God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

N… Name

At daybreak, he called his disciples and selected twelve of them
to be his apostles: Simon, to whom he gave the name Peter…

Luke 6:13-16

N is for Name. Some years ago, his name caused our younger son some serious heartache. One evening at dinner, when he could no longer contain his misery, Tim tearfully demanded, “Why does everyone in this family’s name start with an ‘M’ except for mine?” I’d never given Tim’s dilemma a thought, so I immediately and silently begged for guidance before I responded: “Tim, Dad’s name was Mike and my name was Mary when we met. We didn’t choose to have ‘M’ names. When Mike was born, Dad wanted to continue the family name, so we named him Michael. Yours is the only name that we really thought about. I love the name ‘Timothy’ and I love you. It was the perfect name for you.” This explanation was true. It was also enough to allow Tim to finish his dinner with a smile.

I believe that God gives us parents some latitude in naming our children. This is quite a gift since God knows the value of our names. God renamed Abram when God sent him off. This Abraham would father the Jewish people. Jesus gave Simon a new name. Simon Peter became the rock upon whom Jesus built his church. Later, when Saul vengefully persecuted the followers of Jesus, Jesus stepped in and renamed him. Paul became one of the greatest teachers of Christian living.

Though your name and mine were likely bestowed with a bit less fanfare than those of our biblical predecessors, God uses them with the same expectation. In every opportunity which comes our way, God calls our names with great love and with great hope in our responses.

Speak, Loving God, for we will listen as you call our names.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

M… Mercy

While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved.
He ran out to meet him,
threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

M is for Mercy. Of all of the characteristics Jesus exhibited, I find mercy to be the most powerful. Though Jesus taught mercy masterfully in his interactions with others, he underscored these lessons with the unforgettable Parable of the Prodigal Son. If any of us question our ability to be lovingly and mercifully forgiven, this story dispels all doubt.

In Jesus’ community, a request for an early inheritance insulted a parent gravely. The offending child essentially demanded, “Behave as though you are dead so I can have my money.” According to the parable, in spite of his son’s selfishness and disregard for his feelings, that father gave his son what he asked. The son responded by leaving town and squandering every cent. When he was left to find work tending swine, the young man had reached rock bottom. In the end, he realized his wrong-doing and returned home to work for his father as a servant. As the above passage from Luke tells us, this father would have none of it. At the sight of his son, mercy and love filled up the man who embraced his child and welcomed him home.

Jesus revealed our loving God in everything he said an did. For me, Jesus revealed God’s essence in this simple story of mercy.

Merciful God, thank you for giving us reason to return from our wrongdoing. Your willingness to forgive us everything and to love us in spite of it all is more than we could ever hope for. Thank you!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

L… Love

You shall love the Lord your God
with your whole heart,
with your whole soul,
and with your whole mind….
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

From Matthew 22:37-38

L is for Love. This is a tough one. I don’t have a bit of trouble loving God. Though I admit to having had words with our patient Lord, this is the result of my certainty of God’s love for me. God invited me into a relationship. When I accepted, I committed myself to being completely honest in this regard. This is my only choice. After all, if I don’t share my true feelings, God knows them nonetheless.

Early on, a wise teacher shared that there is something lovable about every one of us and that it is up to us to discover what this is. This observation has helped me a great deal over the years. Though I don’t have a flawless track record, I can honestly say that I don’t hate anyone. Still, though I love my neighbor in theory, putting that love into practice sometimes poses a challenge. The good news here is that I try.

The toughest part is loving my neighbor as I love myself. When this New Year 2020 became reality, I resolved to work at being less judgmental. What I must be clear about is that much of that judgment is directed toward myself. If I fail to love myself enough to allow myself the luxury of being a frail human, how can I love my neighbors enough to allow them to do the same? God loves me and God is amazingly patient with me. I must learn to do the same.

Love is a tricky endeavor at best. Still, it’s the best work we can do and the best source of true happiness. The passage from Matthew above isn’t a directive. It’s an invitation to heaven on earth.

Loving God, thank you for creating us in your image, especially when it comes to our ability love.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

K… Kindness

People who are well do not need a doctor;
sick people do. I come to call upon sinners.

From Mark 2:17

K is for Kindness. Unexpected kindness is the most effective variety of this virtue. When I’m not at my best, a bit of TLC can salvage the moment for all concerned. I became a recipient of random kindnesses early on in my life. When I woke my mom in the middle of the night with a childhood woe, she responded with patience and love. She returned me to my room and tucked me into my bed with a second good-night kiss. Thoughtful teachers responded to my occasional transgressions with understanding rather than anger. Their mercy encouraged me to be my best. When life became more complicated through my teens and into adulthood, I responded far more positively to a kind word than to a less-than-civil reprimand. The good news in all of this is that I took these lessons in kindness to heart. When I became a teacher and a parent, I found that my students and my own children responded best when kindness set the tone of our interactions.

You know, it’s easy to extend kindness to the people we like and to those who offer the same courtesy to us. Unfortunately, those whose names aren’t on our “A List” likely need our kindness most. We need only to look Jesus’ way to find examples of kindness offered indiscriminately. That kindness changed lives and this world forever.

Gracious God, thank you for giving us the capacity to respond to one another with kindness. Inspire us to do so, especially when it’s most difficult and most needed.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Truly Wonderful Lives

This is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, the church closes the Christmas Season just as we have in our homes. I admit that I delayed the process for as long as possible. It was only when a local meteorologist promised bearable temperatures that I set aside my reluctance to assist my husband. Because our younger and more daring friend assisted Mike with the outdoor lighting, I tended to the indoors. I urged myself on with this year’s take-down-the-tree viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. Because I began my work in the living room and the television is in the family room, I raised the volume enough to allow me to hear the dialogue while I worked. This film is such a part of me that I can visualize every scene without watching a single frame. While the guys rolled up light strings outdoors, George Bailey and I became reacquainted indoors.

As I boxed ornaments and rolled up my own portion of lights, I celebrated the many people to whom George’s life had made all of the difference in the world. As I absorbed the dialogue, images from George Bailey’s life flooded my memory. The selfless decisions which defined George elicited frequent tears. Though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, I suffered every disappointment with George as though I had no idea that things would work out in the end. “Poor courageous George,” I thought to myself. “If only you realized just how good you are!” And so it went until the movie ended and our Christmas Tree was bare.

When Mike and I finished the tasks at hand, it was time to commit our tree to the parkway. There it would wait for a public works employee to toss it into a truck for the trip to the Land of Mulch. As I considered that barren tree, it occurred to me that George Bailey felt like that tree far too often. He should have felt good about the wonderful things he’d done for others. He saved his brother’s life and that of a sick child who was sent the wrong medicine by a distraught pharmacist. He took over his father’s business to prevent the loss of many jobs and many more homes. He used his own savings to send his brother to college in his place. All the while, George fought temptation in the form of Mr. Potter, the most miserly man in town, to stand up for God’s riff raff. Yes, George Bailey was a good man who gave the working poor and many others something to live for. Finally, when George felt that he had no more to give, the God-of-the-Riff-Raff stepped in through Clarence, a bumbling angel-to-be. If you watch the movie, you can join George in celebrating what truly was a wonderful life. Celebrating our lives on this earth is the point of our celebration of The Baptism of the Lord.

Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17) tells us that John the Baptizer was deeply inspired by Jesus. When Jesus asked to be baptized, John was reluctant to cooperate because he felt Jesus should baptize him. Though pleased with John’s faith, Jesus asked John to baptize him just the same. After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan River, God entered into the scene to announce to all who would hear, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words, proclaimed from the heavens over Jesus, were meant just as readily for John the Baptist, for the George Baileys among us, for you and for me. Though they don’t echo from the clouds above, God speaks these words just as clearly in the depths of our hearts. God’s words resound every time we embrace the difficult, selfless choices that make all of the difference in the world to those around us. When we feel we have no more to give, like George who was tempted to hurl himself off a bridge, God steps in. Though God’s appearance may not be as tangible as that of Clarence, God’s presence is very real.

Though I know how It’s A Wonderful Life will end, I cry through it every time I watch it. This phenomenon repeated itself in Jesus’ life as well. Jesus prayed often. Jesus revealed God’s love in his actions toward those who needed him and in stories like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus knew his life would end well, yet he suffered more disappointment and discouragement along the way than George Bailey. The same is true of you and me. Though our faith tells us that all will be well in the end, we worry inconsolably. When we fail to see the value of what we do, we join George Bailey on that bridge. Still, it’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall George’s joy when his life was given back to him. It’s when we’re on that bridge that we must recall God’s words at the baptism of Jesus and realize that they are meant for us as well. “This is my beloved… with whom I am well pleased.” Yes, when we’re on that bridge, our lives are given back to us as well. This happy ending is truly the happiest beginning we will ever know!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved