What Were You Thinking, Lord?

I don’t think any of us will forget Lent 2020! I wish this was the case because our homilies, parish mission, Stations of the Cross, Lenten Holy Hours and this season’s editions of Something To Think About have been so inspiring. I wish this was the case because we all managed to change a bit for the better as a result of reflecting upon the gift of Jesus’ presence among us. Rather, our memories of these forty days will focus upon the startling adjustments we’ve all made to our daily lives in response to COVID-19. Many of our efforts to observe Lent have been rerouted or derailed as we’ve concentrated on keeping our loved ones and ourselves safe and healthy. Our world has literally been turned topsy-turvy by all of this.

As I attempted to prepare for this writing, my thoughts wandered. I looked upward to pray for our human family as we fight on to find an antidote for those infected by the virus and a vaccine to make the rest of us immune. I went on to pray for my friends and my own extended and immediate family. When I attempted to get back to this writing, I was happily interrupted my a multi-person series of texts from my sisters, niece and nephew. Not long after, our sons surprised Grandpa and me with a three-way FaceTime call. What a joy it was to see that all concerned are safe and well! Suddenly, my upside-down world seemed manageable. As I returned to this writing, I realized that this world has been turned upside-down again and again throughout history. Our human family has survived and even flourished amidst the unexpected again and again. As I considered that first Palm Sunday, it occurred to me that Jesus’ world was turned upside-down as well. I wondered what Jesus was thinking in the midst of all of this. Though I have no way of knowing his thoughts, I imagined Jesus offering his own prayer …

…Judas has warned me. Though he smiles at the crowds, he wrings his hands in the face of Caiaphas and the others in the temple. Judas tells me that I spend too much time with outcasts. He wonders what the poor and the sick and the sinful will do to help our cause. I try to tell him, “Judas, don’t you see that these are the ones who need me?” He doesn’t hear me. Judas is agitated today. Though the crowds wave palms and call my name, Judas tells me to beware. Rumblings of discontent fill the air. While the people make a path for me with their olive branches and capes, the temple guard mumble against me. I know Judas is considering his options. If things continue as they are, Abba, what will he do? Peter, John, Thomas and the others dismiss their worry. They can’t help losing themselves in today’s joy. Abba, what will come of this?

All of this began in the desert. I thought I knew what was coming then. I urged John to baptize me to show the people that change is in store. Peter and Andrew followed me as soon as I called them. When they saw the resolve of these two, the others joined me as well. The people are suffering. They would accept the poverty if they were free of the tyranny. It is no wonder they rejoice in you. That mountainside encounter with Peter, James and John was but a taste of what is to come. Abba, the crowd closes in on us as we walk. This one who chants, “Hosanna!” looks like the woman I met at Jacob’s well. I will always cherish the moment she embraced your love. She continues to live in your name. Bless her with strength for the journey. The man who was blind is another witness to your glory. He repeats the tale of his journey into the light to all who will listen. He understands, Abba, because he once lived in the darkness of isolation. You have blessed me with many reminders of your love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus made their home my own. When it was most difficult to understand, Mary and Martha held onto hope and believed. Now, Jerusalem welcomes me, but will their welcome last? When the darkness comes, Abba, light their way. When the darkness closes in, Abba, light my way…

No, I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts as the crowd cheered him into Jerusalem that day. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus made it to Gethsemane, to Pilate’s hall, through that scourging and along the streets of Jerusalem with a crossbeam on his bleeding shoulders. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus lasted as long as he did on that cross. Jesus’ world was turned upside-down, far more powerfully than ours is today, yet he endured. What I do know is all that Jesus has taught me: That God remains steadfast in loving every one of us; that we must pay this blessing forward by loving one another. This is Lent 2020 and our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces, schools and this church have been turned upside-down by a strange virus. Like Jesus that first Palm Sunday, we aren’t certain of what the coming day or week will bring. Still, like Jesus, we persist because Jesus showed us the way and his Abba walks beside us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

At Home…

Joseph went to the region of Galilee.
There he settled with them in a town called Nazareth.

From Matthew 2:23

While in Israel, we visited Nazareth. Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived there from the time Jesus was a little boy. Mary had also grown up there. It was in Nazareth that Mary discovered she would be the mother of Jesus.

The Basilica of the Annunciation rests over Mary’s home. Our archaeologist guide cited first century evidence which indicates that this place is indeed where Mary grew up and where it is believed the Angel Gabriel visited her. A small grotto in the church houses a portion of Mary’s home. After viewing that area, we walked next to the church where another portion of Jesus’ neighborhood has been excavated. There we viewed a Nazareth home likely similar to that of Jesus and his parents. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that Mary had walked into that home to visit a neighbor or that the boy Jesus had run through it in pursuit of a playmate. It isn’t unreasonable to imagine Joseph the Handyman was there as well, perhaps to carve into a wall to create a ledge for storage.

In Nazareth, I was completely overwhelmed by the past, a past in which I felt I had a share. The events which unfolded in Nazareth two thousand years ago prepared Jesus and his family for what was to come. The neighborliness of Joseph and Mary impacted Jesus’ behavior toward others as a child and in adulthood. All of this had everything to do with the manner in which Jesus lived his adult life. All of this has everything to do with the way I live my life as well.

That day in Nazareth, I celebrated with my long-ago family who remain with me even today.

Dear God, thank you for the many hints of your presence which sustain us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy Land

Know that the Lord is God;
God made us and we are God’s;
the flock whom God tends.

From Psalm 100:3

I admit that a trip to the Holy Land was never on my bucket list. Yet, today I tell you that I have been there three times. I overcame my dislike for small places to endure a ten-hour flight and a subsequent four-hour flight in order to get there. The first time, I found my courage when our tour director listed the places we’d visit. A lifetime of images filled me up at that meeting. Suddenly, the events which occurred in Nazareth, Cana, Magdala, Caesarea and Jerusalem and on the Sea of Galilee so long ago filled a void in my own family history. That long flight seemed a small price to pay for the treasure of memories I’d find in the end. Yes, I’ve returned twice more because that treasure was truly worth the effort.

I invite you to journey through Lent 2020 with me. In the process, I hope you’ll discover as I did the significance of Jesus’ story and the significance of our own individual stories. Though I’ll frequently reference that place which the world calls the Holy Land, remember that you and I are important members of God’s flock and every place we find ourselves has the potential to become holy land as well. This Lent, it’s up to you and me to make it so.

Let’s begin…

Dear God, none of our stories are complete without you. Be with us this Lent and always as we strive to make every place we walk a bit of holy land.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Build The Moment At Hand

Just minutes after I sat at my keyboard to begin this writing, I was tempted to retreat to my recliner for a nap. My dear husband and I had returned from the Holy Land two days earlier. In spite of my fatigue, I’d convinced myself that inspiration would come quickly and that my jet-lag would morph into a distant memory. Much to my dismay, I was wrong on both counts. Though I’d slept well the night before, I was ready for a nap before noon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give in to my fatigue. This reflection needed to be posted in short order and I had to take advantage of the small window of writing time at hand. In the end, I turned away from my keyboard to peruse the journal I’d carried across Israel. Perhaps it held the inspiration I longed for…

I wasn’t disappointed. As I read through my hurriedly scribbled notes, every phrase elicited a precious memory. Halfway through that little notebook, I saw Nazareth written at the top of a list. I’d noted the towns Jesus visited throughout his ministry. As I read Nazareth, images of the ruins of that tiny town filled me up. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before they married and it was there that Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mother. The scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth early on to comply with a census. While they were away, Jesus was born. After the Magi’s visit, the couple fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. When Herod died not long afterward, they returned to Nazareth to raise Jesus. Most visitors to Nazareth see the portion of Mary’s childhood home displayed in The Church of the Annunciation. This tiny cave-like room is connected to the remainder of Mary’s house as well as to her neighborhood. Much to our good fortune, our tour leader knows the site’s curator. This welcoming gentleman proudly ushered us toward additional unearthed homes which border the church’s exterior. It was there that I caught a glimpse of life as Joseph, Mary and Jesus knew it…

Today’s feast of The Presentation of the Lord acknowledges the journey Mary and Joseph made from their home to the temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:22-40) tells us that the couple did so because The Law required them to present Jesus to the Lord when he was forty days old. Though the trip from Nazareth to the temple was only six miles, traveling on foot with an infant through desert-like conditions certainly complicated that endeavor. We can only hope that Little Jesus cooperated by sleeping between feedings along the way. When they finally arrived, Joseph and Mary likely breathed a sigh of relief. They probably expected an uneventful experience until Simeon approached them. Simeon was a devout man who had prayed unceasingly for peace in Israel. As soon as he saw the young family before him, Simeon embraced Jesus. He’d waited a lifetime to see the one who would bring salvation to his people. With that, Simeon told Mary, “…this child is destined to be the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce.” I can only imagine what Mary and Joseph were thinking…

As I consider that tiny neighborhood hewn from rock back in Nazareth, I appreciate the power of Simeon’s comments more than ever. The simple existence suggested by that archaeological dig was complicated far beyond Mary’s and Joseph’s expectations. When Simeon spoke, did Mary’s thoughts return to the onset of her pregnancy? Did she wonder why she wasn’t warned of what was to come? Did Joseph recall the dream that explained Mary’s condition and the subsequent dream that saved his young family from Herod’s terror? Still, in spite of their worry, Mary and Joseph left the temple that day and returned home with Jesus. Though they walked an uncertain and perhaps treacherous path, Joseph and Mary persisted. They became the nurturing family which prepared Jesus for his life’s work. Luke’s gospel tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Ultimately, Jesus changed the face of humankind with his lessons in love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy, patience and humility. Jesus taught his followers to flourish amidst the unexpected just as his parents had done…

After rereading my journal, I revisited our photos from Israel. Though many feature ancient sites not as well-preserved as Nazareth, I no longer refer to any of them as ruins. It occurs to me that the world-full of artifacts which chronicles human history is far more than a collection of ruins. Indeed, they are the building blocks from which humankind has constructed the moments at hand since time began. Mary and Joseph responded to Simeon’s startling insight by building a life for Jesus which has impacted this world ever since. Today, God calls you and me to respond to the startling and joyful, heartbreaking and amazing moments at hand just as creatively. You see, God has great faith in our ability to flourish amidst the unexpected just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph did.

©2020 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

Home Really Is Where Our Hearts Are

My granddaughters recently spent a weekend with Grandpa and me. All the while, the girls kept us running. In an effort to sap a bit of their endless energy, we walked to a nearby playground. It was the perfect haven for the girls to climb, run, slide and swing with abandon. Grandpa and I watched from the swings until we were drafted into their play. This merry-making continued throughout the afternoon, our walk home and the remainder of their stay with us. When I wondered aloud how I kept up with classrooms filled with equally energetic children, my dear husband reminded me that I was a few years younger when I did so. I reluctantly admitted, “I suppose so…”

The week after the girls left, a bout with nostalgia beckoned me back to that playground in spite of the rain that threatened. Since no one else was silly enough to risk being soaked, I reclaimed the swing I’d occupied a few days earlier. When I taught, I occasionally took a turn swinging with the children just to assure them that I enjoyed playing, too. When I was a little girl, I did the same on the well-worn swings in my backyard. Those swings also served as my favorite place to contemplate life. As I sat on that swing, I found myself in need of doing just that.

I gave in to my mood as I slowly eased myself back and forth. The seemingly endless misery which had punctuated the news from both nearby and afar had filled me with melancholy. I wondered if the approach of Independence Day 2018 had contributed to those feelings. My Dad passed away the morning of July 4, 1959; it is my late uncle’s birthday and we attended my Aunt Rita’s wake on this date some years later. Perhaps it was my anticipation of the fireworks which would soon brighten the night sky. This family connection inspires fireworks anytime and anywhere to shout “resurrection” to me. I secretly wished that someone nearby would engage in a preemptive launch to test his or her Independence Day contraband. When no one obliged, I closed my eyes to visualize fireworks from my past, from childhood, from the bicentennial celebration in Washington D. C, and those that touched us all ten months after September 11, 2001. I’ll never forget the Statue of Liberty standing in all of her glory as fireworks of every color formed a sparkling halo around her head.

Unfortunately, that mental image of Lady Liberty intensified my unrest. When I was in high school chorus, we sang an inspiring selection drawn from the inscription at Lady Liberty’s feet: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the restless refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, your homeless tempest-tossed to me… I lift my lamp beside the golden shore. Patriotism meant many different things when I sang those words in the sixties. Still, I couldn’t deny the fullness which swelled up in my heart every time these words passed my lips. Those feelings emerged again as I sat on that swing. This nation’s willingness to display these mighty words at our shore has demanded quite a commitment from all who call this country our home. As I continued to swing back and forth, I wondered how we will fulfill this commitment in the days ahead. Before I could begin my list of suggestions, a drop of rain hit my forehead and trickled down my nose. When several additional drops quickly followed, I abandoned that swing and ran home.

Having a place to call home is a basic need which we all share. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché to be immortalized by crafters. Indeed, this author’s wisdom explains Jesus’ pain in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:1-6). It was early in his ministry and Jesus had done well. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. In the passage cited, Jesus had returned home to the place he’d grown up among his loving parents and neighbors. There, Jesus would be himself. There, Jesus would relax and share his message without restraint. Sadly, as it happened, it was there that Jesus experienced unexpected and painful rejection. Jesus’ community believed he was simply too good to be true. They chose to dismiss Jesus rather than to recognize that God had been at work in and through their neighbor. That lack of acceptance pushed Jesus away to continue his mission elsewhere.

Every new day brings us opportunities to welcome, to support and to comfort one another. Each of us knows the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to touch others. God calls us to be the torches which light the way home for all of our sisters and brothers. Whether here at home in Lake County, in a city across the country or on another continent, we are each called to care for those we meet along the way. You know, Jesus was most at home in the places where he was accepted and where he was free to lovingly serve God’s people. We are most at home when we experience and when we do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved