Look and See!

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about our visits to the Holy Land, especially this past year’s adventure. Because it is unlikely that I’ll travel there again, I was careful to listen to our guide’s every word and to take in everything within view as completely as possible. I didn’t want to miss even the tiniest detail of the sites before me. I was pleasantly surprised by both my clear recollections of the things I’d seen before and my appreciation of the new sites added to this year’s itinerary. Each one elicited heartfelt gratitude as images of Jesus’ place in all of this filled me up. I thanked God often for gifting me with perceptive eyes and a perceptive heart which served me well for the duration of this trip.

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we revisit the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind, my thoughts turn to a contemporary who was deprived of his vision from birth much like the man whom Jesus met that day so long ago. This person was our tour guide Yossi. As I’ve mentioned before, Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life. While he provided amazing commentary throughout our tour, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi always smiled as he revealed Israel’s treasures to us one by one. Eventually, we discovered that Yossi’s vision of life in Jesus’ homeland wasn’t always as clear and acute as it was when we met him…

Yossi was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that communist setting, there was neither time nor place for talk of God. Though Yossi’s family eventually left to live and work independently, they also remained independent from God. With his blindness toward his Creator intact, Yossi grew into a successful hardworking and community-minded Israeli. He continues to be keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. In spite of his secular status, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of Yossi’s alleged lack of faith. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts because he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his tablet and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi reverently read passages which featured this teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide considered himself to be secular because he didn’t want to be confused with the religious Hasidic Jewish people. In Yossi’s mind, they were the blind ones who saw nothing beyond the rules and regulations dictated by their faith. They seemed to have lost sight of the needs of others because stringent rules took precedence over everything and everyone else. In contrast, Yossi lead us to the home of a couple who have dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel among the Jewish people. Jacob and Elisheva found a great treasure in Jesus and they do all they can to open the eyes of others to Jesus’ message. Though they suffer both subtle and overt persecution, the couple persists in revealing the gifts they’ve found in Jesus to all who will listen. “We can only open their eyes,” Elisheva said. “It is up to them to look and see.” As she spoke, I wondered, “Had Yossi opened his eyes and seen?”

It seems that his neighbors and the temple authorities were the blind ones when it came to the plight of the unseeing man in today’s gospel. These misguided souls saw the man’s parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction upon him. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. It was Jesus who looked beyond the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. Jesus saw precisely what God sees whenever God peers into an aching heart. Jesus saw a suffering soul whose only need was God’s healing love and Jesus went on to share that love with him. The man’s cure was an unexpected bonus.

While listening to Yossi, it occurred to me that an encounter with Jesus along the way had likely done the same for him. Though he was deprived of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz and grew into adulthood, something urged Yossi to open his eyes. When he did, Yossi saw the gifts God offers to us all. Like the man born blind, Yossi was changed forever in the process. Even without eyes to see, the blind man recognized Jesus as an emissary of God’s love. In spite of his Godless upbringing, Yossi recognizes the same. How fortunate you and I are to be blessed with that same vision of God’s healing love!

It seems to me that it is more important than ever for us to keep our visions of God’s healing love in the forefront for ourselves and for those who share this difficult time with us. While we do our best to keep our loved ones and ourselves healthy and safe, we also pray that those infected with the virus and the brave souls who care for them also find consolation in God who remains at their sides.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let Us Pray…

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faith…

Galatians 5:22

I’ve shared before that one of the most precious and inspiring treasures we encountered in Israel was our tour guide Yossi. Though this was our third trip to Israel, we never tired of Yossi’s commentaries regarding the sites before us, his homeland, Jesus and life in this world. Every encounter revealed another facet of this remarkable man.

Remember, Yossi was raised in an Israeli kibbutz where communism ruled and God was extinct. He describes himself as an atheist who loves his country, but who is also acutely aware of its flaws. Yossi asked us often to pray for his people as all concerned needed to set aside their differences. They needed to live in peace. Now Yossi is an archaeologist and a professor of this subject at the university. Still, his scientific and non-religious background never kept him from asking us to pray…

When we visited one of the Holy Land’s beautiful churches, Yossi pulled his flute from his backpack. This dear man who claimed not to know God settled himself in the sanctuary to play. As Yossi blew into his flute, he closed his eyes. Each note fulled that church and our hearts. A visible peace enveloped Yossi. I whispered to myself, “You may think you’re an atheist, Yossi, but just now you’re closer to God than many of us will ever be. Thank you for allowing me into your holy space.”

Yossi thought he couldn’t pray. Yet he spoke to God quite clearly through his music. Sometimes, you and I feel distant from God as well. Sometimes, life’s circumstances or the troubles brewing deep within us seem to rob us of God’s presence in our lives. It is during these times that we must do as Yossi did that day. We must settle into the sanctuary which is our hearts and pour out our hearts to God. Just as Yossi likely discovered that day, God is far closer to us than we know.

Dear God, thank you for remaining with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Never Blind To God’s Love

A few weeks ago, my husband-the-deacon surprised me with an “honorable mention” in his homily. Mike shared that he’s noticed that I occasionally become cranky when the tasks at hand threaten to overwhelm me. He quickly added that he’s also discovered that I’ve found ways to alleviate my angst when this occurs. I walk outdoors or browse through our family photo albums to put things into perspective and to transform my mood. The gospel that day featured Jesus’ transfiguration and Mike hoped to encourage us all to transform ourselves and one another when our troubles threaten to get the best of us. Because I was relieved by the harmless nature of Mike’s homily reference, I didn’t tell him that he neglected to share the third means by which I transform my worries into peace of mind: I write. I set aside everything and return to my book. This manuscript chronicles my life and its focus is the ongoing influence my loved ones, my church and God have had on me. Returning to these transforming episodes even for a few paragraphs puts the woes of the present in perspective. Afterward, I embrace what lies ahead with new energy and new eyes.

Most recently, these therapeutic writing sessions have been influenced by our trip to Israel. Though this was our second venture to Jesus’ homeland, I experienced something new every day. While the ruins and other attractions hadn’t changed, my appreciation of them had. I moved beyond the externals before me to the life Jesus actually led. The images offered by religious artwork don’t always portray the realities of life in Jesus’ day. As our guide often said, “This is a crazy place. But we do our best.” Jesus lived in crazy times as well. As the locals scurried about to tend to the business at hand, I imagined Jesus peering beyond the determined faces of his contemporaries and into their hearts. Jesus always found ways to open the eyes of those around him to God’s love. He’s done the same for me all of my life. Recently, an unexpected encounter unearthed memories I’d buried long ago. I was so taken aback that I shared my misery with my poor husband: “Back then, nothing could have prepared me for what happened and I didn’t know what to do!” Oddly, just speaking those words reminded me of how far I’ve come since. That evening, I returned to my manuscript. Though I’m only on page 93, those pages offer a lifetime of examples of the “new eyes” God has given me. Happily, these eyes remain open to God’s love no matter what!

Today, John’s gospel (John 9:1-41) promises new eyes to anyone who makes the effort to turn his or her attention to God. In this passage, it is the man born blind who focused the people’s attention on Jesus. This man kept a daily vigil at the side of the road. Though he saw nothing with his clouded vision, he sensed activities of every sort around him. The blind man’s persistence likely irritated passersby into providing the few coins and morsels of food which helped him to survive each day. On the day John references, this man sensed that something was different. On that day, he knew that someone in the crowd passing him would provide far more than a day’s sustenance. It didn’t take the blind man long to recognize his hero. Fortunately for the blind man, it didn’t take Jesus any time at all to recognize him.

What must it have been like when Jesus smeared that bit of mud over the man’s eyelids? I don’t think the man flinched a bit. Did he sense the power in Jesus’ fingers? When he rinsed his eyes in the Pool of Siloam as Jesus asked, did the man feel the love which brought him his first glimpse of the light of day and the light of God? When questioned by onlookers, the man attributed his cure to “that man they call Jesus.” When the Pharisees inquired about the cure, the man referred to Jesus as “a prophet.” This event caused such a raucous that even the man’s parents were brought in for interrogation. In their fear, they referred the Pharisees back to their son who called Jesus “the Son of Man.” The Pharisees failed to appreciate the blind man’s new vision. Rather, they rewarded the man’s faith by casting him out of the temple only to meet Jesus once again. It was during this second encounter that Jesus became much more than a prophet. In this encounter, the man who was once blind saw God.

In Mike’s homily, he referenced those occasions when I forget to view my world with the new eyes God has given me. I’m not always like that blind man who didn’t miss a thing. When Jesus crossed his lonely and painful path, the blind man used his new eyes and he saw Jesus for who he was: The embodiment of God’s love for him. When Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind to this love, Jesus opened our eyes to the same. The blind man happily learned that it isn’t up to us humans to judge who is worthy of God’s love because God loves us all. It also isn’t’ up to us to determine who is worthy of our love. Our task is to move beyond the blindness of the Pharisees, to see who is in need of our love and to share it freely.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Crusaders For Love

Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.
From Luke 6:36

On this Eve of Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turn to my visit to the ancient city of Akko in Israel. Today, numerous Muslims and Christians live, work and worship in this town while coexisting in harmony. This peaceful setting provided a refreshing retreat from the troubles of the outside world. Still, Akko’s long history, which began more than 1000 years before Christ, is punctuated with violent interludes.

As is the case with many of Israel’s cities, Akko’s location made it an attractive conquest for those seeking a local stronghold or a gateway to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Crusaders punctuated Akko’s history with conquests and losses which led to much bloodshed. Though the Crusaders fought with seemingly lofty intent, their presence in this place failed to inspire peace. These warriors who claimed to fight in the name of God’s Church often proved to be crude men who ravaged the localities in which they found themselves without reservation. It didn’t take much to imagine what the local citizenry likely thought of these efforts. Though I was struck with amazement as I walked through the well-preserved Crusader stronghold, I also shuddered as I considered the evil-doing which occurred there.

We need only to reference today’s news here and throughout the world to question much of what we humans purport to do in God’s name. Sometimes, we need only to look back at our own day. Do any of us actually believe that we serve God by harming one another? If we believe what we say we believe, that “other” is also one of God’s children.

As I consider how I’ll spend Lent 2018, I must look at Jesus’ life among us for some pointers.

Loving God, help us to love one another as Jesus taught us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Can You See Me Now?

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about someone we met in Israel. Though he could see as well as the rest of us, our new friend was deprived of his vision from birth just like the man born blind. Still, he had much to add to the memorable adventure my dear husband and I enjoyed there. We know our tour director Nancy well as she is a parishioner here at St. Paul’s. As a result, we were certain this trip would be everything we expected. Our tour guide was another matter. Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life in general. While he provided amazing commentary throughout, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi smiled all the while as he revealed Israel’s treasures one by one.

We eventually discovered that Yossi didn’t always have access to those treasures. He was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that socialist community, everyone worked to supply everyone with what they needed. In his case, Yossi observed people who were inclined to take all they needed, but who chose not to work. These “lazy ones” soured Yossi’s view of this lifestyle and unwittingly inspired his dedicated work ethic. Yossi celebrated the day his family was able to leave that place to fend for themselves with some autonomy. At the same time, Yossi remained community-minded. He’s keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. Yossi also considers himself to be a secular Jew. Still, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of his “secular” status. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts as he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Yossi carried his backpack everywhere. Among the items he needed for the day, Yossi carried musical instruments. Some days, Yossi sported his flute. Other days, he carried a tiny guitar-like instrument, perhaps a balalaika. At our first stop in Caesarea, we visited the complex constructed by King Herod more than two thousand years ago. It includes a hippodrome, the ideal setting for the first of many concerts with which Yossi gifted us. Yossi did this throughout our tour whenever the Spirit moved him –and I mean that literally! Yossi offered his most precious concert in Emmaus in the Crusader church there. He surprised me for my birthday with Schubert’s Ave Maria. I tried to sing along, but was so taken with this gesture that I could only listen. Yossi played with his eyes tightly closed as his music drifted heavenward. I knew then that Yossi prays, though perhaps he doesn’t see this.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his iPad and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi read passages he’d chosen to bring us back to the Teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide called himself a “secular” Jew because he didn’t want to be confused with “religious” Hasidic Jews. Yossi found them overbearing. In Yossi’s mind, they seem to have “blinded” themselves with rules and regulations. They’ve lost sight of their concern for all of God’s people because these rules have taken precedence over everything and everyone else. In Jerusalem, Yossi lead us to a Christian church where a small community of Messianic Jews worship. When he introduced the woman who would tell us about her fellow Jews who believe in Jesus, she turned to Yossi to insist that he could offer the same explanation effortlessly. Yossi only smiled as he urged her on.

John’s gospel (John 9:1-41) tells us that the man born blind was completely misunderstood by his neighbors and the temple authorities. They saw his parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction on their son. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. Only Jesus looked through the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. It occurs to me that Jesus is doing the same for Yossi. Though he was robbed of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz, something -or Someone- impels Yossi to open his eyes to the gifts God offers him today. Yossi read those scripture passages with the passion of a true believer. The things Yossi shared came from deep within his heart. Yossi inspired me as much as the places we visited in Israel, perhaps more so. In the end, it seems to me that Yossi is far closer to God than he lets on, so close that it’s impossible for him to hide this. In spite of Yossi’s once-impaired vision, God is hard at work within him, just as God is working within you and me.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peace Be With You

Blessed are the peacemakers;
they shall be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

As I checked my notes from our trip to Israel, I realized I have something more to share regarding our visit to Akko. Every morning and evening, we gathered for meals at our hotel. Lunches were another story. Our guide Yossi arranged a variety of colorful and comfortable settings for these midday feasts. In Akko, Yossi reserved a large table in a semi-outdoor restaurant. This means that we were shielded from the elements by tent-like surroundings while the cooking was done indoors. As always, the food was enjoyable, plentiful and offered at a good price.

In the midst of lunch, Yossi unexpectedly pulled out a tiny stringed instrument which resembles a mandolin, but has a triangular bass (possibly a balalaika???). As soon as he began his mini-concert, the restaurant quieted as everyone turned to listen. Much to Yossi’s surprise, a trio of local actors drifted in to enjoy the concert as well. This time, Yossi played tunes which were among these Arab actors’ favorites, much to their delight. Afterward, Yossi remarked that peace is made through gestures such as this when a Jewish musician concerns himself with his Arab neighbors’ music. Once again, Yossi observed, “They’re just like us. All they want to do is to work and to bring food home to their children. This is how we make peace. We share music rather than war.”

Earlier on, Yossi had called himself an atheist because he was raised in a communist Kibbutz where he said, “God was ripped from my heart at a very young age.” Yossi, they may have tried, but they obviously did not succeed.

Dear God, bless Yossi and all of us as we work to spread your peace one encounter at a time.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved