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

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Embrace The Journey and Ride On!

It was early Friday morning when I checked email before tending to this writing. I didn’t know at the time that a light-hearted message from a childhood friend would guide my efforts. Since we’re both products of the West Side of Chicago, Trino sent a link to a recent tidbit regarding electric scooter rentals now available in some areas of the city. He asked if I’d ever dare to ride one, but quickly added that he assumed he already knew my response. How I surprised my dear friend! After acknowledging that I’d heard about the city’s scooter experiment, I added that I have indeed ridden one!  Though it wasn’t the model available in our home town, it was both electric and fast. Our eldest grandchild has had an adult-scale e-scooter for some time. Last summer, after watching our granddaughter, our sons and my dear husband ride it, something urged me to do the same. Happily, I responded to that nudge without incident and with great pleasure. I resolved that I’d ride that scooter again at every opportunity.

After recounting this accomplishment in my reply to Trino, my thoughts turned to similar adventures from years past. It was 1968. A co-worker at the grocery store where I worked owned a motorcycle and offered to give me a ride. This very responsible twenty-year-old insisted that I exchange my work uniform for jeans and a jacket and that I wear a helmet.  After complying, he biked me through our Austin area neighborhood for 20 minutes. What an awesome experience! Decades later, probably 1992, my husband’s nephew used a motor scooter to get around his local habitat. During a visit, Jimmy offered me the opportunity to ride it. With a bit of hesitation, I climbed on. For 10 glorious minutes, I rode. My last adventure in this vein occurred a decade ago. Mike’s cousin Connie is married to a former state trooper. Connie and Lou took lots of road trips on Lou’s motorcycle after he retired. Eventually, Lou traded in his two-wheeler for a three-wheeler. Though a three-wheeler may sound a bit tame, I assure you that the extra wheel only adds to the fun! When they were in for a visit, Lou offered me a ride. Once again, I happily donned a helmet and climbed on behind him.  Once again, I enjoyed the ride of my life! I guess there’s something special to be said about riding out in the open air. There’s something special to be said regarding every adventure with which God blesses us…

Today, four good men I know are embracing new adventures. Though they won’t travel on motorized scooters or cycles, they will be energized by their amazing journeys. After all, God’s love for them, their faith in God’s wisdom and the love and support of those nearby will urge each one on. On July 1, my pastor Father Greg will hand over the keys to our parish to Father Chris, our new pastor. I’m not worrying too much about the new guy trying to navigate the parish. Father Greg will stay for two additional weeks. He’ll see to it that Father Chris wears his helmet (or the appropriate jogging shoes) as he makes his way among us. At the same time, Father Greg will fine tune his own vehicle. He’ll trade in his censor for a book bag and ease from his role as pastor to that of student. Perhaps he’ll inspire his Loyola classmates by riding one of those motorized scooters around the university! I’m certain he’ll inspire his teachers with his wisdom and depth. As for Father Chris, he’s far more athletic than I’ll ever be. Whether he’s riding a scooter, a motor bike, a motorcycle or jogging through the parish as Father Greg did, he’ll embrace his new adventure with a generous heart and great gifts. If the homily he offered at his previous parish (when my husband and I sneaked in for Mass there) is any indication, Father Chris is an expert regarding God’s mercy and love. No. I’m not worrying about the new guy because it is God who welcomes this kind and humble priest to guide our parish throughout the journey ahead.  

Though I’m uncertain of their affinities to motorized cycles of any sort, I do know that our associate pastor Father Dave and our new associate pastor Father Joe also embrace the adventures ahead. Father Dave has shared his amazing artwork, his tech skills and his gentle heart with us. Now, he’ll take these gifts on the road where he’ll enrich the new friends he meets along the way. Father Joe will do the same for us here. While his experience as pastor and his openness to God’s plans for him will sustain him, Father Joe’s kind and generous spirit will sustain those he meets here.

I admit that my scooter and cycle-riding experiences seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Still, I’ve come to realize that every journey we undertake is of significance to someone. The uncharted roadways ahead are among God’s greatest gifts to us. Jesus acknowledged often that, in spite of our current locations or our vehicles of choice, we accomplish the amazing when we respond to the opportunities at hand. In Luke’s gospel (9:51-62), Jesus appeared harsh when he rebuked those who delayed embracing his call. Apparently, they had things to do beforehand. Jesus scolded them because they didn’t realize what they were missing by not coming forward to take that first step. Though these four priests have truly embraced God’s call, I’m fairly certain that they’ve committed to their journeys with a bit of uncertainty as well. So it is that I ask my parish family -And all of you!- to join me in praying for each one. To Fathers Greg and Dave to whom we’ll soon bid farewell, we promise our prayers for your safe journeys and for happiness on the road ahead! To Fathers Chris and Joe who join us at St. Paul’s, we say, “Welcome and Godspeed! We’ll be here for you every step of the way.”

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Guide and Light The Way

The day after our granddaughter’s First Communion celebration, I woke with a smile. You see, Grandpa and I had spent Claire’s day with all of our family. Nothing brings Mike and me more joy! On this new day, we’d enjoy a bit more family time while babysitting for our grandsons. Because Grandpa would join me a bit later, I headed into the Monday morning traffic alone. Early risers who glutted the roads with me became unexpected allies along the way. Drizzle which greeted me as I pulled out of the garage quickly gave way to blue skies and sunshine. As I drove, I whispered a prayer of thanks for this new day, the cooperative drivers who shared the road with me, the prior day’s good times and the amazing people God has given me to love.

Later that morning, after our older grandson headed off to school, his parents drove off to work and before Grandpa arrived, our younger grandson took an early nap. I was grateful for the quiet as I had writing to do. Still, something -or Someone- urged me to use that quiet to replenish myself before tending to this reflection. I admit that I didn’t need to be nudged twice. I nestled into the recliner and contemplated closing my eyes. While offering another prayer of gratitude, this time for this unexpected bit of rest, the large picture above the fireplace caught my eye. Though I’ve often gazed at this rendering of a beautiful lighthouse, it spoke volumes to me that morning. This structure sits at the ocean’s edge with only one means of approach. A long wooden pathway with railings on both sides leads to a single door at the lighthouse’s base. It occurred to me that someone –Someone?– was very careful about seeing to it that all who approached did so safely without detour or delay. That pathway also allowed every visitor access to the amazing serene expanse which unfolded in every direction along the way. I wondered where that lighthouse is located because I’d like to visit it one day…

Much to my good fortune, my little grandson napped just long enough for me to jot down the first paragraph this reflection. Though I’m continuing this effort days later, that photo’s inspiration remains with me. It occurs to me that I have a good deal in common with those who walk the path to that lighthouse and to its benevolent occupant. Actually, you and I have something in common with every person into whom God has breathed life and who travels the path which lies ahead. Sometimes, we plod along with full appreciation of the beauty around us. When life is good, we’re happy to do nothing more than to draw in that goodness. Sometimes, pesky knotholes and loose boards make walking a serious challenge. We grab the railings on both sides to keep ourselves from falling. Sometimes, we’re so troubled that even that lighthouse’s mighty beam fails to light our way enough to urge us on. It is during these times that those on the path with us ease themselves between us and those wooden railings. They take hold of our hands to guide our uncertain steps. These hearty companions remain with us until we regain our footing and are able to amble along on our own. How often we too find ourselves serving as railings for other unsteady travelers!

John’s gospel (John 13:31-35) assures us that we also have something in common with Jesus and his closest friends. In this passage, Jesus offers indispensable words of encouragement to all who who turn to him to find their way. We return with Jesus to the Last Supper for this lesson. Jesus knew well what was about to happen to him and he was desperate to give his friends what they needed to make it through the trials which lay ahead. Like the railings on the pathway to that lighthouse, Jesus offered his friends something to hold onto along the way. Jesus had spent three years constructing that railing by teaching his friends how to care for those they were given to love. At their final meal together, Jesus repeated the essence of his message: “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer… Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” Jesus had been there to support and guide their every step and he asked his friends to be there for each other and all who would share life’s pathway with them. Jesus asks us to do the same.

I’m happy to share that my path is leading me to another family gathering. This time, Grandpa and I participate as Deacon Mike and Mary. We’ll join our parish family for a very special weekend of celebration. Together, we’ll hear the first homilies delivered by our newly ordained deacons. Deacon Rod and Deacon Andy have prepared well for this and I know that they’ll do a wonderful job! Andy and his wife Kate and Rod and his wife Rita began this preparation more than four years ago. They adjusted their family lives and their work lives to accommodate diaconate training, to focus upon their spiritual journeys and to participate even more fully in parish life. All the while, they’ve remained at our sides. Throughout the years ahead, Rod and Andy will join our other deacons Ivan, Bob and Mike in leading the way. Sometimes, you and I will return the favor. Always, God will be with us until we make it home.

On this truly blessed occasion, I whisper another prayer of thanks…

Dear God, thank you for Andy and Rod who embrace their new roles among us. Thank you for their families who so generously share them with us. Thank you for calling them to be strong railings who will guide us along our way to you. Thank you for being present in the times ahead when we will step up to support them. Most of all, thank you for being that lighthouse who guides us and welcomes us home.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

You’ll Know…

Whatever place does not welcome you
or listen to you, leave there and
shake the dust off your feet…

Mark 6:11

I find it extremely difficult to shake the dust off my feet. I usually find peace in the familiar and I’m reluctant to make a change when the status quo is working. The few instances in which I’ve done so were the result of impending danger, both physical and psychological, to someone I love or to me. This propensity to stay connected is partially genetic and partially learned. My parents opened their door to everyone. My mom often said, “I leave the door open. If people choose not to come in, it’s their loss.” Jesus welcomed everyone who crossed his path as well. Since I subscribe to Jesus’ way of life, I try to welcome people as he did.

Still, there are people who really aren’t good for us. They may not cause physical harm, but they do take a psychological or spiritual toll on us. I find that if my gut is having a strong reaction to someone, I need to listen. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I need never to speak to this person again. However, it may mean that I should limit our contact. Sometimes, this limit can only be achieved when I vacate the premises. The same can be true of situations, be they our jobs, circles of friends, neighborhoods and even our churches. I need to listen to my gut regarding these as well.

This may seem like an odd topic for a spiritual reflection, I know. However, I have good reason for sharing this. Sometimes, good people think that part of “being good” is to allow themselves to be hurt unnecessarily. I truly believe that God could not disagree more.

Dear God, keep us safe and wise. Help us to recognize harm and guide us away from its source.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

There’s Room for Everyone!

“For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah 56:7

I attended a meeting a few weeks ago where we attempted to finalize our parish’s Christmas preparations. In the process, we chuckled over our futile attempts each year to provide seating for everyone who will come to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Though such discussions sometimes include comments regarding the Christmas and Easter “Birds” whose only appearances for worship occur on these two holy days, this wasn’t the case. Rather, our head usher and others came up with more ingenious ways to squeeze in as many chairs as possible. Each one intends to make all of God’s children welcome as best he or she can.

All concerned work extremely hard to prepare our beautifully adorned church, amazing music and engaging liturgy. Everyone from our youngest parish children to our devoted seniors is involved. Our hope is that we’ll assist all of those who join us in feeling welcomed as they gather to pray together. After all, it’s Christmas!

Loving God, you open your house to all who come to your door. While some of us feel free to knock often, there are others who shy away. Please reveal yourself in our efforts as we prepare for Christmas so that all of your children realize that they are welcome to your home any time and always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rest Here

Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome,
and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

My husband and I were up north. As we discussed where we’d attend church that weekend, we wondered how the several small churches in the area would carry on in light of the priest-shortage. Though I had several suggestions for the powers-that-be, I tucked them away for another time. As our conversation trailed off, my thoughts returned to “church” and all that this affiliation has meant to me throughout the most critical times of my life. My dad must be hovering nearby because he comes to mind once again…

My childhood church stood just a block down and around the corner from our two-flat. My parents married there. My siblings and I were baptized there. We celebrated First Communions, Confirmations and funerals there. A priest walked down the block to visit my dad when he was very sick. The morning my dad passed away, I ran down the street to church. When our parish priest saw me, he knew that the inevitable had occurred. After listening patiently as I sobbed, he sat me in the pew next to him –a humble substitute for Daddy.

Father knelt and I looked through tear-filled eyes at this church which had become a second home to me. When I peered at the ceiling, I read the inscription over the altar: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” That day, I had come to find rest from the most terrible burden a child could bear. Over the months and years that followed, I realized that I’d gone to the right place –no, the right One– for rest. I’d turned to God that morning because it is in God that I found the hope which has been with me ever since…

When I returned my thoughts to those soon to be un-staffed churches, I prayed that we’d all realize that God will remain among us to offer us rest regardless of who leads us in prayer.

Comforting God, thank you for your ever-loving ongoing presence.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved