We’re Shepherds All!

When I heard familiar voices outside, I grabbed my hoodie and headed to the front door. Neighbors had been marooned out of town since the onset of our stay-at-home attempts to control the Corona Virus. They’d finally made it home and were wearily, but happily unpacking their car. I yelled from across the lawn to welcome them back to the neighborhood. My neighbor Kathy had come out to do the same. In the midst of it all, she looked in my direction to say, “You know, I don’t know what day it is any more. Since we can’t go to church, I’ve lost my bearings. Sunday used to be my anchor day. Now, I don’t know. It’s tough.” At first, I was surprised by Kathy’s comment. Because I’ve continued to post on my blog every day, I’ve adhered to a schedule of sorts. The writing, the online liturgies streamed from so many of our churches, as well as my ongoing conversation with our patient God have apparently kept me more grounded than I realized.

After bidding my neighbors farewell, I returned to my keyboard to begin this writing. When I reread today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:1-10), I recalled that Jesus’ contemporaries had lost their bearings as well. They had also lost access to the anchor which should have kept them grounded. This passage tells us that Jesus was angry as he spoke on that particular day because his troubled neighbors had no one to turn to in their suffering. They should have been able to go to the temple to pray for consolation and to seek counsel from the priests and scribes there. The people should have found comfort simply by being in that holy place. Rather, the Pharisees had manipulated The Law to own their benefit. They had imposed rules of every sort which limited the people’s access to their worship space, to the temple staff and to God. The virus which threatened in Jesus’ day had replaced compassion with control and had denied God’s comfort to those who needed it most.

Jesus responded to the situation by calling those who truly wished to serve the people to emulate shepherds. Though the temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their jobs prevented them from adhering to the letter of The Law, Jesus held up shepherds as ideal examples of leadership, caring and love. The shepherds of Jesus’ day spent long hours in fields with their herds. Though they lacked education and power of any sort, they were key to the prosperity of wealthy sheep owners. Jesus reminded the people that shepherds dutifully guarded and nurtured the sheep in their charge. Every sheep knew its keeper’s voice, keenly aware of the special call only he could produce to beckon it to his side. When it came time to be led in or out of the pasture, each sheep followed the voice it had come to know and to trust. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the shepherd’s guidance was essential to each animal’s survival. Jesus expected no less of those entrusted with God’s people. Jesus lost his patience in the temple that day because the Pharisees and their company had lost sight of their mission to anchor God’s people by lovingly shepherding them.

I think my neighbor felt that she’d lost her bearings because she thought she had lost access to the anchor she’d found at her parish church. It occurs to me that, without realizing it, Kathy has become the anchor she longed for. She listened compassionately as our friends described their lengthy isolation in cramped quarters. In the midst of admirable social distancing, Kathy and her husband provided refreshments since the returning couple was greeted by both an empty house and an empty refrigerator. Kathy had certainly provided the welcome which Jesus expected the temple staff to provide two millenniums ago. What a great example of shepherding Kathy was!

It seems that Easter Season 2020 will continue to be filled with moments of uncertainty and solitude for us all. The good news is that we will endure these difficult times in very good company. Our Good Shepherd reassures us all that none of us suffer alone. Kathy felt that she’d lost her anchor because it has come to her in a different form these days. Rather than finding solace and peace in the church building and the people whom she’s come to love there, Kathy has become the anchor where those things abide for others. In the rare event that she falters in her new role, Jesus will lift her up onto his shoulders and carry her through. You and I are invited to be anchors for one another as well. If you’re wondering how you might proceed, think of Kathy’s kindness and respond as she did to those you’ve been given to love. However we support our loved ones though this COVID-19 ordeal, as he does for my dear neighbor, Jesus will be with us to shepherd us every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In This Together With Jesus!

Sometimes, our worries overwhelm us so completely that we miss the joy that lingers within reach. We wonder where God can possibly be in all of this. Today, Luke, the masterful narrator, reminds us of how amazingly nearby God actually is…

In his gospel (Luke 24:13-35), Luke tells us that Cleopas and a friend left Jerusalem for Emmaus a few days after Jesus’ death. The two men were still reeling over the events of the past week. They shook their heads and fretted over what might have been and what had actually occurred. Jesus had offered such hope to the people! They rallied to welcome him when he arrived in Jerusalem. No one suspected that he would be crucified five days later. Then, as they mourned Jesus, some of the women reported seeing a vision of angels at his empty tomb. The disciples who ran to the tomb afterward found the scene just as the women had described it. When Cleopas and his companion embarked upon that seven mile walk to Emmaus, they puzzled over whether to mourn or to celebrate.

Just a short distance into their walk, the two encountered a stranger who confused them further. When this man acknowledged that he knew nothing of what had happened at Calvary, the two disciples wondered how anyone near Jerusalem could have missed the news of Jesus’ death. Little did these two realize that they knew far less of what had occurred than their new acquaintance did. After listening to Cleopas explain, the stranger responded with a few lessons of his own. He spoke of Moses and the prophets who followed Moses. He explained the references the prophets had made to the Christ. This stranger made it quite clear that what had happened should have been no surprise to those who studied the scriptures. This suffering was predicted as was the messiah’s glory. When the stranger completed his lesson, he prepared to leave Cleopas and his friend until they pressed him to stay and to share their evening meal. It was when they gathered at the table that the stranger broke bread just as Jesus had. How excited the two were when they recognized that Jesus had been with them all the while!

You and I have walked with Cleopas and his companion on occasion throughout our lives. Over the past forty or so days, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to shake our heads and to fret over developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply staying at home has been challenging for many of us, especially since there is so much to be done elsewhere. Troubles within our workplaces and the lack of jobs weigh heavily upon us. Illnesses that once seemed manageable have been exacerbated by our inability to keep up with once easy-to-access care. Those who battle emotional and spiritual illnesses too often have only themselves to rely upon. Healthcare workers and first responders on the front-line in this battle find themselves exhausted all of the time. Others who provide vital necessities such as food and gasoline and furnace repairs never signed up for such hazardous duty, yet they serve the rest of us bravely. The list of those called to serve above and beyond is very, very long.

During the Easter Season, we normally put our hearts and souls into living the joy that comes with knowing that life after this life is a reality for us. When the worst of our earthly woes threaten, we habitually return to God’s promise of better things to come for consolation. After all, Jesus gave us living proof that everything he endured was worth the new life he embraced afterward. Jesus went on to assure us that the same is true for us. No matter what this life entails, what comes afterward is worth it all. Still, this Easter Season, we find ourselves worrying and wondering. Like Cleopas and his friend, we reel with sadness as we puzzle over all of this. “Why? Why? Why?” we ask. Yet, like Cleopas and his companion, we don’t completely succumb to our fear. We could ignore those who need us, but we don’t. Like Cleopas, we look beyond our own needs to care for one another. It is in this caring that we celebrate Easter Joy after all.

When they realized that it was Jesus who had walked with them, Cleopas and his friend returned to Jerusalem to tell the others. How could they keep this good news to themselves? You know, our encounters with Jesus aren’t usually as dramatic as Cleopas’ experience, but today they are. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, news and other special programs continuously report the heroic efforts of people just like you and I. Like Cleopas and his friend, they hurry to individuals and families, to the ill and the needy to do what they can. Though the magnitude of need threatens to overwhelm, they persist. Like Cleopas and his friend, we really are in this together. And, as he was for Cleopas and his friend, Jesus is with us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Time To Love…

There is an appointed time for everything
and a time for every purpose under the heavens.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

It was unusual for my husband and me to schedule vacations in January or February. The retired principal and teacher in us tend to reserve the summer months for such activities. Happily, our winter trips to Israel could not have been better. Each time, the only downside was trying to play “catch-up” with our to-do lists once we returned home. My commitment to share these experiences though these daily reflections added more to my to-do list than I’d expected. When I finally returned to some sense of normalcy, the COVID-19 outbreak became the news of the day every day. Suddenly, I found myself with more time on my hands than I ever expected to have. Though I’d prayed often for a somewhat empty calendar, I wasn’t particularly grateful for my prayer to be answered this way…

It was in the midst of all of this that I recalled one of my favorite scripture passages. It offers the guidance I craved. The words I cite above from Ecclesiastes insist that there is a time for everything. There is time to work and time to rest, time to think and time to write. For me, time has always involved difficult choices. I’ve had to prioritize and reorganize my schedule often. But not just now.

Today, timely decisions revolve around those I’ve been given to love. In the midst of writing and cleaning the house, cooking and reading and exercising a bit, I must also set aside time to reach out. Though I cannot share time in person these days, I can call or text or send emails or cards to let others know that they are loved. Of all of the “purposes under the heavens” which Ecclesiastes speaks of, loving others is the most important.

Loving God, you’ve given us the time to love one another. Help us to use this time well.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always Loved…

Jesus said, “Peace be with you! Why are you disturbed?”
From Luke 24:16-17

Twelve sturdy blossoms beckon me. While dodging other masked and gloved shoppers, my dear husband couldn’t resist the single bouquet of yellow tulips which seemed to be calling his name. When he arrived home, he placed them in a vase. He checked their water every day. Though he’d purchased them eight days before Easter, the flowers were as beautiful as ever on Easter morning. “You’re strong and amazing,” I observed, fully expecting a satisfied nod in return. Though the blossoms stood motionless, I hoped they somehow realized my gratitude for their beautiful and enduring presence.

Though my reflections regarding our trips to Israel are coming to a close, the impact of these wonderful experiences remain with me. Just as my husband’s care preserved his precious flowers for more than a week, God has nurtured me though my experiences in Israel and through every moment with which I’m blessed. God has also nurtured me through these difficult days. The truth is that God nurtures us all through everything!

You and I are much like my husband’s tulips in God’s eyes. Though they will likely last only another day, their remarkable stamina will remain with me. Their presence these days after Easter is a lingering reminder of God’s presence in all of our my lives. Just as my husband singled out that bouquet to bring a bit of Easter joy into our house, God singles out you and me to enhance life on this earth, especially the lives of those God has given us to love and especially during times such as these…

Dear God, thank you for the many surprising ways you remind us that we are loved, even in the midst of this pandemic!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Celebrate Easter… Really!

Then they recounted what had happened on the road and
how they had come to know him in the breaking of the bread.

Luke 24:35

Of all the places we visited throughout our trips to Israel, Emmaus is a favorite. Emmaus provides weary pilgrims who venture there a peaceful interlude. The grounds of St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey are both tranquil and full of life. The abbey is located in the Muslim village of Abu Gosh along one of the oldest roads linking Jerusalem to the coast. When we arrived, several young people had gathered there for a program. Still, this didn’t diminish the tranquility which embraced us when we arrived.

After allowing us time to enjoy the outdoors, our guide ushered us into the historic church. Beautiful as it was, Yossi assured us that more awaited us on the lower level. It was there that we discovered an ancient stream which flowed freely as it had in Jesus’ day. Listening to the same the soothing rush of water which Jesus’ contemporaries heard was a gift to be cherished.

The disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus aren’t the only ones gifted with such encounters. Whenever we open ourselves to one another and to the beauty around us, we cannot help meeting God. This is the reason we must celebrate Easter in the midst of our battle against COVID-19. What occurred to Jesus after he was laid in that tomb is meant to inspire us all! God promises you and me no less than Jesus’ Easter miracle. Difficult as these days may be, it is Easter hope which should set the tone for these and all of the days of our lives. Even on the worst of these days, it really does help me!

Loving God, reveal a bit of yourself to each of us every day!

©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