The Leper Within

Our return trip to Israel stirred memories of our first adventure there. As was the case last time, it rained a bit for a few days. Still, I appreciated the weather. The fifty and sixty-degree temperatures provided welcomed relief from the cold we’d left behind in Gurnee. Our guide Yossi shared our gratitude for the weather. However, it was the rainfall which pleased him. Israel currently suffers with a drought and Yossi viewed every raindrop as a precious commodity. While driving between sites, I marveled once again at the stark contrasts in Israel’s geography. Because Yossi’s commentary was familiar this time around, I concentrated more fully on the view beyond my window. A short bus trip often carried us through both rocky stretches of desert and lush greenery. While the bulk of Israel’s population fills its flourishing cities, a persistent remnant of its citizenry abides in the desert. Those who make their homes in these arid conditions are particularly attentive to any decrease in rainfall. Their struggles multiply when this occurs. So it was that this rainfall was a much appreciated blessing.

Community takes on great importance for desert-dwellers. Their survival depends upon their supportive interactions with one another. One of our fellow tourists is a seasoned traveler who has learned a great deal along the way. She was familiar with a sort of “desert code of hospitality” which compels those who dwell there to welcome travelers. Offering shelter to one who happens by is simply the humane thing to do. Yossi pointed out that though some who inhabit these tiny hamlets voiced displeasure with government supported settlements which abutted their property, they eventually welcomed these newcomers as well. Their new neighbors’ efforts have provided improved irrigation, fresh crops and work opportunities for them. In spite of the difficult conditions, these cooperative efforts have transformed vast lifeless parcels into productive green oases. I smiled each time I passed one of these Bedouin settlements. “What amazing things God’s people can do,” I thought, “when we work together,”

Today’s scripture passages drew my thoughts back to those unlikely desert communities. Both today and in ancient times, relationships with ones neighbors made the difference between survival and extinction. This is the reason a leper’s plight was so completely devastating. Leprosy was one of the most dreaded afflictions encountered by our Old Testament counterparts. Today’s passage from Leviticus (13:1-2, 44-46) tells us that isolation was the indisputable remedy for the disease. Though being plucked away from ones life and loved ones did nothing for the leper, isolating him or her from others protected the community from the same fate. The people felt no sympathy for lepers because they considered sin to be the cause of their disease. They believed that those afflicted were simply living out the consequences of evildoing on the parts of their parents or themselves. Centuries later, Jesus’ contemporaries treated lepers with equal contempt. In today’s gospel (Mark 1:40-45), Mark tells us of a leper who ignored the law’s mandates to remain isolated and who boldly approached Jesus. This man had lost everything and he had nothing more to lose. Jesus welcomed the poor man in spite of the sores which betrayed his disease. Then, somehow through his ravaged skin, this leper felt the warmth of Jesus’ love. Somehow, in spite of the hatred and disdain in the eyes of his neighbors, this man saw acceptance in Jesus’ eyes. Somehow, this leper found the courage to kneel before his Lord. Moved with compassion for this suffering soul, Jesus cured him with a single touch.

I think each of us can recall moments when we’ve felt the misery of the lepers chronicled by Leviticus and Mark. Painful circumstances chip away at our spirits. They wound us both psychologically and physically. Sometimes, they isolate us from those whom we need most. Fortunately for us all, Jesus recognizes our pain. Jesus separates the appearances of things from the reality of our suffering and Jesus heals us. Though our recoveries may not be as visually dramatic as that of the leper, we do recover.

The desert communities I observed in Israel will continue to flourish because of their unlikely liaisons. Those involved have set aside their religious, political and cultural differences in order to dwell with one another on common ground. Today and every day, you and I are invited to do the same. Though each of us has a bit of that loathsome leper within us, we also carry a bit of Jesus everywhere we go. Like the leper who couldn’t keep his healing a secret, we share our good news with those whom we meet along the way. Through one act of kindness after another, we bring life to the deserts of suffering which afflict us all.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


You’re A Best Seller

Not long ago, the homily at a funeral I attended touched me deeply, so much so that it inspired the following week’s reflection which I write for my parish bulletin and share in this space. The priest described the woman for whom we had gathered with great tenderness. When he summarized her life, Father said, “You know, Trudy wrote her own gospel with the way she lived.” Then he added, “Maybe this is the point of all of our lives –to write our own gospels by the way we live.” Though he offered many more bits of wisdom, I held tightly to Father’s suggestion that we actually write gospels with our lives. The thought of writing a gospel with my life certainly presents a daunting challenge. Still, it also inspires me to make a whole-hearted attempt to do so.

While in the midst of contemplating The Gospel According to Me, I received an email from my friend Larry. My husband and I became acquainted with Larry through his involvement with RCIA, and Larry helped me to get started with publishing my first books. Though Larry is a master encourager, he outdid himself when he responded to this reflection and my recent post regarding our personal gospels. Larry shared, “I love your emphasis lately about our writing of the Gospel with our lives. It has caused me to think in terms that are rooted in eternity. For those of us who create books, it is our greatest fear that after all the hard work no one will bother to pick it up and read it. Not so with our lives. For better or worse, we market our gospel with every breath and every step. I sometimes think that our best teaching comes when we make mistakes. Our students can then identify with us better and are more ready to hear of how we worked through our mistakes. Maybe we should not care too much if our dust jackets are torn and dirty or our pages are dog-eared and marked up. Maybe then we are finally ready to be read and enjoyed the most. So live your life like it is a best seller, knowing that your greatest accomplishments may come only after it is left in the remainder bin.”

Larry’s email prodded me to think more deeply about The Gospel According to Me. Whatever the gospel I write, it has value. I admit that I find myself discouraged at times because I cannot see the worth of much that I do. Then, a chance remark or a years’ later encounter reveals the unexpected impact I had upon someone. Oddly, these revelations are often the results of actions which I viewed as insignificant at best. Even in the midst of my mistakes, the encouragement of those around me uncovers the hidden lessons in my errors which actually assisted all concerned. When Larry suggested that we live our lives like a “best seller”, the purpose of The Gospel According to Me became more clear. However tattered I may be, my life is the best I have to offer to those God has placed in my path. When God chose to publish me and to circulate me in this world of ours, I received God’s stamp of approval to give my best on whichever shelf within whichever bookstore, library or remainder bin I might land. God has done the same for us all.

Mark’s gospel (1:40-45) tells us of a man stricken with leprosy who risks everything to meet Jesus. Though The Law requires this man to isolate himself from his faith community, Jesus welcomes him into his company. Jesus cannot turn away from this poor outcast whose wrappings and sores betray his disease because there is a gospel to be written with his tattered life. Mark tells us, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand.” When Jesus cures the man, he empowers him to get to the gospel which only he can write. Jesus sends the man off to be pronounced clean by the temple priest, just as Jesus sends us off to carry on. Our mercifully loving God recognizes both the leprosy and the minor afflictions which trouble us. Just as Jesus sees to it that this man is given every opportunity to write his life’s gospel, God sees to it that you and I can do the same.

You know, no bookstore owner can predict who will pick up and browse through the best sellers, travel books and bibles in stock. It is equally impossible for you or me to predict who will read our attitudes, our next words or the things we do. Whether we opt to do so or not, you and I are writing our gospels with every breath we take. The good news in all of this is that we join the leper in having great value in God’s eyes. Like the leper, God has placed absolute trust in us to put forth our best work. It seems to me that our best response is to take this writing project of ours to heart.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved