Our Difficult Endeavor

Often, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor… Today, Luke’s gospel (12:49-53) tells us that Jesus made this quite clear. I admit that this passage had been among the most troubling and difficult for me to understand over the years. I prefer Jesus’ lessons regarding love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I treasure the image Jesus put forth of God as Abba, our dad who considers us all God’s children and God’s family. Yet, in this gospel, Jesus announced, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on this earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father…” I didn’t continue this quote because I’m certain you get the idea. Why, just a few weeks after teaching us to be true neighbors (Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan?), did Jesus change course? It occurs to me that Jesus may have done this to prepare us for what certainly lies ahead. Perhaps Jesus hoped to offer us encouragement for those times when we’d have to proceed alone because even our loved ones fail to understand.

This past Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the last event of Mary’s life. Today’s gospel nudged my thoughts toward Mary’s lifetime. Before she left this life, Mary experienced years of uncertainly, anguish and even division among her loved ones while trying to do the right thing. This likely began when the angel invited Mary to become the mother of Jesus. Mary knew what the scriptures taught regarding the long-awaited messiah. Like her contemporaries, Mary didn’t expect that messiah to be born to a powerless and impoverished maiden. When you and I are faced with difficult choices or forced into relentless suffering, we can turn to two thousand years of Christianity for inspiration. We endure and we rise above our suffering because we’ve learned to do so from Mary’s own son. Unfortunately, poor Mary found herself in uncharted territory when that angel asked her to enter into an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Seeking her parents’ understanding was quite a hurdle to overcome! What of her unsuspecting fiancé? What of her faithful fellow Jewish believers who might have seen this as cause to stone her? Still, in spite of the uncertainty, Mary followed her heart armed only with her faith in God’s presence at her side.

After Jesus’ birth, Joseph shared Mary’s faithfulness to God and to the child whom they would raise together. It was in their home that Jesus developed into the person who enriched human history with everlasting results. What wonderful examples this laborer father and peasant mother must have been! What difficult discussions they must have had beyond earshot of their son! Joseph and Mary nurtured Jesus within a family who seemed typical of those who inhabited Nazareth. Like neighboring couples, Mary and Joseph didn’t necessarily agree on every aspect of Jesus’ upbringing. Imagine the conversations which streamed through their work and leisure. Imagine the laughter and worry they shared at mealtime. Imagine the talks between Jesus and his mother and father before bedtime. Poor Mary and Joseph were certainly blessed by their child, but he also overwhelmed them. In the end, whatever occurred between these three has made all of the difference in this world to the rest of us.

While Mary survived Jesus’ childhood, she couldn’t have predicted what life after Joseph’s death would be like. Nor could she have imagined the triumphs and troubles which followed Jesus throughout his ministry. What did her neighbors say when Jesus left the widowed Mary to pursue his work? What did these friends say when they heard tidbits of Jesus’ teaching during the weeks, months and years that followed? Who warned Mary of the horror that threatened when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time? Somehow, Mary was among the people who crowded the way as Jesus plodded along that path to Calvary. Somehow, Mary found her place at Jesus’ cross. As she stood helplessly beneath him, did Mary question her choices regarding Jesus’ upbringing? Did Mary mourn missed opportunities to urge he son in another direction? Did Mary question her faith in the seemingly faraway Abba who stood by through all of this? The mother in me can imagine nothing worse than standing at the foot of my son’s cross. Still, though Mary Magdalene, Joanna, John and others may others have attempted to usher Mary away for her safety, none succeeded. Mary had agreed to be Jesus’ mother and she held onto that title until the end. Yes, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor.

Perhaps Jesus’ insisted that he’d come to divide us because he’d learned early on that even those closest to us don’t always understand the reasons we do what we do. Mary and Joseph set out to parent Jesus with no assurances. Jesus set out to do his Abba’s work with no assurances. The disciples who first heard this one-time laborer’s preaching followed without guarantees. The man born blind and Mary Magdalene opened their hearts to Jesus with no regard for what others thought. In the end, each one opted to do what he or she felt called to do just as Jesus had. This life can be harsh at times. Just as Jesus prepared us to bask in God’s love for us and our love for one another, he prepared us for the troubles we’d encounter along the way. When unrest and division occur as a result of our doing the right thing, Jesus assures us that the good that follows will outlast it all. Jesus proved this beyond a doubt, don’t you think?

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

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God’s in The Midst of Everything!

Though Christmas 2018 already seems a distant memory, I won’t soon forget my husband’s gift to me. Mike knows that I truly enjoy live theater. After investigating the current shows, he opted to purchase tickets for Fiddler on the Roof. Mike discovered that tickets were still available for the play’s final week. All was going well until it came time to select seats online. The two “best available” options were on the aisle of the first row center on the main floor and on the aisle of the first row center of the loge. Since both sets of tickets were offered at the same price, Mike had no clue which were the better option. Would I prefer to be up close and personal with the cast or to have a panoramic view of the entire stage? Brilliant spouse that he is, Mike decided that my input regarding seats was more important than my being surprised on Christmas morning. When posed with my options, it took only a moment for me to announce, “Front row center for sure!” Two weeks ago, when we made our way to those seats, I knew that we wouldn’t be disappointed. It was during the first scene that lead character Tevye and his fellow villagers made it clear that they were performing just for Mike and me.

Though I can sing most of the show’s tunes from memory, I’d forgotten the details of the plot until Tevye, his family and their neighbors gave life to the story. The drama unfolded in a small early Twentieth Century Russian village where most of the inhabitants were of Jewish heritage. Tevye, husband to Golde and father to five daughters, was steeped in the traditions dictated by his culture and his faith. Tevye’s relationship with God became evident when Tevye revealed his favorite form of prayer. Whenever things were very good, very bad and everywhere in between, Tevye turned his eyes upward to address the Lord God directly. Tevye’s trust in God was so great that, after posing his requests, he always added, “But on the other hand…” Tevye always left the final say to God. Though the rest of the audience seemed to find Tevye’s prayer amusing, I squirmed in my seat. This lovable man’s efforts echoed my own prayer far too closely. I’m embarrassed to admit that Tevye’s sometimes sarcastic tone toward God sounded a bit too familiar. Though I squirmed a little more at this realization, Tevye seemed unperturbed. Every time he turned toward God, Tevye was confident that God heard him, that God was indeed in charge and that God would respond appropriately. Even in the midst of the darkest turns of events, Tevye persisted in his prayer. No one in that village was closer to God than Tevye and I want to be like him in that regard.

I share my encounter with Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof because the mother of Jesus addressed her son with Tevye’s confidents. Today, we hear the passage from John’s gospel (John 2:1-11) which recounts Jesus’ first miracle. Jesus and his family attended their neighbors’ wedding. Not long into the festivities, Mary heard that the couple was running out of wine. She immediately approached Jesus for help. Jesus, who was slowly easing into his ministry, told his mother that “his hour” hadn’t yet come. Mary, seemingly oblivious to her son’s reply, simply told the stewards to do whatever Jesus asked. Like Tevye, Mary was certain that Jesus had heard her, that Jesus was in charge and that Jesus would respond appropriately.

Though none of us know much about the lifetime of interactions Mary and Jesus shared before that wedding. I can tell you that Tevye had experienced a lifetime of grueling toil, persistent poverty and persecution before I met him in the theater that night. His experiences in that small Russian village proved to be very similar to Mary’s and her family’s experience in Nazareth. Though they were God-loving people who followed their faith’s traditions devoutly, Mary’s family endured persecution at the hands of their Roman government and its unscrupulous agents. Yet, in spite of their suffering, Mary and her family turned to God. In their joy and in their sorrow, they had prayed as Tevye learned to pray centuries later. It’s no wonder that Mary turned to Jesus with complete confidence.

If you’ve listened to the news lately or read the paper, if you’ve looked down the street or into your own backyard, you’ve likely seen evidence of joy and evidence of suffering in its too numerous insidious forms. When it comes to things being very good, very bad and everywhere in between, our experiences aren’t very different from those of Tevye’s and Jesus’ families. It seems to me that the moral of the story is this: God hears us, God is indeed in charge and God always does and will continue to respond appropriately. All that we are asked to do in the midst of any situation is the best that we can. Then, we must raise our eyes to heaven up close and personally as Mary and Tevye did. With their confidence, we must invite God into the best and worst times of our lives and into everything in between. The truth is that, whether we turn to God or not, God is with us!

©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

Thank You, Daddy!

God is light; in God there is no darkness.
From 1 John 1:5

On this third day of Christmas, I’m thinking about my dad. Today is his birthday and I hope he is celebrating with great gusto. My dad passed away many years ago at age 39. He has celebrated far more birthdays in the afterlife than he celebrated here.

In spite of my dad’s early departure from this life, he remains with me in many ways. It is my father who walked me through the difficult losses of my uncle and grandfather who lived with us. Daddy gave me reason to smile when he assured me that my polio-stricken uncle would certainly be walking straight and tall in heaven. Later, Daddy assured me that Grandpa wouldn’t need his cane to get around in his heavenly home. My dad’s conviction in this regard eased me through his own death not many years later. Daddy also wisely told me that I was harder on myself than anyone else would ever be and that I was a very good girl. Most importantly, my dad repeated these lessons often in the things he said and did.

On this third day of Christmas, I’m renewing my commitment to take my Dad’s lessons to heart. I’ll deal with the disappointments and losses of this life knowing that God has many good things in store in our heavenly home. I’ll also try to be a little easier on myself and on those around me. After all, in God’s eyes, we’re all good girls and boys!

Generous God, thank you for my dad who did a great job of revealing your love to me.

©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

Mary Loves

Mary said, “I am the maidservant of the Lord.
Let it be done to me as you say.”

Luke 1:38

I have once again found a few minutes of quiet. I go to the living room where our Christmas Tree reigns. Though it’s the tree’s fragrance that invariably beckons me in to appreciate its splendor, it is the village at its feet which keeps my attention. Every year, my husband lies on the floor under our tree for hours to fashion his current vision of Bethlehem. Though Mike’s placement of the houses and trees, cars, figures and skating pond vary from year to year, they always sit in humble deference to the crèche.

When events around me near and far threaten my Christmas Spirit, I come to the place where Mary’s “yes” to the Angel Gabriel came to fruition. As I gaze at Mary and her baby, I consider the difficulties that turned this poor teenager’s world upside-down. I realize the insignificance of our current troubles in the grand scheme of things. I thank God for loving us so much that God never loses confidence in our ability to make things right, one loving act at a time.

Generous God, today I will honor Mary and you with my loving response to whatever lies on the path before me. Give me the generosity of spirit to say “yes” with Mary’s determination to all that you ask of me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved