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

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Waiting Peacefully

This Second Sunday of Advent, we begin our liturgy with the lighting of two candles on our Advent Wreath. Last weekend’s candle invited us to renew our hope by acknowledging God’s promising presence among us. Though this is the season of waiting, just as God’s people awaited the Messiah, we cannot help celebrating that arrival in the moments at hand. This week’s candle draws us in from December’s cold and that of our weary world. Its flame lights our way back to God who promises us all that we will ever need. It’s light draws us into the glow of God’s peace.

On the First Sunday of Advent, I lamented with Isaiah over the many imperfections of this life. I joined him in questioning God’s wisdom in allowing us the freedom to do what we wish. After all, we don’t always choose what’s best for ourselves or for those we’ve been given to love. Fortunately, I joined Isaiah in coming to one additional important realization: Along with the gift of freedom, God offers us the gift of good counsel. Isaiah put it perfectly when he prayed, “O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are the work of your hands.” Upon hearing those words, I promised myself that I would hold onto that image throughout Advent. What more can I ask than to have God’s hands wrapped gently around me, molding my rough edges into the person God knows I can be?

This past week, that image transformed potentially trying moments into joyful encounters. Tasks which might have overwhelmed me became memories in the making. My dear husband and I decorated for Christmas with the bows and beads, lights and ornaments we’ve gathered over the years. Each one inspired gratitude for blessings received and tragedies overcome. Though I cannot know what the next few decades will bring, I expect only more of the same because this is what God has taught me to do. As for this coming week, let’s turn to Isaiah once again for inspiration…

In today’s first reading (Isaiah 40:1-5; 9-11), the prophet heralds the onset of new times for his people. Isaiah rejoices because God’s passionate love has not run out. God is the shepherd who “…feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom.” While I found great solace in the image of myself as clay in God’s hand, I find greater peace in seeing myself as a lamb in God’s arms. God can certainly work miracles by molding my imperfections away. Still, how much more God can do with me when I’m drawn into God’s arms! What more might I become as my head rests against God’s chest so close to God’s heart?

This image evokes both a chill and remarkable peace. Resting in God’s arms is a welcome retreat. Yet I must consider the consequences. Once I allow myself to be in such close proximity to my God, I might never be able to pull myself away. I might never again be able to experience the things of this world in quite the same way. I might always be distracted by God’s beating heart, always looking toward something greater than this world has to offer. It occurs to me that I must thank Isaiah in my prayer today for revealing another facet of God’s love. How attuned Isaiah must have been to our loving Creator, for he describes God’s love most eloquently.

The flickering flames of our Advent Wreath’s candles beckon me once again. Though my thoughts unexpectedly return to all I hope to accomplish by Christmas, those flickering flames plead for my attention. I imagine myself to be the tiny lamb whom Isaiah sees in God’s arms. Suddenly, the tasks which await me at home and here at my parish seem less daunting. Suddenly, I find myself impelled to do what I must to share the peace I experience in God’s arms. Perhaps I can imitate Isaiah’s generosity by sharing Christmas Peace a few weeks early.

Inspired as I am by Isaiah’s peaceful image of you and me in God’s embrace, I acknowledge that not one of our lives is a series of perfect Hallmark Moments. Still, I can’t help sharing Isaiah’s conviction that you and I can transform those imperfections into something better if we choose to do so. How can we waste our time lamenting when we’re rapt in God’s peace? This coming week, will you join me in making this your Advent Prayer?

Loving God, I am the tiny lamb at rest in your arms. Hold me close to your heart that I may learn to love as you love. Let me see with your eyes, let me listen with your ears and let me touch every moment with your peace. Be with me as I embrace every day with the peace of Christmas. Amen.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Get Ready!

On that day,
A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse…

Isaiah 11:1

Advent 2017 begins this Sunday. Once again, we’re given four weeks to engage in joyful anticipation of Christmas. Most years, it’s extremely difficult for me to find the time to truly and joyfully anticipate this feast. There’s just so much to do! As I look ahead to the next twenty-six days, I’ve decided to try to recapture the simplified life-style of my youth. This year, I’m going to prioritize, organize and enjoy the wait for Christmas. Though I realize I addressed this very thing quite recently, it bears repeating. It is in all of our best interest to find a do-able, productive and happy path to Christmas Day.

Will you join me on this path by seeking a bit of simplification as well? Though none of us can shirk all of our responsibilities, we can all probably let a few things fall to the wayside. Trust me. Once you start, this will become far easier than you expect!

As for me, I’ve already urged my dear husband in this direction. We’re starting to decorate a few days earlier and we’re already assembling our shopping list. We’re simplifying menus and preparing our Christmas cards earlier as well. Yes, this business of simplifying life can become habitual! Enjoy!

Loving God, help us to take joyful steps to Christmas Day.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Joyful Expectation

Now the people were filled with expectation…
Luke 3:15

The week before Thanksgiving, I wrapped the Christmas gifts which my husband and I had already purchased. When he asked why I was determined to do this, I reminded him of our older son’s Advent discontent years earlier when he was in high school. Mike the Younger was having a tough time of it because I was a little too adept at keeping Christmas gifts “under wraps” before Christmas morning. Apparently, his friends’ parents wrapped and displayed gifts as soon as they were purchased. This allowed their offspring to engage in some good-natured detective work regarding what each package might contain. All of this added to their anticipation of their families’ gift exchanges. These antics also likely added to the joy Christmas morning when various guesses regarding the gifts at hand were proven to be accurate or not.

I gave a good deal of thought to my elder son’s complaint that year. I also considered his often reluctant and sometimes wholehearted participation in our family’s Advent traditions. Young Mike participated in our trek to Wisconsin for a Christmas Tree that year, but showed little interest in decorating it. When asked what he might like for Christmas, this son of ours provided a few ideas which implied that this wasn’t necessarily his main focus at the moment. At the same time, he quizzed his younger brother frequently about the contents of his Christmas wish list. Our elder child vacillated between wanting to celebrate and trying to ignore what had once been his favorite day of the year.

In an effort to rekindle the Joy of Christmas in my offspring, I decided to comply with his suggestion regarding our gifts. Since his younger brother had come to a “revised” understanding of Santa’s role in all of this, I knew there was no danger of ruining his Christmas in the process. When Mike came home from school that afternoon, I told him that I thought his idea of getting the gifts ready early was great. I added, “It’ll drive Tim and Dad crazy trying to figure out what we’ve gotten them.” Never mind that my elder son would join his dad and brother in this wondering! Every few days thereafter, I added a gift to our Christmas cache. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much package shaking. I think my three men feared ruining any surprises in the offing. They did, however, look very carefully to detect even the smallest change in the configuration of gifts which awaited them. In the process, they huddled together often to discuss the possibilities. In the end, the joyful anticipation of Christmas returned to our home.

As I look back upon that long-passed Advent, it occurs to me that my son probably didn’t actually care all that much about gifts being displayed early on. What did concern him was the sense of expectation that he had enjoyed as a little boy and that he could not recapture as a young man. Mike envied his friends’ opportunity to relish the promise of Christmas that their gifts represented. My son also wanted more than a one-day celebration which would come and go with the ticking of the clock. Though he likely didn’t realize it, Mike wanted and needed an experience which lasted the entire season! In a roundabout way, my dear son found this in the family tradition which we initiated that year and in the many other traditions which are part and parcel of our family Christmases. This is the reason I prepared this year’s gifts early. Though the flu kept my son Mike and his family from examining those gifts on Thanksgiving Day, there is still plenty of time for them to peek at the wrapped treasures where a hint of the promise of Christmas Joy lies.

You know, the people who awaited the Messiah were restless and unsure of that coming, much like my son who wrestled with the coming of Christmas. Their sometimes intense expectation was often overshadowed by their extremely difficult lives under Roman rule. In his gospel (Luke 3:10-18), Luke tells us that God responded to the people’s angst through John the Baptist. John rekindled the people’s anticipation with the good news that the Messiah already walked among them. John did everything to ensure that those who heard him took notice. Luke tells us that the people held onto John’s every word and were “…filled with expectation.” They rejoiced because something great was in the making. Finally, this life’s imperfections faded in the joy of a promise fulfilled. Though we hear John the Baptist’s message two millenniums later than his contemporaries, the good news remains the same. The Messiah continues to walk among us. All the while, he fills us with joyful anticipation of the moment at hand and of the amazing things to come!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Prepare The Way…

On that day,
A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse…

Isaiah 11:1

It was two years ago that I had my shoulder repaired. Though I survived this ordeal, the month of November, especially Thanksgiving Day, has unexpectedly elicited related memories. I recall timing the surgery so Thanksgiving and Christmas preparations would distract me from the painful recovery which I was warned would come. As it happened, these distractions weren’t as helpful as I’d hoped. Still, the pain wasn’t as horrific as expected either. I eventually learned to put my incapacitation to good use. As a result, I embraced Advent 2013 with great fervor.

You know, Advent 2015 begins tomorrow. Once again, I am given four weeks to engage in joyful anticipation of Christmas. Most years, except for 2013, it is extremely difficult for me to find the time to truly and joyfully anticipate this feast. There is just so much to do. As I look ahead to the next twenty-seven days, I’ve decided to recapture the simplified life-style which was forced upon me after my surgery. This year, I’m going to prioritize, organize and enjoy the wait for Christmas.

Will you join me in seeking a bit of simplification as well? Though none of us can shirk all of our responsibilities, we can all probably let a few things fall to the wayside. Trust me. Once you start, this will become easier than you think!

Loving God, heaven touched the earth the day Jesus was born. This year, help us to celebrate this miracle joyfully.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Tasty Morsels of Joy

Let all your works give you thanks, O Lord,
and let your faithful ones bless you.

From Psalm 145

As I passed the calendar in our kitchen this morning, I was tempted to count the days until my next post-op check-up. This visit with my doctor will occur just two days before Christmas. On that day, I will be given some indication of when I can dispose of my arm sling. I would have begun that count if falling snow outside the window had not caught my eye and reminded me that there are far more important things to anticipate on this December day. So it was that I abandoned my calendar and took a few minutes to sit before our Christmas Tree.

Ornaments which mark our granddaughters’ birth caught my eye. Hmmm. These three celebrate the wait for Christmas by attending to their Advent Calendars. Each day, the girls take turns placing a little stuffed animal or person onto the calendar’s Nativity scene which hangs in their kitchen. On December 25, Baby Jesus will complete the scene. Three other calendars rest on the kitchen counter. Every day, the girls open one door on their calendars where a tiny piece of chocolate rests. These usually forbidden treats give my little granddaughters a small taste of the joyful anticipation that is meant to characterize our Advent observances. As the girls savor those tiny morsels of chocolate, I consider how I might savor this joyful time of waiting a bit more positively.

Loving God, I am blessed to know the promises of that first Christmas. Help me to focus upon the miracle of your presence among us and to anticipate this Christmas with a truly joyful heart -especially when my convalescence distracts me. And, dear God, please bless those who suffer far more than I do today.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved