Welcome Home!

In spite of the cancellations of Independence Day fireworks displays, festivals and picnics, I couldn’t ignore one of my annual rituals. The other night, I seized the opportunity to raid our video library for the copy of Forrest Gump. I nestled into my favorite chair to relive history with my fictional friend. Though the screenplay is quite good, what I enjoy more are the many clips from actual events dispersed throughout the film as the story unfolds.

Though Independence Day 2020 promised to be quite subdued, the date’s impact upon me is tangible. My Dad passed away July 4, 1959, and it was my Uncle Norbert’s birthday. We mourned their sister at her wake July 4, 1989. Though one would expect this holiday to burden me with a dark mood each year, the opposite is true. In spite of their absence this year, fireworks are to blame. Because of these family connections, fireworks displays always speak resurrection to me. This is the reason I continue to be taken by the Forrest Gump scene in which Forrest and his girlfriend Jenny watch the Bicentennial Fireworks of 1976. The Statue of Liberty fills their tiny television screen with all of her glory. Fireworks of every color form a sparkling halo around her head. Is that burst of light in the darkness anything like our movement from this life into the next? Though this particular clip is short, the glimpse of Lady Liberty and her spectacular backdrop sets off fireworks in my mind that linger long after the movie ends.

Still, it isn’t just the fireworks. The Statue of Liberty first conjured noble sentiments within me when I was in high school. I participated in a chorus who performed select vocal pieces for special events. One of these was drawn from The New Colossus, the poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed on the base beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. The poem closes with “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Though patriotism wasn’t always in vogue when I sang those words in the sixties, even then, I couldn’t control the fullness in my heart that swelled every time these words passed through my lips. I admit to those feelings again as I write. Lady Liberty’s proclamation is awesome, indeed. This nation’s display of these mighty words at our shore demands quite a commitment from those of us who call these United States our home.

My mom and her parents were born in this country, though it isn’t many branches back on her family tree where we find immigrants from Canada and Europe. My dad’s parents and some of his siblings were born in Canada. My husband’s grandparents migrated from Croatia and Italy. Our associate pastor Father Joe’s family has roots in Italy as well. Our Pastor Father Chris took Lady Liberty’s invitation (and the Cardinal’s!) to heart when he left the seminary in Poland to finish his studies and serve as a priest here. This concept of welcoming those who wish to make this country their home has always comforted me. Where would any of us be if someone along the way hadn’t welcomed our families with open arms?

Having a place to call home is a basic need that all of humanity shares. Regardless of what happens to us while away, our homes promise us the acceptance, comfort and rest we so desperately need. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché. “Home Sweet Home” proclaims the promise and invitation Jesus extends today. Earlier in his gospel, Matthew shared that Jesus understood our expectations of the places we call home. After engaging in his ministry for a time, Jesus had done well for himself. His followers were coming to understand his message. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. Still, when Jesus returned to his own hometown of Nazareth, he was rejected. Those who once looked upon him like family and as a friend found this new Jesus to be too much to accept and they wanted be rid of him. Perhaps it was in that disappointment that Jesus found reason to share the true meaning of home not long afterward.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:25-30), Matthew tells us that Jesus made his thoughts regarding home quite tangible. Though we might find ourselves rejected as Jesus was, Jesus promises, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Perhaps I’m so taken by fireworks and Lady Liberty because they proclaim quite vividly God’s longing to draw us back home. In the mean time, it’s up to us to welcome, to accept and to comfort those around us. We know the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to take root in others. Today’s gospel challenges us to grasp Lady Liberty’s lamp and to light the way home for one another until we all make our way home to God.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hospitality… Our Way of Life

While checking email this morning, I came across a reminder from my niece. Angela is going to be married in November. She and her fiancé have planned a very special day for all concerned and they want to make everyone’s participation in this event as enjoyable as possible. While Angela, Dave and some of the family live nearby, many others will travel to celebrate with them. This is the reason Angela sent her note. It includes hotel contact and check-in procedures and information about the area so those interested can plan accordingly. Since Mike and I live only thirty minutes from the location, we won’t need accommodations. Still, I sent Angela my thanks as this information will be very helpful to many of her and Dave’s guests. After clicking “Send”, I looked upward as I’ve done so often during the past three months. “Dear God,” I begged, “please help us to get this pandemic under control so Angela and Dave can enjoy their wedding day with everyone they love around them.”

After adding my “Amen” to that plea, I read today’s scripture passages. I laughed aloud when I saw that hospitality is the underlying theme. I admit that I looked upward once again. This time, I asked, “You are kidding, right? Dear God, we’ve been ordered to be anything but hospitable for the past three months! What am I supposed to…” Determined as I was to complain further to our patient God, thoughts of Angela and Dave interrupted my effort. These two have every intention of being more than hospitable to their guests. In spite of the possible adjustments which may be required by the pandemic, they are doing everything in their power to see to their guests comfort and enjoyment. In the midst of all of this, Angela and Dave aren’t pacing and wringing their hands. They’re simply doing what needs to be done with the hope that all concerned will be able to celebrate with them. As I considered this dear couple’s efforts, I revisited those scripture passages…

It occurs to me that extending and receiving hospitality are basic humans needs and Angela and Dave aren’t alone in their efforts to be hospitable these days. While I’ve done my best to stay-in-place for the past three months, first responders have welcomed the seriously ill into their company. Media images of ambulance drivers and police officers escorting patients into hospitals and clinics replay in my memory. Many restaurant owners who closed their doors in response to the pandemic have kept their kitchens open to feed those doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who’ve had no time to worry about meals. Others who were sequestered in their homes ventured out to deliver parcels to food pantries. Those whose jobs weren’t essential enough to keep them working were welcomed to take home a week’s groceries. Children suddenly banned from school by a virus they didn’t understand were welcomed into virtual classrooms by teachers who did understand. Essential workers placed themselves in jeopardy day after day to welcome the rest of us into their stores and gas stations and pharmacies. When I ventured out on an essential errand, I rediscovered the value of a welcoming smile. Though social distancing was painfully necessary, doing without the smiles of those around me was worse. How I wished I had a cellophane mask so the clerks and cart cleaners and stock persons would know that I was smiling in their directions with deep gratitude.

We might view Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality as a family obligation. We might view the welcome extended to the rest of us by all of these essential workers to be nothing more than what their jobs require of them. The recipients of these kindnesses, however, hold a different opinion. The hospitality of others –their welcoming of us into the moments of their lives– makes our lives livable. In the seemingly ordinary things done for others during these extraordinary times, we’ve helped one another to survive. Though Angela and Dave weren’t necessarily heroic in sending that wedding reminder, they’ve certainly renewed their guests’ hope in better things to come.

Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality and that of all of those I’ve witnessed these past three months mirror God’s intent for each one of us. Today’s scriptures seem to agree. In the first reading (2 Kings 8-11, 14-16a), a woman of influence welcomed Elisha the prophet into her home because he visited the area often and needed a place to stay. She also saw Elisha as God’s beloved. In the second reading (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11), Paul assured us that hospitality offered during this life will be repaid generously in the next. In the gospel (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus asked his disciples to look upon the neediest among us just as that woman looked upon Elisha. Jesus promised that even the smallest efforts to welcome the least of us will be rewarded. Though we don’t need to socialize with every person we meet along our way, we do need to welcome one another into the moments at hand as best we can, masks and all! Today, God invites us to make offering hospitality to one another our way of life.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Precious Kids

The child grew and became strong in spirit…
Luke 1:80

My husband recently shared a Facebook posting he received from a former student of ours. Mike was Charlie’s middle school principal. As an elementary school remedial reading teacher, I never taught Charlie because he is extremely bright. Still, he and I interacted frequently due to our involvement in special school projects and the close proximity of our classrooms. We talked almost every day.

The truth is that I intentionally gave Charlie a good deal of attention. His amazing academic ability sometimes put him at odds with his classmates. I hoped to encourage Charlie to be himself and to do his best in spite of the teasing and worse which his peers mercilessly doled out. In the end, Charlie persisted. This brave young man is now a happy and productive adult.

Early into my teaching career, I was fascinated by a book concerning the most important things we learn in school. The author was convinced that he’d learned everything he needed to know for the rest of his life during kindergarten. Today, more than ever, I think we all need to be mindful of those early lessons in getting along and caring for each another. How I wish I could assign some of those currently in office and a few of my fellow citizens to repeat those lessons! The truth is that I sometimes need a similar refresher as well.

So it is that I’m going to take another peek at Charlie’s Facebook post. I’m certain that the image of his smile will reignite my faith in my fellow humans and in myself as we love one another through our battle with COVID-19.

Loving God, help us to be the children you created us to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Fear Not…

I sought God, and God answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 34:5

While wheeling our recyclables to the street, a glass bottle re-positioned itself and crashed to the bottom of the cart. It made a loud unexpected crash which startled me. When I realized what had happened, I had to laugh at my response. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d dropped my Snapple bottle into our son’s recycle bin which resulted in a similar crash which brought our younger grandson to tears. Fortunately, Ben responded to my embrace and my assurances that all would be well. This little episode brought to mind tender moments with our own sons long ago.

Some of the most meaningful interactions between parents and children result from uncertainty and fear. A parent’s embrace and a few well-chosen words bring the assurance that, indeed, everything will be all right. When parents’ words aren’t enough and their children continue to shiver and shake, they simply hold their little ones tightly for as long as it takes to bring them peace.

During these difficult times, we who are God’s children aren’t very different from our own. Sometimes, no matter how well-chosen God’s words are, we find it difficult to take them in. Uncertainty and fear overwhelm us. For these very reasons, God promises simply to be with us.

I thought I was old enough and wise enough not to be frightened by much. Nonetheless, the devastation COVID-19 has imposed upon our world threatens to do just that. Since my parents’ laps aren’t available, I turn to God for consolation. It is in God’s embrace that I’m reminded of the terrible events which have shaped human history since time began. Throughout these episodes, we supported one another as best we could and as only we could. Today, God asks that we simply do our best to do as much. In the mean time, God will make good on that promise to remain with us all the while.

Loving God, thank you for embracing us in our joy, in our fear and in everything.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Believe!

“Why are you so terrified?
Why are you lacking in faith?”

Mark 4:40

A recent discussion with a second-time mom brought back memories of my own. This young woman’s first delivery was so much easier than her most recent effort! It was easy for me to commiserate. I’ve given birth twice and I can honestly say that I would do it all over again for both of my sons. Still, this is an easier call for my older son as his delivery was a little too easy, I’m told. The second time around was as baffling as that of the new mom I spoke with the other day…

Because I’d experienced contractions for days, we expected a quick delivery. Still, we waited several hours for progress. Suddenly, a nurse tossed a gown at my husband and rushed me into the delivery room. Monitors had detected fetal distress. When he made his appearance shortly thereafter, Timothy was white as a ghost. The nurse whisked our baby away without allowing me to hold him. After some whispering among the medical team, our doctor asked us not to worry. Then he added that he was calling in a specialist. My husband and I prayed. We’d waited a very long time for this child.

The next morning, the doctor shared that our baby might be suffering from an illness which would cause serious disabilities before taking him by age three. This news devastated us and our prayers continued. Later that day, Sister Charles who managed the hospital lab hurried into our room. She said, “I’ve looked at Timothy. Trust me. He’ll be just fine.” By the time the tests were completed, our little boy sported a very healthy glow. I’m happy to report that Sister Charles was absolutely right!

All of our worries aren’t unfounded, I know. All of our worries aren’t dispelled as happily, I know. I also know that God has always been and always will be with us through them all!

Dear God, you understand our worry better than we do. Thank you for being with us though them all.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Gratefully Drawn In

They immediately abandoned their nets
and became his followers.

Mark 1:18

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know that God’s story drew me in when I was very young, probably before I entered kindergarten. It seems reasonable to attribute this phenomenon to my parents who took their faith to heart. Though money was tight in our house, my mom purchased a family bible series which arrived in monthly installments. Each edition included a book from the bible with colorful artwork which brought its stories to life. I recall pouring over the pages with my younger sisters. Years later, when my teachers referenced the scriptures during religion class, images from that bible resurfaced, bringing their lessons to life once again.

If I could be so taken by these stories which chronicle God’s interactions with humankind, it’s no wonder that so many who met Jesus face to face were immediately drawn to him. Consider the disciples who walked away from their businesses to follow Jesus. What was it that drew them in? Simon and Andrew were strong, burly, hard-working men. Still, they left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Martha and Mary opened their home and hearts to Jesus. Mary Magdalene’s devotion to him was immediate and complete. Was simply being nearby enough to draw people to Jesus?

Though I’ve learned a good deal about Jesus, what strikes me most is his acceptance of everyone who came his way. I also appreciate his talk about forgiveness and God’s unconditional love. When I consider this Jesus whom I’ve come to know, I understand the disciples attraction to him.

Good and Generous God, thank you for the gift of yourself and for the gift of Jesus. You have transformed my life from the moment I first heard your name.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved