Destination: Heaven!

In spite of the heavy traffic, I smiled as we crept along the tollway. Since my dear husband was driving, I’d been taking in the view along the way. Though there wasn’t much more to see than the other vehicles on the road, I was enjoying myself. I wondered about the drivers who hurried along with us. What was it that urged them along their way? I hoped each one would find what he or she hoped for at the end of the drive. Eventually, a semi cab interrupted this musing. It looked rather odd without its trailer in tow. As I wondered who thought up the ingenious design which allowed that trucker to sleep in his rig, I noticed some very large lettering printed across its back. “Destination: Heaven” it said. I wondered what impelled this man to proclaim his final stop to the rest of us. Were the other drivers who shared the road with us heading toward the same end? As Mike continued to make his way through the dense traffic, I asked myself, “What is that trucker’s idea of heaven? What about those other drivers? What about me?”

Since our first grandchild was born, I’ve said at least a thousand times, “I’m in grandma heaven!” Our grandchildren bring Mike and me great joy. I admit to savoring every minute that I spend with each of them. When I gathered for an afternoon with my sisters not long ago, one remarked, “Mmmm. This is heaven!” Though I’m certain she was pleased with our company, her comment was in response to the bit of Godiva chocolate she’d slipped into her mouth. How she loves chocolate! The other day, a friend remarked that she’d been in cruise heaven because she hadn’t set her alarm clock the entire time she was away. Currently, Cub fans find themselves in and out of baseball heaven as their lovable team edges nearer to and then farther from possible post-season play. After the Bears opening game, I won’t mention the possibility of football heaven unless, of course, you’re a Packer fan! I suppose each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are immersed in one type of heaven or another. Sometimes, the possibility seems completely out of reach and we dismiss it as pure folly. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that, if only this or that circumstance would conform to our wishes, we’d be in the heaven of our choosing.

In today’s gospel (Luke 15:1-32), Luke tells us that Jesus once told the story a young man who defined and then redefined heaven for himself much the way we do. The young man and his brother lived on the family farm with their father. They worked hand in hand with their dad in order to maintain their prosperous land. Apparently, this arrangement wasn’t the young man’s idea of heaven. He failed to find fulfillment in a hard day’s work and in the fruits of the fields around him. Heaven was something quite different to him. He wanted that heaven so badly that he forsook his own father’s life to get it. You see, the young man asked his father for his portion of his inheritance. When he did this, this son wasn’t simply asking for an advance on his allowance or for a small loan. This son was asking his father to behave as though he was dead and to give him what would be his upon his father’s death. Scripture scholars tell us that the young man could neither insult nor hurt his father more deeply than he did by voicing his demand. It was as though this son said to his father, “I can’t wait for you to die. Behave as you’re dead now and give me what is mine!”

Though you or I might have responded to the young man far differently, that father complied with his son’s wishes. That father gave his son the equivalent of what he would have inherited had this father died that day. With no regret, the young man immediately set out to find the heaven which he’d defined for himself. He invested his inheritance in partying. He spent every penny surrounding himself with the right people, especially those who saw things his way and those who brought him pleasure. He ate the best food and drank the finest wine with his store-bought acquaintances. The young man enjoyed it all without lifting a finger except, of course, to open his money bag to keep things the way he liked them. Eventually, the young man’s resources ran out and he was left without food, friends and finances. In the midst of starvation, he offered himself for hire to a landowner who took him on to tend to his pigs. As he stood in the mud surrounded by swine, the young man considered his predicament and how recklessly wasteful he’d been. He’d not only squandered his inheritance, but he’d also discarded the most important relationships in his life. Full of sorrow and regret, this lost son adjusted his perception of heaven. He set out for the place that once was his home. There, he would beg for a job beside the servants. Though he knew even this was too much to ask, the young man hoped against hope that he would find a parcel of heaven in the shadow of his father’s house. When the young man finally made it home, he was overwhelmed by the heaven he found in his loving father’s embrace.

I wish I’d been among the people who listened as Jesus told the prodigal son’s story. I wish I could have looked into Jesus’ eyes as he described the joy of welcoming home a lost child. In those eyes, I might have caught a glimpse of what my truck driver friend so boldly proclaimed for the rest of us to see. You know, “Destination: Heaven” is listed on each of our itineraries. Though heaven may escape us much of the time during this life, in the end, we will not escape heaven. Our Loving God waits with outstretched arms to warmly embrace every child, prodigal or otherwise, who comes home. On that day, we will actually find heaven just as Jesus promised.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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God’s Heaven

A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent the day with our little grandson. The cool morning temperatures coaxed us outdoors for a walk to a nearby park. When we arrived, we discovered several pieces of playground equipment which were appropriate for very little children. Though Danny couldn’t negotiate any of them alone, with Grandpa’s and my help, he thoroughly enjoyed the baby swing, a very small slide, the seesaw and a rocking turtle. Danny’s smile grew with each new adventure. In the midst of all of this, Grandpa Mike announced, “Danny’s in playground heaven!”

Later that day, when Grandpa went off to run errands, Danny and I took another walk to that park. This time, I brought along a bottle of bubbles. After enjoying those wonderful pint-sized rides once again, I put Danny back into his stroller. From there, he watched intently as I created a sea of bubbles for him. Danny tried hard to touch the bubbles which came close. When he missed, he watched as they sailed away. I admit that I did the same thing. Though Danny’s smile indicated that he might have been in “bubble heaven”, I was certainly there.

It seems to me that each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are in one type of heaven or another. Cubs fans are in “baseball heaven” these days, while White Sox and Bears fans hope to be in their own variety of heaven sooner than later. Many of us long for “job heaven” while many others hope for “relationship heaven”. The list is endless. Sometimes, these possibilities seem out of reach and we dismiss them as pure folly. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that if conditions conformed to our wishes, we would be in heaven after all. At times, we’re so convinced that we’ll do anything and everything to make it so.

In Luke’s gospel (15:1-32), Jesus referenced “lost sheep heaven” and “lost coin heaven” and “rich heir heaven”. In the first two scenarios, Jesus described people who’d lost things which were very dear to them and who worked very hard to find these treasures once again. A man with a herd of one hundred sheep left ninety-nine to search for one lost animal. He ventured onto treacherous terrain to bring that little wanderer home. When he found him, the man called his friends to celebrate with him. A woman who discovered she’d lost one of ten precious coins turned her house upside-down to find it. When she succeeded, she too called her friends to celebrate with her. In the third scenario, the young man who desired to be in “rich heir heaven” was seeking something which wasn’t actually his. Still, he pressed on.

The young man who desired “rich heir heaven” asked his father for his inheritance. Though he could have requested an advance on his allowance or a small loan, this son asked his father to behave as though he was dead. He asked his father to give him what would be rightfully his upon his father’s death. In Jesus’ day, this young man could neither insult nor hurt his father more deeply than he did by making this demand. Nonetheless, though his son’s demand was completely out of line, this father complied. And so it was that the young man pursued “heaven” for himself.

He spent every penny surrounding himself with the right people: those who saw things his way and who brought him pleasure of one kind or another. He ate and drank well without lifting a finger except, of course, to open his money bag to keep things the way he liked them. Eventually, the young man’s money ran out. He was left with neither food nor finances nor friends. “Rich heir heaven” faded into nothingness. Finally, he agreed to tend pigs with the hope of securing a bit of food for himself. When no one came to his aid, the young man realized that he had not only squandered his inheritance, but had also discarded the most precious relationships in his life. Full of sorrow and regret, this lost son adjusted his perception of heaven. He set out for the place that once was his home to beg for a job beside the servants. He would happily exchanged “rich heir heaven” for “lowly servant heaven” in a heartbeat. Fortunately for the young man, his father envisioned “my beloved children heaven” where all of his family would dwell in peaceful love.

I wish I had been among the people who listened as Jesus told the prodigal son’s story for the first time. I wish I could have looked into Jesus’ eyes as he described the joy of welcoming a lost child home. In those eyes, I might have caught a glimpse of God’s Heaven: That place where, one day, you and I will discover “heaven” in its fullest, truest and most awesomely wonderful form.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Love Story

I have filled this space with thousands of words regarding Lent. Still, I manage to become distracted between writings. Early this Lent, I shared that we sometimes make Lenten plans which unfold precisely as intended. At other times, our circumstances disrupt our efforts and send us in other directions. We find that the best we can do is to manage the situation at hand and to do what we must to survive it. For me, Lent 2015 has been a combination of these scenarios. I have often focused more on the events unfolding around me than on my Lenten observances. Though these distractions brought about much good, I felt compelled to recapture my original intent to spend time up close and personal with God.

I knew my dear husband would be gone for a few hours, so I grabbed my Bible and settled into my recliner. Though I have other copies of Mark’s Passion reading, I decided to thumb through the Bible to find it much like I thumb through my scrapbook in search of favorite memories. After all, I have written a good deal about God’s love and the scriptures are the source of much of my knowledge on this topic. The Old Testament teems with stories of God’s people who too often failed to recognize God’s love for them. Nonetheless, every time the Israelites ran the other way, God coaxed them back. The prophets and other brave souls risked life and limb to remind all who would listen of God’s unshakable love for them. Finally, in an effort to dispel any confusion in this regard, God sent Jesus to reveal through his life among us this Divine Love which does not run dry. With this in mind, I settled in to read the Passion of Jesus from Mark’s gospel (14:1-15:47).

The truth is that I treated that Bible more like a scrapbook than I had intended. As I searched for Chapter 14, the headings of the sections which precede it filled me with memories of numerous encounters between Jesus and those he met along the way: A Leper… A Paralytic at Capernaum… A Man with a Withered Hand… The Mercy of Jesus… The Storm at Sea… Jesus Feeds Five Thousand… A Possessed Boy… Jesus Blesses the Children… The Greatest Commandment… The list went on and on. Though they do not appear in Mark’s gospel, I recalled my favorite parables as well: The Prodigal Son, The Wedding Feast, The Good Shepherd and The Lost Sheep. Before turning to the Passion, I considered the kindness and acceptance which Jesus brought to those he met along the way. I considered the many suffering souls whom Jesus comforted by offering them both physical and spiritual healing. When I finally turned to the Passion reading, gratitude for God’s love filled me.

As I read, a chill ran down my spine. For just a moment, I could not read further because I knew what was coming. I looked away from the page and out the window which overlooks our backyard. Bright sunshine poured over bushes which were hidden under mounds of snow just a few weeks ago. Their bent and broken branches pointed every which way. I wondered if they will ever return to their former beauty. “This imagery isn’t lost on me, Dear God,” I whispered. “Even when I’m bent and broken, you love me.” With that, I took a deep breath and turned back to The Passion. I poured over every word of this love story which God authored for you and me.

Only a few days of Lent 2015 remain. As I consider how to proceed this week, I cannot forget the images I encountered as I thumbed through my Bible. That book proved to be as much of a scrapbook as my own albums which are filled with mementos and photos of my children and grandchildren. Of all of the memories I rediscovered in that Bible, the life and death of Jesus offered the clearest illustrations of God’s love. When we focus upon The Passion today, we must remember that it is the culmination of God’s pursuit of us before Jesus’ birth and the culmination of Jesus’ life which was spent loving God’s people, one soul at a time.

This Holy Week, you and I are invited to take God’s love story very personally. Will you join me in spending some time up close and personal with our God whose love does not run dry? Please, join me in revisiting our family memories by walking through Jesus’ Passion with your faith community. Whether you can attend or not, know that God’s love story was written for you and that there is always a place for you in God’s church and in God’s heart.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved