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

Let’s Let Jesus Out!

After puzzling at length over today’s gospel and how to begin this writing, I took a break to check my email. It was there that I found a wonderful concept regarding our amazing Risen Lord from a dear friend whom I met in Germany some years ago. Ludger is a priest who is usually very busy. However, like Father Chris and Father Joe, his ministry has morphed into something quite different for the time being. So it is that he is finding creative ways to explore his own faith and to share his discoveries with his people. I’m grateful that I’m one of Father Ludger’s people these days and I hope he is one of mine. Ludger often shares wisdom from his own thinking and tidbits he’s picked up from others. He reads my daily blog and I email him my Sunday reflections early in the event there might be something homily-worthy in my words. Ludger normally doesn’t have time for more than our single weekly email exchanges. However, social distancing allowed him the time for this additional interaction.

Father Ludger wrote that, in an effort to find inspiration during these difficult days, he turned to Tomas Halik, a fellow priest and philosopher. In his writing, Father Halik cited a meditation offered by Cardinal Bergoglio at the Vatican a few days before he was elected pope. The soon-to-be Pope Francis quoted a line from Revelations 3:20 in which Jesus says, “Behold, I am knocking at the door.” Ludger wrote that we usually understand this to mean that Jesus knocks at that door to be invited in. However, the future pope turned this around to say that Jesus knocks at the door in order to go out. “Where does Jesus want to go?” I wondered. My online search for Halik’s writings failed to explain this. When I searched for Cardinal Bergoglio’s reflection, I found a second commentary on his thoughts written by Cardinal Blase Cupich. Though the Cardinal wrote this three years ago, its title could have been written today: Pope Francis’ ‘field hospital’ calls us to radically rethink church life.

If our current world war against COVID-19 wasn’t such a tragedy, I would have laughed as I read this. Instead, I recalled recent news stories regarding the field hospitals being created all across this country and around the world. Because established hospitals may not be able to meet future demands, sports stadiums, naval vessels and even McCormick Place have been transformed in response to the rising number of patents stricken by the virus. Oddly enough, Cardinal Bergoglio proposed the same strategy to his fellow cardinals back in March 2013. He told them that the Church could no longer keep to itself and tend to the status quo. It was then that he offered that quote from Revelations where Jesus announces that he is knocking at the door. I wondered where Jesus wants to go…

Lent and Easter 2020 have evolved in unexpected ways for us all. Our virus-control behaviors have become our new normal. I try to respond with a positive attitude and a bit of creativity. Still, I’m sometimes hapless and helpless when it comes to improving the situation at hand. Because I’ve made a habit of wanting to fix everything, I often ignore that inner voice which suggests that sometimes I need to let go and let God. Still, as strangely as Lent and Holy Week unfolded, on Holy Saturday morning I found it easy to put on the sandals of Jesus’ first disciples. As my dear husband and I walked the neighborhood to contemplate the day, I remarked that we are experiencing what Jesus’ first followers experienced. I told Mike, “We have no idea of what will come next during this COVID-19 dilemma and they had no idea of what would come next after Jesus’ crucifixion.” Did Jesus knock on heaven’s door to leave so he could assure the disciples that all would be well? Today’s gospel tells us that Thomas also made his way out. Did Thomas knock that upper room door open so he could get out to see what was happening on the streets of Jerusalem? Did Thomas wonder if he and his friends would disperse once Jesus’ death faded into memory or might they salvage Jesus’ ministry? Thomas didn’t know what lay ahead, but Jesus did. Jesus knew what was coming and he returned to assure Thomas and the others that all would be well.

My friend Father Ludger was truly inspired by this challenge to listen for Jesus’ knock and then to let Jesus out. I’m sure his parish family will benefit greatly from his response to that challenge. I’m grateful that Ludger shared this challenge with me because it will make the days ahead far more productive on my part. Rather than looking within, wringing my hands and praying for answers, I’ll let Jesus spill out of me. In everything I say and do, I’ll allow Jesus to lead the way. I’ll ask often, “What would you do, Jesus?” and then I’ll follow his lead. Will you join me? Let’s do all we can from wherever we are to keep those in our care safe and healthy. Let’s reach out online or through a text or a phone call or a note to share our wisdom and ourselves as my friend Ludger did. Let’s find ways to share hope and love and a bit of cheerful company just as Jesus would. Yes, let’s open the door and let Jesus out. Let’s share Jesus with the most vulnerable and needy for as far as we can reach from our little corners of the world.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peace Be With You!

“On Easter morning we can still feel the pains of the world, the pains of our family and friends, the pains of our hearts. Still, all is different because we have met Jesus and He has spoken to us. There is a simple, quiet joy among us and a deep sense of being loved by a love that is stronger, much stronger, than death…”

Henri J. M. Nouwen, in Embraced by God’s Love*

I truly appreciate Henri Nouwen’s words today because they speak to my own Easter experience. Like my friend Henri, I understand that life in this world will never be perfect. Though we’ve had more than two thousand years to contemplate the words and works of Jesus, we haven’t succeeded in fully taking these things to heart. Though we know so much more than Jesus’ disciples knew, many of us don’t respond any more hopefully to this life’s troubles than the disciples responded. Though we believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, we too often join the disciples in wondering what impact this event actually has upon us. We share the disciples’ relief that Jesus is among us once again. Still, we wonder. Peter and the rest actually saw Jesus. You and I haven’t seen him, at least not as clearly as they did. So it is that I find consolation in the scriptures which tell us that, in spite of Jesus’ appearances, the disciples locked up themselves in fear. Not one of them wanted to be the next to hang on a cross. Like the disciples, we attempt to keep ourselves safe as well. We concern ourselves with the things of this world. What is worse is that we keep our concerns to ourselves rather than sharing them with God who truly understands.

The good news on this Easter Sunday is that Jesus appreciated what the disciples had been through just as he understands our troubles today. Jesus knows our fear. Do you remember how earnestly Jesus prayed in the garden after his last supper? Jesus knew that the disciples longed for forgiveness and he recognizes our need to make things right. Remember the father of the prodigal son? When Jesus assured the people that this father forgave everything, he offered a perfect example of the way God forgives us. Jesus knew that when he lost his life his friends lost their hope. Jesus also knows that when life devastates us, it is difficult for us to hold on. So it is that Jesus arrived that first Easter with the words his friends needed to hear most, “Peace be with you!” So it is that Jesus repeats this greeting in the alleluias that greet us today.

You know, if we could see into the hearts of those gathered with us on this Easter Sunday as God sees, we would find unimaginable joy and unimaginable suffering. While joy is tangible in smiles and dancing eyes, suffering hides in quiet comings and goings. Some have joined us today without a wife or a husband, a mother or a father, a son or a daughter or a dear friend who left this world too soon. Some pray for a dying loved one. Some have joined us this Easter Sunday in the grips of a failing marriage or without a paycheck. Some are so lonely that they will try to ignore Easter after they leave church today to avoid the pain. Some will listen to the alleluias ring out while others sing “alleluia” again and again for you and me in spite of their conviction that God cannot possibly intend Easter Joy to be theirs. Some struggle with worry over their children. Some battle illnesses that seem to be winning the war. Some sit among us in sadness, unable to explain even to themselves why they feel the way they do. God, who refuses to leave us alone in good times and in bad, repeats once again the words we most need to hear: “Peace be with you!” God speaks these words as he nestles beside us in whatever our circumstances happen to be at the moment. It is these words which fuel the quiet joy within me because they assure me that I am loved.

Henri Nouwen spent a lifetime in search of the quiet joy and the love of which he often wrote. You and I are here today because we seek the same. We have come because Jesus offers us hope greater than those who came before him could ever have imagined. When Jesus rose from the dead, everything changed. Jesus transformed our hope in the things to come into the knowledge that eternal happiness awaits us all. When we leave church this Easter Sunday, our circumstances will remain the same. What changes is the manner in which we deal with the realities of life. We’ve been reminded that we no longer face these things alone. When we leave church this Easter Sunday, we are encouraged and strengthened by the peace that comes in the loving and compassionate presence of Jesus. Yes, in spite of the fact that everything is not perfect today, I am joyful because God loves me. May God bless you abundantly with the same certainty! Peace be with you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Nouwen, Henri J.M., Embraced by God’s Love (Calendar), Garborg’s, Bloomington, MN, 1998, p. 97

Always Ready To Listen…

I breathe a sigh of relief as I recall Holy Week and Easter. Paschal preparations kept many of us here at St. Paul’s extremely busy. Hopefully, the collective efforts of all concerned filled those who prayed with us throughout those holy days with heartfelt inspiration. I’m happy to report that it wasn’t until the week after Easter that my fatigue caught up with me. Though I’d hoped for a day or two to relax, the realities of life dictated otherwise. I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and to address the tasks at hand. In the midst of my efforts, I realized that I had a good deal of writing to attend to as well. I needed two editions of these longer Sunday reflections as a result of my Easter weekend hiatus. I also needed another week of daily reflections to post here.

I admit that I panicked as I grasped for ideas. I’d referenced the last of my notes from our trip to the Holy Land and had to turn to life-after-Israel for inspiration. So it was that, while picking up the house and starting the laundry, I considered the aftermath of the first Easter. After all, the disciples had returned to the realities of life-after-Jesus. Though stray strands of Easter grass, spots on the kitchen floor and the clothes dryer’s buzz attempted to distract me, I quickly found myself in the disciples’ mindset. By noon, I set aside my chores and sat at my computer to write.

Sometimes, the tasks at hand overwhelm us so completely that we miss the joy that lingers within our reach. Much to my good fortune, Jesus’ nudged his way into my thoughts. Just as Jesus responded to the disciples with perfectly timed appearances after his death, he continues to gift each one of us with his gracious and loving presence. Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:35-48) points out how amazingly nearby Jesus always is.

The story begins with two disciples who were recounting to the others what happened to them on their way home from Jerusalem. Distraught over Jesus’ crucifixion, the duo walked home to Emmaus together. After all, there was no reason to remain in the Holy City. All seemed to be lost for the not-so-faithful band who had followed The Teacher. As they commiserated along the way, the two friends met a stranger who asked many questions about what had happened during Passover. The two disciples were amazed that there was anyone in the vicinity who didn’t know what had become of Jesus. They recounted the prior week’s events as best they could, but this stranger pressed on. Finally, this man took the lead and began to cite scripture passages for them. He explained that the events which led to Jesus’ demise fulfilled the prophets’ predictions from generations past. Intrigued, the disciples begged the stranger to remain with them through the night so they could continue their exchange the following day. The man agreed to have supper with them. As they ate, the stranger took bread and broke it, finally revealing himself as Jesus. Luke’s passage begins with the two back in Jerusalem. They’d returned to their friends to share the good news of their encounter with the Lord. Much to their surprise, Jesus appeared in their midst before they’d finished their story. Jesus greeted them with the now-familiar words: “Peace be with you!”

I think it was no accident that this duo traveled together to Emmaus. After all, there is nothing more consoling than to share hard times with a friend who understands. It also seemed only natural for these two to share their good news with the others as well. This is the reason they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell Peter and the rest about their encounter with Jesus. I can’t help recalling the numerous times someone’s presence has helped me through an illness, a loss or an insurmountable mound of worry. Their intentional offers of kindness made all of the difference in the world to me. Jesus’ subsequent appearances were also intentional. Life was difficult for Jesus’ friends after his crucifixion. They needed one another and they needed Jesus more than ever. Still, Jesus ignored the obvious and asked, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see…” Though that should have been quite enough to reassure his friends, Jesus went on to share a meal with them. As they ate together and listened further, Jesus opened them up to many things which they would never have understood on their own. Being in Jesus’ company was all that they needed.

Like the disciples, whether our worries are great or small, we sometimes succumb to despair. Whatever our troubles, they too often push us beyond our capacity to cope. This is when we must open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to the one with whom we share the path. Even when we don’t understand the sorrows which plague us, we must open ourselves to this Jesus who invites us to look and to see that it is he. Just as Jesus sat and listened and consoled his friends after the first Easter, Jesus sits ready to listen to each one of us today and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Brave and Inquiring Thomas

Alleluia! Rejoice and be glad! Today, we continue to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. As is the case every Easter Season, we’ll sing alleluia for several weeks to come. As for me, I’ve been immersed in Easter sentiments for quite some time. Our January stay in Israel inspired much reflection regarding the life and death of Jesus. Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries, I cannot contemplate these things without considering all that has happened since Mary Magdalene and the rest discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. Because we know these things, our perspective differs greatly from Jesus’ friends who could only wonder about what was in store. I do my best to keep all of this in mind. Still, like many who try to live as Jesus lived, I often find myself falling short. Though I know what is in store for us all after this earthly life, I stumble and fall along the way. Today, I realize once again that I’m not alone in my frailty.

When I read the gospel for this Second Sunday of Easter, I took a mental trip back to the Holy Land. This time, I was in the good company of the apostle Thomas. While considering this disciple whom John’s gospel portrays as the doubter, I found myself back in the pre-Sabbath hustle and bustle of Jerusalem. The crowds I encountered there seemed to have known exactly where they were going and what they had to do. Knowing what was coming next is a luxury Thomas and the others rarely enjoyed while they walked with Jesus. Most of the time, they were uncertain of what to expect.

A few weeks ago we listened to a passage from John’s gospel which chronicled one such occasion. Some time before Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus received word that his dear friend Lazarus was near death. You probably recall that Jesus delayed going to his friend’s side in spite of the urgency of this news. Most of the disciples likely breathed a sigh of relief because their inevitable demise was put off a little longer. When Jesus finally announced their departure for Lazarus’ home, his friends reminded him that the people had recently tried to stone him in that very place. When Jesus explained his timing, it was Thomas who spoke up. “Let us also go and die with him,” Thomas said, in spite of the fact that he had no idea of what was in store. As it happened, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the people were pleased. So it was that Jesus and the others were out of harm’s way for a little while longer. Still, I wonder. Did Thomas continue to worry about what was to come or did he simply give thanks that this new miracle would keep them safe a while longer? I just don’t know. What I do know is that Thomas’ devotion to Jesus was absolute. After all, it was Thomas who was willing to stay with his beloved teacher and perhaps to meet his end in Bethany where Lazarus lived.

It seems to me that today’s gospel (John 20:19-31) illustrates Thomas’ bravery once again. Thomas missed Jesus’ first post-resurrection visit. Because the gospel fails to explain Thomas’ absence, I wonder further. Did bravery counter Thomas’ fear of the authorities? Did Thomas leave the safety of their hideout to see firsthand the aftermath of Jesus’ death? Perhaps Thomas needed to separate fact from rumor for himself regarding the responses of the people to Jesus’ demise. Perhaps Thomas needed to experience the loss of Jesus outside of the others’ paralyzing fear. John’s is the only gospel which reports Thomas’ absence and doubt regarding Jesus’ first visit after he rose from the dead. Perhaps the other gospel writers saw something different in this disciple. As for me, I see Thomas as a man of thought and action whom Jesus wanted at his side. In the months and years afterward, scores of people heard the name of Jesus because Thomas spoke it to them. Many others came to understand forgiveness, compassion and mercy because Thomas shared his experience of these things with them. Thomas touched skeptical hearts because he once walked in their shoes. When Jesus returned to the disciples with Thomas among them, Jesus invited his friend to come closer. Thomas responded as only he could: “My Lord and my God!”

I have great affection for the Apostle Thomas because I walk in his shoes often. I understand his need to leave that upper room and to sort things out for himself because I often need to do the same. While in Israel, I often became lost in my own thoughts regarding all that Jesus means to me. I understand Thomas’ elation when Jesus reached out to him. Throughout those days in the Holy Land and all of my life, Jesus has invited me to come and to see his great love for myself. Jesus extends the same invitation to all of us on this Second Sunday of Easter and again and again throughout our lives. Like Thomas, it is up to us to recognize Jesus and to respond, “My Lord and my God.”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Respond As Best We Can

When my husband and I traveled to Israel in mid-February, I didn’t realize that this trip would be the perfect preparation for Lent 2017. Every Lent, I do my best to revisit all that Jesus means to me. Like many who claim to live as Jesus lived, I often find myself falling short. While in Israel, I acquired much insight regarding life in Jesus’ day and in modern-day Israel. I discovered that I’m not alone in my human frailty.

Our guide Yossi consistently followed his commentaries regarding the sites we visited with anecdotes from Israeli life today. Each of Yossi’s stories betrayed his love for his people and his concern regarding their too-frequent inability to live peacefully with one another. Some who feel strongly regarding the old ways do their best to draw others to imitate their piety. Some have lost patience with these religious people and they respond by forsaking their faith and embracing more secular ways. Some have found Jesus to be their messiah and suffer isolation from intolerant neighbors. The various ethic quarters throughout Jerusalem and elsewhere greatly enrich Israeli life while sometimes adding to the discord. Because Israel is surrounded by its enemies, Yossi feels strongly that peace is a necessity within its borders. Yossi always ended his remarks with this request: “You must pray for Israel’s people, that we live in peace with one another.” Yossi always accompanied this request with his own attempts to build peace among his neighbors, just as Jesus did. Every time Yossi shared these things, I imagined Jesus shaking his head and responding with his own efforts in this regard.

It occurs to me that the unrest which sometimes plagues the people of Israel also plagues us in this country. It follows us into our workplaces, neighborhoods and schools and even into our own homes. Today’s gospel tells us that Thomas’ experienced the same…

After Jesus’ crucifixion, the once-scattered disciples huddled together for safety. By that time, Judas had hung himself in despair over having betrayed Jesus. Close as he was to our precious Lord, Judas didn’t realize that Jesus’ talk of mercy, forgiveness and love was meant for him as well. Had he made his way to the foot of the cross, I’m certain Jesus would have told him so. Had he made his way to that locked room, I can only hope that the others would have allowed him in. After all, they’d all deserted Jesus when the guards came to arrest him. Though Peter pulled out his sword in Jesus’ defense, he later denied Jesus three times. Only John eventually approached the cross where Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene and the other women stood in horror. The disciples’ fear intensified as they worried with good reason about their own eventual demise.

In spite of this collective fear, John’s gospel (20:19-31) tells us that Thomas left their hideout. Did he hope to learn for himself what the people were saying about Jesus’ death? Did he discover that the discord among the scribes and Pharisees continued as a few had expressed sympathy toward Jesus? Did Thomas hear rumblings from Pilate’s palace where his wife had warned him not to harm Jesus? Did he hear of uncertainly among the soldiers who crucified Jesus? One of their own had fallen to his knees before the cross to proclaim that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. After Jesus’ death, there was unrest among the people and in disciples’ hideout just as there is in Israel and just as there is among us. Thomas’s absence during Jesus first appearance only added to this unrest. Jesus returned a week later when Thomas was present. Jesus greeted them with, “Peace be with you!” Still, poor Thomas bore the brunt of all of our doubt and fear when Jesus added, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving.” When Thomas fell at Jesus’ feet, Jesus replied, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” Jesus could have looked around at the others and at each one of us to ask the same.

You know, Jesus revealed God’s love in everything he said and did. Jesus revealed God’s forgiving mercy through every interaction with those he met along the way. Rumblings of uncertainty and discontent surrounded Jesus. They surrounded his closest friends as well. Why then was I surprised by Yossi’s experience in Israel? Why am I surprised by my own experiences? These things come with being human. Fortunately, two far more precious aspects of our humanity come as well: Our ability to make peace with one another and our ability to love, just as Jesus did, as best we can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved