Welcome, Neighbor!

“Love one another.”
From John 13:34

The other day, I watched an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with my grandsons. The show is well done and has been the source of many discussions between me and the kids. It elicited precious memories. Daniel Tiger is one of Fred Roger’s make-believe friends from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which I watched with my own sons too many decades ago. That effort wasn’t wasted as I truly tried to emulate Mr. Roger’s welcoming ways in my own life. His wisdom inspired my efforts, especially throughout my teaching career…

My most frustrating experiences were the result of observing stubborn or mean-spirited adults who refused to welcome others into the moment at hand as a neighbor would: A teacher who misrepresented a student rather than admit an error; a principal who refused to support a teacher whom she simply didn’t care for; a lunch monitor whose demeanor was less-than-welcoming toward “those” kids; a custodian who took his time when certain teachers called for help. This list exists in one form or another in just about every human institution, I know. How much more we’d accomplish if only we’d welcome one another as Fred Rogers -and Jesus- suggested.

Luke’s gospel tells us that a hungry homeless man, covered with sores, died on a rich man’s doorstep. He might have survived if the rich man had only welcomed him in. Today, God asks us to take notice of those above us, those below us and those who walk at our sides. “Take notice and welcome them all,” God says.

Patient God, I sometimes fail to offer your welcome. Please help me to see everyone around me with your loving eyes and to respond to each one with your loving heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Live with Faith, Hope and God’s Love!

This week, I’ll celebrate my parents’ seventy-seventh wedding anniversary. While my mom and dad will observe this special day in a place far better than our troubled world, I’ll reminisce over old photos and poignant memories. I’m tempted to long for the simpler times my parents seemed to enjoy, but I cannot. Life was no easier for them than it is for us these days. Though the details of our circumstances differ, similar pain has punctuated human history since our beginning. One of the treasures my mom left is an album in which she mounted the bridal shower and wedding cards she and my dad received. These treasures get to the heart of everything of importance to us as we journey through this life and beyond. I’m certain they inspired my parents’ efforts in this regard…

I opened my mom’s album and considered each page of cards. These tiny treasures measure no more than three inches or four inches in height and width. Still, in spite of their diminutive size, they carry grand wishes. The personal notes added to manufactured verses speak eloquently of each sender’s love for my future parents. The various signatures elicited images of family members and friends from long ago. As I thumbed through the yellowed pages, one letter-sized paper stood out. I wondered who might have sent this particular greeting. As I read, I discovered perhaps the most touching message of them all. It was written by the president of the company for which my mom worked. Here is what that extremely wise man had to say: “Dear Rita: I am happy to learn that you are to be married on Saturday and want to extend my best wishes to you and your husband. May your wedded life be full of joy and happiness. Do not let the present gloomy world conditions put a damper on your hopes and ambitions. Marriage is a wonderful venture in life and I know it is going to mean much happiness to you both in the years to come. With kindest regards, I remain… W. R. Barker”

My parents married in 1942. World War II raged and times were tough. Many family members and friends served in the military. The damage done by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever kept my father from joining them. My mom had been working for years by then. She took a job during high school because her family needed the added income to get by. My mom’s single regret was her inability to attend college. Neither she nor her parents could afford the tuition. I’m certain that meeting my dad dulled the sting of that unrealized dream as a new dream took shape in their relationship. Indeed, my parents’ wedding day proved to be the first of 6,112 amazing days together. It seems Mr. Barker knew the potential for joy which my parents realized throughout the years ahead. His letter summed up everything that we can hope for in this life: A measure of happiness, the love of others, encouragement in spite of troubling times and friends who stand at our sides. Apparently, my mom appreciated Mr. Barker’s sentiments because his letter is displayed quite beautifully in her album. My mother’s grateful approach to her circumstances over the years since convince me that she took Mr. Barker’s sentiments to heart. Yes, our hopes and ambitions and love make all of the difference regardless of the conditions around us.

Mr. Barker’s words touched me as well because they reflect the love which Jesus exhibited when he met a group of lepers one day. Luke’s gospel (Luke 17:11-19) tells us that, when they saw him, these suffering men cried out, “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” Jesus felt their pain as only Jesus could. Without hesitation, he sent the men to show themselves to the priests of the temple. On their way, one leper realized he was healed. While the others went on to have themselves declared cured, this man raced back and fell at Jesus’ feet. Though the others certainly realized what had occurred, only this man returned. Could it be that he recognized a more significant blessing? Indeed, he had encountered the Lord! Not only was his body made whole, but his spirit had also been revived by God’s all-encompassing love. This grateful one-time leper realized that he would flourish in spite of the world’s gloomy conditions because he was loved. God’s love would ensure that nothing would ever again put a damper on this man’s hopes and ambitions. He returned to say “Thank you, Lord!” for good reason!

As I consider the wedding greetings which fill my mom’s album, I realize she kept them for good reason. They provided a constant reminder of the love which surrounded her and my dad as they began their life together. Just as the leper’s healing reminded him of God’s healing love in his life, my mother’s album kept her cognizant of God and all of the loved ones who walked this life’s journey with her. It seems that Mr. Barker described perfectly how the cured man and we should respond to God’s love in our lives: We must never allow gloomy world conditions to put a damper on our hopes and dreams. We must embrace this life as the wonderful venture it is. God’s love will bring happiness to us in the days ahead both here and in heaven above.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Personal Best

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God.
Luke 13:29

As the 2019 Chicago Marathon approaches, I recall our older son’s effort a few years ago. I enjoy walking, but I admit that I’m no athlete. Though my husband maintains a very respectable workout schedule, he doesn’t consider himself to be an athlete. Still, our older son managed to acquire the very best of our gene pool in this regard. Mike has enjoyed participating in sports since his t-ball days. Running became a serious pursuit for him in adulthood. He completed the 2013 Chicago Marathon within a very respectable time-frame. When he ran his second marathon, his only goal was to exceed his personal best and he did.

This reminiscing urged me outdoors for a trek of my own. As I considered what my son accomplished, I pushed myself to walk a bit more briskly and a bit farther. Once I established my pace, I attended to the beauty around me, my constant companion during these jaunts. The sky boasted an amazingly deep blue and the trees showed off their emerging fall colors. The spraying fountain which I pass near our village hall sparkled in the sunshine like an array of diamonds. “Thank you, for all of this!” I prayed.

My son and I embark upon very different journeys when we exercise. Mike attends to what his body tells him, while I attend to the things outside of me. We each do what we must to accomplish our goals and we both feel very good in the end.

Unique demands accompany each of our journeys through this life. God asks only that we deal with these things as we can as best we can and as only we can. This is all that is required.

Gracious God, our personal best -even when it isn’t very good- is all that you ask. Thank you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Did You Notice?

I’d just driven onto our block when I noticed our friend half-running down the sidewalk behind her dog. I would write that Cindy was walking Duke, but the truth is that Duke was walking her. I couldn’t help smiling because Duke was behaving exactly like my husband’s and my first and only dog. Now our friend Cindy is quite athletic and perfectly capable of managing that large Labrador Retriever. It was the end of their walk and they were headed home. I’m certain that by that time Cindy had allowed Duke the luxury of running ahead of her. As for Mike’s and my dog, though he was half the size of Duke, he managed to lead us everywhere. Our difficulties with Ernie began during the drive home from the pet shop. That sweet little cocker-beagle-poodle-terrier mix refused to stay put. He repeatedly crawled out of the box he was to occupy all the way home.

Mike and I were married only ten months when we met Ernie. We were both teachers who managed our students quite well. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the same for our dog. Ernie failed doggie kindergarten because his owners failed to practice commands and reward his successes with any consistency. Did I mention that we thought everything Ernie did was cute? Eventually, our poor dog was saved by a good friend who told us that we were terrible parents! She generously took Ernie for a single afternoon and taught him everything he needed to know. She taught his owners a few things as well. In the end, Ernie wasn’t a prefect dog, but he was far more well-behaved than Mike and I deserved him to be.

During our fourteen years with Ernie, he taught us far more than we taught him. More importantly, we didn’t make the same mistakes with our sons that we did with our pet. This is likely because we honed our parenting skills while dealing with our dog. Yet, in spite of sacrificing himself for our kids, Ernie loved us unconditionally and seemed content to be part of our family. Ernie’s greatest attribute was his ability to notice just about everything around him. Ernie knew the mail carrier would arrive shortly though he or she wasn’t on our block yet. Ernie growled quietly long before I noticed a stranger approaching. He also paced in anticipation of Mike’s arrival even before the garage door opened. Ernie always sensed when a crying baby had woken me once too often on a given night. As I sat nursing my little son, Ernie nuzzled at my feet. “You’re not alone,” he seemed to say. When the extended family visited, Ernie made a beeline to my stepdad the first time they met. How did Ernie know that Bill was a dog-lover? When Mike’s father passed away, did Ernie sense Mike’s sadness? He climbed onto the couch next to my dear husband seemingly because he somehow knew Mike needed him. When Mike was away for a late night meeting or out of town at a conference, Ernie plopped himself on the floor on my side of the bed to assure me that he was keeping watch. Sometimes, Ernie attended to the details of this life far more carefully than I did.

In today’s gospel (Luke 16:19-31), Luke shares Jesus’ story of a rich man who missed a bit too much of what transpired around him. This man spent his time and his wealth quite freely on himself. He gorged himself on spectacular food and drink while failing to notice Lazarus who lay dying on his doorstep. The rich man was so taken with the luxuries which surrounded him that he didn’t notice the many other people who might have graced his life, especially those in need. Sadly, only the neighborhood dogs noticed Lazarus. Only they stopped to tend to their suffering neighbor and to lick his wounds. Did Ernie’s canine counterparts somehow know that Lazarus might have recovered if he’d been given the scraps from his rich neighbor’s table? Jesus went on to share that both men eventually passed away and entered into eternal life. Lazarus rested contentedly in the embrace of Abraham, while the rich man wallowed in pain and was desperate with thirst. When the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a few drops of water, Abraham couldn’t comply. Lazarus couldn’t enter the netherworld and the rich man couldn’t enter heaven. The point of Jesus’ story was that if the rich man had noticed his suffering neighbor life would have been much better for both of them. If only the rich man had noticed! He would have found his way to Abraham’s embrace.

I admit that Ernie drove me crazy much of the time. However, I also admit that Ernie comforted Mike and me far more. That little dog showed us that a well-timed nuzzle, sufficient food, a safe place to lay his head and the encouraging love of those who cared for him were all he needed. All that any of us need to be happy is the same. Once again, we’re invited to take notice of the people we’ve been given to love and to care for them as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Relax With God

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10:41-42

It’s taken me a lifetime to appreciate our need to slow down and to relax a bit. I truly enjoy the natural beauty around me. Still, I sometimes use more energy listing the reasons that I cannot head outdoors than I would’ve spent by actually walking. In the end, I accomplish far less than I might have if I’d been energized by a trek outdoors.

As I contemplate autumn’s arrival, I realize that outdoor opportunities will soon be limited by increasingly cold temperatures. Though I truly enjoy winter’s beauty, I’ll enjoy it firsthand for only a few minutes at a time. I looked away from my keyboard for a moment to respond to the tree outside of my window. It seemed to be waving to me. As I watched, it occurred to me that I must listen to Jesus who told Martha that she worried too much. I must also imitate Mary who sat peacefully at Jesus’ feet. She drew in his every word and all of the affection that came with them.

Today, I’ll ask Mary to move over a bit so I can take my place at Jesus’s feet as well. It’s there that I’ll learn to stop worrying about the cold which may or may not come and I’ll enjoy the warmth of the moment at hand. I’m going to sign off now to go for a walk. I want to wave to that tree outside my window in person.

Generous God, as I set aside my worries, help me to assist others in doing the same. Open our hearts to your infinite love and peace.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Finally, I Understand!

Each week, I prepare to fill this space by praying for inspiration and then reading the scriptures we’ll hear at the coming Sunday’s Masses. Sometimes, as has been the case today, I reread them several times until the message sinks in. Usually, a recent event which relates to the theme comes to mind and I have my story. Today, I find myself struggling with Luke’s Gospel and I’m not certain of where to go from here. Last Sunday’s passage from Luke included my favorite of Jesus’ parables, The Prodigal Son. Jesus used this story to assure us that the Prodigal Son’s father extended the same loving and merciful welcome to his son which God offers to each one of us over and over again. Much to my dismay, that wonderfully loving and hope-filled parable was preceded and followed by passages which offer difficult and puzzling exhortations from Jesus. So it is that I’ve stopped to pray one more time before continuing…

Here I go… In today’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13), Luke recounts another occasion on which Jesus used a story to teach. Jesus offered the tale of a man who handled the financial affairs of a wealthy landowner. That landowner discovered that his steward had cheated him. So it was that he ordered that steward to account for his actions. The dishonest steward could see that his firing was imminent. Because he was too proud to dig ditches or to beg, the steward took action. To ensure his financial future, he called in his master’s debtors. The steward directed one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies would certainly see to his well-being after his master fired him. During that final accounting, the master marveled at the efforts of his dishonest employee. That wealthy landowner seemed not to be surprised that his steward had found a way to save himself.

Let me explain that when the steward cut the debts of his master’s clients, he did so by the amount which would have been his own commission. Though The Law forbade charging exorbitant interest rates, it was common for stewards to tack their own fees onto their masters’ loans. When the steward erased his share of those loans, he befriended possible benefactors while also seeing to it that his master was fully repaid. Though the steward failed to keep his job, he succeeded in making a bad situation tolerable by cutting everyone’s losses before he moved on. Jesus surprised me by focusing upon the creativity of that steward rather than taking issue with his dishonesty. It occurs to me that perhaps Jesus did this to draw attention to the realities of life in this not-so-perfect world. Perhaps Jesus hoped to encourage us to use our ingenuity to draw some good from the negative circumstances which surround us just as that steward did.

I’d like to think that most of our good deeds don’t stem from our wrong-doing as was the case with the dishonest steward. Nonetheless, our goodness is often inspired by the imperfections of life on this earth. The devastation wielded by Hurricane Dorian overwhelmed its victims in the Bahamas as well as on our own east coast. Wildfires in the west have done the same. Our recent observance of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks provided a stark reminder of the new brand of evil which was born that day. Today’s streamed and broadcast news programs provide ongoing evidence that violence has become a way of life in both faraway countries and nearby communities. Yet, in the midst of all of this suffering, efforts to bring assistance and relief came and continues to come from every direction. Just as they did in response to the 9/11 tragedy, heroes among us roll up their sleeves and pick up the pieces in faraway countries as well as here at home. These generous souls do whatever is needed to make things better as only they can.

Finally, I think I understand Jesus’ point. Finally, Jesus’ focus upon the steward’s dishonesty and his attempt to pick up the pieces and to make things right for himself makes sense. Life in this world is indeed imperfect, sometimes because of our own wrongdoing, sometimes because of the misdeeds of others and sometimes because of circumstances over which none of us have control. Whatever the case, Jesus used the tale of that dishonest steward to encourage us to do something. Jesus asks each of us to be equally creative in making the most of the difficulties at hand. You know, two of my favorite newscasts end each segment by highlighting individuals who demonstrate the amazing capacities we humans have to be our best and to do our best to love and to care for one another. It seems to me that God would like to end each day by recounting with us our own efforts to be our best and to do our best to love and care for one another.

I hope you’ll agree that my prayers for inspiration were answered today. I also hope that you’ll join me in taking this parable to heart. Though the Parable of the Prodigal Son continues to be my favorite, my affection for Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Steward has grown. That prodigal son keeps us ever mindful that God will always love us and God will always forgive us whenever that forgiveness is needed. That conniving steward assures us that even our worst behavior has the potential to accomplish good in God’s scheme of things. There is so much that needs our attention today! Will you join me in picking up the pieces and making something better as only we can?

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved