Worth The Effort

As for you, every hair of your head has been counted;
so do not be afraid of anything.

Matthew 10:30

A recent gathering with extended family allowed me to watch as my nieces and nephews interacted. Their good-hearted banter brought to mind my sister and brother who celebrate with us from the hereafter these days. Before it could be detected, I dabbed an unexpected tear from my cheek. Perhaps my recent reflections regarding the things to come have come full circle. When I returned home afterward, I strolled to our wall of family photos. I smiled at the images of my brother and sister, my parents, grandparents and many others. All the while, I consoled myself with the certainty that they’re all just fine in their new home with God.

My certainty regarding the things to come began with my mom and dad. Later in college, I encountered the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who pioneered near-death experience studies. Her research regarding life after this life underscored what my faith had already convinced me was true. Throughout the decades since, many medical professionals have added to her research. More recently, two physicians (Dr. Eben Alexander and Dr. Mary C. Neal) who’ve had near-death experiences themselves have added to this wisdom.

I don’t mean to repeat myself in these daily posts. However, sometimes a topic is so important to me and to all of us that I’m compelled to do so. With that, I encourage you to do the best you can to live a happy, generous and productive life. I also encourage you to remember that you are never ever alone and that all you do is worth the effort.

Loving God, help us to remember that you are with us in everything always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Loved Always and Forever!

It was decades ago…

Early that morning, I was sitting alone in the teachers’ lounge. I needed a few minutes to gather my thoughts before the school day began. My stepdad had been ill and I felt quite certain that he was in the midst of his last hospital stay. I didn’t realize a colleague had joined me until she said, “Mary, are you okay?” I smiled as I assured her that all was well. I must’ve been convincing because she replied, “Then can I ask you to do me a favor? I bought this book for a baby shower gift and I don’t know if it’s appropriate. Will you read it?” Since I felt badly about misrepresenting my state of mind seconds earlier, of course I agreed to help her. This was the day I became acquainted with Robert Munsch’s book, LOVE YOU FOREVER. When I delivered the book to that teacher’s classroom a few minutes later, I tearfully assured her that her purchase was the best baby shower gift I’d ever seen. It also unexpectedly lifted my spirits. After school that day, I clearly recall announcing to my dear husband that I needed to find that book and to purchase a copy of my own…

Year’s later, shortly after our parish was founded, my husband-the-deacon read that book at all of the Masses on our first Mother’s Day together in 1992. Mike’s gathered our children at the foot of the altar to do the same every year since. Though the book might seem to be a cutesy means to keep the children’s attention for a Mother’s Day homily, its message is meant to do far more for us all. When we listen carefully as Mike reads, we who believe in God’s promises can’t help identifying with the outlandish antics of the child and the eternal patience of the mother in the story. By the end of the book, we who believe in eternal life understand that the experiences of this child and parent illustrate precisely the relationship which God offers to each one of us. Let me explain…

From his infancy, Mother finds her helpless baby irresistible and she promises to love him forever. As is the case with us all, it doesn’t take long for this child to become adept at performing in less-than-lovable ways. Mother thinks the worst that can happen is having her watch flushed down the toilet until her toddler grows into boyhood and then his teens with all of the accompanying trials and tribulations. Still, whatever phase her child grows into, Mother repeats her promise to love him forever. Eventually, the young man leaves home for life in the world. In spite of the distance between them, Mother makes her way to her son to repeat her pledge to love him. As is often the case with those of us blessed with “seasoned” parents, the day arrives when Mother can no longer make her way to her son. She calls and invites him to come to her so she might to speak those words of promise to him one more time. You’ll have to read the book to discover what occurs when mother and child meet…

On this Ascension Day, Jesus finds himself in a similar predicament as his time on this earth with his disciples comes to a close. Though we hear different Ascension gospels each year, the core of Jesus’ message remains the same. In Luke’s account (Luke 24:46-53), Jesus says, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Luke impresses upon us Jesus’ promise that God will be with us in everything. In today’s account from Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:15-20), Jesus asks his disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” By sharing the Word, they will assure all who listen of God’s love for them. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus adds his promise, “I will be with you always, until the end of the world.” Jesus promises to remain at their sides through everything. Like the mother in Robert Munsch’s story, Jesus repeats his promise to those he loves over and over again. This is precisely the point of everything Jesus said and did. By the end of the story, you realize that Jesus’ hope is the same as that of the grown child’s mother: That his beloved children accept love and that they learn to love generously in return.

You know, my stepdad passed away not long after I read LOVE YOU FOREVER in the teachers’ lounge that morning. When I bade him my final good-bye, I pictured my stepdad cradled in God’s arms just as that mother had cradled her son and just as that son had eventually cradled his mother. I was convinced that God wouldn’t begin my stepdad’s first day at home in heaven any other way. So it is that I thank you, Robert Munsch, for the poignant glimpse of God’s love which your wonderful book has given me. Thank you, Jesus, for preaching this very lesson every day of your life among us. Thank you, God, for loving each of us through our lifetime journeys home to you. Thank you, Moms (and dad’s!) for doing your best to teach the same!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Munsch, Robert (1986). LOVE YOU FOREVER. Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books.
This book is available in bookstores and online.

Thank you, Mom!

I have competed well;
I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.

2 Timothy 4:7

On this Mother’s Day Eve, I count my blessings. As I assemble my list, I write “Mom”. I learned many things from my mom. Still, the grace with which she lived her last days touched me and taught me most.

Three days before my mom passed away, fatigue confined her to bed. Her daytime attire had changed from street clothes to a nightgown to a hospital gown within seventy-two hours. On the first of those three days, I arrived just as Ruth, her nurse, spooned tiny dollops of ice cream into my mom’s mouth. After giving me my “Hi, Mary” smile, my mom turned to Ruth to whisper, “Thank you for the ice cream.” Afterward, Ruth helped her to the washroom. As Ruth nestled my mom into her wheelchair, my mom whispered again, “Thank you for your help.” Mom held on tightly when Ruth wrapped her arms around her to ease her back into bed. As she left, my mom’s eyes followed Ruth to the door. Ruth turned to wave and my mom smiled in gratitude. Later, when the activity director came to see how my mom was doing, Mom met her with another of those grateful smiles.

In spite of her physical decline and her impending passing, my mother concerned herself with the people around her. She never complained and was ever-grateful for even the smallest kindness, whether or not it was part of ones job or ones duty to her dying parent.

Dear God, thank you for the gift of my mom. She revealed your generosity, grace and love all the way to your embrace.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Spirit Ushers Us Into Springtime

When I turned my calendar to May a few days ago, I lamented the delayed arrival of Spring 2018. Winter boldly lingered far too long into April. Late snows covered the tulip and daffodil sprouts which normally join us in welcoming Easter. My winter-weary soul settled for the floral department displays at the supermarket and the bouquet we purchased there for our Easter table. By the time Easter arrives most years, my dear husband has begun to mentally sketch his spring planting ideas for the flowerbeds and planters around our house. A persistent cold had robbed Mike of even a hint of enthusiasm. I began to worry until he headed off to Ace Hardware for some birdseed and thistle. When he ventured out again that day with our son Tim and our friend Dave to take advantage of an arbor vitae sale, I determined that Mike was indeed ready to embrace spring. At any moment, his annual soliloquy regarding which flowers to plant where would begin. At the same time, I found myself stuck in winter-mode with little relief in sight.

As soon as Mike returned from these errands, he filled the bird-feeders. He hadn’t yet come in from the garage when our feathered friends gathered to partake of their feast. When Mike finally saw them, he smiled at the numerous birds who were making the most of his generosity. He went on to share his amazement over the great quality and price of those arbor vitae. With that, he vacuumed the residual birdseed and dirt from his car while turning his thoughts to this year’s planting strategy. Though Mike normally drives me a little crazy with his commentary and questions regarding our annual flower choices, I found myself genuinely anxious to hear what he had to say in this regard. You see, Mike had finally embraced Spring 2018. As for me, I remained in winter-mode.

When I find myself “stuck” in a less-than-optimum mindset, I seek out good company. Sometimes, I turn to a fellow soul. Sometimes, I turn to a favorite book. Sometimes, I look deep within because I’m convinced that God never leaves us alone. Since my fellow souls were all rejoicing in the spring’s arrival, I picked up a favorite author’s newest book. This writer has unshakable faith in the things to come and every word I read gave me reason to agree. The truth is that I have always agreed. Still, I couldn’t shake the winter cold which remained within me. Though I toyed with setting the book aside to sulk a bit, my inability to leave anything unfinished forced me to read the remaining two pages of the chapter. It was in those few paragraphs that my fellow writer insisted, as he often has, that our mistakes and trials in this life are wonderful opportunities to learn lessons and to become even more ready for life after this life. “Huh!” I said within earshot of the Lord God. “Why am I surprised at not being happy-go-lucky every minute of every day?” With that, I finally realized the point of this reflection.

Today’s scripture passages are all about love. In the first reading from Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:25-48), Peter celebrates God’s affection for us all with great humility and great love. When a fellow follower falls at his feet, Peter invites the man to stand, saying, “I myself am also a human being.” Peter goes on to share that there are no distinctions among the massive family of God’s children as every single one is loved dearly. The second reading (1 John 4:7-10) underscores Peter’s assertion by leaving no doubt regarding God’s love for us. Finally, in John’s gospel (15:9-17), Jesus himself invites us to “ …love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus has chosen each of us and he trusts each of us to behave as his beloved by loving one another. The truth is that, when I read these passages in the midst of my dark mood, I found myself more discouraged then ever. It was only when I returned to the realities of the first Easter that I realized I was not alone in my misery.

Though Jesus had risen from the dead, his disciples found little reason to sing alleluia. In spite of his resurrection, Jesus’ followers were frightened and confused. Though they had seen their Lord literally in the flesh, they remained in hiding for days afterward. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ repeated visits, his ascension into heaven and the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit that they finally understood what had occurred. Finally, when they opened themselves to God’s Spirit, they couldn’t help sharing the good news which Jesus had entrusted to them. When I finally acknowledged that, like Peter, I myself am also a human being, I realized that my wintry mood is only one part of our amazing human experience. Rather than being thrown by the seemingly carefree tone of today’s scripture passages, I needed to commiserate with those who had endured so much beforehand. It was only after their suffering that the disciples came to a place of peace. It was only after opening themselves to God’s Spirit that they felt genuine joy. With that realization, my wintry mood blossomed into springtime…

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God With Us

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

Loss is tough. Loss occurs in relationships cut short by a misunderstanding or a move. Loss comes in the passing of our loved ones. Loss comes with divorce, even when this choice is mutual. The loss of a familiar workplace or neighborhood brings heartache. When we find ourselves at odds with an institution which once felt as comfortable as home, we find ourselves at a loss as well. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness, hopelessness and solitude consume us in the midst of our losses, and it seems no one and nothing can fill the emptiness within us.

I’m most grateful to acknowledge that when we face loss in our lives we never face it alone. Rather, we find ourselves embraced in sacred moments of sharing. Sometimes, they come in human form through the voice of a knowing friend; in the song of a mother who will love her child forever; in an artist’s rendition of our weakest selves embraced by God’s all-loving arms; in the kindness of a colleague who takes over simply because she is needed; in the parents and grandparents, spouses and significant others, sisters, brothers and friends who teach us to hold onto one another in the best and worst of times. Sometimes, these sacred moments come in the reassurance we find in the depths of our own hearts. Always, God sees to it that we don’t experience loss alone. Always, God is with us to offer healing and love.

Loving God, thank you for being with us in everything!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Weeds or Blossoms, We’re Loved!

As I wrote, tiny bits of hail tapped the windows. I wondered if they were intentionally distracting me or if it was I who needed to intentionally concentrate more fully on the task at hand. I’d been out in the misty weather earlier that morning before the hail made its way to my window and then onto the pavement where it danced wildly. Yes, I did get up from my desk to watch that performance. Because it wasn’t enough of a distraction, I walked downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. Afterward, I stopped at the patio door to peer out at the hail a while longer. As those tiny balls of ice melted into nothingness, I noticed a green sprout growing between two bricks in the patio. Before I could say a word, my husband observed, “You know that’s a dandelion, don’t you?” After looking more closely for myself, I responded. “Huh! The first sign of spring and it’s a dandelion. I hope this isn’t an omen of the things to come!” With that, I returned to this writing and today’s gospel (John 15:1-8) where Jesus compares himself to a vine. I looked upward and prayed, “I much prefer vines to weeds, Lord. Thank you!”

Decades ago, this preference for non-weeds caused me some trouble. I was in second grade and it was the first week of May. Our teacher, my classmates and I busied ourselves preparing an altar to honor Mary. Sister provided blue satin fabric for the background, flowers fashioned into a crown and a statue of the Mother of Jesus. To me, the altar would be complete when we added a vase of flowers. Another second grader had brought in a handful of weeds which he thought were spring flowers. Though I didn’t know much about such things, I knew that those particular sprouts weren’t flowers. They looked just like the pesky dandelion buds which plagued our backyard.

As I walked home after school that day, the scent of lilacs overwhelmed me. There were so many flowers growing on the hedge beside me that I was certain no one would mind if I “borrowed” a few. They would complete our May Altar perfectly. So it was that during the hour of daylight which remained after dinner, I set out to gather lilacs. There wasn’t a soul around which didn’t actually matter to me. I was on a mission. I headed to that hedge with my mother’s pinking sheers, the only scissors I could find, and a large paper bag. I immediately began my search for perfect lilacs. Some were too short-stemmed to stand in a vase. Others had buds that hadn’t yet opened. Still others had begun to brown. After several minutes of snipping, I stood in the dusk with a bag and a sidewalk full of lilacs. I had single-handedly cut every bloom that I could reach. In my earnest effort to replace my classmate’s budding weeds with flowers, I’d made a terrible mess and an even more terrible mistake.

My lack of appreciation for this misdeed disappeared quickly. All of the houses on our block rested just a few feet from the sidewalk except one. This house was set back so far that its rear entrance opened just steps from the alley. A huge overgrown front yard protected the house from neighborhood eyes. The unkempt trees, shrubs, wild grasses and weeds gave the place a ghostly aura. The bravest of our neighborhood teens refused to scale the fence which protected what we called The Big Yard even if this meant losing a prized softball. The Big Yard scared every one of us except in the springtime. This was when that eerie hedge which bordered the sidewalk transformed The Big Yard into Lilac Heaven. As I prepared to take my leave from that precious hedge, the sound of shuffling steps caused me to freeze in place. As The Big Yard’s gate creaked open, I drenched myself in tears. The shuffling resumed until a bent figure stopped before me. The tiniest and oldest woman I’d ever seen turned her eyes to the mounds of lilacs strewn across the walk. Without a word, she knelt in the blossoms and scooped them up close to herself as if in an attempt to revive them. When she realized I’d robbed each branch of its life, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. Her tears fell as profusely as my own. After what seemed an eternity, she turned to say, “Of all the things that grow in this yard, I love the lilacs most. My yard is nothing but weeds except for these flowers, you know. Waiting for them to bloom is what gets me through our terrible winters.”

In the end, my newly discovered neighbor forgave my thievery. She allowed me to think that the plaster statue which adorned my second grade classroom would benefit far more from the flowers than she. Somehow, I knew better. I should have appreciated my classmate’s weeds as Mary would have. I should have known that my neighbor appreciated her lilacs even more than I did. It is this childhood misadventure which inspires my appreciation for the Vine which sustains us all. Jesus remains in our company whether we present ourselves as flowers or weeds. Just as my neighbor’s lilacs eased her through a lifetime of tough winters, Jesus stays to sustain us through everything which threatens us along the way. All we’re asked in return is to sustain one another whether we’re blooming beautifully like those lilacs or being pesky like my backyard’s weeds.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved