Gifted with Heavenly Peace

A few weeks ago, Grandpa Mike and I spent the day with our grandsons. Big Brother Danny attended preschool that morning while Grandpa and I entertained little Ben. Though this five-month-old smiles perpetually, especially for Grandpa, he didn’t do so that morning. He was hungry and tired and simply wanted Mommy to feed him and rock him to sleep. Mommy had done this just before she left for the day. Afterward, poor Ben had to rely upon me and my meager resources to soothe him. Grandpa warmed a bottle while I rocked Ben and cooed my best. I sang a string of little songs which I habitually compose on the run for whichever grandchild is on hand. Though Ben normally smiles in return, that day, he howled all the louder. When I’d sapped my creativity, I walked Ben to the Christmas Tree with the hope that the lights would distract him from his woe. On the way, I sang Silent Night. By the time I voiced “all is calm, all is bright” Ben stopped crying and began to coo in response. Finally, Ben’s milk was warm. Though he normally guzzles these liquid feasts as quickly as possible, this time Ben slowly savored every drop. As for me, I continued to sing Silent Night until Ben finished that bottle and went to sleep. As I lay him in his crib, I whispered a prayer of gratitude for Ben’s willingness to “…sleep in heavenly peace.”

I tiptoed back to the family room where Grandpa was sitting in the quiet. Danny’s preschool bus wouldn’t bring him home for another hour, so we basked in “heavenly peace” as well. We chatted about the frenzy of the days ahead, finalized our Christmas lists and tweaked our shopping plans. In spite of the uneasiness in the world-at-large around us, we voiced our gratitude for the blessings of our family, our friends and one another. Throughout that brief reprieve, we savored every minute of the heavenly peace we’d found…

Not long after we celebrate this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll hug our loved ones and greet those we meet with a joyful “Merry Christmas!” In spite of the imperfections of this life which will persist through December 24 and 25, we’ll embrace the heavenly peace we encounter. That peace will come in the company of our loved ones. That peace will come as our sometimes imperfect Christmas preparations evolve into perfect expressions of our affection for one another. Though our human quirks will punctuate our Christmas festivities far more often than our Hallmark expectations prefer, heavenly peace will remain intact. We will savor that peace just as Little Ben savors every drop of his milk because it is within this peace that we find true joy and it is within this peace that God dwells. I’ve insisted throughout Advent 2018 that we’ve had no need to wait for God’s coming because God has been with us all along. Christmas simply offers us another opportunity to celebrate God’s presence among us and within us.

Today, Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:39-45) encourages us to embrace heavenly peace in our lives in our joy and in our sorrow. Mary did this in spite of her frightening circumstances. Though with child herself, Mary made the three-day journey to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. It’s unlikely that Mary’s family owned a donkey, so she probably walked the entire distance. Mary might have excused herself from tending to her cousin in light of her own predicament as an unwed mother-to-be. Her betrothed Joseph was home contemplating what to do about their impending marriage. Still, Mary reached deep within to embrace God’s peace. What’s more, she went on to share that peace with her cousin. Luke tells us that the moment Mary arrived, Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb. This tiny movement reassured Elizabeth. With absolute certainty that she was in God’s presence, Elizabeth asked, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? …Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Elizabeth’s remarks encouraged Mary’s certainty regarding God’s love for her. After this visit, both Mary and Elizabeth basked in heavenly peace. Though what lay ahead would be trying at best for both women, they embraced the things to come with God at their sides.

Grandpa Mike and I never miss an opportunity to spend time with our grandchildren and their parents. We simply can’t resist them. Whether we’ve gathered for a soccer game, a birthday party or at someone’s bedside in a hospital, we find peace in one another’s company. Our love for each other hints at God’s love for us and it is in God’s love that we experience heavenly peace at its best. As this Fourth Sunday of Advent gives way to Christmas, I encourage you to unwrap the peace in every encounter which comes your way. Whether in our families, in our friendships or in the unexpected acquaintances whom we meet along the way, there is heavenly peace to be discovered. Yes, God is present among us and God gifts us with that presence in surprising ways! Merry Christmas!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Bring Christmas Joy to Every Day!

Recent Christmas shopping and wrapping drew my thoughts to the precious parcels we present to our loved ones each year. Whether we’re gifting a family member, a dear friend or a person in need whose name appears on a colorful tag, we express our love through these offerings. Though our children have been adults for some time, my dear husband and I continue to do the same. We do our best to gift them with something which will bring smiles to their faces on Christmas Day. This year, as Mike and I plotted in this regard, I recalled the year when Christmas morning’s surprises weren’t quite enough for our older son. Our firstborn was seeking a bit of Christmas Joy long before December 25…

It was a quarter century ago and a few weeks before Christmas when our son Mike returned home from a friend’s house. “Why don’t we put out our presents before Christmas?” he asked. “My friends’ parents wrap up the gifts and put them out right away. They get to look at them and try to figure out what they’re getting. We don’t get to see anything around here!” Because he was in high school at the time, Mike’s observations perplexed me. Though he’d begrudgingly participated in our annual trek to Wisconsin for a Christmas Tree, he hadn’t shown much interest in decorating it. I was hanging ornaments alone when Mike voiced his concerns. When asked what he might like for Christmas, this son of ours provided minimal ideas which implied that a bit of cash might be the best gift of all. At the same time, he quizzed his younger brother frequently about what he wanted for Christmas. My elder child vacillated between wanting to prepare for Christmas Day and his inability to wait for Christmas Joy.

I considered my son’s predicament as I placed a few more ornaments on the tree. Memories of events that inspired annual ornament purchases (Mike’s first Christmas, his fascination with Santa, then sports, then the telephone, then girls and then driving) filled my head. Mike enjoyed Christmas as a little boy, but he struggled at that time to find meaning in the holy day. I maintained then, as I do today, that the Christmas Season is my favorite time of year. I couldn’t bear the thought of my own child not celebrating Christmas with equal enthusiasm. With that, I left my decorating to devise a way to give my son an early dose of Christmas Joy. “I think your idea of getting the gifts ready early is great. Tim and Dad will go crazy trying to figure out what we got them,” I said. Never mind that my elder son would join his dad and brother in this wondering! Every few days thereafter, I put out a gift for Mike or Tim or my husband. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much package shaking. I think each of them was afraid of ruining any surprises in the process. My three men did, however, look very carefully to detect even the smallest change in the configuration of gifts lying near the tree. In the process, my men huddled together often to discuss their gift possibilities. They also spent more time than ever enjoying the tree and the collection of ornaments which spoke of Christmas Past, the joy of Christmas Present and the promise of Christmas-to-Come.

When all was said and done, I realized that my son Mike didn’t actually care all that much about his gifts being displayed early on. What he did care about was the sense of joy which he’d enjoyed as a little boy but couldn’t recapture as a young man. Mike envied his friends’ opportunity to relish the Christmas Joy which their gifts represented. Mike also wanted much more than a one-day celebration which would come and go with the ticking of the clock. My son wanted to experience Christmas Joy on the day we talked and every day thereafter! Fortunately, my son managed to find what he needed in this family tradition which we initiated that year. As I write, this year’s gifts lie neatly wrapped and ready for perusal. Both of our sons and their wives are doing the same for one another and the five grandchildren they’ve given us. Yes, Christmas Joy abounds today as it does every day!

Today, Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:10-18) chronicles some of John the Baptist’s efforts to announce Jesus’ coming. God had inspired John to encourage the people by sharing the joy which had arrived in Jesus. The people had struggled for centuries and John’s followers were more than ready to embrace the long-awaited Messiah. It was John the Baptist’s good fortune to be the first to assure them that their waiting was over. God was among them!

I think my son Mike had the right idea when he looked for Christmas Joy a little early that year. He’d lost something important to him and he wanted to recapture it. In the process, he unwittingly shared his newly recovered joy with the rest of us. God invites you and me to do the same. Just as John the Baptist risked his life and my son risked an argument with his mother to celebrate God’s presence among us every day, you and I can do what we must to bring the Joy of Christmas to the moment at hand.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Your Truly Valuable Life

While sorting through yet another shelf in my bookcase, I came across something a fellow writer introduced me to more than a decade ago. I couldn’t help smiling as I thumbed through a few pages. This book had enticed me to read three others by the same author. For One More Day, Tuesdays with Morrie and Have a Little Faith are remarkable reads. Still, the fourth book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, made me a true fan. I set down that book and ran to my computer. “I wonder if he’s written anything new,” I asked myself. As soon as I searched his name, an entry appeared which read, “Mitch Albom new book 2018.” When I clicked on the link, I found the summary of an interview with the author. As I read, I happily discovered that Mitch Albom has written a subsequent book, The Next Person You Meet In Heaven. It’s a sequel to the beloved tale which hooked me. Because it’ll be available in October, I turned my calendar to that page and made a note: Look for Albom’s book! With that, I remembered that this writing needed attention. So it was that I left my cluttered bookshelf for another day…

As I considered today’s feast, I realized that my encounter with those books was providential. John the Baptist was Jesus’ much beloved cousin whose life made an amazing difference to his contemporaries. Though John likely had no idea of the extent of his impact, his parents new that he was destined for greatness from the very beginning. God knew the same. Mitch Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, chronicles the last hours in the life of Eddie, an elderly man who wasn’t at all certain that he’d accomplished anything of value in his life. The story which unfolds dispels Eddie’s doubt and that of the rest of us in this regard.

Eddie had spent his adult years working at an amusement park. He married his first love, but sadly enough he and Marguerite were unable to have children. When Marguerite passed away at the onset of their middle years, Eddie was left completely alone. At this point, he was convinced that nothing else in his life mattered. Loneliness filled the decades which followed. Sadness over a life seemingly wasted compounded Eddie’s loneliness. He wondered why he’d been born at all. The mistakes made and the opportunities missed which punctuated Eddie’s memory compounded his misery. The single distraction that numbed his pain was his work. Every day, Eddie moved through a cycle of meticulous safety checks on the rides in the amusement park which employed him. It was Eddie’s expert knowledge of that work which brought about his passing. After he breathed his last, Eddie encountered five people waiting for him on his way to heaven. Each one shared a lesson which helped Eddie to understand the true meaning of life –not just any life, but Eddie’s particular life among his fellow humans.

Life-changing experiences often involve the very question Eddie asked himself when his wife passed away. When we look over our shoulders at our past accomplishments and our failures, they seem not to add up to much of anything. For some reason, we focus upon the rocks and ruts on the road we’ve traveled while being completely oblivious of the flowers and trees we’ve planted along the way. Like Eddie, we overlook the growth and the goodness which resulted from the hard times we’ve survived. Sadly, this focus on the negatives behind us too often keeps us from embracing the opportunities which lie ahead. Fortunately, as was the case with Eddie, we come to our senses through the support of those who love us and a bit of Divine Intervention.

You know, when John the Baptist was conceived, his parents had no doubt regarding the value of his life. John’s mother Elizabeth is the cousin of Jesus’ mother. She became pregnant in her old age which was viewed as an amazing blessing. Pregnant herself, Mary journeyed a long distance to visit Elizabeth. Later, when Elizabeth gave birth, the scriptures tell us that an angel rendered the child’s name to his parents. When the baby’s father presented that given name, he couldn’t help glorifying God. Those present whispered among themselves that John must have been destined for great things because God was already present in the little boy’s life.

The early days of our lives aren’t chronicled in scripture. Still, when God breathed life into us, God sent us on our way to live meaningfully as well. John the Baptist’s greatness was evident in his determination to do the work which God had set before him. Somehow, John knew that God was with him all the while. You and I are invited to embrace the work of our lives as well. Had Eddie opened his eyes a bit earlier, he would have seen the value of his seemingly mundane existence. As it happened, the five people Eddie met in heaven explained everything and Eddie finally experienced peace. You and I needn’t wait for heaven to find meaning in our lives. God reveals it again and again through our simple, yet powerful encounters with every soul we meet along the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Mighty Little Jordan

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

On this second trip to Israel, we viewed the Jordan River from a different vantage point. Last year, we stood on the shore of one of the river’s narrowest segments. Though it seemed a humble setting for Jesus’ baptism, it also typified the Jesus’ unassuming life. This small segment which I could have easily waded across was as important as the rest of this renowned river. The same was true of Jesus’ life. Even his seemingly insignificant interactions changed lives forever.

This year, we viewed the river nearer the tourist center. As a result, we encountered several groups who had assembled to be baptized or to reenact the baptisms they’d celebrated previously. It was difficult to miss the reverence and enthusiasm of each one as he or she entered the water. I couldn’t help acknowledging that Jesus’ simple baptism continues to impact humankind in amazing ways.

As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. Rather than immersing myself into the river’s bounty, I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, you renew us day in and day out. Help us to take notice of your handiwork and to imitate your goodness humbly, just as Jesus did.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Find Joy and Share It!

As we begin our worship today, the pink candle which flickers among the purple calls us to rejoice. The Advent Season is half over and our anticipation of Christmas will soon be satisfied. As I consider the lessons of the past week, I find that I relied quite heavily upon the inspiration I drew from Isaiah. The First Sunday of Advent, Isaiah called us clay formed into goodness by God’s own hand and we prayed that God would make it so. Last Sunday, Isaiah moved us from God’s hands to God’s heart. The prophet called us lambs held in God’s bosom and soothed by the rhythm of God’s heartbeat. We prayed that our hearts might be synchronized with God’s so we might respond to this world as God does. Indeed, this prayer was answered for me…

This past Saturday, my sister Rita hosted a gathering of our cousins. This annual reunion rouses the Christmas Spirit in even the most harried of us. Cheerful conversation and bread broken together made for a most enjoyable afternoon. Though my cousins and I have raised our own children and added several grandchildren to the mix, as we sat around Rita’s table, I quickly returned to my childhood. Though we’ve all evolved into vintage versions of our former selves, I found great joy in envisioning my cousins, my sisters and me as children.

As is always the case, after sharing each of our families’ current events, our conversation drifted to the many family members who are no longer with us. Only our dear Uncle Gerard remains of all of our parents. We’ve also lost cousins who were far too young to take their leave. Still, the spirits of these loved ones lingered about us as we laughed over the decades of great times we shared with them. As I considered my family members in the hereafter, I could almost hear my mom and dad assuring me, “You know, Mary, if you really believe what you say you believe, you know that this is what we lived for. We are in a very good place!” I was tempted to respond aloud, “Yes, but I still miss you!” Of course, I thought better of this as I didn’t want to leave my extended family with the impression that I’d gone over the deep end with no life-preserver! Rather, I reminded them of our parents’ great faith and how they comforted us each and every time we had to say good-bye. Though our collective childhood was punctuated too often by these events, my most vivid memory of our family gatherings continues to be the joy we found in the midst of them.

As I prepared for this writing, it occurred to me that my faith-filled upbringing has much in common with our Advent 2017 journey. Both have much to teach us. The past year has been a sobering experience on many levels. Worldwide unrest, unyielding natural disasters and ever-worsening violence have given us all reason to step back to find some perspective. At the same time, our hearts nudge us forward to do something to improve things. My parents’ faith gave me some sense of God’s ongoing concern and our Advent journeys do the same. As we focus upon the joy of Christmas 2017, we must become the clay in God’s hands and the lambs in God’s arms. We must do what we can to transform every day with the joy God infused into the first Christmas.

This is where we find Isaiah in today’s first reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11). This prophet who allowed himself to be molded by God’s hands and who aligned his own heart with God’s heart announced, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord…” As Isaiah came to understand God’s intent more fully, he preached tirelessly to encourage those around him to do the same. Centuries later, John’s gospel (1:6-8, 19-28) echoed Isaiah’s message through The Baptizer. When asked his role in the grand scheme of things, John the Baptist responded, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” He continued Isaiah’s attempt to bring understanding to the people regarding all that God has in store. As was the case with Isaiah, John’s work was difficult. As for you and me, we can choose to be hard-hearted people completely distracted by this life’s troubles or we can allow God to mold us into joyful lambs who can’t help sharing the good news of what lies beyond our journeys here!

The joy we find in this church today invites us to look beyond the windows into a world of opportunity to spread the promise of Christmas. However we choose to do so, we can bring joy to the moments at hand. However we choose to do so, we can make every day Christmas Day for ourselves and for those we’ve been given to love both nearby and far away.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Jordan River

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

The Jordan River flows freely along Israel’s western border. The river is referenced often in the scriptures. Though I stood at its shore near a very narrow portion which I could have easily walked across, the river’s significance overwhelmed me.

When Moses looked toward the Promised Land, he saw the Jordan River flowing down from Mount Hermon into the Jordan Valley. Though Moses never entered the Promised Land, his people did. Not long into their occupancy, they turned to worship idols. Elijah is among the prophets who attempted to guide the people back to God. When Elijah grew old and Elisha prepared to take his place, the two traveled to the Jordan Valley where Elijah’s days among us ended. Just after crossing the Jordan together, the scriptures tell us Elijah was carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot and Elisha returned to continue his work among the people

Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist, last of the prophets of old, called people to repentance on the shores of the Jordan. They sealed their commitments with John’s baptism. The baptizer’s most significant baptism was that of Jesus. The scriptures tell us Jesus took his baptism seriously. Afterward, he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public life among us. When Jesus emerged, he returned to John and that river where the first five of his disciples joined him.

As I stood at the river’s edge, I saw dozens of white-robed people in the distance. They’d come to renew their baptisms in the waters where Jesus began his work. As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, help us to respond to your love by revealing it to all of those we meet along the way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved