The Advent of Joy

Love your neighbor as yourself.
From Matthew 22:19

As I strung lights around our Christmas Tree, I remembered my mom doing the same half a century ago. I loved watching her transform the year’s bare tree into our living room’s centerpiece. While perched on a small ladder, she placed ornaments strategically. Those that reflected most were hung near the brightest lights. Though we lived in a crowded flat, there was always room for that tree and the tiny village she’d fashion beneath it.

The Christmas I recall most vividly, our dad had passed away the previous July. Young as I was, I wondered how my mom found the strength to celebrate that year. In spite of the sadness which remained with us all of those months, my older sister Rita joined Mom in preparing special gifts for each of us. On Christmas Eve, our parish priests asked my brother to walk his wagon down to the rectory. Raoul returned with a beautifully wrapped package for himself and his five sisters. Who could have expected more? None of us did, but it came…

After Christmas dinner at home, we went on to Aunt Claire’s and Uncle Steve’s home to celebrate with our extended family. My aunt and uncle ushered us to their Christmas Tree for more gifts. Though all concerned knew that nothing could replace my dad, they did their best to emulate his love for us. Though I can’t name the gifts I received that year, I continue to feel the love offered which has sustained me for a lifetime.

In spite of the terrible loss my family experienced, those who loved us did their best to bring joy to that long ago Christmas. It seems to me that we observe Advent best when we do the same for one another.

Loving God, help me to bring joy to others in everything I say and do.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hold Onto The Joy

The moral is: keep your eyes open,
for you know not the day or hour.

Matthew 25:13

A recent “thank you” note regarding a funeral my husband and I attended reminded me of my own loss. I can usually set aside such reminders and get on with the task at hand, but not today. Perhaps it’s the lack of sunlight and the determined clouds which dominate the sky. Perhaps it’s my own November mood. Whatever the cause, my thoughts turn to one of the toughest losses of my life…

I expected to hear that her recovery might be lengthy, that her dementia might increase and that we needed to be prepared for a decline. Our mom’s body was growing tired. I didn’t expect to hear about the cancer, her four-month life expectancy and the possibility of pain. We told our mother the news…

Mom shared our surprise at the diagnosis, but not at the outcome. “We all have to die from something. I’ve had a good long life. I wanted to leave an educated family that contributes and I have. I hope I can do what I want for a while. I hope I can be comfortable. I hope I go without too much trouble. I hope…” I hoped, too.

Though her diagnosis was unexpected, the outcome was precisely what my mom had hoped for. The pain never came. Mom did everything she hoped to until her last two days. On the day she left us, my mom’s eyes weren’t open, but her heart was. I know she wasn’t disappointed!

Patient God, rather than suffering my mom’s loss as though she left yesterday, I should be dancing with joy for her and so I will!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God of The Living!

While running an errand in the near-freezing cold, I realized that I should have worn my winter jacket. My favorite hoodie wasn’t doing the job that morning. As I made my way in and out of the cold, I promised myself that I’d reorganize our coat closet as soon as possible. Our winter outerwear needed to be moved center stage and our lighter jackets needed to be cleaned and stored for next year. Amazingly enough, I kept my promise to myself that very day. I not only tackled the coat closet, but our clothes closet as well. For me, the coats were easy to deal with. I’d purged my winter wear last year. It was my everyday casual clothing that posed a dilemma. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to my wardrobe. Every season, I settle into my favorite and most comfortable clothing and I ignore the rest. I’ve finally learned that if I haven’t worn something for a year, well, maybe two or three years, I need to give it away. After some serious haggling with myself, I let go of those neglected garments and added them to my giveaway pile.

My poor husband had the misfortune of returning home while I was in the midst of my closet purge. I immediately invited him to look at a few things which he hasn’t worn in a while. Mike reluctantly eyed the shirts, sweaters and slacks which he’s held onto for a little too long. Though all of them are in good condition, he’d replaced them with more stylish options over the past few years. Still, when I urged the dear man to give a particular shirt or sweater away, he insisted that it would be back in style again. When I reminded the good deacon that I’d be donating our treasures to someone who needed them far more than we, he agreed to part with them all. Mike’s only hold-out is the plaid wool jacket he purchased while a student at Western Illinois University during his first winter there. Though he claims that parting with the jacket would be like throwing away his college photo album, I believe that Mike secretly hopes to return to the joys of college by wearing that jacket in Macomb one day!

I share Mike’s and my giveaway adventure because our reluctance to part with the comfort of our old familiar clothing is reminiscent of the Sadducees’ reluctance to let go of their old familiar thinking in today’s gospel (Luke 20:27-38). Luke tells us that the Sadducees posed a question which prompted Jesus to address the afterlife. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after this life, yet they questioned Jesus about it. They reminded Jesus that The Law required a widow with no children to marry her husband’s brother. The intent was to provide the lost husband an heir and the widow the means to be cared for. The Sadducees added that if this brother passed away and the widow remained childless, she was to marry a subsequent brother. The Sadducees went so far as to offer the tale of a poor widow who had wed and lost seven brothers while remaining childless. They ended by asking Jesus which brother would be the widow’s husband at the resurrection of the dead. Though Jesus knew the Sadducees’ malicious intent, he used the opportunity to offer them an important lesson…

Jesus explained that those who pass on to the next life have no need to marry. In eternity, they find greater intimacy with God and with one another than they ever experienced in this life. Before allowing the Sadducees to respond, Jesus cited The Covenant handed down. Their beloved Moses had acknowledged the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in his encounter with the burning bush. Moses declared that the God of The Covenant is the God of the Living. Jesus pointed out that, if the Sadducees believed in the God of the Living, they must also believe that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live with God in eternity. Sadly, the Sadducees couldn’t let go of their resolve. Rather than recognizing the hope which Jesus offered them, they walked away with clenched fists, holding tightly to the things that kept them from embracing God’s gift of eternal life.

I’m happy that the good deacon and I were able to empty our closets of the things we no longer need. I’m happy to share that we’ve also let go of a few other things we don’t need. We’ve moved beyond our closet purge to take inventory of our hearts as well. We’ll hold onto the precious experiences along the way which have made us who we are today. After all, four years in Macomb changed Mike’s life forever! At the same time, we’re letting go of things which we no longer need or shouldn’t have had in the first place. Past resentments, habitual worries and tired old sins don’t help any of us. If our less cluttered closets elicit smiles, how many more smiles will our uncluttered hearts will bring? Yes, we’ll have more room for the blessings of this life. We’ll also have more room for the God of the Living –the God who dwells within us now and who awaits us all in the world to come.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Blessed Now and Later

Jesus toured all of Galilee. He taught,
proclaimed the good news, and cured the people of every illness.

From Matthew 4:23

Recent planning for my husband’s birthday, our granddaughter’s birthday and Thanksgiving Day has elicited a renewed appreciation for the gift of my family. Poignant memories of younger versions of my husband and me, falling in love, marrying and the pregnancies which resulted in two amazing sons fill me up. Add to this our sons’ wonderful wives and our grandchildren. You get the idea. I have much to be grateful for.

Still, none of this would be possible if not for the family and other special people who nurtured us along the way. So many of the people who helped me to become who I am today have passed on. Though my certainty of their joy in heaven remains steadfast, the sting of their absence reemerges often. The scriptures teem with examples of the healing powers of Jesus. Sometimes I wonder, “Why not two millenniums later? Why couldn’t they have stayed just long enough to see our grandchildren?”

When I find myself asking such questions, I look to Jesus who struggled with the trials and tribulations of this world just as we do. I can’t help thinking that Jesus was able to do all of this because he knew what was coming afterward. In the end, he determined that eternal life was worth the trouble. Since we know what Jesus knew back then, aren’t our woes worth the trouble as well? Events in the here and now don’t always unfold as we hope because, in the end, they lead us to so much more. Our loved ones in the hereafter attest to that!

Loving God, I will try to embrace every moment I’m given, even the difficult ones, because I know joy will follow them.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Friends Above

The souls of the just are in the hand of God…
From Wisdom 3:1

Before sitting at my keyboard today, I walked. As I grabbed my jacket, I heard raindrops tapping on the window. “Thank God for hoods,” I said as I headed out the door.

I don’t mind walking in the rain. My willingness to endure downpours great and small bolsters my sense of well-being. Walking in the rain also offers a unique perspective to which I’m usually not privy. Everything looks different in the rain. The sky exhibits great character. Who knew that there were so many varied shades of gray? Trees glisten far more subtly than they do in sunlight and far more beautifully, too. Dirty cars look newly waxed and sewer caps shine. Today, our neighborhood birds became nearly silent which allowed me to hear drops of rain falling into the pond I passed. I also heard individual drops as they pelted my hooded head.

As I walked further, I considered my loved ones who’ve passed away. This is All Souls Day and we celebrate the amazing souls who have touched our lives before moving on to the hereafter. With each loss, raindrops fell from my eyes on days much like this one. In spite of their absences which still pain me, I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for each one. I also prayed on their behalf that they enjoy the unique perspective that comes with a home in heaven. As I continued my walk, I felt quite certain that my loved ones were reminiscing as well.

Loving God, thank you for the gift of this life and the new life that will follow.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels made it impossible for me to chase him? His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, at the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” I admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved