Enjoy The Water!

…by a word, he cured all the sick.”
From Matthew 8:17

I sat mindlessly tapping my fingers on the table. Dare I write again that the pandemic and all of its fallout had my attention once again? As I considered my options, I realized that there is little I can do to alleviate much of anything in regard to these things.

Just outside my window, a large robin plopped himself into our bird bath. He fluttered his wings for several seconds, splashing water every which way. Though I knew he couldn’t hear me, I remarked to my feathered friend, “It certainly doesn’t take much to make you happy!” Even before I finished this sentence, I realized that the same is true for all of us. Just as that water stands available for my robin friend whenever he chooses to enjoy it, all that we need awaits us.

You know, being loved and cared for is the best any of us can hope for. Being loved and cared for makes everything we encounter doable. Branches and boulders and viruses and social unrest clutter the road before us. Still, we manage to do what we can about these things and then to climb over or to plod around what we must leave in others hands. All the while, we’re not alone. Though we may only occasionally choose to bathe in the waters of God’s loving care, God remains twenty-four/seven to offer that care just the same.

Dear God, give us the wisdom of my robin friend, that we may also bathe in the waters of your love at every opportunity.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Called and Loved By Name

When our grandchildren visit, they habitually make their way to our piano. They pull out our sons’ earliest music books and do their best to play a song or two. Recently, our grandson Danny selected the sheet music for CHEERS*. Because he doesn’t yet read music, Danny made no attempt to play the song. Danny’s fingers simply danced across the keys as though he’s been playing for years. Though his tune wasn’t at all recognizable, his enthusiasm was undeniable. Before putting away the music, I played and sang CHEERS just once for old times’ sake. My dear husband was an avid fan of the television show of the same name. He was drawn in immediately because the setting for the sitcom was an extremely welcoming establishment in Boston of the same name. As the theme song insists, Cheers was the place where everybody knows your name. We all like to be recognized by someone wherever we are and the unique individuals who made up Cheers’ clientele indicate that we all have hope in this regard.

As I returned that sheet music to its place, I mulled over this sense of belonging which we all long for. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face during this pandemic is our loss of community. Many who have jobs have been working from their home offices, bedrooms and quiet corners of their basements. Others who venture out to their essential jobs do what they must. All the while, they stay as far as possible from others though they’d much rather enjoy their coworkers and their clientele. Within our own homes, we sanitize our hands and everything we’ve brought along with us before settling in. Unfortunate people who contract the virus and become seriously ill are banished to hospitals. Those who have no symptoms isolate at home as best they can in order to keep their families safe. The rest of us keep safe distances from fellow shoppers at the grocery store and from our neighbors down the block. Here at St. Paul’s, a mighty group of staff and volunteers has seen to it that our church is as germ-free as possible. They also seat us safely when we arrive for Mass, baptisms, weddings and funerals. Everyone’s efforts have allowed us finally to celebrate last spring’s First Communion and Confirmation liturgies and to welcome our RCIA candidates into the Church. Once again, we can gather where Somebody knows our names far more intimately than we might expect.

Today’s scripture passages speak clearly about just how deeply God values our names and our places within God’s family. In the first reading (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7), Isaiah tells us that in God’s eyes we all belong. The prophet quotes God’s assertion that “…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah might have added, “And my world shall be called a home for all people!” Paul echoed these sentiments when he called himself “the apostle of the Gentiles” who were once excluded from the local faith community. In Matthew’s gospel (15:21-28), Jesus provided a somewhat puzzling example of God’s desire for our company. According to Matthew, Jesus appeared to be uncharacteristically arrogant in his attitude toward a Canaanite woman. She wasn’t one of his followers, yet she approached Jesus for a miracle. Jesus responded by acknowledging this woman as an outsider. He claimed that she had no business seeking the favor of the God of Israel. The woman argued that even dogs are allowed to eat crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables. With that, Jesus applauded this woman’s great faith and he cured her daughter. Now before you question Jesus’ less-than-welcoming attitude, let me explain. Men of Jesus’ day never engaged women in such intellectual banter, at least not publicly. Though Jesus seemed cruel in his remarks, he actually showed great respect for this woman’s wisdom and stature by arguing with her. Jesus honored this woman further when he rewarded her profound faith with her daughter’s cure. As I consider God’s home where everybody knows your name, I imagine the Canaanite woman smiling as Jesus called her over to welcome her in…

This weekend, our parish family has the opportunity to acknowledge some special names as well. This past Wednesday, our fellow parishioner Brent was ordained a deacon. This much-anticipated event marked the culmination of the four years Deacon Brent and his wife Cassie attended classes in preparation for this role. In addition, Brent completed special projects, spiritual formation and field experience. This event also marks the expansion of Brent’s and Cassie’s commitment to our parish family. Though I know we already know their names, this weekend, we do what Jesus did for the Canaanite woman. We welcome Brent and Cassie as they expand their roles among us as a diaconate couple. We also thank Cassie for continuing her work as Communion Minister coordinator throughout all of this. How grateful we are that, like Jesus, Brent and Cassie will remind us that God does know our names and that God welcomes us into the one community that COVID-19 cannot disrupt. Whatever our circumstances, Brent and Cassie will insist that this is God’s home, God knows our names and we all belong!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Cheers (Where Everybody Knows Your Name): by Gary Portnoy & Judy Hart Angelo; Copyright 1982, ADDAX MUSIC CO., INC.

S… Service

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit…

From Isaiah 42:1

S is for Service. As a child, I was always first to raise my hand when my teacher asked for a volunteer to assist her. At home, though I disliked my chores as much as any child, I happily volunteered when my mom requested help with the non-mandatory task at hand. This propensity to be helpful has remained with me. The truth is that, of all of the joy I’ve experienced, the best of it has been the result of being of service to others.

My service has taken many forms. I’ve been spouse, parent, teacher, colleague, daughter to an elderly mom, sister to a dying sibling, listener for a troubled soul and an all-purpose church volunteer. I’ve rescued a wayward can of soup which rolled out of a fellow shopper’s bag and a twenty-dollar bill which fell out of another’s wallet. I’ve even put out a burning hair fire when a wedding guest stood a bit too close to a lighted candle. I’m sure your own list of every-day and life-time service would fill this space in short order. It seems that if we respond at all to those God has given us to love, we are of service to them in some way.

S is for service because doing for others is the shortest road to true happiness. Whether or not we are thanked for our efforts, our good deeds fill us up with an amazing sense of joy. Our great and small acts of service make all of the difference, sometimes for a second and sometimes for a lifetime.

Thank you, Good and Gracious God, for giving us loving and caring hearts like your own.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

There’s Always Room

“For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all people.”

From Isaiah 56:7

Finally, I feel prepared for Christmas. Everything here at home is ready and I can hardly wait to celebrate with my family. Everything at our parish church is ready, too. Since our parish was founded, my husband, our friend Terry and a crew of dedicated volunteers have decorated our worship space for Christmas. Before we had a church building, they transformed the school gym we rented into a beautiful and prayerful space. Since our church building was completed, they’ve done the same to inspire all who come with Christmas joy.

As always, we expect standing-room-only crowds. Like all churches, our numbers include “Christmas and Easter Birds” whose only appearances occur on these two holy days. This is fine with us. Like family, we know they are coming and we make every effort to seat them as comfortably as possible. All concerned work extremely hard to prepare our beautifully adorned church, amazing music and engaging liturgy. Everyone from our youngest parish children to our devoted seniors is involved. Our hope is that all who join us feel welcome. After all, our church is God’s house! And, after all, it’s Christmas! What better day is there to welcome everyone home?

Loving God, you open your house to all who come to your door. While some of us feel free to knock often, there are others who don’t. Please inspire all of your children to realize that they are welcome to your home any time and always.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Comfort Them As Only You Can

Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
…They will meet with joy and gladness.

From Isaiah 35:4-10

Gift Weekend at my parish church was a huge success. Hundreds of my fellow parishioners arrived for Mass with gifts they’d purchased for needy children and teens. The tremendous need which was met turned my thoughts to some of my students from long ago…

Most of the children in my classroom could hardly wait for Christmas. There were a few, however, who dreaded Christmas vacation. They found comfort in the structure of our classroom where the expected almost always came to fruition. Their school lunch was often the best of their meals and our simple class parties were the best of their Christmases. More sadly, the lack of material treasures in their lives paled in the shadow of their lack of security. The adults around them, heavily burdened with their own troubles, didn’t have the luxury of detecting the hopelessness growing in their children’s eyes.

My thoughts wander further to a child of long ago. While Joseph searched for a place where Mary could give birth, Mary focused upon the child within her. When they finally settled among the livestock that night, perhaps Joseph arranged the hay in that manger while Mary labored. Though it wasn’t much, that warm hay provided the best bed Mary and Joseph could offer Jesus that night. Perhaps the best we can do for those in need around us is to provide them with our own variety of hay. Though it may not be much, our best is always enough to those in need and to God.

God of love, help me to comfort those who need you most with my own variety of hay.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Still Dancing To Christmas?

The hectic pace of Advent 2019 has increased exponentially. Though I mused at length during the past few weeks regarding finding a bit of Christmas in every day and dancing our way through Advent, I’m not sure that we’ve all had much opportunity to do so. Indeed, grocery lists, gift lists, to-do lists and the other responsibilities which simply don’t fit on lists have too often denied us the few leisurely moments we’ve hoped for each day. It’s difficult to free our hearts to dance the dance of joy when we’re distracted by the numerous tasks at hand. As I’ve checked off the items on my own lists, I’ve looked heavenward often. “Lord, what was I thinking when I suggested that these Advent days are anything like Christmas? What was I thinking when I invited everyone to dance through this crazy time with me?” I imagine God smiling knowingly in response…

As I write, I realize that I’m in good company as I question all of this. In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11), Matthew chronicles John the Baptist’s stay in prison. Staring at the ceiling above, poor John wondered about the reports circulating among the prisoners. Each time the guards walked away, hushed voices recounted the works of Jesus. John had spent his entire adult life proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and his only reward to date was confinement in a cell. Finally, John raised his head and signaled a fellow inmate. He had to get a message to Jesus and this man had opportunity to do this. The man repeated John’s question because John insisted that the message be delivered precisely: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John’s eyes followed his messenger as he left for as long as he could see him. “I must know…” he whispered.

John the Baptist did all he did to prepare the world for the Messiah in spite of his uncertainty. Jesus rewarded John with an unexpected gift of encouragement when he replied to John’s question. Jesus told the man, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” When John heard this response from his dear cousin, his heart danced. John realized his work in this world was complete. As a result, he was prepared for whatever else might come his way. It is no wonder that Jesus observed, “Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist…”

As I consider all that my dear husband and I have accomplished this Advent, I find myself inspired as well. Mike has resisted numerous opportunities to enjoy some much needed rest to join me in tending to our family Christmas preparations as well as those of our parish family. In spite of his fatigue, Mike actually found joy in these favors fulfilled. When he finally relaxed in his recliner, these tasks accomplished encouraged him to consider what he’ll do next. I’ve found inspiration in the good deacon’s service and that of so many others. After all, setting ourselves aside to care for others is the point of the Advent Season.

This coming week, when you find yourself discouraged along with the rest of us because you cannot seem to get everything done, remember John the Baptist lying in that prison cell wondering if his preaching and teaching accomplished anything. Remember, as well, what Jesus said about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing and the dead being raised. What John did made all of the difference in the world to those who met him because John opened their hearts to Jesus. When you and I set aside our own needs to do our best for those around us, we do the same. The people we’ve been given to love in our homes and in this church, on cold street corners and in crowded malls, at work and at school, nearby and far away adjust their responses to Jesus’ message in tandem with our responses to them. Our patience, generosity and good will speak as eloquently of the Messiah’s coming as did the preaching of John the Baptist himself. Perhaps offering glimpses of God’s love to those around us is all the reason we need to dance after all. Though our aching feet and backs and heads may fail us, our hearts dance their way one step closer to Christmas with every good deed done!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved