God’s Great Timing

Timing is everything, you know? I went for a walk the other day hoping to find some measure of peace along the way. Though a gentle breeze nudged me forward beneath the beautiful blue sky, I remained restless. When I arrived home I went into the house via our garage. Inside, I passed cardboard boxes I’d accumulated from online purchases. Though I’d never been a fan of internet shopping, COVID-19 has changed that. Because it was a reasonably cool day, I decided to put my nervous energy to good use. Perhaps my delay in recycling those boxes was providential. I’d reaffirm my commitment to purge by purging! I realize that I’ve written about this before and I admit that I haven’t made much progress. This is the reason I told myself, “There’s no time like the present!” I grabbed a box and headed upstairs to tackle my bookcases once again. Though their shelves are no longer overflowing, they are filled to capacity. After making that acknowledgment, I told myself, “Just one more shelf…”

My mood changed as I perused my novels, books on death, dying and the afterlife, inspirational books Mike and our sons have given me over the years, scripture resource books, my high school yearbook, favorite children’s books and an old catechism. I scanned the inspirational books first. Each touched me just as it had the day I received it. Tears formed as I tucked them back onto their shelf. As I picked up my high school yearbook, I wondered how long it had been since I’d read the scrawled messages on its pages: “Stay as great and sincere as you are… Y.C.S. was special because of you, but remember to slow down once in a while… Thanks for handling Sister Syra so well. You got us through Special Chorus… To a great kid… May your positive social deviance continue to change the world…” Of course, I slid my yearbook back onto its shelf.

I’d already decided to keep everything until I picked up that catechism. I might have disposed of it if a holy card stuck between it’s pages hadn’t piqued my interest. That card marked the chapter titled GRACE. I was taught that grace is God’s very life within us. I looked at those shelves full of my books and then upward. I whispered, “Dear God, I’ve met you in every one of them.” My novels renew my empathy for my fellow humans. My books on death, dying and the hereafter sustain my hope. Those children’s books feed my imagination and strengthen my bonds with our grandchildren. The inspirational books from Mike and our sons insist that I’m loved. That yearbook filled with my classmates’ and teachers’ messages testify to the encouragement I’ve received throughout my life. I had to ask, “Dear God, have I thanked you recently for the amazing people who’ve supported me along the way?” I placed that catechism on the shelf with the rest of my books. I looked upward again because I had a few words to add to my prayer: “I didn’t put any books into that box because you continue to touch me through them, especially today. Dear God, your timing is impeccable.”

Though that cardboard box remains empty, my heart is full. I didn’t part with a single book, but I did find what I needed to sooth my spirit and to fill this page. You see, Matthew’s gospel (14:22-33) speaks of God’s impeccable timing and God’s grace as well. God’s grace (God’s very presence!) is always with us and especially when we need God most. This passage begins just after the disciples fed the crowd with the bread and fish Jesus had blessed. Afterward, Jesus went off to be alone. John the Baptist had been murdered and Jesus hadn’t yet had the time to mourn him. Jesus hoped for a few minutes of peace while the disciples set out on their boat. Without warning, a terrible storm engulfed that boat. They’d just experienced another of Jesus’ miracles, yet Jesus was the farthest thing from his friends’ minds. As that perilous storm continued, Jesus set aside his own needs once again to come to their rescue. Jesus walked across those raging waters. Sadly, rather than celebrating Jesus’ intervention, the disciples screamed in fear. They thought Jesus was a ghost! Only Peter, who often relied on his heart more than his head, recognized Jesus. Peter immediately asked Jesus to help him walk through those waves to meet him. Peter stepped off the boat and almost made until he realized what he was doing. Suddenly, Peter focused upon the roaring wind and water rather than upon Jesus and he began to sink. Only when Peter turned back to Jesus and reached for Jesus’ hand was he finally safe.

God’s response to Peter is much like God’s response to us whenever we’re in trouble. Throughout this pandemic and all of the worry which accompanies it, God has been here. As was the case for the disciples in the midst of that storm, God offers a hand with impeccable timing to you and me. Throughout this pandemic and always, God provides moments of safety and moments of grace precisely when they’re needed. Like Peter, all we need to do is to reach for God’s hand along the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Body, Blood and Heart of Jesus

I’d been running most of the day. By mid-afternoon, I realized that I needed to sit for just a few minutes to relax and to regroup. My heart ached under the weight of a long list of woes which needed attention. People around me were suffering in varying degrees and there seemed to be little that I could do for any of them. Though I’d kept my promise to pray for each one, I felt the need to do more. So it was that I decided to share this bit of quiet time with The One who understood completely. Before voicing my petitions once again, I wondered, “How many more of God’s kids are suffering today?” My Friend from above didn’t need to respond. I already knew that God’s family teems with broken people.

“The human condition is tough,” I whispered to myself and to God above. As I contemplated this reality, a hymn we’d sung at church the previous Sunday came to mind. When I was a child, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name often. I found comfort in Ignaz Franz’s Eighteenth Century lyrics because each verse acknowledges God’s greatness and that, indeed, God is in charge. Though it isn’t one of my favorites, this hymn truly touched me that day. In the midst of my worry, it helped me to focus upon God’s wonder and my smallness. I became less regretful regarding my inability to end the suffering around me because God is in charge and presenting God with all of these needs was the most productive thing I could do at the moment.

After arriving at that bit of wisdom, I recalled how I’ve relied upon Matt Wessel’s Be With Me to lift my spirits over the past several months: “Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray.” Years ago, these words filled my car every time I drove from Gurnee to Glenview to visit my dying mom. They were the mantra which carried me through my sister’s passing as well. Matt’s lyrics touch me deeply because they dare to be as familiar with our God as Jesus invited us to be. Just as our children ask Daddy or Mommy to linger a bit longer at their bedsides while they travel off to Dreamland, we ask God, our loving parent, to linger with us through tough and frightening times. What is most consoling is that we needn’t end our prayer with “Be with me.” Matt’s lyrics urge us on to invite God to remain with us for the long haul: “Stand beside me; walk beside me; give me comfort; make me stronger, and raise me higher.”

Before returning to all I had to do that day, I considered one more favorite. On Eagle’s Wings has been sung at almost every funeral I’ve attended for the past several decades. “Perhaps I won’t cry if I sing the words to myself,” I thought. So it was that I quietly voiced Michael Joncas’ lyrics to myself and to God above. The thought of soaring toward the sky on an eagle and then nestling into the palm of God’s hand assured me that my prayers were well-placed. With that and a full measure of peace in my heart, I took a deep breath and embraced the remainder of the day.

Though some of those for whom I prayed that day aren’t yet out of the woods, it is with a lighter heart that I celebrate today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Though Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t have these familiar hymns in which to find comfort, Jesus gave them far more tangible means to do so. Jesus offered the gift of himself through every moment of every day he walked among them. Though we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s gospel isn’t a Last Supper narrative. Rather, Luke’s gospel (9:11-17) recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. While the disciples missed the significance of what occurred, early Christians came to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ blessing, breaking and sharing of that bread and fish. Offering nourishment to the hungry provided a poignant example of God’s call for us to do the same. Jesus echoed that call through the meals he shared with outcasts of every sort. Jesus echoed that call when he healed the leper, the blind man and the Roman’s Centurion’s servant. Jesus echoed that call in parables like The Prodigal Son which revealed God’s unlimited love for us and our amazing capacity to love one other. Jesus echoed that call in every look, touch and in every accepting and healing embrace. When we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, we celebrate this Jesus who gave his body, his blood and his loving heart in service to us all.

On this very special day, we consider the way of life with which Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Just as Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do, Jesus urges you and me spend ourselves, our bodies, our blood and our own loving hearts, in service of those we’ve been given to love. While we cherish the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to share this gift through our relationships with one another as well. Those wonderful hymns reminded me that Jesus shared his body and blood every time he responded to the needs of others. Jesus asks only that we try to do the same. When we do, we will transform this world and relieve the suffering of God’s family as only we can. We will truly partake of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ loving heart, one act of kindness at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, text by Ignaz Franz 1719-1790; translated by Clarence Walworth 1820-1900

Be With Me, text and music by Matt Wessel. ©2003 Matt Wessel

On Eagle’s Wings, Text and music by Michael Joncas, text based upon Psalm 91. Text and music ©1979, OCP.

God Feeds Us Well!

My husband is a far more adventurous cook than I. Mike has a knack for determining whether or not a dish will please the palate by simply reading its recipe. I can count the errors he’s made over the decades in this regard on one hand and I don’t need all five fingers to do so! Before we retired, Mike and I found cooking together to be relaxing. We enjoyed shopping for and preparing these mystery meals which distracted us from the headaches we left at work. Even today, Mike continues to assess the offerings in the food section of the newspaper and those he encounters online. As for me, I’ve outgrown these culinary adventures. Since I’ve left those work worries behind, I no longer need the distraction. The truth is that I grew up with enough mystery meals to last a lifetime…

The family menus of my childhood resembled those of most of my generation. We appreciated the nutritional values of fruits and vegetables and we didn’t consider the consequences of frying. Fortunately, my mom had naturally healthy preferences and we ate fairly well. Still, our large family complicated meal planning. In addition to my parents and the six of us children, my uncle and grandfather shared our flat. (Yes, it was a circus at times!) My dad and Uncle Gee ate everything without complaint. Any negativity from Grandpa related more to his frustration with his poor health than to my mom’s cooking. We children were another matter. I was more willing than the others to try the “something new” my mom so often tested on us. I was honestly no more adventurous than they were. I just felt sorry for the poor woman when it came to cooking for us all.

Our greatest challenges were the meals which least resembled something fit for human consumption. (Sorry, Mom!) There were casseroles and hashes which included unrecognizable ingredients. We tasted them on the basis of smell alone. Often, my mom avoided naming a meal. She simply assured us that it was just like something we’d previously enjoyed. If we liked her secret concoction, my mom identified it. If we rejected the mystery meal of the hour, it’s true identity remained her secret. My mom probably hoped to pass it off in another form at another time. Looking back, I think my mom’s ability to feed all of us on a very limited budget deserves applause. Her success in distracting us from the actual content of her offerings is impressive. In the end, my mom saw to it that each one of us had all that we needed to grow and to flourish. Though we didn’t always appreciate her efforts, my mom never stopped caring for us. I share all of this because God has been doing the same since the first of us feasted upon the fruits of Creation ages ago.

Today’s scriptures chronicle some of God’s efforts in this regard. The excerpt from Exodus (16:2-4, 20-24) offers an example of the Israelites’ complaints throughout their flight from Egypt. Tired and hungry, they’d exhausted their patience. The people moaned to Moses that they were better off as Pharaoh’s slaves than starving in the barren desert. Though God knew all of this, Moses prayed on their behalf and, as always, God provided. Every night, quail filled their camp to provide plenty for supper. Every morning, manna appeared. When the people failed to recognize their breakfast, Moses showed them the flakes lying beneath the dew. In the end, all were nourished with what they needed to embrace each new day. The passage from Ephesians (4:17, 20-14) tells us that Paul experienced frustration with his people as well. When the Ephesians also failed to appreciate what lay before them, Paul pointed out that they’d been nourished as well. God’s very presence graced their lives and it was up to them to live accordingly. In the gospel (John 6:24-35), John shares one of Jesus’ lessons in nutrition. Hungry crowds had followed him because they wanted yet another free meal. Jesus responded by explaining that God offered them far more than a no-cost lunch or dinner. Through Jesus, God’s presence had taken tangible form. God dwelled among them and within them and it was up to them to let go of their worry and to embrace this lasting sustenance.

My mother often said that food didn’t have to look like meat and potatoes to taste good. When Mike tries a new recipe, he encourages me not to allow the ingredients to discourage me from tasting it. Every day, God does much the same. God offers each of us a feast of opportunities throughout this life. Though we may not like the looks of everything on our plates, God assures us that tasting what lies ahead will be worth the effort. When we set aside our fear and worry to embrace what God provides, we take in all that we need to grow and to flourish. Today, we’re invited to join the Israelites, the Ephesians and that hungry crowd who followed Jesus in taking in God’s nourishment wherever it lies: In our work and in our leisure, in those we know and in the strangers we met along the way; in our own prayer and in our worship together; in everything!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let’s Do Something!

It was July 10 when the world received the news. The last of those twelve young soccer players and their coach had been rescued from that flooded maze of caves in Thailand. I’ll never forget my relief and absolute joy over this miracle. Though those who cooperated in this rescue did their very best to help, they knew from the onset that their success was unlikely. Still, with their hope intact all the while, Thailand’s best combined forces with experts from several other nations and together they accomplished the impossible. When news of the rescue spread, we were no longer Thai or American, Chinese, Australian, Israeli or English or anything else. We were one people who rejoiced together because thirteen of our brothers had been saved.

During the days and weeks since, I admit that I’ve been fixated upon this rescue and the good which we can accomplish when we work together. Worldwide support of those twelve boys and their young coach renewed my conviction that we are indeed capable of reaching beyond the barriers which seem to separate us. We really can work together when we have something truly important to accomplish! As I write, I realize that I’ll likely share this story with whoever will listen to me or read my work for quite some time. Much to my relief, John’s gospel assures me that this is a good thing. John offers a retelling of one of the most beloved stories in the scriptures. The featured event is recounted at least six times in the New Testament. This is quite remarkable because the Christmas story is reported only once in Luke’s gospel. Jesus’ death and resurrection are chronicled only four times, once by each of the evangelists. What was it that compelled early scripture writers to place such emphasis upon Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes?

In his gospel (John 6:1-15), John wrote that Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee to seek some much-needed rest for his disciples and for himself. A crowd followed along because they’d witnessed Jesus’ numerous healings. The people couldn’t get enough of the hope that Jesus so generously offered. When Jesus looked upon the fatigued and famished multitude before him, he was moved with compassion. Jesus asked the disciples where they might find food for them. Stunned by Jesus’ incredulous request, poor Philip responded that two hundred days’ wages couldn’t purchase enough food for the crowd. Though he knew this would be of little help, Andrew pointed out that a boy among them had five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus somehow acquired the boy’s basket of food and he transformed it into the meal for thousands which has been remembered ever since.

As I considered this miracle, it occurred to me that I’ve never given much thought to the boy with that basket of bread and fish. Why did he give them up? He’d held his basket in the midst of a hungry horde who had no prospects for their next meal. He was probably hungry himself after his trek to the mountainside and the long afternoon he’d spent listening. Did anyone else attempt to cajole the boy into sharing his meager provisions? How did he get close enough to Jesus to be noticed? More importantly, why did the boy part with what might have been his own last meal for some time? Did he like Jesus? Did Andrew urge the boy to give it up? Did the boy’s parents insist that he part with his food? Did Jesus himself approach and say, “Will you share your food with me?”

I also don’t know why those experts and divers in Thailand left everything to try to save the thirteen captives in those flooded caves. While Jesus’ poor disciples were faced with providing an impossibly huge meal, these poor rescuers battled impossible circumstances. As Jesus’ plan unfolded, we know that the boy gave up his basket of food and that the disciples did their parts to distribute the food as Jesus asked. We also know that these Twenty-First Century rescuers literally dove in to assess what lay ahead and to do everything within their power to succeed. Throughout that rescue operation, I asked, “How is it that they find the courage to persist? How is it that, even when they’ve lost one of their own, they continue on?” Perhaps the boy in the gospel parted with his bread and fish because it was the thing to do. Perhaps those rescuers and their supporters simply did the same.

Perhaps this is the reason the scripture writers focused upon this story. Every day of this life, we’re all challenged to do something as well. Most of the time, these are small opportunities which we can take on alone or with the help of a friend or two. Sometimes, the outcome will be as unlikely as that mountainside banquet. Perhaps once in our lifetimes we’ll be challenged by an adventure as frightening as that flooded cave rescue. Whatever our circumstances, we’re asked again and again, “Will you do something?” Like that boy with the basket of food and those brave rescuers, let’s try to answer, “Yes!”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Ongoing Presence

Four weeks have passed since we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of our parish’s founding. Memories from that day and the years which preceded it continue to fill me up. I’m still amazed over all that has occurred since we celebrated our first Mass together March 7, 1992! Two weeks ago, I found reason to reminisce once again. A new Co-Director of Evangelization and Catechesis has joined our parish. She will provide inspirational and educational opportunities for adults. One of these opportunities is the RCIA Program. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the pathway through which adults who wish to explore the Catholic Faith can do so. For the first twenty-four years of our parish life, my husband-the-deacon and I taught the program. In an effort to share our parish’s RCIA history with our new staff member, I gathered a sampling of our materials for her. In the process, I found our lists of those who’ve participated in RCIA since the first class met in September 1992.

My eyes moistened as I read the four hundred eighty-one names of those who had allowed Mike and me to accompany them through this phase of their faith journeys. At the close of every year’s program, those involved offered their thanks to us for working with them. Mike and I followed by expressing our own gratitude for each participant’s much-appreciated presence in our lives. Every member of those twenty-four RCIA groups inspired us in unexpected and beautiful ways. When I finally set aside those class lists, I thumbed through the materials we’d used over the years. Though my favorite resource is our most recent series, I held onto a few of our older books for reference. Among these, I found the catechism which Mike and I used with our first few classes. I’d held onto that little green book with good reason. It offers some beautifully inspiring one-liners which communicate the essence of God’s love for us and God’s enduring presence in our lives.

Much to my surprise, a bookmark which I’d placed in that catechism two decades ago still marked the chapter titled GRACE. I couldn’t help recalling my own elementary and high school religion classes. The good sisters taught me that grace is God’s own life in us and one of the benefits of being God’s child. The sisters added that special graces come with each of the sacraments. Another form of grace is the “something” which helps us in our struggles with good versus evil. The catechism in my hand also defined “grace” as God’s life within us. Grace is indeed a beautiful a word which captures a bit of the miracle of God’s presence in our lives. God is with us and within us twenty-four/seven. Whatever we choose to call it, this presence within you and me makes all of the difference in the world, especially when we’re in trouble.

Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) provides a tangible example of God’s enduring presence in good times and in bad. This passage begins shortly after Jesus fed the crowd with the bread and fish he had miraculously multiplied. Afterward, Jesus sought out the solitude of a mountainside to pray while his disciples headed off to their boat. In spite of the miraculous meal which they had helped to serve a few hours earlier, Jesus was the farthest thing from their minds when a storm threatened to capsize the disciples’ boat. In the midst of their turmoil, Jesus left his prayer and walked across the raging waters to be with them. Rather than celebrating Jesus’ intervention, the disciples screamed in fear as they thought the figure before them must be a ghost. Only Peter, who often saw things through his heart’s eyes, recognized Jesus. Peter immediately asked Jesus to allow him to come to him by walking on water as well. When Jesus obliged, Peter stepped out onto the raging sea and walked. Unfortunately, when Peter realized what he was doing, he focused upon the roaring storm rather than upon Jesus and he began to sink. Only when Peter turned back to Jesus and reached for Jesus’ hand was he safe.

Here in our parish, God’s presence has been manifested during our quarter century together in the best and worst of times. For my dear husband and me, during the two decades spent with our RCIA participants, we shared in the most important aspect of their lives. Those scores of tough questions and heartfelt discussions amplified God’s voice from deep within all concerned. Indeed, God’s presence touches us from within ourselves and within the moments of grace we share with one another. Though you and I worry as the disciples did, God calms the storms which threaten. Still, remember that God remains in good times as well! So it is that I look forward to another quarter century here at St. Paul’s. I also wish our new RCIA director and her future RCIA groups many encounters with God. May we all experience God’s gracious presence from within and without in all ways and always!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Wonderfully Selective Memory

Though our granddaughters spent the night with us two weeks ago, I finally tended to their bedding this morning. They are always quite helpful in this regard. Unfortunately, our tight schedule forced us to deviate from our routine which left the straightening-up to me. Life has been busy and worrisome as of late, so I excused my tardiness and then took my time with the tasks before me. I hoped that memories of this sleepover would replace my fretting for a little while. A forgotten stuffed rabbit and toothpaste drippings in the bathroom sink did just that. Suddenly, time spent with these loved ones was all that mattered.

I never cease to be amazed by my memories. Though my husband and I have spent decades together, each of us has stored images and events from the past that the other was not privy to or has forgotten. Whichever the case, the memories we treasure and the memories that haunt us are part and parcel of who we are. Over the years, my husband has come to the conclusion that I have a selective memory. He claims that I remember what I want to remember in the way that I want to remember it regardless of actual events. Though I will never admit this to him, I must acknowledge that there is some truth to his assessment of my recall skills. Very early on in my life, I opted to hold onto the experiences and information which were helpful to me and to dismiss those which were not. This is the reason that some things remain in the treasure chest that is my memory, while others were discarded long ago. When my recollections disagree with those of others who shared given experiences with me, I can only surmise that I attended to different details of these events or that remembering certain details is simply too painful for me. Regardless of the reason for these discrepancies, the things I remember remain with me for good reason.

In his gospel (John 6:24-35), John tells us that Jesus had something important to say about the things we attend to and remember in this life. This particular passage chronicles events not long after Jesus fed the hungry crowd with those five barley loaves and two fish. Apparently, all concerned were satisfied with this meal because they traveled by boat to Capernaum to find Jesus once again. When the people arrived, Jesus pointed out that they sought him out, not because of the signs he had worked, but because they wanted Jesus to fill their stomachs once again. They came to Jesus because they remembered that meal above all else. So much for Jesus’ marvelous message of God’s enduring mercy and love for them! In the end, Jesus told the crowd, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

It seems to me that Jesus understood the people’s troubles far better than they understood them themselves. He understood their poverty and their lack of freedom under Roman rule. Jesus understood The Law and the unnecessary restrictions imposed upon the people by the temple hierarchy. Jesus understood the frustrations that sometimes paralyzed their productivity. Jesus understood their physical hunger and the gnawing hunger that troubled their souls. Jesus also understood that his people would find peace and joy in their lives in spite of these things if only they would attend to what truly matters. For Jesus’ followers of long ago and for us, Jesus offers the message that nourishes and sustains us for the long haul. It is this message that we must take in and store in our memories and in our hearts.

As I consider the reasons for my fretting over the past few weeks, I realize that my focus needs to be adjusted a bit. I must turn my attention away from the minutia cluttering my mind at the moment and turn toward the people and circumstances which are of genuine importance. Those I have been given to love must be a high priority, with the important tasks before me close behind. The rest can be discarded, much like those troublesome details I let go of long ago. While I hold tightly to the memories that bring me peace and relinquish those that are unhelpful, it becomes clear that having a selective memory isn’t the worst thing while in this world after all. It is a soul’s selective memory that keeps her focused on the food that does not perish, but endures for eternal life. For this soul, it is my selective memory which gives me peace as I focus upon God, my loved ones and the tasks at hand. Yes, our selective memories lead us all to the amazing gifts to be found in one another and in the lifetimes of memories-to-be-made which lie ahead.

Generous God, I’m not sure of how my selective memory has evolved. Thank you for transforming this quirk into a means for me to become closer to you.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved