Wrapped and Rapt With Love

“When he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”

Luke 15:20-21

We cherish our best friends. They know what is on our minds before we do. They can finish our sentences. They help us through the most difficult times of our lives and they share our greatest joys. The impact which a best friend has upon any of us is beyond words. That being said, I’m going to use my feeble words to share with you one of the greatest things my Best Friend has done for me…

I’ve often told those who are close to me that I truly appreciate the way Jesus of Nazareth asked us to live. I like Jesus’ acceptance of each of us for who we are and I like his command that we love one another. Jesus values humility and service and so do I. Most of all, I appreciate knowing that there is nothing I can do that is unforgivable in God’s eyes. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is among Jesus’ greatest gifts to me because it promises that God’s love is unconditional. It promises that God’s love is a constant offering to you and me. Though any one of us can spend an entire lifetime rejecting God’s love, God’s embrace awaits us just the same.

Loving God, did you know that these would be the words powerful enough to encourage all of humanity for a billion lifetimes? Did you know that these would be the words which I so desperately need to hear again and again and again?

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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God’s Persistent Love

This reflection is very long as it’s my best attempt to welcome our new pastor who will be installed today. If you take the time to read, please know that God is as persistent in loving and guiding all of us as God is with Father Chris…

Today, our parish family celebrates the installation of our new pastor, Father Krzysztof Ciastoń! Now I realize Father Chris has been with us for three months and that it has become quite ordinary to see him around the parish. Still, I can’t help thinking that his arrival as our pastor is actually quite a feat. I don’t think it is an accident that we hear Jesus’ Parable of The Persistent Widow today. It seems to me that Father Chris’s presence among us is the result of his persistence and that of many who’ve shared the path with him along the way.

My research for this writing began months ago when I first heard our new pastor’s name. I did an online search which revealed that Krzysztof Ciastoń grew up in Muszynka, Poland on his parents’ dairy farm with his sister and four brothers. He went through a rebellious stage when church was not his favorite place to be. He completed culinary school and worked as a chef at a prestigious resort. I also found that he is a very good writer. Father Chris authored an excellent article about Casimir Pulaski for his former parish’s website. Interesting as all of this is, I wanted to know more. Shortly after Father Chris was named pastor, he visited St. Paul’s to attend a parish staff meeting. As a result, my dear husband had the opportunity to meet him. Because I wanted to get to know him as well, I convinced the good deacon to attend Mass with me at Father Chris’s parish…

When we arrived that Sunday morning, Mike and I sat in the midst of the congregation to avoid detection. After the opening hymn, Father Chris welcomed us all with a warm smile. Though I immediately felt very much at home with our pastor-to-be, I wondered about his preaching. A few words into his homily, I realized that Krzysztof Ciastoń had been raised by a wise mother. Father Chris shared a story from his childhood. A light bulb had burned out in their home. His mother sent him up the stairs to his father with a new bulb. On the way, young Krzysztof dropped that bulb which broke into a million pieces. Upset with himself, Krzysztof ran to his mother to tell her what had happened. Though there was only one bulb left, she entrusted it to her son. Poor Krzysztof wanted no part of this errand because he feared he would drop that last bulb. Still, his mother persisted in her faith in her son and urged him on his way. Happily, Krzysztof safely delivered that light bulb to his dad. Father Chris used this story to illustrate God’s persistence in offering us second chances. Father Chris insisted that, just as his mother had given him a second chance, God gives each one of us a lifetime of second chances.

I wanted to hear Father Chris preach because I wanted to know where he would lead our parish family. When he spoke of that lifetime of second chances, I knew Father Chris would lead us all to the God who has persistently loved me all of my life. God has remained with Father Chris as well. Though I’d already read about Krzysztof’s rebellious stage, I didn’t know about his persistent brothers. During one of his first homilies here, Father Chris shared that his brothers had tired of his rebellion. So it was that one Sunday they simply picked him up and carried him off to attend Mass! I can only imagine his father and mother smiling all the while!

Some time later while still in rebellious mode, Krzysztof headed off to work. It was a very cold morning, so he stopped in a church. This wasn’t to be a prayerful visit. Kryzsztof simply wanted to warm up before walking on to his job. He was alone in the building until three woman joined him. Though the church was empty, these three sat in Krzysztof’s pew right beside him. Astute young man that he was, Krzysztof didn’t dare to say a word. As he told us, “If I had said a thing those three would have told me exactly what they thought of me!” It was then that our persistent God took the opportunity to urge Kryzsztof on just as his mother had during that light bulb incident. Perhaps God was engaged in a light bulb adventure as well for it was then that a light shined on Krzysztof’s life. With those persistent women at his side and his persistent God within his heart, Krzysztof decided that he had much more to do than to rebel and to cook. Not long afterward, he enrolled in the seminary.

If you have any doubt about God’s persistent presence in each of our lives, read on… Chicago’s Cardinal George visited the seminary in Poland where Krzysztof was studying. When he spoke with the seminarians, he invited them to consider pursuing their vocations in Chicago. While there was a surplus of priests in Poland, we were already suffering a shortage in this country. Much to our good fortune, Krzysztof responded to yet another nudge from our persistent God. It was August 2003 when he packed up his things, bade farewell to his much-beloved family and entered Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary. Our thanks to the Ciastoń Family for sharing your son and brother with us!

Krzysztof spent his first year here acclimating to American Culture and the English Language. Obviously, Father Chris accomplished both. Imagine telling a joke in another language! Delivering a meaningful homily in that second language is far more than I would dare to do! That year, he also became known as “Chris” to his fellow seminarians. Throughout his seminary training, Chris persisted in his studies and his relationship with God. It was 2006 during Third Year Theology that Chris began his association with Father Joe Curtis. While Father Joe served as pastor at St. Mary of Vernon Parish, he also served as Chris’s supervisor and mentor. As we’ve discovered, Father Joe did an excellent job sharing his pastoral and leadership experience with Father Chris. I’m quite certain that Father Joe persisted in providing his encouragement as well. Thank you, Father Joe! Father Chris completed his studies and was ordained in 2007. He has served at St. Tarcissus, St. Raymond and St. Anne Parishes where he continues to be missed.

In today’s gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus speaks of a persistent widow. The poor woman doggedly haunts a dishonest judge for a fair ruling in response to her complaint. Though the judge cannot care less about the woman’s troubles, he truly fears her. This judge rules in the woman’s favor to prevent her from doing him bodily harm. Jesus uses this story to illustrate God’s persistent love for us. Jesus insists that if an unscrupulous judge can be pressured to respond to that widow’s needs, God will certainly respond to our persistent prayer. Jesus seems to be telling us to open our eyes and to recognize God’s persistence when it comes to each one of us. Father Chris’s parents emulated this persistence in their love for their son. Father Chris’s brothers carried him off to church because they knew God had a place for him there. Those persistent women who huddled next to that cold young man in church that day left just enough room for God to persist in calling Kryzsztof to do something more with his life.

I believe that God envisioned only the best when God breathed life into us. I also believe that God follows through on these creative efforts by hounding us just as that persistent widow hounded the judge. God remains on the path with each one of us, loving us and encouraging us all the while. Today, we celebrate God’s persistent call and persistent love for Father Chris. Welcome and congratulations, Dear Pastor! May God bless you with the persistence you need to minister to us and may God bless us all with persistence enough to remain at your side for many years to come!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

Destination: Heaven!

In spite of the heavy traffic, I smiled as we crept along the tollway. Since my dear husband was driving, I’d been taking in the view along the way. Though there wasn’t much more to see than the other vehicles on the road, I was enjoying myself. I wondered about the drivers who hurried along with us. What was it that urged them along their way? I hoped each one would find what he or she hoped for at the end of the drive. Eventually, a semi cab interrupted this musing. It looked rather odd without its trailer in tow. As I wondered who thought up the ingenious design which allowed that trucker to sleep in his rig, I noticed some very large lettering printed across its back. “Destination: Heaven” it said. I wondered what impelled this man to proclaim his final stop to the rest of us. Were the other drivers who shared the road with us heading toward the same end? As Mike continued to make his way through the dense traffic, I asked myself, “What is that trucker’s idea of heaven? What about those other drivers? What about me?”

Since our first grandchild was born, I’ve said at least a thousand times, “I’m in grandma heaven!” Our grandchildren bring Mike and me great joy. I admit to savoring every minute that I spend with each of them. When I gathered for an afternoon with my sisters not long ago, one remarked, “Mmmm. This is heaven!” Though I’m certain she was pleased with our company, her comment was in response to the bit of Godiva chocolate she’d slipped into her mouth. How she loves chocolate! The other day, a friend remarked that she’d been in cruise heaven because she hadn’t set her alarm clock the entire time she was away. Currently, Cub fans find themselves in and out of baseball heaven as their lovable team edges nearer to and then farther from possible post-season play. After the Bears opening game, I won’t mention the possibility of football heaven unless, of course, you’re a Packer fan! I suppose each of us can describe those perfect circumstances which would make us feel that we are immersed in one type of heaven or another. Sometimes, the possibility seems completely out of reach and we dismiss it as pure folly. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that, if only this or that circumstance would conform to our wishes, we’d be in the heaven of our choosing.

In today’s gospel (Luke 15:1-32), Luke tells us that Jesus once told the story a young man who defined and then redefined heaven for himself much the way we do. The young man and his brother lived on the family farm with their father. They worked hand in hand with their dad in order to maintain their prosperous land. Apparently, this arrangement wasn’t the young man’s idea of heaven. He failed to find fulfillment in a hard day’s work and in the fruits of the fields around him. Heaven was something quite different to him. He wanted that heaven so badly that he forsook his own father’s life to get it. You see, the young man asked his father for his portion of his inheritance. When he did this, this son wasn’t simply asking for an advance on his allowance or for a small loan. This son was asking his father to behave as though he was dead and to give him what would be his upon his father’s death. Scripture scholars tell us that the young man could neither insult nor hurt his father more deeply than he did by voicing his demand. It was as though this son said to his father, “I can’t wait for you to die. Behave as you’re dead now and give me what is mine!”

Though you or I might have responded to the young man far differently, that father complied with his son’s wishes. That father gave his son the equivalent of what he would have inherited had this father died that day. With no regret, the young man immediately set out to find the heaven which he’d defined for himself. He invested his inheritance in partying. He spent every penny surrounding himself with the right people, especially those who saw things his way and those who brought him pleasure. He ate the best food and drank the finest wine with his store-bought acquaintances. The young man enjoyed it all without lifting a finger except, of course, to open his money bag to keep things the way he liked them. Eventually, the young man’s resources ran out and he was left without food, friends and finances. In the midst of starvation, he offered himself for hire to a landowner who took him on to tend to his pigs. As he stood in the mud surrounded by swine, the young man considered his predicament and how recklessly wasteful he’d been. He’d not only squandered his inheritance, but he’d also discarded the most important relationships in his life. Full of sorrow and regret, this lost son adjusted his perception of heaven. He set out for the place that once was his home. There, he would beg for a job beside the servants. Though he knew even this was too much to ask, the young man hoped against hope that he would find a parcel of heaven in the shadow of his father’s house. When the young man finally made it home, he was overwhelmed by the heaven he found in his loving father’s embrace.

I wish I’d been among the people who listened as Jesus told the prodigal son’s story. I wish I could have looked into Jesus’ eyes as he described the joy of welcoming home a lost child. In those eyes, I might have caught a glimpse of what my truck driver friend so boldly proclaimed for the rest of us to see. You know, “Destination: Heaven” is listed on each of our itineraries. Though heaven may escape us much of the time during this life, in the end, we will not escape heaven. Our Loving God waits with outstretched arms to warmly embrace every child, prodigal or otherwise, who comes home. On that day, we will actually find heaven just as Jesus promised.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rich In God’s Eyes

Some months after Marie passed away, her daughters sorted through her things. They’d allowed their mourning to ease a bit before dealing with this daunting task. The day they gathered, they lovingly and practically decided what to keep, what to pass on to Marie’s grandchildren and what to give away. All the while, these sisters shared many laughs and shed lots of tears over the memories which surfaced as they worked. An item that drew their attention spoke to one of Marie’s lifelong interests. It was a framed needlepoint rendering of a gray-haired woman sitting next to a mound of assorted fabric. Next to the woman, someone had meticulously stitched, “She who dies with the most fabric wins.” One of Marie’s daughters had gifted her mom with this artwork because Marie purchased fabric whenever it was offered at a good price. Marie’s walk-in closet was literally filled with the stuff when she left her condo for the last time.

Now Marie wasn’t a compulsive buyer. She always purchased fabric with a project in mind. When her daughters were growing up, Marie fashioned most of their clothes and her own. She also upholstered furniture, sewed drapes and did alterations for various family members. Among Marie’s favorite projects were the bridesmaids dresses she fashioned for her daughters’ weddings and the items she sewed for veterans confined to area VA Hospitals. Marie made lap blankets to warm the vets who spent their days in wheelchairs. She made neck pillows for those who were bedridden. She made ditty bags in which all of them could store their personal items for safekeeping. Marie never let anything go to waste. Years after her daughters’ weddings, Marie recycled those old bridesmaid dresses by using their fabric for these same items for women vets. Marie made good use of everything fabric-related. A few years before she passed away, Marie’s hands began to ache with arthritis. When she found that she could clothe herself with purchased items as inexpensively as with what she made for herself, Marie limited her sewing to items for the veterans. Marie determined that she’d use her stockpile in service of those most in need. Though she left her condo with that full closet, she’d actually used most of the fabric she’d collected over the years. Her daughters were quite certain that she had a plan in mind for every leftover bit of it.

Interestingly enough, though sewing was a huge part of Marie’s life, she moved on to other things after she left her condo. Marie concentrated on the new business at hand. She’d taken up residence with one of her daughters and her focus became being a good house-guest. It was Marie’s goal to cause as little disruption as possible in the lives of all concerned. Her sons-in-law agreed that Marie was easy to have around. When Marie was diagnosed with cancer, her life’s work changed once again. Marie’s new goal became to live the life she had left to the fullest just as she always had. All the while, her generosity continued to be evident. Marie enjoyed daily activities in her hospice setting, was a good patient when she needed care, provided upbeat company to her fellow residents, held onto her dignity at all costs and assured her daughters that she was absolutely fine. After four months, Marie left this world peacefully.

In his gospel (Luke 12:13-21), Luke shares Jesus’ parable of the rich man. This fellow seemed to believe, “Whoever dies with the most stuff wins.” Jesus told his friends, “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.’” The poor rich man didn’t understand the blessing that wealth of any sort is meant to be. He busied himself with building up storehouses of his own treasure rather than using what he had to enrich those God had given him to love. Poor rich man that he was, he didn’t enjoy loving others as much as he enjoyed loving himself. Poor rich man that he was, he didn’t understand at all the things that truly matter and the things that should have mattered to him.

Through everything that she said and did, Marie gave new meaning to her daughter’s needlepoint gift. Marie’s efforts echoed the message Jesus shared with his disciples that day. She who dies with the most fabric does win when she does as Marie did. Whether sticking to her meager budget by sewing for herself, clothing her children or making things for her vets, Marie used her wealth of talent well. Even that leftover stockpile served others after Marie’s passing because her daughters saw to it. It seems to me that the moral of the story is this: Whether we’ve been blessed with the ability to sew or to listen, with a kind heart, a healthy stock portfolio, patience or… you get the idea. God asks only that we take as good care of others as we do of ourselves with what we have. The truth is that I learned this firsthand. I’m the one who purchased that little needlepoint artwork. Marie is my mom.

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

M… Mercy!

…his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved.
He ran out to meet him,
threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

M is for Mercy. God’s merciful love is the source of all of our hope. Of all of the characteristics Jesus exhibited, I find mercy to be the most powerful. Jesus taught mercy masterfully in his interactions with others. Then, he underscored those lessons with the mercy he extended to all, especially the isolated souls disdained by everyone else. To insure that we appreciated his every word and deed in this regard, Jesus offered the unforgettable Parable of the Prodigal Son. If any of us question our ability to be lovingly and mercifully forgiven, this story dispels all doubt.

In Jesus’ community, a request for an early inheritance insulted a parent gravely. The offending child essentially demanded, “Behave as though you are dead so I can have my money.” According to the parable, in spite of his son’s selfishness and disregard for his feelings, that father gave his son what he asked. The son responded by leaving town and squandering every cent. The young man had reached rock bottom when he eventually found work tending swine. In the end, he realized his wrong-doing and returned home to beg his father to allow him to work as a servant. As Luke’s passage tells us, this father would have none of it. At the sight of his son, mercy and love filled up the man who embraced his wayward child to welcome him home.

God promises the same reception to you and to me no matter what!

Merciful God, thank you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved