J is for Joy

The Lord has sent me to bring
glad tidings to the poor…

From Luke 4:18

J is for Joy. Sometimes, it’s difficult to focus on joy. A recent off-the-cuff comment opened an old wound. Because I tend to let go of hurtful moments from the past, this recollection took me by surprise. I distracted myself by perusing the newspaper which increased my melancholy exponentially. I set aside the paper and grabbed the remote. As I made my way through the channels, a news report caught my eye. The update confirmed that recent violence was accomplished to honor God’s name. I sank into my recliner, looked out the window and asked, “Dear God, what are we doing?”

We humans have been hurting one another in God’s name since the beginning of time. Still… Before I could repeat my question, a strong gust scattered glitter-like snow across the frozen ground. Almost on cue, several birds fluttered about, ensuring that those sparkling bits of ice remained afloat. When the birds congregated at their favorite feeder, another gust swirled the silver-white specks yet higher. That gust lifted my heart as well. “Thank you, Lord!” I said aloud.

Though that glistening snow didn’t change the subzero temperature outdoors, it filled me up with winter’s beauty. Though those flitting flakes will eventually settle and melt, God’s handiwork always surrounds me. As long as some of us continue to appreciate the joy within us and around us, there will be joy in this world of ours. Rather than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by wounds old and new, we must revel in the joy we have and share that joy with one another at every opportunity.

Generous God, help us to remain focused on your joy in spite of our continuing attempts to distort and disfigure it. Help us also to share that joy with those who need it most.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Be Attentive To God’s Voice

It’s been two weeks since village employees picked up our discarded Christmas Tree and delivered it to The Land of Mulch. The good news is that this relocation will allow that tree to be transformed and to continue to be of very good use. Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to transform some of our no-longer-needed possessions into useful commodities as well. In the process, I’ve filled one box for the St. Vincent De Paul Store and I’ve started to fill another. Those extra dishes, cookware and flatware were easy to part with. I happily packed up the clothing I no longer need as well. It’s my book collection which encourages me to hold on with all of my might!

If a book has remained in my possession after a single reading, it’s something special. If a book remains after a second reading, it is counted among my lifelong friends. I have a set of mystery novels whose plots unfold in familiar Chicago neighborhoods. I met their author a few times at various book signings and when he visited a nearby parish. Because I share his perspective regarding God’s love for us, those encounters merited my effort. Yes, I’m keeping this collection. My Christmas-themed books and the story behind my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, are all keepers as well. I know I’ve mentioned my books regarding near-death experiences and the afterlife in previous reflections. Of course, they will remain on my bookshelf. Though my faith tells me what I need to know in this regard, those who have ventured into the hereafter and then returned to tell us what they encountered there never cease to amaze me. Who and what they encountered there provide additional evidence that God is indeed our most loving caretaker. I’ve also kept a few past copies of a daily devotional which I’ve read for almost thirty years. Several authors contribute to these annuals and I like to see how their thinking evolves over time. I also have copies of my own Advent and Lent devotionals. After all, I have to check up on my own evolving thoughts as well. Sometimes, I surprise myself!

I celebrate these written treasures today because each one brings good news into my life. Sometimes, the words these writers have strung together open me up to ideas I’ve never considered. Sometimes, their words give me reason to revisit the truths lying deep within me. Sometimes, they simply underscore the things I already know. Whatever the case, I find inspiration, grace and love in their work. On this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, the scriptures invite us to celebrate the good news to be found in the written word on an even greater scale.

In the first reading (Nehemiah 8:2-6; 8-10), Nehemiah announces to Israel that the long-awaited end to the Babylonian exile has finally come. The people gather before their priest Ezra as he reads from the Book of The Law. This encounter with the written word is particularly moving to those present as they prepare themselves to live outside of the bonds of slavery. Finally, they reside on their own soil and enjoy the freedom to worship as they choose to. The words Ezra reads provide sustenance to their once starving souls. Paul shares good news as well through his prolific writing. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12-30), Paul reminds the people that they haven’t been estranged from God’s word by an external enemy. Rather, the Corinthians have estranged themselves from one another through their jealousy regarding one another’s gifts. With carefully crafted words, Paul reminds his followers that each one of them is cherished by God, uniquely gifted by God, and called by God to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as only they can. Luke’s gospel (1:1-4; 4:14-21) underscores the power of the written word as well. Luke shares that Jesus revealed his mission through a deeply moving passage which he read from the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus used the prophet’s writing to assure the people that it is he who has come to bring comfort to all, even the most lowly among them. Though the people to whom Ezra, Paul and Jesus addressed had experienced seemingly insurmountable difficulties, they drew near to these three to find the nourishment God provided through the written word.

I contemplate the written word at every opportunity because it is one of the special places where God’s voice whispers to me. Today, as we celebrate the gift of God’s voice in scripture, we open ourselves to God’s inspiration, grace and love wherever we encounter them. You know, God speaks to us in many beautiful and unexpected ways. If your soul is hungry for a bit of peace or consolation, a taste of joy or comfort, open yourself up to God’s presence. Whether you turn to scripture writers or the written words of the many other wonderful people who reveal God through their insights and experiences, you will find what you need. Indeed, God uses all of creation, including my shelf full of books and us imperfect humans, to nurture us and to love us as only God can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share Your Treasure

When they fulfilled all the prescriptions
of the law of the Lord, they returned
to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong,
filled with wisdom,
and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke 2:39-40

When each of our sons was born, we planned his baptism shortly afterward. No discussion was necessary, except regarding who the godparents would be. In our minds, it was only natural to share our faith with our children. This endeavor went far beyond the day the priests poured water over our sons’ heads. We weren’t sharing membership in the church as much as we were sharing our relationships with God.

I discovered very early on that my parents did a good job of this. Though times were often tough, they always saw the silver lining in their circumstances. Perhaps what they actually saw was God watching over them. Even when my young dad faced his own passing, he referenced this God who would see to everything for us and for him. As for me, knowing that God understands even when others don’t has sustained me through many a trial and tribulation.

You know, when Mary and Joseph first took Jesus to the temple, they planted the seeds of Jesus lifelong relationship with his faith community and with God. When we introduce our children to God, our efforts are no less important. However we relate to our Maker, let’s share this with our kids.

Dear God, thank you for reaching out to us in such a variety of ways. Help us to share the treasure of knowing you with our children.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Go Ahead; God’s Listening!

“Lord, if you will do so, you can cure me.”
Jesus stretched out his hand to touch him
and said, “Be cured.”

Luke 5:12-13

I learned very early on that it’s always appropriate to bring our troubles to God. Sometimes, my family did so en masse. We gathered in our living room to pray when illness struck a loved one or to pray for a happy death if a recovery wasn’t in the making. Through the years, I became so convinced that God is aware of my every need that I rarely prayed for myself (though I admit to adding a prayer for myself as of late!). Still, it’s when those around me are suffering that I blast the heavens mercilessly until I have some assurance that all will be well -at least in God’s eyes.

Over the past year, my often overly zealous demands have been offered on numerous occasions for those I’ve been given to love and, admittedly, for me. Sometimes, the results have been predictable. At other times, God has surprised me and all concerned. In every case, I found myself speaking with the Almighty as I would with my best friend. I never once wondered if God was listening. Why would I question the obvious?

Dear God, you attend to each one of us every moment of every day. Make us attentive and responsive to one another -just like you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What Families Do…

My husband and I planned a pre-Christmas gathering for early December. We began by coordinating calendars with our sons to insure that they and their families would be able to attend. All was going well until the week beforehand. It was Tuesday when our eldest granddaughter called. Ellie began the conversation by sharing her excitement over the new friends she’s made in middle school. This grandparent and retired teacher was very happy to hear this as middle school can be challenging for newcomers. Ellie went on to say that one of her new friends had invited her and a few others to a party. The single complication in all of this was that the party was scheduled for the same evening as our gathering. Ellie called to ask if Grandpa Mike and I minded if she attended the other party. Before I could respond, Ellie assured me that she didn’t want to disappoint us and that she would come to our party if we wanted her to. Of course, my heart melted. I told Ellie that Grandpa and I wanted her to attend her friend’s party. After Ellie excitedly thanked us, this worrying Grandma confirmed with my son that Ellie had a ride to the party and that she would stay at her neighborhood friend’s home until her parents and siblings returned from our house. As it happened, Ellie had an enjoyable and safe time with her friends just as we did here.

Though we missed Ellie that Saturday night, Mike and I celebrated the realization that our first grandchild is morphing into a wonderful young person. We can’t ask for more than this. At the same time, Ellie’s party adventure brought back poignant memories of her dad’s and uncle’s experiences in this regard. Before our sons left the house for an evening of fun, I offered an excess of motherly guidance regarding their activities. Shall I mention that their dad usually stood in the background rolling his eyes? When our sons left, I also offered a prayer. I begged God and everyone else who was listening from above to inspire our sons to be wise and safe until they returned home. Happily, my prayers were answered generously! I share all of this because all of us want the best for those we’ve been given to love and parents have worried about their children since the beginning of time. Not even Mary and Joseph were spared this reality…

On this Feast of the Holy Family, Luke’s gospel (2:41-52) details Jesus’ contribution to his parents’ accumulation of gray hair. As was the custom at the time, Joseph, Mary and Jesus walked from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the temple. They traveled in the company of numerous neighbors and friends. After observing the feast, Mary and Joseph allowed Jesus to mingle freely amidst the caravan as they walked home. After all, Jesus was almost a teenager at the time. All the while, Mary assumed that her growing son was walking with the men. Joseph, who likely acknowledged that Jesus still had a lot of growing to do, assumed that his son was walking with the women and children. It was nightfall when Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t with either one of them. Because they’d taught Jesus common sense and consideration for others, the frantic couple feared the worst. So it was that they left the safety of the caravan and walked back to Jerusalem alone to search for Jesus. When Mary and Joseph finally found him in the temple, Jesus seemed bothered by his parents’ concern. He asked, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I know many of us could have advised Mary and Joseph regarding an appropriate response! Still, these two who had taught Jesus compassion, kindness, humility, patience and forgiveness practiced what they preached. Though they failed to understand Jesus’ actions, they resisted scolding him and simply led him home. As for Jesus, he returned to Nazareth “…and was obedient to them.” Perhaps I should tell Ellie that if she avoids causing her parents to worry, she’ll be far more successful than Jesus in this regard!

As I consider today’s Feast of the Holy Family, Jesus’ adventure in the temple compels me to dismiss the beautiful Christmas Cards and artwork which depict father, mother and child with halos and perpetual smiles in place. Life in Nazareth two millenniums ago wasn’t any less complicated than our lives are today. Just as our complicated modern-day circumstances impact family life, circumstances in Nazareth did the same for the Holy Family. Overcrowding, poverty, inhumane Roman rule and the unyielding expectations of the temple hierarchy were formidable stressors in this little family’s life. Like us, Joseph and Mary struggled to keep order in their household while loving and raising their child as best they could. When Jesus was lost, Joseph and Mary did exactly what any of us would have done when they went to the rescue of their loved one. It seems to me that today’s celebration of the Holy Family is a celebration of all of God’s family. Whether our roles are those of parent, child, grandparent, friend or a caring passer-by, God asks us to love one another and to keep track of one another just as God loves and watches over each one of us. After all, this is what families do, especially God’s family.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Merry Christmas!

While they were there,
the days of her confinement were completed.
She gave birth to her first-born son
and wrapped him in swaddling clothes
and laid him in a manger.

Luke 2:6-7

Mary draws her son close to herself to kiss his forehead. His eyes open just long enough to reveal the depth of their color. The newborn sleeps again, content to nestle in his mother’s arms. The rhythm of her heartbeat eases the child into deep slumber. A grateful Mary leans back against the cold wall as she embraces Jesus. Her heart feels as though it will burst within her, for she loves her son more than it is possible to love…

One wonders what the Child’s Father is thinking in the distance…

“Mary is the most perfect of my children. Yet, in spite of their foolishness, I love them all. I cannot resist them, for everything I have made is good, and they are my greatest work. When I willed their world into being, I envisioned a kingdom. This realm would not be ruled by a monarch. It would be inspired by love. I breathed life into my first children, that they might evolve into lovers as insatiable as I. Though I gave them a pleasing appearance, I blessed them far more with pleasing spirits. In my image and likeness, I set them out to be fruitful. I set them out to experience the joy that their lives are meant to be.

“When they used their gifts as the means to walk away from me, I lingered in their shadows. I knew too well the pain and sorrow that lurked on the path ahead. How could I allow them to embark alone upon the journey they had chosen? When the faithful among them opened their hearts to me, I revealed myself to them. Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Moses and Aaron, Isaiah and David began to understand. When they erred with the rest of my children, they persisted in turning back to me to begin again. How they worked to honor the Covenant and to align their hearts with my own!

“It was not enough, I know. They could not comprehend the depth of my love for them. So I pursue them further in the person of my son. Dearest Mary, your innocent devotion honors me. As I watch you cradle my son, I long to draw you and each of your sisters and brothers to myself. Just as your love and tenderness nurture him, this child will nurture the world with my tenderness and love. If only each one of them could feel my embrace as Jesus feels your embrace this holy night. If only they will learn to embrace one another…”

I cannot pretend to know what God was thinking the night of Jesus’ birth. I can, however, turn to Jesus’ life to gain some sense of the passion with which God loves us. Jesus was born among the poor, that every one of us might feel welcome in his company. Jesus honored his father and mother, that we might find honor as parents. Jesus learned a trade and worked to care for his family, that we might find satisfaction in our labor. Jesus left everything to embrace his calling, that we might find the courage to follow our hearts as well. Jesus illustrated our God’s capacity to love through the story of the Prodigal Son and in his own actions. Jesus was incapable of walking away from a soul who needed him. Jesus healed each one of obvious physical afflictions and the festering sores that disfigured his or her heart. Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and he weeps with us over our losses. Jesus stepped into our shoes to show us how to walk graciously through this life. Jesus embraced all of humanity with God’s loving hands, reminiscent of his first embrace in the arms of Mary.

This Christmas, we join our Loving God in celebrating Mary’s generosity in bearing and nurturing Jesus. Mary’s life changed forever the night of Jesus’ birth and so changed the life of this world. The child Jesus felt love for the first time in the arms of his mother. In turn, Jesus taught this lesson of love in all that he said and did. Jesus could not contain his love for those around him any more than Mary could contain the love she felt for Jesus. This Christmas, we are invited to do the same for ourselves and for those we have been given to love. We are invited to open our hearts as Mary did and to allow God’s Son to change our lives forever. In doing so, we discover the reality of Christmas: Hope realized, peace on earth, true joy and love incarnate. Our Christmas Gift to this world is sharing these blessings with one another.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved