One Loving Step at a Time

Once Herod Realized that he had been deceived by the astrologers,
he ordered the massacre of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem…

From Matthew 2:16

During this second visit to Israel, I found myself amazed a second time by the wonders I encountered. Our first stop was in Caesarea where the once ominous and quite brilliant Kind Herod had constructed a theater, aqueduct and hippodrome to flank his palace there. I shivered as I wondered why such a gifted man would be threatened by an infant. Surely, no child born into poverty could actually have taken his throne. Still, when the Magi failed to return to him to report the location of this alleged newborn king, Herod saw to the slaughter of every male child of Jesus’ age.

Not far from Herod’s palace, our guide pointed out a stone tablet which was discovered near the amphitheater Herod had built. On the tablet is inscribed the name Pontius Pilate. I shivered once again as our guide shared that this artifact proves the existence of Pontius Pilate in the Caesarea of Jesus’ day. It was Pilate’s unwillingness to hold his ground regarding Jesus’ innocence which led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Again, I wondered why? Pilate could have been the hero…

As I walked back to our bus, Jesus’ life unfolded before me. One man’s insecurities and another’s lack of nerve had literally made all of the difference in Jesus’ world. So did Jesus. I couldn’t judge Herod or Pilate because I’ve never walked in their shoes. I did, however, look down at my own dusty Reebok’s which were serving me well at the time. “You do walk in these shoes,” I told myself. Then, I went on to ask, “What difference are you making in your world?”

Patient God, every moment brings an opportunity to do good. Be with me as I try to put my best foot forward every step of the way.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Advertisements

Authentic in Word and Deed

When you read this, my dear husband and I will have returned from an unexpected second trip to Israel. I write “unexpected” because Mike and I were completely surprised by this opportunity. As it happened, our tour director’s able assistant was unable to accompany her on this year’s trek. As a result, Nancy asked Mike if he would consider coming along to help her to manage the group. My husband-the-traveler immediately responded in the affirmative. It was only after a minute or two that he qualified his response by adding that he should probably check with me before committing. Though I had been habitually reluctant to embark upon flights of serious length, last year’s adventure cured me. The people and places we encountered in Israel touched me deeply. This inspiration diminished any discomfort I’d felt while in air. I told Mike that he absolutely should make the trip and that I would do so as well.

One of the treasures I looked forward to seeing once again was our on-site tour guide. Yossi’s wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life enhanced his commentary throughout. Though it took the entire duration of the tour to get to know Yossi with some depth, our effort was richly rewarded. Yossi didn’t always have access to his country’s 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 environment, everyone worked to supply the community with what was needed and that was all that mattered. 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 is keenly aware of the plight of the Israeli people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. He acknowledged that, while political conditions indicated otherwise, most of the people who occupy Israel get along with one another. 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.” While watching Yossi interact with those around him, I discovered that nothing was farther from the truth.

Yossi carried his backpack everywhere. Among the items he needed for the day, Yossi included musical instruments: his flute and 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. Whenever the Spirit moved him, Yossi played. He offered his most precious concert in the Crusader church at Emmaus when he played Schubert’s Ave Maria. Yossi played with his eyes tightly closed as his music drifted heavenward. Yes, Yossi prays.

As I read today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28), I considered what it was that caused Jesus’ contemporaries to take notice of his teaching. Unlike the scribes who lectured in the synagogue week after week, Mark tells us that Jesus offered “a new teaching with authority.” The implication, of course, is that perhaps the scribes weren’t as convincing in what they preached. The scriptures suggest that this was the case because the scribes’ words and actions were a mismatch. Mark tells us that, unlike them, Jesus spoke from the depths of his soul. There was no trepidation or uncertainty in his voice. Perhaps it was this certainty which allowed Jesus to cast out the demon who tormented that man in the crowd. Mark tells us that the demon was certainly convinced of Jesus’ authenticity because the demon addressed Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” Indeed, Jesus not only spoke of the Reign of God; he also made God’s presence in human history a reality through his compassionate responses to those he met along the way. In today’s vernacular, “Jesus talked the talk and he walked the walk.”

When Mike and I toured Israel with Yossi, Yossi didn’t merely share his observations. He illustrated his love for his homeland and for humankind in his every interaction. I determined that Yossi prays because he lives like a man who is attuned to God’s love and concern for us. This is the reason I took Yossi’s words to heart. My association with Yossi gave me a small taste of what those who followed Jesus experienced. In spite of their lowly stature, Jesus shared himself with them. The people took Jesus’ words to heart because he lived what he preached. Little did they know that Jesus truly was the Holy One of God. They had yet to discover that the life of this itinerant tradesman-turned-rabbi would change everything. For you and me, it’s different. We do know Jesus and all that he stands for. So it is that we do our best to live accordingly.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love with Words and Deeds

The near-zero temperature didn’t keep me indoors this morning. I had a few last-minute items to pick up for tomorrow’s family gathering. Much to my good fortune, the store wasn’t yet crowded and I found everything I needed with minimal effort. As I walked to the car, the cold imposed a piercing chill in spite of my warm clothing. During the drive home, I offered a serious prayer of gratitude when the car heater kicked in and its warmth penetrated my tingling toes. More cold greeted me when I stepped into our garage. As I hurried into the house, I offered my thanks once again, this time for our humming furnace. Though I don’t often think much of the conditions around me, this cold spell has certainly captured my attention. After stowing the groceries, I allowed myself a few minutes to warm up in the good company of our Christmas Tree.

A few needles had fallen here and there. Still, our Fraser Fir reigned majestically over our living room. “Dear Tree, you’ve served us well,” I said aloud. Though I continued to shiver a bit in spite of that humming furnace, I soon forgot my discomfort as I perused our decorated tree from top to bottom. My eyes eventually rested on the little village and crèche which lie at its feet. Though I love my husband’s handiwork in creating this tiny version of Bethlehem each year, I know that the Bethlehem which greeted Mary and Joseph more than two millenniums ago wasn’t nearly as peaceful. Our visit to the Holy Land last year offered us a taste of the narrow bustling streets which Mary and Joseph navigated to find lodging. After having no success, Mary and Joseph had to welcome their newborn son in a dark and dingy cave. I imagined what life must have been like after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah.

What struck me most about the Holy Family’s homeland was the close proximity of the important places mentioned in the scriptures. Throughout our travels, we often visited three or more sites in a given day. Of course, we did so via a comfortable coach bus which traveled paved highways at a clip. All the while, I noted the arid rocky landscape. Even with paths trodden by the scores of pilgrims who’d gone before them, travel for Mary and Joseph was difficult at best. What seemed “close proximity” to me presented a daunting challenge every time Mary and Joseph ventured beyond their own village limits. This is the reason that the efforts of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus were so remarkable.

These astrologers traveled a terribly long distance to find Jesus, probably more than five hundred miles. By the time the Magi arrived at Joseph and Mary’s door, Jesus was probably two years old. How amazed Mary and Joseph must have been by the Magi’s great reverence for Jesus! Unfortunately, this unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. These travelers had stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about the newborn king. Their inquiry unintentionally alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Of course, Herod’s only response was to rid his world of this potential king. Fortunately, the Magi were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. Sadly, while the Magi planned to share with their own countrymen the good news that they’d found Jesus, Herod plotted to protect his throne with the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two. Herod was determined to rid himself of the potential king. As I turned my eyes back to the little village under our tree, I sadly acknowledged that humankind’s hope for peace on earth and good will toward others was far from reality in Jesus’ day just as it is today. Still, the Magi shared the news of the treasure they’d traveled so far to encounter. Still, Mary and Joseph persisted in loving and caring for Jesus as only they could.

I had sat before our Christmas Tree for almost an hour when I looked up to discover snowflakes fluttering about. Idyllic as this vision seemed to be, reality quickly set in. When I approached the window for a closer look, I brushed against the cold glass and shivered once again. As I rubbed my arm in an effort to dispel the cold, I realized that Jesus’ world was uncomfortable as well. Just as I was forced to attend to this morning’s freezing temperature, all concerned had to dispel doubt and discouragement to make room for Jesus in their hearts. Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives to parent Jesus. The Magi traveled treacherous byways to find Jesus. Jesus himself turned his quiet life topsy-turvy when he began teaching and living out God’s message of love and mercy and welcome. In the end, Jesus’ life among us changed those he met along the way and it changed the course of human history. That wonderful life has changed me as well.

My husband and I truly enjoy decorating for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. I think everything we do speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. It seems to me that today’s feast provides each of us the perfect opportunity to assess what our lives are saying to those around us. I’m grateful that I have all of New Year 2018 to respond!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Who Am I?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;
others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:13-16

On our way to the River Jordan, we stopped at Banias Spring. I admit that I had no recollection of this place until I checked our tour itinerary. I discovered this spring is one of the main sources of the Jordan River and the home of Israel’s largest waterfall. The area’s long ago inhabitants seemingly appreciated its beauty and utility. The City of Dan was located there in biblical times. On a ledge above rested Fort Dan which stood before a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Later, the Romans and King Herod himself ruled there. When Herod’s son Philip took over, he renamed the area Caesarea Philipi, not to be confused with the other Caesarea on the Mediterranean which was also Herod’s city.

All of this information set my head spinning until I recalled a small, but important detail regarding this place. The passage above from the New Testament tells us this is the place where Jesus asked his closest friends what the people were saying about him. As you have already read, Simon Peter was brave enough to respond.

Every site I visited in Israel revealed more of Jesus’ identity to me. If he asked the same question of me today, I would respond, “You are the source of everything I know about God. I live as I do because of you.”

Dear God, help me to reveal your presence in all that I say and do.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved