Our Good Shepherd

In spite of the unseasonably cold weather and the snow which had fallen north of the Illinois border, my dear husband and I made a trek in that direction for a few days. Though our transition into Spring 2018 has been an extremely slow process and patches of green were few and far between, the scenery along the way is always a welcome diversion from our daily routines. We sometimes take what Mike calls “the scenic route” in spite of the additional twenty or thirty minutes it adds to our drive. Mike enjoys navigating the county and small-town roads with their leisurely pace and quaint structures all along the way. When we make it to the winding byways nearest the cabin, Mike is in heaven. As for me, I enjoy gazing out the window for the duration. Oddly, though we’ve alternated between our two routes for a quarter century, I’m always fascinated by the things I see along the way. Regardless of numerous previous sightings, every farm and hillside reveals something new to me as we meander by. This time, it was a large herd of sheep which surprised me. The snowfall hadn’t yet melted away and this woolly mass stood firm on what should have been grassy green ground by then.

As I considered the determined band before me, I was certain that I’d never seen this particular pasture before. I refrained from pointing it out to my dear husband because I knew he’d tell me that we’d passed that particular pasture hundreds of times. Rather, I tended to my own musing regarding the amazing gathering which had caught my eye. From my vantage point in the car, each sheep seemed to be a perfectly coiffed specimen. Their woolen coats boasted every shade of beige. Though usually a nondescript color, the beige hues of these sheep accentuated their fluffy appearances. Their color also made them clearly visible against the backdrop of white snow beneath them. I wondered why anyone would send sheep out in the midst of this year’s stubbornly lingering winter. I quickly reminded myself that Wisconsin farmers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to their animals and their crops. So it was that I dismissed my worry and returned to admiring these wooly wonders. “You have to love sheep!” I said to myself. “They’re just so adorable!”

As we drove on, I recalled the sheep with whom I’ve come into close contact over the years. When we visited Mike’s cousins in Croatia, they housed a few sheep on their property. When we visited Brookfield Zoo with our granddaughters, the petting area which includes sheep was a mandatory stop. Last summer, we walked among the sheep at Lambs Farm with our grandson. As I considered these close encounters with my woolly friends, I couldn’t deny the realities of their habitats. In Croatia, at the zoo and at Lambs Farm, certain “aromas” and other “realities” accompanied these seemingly cute and fluffy mammals. We had to watch where we stepped whenever we were near them. When we were close enough to check, we found that these critters’ “fluff” is actually wiry and rough at best. As I reconsidered the sheep we’d past a few miles back, I admitted that if we’d stopped the car long enough to take a walk among them, I might not have found them to be so lovable after all. Still, in spite of this honest observation, I quickly told myself, “But someone I know would do anything for a sheep!” Your and my greatest blessing is the love of our Good Shepherd.

In today’s gospel (John 10:11-18), John shares Jesus’ description of a good shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day because he knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day-in and day-out. As for the sheep, they knew their keepers’ voices and they followed them closely when being led in and out of their pastures. A good shepherd’s diligence allowed his sheep to spend their days in safety. In truth, the shepherd’s uninterrupted presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. In Jesus’ day, no caring shepherd ever allowed his sheep to wander beyond his watchful eyes. Like the shepherds he respected so, Jesus also promised never to allow one of God’s sheep to wander our of his sight or out of his heart.

It occurs to me that in spite of the snow and cold, the Wisconsin farmer who allowed his flock to graze that day wasn’t far from his herd. Perhaps he sensed that they were as stir-crazy as we because of the lingering winter weather and he allowed them the fresh air they craved. Happily for us, Jesus the Good Shepherd senses our every need as well. While we enjoy or endure the moment at hand, Jesus remains to shepherd us with his comforting and healing presence. Though Jesus doesn’t remove the obstacles which are part of our human landscape, Jesus remains. It seems to me that our best response is to welcome Jesus’ company with a word or a “baa” of gratitude.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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That Loving Fragrance!

And a voice came from the heavens saying,
“This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:17

While dropping off something at church, I couldn’t help noticing the scent of lilies. This was the first time I’d noticed the Easter lilies’ fragrance though they’ve filled the church for weeks. “You are amazing flowers,” I said, fully expecting a few nods in return. Though the blossoms stood motionless, I hoped they sensed my gratitude for the gift they were to me that day. I whispered, “Thank you!” on my way out the door.

We are much like each of those lilies in God’s eyes. If only we’d remember that God treasures each one of us just as we are before we set out on our own. If only we’d hold on to those words, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Though they may not echo from the clouds above, God speaks those words just the same in the depths of our hearts. They come to life every time we make the difficult, selfless choices which make all of the difference in the world to those around us. These words also come to life when we need God most.

Though those lilies which fill my parish church will likely last only a few more days, their unmistakable fragrance will remain with me. It is a lingering reminder of God’s presence in my life. Just as those lilies adorn church, God singles out you and me to enhance life on this earth, especially the lives of those God has given us to love.

Dear God, what would my life be like if I was not enveloped in your fragrance? What would my life be like without your ever-creative reminders of your love?

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Like The Movies?

I believe I shall see the good things of the Lord
in the land of the living.

Psalm 27:13

The other day, I allowed myself the luxury of an hour of television. I settled on an old movie which I knew would end happily. Because I didn’t recall many of the plot details, the time invested seemed worth it. Afterward, as the credits rolled down the screen, I wondered why life in the real world doesn’t unfold as neatly. Movie scripts allow heroes to arrive in the nick of time. Lonely widowers meet loving widows, organ donors are unexpectedly found, wayward children embrace family values and absentee fathers becomes stellar dads. I asked aloud, “Why can’t the woes of the real world be remedied as neatly?”

I looked upward for an answer though I knew that God has already responded. God provides for our needs with Creation. Though we too often forsake this gift, God stands by with great hope in our ingenuity. Jesus entered human history to reveal Divine Love even more tangibly. Jesus showed us that to lead, we must serve, to be first, we must be last, and to save our lives, we must live our lives for others. If this isn’t enough, God’s Spirit remains within us to nudge along the way.

I think that television’s optimistic stance has a place in reality, even if that “place” is simply to encourage us to make the best of our circumstances. If we truly get into character, it will eventually become natural to accentuate the positive in our interactions with those we’ve been given to love.

Dear God, help us to take direction from your love and to write happy endings for the stories which unfold around us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Respond!

Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.
He stooped down but could see nothing but the wrappings.
So he went away full of amazement at what had occurred.

Luke 24:12

Though we left Jerusalem on a Monday night, we ended our journey in a restaurant filled with diners. Throughout our tour, busy Israelis moved among and around us as they tended to their daily routines. That evening, they engaged in well-deserved leisure at the onset of a new workweek while we reminisced.

Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis in Jesus’ day as well, especially during Passover. Devout people flocked there to observe this sacred feast in the temple. Faithful as they were, many of them didn’t acknowledge Jesus’ crucifixion. Though some had met Jesus and even marveled at his words, many others were oblivious to the itinerant teacher who had somehow managed to get himself crucified. Yet, in spite of these mixed reviews, Jesus’ words and works remain in the hearts of more than two billion people who consider themselves Christians today. Even some who profess no faith regard Jesus’ example as revolutionary and inspiring.

When Peter discovered those burial cloths in Jesus’ tomb, I imagine he vacillated between feelings of awe and ambivalence. Though thrilled at the possibility that Jesus had actually risen, how could Peter not ask himself, “What now?” Like we who rejoiced and were glad just a day ago, Peter had to determine how he would respond to Jesus’ presence in his life. As we know, Peter’s response morphed from fear to absolute joy over the days and weeks and months that followed.

Today, I wonder how my response to Jesus’ presence in my life will evolve…

Patient God, when I ask myself, “What now?” be with me as I sort through my own ambivalence and fear and awe.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rejoice! Be Glad! Respond!

Alleluia! Rejoice and be glad! Today, we are more aware than ever of God’s unending love for us. The events of the first Easter plant seeds of unshakable hope in the hearts of all who have heard Jesus’ name. If we take nothing else from Jesus’ final days, we must at least begin to appreciate the joy which awaits us. Jesus suffered the worst our earthly existence has to offer, yet he endured. When Jesus breathed his last on that wooden cross, he opened his eyes once again to life with his Father. Today, Jesus continues to rejoice in the fruits of his thirty-three years among us. After we persevere through the seemingly tragic events of our lives, we will do as Jesus does. I write “Alleluia!” and “Rejoice and be glad!” because, when Jesus rose from the dead, he illustrated as precisely as possible all that awaits you and me.

This year, I began my Lenten Journey one month early. In mid-January, I returned to Israel for a second visit. This unexpected opportunity allowed me to delve a bit more deeply into the story behind the Holy Land’s now-familiar sites. This time, I felt very much at home in Nazareth and Magdala, at the Sea of Galilee, in Capernaum and Jerusalem. This time, I moved beyond my awe regarding these places to being completely rapt by Jesus himself. You know, Jesus literally made all of the difference in the world to humankind. Through his life among us, Jesus changed everything. As our guide shared the scriptures and his own archaeological and historical perspectives regarding Jesus’ time among us, I felt I had finally begun to understand. I began this reflection with an invitation to rejoice and be glad. It occurs to me that Jesus calls us to take one step further. Jesus asks that we rejoice and be glad and that we respond to his loving presence in our lives.

Whether we revisit Jesus’ time among us in the holy Land, in the scriptures or in the quiet of our hearts, we find innumerable examples of Jesus’ unconditional love. We also find that those whom Jesus touched responded in remarkable ways. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well became extraordinary when she responded by accepting Jesus’ presence in her life. She was so taken with Jesus that she ran off to tell anyone who would listen of their encounter. When Jesus cured the man born blind, the man responded with deep gratitude and then shared his good fortune with all who would listen as well. He told not only his neighbors, but also the priests in the temple. While the priests responded by expelling the now-sighted man from his place of worship, the man left filled with absolute faith in God who had gifted him with new life. In every case, those Jesus healed responded by embracing their second chances with Jesus at their sides. Though he was crucified just three years into his ministry, Jesus remained with those he was given to love until they joined him in eternity.

Today, the love which brought peace to the woman at the well is extended to us. The love which gave sight to the man born blind invites us to see with new eyes as well. The love which transformed their lives is ours today. All that God asks on this Feast of Jesus’ Resurrection is that we rejoice and be glad and that we respond by welcoming God into our lives. Though we may not have invested ourselves in failed relationships and we may not suffer from physical blindness, we have all suffered in our own way. Whether physical maladies afflict us or our loved ones, their pain and the toll they take are very real. Though our physical vision may need only a tweak, we have all been blinded by our attitudes and our emotions, our desires and our regret. We have all failed to see God’s love for us at one time or another because our suffering has clouded our perspective. These are the times when God is most insistent that we look to the cross and remember that Jesus would have endured it all for any one of us.

In Jerusalem, I peered into the tomb which biblical scholars, historians and archeologists believe to be the burial site of Jesus. As I stared into the darkness, I imagined Mary Magdalene peering into this place on the first Easter morning. Though she didn’t yet realize that she had reason to rejoice and be glad, she had certainly responded to Jesus’ presence in her life. Nothing would have kept Mary from going to the tomb that morning to minister to the one who had changed her life forever. Today, we rejoice and are glad with Mary and the rest. Just as they did, we’ve come to understand and to celebrate because the life which comes after this life is worth all of our effort. Today, Jesus and all of those who have gone before us invite us to respond to this amazing news.

This is Easter Sunday and today we begin our own quests to live with the Risen Jesus at our sides. Today, we rejoice and we are truly glad! But, most of all, we respond wholeheartedly because Jesus remains with us through whatever will come our way today and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

My Soul’s Landscape

From that desert, the whole Israelite
community journeyed in stages as the
Lord directed…
.
From Exodus 17:1

One of Israel’s remarkable characteristics is its varied landscape. Because I’m accustomed to the promise of spring buds, summer’s lush greenery, autumn’s array of color and winter’s icy white, I was most taken by Israel’s deserts. The arid countryside offers miniature versions of our Grand Canyon, rocky mesas and small mountains. Each of these boasts barely visible natural caves and crevices. To some, they appear to be dark and frightening dens of the unknown. To a desert-dweller, these sometimes tiny niches in the rocky expanse provide life-giving shelter at the peak of a day’s heat.

Another of the desert’s life-giving gifts is the smattering of thorny bushes and brownish-green grasses which appear out of nowhere in every direction. As we drove through a particularly rocky area, I noticed a lone ibex nestled on an extremely narrow crag. When I spotted the tufts of green dangling from its mouth, I understood the ibex’s bravery in selecting this precarious nook. This much-needed lunch was well worth the effort!

As we drove on, I considered the goodness I’d found in what I thought to be barren and lifeless landscape. It reminded me of myself on occasion. Though I should know better, I allow uncontrollable situations to drain the life out of me. Though I work hard to improve things, I see no progress. Then, in the midst of my misery, someone thanks me for something which I hardly recall doing. Another person compliments the reflection I posted a few weeks back. Someone else responds to my cheerful greeting because he needed to smile that day. I receive a thank you note and a pat on the back for what I considered trivial deeds.

I’ve discovered that, even when we think we’re no more fruitful than the most barren of deserts, God draws goodness from us.

Ever-loving God, thank you for drawing goodness from me, even when I dwell in the desert.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved