. Like Joseph, it’s up to us to keep the fire burning for those we’ve been given to love.

Ludger’s words offered a vivid reminder of the realities of Jesus’ birth. Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty or comfort to be found in overcrowded Bethlehem. Mary’s impending delivery likely left the preparation of their quarters entirely to Joseph. Imagine the poor man running between Mary and the innkeeper as he attempted to secure what they needed. Imagine Joseph spreading a blanket and perhaps his own cloak to fashion a bed for Mary. Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed to swaddle their baby upon his arrival. Imagine Joseph glancing at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her to give birth. And, after all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep Mary and Jesus warm. That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of moments of awe and fire-stoking for both Mary and Joseph. All the while, their love for Jesus never wavered just as the demands of living out that love also never wavered.

As we’ve discovered during Year 2020 and many years prior, the same is true for all of us who do our best to love God and those God has given us to love. The Magi, whom we celebrate today, offered an amazing example of this commitment. They gambled everything to follow that unique star because the possibility of encountering the king they sought was worth their effort. Though these astrologers eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there. To spread the news of whom they’d found, the Magi evaded Herod who promised to rid the world of this child-opponent. Still, when the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king with their contemporaries. The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to share Jesus’ news had a tough time as well. Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message of love in a hostile world.

I’m thrilled that I once again found the painting which Father Ludger cited so many years ago because it offers fitting inspiration as we embrace the hope and challenges of New Year 2021. This quaint work reminds us all that we need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as von Soest depicts them. Like Mary, we need to acknowledge the gift of God in our lives. What generous love it is that compels God to care for us so deeply! Like Joseph, that same love fills us up and compels us to love one another with as much of God’s generosity and depth as we can muster in the moments at hand. Yes, as my dear friend Ludger observed, every attempt to love one another draws us close to the fire, where we puff up our cheeks and keep the fire of love burning as only we can. Just as Mary’s and Joseph’s efforts sustained Jesus, our efforts will sustain our sisters and brothers this new year and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Believe…

God is gracious to you always. When you cry out,
God hears and God answers you.

Isaiah 30:19

While finalizing our online Christmas shopping, I wondered about our grandchildren’s expectations of Santa Claus. Our older granddaughters have become Santa’s elves for their younger sister who awaits Santa’s arrival. Our older grandson works on his wish-list while his little brother frequently announces, “Santa Claus coming!” The younger kids seem to accept Santa’s and their own absence from the mall because it will keep all concerned safe and healthy for Christmas. This Santa talk took me back a few years to one student’s important visit with Santa…

My third graders and I anxiously awaited Christmas. The topic found its way into most of our lessons. In the midst of one discussion, Ronnie announced that he was going to prove to his sixth grade brother that Santa Claus is real. Ronnie planned to keep what he wanted for Christmas a secret from everyone except Santa. When Ronnie saw Santa during his family’s annual day-after-Thanksgiving trek to the mall, he whispered into Santa’s ear so his gifts remained a secret. I’d hoped to catch Ronnie’s brother in the hallway to let him in on Ronnie’s plan. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten. A few days after Christmas, I wondered if Ronnie’s experiment ended well.

Happily, Ronnie returned to school in January with a bigger-than-ever smile. Not long afterward, his mom shared that her older son had discovered Ronnie’s plan. The entire family paid close enough attention to Ronnie to eventually discover his Christmas wishes. Their efforts allowed Ronnie’s hope in Santa Claus to remain for another year.

This year, my hope is that Christmas renews all of our hope, not so much in Santa’s efforts as in God’s. May we all place our wish-lists in the hands of God who has only our best interests at heart. May we also imitate the children around us who will do their best to be their best until Christmas Day. Maybe we adults can behave a little longer, perhaps until this pandemic is under control.

Loving God, you are our hope. We’ll try to behave while you persist in caring for us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In God’s Hands

This is the First Sunday of Advent. While I mull over our unconventional observances of Thanksgiving 2020, I wonder if we’ll need a bit of magic to survive the twenty-six days until Christmas. Survive? I’m disappointed in myself for choosing that particular word to describe what we’ll do for the next four weeks. Still, if the past thirty-seven weeks are any indication, I may not be completely wrong in my thinking. Worry looms overhead, not only within our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces, but also throughout this world of ours. While we continue our efforts to manage this pandemic, it’s difficult to anticipate much more than the status quo. It was in the midst of this thinking that my husband-the-deacon appeared. Mike unknowingly adjusted my outlook with a roll of paper towels, a bottle of Windex and this comment: “I’m going to wash the outsides of the windows so they’ll be clean for Christmas…”

Weeks earlier, Mike and I had decided to decorate for Halloween. Though trick-or-treating was iffy at the time, we wanted to provide a bit of fun for whoever happened by our house during October. At the time, I’d told Mike that I didn’t want to scale down our Christmas decorations either. “This world is a mess and people are suffering. Hopefully, the lights will bring them a little joy.” The day Mike washed those windows, I grabbed a rake and gathered up our yard-full of leaves. Though we’d tired ourselves with what might have been annoying chores, afterward, we went indoors smiling. The simple joy we’d found in those clean windows and that huge pile of leaves reminded me that Advent is meant to be much more than something we survive.

I really do understand that most of us are enduring far more than dirty windows and an unending supply of leaves. This is the reason I’m especially grateful for the opportunity Advent affords us this year. It is this pandemic and all of the troubles which come with it that compel me to long for the comfort to be found in acknowledging that God is nearby. Like you, I want more than anything to make things right for the people God has given me to love. The difficulty comes when I refuse to acknowledge that God’s plans may differ from my own. It is then that impassioned disappointment becomes the tone of my prayer. I raise tearful eyes to our loving Creator as I ask if freedom was too great a gift to place in the hands of humankind. Today’s scripture passage from Isaiah reminds me that we’re not alone in our misery and that our pain is as ancient as human history.

This passage (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:2-7) tells us that poor Isaiah brought his suffering to God’s attention just as I have. If that wasn’t enough, Isaiah added that he was doubly upset. He was fuming over the Israelites’ continued unfaithfulness to God and he refused to watch their evildoing any longer. Isaiah seethed even more hotly because God had allowed the people to engage in their misdeeds repeatedly. If you can’t recall the reading, look it up. Isaiah’s words express our sentiments when things have gone badly for far too long. As for Isaiah, he went on to place the blame squarely upon God’s shoulders. After all, God made us humans as we are and God allows our evil deeds. Picture Isaiah with his fist raised heavenward as he bellowed, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”

Sadly, Isaiah’s words from so long ago echo my own quandaries as of late. How often I’ve looked upward accusingly to ask, “If you don’t want me talking to you this way, why don’t you fix things?” I gratefully admit that my embarrassment before our ever-patient God shrunk just a bit when I realized that I share a bit of it with Isaiah. In the end, after Isaiah exhausted his anger, he returned to God in prayer. Isaiah looked up with outstretched arms and prayed, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hands.” In the end, I kneel as well, knowing that my apology falls upon the same gracious ears.

Sunday after Sunday, I insist that God is present within us and among us because I truly believe that this is so. Yet, like poor Isaiah, I allow the realities of this life to distract me from constant reminders of God’s presence. So it is that I invite you to join me this Advent in finding joy in the simplest of God’s blessings. I wish you far more than clean windows and a lawn free of leaves. I wish you a place in God’s hands. Just as God did for Isaiah, God molds us like clay. How much brighter our days will be when we embrace each morning by acknowledging that God holds us! It is in those loving hands that God shapes us and readies us for whatever we’ll encounter along the way. Indeed, we will do far more than survive Advent 2020. Regardless of what occurs, we’ll find joy on our way to Christmas because God is with us!

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Just Talk…

Jesus went up to the mountain to pray,
and he spent the night talking to God.

Luke 6:12

For several years, my husband and I taught a class for those interested in learning more about our faith. Though we covered a myriad of topics, my favorite was prayer. We began with commonly known prayers and then shared our own preferences. Mike and I agree that we do our best praying when we simply talk to God. Jesus spent his public life convincing us of God’s unconditional love, acceptance, mercy and concern for each of us. When we take these things to heart, we realize just how intimately God wishes to be connected with us. In my case, I share my deepest concerns only with those by whom I feel accepted and with whom I feel comfortable. Honestly, God tops this list of these precious friends.

I find that talking to God is as natural as talking to a good friend. A friend’s responses come in a knowing smile, a pat on the back or a similar story from his or her experience. Sometimes, we simply sit together, knowing that each of us understands the other. The same is true in our conversations with God. Though I’ve never heard a word spoken from God’s lips, I have received God’s response in the quiet of the moment, in an unexpected remark from a fellow human or in a forgotten line from a favorite book. Sometimes, God speaks in the autumn breeze and sometimes God speaks deep within me. Whenever we take the time to talk with God, God finds a way to respond.

Dear God, let’s talk. I know that you always listen. I’ll do my best to listen, too.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Write On!

I have written this to make you realize
that you possess eternal life…

1 John 5:13

While editing a chapter in my book (which still isn’t finished!), I realized I was smiling. Though my frustration over not having completed this project remains, strangely enough, I enjoy every minute that I spend writing. This is an odd turn of events because it was extremely difficult for me to receive an “A” on creative writing assignments throughout elementary and high school. In college, I did slightly better only because most papers involved research and the recycling of established facts. No creativity required!

Perhaps this is the reason that I was somewhat shocked when a writing opportunity arose decades ago. My husband and I were helping to establish a new parish in our town. Our new pastor asked me to write “something inspirational that will fill a column or two” for our first parish bulletin. Father Farrell thought my involvement was a no-brainer since I was a teacher. As a former teacher himself, he assumed that I could write anything. I surprised myself when I managed to bury my fear and to compose something acceptable in response.

Every week since, I’ve poured over scriptures passages, my life experiences and my relationship with God to do the same. What began as a challenge has morphed into a welcome opportunity. You see, the subject matter is very important to me. I am who I am because of God’s presence in my life. This opportunity to inspire others to make a place for God in their lives is a dream-come-true!

Now if I ever finish that book, you’ll see…

Generous God, you are a part of all of our lives. Help us to celebrate you in our labor, in our leisure and in all that we do.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Sometimes, I Need To Let Go…

See what love God has bestowed on us…
From 1 John 3:1

A storm is brewing just beyond my window. Summer 2020’s lack of rain makes this a welcome occurrence. While the meteorologist who offered an explanation for this change in the weather, I listened gratefully to his promise of rain. Though I didn’t understand the meteorological dynamics at work, I fully appreciated their outcome.

It occurs to me that my knowledge of human nature certainly exceeds my knowledge of the weather. Still, I sometimes set aside this wisdom by responding angrily to situations over which I have little or no control. Though my intentions are most often pure at the onset, frustration eventually gets the best of me. I’m too ashamed to tell you how many times I’ve hollered at the television set in the midst of a newscast these days. Yes, even when the signs are crystal clear, I push when I should let go and let God take care.

So, in an effort to do better in this regard, I’m taking a lesson from the storm brewing overhead and I’m taking a walk. Without any involvement on my part, its rains will fall and provide new life to the grass and the other greenery I’ll enjoy along the way. As I walk, I’ll see that, without any assistance from me, God is overseeing the troubling situation at hand. Because the urge to do something remains, I’ll pray. The rest, I will leave to God…

Patient God, give me the wisdom to let go and to trust your wisdom when necessary.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved