Fear No Evil…

Though I walk through the valley of darkness,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff bring me comfort.

Psalm 23:4

I just received a postcard reminding me to make an appointment with my dentist. Though I don’t fear the dentist as some people do, I do admit to being “doctored out”. I’ve recently taken care of all of my annual check-ups and I’ve had enough. Oddly, that last phrase reminds me of a time long ago when I felt exactly the same way…

As a little child, I feared a visit from the doctor more than anything else. (Yes, doctors made house calls back then!) Though our family physician was pleasant enough, he visited our home only when one of us was ill enough to require immediate intervention. That intervention usually took the form of an injection. Much to my dismay, I was the designated patient on one such occasion. Though only five, I recognized those dreaded letters as my mom spelled “D-o-c-t-o-r” to inform my dad that she was making the call. I’m certain that my tears began to flow by the time my mom said “c”.

An hour or so later, the doctor arrived with that dreaded syringe. After assessing my symptoms, he opened his black bag as my dad lifted me over his shoulder. I carried on so that I didn’t feel pain. When my dad told me that it was over, I cried even harder. I was angry as ever that the doctor had accomplished his dastardly deed. I spent the next half hour on my dad’s lap. He wrapped his arms around me as my sobs faded into whimpers. When my whimpers disappeared, my dad pulled me close to whisper in my ear. “Tomorrow, you’re going to be all better,” he promised. I believed his every word. Though he wasn’t able to keep me from the evils of this world, my dad did love me through them all.

Dear God, thank you for loving me even more powerfully than my dad did.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Generosity… Practice Makes Perfect!

Last weekend, I shared that I’d gone through two boxes of photos from my childhood while looking for a picture for my sister. This encounter with my past elicited numerous memories which have filled me up ever since. I’m happy to report that each one has warmed my heart in unexpectedly amazing ways. Over the past several days, I’ve looked upward often to thank God for this life of mine. At the same time, I admit to looking into the mirror and thinking that I must be getting old. After all, I’ve been celebrating the good old days an awful lot as of late. Oddly, someone looking in from the outside might question my use of the word “good” regarding my childhood. I grew up in a family which would be considered among the working poor today. Still, though life wasn’t perfect, it was certainly more simple than it might have been as a result of our humble circumstances. Our most precious commodities were the people around us. Though they didn’t have many material goods to offer, they were generous in sharing the gift of themselves. As I read today’s scripture readings I couldn’t help thinking of these giving people who made all of the difference in the world to me.

The reading from Kings (1 Kings 17:1016) tells us that a great famine had devastated the land. A poor widow realized that she had only enough flour and oil left to prepare one more tiny loaf of bread. After consuming this final ration, the woman knew she and her son will surely die from starvation. Still, in spite of her impending demise, the widow responded to Elijah who’d happened by as she gathered sticks for a fire. Though she had no reason to help him, the woman listened to Elijah’s request and his promise of nourishment. With that, she gave Elijah the last of her bread. In the end, Elijah, the widow and her son weathered that yearlong famine. Just as Elijah had promised, God rewarded the woman’s generosity with a jar of flour and a jug of oil which never emptied.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44) introduces a second widow in the temple who was completely unaware of Jesus the Teacher’s presence. At the same time, the woman was very much aware that she stood before her Creator. It was with great reverence for her God that she reached deeply into her meager treasure to retrieve all that she had, two coins worth just a few pennies. Though meaningless in the shadow of the mountain of money contributed by the wealthy, this offering meant everything to the widow because she had nothing else. Though she might have traded those coins for bread, she handed them over to the temple, perhaps to assist a stranger whose need was even greater than her own.

The widows in today’s readings tug at my heartstrings because I’ve lived most of my life in the company of women like them. The widows in my life answered to Mom, Grandma, Ma Mere, Auntie and a host of given names. Over the years, I found that their generosity wasn’t measured in any single event in their respective lives. These precious people placed the needs of others before themselves on an ongoing basis. Since I witnessed her generosity most closely, I’ll tell you about my mom. She ran our household on a tight budget. At age thirty-nine, she’d joined the ranks of the widowed with six children in tow. A monthly death benefit from my dad’s job, my mom’s position at Sears, my sister’s pay from her receptionist job at the parish rectory and my brother’s pay from delivering groceries allowed us to eke by most weeks. Unexpected expenses such as doctors’ visits and outgrown shoes sometimes taxed our resources beyond capacity. Still, my mom dropped her weekly envelope into the collection basket and sent each of us to church with a quarter in our children’s envelopes. My siblings and I each donated one can to the holiday food drive and we sold wrapping paper with everyone else in the neighborhood to support our school. When our sales failed to meet their quota, our mom purchased items enough to allow them to do so. If one of my mom’s sisters found herself short of funds during a given week, my mom offered what was needed to help her sister to get by. Through all of this, my mom taught me her greatest lesson: To be generous.

Now I don’t mean to imply that the only remarkable examples of generosity come through the efforts of the widowed among us. Generosity flows from varied and sometimes unexpected people. What I mean to suggest is that generosity is a habit developed over a lifetime; generosity comes easiest to those who practice it most; and nothing rivals the joy that comes from giving in spite of our own need. My mom embraced these truths because she was convinced that she would be taken care of. She was certain that God’s generosity would always outdo her own. In the end, she was right. When my mom left this world, she didn’t leave behind many material riches. What she did leave is this dutiful daughter who will tell you what my mom found when she entered the hereafter. She found everyone and everything that she’d ever hoped for. It seems to me that our challenge today is to begin to develop our own varieties of generosity and to practice our unique version of this virtue at every opportunity. Though I can’t actually hear her voice, I know my mom is urging me to tell you that you won’t regret your efforts in this regard.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Good Guy

“Joseph did as the angel of the Lord directed him.”
Matthew 1:24

Today is my father-in-law’s birthday. Like my own dad, he passed away far too early. The good news is that I knew him for ten years before he took his leave. Though our older son knew and loved his Grandpa, our younger son never met him. They would’ve liked one another! If his interactions with my elder son are any indication, this dear man wouldn’t have been able to contain his love for his five great-grandchildren either! How I wish I could have seen him holding each one of them!

Life wasn’t easy for my husband’s dad. Just after he married, he had to leave his wife behind to serve in the army. When he returned, the two had a tough time having children. When their first child was born, he lived only a few hours. Years later, my father-in-law told me that carried his son’s tiny casket to his grave for burial. Fortunately, my husband and his younger brother eventually came along.

My father-in-law was one of those good guys who worked hard at his regular job. He also took on part-time work to provide a few “extras” here and there. All the while, he cared for his aging parents who lived next door. This dear man actually had three jobs if you count the care-taking and home maintenance for which he was responsible. Still, he persisted in his roles as son and husband, dad and friend. Yes, he was a good man.

I cite the line above from Matthew’s gospel because it illustrate’s my father-in-law’s approach to things. Though I don’t think he actually saw an angel, I do believe he followed his heart in everything. This means that he followed God because God certainly resided within him.

Happy Birthday, Dear Father-in-law! Enjoy!

Loving God, thank you for this man and all of those who grace my life.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

So Loved!

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’s 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 that a best friend has upon any of us is beyond words. That being said, I’m going to share one of the greatest things my dearest 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 agree with his insistence that we love one another. Jesus valued 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. When he offered The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus offered me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Imagine a dad who has been forsaken by his own child in so many heartbreaking ways welcoming that very child home! This illustration of God’s unconditional love removes any doubt that I am loved even more so. Though I or any one of us can spend an entire lifetime rejecting God’s love, God’s embrace awaits us just the same.

Loving God, the most wonderful aspect of these powerful words is your assurance that they are true.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Call to Love

Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

After finalizing Father’s Day plans with our sons and daughters-in-law, I got offline with the hope of tending to some writing. Before opening my file, I glanced toward the window for a peek at summer’s greenery. Nature always inspires me and I expected this glimpse to be no exception. Much to my surprise, my gaze never made it to the huge blue spruce that rests just beyond the glass. A photo on the file cabinet in front of the window caught my attention first. There were our sons with their wives and our grandchildren. Mike and I couldn’t have smiled more broadly as we posed that day. When we’re surrounded by our family, we’re in the happiest of places. It occurred to me that Mike’s and my smiles in that photo might actually have competed with our grins the day we received the news that we were expecting our first baby. Though neither Mike nor I knew much about parenting at the time, we did know that this news was the start of the most important and exciting time of our lives. Over the years, we’ve used many other mostly positive adjectives to describe our stints as Dad and Mom. In the end, we wouldn’t trade these roles for anything. How grateful we are for this family of ours!

When I turned back to my keyboard to open that file, a photo on the bookcase next to me also caught my eye. There I saw the first family which gave me an appetite for the joy I’ve found in my own. This photo was taken when I was six years old. My siblings were fourteen, twelve, four, three and fifteen months. We’d posed in front of our house on Easter Sunday just two years before my dad passed away. I reminded myself of how fortunate I am to have memories of my dad. My youngest sister knows him only from pictures. The next youngest was only five years old when our dad passed away. Though her memories included only a few fleeting images of him, my sister observed more than once that our dad loved her very much. She assured us that this had to be the case because she’d felt the absence of that love ever since. My best “Daddy memory” is bath time. The four youngest of us played together in the tub for as long as our parents could tolerate it or until the water cooled a bit too much. Then, our mom quickly washed and rinsed each of us, usually in the order of our ages. One at a time, we ran across the bathroom floor from our mom to our dad, giggling all the while. Daddy dried us off and dressed us in our pajamas. The goal of all of this was to get us into bed before my dad left for his night shift at the railroad yard. I wondered when we realized that this scene would be repeated only a few more times…

My brother, my sisters and I each responded to the loss of our dad differently. Still, the pain of his absence remains a constant in our lives. This good man, husband and father impacted his family as no one else could have. When we’re touched with great happiness, we miss sharing the good news with him. When we find ourselves in turmoil, we long for the embrace of his caring arms. Sometimes, we simply want to share the mundane details of a boring day with him. Our dad is a very funny guy who would likely turn our monotonous moaning into an amusing anecdote, if only he could. Like my younger sister, I know that our dad loved each of us as best he could. Perhaps the greatest impact of his love for me is manifested in my relationships with my sons. Mike’s dad certainly did the same for him. From the time we knew they were on the way, we loved our sons. When each of them was born, Mike and I felt as though we’d known them forever. We spent every available minute with them. Though this sometimes required very efficient tweaking of our work schedules and adjusting or ignoring our social calendars, we gladly spent our time with our boys. After all, Mike is the only dad our sons will have and I am their only mom.

I cited the quote above from Ezekiel because God’s intent is precise in this message. God created something amazing in each one of us. Just as God took that tender shoot from a cedar tree and planted it in a place where it would flourish, God has planted you and me precisely where we are meant to be. Just as God provided the sun, rain and soil needed to nourish that tree, God does the same for you and me. All the while, God hopes that we will do the same for one another. If you question the value of your life, take it from this daughter that the eight years I shared with my dad meant everything to me. Every day that you have with those you have been given to love is equally valuable. With that, I wish the dads among us a very Happy Father’s Day! I wish the rest of us the grace we need to follow their leads and God’s by nurturing those we’ve been given to love as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Another Child Lost…

So he went in and said to them,
“Why this commotion and weeping?”

From Mark 5:39

I grew up in a tough neighborhood. This means that I heard the names of gangs in whispers and I was careful with my money when walking to and from the grocery store. I didn’t go out after dark. Still, the worst local news referenced an occasional a knife or a purse-snatching. Though my own family was touched by more serious crime, these events pale in light of today’s reports. Guns have replaced knives and murder has become the crime of choice. The losses of children are far too common.

The only child in our family to pass away is my husband’s cousin Mary. Mary was born long before current medical advances. Mary’s Down Syndrome had taken a toll on her heart. Every cold required a serious regimen of care to prevent complications. Mary enjoyed a much longer life than expected as a result of her parents’ diligence. She was twenty-two when she began her last hospital stay. When my husband and I went to Mary’s home to console her parents, they surprised us with their account of Mary’s final moments. “Just before Mary passed away, she told us that she was going with Jesus and she smiled.” Their child’s proclamation brought the consolation they needed. Mary’s suffering had ended and her absolute joy began. Mary’s parents had found some peace in the midst of their sorrow.

No parent should ever have to say goodbye to a child. Today, far too many children will be lost to starvation, to violence and to abuse. Illness is one thing. These circumstances are another. Though I know that God will meet each one with open arms, most of their parents will not have the luxury of hearing Mary’s consoling words. Most of their parents will simply sob and ask, “Why?”

Compassionate God, please comfort the heart of every parent who has lost a child. And, please God, touch the hearts of those responsible and help us all to put at end to this.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved