God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Every Day A Good Day!

Cast your care upon the Lord
and he will support you.

Psalm 55:23

Early that morning, I’d engaged in my daily routine which begins with the few exercises which keep my aging frame more limber than it might otherwise be. Though I’m usually invigorated by this regimen, I found myself a bit melancholy. I hadn’t yet recouped the energy I’d expended as I prepared for Easter. Unfortunately, this didn’t deter the new and unwanted to-do list which was forming on my desk. Before I could voice a complaint to myself, a familiar photograph caught my eye.

I exercise in the same spot most days, but my thoughts usually prevent me from attending to the scenery. That morning, however, my sister Cecele demanded my attention. This particular picture was taken in the midst of the chemotherapy regimen which we hoped would destroy the cancer in her lungs. Only a bit of fuzz served as Cecele’s hair when she posed, but it’s difficult to notice. Every time I see that photograph, I’m drawn to my sister’s dancing eyes and her broad smile. That morning, those eyes twinkled and I’m certain that her smile grew even larger.

“Yes, Cecele, I get the point!” I told my sister. “I won’t complain and I will be grateful for this new day.” Cecele had been grateful for every day she was given after that final diagnosis took her by surprise. And, yes, after breakfast, I started working on that to-do list with my own grateful smile!

Patient God, thank you for the numerous reminders that this life is truly a gift!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

Be With Me…

Just a note… I haven’t forgotten the alphabet! On Sundays I’ll post my usual longer reflections and then return to my ABCs the rest of each week.

Most January weekends, a few of our parishioners stop on their way out of Mass to say, “See you this spring!” They sport relieved smiles as they explain that they’re headed to the warmer weather in Florida or another typically snow-free destination. I admit that I used to wonder how anyone could leave home for an entire season. Today, I finally understand as I zip my jacket over my flannel shirt and hoodie. “I’m tired of being cold!” I moan. I say this in spite of the bright sunshine beyond my window which transforms tiny flecks of snow into diamonds. Nature lover that I am, I’m puzzled by my attitude. The mere hint of snow usually lifts my spirit, but this isn’t the case today. Still, I head out on an errand which this week’s busyness forced me to put off until now.

Nagging concerns distract me on the way to the garage. As I ease into my car, I see the strings of Christmas lights I rolled up yesterday. It always pains me to take down our decorations as I’m habitually reluctant to let go of Christmastime. I pride myself in making an annual attempt to transform The Twelve Days of Christmas into The Twelve Months of Christmas as best I can. Stubborn woman that I am, I promise myself that New Year 2017 will be no exception. Still, troubles great and small complicate my life these days. So it is that I decide to take action. Running an errand in the freezing cold isn’t the best setting for reflection. Still, I shift into meditative mode.

As the frost disappears from my windshield, I switch the radio to the CD player. When nothing happens, I remember that I removed my Christmas CD when I checked traffic the other day. I fiddle through the cache of CDs in my obsolete map holder and discover Be With Me*. It’s the work of Matt Wessel, a young man who performed fourteen Concerts for Life at my parish church to benefit The American Cancer Society. I purchased Matt’s first CD back when he was in high school to be supportive of this young and talented musician. I purchased the rest for purely selfish reasons. I love Matt’s music because it speaks to me in the best and the worst of times. Though today isn’t the worst day of my life, it certainly isn’t the best. I insert the disc and back out of the garage. I stop in the driveway to check traffic and to bypass the first three songs. I need to hear the title song because I can’t speak its sentiments for myself: Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray. At once, I realize that I’ve found the words I should have spoken days ago. I stop the car and allow Matt’s song to pray for me.

The stubbornness I mentioned earlier can be a troublesome trait, especially when it comes to my propensity to “fix” things. Though I know that I’ll never be able to remedy all of the world’s troubles or all of my own, I try. When I fail, which has often been the case during the past few weeks, I succumb to melancholy. Tears sting my eyes and I finally pray for myself, “Be with me, Lord…” I realize that I don’t have to go it alone, not today and not ever. During the most difficult times of our lives, none of us are left to go it alone. I drive on to tend to my errand. As I consider this writing, I smile as I thank God for the consistently well-timed inspiration which never fails me.

Today’s scriptures reference our communal need for God’s presence. In the first reading (Isaiah 8:23-9:3), Isaiah rejoices in the relationship with God which gives life to the Jewish People. In the second reading (1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17), St. Paul registers serious disappointment with his friends at Corinth. They’ve wasted much time and energy bickering. They all consider themselves Christians. Still, they differentiate among themselves because of who brought them into the faith: Paul, Apollos, Peter or Jesus. There is no negotiating as to who is the greatest of their teachers and Paul insists that they unite in the name of Jesus. After all, it is Jesus who is with them in everything! Matthew’s gospel (4:12-23) references Isaiah’s passage to underscore the arrival of this Jesus for whom they have waited. Later, Jesus exhibits his own appreciation of God’s presence and of those God has given him to love. Jesus’ heart breaks over the arrest of his cousin John the Baptist. John is family in both the human and the spiritual sense. His absence hurts Jesus just as our losses hurt us. Yet, even in his sorrow, Jesus embraces others when he calls Peter and Andrew, James and John. Even in his sorrow, Jesus seeks out helpers to bring the good news of God’s loving presence to all people.

Finally, my errand is accomplished, my melancholy is banished and I smile. I repeat Matt’s prayer and I promise to make it my own as I thank God for being with me today. God never allows us to go it alone even when we think we’re alone. God resides in each of our hearts and so it will always be.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*See mattwesselmusic.com

Embrace The Day

Cast your care upon the Lord
and he will support you.

Psalm 55:23

Early that morning, I engaged in my daily routine which begins with the few exercises which keep my aging frame more limber than it might otherwise be. Though I’m usually invigorated by this regimen, I found myself a bit melancholy. I hadn’t yet recouped the energy I’d expended as I prepared for Easter. Unfortunately, this didn’t deter the new and unwanted to-do list which was forming on my desk. Before I could voice a complaint to myself, a familiar photograph caught my eye.

I exercise in the same spot most days, but my thoughts usually prevent me from attending to the scenery. That morning, however, my sister Cecele demanded my attention. This particular picture was taken in the midst of the chemotherapy regimen which we hoped would destroy the cancer in her lungs. Only a bit of fuzz served as Cecele’s hair when she posed, but it’s difficult to notice. Every time I see that photograph, I’m drawn to my sister’s dancing eyes and her broad smile. That morning, those eyes twinkled and I’m certain that her smile grew even larger.

“Yes, Cecele, I get the point!” I told my sister. “I won’t complain and I will be grateful for this new day.” After breakfast, I started working on that to-do list.

Patient God, thank you for the numerous reminders that this life is truly a gift!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Enough Bologna For Us All

My husband and I stole away for a few days to “chill.” I can’t help laughing as I type because this is precisely what we did. We left frigid Gurnee temperatures to enter the deeper-freeze up north. A quick stop for lunch on the way prompted us to question the wisdom if this trip. Still, we pressed on to that little cabin in the woods which promised a bit of relief from the world’s troubles. A serious bout with melancholy took root when I said good-bye to Christmas 2015 and welcomed New Year. The 2016 Calendar before me promised little regarding peace on this earth. In spite of the cold, I needed this time away to revive my spirit before I completely gave in to my discouragement.

When we arrived at the cabin, the cold forced us to empty the car in record time. Though we often raise the thermostat and then head out for an hour or two, staying put under a warm afghan seemed the wiser choice that day. Mike perused the local television offerings from the couch while I nuzzled into the recliner. I continued to brood about the human condition, wondering if my usually optimistic outlook was nothing more than a bunch of bologna. Since nothing on television interested me, I decided to revisit the stack of books on the coffee table. I didn’t get past the little red book on top because it’s title offered an appropriate antidote for my mood: CHRISTMAS MIRACLES. “Huh!” I prayed. “Lord, I’d like a yearlong miracle!”

After a few paragraphs, I remembered that this book is a collection of true stories. The narrative I chose to reread had appealed to me the first time around because I share experiences with the main character. This little girl often visited her grandmother for extended stays. Though the woman employed servants, she prided herself in caring for her granddaughter herself. This care included preparing lunch. Because Grandmother knew that children love bologna, she served the little girl a bologna sandwich every single day. In truth, the girl didn’t like bologna at all. Still, she ate each and every bite to please her grandmother. I’ve never liked bologna, so I understand this little girl’s sacrifice. A few years later, Grandmother passed away. Again, I understood because I lost three of my grandparents and my dad by this age. Life afterward was difficult for my counterpart and for me. By the time this child entered college, she was on her own and destitute. She had no money for food, much less the coming semester’s tuition. One day, as she stared into her bare refrigerator, the girl decided to write a bad check to the grocer in order to purchase food. Though she placed only a few items into her basket, the girl abandoned the idea and ran from the store. She couldn’t steal. She returned to her apartment and headed for the near-empty carton of milk which was the sole occupant of her refrigerator. When she opened the door, she found the milk and a large package of bologna. Though she had no idea of where that gift of bologna had come from, it sustained her just long enough.

On this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we celebrate. Today might better be titled “Good News Sunday” because the readings from Nehemiah (8:2-6; 8-10), 1 Corinthians (12:12-30) and Luke (1:1-4; 4:14-21) remind us that we are all cherished and blessed by God. When Nehemiah announced the end of the Babylonian exile, the people gathered before their priest Ezra as he read from The Law. That day, they renewed their covenant with God which began with Moses on Mount Sinai. Ezra invited the people to feast on that holy day because they were gathered back into God’s embrace. Paul shared good news as well in his letter to the Corinthians. Though not estranged by an external enemy, the Corinthians had divided themselves with jealousy. Paul reminded them that they were all gifted and cherished by God. Each of them was necessary to complete their community. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus assured the people that he came to bring comfort as well, even to the most lowly. In each of these scenarios, God’s people had suffered seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Still, they turned to God because the only hope worth embracing is the hope God offers. For them, the Good News came in God’s merciful love and acceptance of each one.

It matters little whether the bologna in CHRISTMAS MIRACLES* came in the unseen kindness of a concerned neighbor or in a grandmother’s loving reach from beyond. The result was miraculous in either case. The girl found the means to finish school and she went on to enjoy a wonderful life. As I contemplate my concern regarding the future of this world and its people, it occurs to me that miracles aren’t reserved for the scriptures or the characters in heartwarming stories. Gifts of “bologna” appear in all of our circumstances. They sustain us just long enough to deal with the troubles at hand and then to get on with our own wonderful lives.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Jamie C. Miller, Laura Lewis and Jennifer Basye, CHRISTMAS MIRACLES (William Morrow & Company, Inc., NY, NY 10019, 1997); available at Amazon.com