Our Best Teacher

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.

Psalm 78:1-

Before we began a recent visit with our granddaughters, each one had a few minutes of homework to complete. Though the fifth grader’s word study page was easy-peasy, the seventh grader’s math threw me. Fortunately, she understood precisely what to do. The third grader’s math involved place value which, fortunately, hasn’t changed since I taught third grade. I secretly wished I could sit in on a class with any of my granddaughters, especially that seventh grader!

Early in my teaching career, I developed the skills I needed to reach my students. I began by getting the attention of my students. I then kept their attention by making what I had to say interesting and understandable. Finally, I gave them reason to remember what I shared.

Perhaps this is the reason Jesus repeated his lessons through his parables. When I doubt that I’m loved, I recall the parables of The Good Shepherd, The Pearl of Great Price and The Lost Coin. In each one, everything is set aside in order to pursue that which is lost. The message? Regardless of where I hide, God does whatever it takes to watch over me and to love me. When I doubt that I can possibly be forgiven, I recall the parables of The Prodigal Son, The Unjust Judge and The Friend at Midnight. The message? Regardless of how the world responds to my guilt, God always looks beyond what I have done to embrace me and to encourage me to be begin anew.

It seems to me that Jesus’ effort was well placed. Jesus’ lessons regarding God’s mercy and patience, forgiveness and love will remain with me always.

Generous God, thank you for gifting humankind with such a great teacher. Help us to take Jesus’ lessons to heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Did You Notice?

I’d just driven onto our block when I noticed our friend half-running down the sidewalk behind her dog. I would write that Cindy was walking Duke, but the truth is that Duke was walking her. I couldn’t help smiling because Duke was behaving exactly like my husband’s and my first and only dog. Now our friend Cindy is quite athletic and perfectly capable of managing that large Labrador Retriever. It was the end of their walk and they were headed home. I’m certain that by that time Cindy had allowed Duke the luxury of running ahead of her. As for Mike’s and my dog, though he was half the size of Duke, he managed to lead us everywhere. Our difficulties with Ernie began during the drive home from the pet shop. That sweet little cocker-beagle-poodle-terrier mix refused to stay put. He repeatedly crawled out of the box he was to occupy all the way home.

Mike and I were married only ten months when we met Ernie. We were both teachers who managed our students quite well. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the same for our dog. Ernie failed doggie kindergarten because his owners failed to practice commands and reward his successes with any consistency. Did I mention that we thought everything Ernie did was cute? Eventually, our poor dog was saved by a good friend who told us that we were terrible parents! She generously took Ernie for a single afternoon and taught him everything he needed to know. She taught his owners a few things as well. In the end, Ernie wasn’t a prefect dog, but he was far more well-behaved than Mike and I deserved him to be.

During our fourteen years with Ernie, he taught us far more than we taught him. More importantly, we didn’t make the same mistakes with our sons that we did with our pet. This is likely because we honed our parenting skills while dealing with our dog. Yet, in spite of sacrificing himself for our kids, Ernie loved us unconditionally and seemed content to be part of our family. Ernie’s greatest attribute was his ability to notice just about everything around him. Ernie knew the mail carrier would arrive shortly though he or she wasn’t on our block yet. Ernie growled quietly long before I noticed a stranger approaching. He also paced in anticipation of Mike’s arrival even before the garage door opened. Ernie always sensed when a crying baby had woken me once too often on a given night. As I sat nursing my little son, Ernie nuzzled at my feet. “You’re not alone,” he seemed to say. When the extended family visited, Ernie made a beeline to my stepdad the first time they met. How did Ernie know that Bill was a dog-lover? When Mike’s father passed away, did Ernie sense Mike’s sadness? He climbed onto the couch next to my dear husband seemingly because he somehow knew Mike needed him. When Mike was away for a late night meeting or out of town at a conference, Ernie plopped himself on the floor on my side of the bed to assure me that he was keeping watch. Sometimes, Ernie attended to the details of this life far more carefully than I did.

In today’s gospel (Luke 16:19-31), Luke shares Jesus’ story of a rich man who missed a bit too much of what transpired around him. This man spent his time and his wealth quite freely on himself. He gorged himself on spectacular food and drink while failing to notice Lazarus who lay dying on his doorstep. The rich man was so taken with the luxuries which surrounded him that he didn’t notice the many other people who might have graced his life, especially those in need. Sadly, only the neighborhood dogs noticed Lazarus. Only they stopped to tend to their suffering neighbor and to lick his wounds. Did Ernie’s canine counterparts somehow know that Lazarus might have recovered if he’d been given the scraps from his rich neighbor’s table? Jesus went on to share that both men eventually passed away and entered into eternal life. Lazarus rested contentedly in the embrace of Abraham, while the rich man wallowed in pain and was desperate with thirst. When the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a few drops of water, Abraham couldn’t comply. Lazarus couldn’t enter the netherworld and the rich man couldn’t enter heaven. The point of Jesus’ story was that if the rich man had noticed his suffering neighbor life would have been much better for both of them. If only the rich man had noticed! He would have found his way to Abraham’s embrace.

I admit that Ernie drove me crazy much of the time. However, I also admit that Ernie comforted Mike and me far more. That little dog showed us that a well-timed nuzzle, sufficient food, a safe place to lay his head and the encouraging love of those who cared for him were all he needed. All that any of us need to be happy is the same. Once again, we’re invited to take notice of the people we’ve been given to love and to care for them as only we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Bright Side

With me at your right hand,
you will not be shaken.

Psalm 16:8

When the patio door refused to slide open, my husband rubbed his forehead and asked, “Now what?” As he checked the door from top to bottom, he added, “But if this is the worst that happens today, I’m a lucky man.” I smiled as I agreed whole-heartedly.

Though our life together hasn’t been trauma free, my husband and I have managed to look at the brighter side of things when tragedy touches us. I was blessed with this mindset early on. My husband was not. It has taken years of nurturing his own faith as best he could for him to develop his positive stance toward life’s negatives. Though this transformation sometimes reverts to a “work in progress,” I admire my husband’s persistence.

You know, God has encouraged our faith from the beginning. When humankind failed to acknowledge the wisdom of the prophets, God sent Jesus of Nazareth to get our attention even more dramatically. Who but one from God could have conceived of the prodigal son’s forgiving father and the lost coin’s owner who turned everything upside down to find it? Better still, Jesus lived the love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness which he attributed to God. Still, in spite of his goodness, tragedy touched Jesus’ life as well. “In the end,” my husband reminds me often, “there is heaven!”

The moral of the story is this: We aren’t in heaven, so this life will never be perfect. Still, God loves us and is with us in everything. In the mean time, it’s up to us to remember that better things will come.

Loving God, thank you for your encouraging presence.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let Go of The Guilt!

All, from the least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:34

I was an extremely sensitive little girl when it came to the errors of my ways. Though I was no more or less innocent than most children, I took even the gentlest reprimand to heart. In these instances, though the adult who corrected me had quickly forgotten whatever I’d done, my guilt remained with me. All of this was my own doing by the way. Neither of my parents ever nagged or belittled my siblings and me. Though a teacher may have given me reason to question my ability to be forgiven on rare occasion, this wasn’t the norm. Eventually, I understood, at least mentally, that those who love us don’t hold grudges against us. Still, it is my heart’s propensity to carry guilt unnecessarily. Much to my dismay, this is true to some extent even today.

This is the reason I find great consolation in the passage above from Jeremiah and in Jesus’ numerous parables which address forgiveness. With every word, we’re assured of God’s absolute love and God’s absolute inability to be separated from any one of us. Though we may run away and bury our heads in the sand, God remains at our sides. Though we may refuse to look in God’s direction, God is with us. Fortunately for me and for us all, we can never impose enough guilt upon ourselves to repel God’s love.

If God is this forgiving of us, isn’t it time to forgive ourselves? Yes, I wrote that line and, yes, I will do my best to heed its every word!

Loving God, help us to face our guilt and to let it go. Only then will our hands be free to take hold of your hand and our hearts be free to embrace your love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Pray… God Is Listening!

I’ve shared this often, I know… Throughout his time among us, Jesus offered countless revealing glimpses of our generously loving God. As amazing as each of these renderings is, my favorite is Jesus’ portrayal in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The image of that ever-patient and forgiving father who opened his arms to his terribly wayward child is something I’ve held dear all of my life. It is this image of God as my loving parent which encourages me to open my heart to God without reservation or fear. It is this image which encourages me to seek true intimacy in every utterance I send God’s way. I admit that this is a lifelong process which will likely continue well into my venture into the hereafter!

If you’ve been blessed with a close relationship, you understand the implications of intimacy. When we open our hearts to someone special, we hide nothing from him or her. We don’t allow pretenses or formalities or social norms to get in the way of the reality of who we are. When we share ourselves at this level, we put every flaw and every virtue in full view. When God is our partner in such a relationship, even the things we don’t know about ourselves are known to God. Far too frequently, I face the reality that I’m not perfect. When this occurs, I remind myself that God has been well aware of my glaring flaws all along. I know that, in spite of the pettiness or grandeur of my imperfections, God looks upon me with persistent and consistent love. Because God loves me and all of us so completely, I find the courage to approach God with the confidence Abraham exhibited in today’s passage from Genesis (18:20-32).

Did you notice that each time Abraham spoke he found God to be both approachable and compassionate? The author of Genesis carefully portrayed this encounter as a conversation during which God and Abraham walked side-by-side. In spite of being very much aware that he was in God’s presence, Abraham bargained with his Maker. He pleaded for the lives of the innocent inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. God’s apparent anger was in response to the outcries of many righteous people regarding the evil that festered in the two cities. Still, God listened to Abraham. Initially, Abraham asked that the cities be spared if there were just fifty innocent inhabitants. Then, Abraham begged God to preserve forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten innocent lives. Each time, God responded sympathetically. The chapter which follows tells us that God answered Abraham’s plea as the lives of the innocents in those otherwise wretched cities were spared. At the same time, we must remember that God also knew the hearts of the evildoers in Sodom and Gomorrah better than they knew themselves. God knew the reasons they did what they did and God loved them as well. I write this with great confidence because Jesus assured us that God’s mercy is never lost on anyone!

In today’s gospel (Luke 11:1-13), Luke shares another occasion on which Jesus revealed to his disciples the God with whom Abraham was so familiar. Jesus had just finished praying himself when his followers asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus responded with this advice: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.” Afterward, Jesus went on to make this instruction regarding prayer perfectly clear. In the event that the disciples had forgotten the persistence of Abraham and God’s generous response to him, Jesus reminded them in no uncertain terms. Jesus spoke of a man who responded to his neighbor’s need in the middle of the night, not so much out of love as out of weariness at the neighbor’s persistence. Jesus added, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus went on to point out the disciples’ concern for their own children: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” I assure you that the God of Abraham continues to listen and to provide us all that we need as we journey through this life!

As I wrote today, it occurred to me that I’ve found a second image of God which I must treasure at least as much as that of the father who embraced his prodigal son. In today’s passage from Genesis, the author illustrated the possibilities when we open ourselves to God’s embrace just as that regretful son did. In this account, God and Abraham walk side-by-side. There is no question that Abraham is conversing with God as he would with a dear friend. Apparently, Abraham found this to be perfectly natural. It seems to me that God’s close proximity to Abraham was no accident. God’s close proximity to you and me is no accident either. Though that prodigal son was separated from his father for a while, we are never separated from God. God walks side-by-side with each one of us every step of the way. In our goodness and in our wrong-doing, God is with us. In our joy and in our sorrow, God is with us. So it is that we must take Jesus’ lesson regarding prayer to heart. We must ask and seek and knock because, even today, the God of Abraham listens and responds… Always!

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

It’s All About Loving and Caring

Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go with him for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

Matthew 5:41-42

Sometimes, it seems that those around us have read Matthew’s gospel and have decided to push us to fulfill Jesus’ words to the letter. Though we often feel great sympathy for those in need, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by the numerous demands on our time and resources. Still, we press on to respond as best we can.

It is when I’m on the verge of being overwhelmed in this regard that someone comes along to minister to me. Though my busyness and limited resources are the result of my own choices, this makes no difference to the kind soul who offers comfort. He or she simply says just the right things or spends just enough time listening to ease me through this rough spot. Often, this generous individual rolls up his or her sleeves to help with whatever it is I am trying to do. I walk away from these compassion-filled encounters feeling replenished and revived. So it is that I respond to the next person who needs me in kind.

It seems to me that we’re meant to care for one another and to be cared for by one another until we make it home. Then, God will take over the loving and caring for us all.

Creator God, thank you for giving us hearts to love as you do.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved