Live and Learn!

“Teach them to carry out everything I have told you.”
Matthew 28:20

I admit that reading the daily obituaries has become habitual for me. This has been the case since I inadvertently read of the passing of a favorite classmate some months ago. In the process, I’ve come across other familiar names which identified acquaintances from long ago or elicited fond memories. Last week, one of those listed shared the name of an amazing professor I haven’t seen for many years. When I realized this, I offered a prayer for Kathleen and then retrieved my favorite “Kathleen Memory.”

It was the last day of a semester of an extremely demanding post-graduate program. After collecting our final assignments, Kathleen assigned a textbook to be read over winter break. I didn’t hide my anger well as I spoke: “I’ve survived this semester only because I’ve looked forward to Christmas with my family. This intrusion upon this very necessary time together is unacceptable.” Dedicated teacher that she was, Kathleen pointed out that I was no longer in high school and that the assignment stood.

As we left, my classmates applauded my courage and laughed at my stupidity in speaking up. “Mary, just don’t read it. We’re not. The day before class, scan the chapter titles. You’ll know enough to muddle through.” I went home brooding, unsure of what I would do.

As it happened, we enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. While the kids played with their new toys and my husband tended to other things, I read that book. The truth is that it proved to be very helpful in my subsequent work with children and teachers. When I returned to begin the next semester, I apologized to Kathleen for my attitude. My gracious professor smiled in response. “I admire your passion, Mary. I also admire your commitment. I knew you’d read the book.”

Patient God, when I balk at the things you ask of me, open my mind to your wisdom and my heart to your love. Also, please bless Kathleen today. She inspired some of my best work.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved


Good Reason To Love

Caiaphas said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider
that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:50

This is not my favorite scripture passage. Caiaphas sends a chill down my spine. He’s speaking about Jesus, the Good Shepherd who would leave his entire flock to find one lost sheep. He’s speaking about the Father of the Prodigal Son who gave that young man half his wealth, watched him squander it and then welcomed him home. Caiaphas mustn’t have heard the parable about the pearl of great price for which a man sold everything. He must have missed the tale of the woman who swept up and dusted her house again and again until she found her precious coin. Poor Caiaphas seems to have missed everything of importance that Jesus said because he’s blinded and deafened by his desire to maintain his own stature and to remain in power.

You know, there are many people near and far who are distracted by their troubles as well. Though some have lost their perspective through selfishness much like Caiaphas, most suffer distractions wielded upon them by the unexplained and/or deliberate injustices of our human existence. Perhaps Caiaphas’ callousness serves as a reminder that many of our fellow humans have little about which to rejoice today. Perhaps Caiaphas’ hatred of Jesus encourages us to love as Caiaphas could not love. Perhaps Caiaphas’ influence finally changes its direction because it inspires us to care for those who need us most.

Good and Gracious God, thank you for using even our weaknesses to teach us to love.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Easter Blessings

When I turned to John’s gospel (John 20:1-9) in preparation for this writing, my eyes filled up as I read: On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark… “Of course she did,” I told myself. A lifetime of devotion prompted this remark regarding Mary Magdalene’s behavior that first Easter morning. When my husband and I considered a possible trip to Israel, it was Magdala’s place on the itinerary which compelled me to embrace this opportunity. I couldn’t imagine a better way to become more closely acquainted with my childhood hero.

In Israel, when we disembarked from our bus in Magdala, I wasn’t disappointed. I quickly learned that this little town boasted an excellent economy in Jesus’ day. The booming fishing industry paved the way for a variety of merchants and artisans who occupied numerous shops in the marketplace. Nearby homes rested along streets arranged in grid-like fashion much like our own. Magdala’s close proximity to Nazareth likely enticed Jesus to begin his ministry there. I couldn’t hide my amazement as I looked upon the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus frequently taught. Perhaps Mary Magdalene had met Jesus there.

Scripture scholars tell us that Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who suffered from a serious illness. At the time, such afflictions were assumed to be caused by the sinfulness of their victims or by demons. That Mary maintained her stature and wealth in the midst of her suffering is a testament to her strong character. Though we don’t know the circumstances, Mary and Jesus met in Magdala and Jesus cured her. Perhaps Mary had heard enough about Jesus to lay her troubles at his feet and to trust in his intervention. Perhaps Jesus sought out the suffering Mary just as he sought out those in pain throughout his ministry. Whatever the circumstances, this encounter resulted in a lifelong friendship and Mary’s deep faith in Jesus. Mary responded by immersing herself in Jesus’ work and investing her resources in providing for Jesus’ and his disciples’ material needs.

I share all of this today because I think it was fitting that Mary Magdalene approached Jesus’ tomb so early that first Easter morning. The families of those who died visited their loved ones’ tombs three days after burial and, to Mary, Jesus was family. My visit to Magdala increased my understanding of this remarkable relationship. This encounter also revealed Mary Magdalene’s deep connection to us. Scriptures scholars call Mary an avid believer and perhaps Jesus’ closest follower. Mary Magdalene didn’t become a woman of means by hiding in the shadows. Mary’s bravery and devotion impelled her to do everything she did, including remaining with Jesus when rumblings of discontent filled the air around him. Our subsequent visit to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and a nearby church put everything into perspective for me. That room where Jesus ate his last supper induced a smile over all that Jesus had shared there. It also prompted my tears as I recalled all that followed. The nearby church featured a life-size sculpture of The Last Supper. Because this image drew me in, it took a moment for me to see the lone figure nestled in the shadows a few feet away. Mary Magdalene stood silently as Jesus extended his greatest gift to his unwitting disciples, to her and to us all.

This Easter morning, I find great hope for us in Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus. I think Mary would tell us that she was as flawed as the rest of us when she walked with Jesus. Still, Jesus loved her. It was this love which gave Mary the strength to remain with Jesus throughout his ministry and as he endured those long hours on the cross. Whenever you and I ignore the rumblings around us and set aside our own troubles to care for others, we do what Mary Magdalene did for Jesus. At the same time, Jesus does the same for us. Jesus brings us strength and his assurance that we are never alone.

My experience in Israel enriched my relationship with Mary Magdalene. More importantly, it nurtured my love for Jesus. With every step, I embraced Jesus’ path more fully. With every step, Jesus embraced me with the same friendship and love he offered his friend Mary so long ago. The compassion and unconditional love Mary Magdalene enjoyed two millenniums ago are yours as well, today and always. What better reason is there for us all to enjoy a most happy and blessed Easter?

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy Saturday

“Why do you search for the living one among the dead?
He is not here; he has been raised up.”

From Luke 24:5-6

It was Saturday, our last day in Israel, when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though I hadn’t thought of this beforehand, this timing was absolutely perfect! I was secretly proud of my husband and me because we’d endured the walking, climbing and other rigors of our tour quite well. I was especially pleased because none of these “externals” had distracted me from the amazingly spiritual experience this trip had proven to be. I had many good reasons to rejoice when we visited that beautiful church on this Sabbath afternoon.

Though archaeologists aren’t certain that this church houses either Jesus’ tomb or the place Jesus was crucified, this didn’t matter to me. Simply being in the vicinity of these events was enough. In one way or another, I had crossed Jesus’ path as he dragged himself to the place of his crucifixion. On this wonderful Saturday, I also walked near the place where Joseph of Arimathea had given his tomb for Jesus’ burial. As I considered these events, it occurred to me that though Jesus’ body lay wrapped from Friday till Sunday morning, Jesus himself was busy celebrating with his Abba over our good fortune. We would all soon realize that the end of this life isn’t the end after all!

Loving God, only you can draw such amazing good from even the worst of our evil-doing. Amen! Alleluia!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What Was He Thinking?

As I prepare for Holy Week, images from my trip to Israel fill me up. While there, that wonderful and troubled country truly became holy land to me. It was impossible to sail the Sea of Galilee of Galilee without imagining Jesus in a small boat filled with his best friends. It was impossible to walk through Nazareth and Capernaum and up the Mount of the Beatitudes without sensing Jesus’ presence. The little boy who once played among what are now ruins grew into the man who saved his friends embarrassment by providing a bit of wine at their wedding. The same man who wept in the Garden of Gethsemane saved the rest of us from wretched lives by revealing God’s love for us in everything he said and did. If Jesus had done no more, this would have been enough. When I looked over the ancient city of Jerusalem, I repeated the question I’d asked so often during this trip: “What were you thinking, Jesus?” Though I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts, he seems to answer just the same…

Judas cautions me, “Beware!” I know Judas wrestles with himself over what has become of my work. He smiles when the crowds gather to see me. “Approachability is an asset,” Judas says. “It endears you to the people.” Still, Judas worries because I alienate others who might be helpful one day. I spend too much time with outcasts –the poor, the sick, the sinful. Poor dear Judas, don’t you realize that these are the ones for whom I have come? Judas is particularly agitated today because things aren’t going according to his plan. Though the crowds wave palms and praise my name, Judas tells me that I must beware. Rumblings of discontent fill the air. This mule carries me across a path of olive branches and capes, while the temple hierarchy mumble condemnations against me. Judas considers his options at this very moment. If things continue as they are, he will execute his plan. Yes, Father, he will execute his plan. Peter, John, Thomas and the others dismiss their suspicions as they lose themselves in this revelry. Father, they cannot imagine what is to come. Only you and I know what is in store as I make my way into Jerusalem.

As I look back, my battle with evil in the desert seems a distant dream. Not so my trip up the mountainside with Peter, James and John. My muscles relax for a moment as I offer a smile to the crowd. Your Presence fills me up and once again I am transformed within. I know I will endure. One woman who chants, “Hosanna!” looks much like the woman at Jacob’s well. I will always cherish the moment her heart caught fire and she saw you within me. She continues to live in your name, Father. Bless her with strength for the journey. The man who now sees is another witness to your glory. Not a day goes by that he does not repeat the tale of his journey into the light. This one understands, Father, for he lived in physical darkness and the darkness of isolation. He will see to it that every one you place in his path is given a glimpse of you. He cannot help himself, Father, because he is on fire with love for you. I am blessed with so many reminders of your love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus made their home my own, just as they make a home for me in their hearts. When it was most difficult to understand, Mary and Martha held onto hope and believed. What joy will be theirs when they are home with us! Now, Jerusalem welcomes me, Father, and so it begins. When the darkness seems impenetrable, light their way, Father. When the darkness closes in and I can do no more, Father, light my way…

No, I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts as the crowd cheered him into Jerusalem. I can only turn to the words and deeds which brought Jesus to that moment in time to gain some understanding of these events. This one who rode into Jerusalem amidst the crowd who would make him king arrived not many years earlier in a stable. This one who struck fear in the scribes and Pharisees grew into manhood among Nazareth’s poor. With an unshakable commitment to his mission and to us, this one loved us enough to embrace the cross.

All if his life, Jesus insisted that God remains steadfast in loving every one of us. Jesus gathered a motley crew of followers who resemble you and me at our best and at our worst. Through everything he said and did, Jesus taught these disciples and all who would listen how deeply God loves them and how important it is that they pay this blessing forward by loving one another. This Holy Week 2017, our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces, schools and this church become holy land because it is in these places that Jesus repeats these lessons for us all. It is in these places that we get to know Jesus best.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love Away The Hatred

Each week, I mail my Sunday reflections to several people who don’t have access to them via my parish bulletin or online. I include a little note with my greetings and a bit of current news. When I did so last week, I shared with one friend that I intentionally didn’t acknowledge the anniversary of September 11. That date marks an extremely painful time for us. Much to my dismay, many equivalent evils beset our world these days. I simply didn’t know where to begin. However, as soon as I sent off that note, I felt compelled to make an attempt. I had read Luke’s gospel and found myself troubled by Jesus’ words as well. Jesus seemed to hold up a man who was no more than a petty thief. Why highlight his crafty evildoing? I had to attempt to understand…

As Luke (Luke 16:1-13) tells it, Jesus offered a parable regarding a steward who cheated his master. When the master discovered this, he called in the man for an accounting after which he planned to fire him. The dishonest steward understood his predicament. Because he refused to dig ditches or beg, the steward took action. To insure his future, he went to his master’s debtors. He directed one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies would see to his comfort when this ugly incident eventually led to his unemployment. During the final accounting, the master marveled at the efforts of the steward. The master wasn’t surprised that the man had found a way to save himself. In this parable, Jesus focused upon the creativity of the dishonest man. As I wondered what lesson could be found here, I wondered again. Was Jesus suggesting that the rest of us should be equally creative when it comes to doing good?

Last Sunday’s anniversary of 9-11 gives me much to consider in this regard. Most of us have vivid recollections of our whereabouts when we heard the news. The worst of my memories include the school half-full of military children where I worked. I cannot forget my fear as I considered that the nearby naval installation might be a subsequent target. How would we tell our students that their parents had perished? How would we help them all? At the same time, I recalled what happened here at Saint Paul’s the following weekend. I watched carefully as we gathered to pray. Our interactions with one another were somehow different. Was it my imagination or were young parents holding their babies a bit closer? Was it my imagination or were more children perched upon a parent’s knee than sat fidgeting at their sides? Was it my imagination or did couples hold hands long before and long after we recited the Lord’s Prayer? Was it my imagination or did those to whom I offered the Eucharist have an intense longing in their eyes, a longing I felt deeply with them?

In its most creative state, my imagination is incapable of conjuring images as wholesome and Godlike as those which unfolded before me in this church that weekend and for many weeks afterward. Indeed, our entire country responded as one people united to love our wounds away. Nothing nourishes the human spirit more than love graciously offered and love graciously received. The only antidote to haunting deeds of evil at its worst is love. If we are to conquer the horror which unfolded fifteen years ago and the evil which threatens today, we must mobilize without delay. I’ve often heard, “Pray as though everything depends upon God and work as though everything depends upon you.” Today, an alternative seems appropriate: Pray as though everything depends upon God, and love as though everything depends upon you because, indeed, it does.

Those who plotted the 9/11 attack and the many who have followed in their footsteps acted with unwavering conviction. Their commitment, though twisted and perverted, was unquestionable. Like the devious steward in today’s gospel, they did precisely what was necessary to achieve their goals. Our challenge is to counter evil in this world with equally passionate resolve. Like the determined forces who propagate hatred, we must be determined forces who extend love to all of God’s people. We must mobilize as individuals, families, neighborhoods, parishes, towns, a country and a world. We must teach our children and re-teach ourselves to love as completely as evildoers hate. Like the steward’s master, Jesus challenges us to take an accounting of the things we have been up to as of late. More importantly, Jesus asks that we are passionate and creative –like that steward– not in the ways of evil, but in the ways we find to love one another. Though my 9/11 reflection may be a week late, it’s never too late to commit ourselves to love.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved