A Heartful of Love

Love your neighbor as yourself.
From Matthew 22:39

My husband recently shared a Facebook post from a former student whom I had also taught. This no-longer-young man was in my second class. I laughed as I recalled how he and his third grade classmates had kept me busy that year. As I returned to my writing, one of his lovably mischievous classmates came to mind. I didn’t have to wonder what Robert is up to these days because I already knew…

Though he could sometimes be a handful, Robert had a good heart. When he got into trouble, Robert expressed remorse by being on his best behavior for the rest of the given day. Like his classmates that year, Robert counted the days to Christmas with great relish. Robert had a good family and Christmas with them would be a happy one. At the same time, some of his classmates dreaded this departure from their school routines. These children lived in poverty. School lunches were the best of their meals and our simple class parties were the best of their Christmases. Their parents had troubles to deal with which made Christmas a low priority. Robert’s kind heart often moved him to extend kindness to these less fortunate friends. Though Robert was a teaser, he never teased them and he always stood up for them.

It was a few years ago that I saw Robert’s picture and his obituary in our local newspaper. Robert sported his third grade smile. When I attended his funeral the following day, I learned that Robert’s good heart had remained intact as did his compassion for those less fortunate than he. I sat near a young man who assured me that Robert had changed his life for the better. On the way home, I prayed for all of the children who are less fortunate than Robert had been. Then I prayed for Robert, that eternity is bringing him a new lifetime of Christmas-like days.

Dear God, thank you for Robert and his reminder that we can all make an important difference to someone.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Christmas Love

This is Christmas Day. In my parish church, our Nativity scene, a forest of lighted trees and a garden of beautiful poinsettias set the scene. I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to celebrate Christmas. Things were a little different three weeks ago when our parish family immersed itself in Gift Weekend. The sanctuary was filled with packages and gift bags of every size and color. Our statue of Mary was lost behind that mountain of generosity. Rather than today’s folding chairs which provide extra seating, the gathering space was filled with an assortment of bicycles. As that weekend unfolded, I found myself wiping away tears multiple times. I pictured my fellow parishioners shopping with gift tags for those in need in hand. I also imagined this Christmas Day when hundreds of men and women, teens and toddlers will open those gifts with great excitement and appreciation. When I left church that day, my heart was filled with at least as much love as our church building had been. When I arrived at home, I decided I was in the perfect mindset to prepare this Christmas reflection.

As I pondered the miracle of this holy day, I couldn’t shake the images of those gifts and the smiling people who would welcome them. Suddenly, a little boy I met many years ago came to mind. Isaac was an expert regarding matters of the heart and his capacity to love was second to few. Just like my parish’s efforts on Gift Weekend, and throughout the year for that matter, it seemed to me that his generous gesture many Christmases ago captured the spirit and the love with which God touched this earth on the first Christmas Day…

Isaac was one of my students because he needed a little direction in developing his reading skills. On our way to and from my classroom each day, we had the opportunity to talk. It isn’t often that children have an adult to themselves and my students took full advantage of the situation. Isaac was no exception. I knew the latest regarding his mother’s lengthy disabling illness and his father’s efforts to care for her and the children. I knew about his older brother’s return from the military for an early Christmas visit and that Isaac read from a little prayer-book every night. The last day of school before winter break, Isaac shared something very special which remains with me today.

I’d purchased a small Christmas gift for each of my students. When I retrieved them for their lessons, I asked that they bring their book bags along so they could put away their gifts and forget about them until they arrived at home after school. When I gave Isaac the package with his name on it, his eyes became saucers. He examined the wrapping and the card addressed to him. “Can I put this under my Christmas Tree?” he asked. I told him that he could do whatever he and his mom and dad wanted him to do. It was his gift, after all. Now when Isaac came to school every day, he arrived clean, having had breakfast, and ready to do his best, though in the same shirt and slacks for the week. Isaac didn’t enjoy the luxuries we sometimes take for granted. Still, his family was rich in love. When Isaac opened his book bag to store his gift, he said, “I have something for you. I have a gift for you.”

Isaac took me completely by surprise. His dad was among the working poor and certainly couldn’t afford gifts for his children’s teachers. I finally understood when Isaac reached into his bag and pulled out a green two-headed dragon. I told Isaac that it was a great dragon, but that I would be very happy just knowing that he enjoyed playing with it. Still, Isaac persisted. “I was going to trade it for Poke’mon, but I want you to have it instead.” At the time, anything Poke’mon was a valued commodity. Isaac had planned to trade his dragon for one of his classmate’s coveted collectibles. He abandoned this plan to show his reading teacher how much he cared for her. When I finally composed myself, I asked Isaac if his mom or dad would mind that he left the toy with me. “Oh, no, Mrs. P. They would want me to give it to you. It’s for Christmas.” With that, Isaac and I made a prominent place on my bookshelf for that dragon. Afterward, I told Isaac that he could take the dragon home anytime he wanted to. “Are you taking your present back?” he asked. “Never,” I told him. Isaac responded, “Neither am I.” I kept that two-headed dragon for more than a decade. After Isaac had been promoted from eighth grade and graduated high school, I gave it to another little boy who needed a taste of the love which filled Isaac’s heart.

God touched this world with selfless love two thousand Christmases ago. Jesus spent thirty-three years showing us how to share that love. Isaac’s parents paid attention and they passed on what they learned to their son. Isaac paid attention and he passed on what he learned to me. Today, we pay attention as well. Now, it is up to us to pass on what we’ve learned as we tend lovingly to those we meet along the way.

Merry Christmas!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Swaddled With Love

Your ways, O Lord, make known to me;
teach me your paths.

Psalm 25:4

While spending the day with our grandson, I noticed his Advent Calendar. Danny has happily joined his older cousins in counting the days until Christmas. Our granddaughters’ calendar features a bare stable and twenty-five numbered pockets. Each pocket contains a stuffed figure which will complete the Nativity scene by Christmas. Every year, the girls take turns placing a little stuffed animal or person in or near the stable. A few years ago, while admiring the partially complete scene, our youngest granddaughter slipped Baby Jesus from the pocket marked December 25. “Look at poor Baby Jesus,” Claire told me. “He didn’t have any baby clothes so his mommy put a towel on him.” I explained that though Mary and Joseph had a hard time finding a place for Jesus to be born, they did bring some very special clothes for him. “This is what babies wore back then. They’re called swaddling cloths.” This year, it was Claire who taught Danny about swaddling clothes.

Though Claire is now the swaddling clothes expert, she has held on to her concern regarding Jesus’ apparent poverty. I pray often that she and all of my grandchildren will always feel concern for those in need. After saying, “Amen,” I promised myself to respond to my own concern by doing something for someone in need today.

Loving God, help me to see your people’s need with your eyes and to respond to them with your heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels made it impossible for me to chase him? His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, at the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” I admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share Your Good Fortune!

What now is has already been;
what is to be, already is;
and God restores what would otherwise be displaced.

Ecclesiastes 3:15

A few weeks ago, I ran into someone whom I’d helped to get some much-needed assistance. This dear soul was eager to give me a progress report. Because this occurred some years ago, I’d almost forgotten our encounter. As it happened, my friend had made good use of the opportunities given him. He was happy to let me know that he was in the midst of paying forward the generosity he’d experienced. I was really excited to hear that he’d decided to support a local summer program for kids. I couldn’t help observing that if we all invested more in our children, we’d prevent many of the problems that plague us today from continuing on tomorrow -but that’s a topic for another day!

It occurs to me that it is indeed God’s intent that we “pay it forward” as often as possible. When we’re in the midst of our own struggles, it often takes all of our energy and resources simply to survive. Still, when we find ourselves blessed with abundance in any way, we increase our joy exponentially by sharing it with others. Those who helped my grateful friend had no idea that their support would change his life. He has no idea of what his support will do for the children involved in that program he supported. None of us can predict the lengths to which our goodness toward others will go which is all the more reason to do good as often as we can.

Loving God, inspire our generosity and make us whole-hearted sharers of your love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

I’ll Do My Part

Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.

Luke 1:58

I admit that I’ve continued to worry quite a bit as of late. Though I consider myself to be a concerned member of our human family, I used to keep the world’s worries in perspective. Currently, it’s very difficult to do so. Every newscast brings more violence, injustice and inhumanity to light. It’s impossible to miss our need to change this world for the better. Not many of us have influence at the global level, I know. However, we can all make a difference in our little corners of the world.

As I consider how I might make a positive difference in the space I occupy, I look back to my teaching career. If I expected my students to interact peacefully, I had to model that behavior consistently. I couldn’t tell these children to speak kindly to one another if I freely corrected and embarrassed them with unnecessary harshness. My interactions with family, friends and neighbors are equally instructive. If I wish to live in harmony with those God has given me to love, I must make a positive contribution to the mix.

The truth is that our work in this regard is great. Whether we approach others with a positive attitude, give our time to the lonely or the needy, write letters to our legislators regarding the issues before us, or take a deep breath before we say something we will regret… Whatever we choose to do will make a difference.

Loving God, be with is as we tend to our small parcels of this world with compassion and love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved