Sister’s Life Lessons

Some months ago, I received an email from a high school friend. Nadine had written to tell me that fellow alums were planning a reunion. My classmates and I have reached a milestone anniversary of our graduation from high school and a party is definitely in order! Thoughts of Nadine and many other classmates elicited a smile. After sending a grateful response to that email, I hurried to our calendar to record the date. As soon as I turned to September, I realized that I won’t be able to attend that reunion. The same day, my dear husband will witness the marriage of a very special couple. Mike and I wouldn’t miss their wedding for anything. So it was that I sent Nadine a subsequent email to express my regret. This past week, when I received a follow-up reminder of that reunion, I decided to enjoy a small reunion of my own. I pulled my yearbook from the shelf and nestled into my recliner. As soon as I opened that book, memories filled me up. I admit to some tears as I read the kind comments my classmates and teachers had written to me inside the covers and in the margins of almost every page. The four years we shared were a gift…

After returning my yearbook to its shelf, I checked the Sisters of Mercy website for tidbits regarding my former teachers. As expected, I found that most of them are enjoying the fruits of their labor in the hereafter. When I scrolled down the names of the sisters who’ve passed away, Sister Imelda evoked a smile. Sister Imelda held the dubious honor of serving as my freshman homeroom teacher. This role required her to account for her students’ whereabouts every weekday morning and to immerse us into the freshman religion curriculum. It was during religion class that Sister Imelda left an indelible mark on me. Difficult as it could have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease. She provided a question box for our anonymous queries on any topic. At the beginning of every class, Sister responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk before my own students. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided extremely creative questions. Every time, Sister responded graciously and thoroughly. We’d learned far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of that year. More importantly, by June each of us also saw God in a completely different and truly awesome light.

I continue to embrace Sister Imelda’s image of God because Sister insisted that ours is the God of Love. Rather than guilting us into submission, Sister presented the rules we tried to live by quite practically. She insisted that these guidelines for living served as shields to keep us safe. When we did our best to do the right thing, we stayed close to God. Sister added that our close proximity to God was our most prized possession. “As long as God is nearby,” Sister said, “you’ll be fine.” Of course, we concluded that God’s presence depended upon us. When a classmate submitted an anonymous question regarding God’s proximity when one managed to commit a mortal sin, Sister reassured us. I’ll never forget Sister rising from her seat with her finger pointed at us as she proclaimed, “That’s when God is closest to you and don’t you forget that! God doesn’t want to lose a single one us!” This was probably the first time in my life that I actually believed that God loves me and remains with me regardless of my guilt. On that day, I began to take even the harshest lessons from my religion classes and sermons as reassurances that God remains with me in everything.

Today’s scripture passages and those we’ve encountered in recent weeks are about as unsettling as some of the questions my classmates and I posed to Sister Imelda that year. The passage from Wisdom (Wisdom 9:13-18) tells us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. But what if someone isn’t among the gifted, we wonder. Sister Imelda would say, “God speaks to all of us. We simply need to take the time to listen.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon (Philemon 9-10;12-17), Paul tells his friend how to deal with his runaway slave. Paul had befriended this slave and he wanted the man to remain with him. Because this wasn’t possible, Paul sent the slave back to Philemon and asked Philemon to see his slave in a new light. Paul asked his friend to treat the slave as he would treat Paul himself and he fully expected Philemon to do nothing less. But what if Philemon refused? Sister Imelda would say, “You can’t make choices for other people. You can only give them your best shot, offer them good counsel and pray for the best.” In the end, Philemon did as Paul asked. Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:25-33) further forsakes this world’s view of things. Luke tells us that Jesus called the people to hate everything they held dear in order to free themselves to be disciples. But who can look upon their families and their wealth and walk away from them? Sister Imelda would say, “Jesus used strong examples to show us that it’s really hard to live as he did. All Jesus really asks is that we do our best with what we’re given and that we love one another. That will be enough!”

Sister Imelda’s wisdom has served me well. Though today’s scriptures seem difficult to follow, God’s underlying message urges us on just as Sister Imelda did. Sister Imelda convinced this high school freshman that God loves us though, sometimes, difficult words are necessary to get our attention. In the end, Sister Imelda would say, “As God’s much-loved children, we’re asked to allow God into our lives, to do our best within the circumstances we’re given and to help others to do the same. It’s just that simple!” I couldn’t agree more!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Less Terrible and Much Better!

There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,and bring the proceeds…
and they were distributed to each according to need.

From Acts 4:34-35

Every year, my husband coordinates an effort which is generously embraced by our parish family, especially the children. The support offered by our religious education students and their families touches our hearts. During Lent, Mike provides the children and anyone interested with a “rice bowl”. These little cardboard banks are displayed in our homes during Lent as a reminder to set aside something for those in need. Perhaps a family gives up pizza night or a child shares his or her allowance to meet this goal. After Easter, we all return our rice bowls to church. I should never be surprised by the outcome because our parish family has proven to be an extremely generous bunch. It’s no wonder that one particular child imitated this generosity so compassionately.

I happened to be near one of the baskets we provide for rice bowl returns. When a girl who looked to be nine years old set her rice bowl into the basket, I thanked her. Unexpectedly, she replied, “You’re welcome. I just wish I had more to give. I put in my allowance and some money I got for my birthday, but I wish I had more to give.” She went on to explain that her dad had told her about hungry children around the world. “My dad says that so many adults are fighting that they don’t have time to worry about feeding the kids. It’s terrible.” I looked down at this sweet little angel and reminded her, “But today, it’s less terrible because of you!” When she left with her broad smile, she also left her mark on me.

Compassionate God, thank you for your many generous children. Open all of our hearts to today’s homeless and hungry.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share The Word

He said to them, “Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

Mark 16:15

Before we celebrated our first wedding anniversary, my husband and I purchased a puppy. We’d both grown up with dogs so this seemed a wise choice at the time. After inadvertently spoiling Ernie and failing “doggie kindergarten”, we were about to give up. Much to our good fortune, a wise friend stepped in to help. Judy had an extremely well-behaved dog of her own. When she told us that her four-legged friend sat up on a chair so she could wash the kitchen floor, we laughed. We also realized just how miserably we’d done with our poor dog. After Judy spent a few sessions with Ernie, our embarrassed laughter morphed into pure admiration. Ernie never quite measured up to Judy’s dog because he lived with us. Still, he behaved far better than he might have thanks to Judy’s intervention.

A few year’s later, another friend counseled us as we awaited the birth of our first child. As it happened, we applied both our mistakes with Ernie, Judy’s advice and Peggy’s good counsel to our adventures as first-time parents. How grateful we are that we learned our lessons well! Our son did, too. Raising his little brother was a piece of cake as well thanks to Mike’s endurance. Both have grown into amazing men.

It seems to me that preaching the gospel is much like sharing our wisdom with a friend, a spouse, a child and even a pet!

Generous God, thank you for the good people who share their wisdom with the rest of us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Do What You Can Do

Though I walk in the valley of darkness,
I fear no evil because you are at my side.
You give me courage.

Psalm 23:4

I know. I’m repeating myself. I’ve written about blessings, miracles and happy times, desperate prayers graciously answered and persistent worry dispelled. I’ve also chronicled this world’s troubles which I was once at a loss to imagine. I see no end to much of the pain and trauma around us. In the midst of this suffering, many of our sisters and brothers feel very much alone. Often, so do we.

It is in the face of all of this that I take God at God’s word. Because God looks upon us as family, I behave as God’s child. I look upward and raise my voice in an admittedly disrespectful manner. I accuse God of watching this suffering and doing nothing about it. I go on and on until I’ve exhausted myself. With that, I turn away to pout.

When I come to my senses, thoughts of free will and the hereafter fill me up. Existence on this earth is no picnic. Jesus himself suffered far more than most of us ever will. When my own kids or grandkids have gotten into a self-made predicament, I’ve had to step back and watch as they worked through it as best they could. All the while, God also watched and waited and loved. Finally, I realize that God is allowing us the freedom to grow into our best selves as well. With that, I look upward to offer an embarrassed apology.

I can’t explain away human suffering. What I can explain is that it’s up to me to do what I can to make things better. I know that God is with us in our joy and our sorrow. I also know that God has trusted us with this world and with one another and God hopes that we’ll make the most of the opportunities at hand to do good. It’s all up to us.

Dear God, I know you’re with me as I try to do what I can today.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Make Things Better

“Know that I am with you always
until the end of the world.”

From Matthew 28:20

Lately, I’ve written about blessings, miracles and happy times, desperate prayers graciously answered, gloomy moods and persistent worry dispelled. At the same time, I know that many people deal with difficulties that I’m at a loss to imagine. Some suffer themselves. Some stand by as loved ones or caretakers of those in pain. Some see an end to their trauma. Some have no idea how long their misery will continue. In the midst of this suffering, many feel very much alone.

In the face of such hardships, I take God at God’s word. My belief that God looks upon us as God’s children empowers me to look upward and to raise my voice in an admittedly disrespectful manner. I accuse God of watching this suffering and doing nothing about it. I go on and on until I’ve exhausted myself. With that, I turn away with a sneer and pout.

Eventually, I come to my senses. Thoughts of free will and the hereafter fill me up. Existence on this earth isn’t a picnic. Jesus himself suffered far more than most of us ever will. When my sons or a grandchild have gotten into a self-made predicament, they’ve had to face their lot alone and work through it as best they could. All the while, I held my breath and prayed. All the while, God also watched and waited and loved. Finally, I realize that God is allowing us the freedom to grow into our best selves as well. With that, I look upward to offer an embarrassed apology.

I can’t explain human suffering. What I can explain is that I’m at my best when I do what I can to make things better. I know that God is aware of what each of us is up to and that God is with us. God has trusted us with this world and with one another and God hopes that we’ll make the most of the opportunities at hand to do good. It’s all up to us.

Dear God, I’ll do my best to make things better today.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Again?

My people hear my teaching,
listen to the words of my mouth…

From Psalm 78:1-2

Very early in my career, I came to understand some very important aspects of teaching. I had to get the attention of my students, keep their attention by making what I had to say interesting and understandable, and I had to give them reason to remember what I shared with them.

As a reading teacher, I became very good at convincing my most reluctant students to read just about anything. The greater challenge came in convincing them to approach their textbooks with the same enthusiasm. I sympathized with them because I know that actually applying what we learn can be extremely difficult in this world of ours.

When I prepare these reflections, I suppose I’m teaching in a way. I sometimes wonder if I’m being too redundant. Do I touch upon the topic of God’s love too often? The answer to this question came before I finished typing it. I don’t think any of us can hear too much regarding God’s love. When I doubt that I’m loved by those around me, I remember that God is also around me and my doubt is dispelled. Regardless of who else is in the crowd, God watches over me. When I doubt that I can possibly be forgiven, the world’s response to my guilt doesn’t matter. God always looks beyond what I have done to embrace me and to encourage me to be begin anew. No, I don’t think any of us can hear -or read- too much about God’s love. God’s love is what makes this life do-able.

Loving God, thank you for loving us so completely, no matter what!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved