We NEVER Walk Alone!

A few weeks ago, I finished my umpteenth reading of a favorite book which addresses the afterlife and our own struggles as we make our way there. As I closed the familiar volume, I wondered if the author had written anything more recently. When I entered his name online, images appeared of my now-ragged paperback and two additional titles. I immediately announced to my poor husband that we should expect a package in the next few days as I was ordering both new books and two extra copies of my favorite. Since my copy is no longer suitable to share, I need these extra copies to lend to interested friends. After placing that order, I went to the fullest and most frequently visited shelf of my bookcase. Though I’d intended to purge my collection to make room for my newly discovered prizes, I realized that I couldn’t part with any of my books.

I’ve been a student of death and dying since childhood. By the time I was nine years old, my uncle, both grandfathers and my dad had passed away. My remaining family members responded to these losses with absolute faith in our loved ones’ newfound heavenly bliss and I fully believed them in this regard. Still, when I began college and discovered that there were sources other than the Bible and catechisms to be found which address death and life after death, I immediately enrolled in a class which explored these topics. One of our required textbooks was written by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a medical pioneer who defined the stages of dying as she cared for her terminal patients. Dr. Kubler-Ross is also likely the first medical doctor to admit publicly that she believed her patients’ seemingly incredible stories regarding their near-death experiences and the hereafter. It’s safe to say that I’ve read almost every book written on these topics since. I admit that, when given the chance, I can speak ad infinitum regarding all of this. When asked why I’m so interested in these things, I consistently answer from my heart: “They remind me that this life is do-able and worth all of our effort!”

The numerous determined authors who chronicle the stories of others or who write of their own experiences in these areas do so because they can’t help sharing their remarkable news with all who will listen. My favorite book and its counterparts have certainly added a new dimension to my faith and substantiated my hope regarding eternal life. These writings inspire me to plug away regardless of the difficulties at hand because I know what lies ahead at the end of this journey. I’m quite certain they’ve done the same for many who journey with me.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ efforts in convincing his disciples of the same. Jesus’ years of teaching through both his word and his example had been blurred in the midst of his passion and death and throughout the days which followed. The disciples felt terribly alone. Fear paralyzed them and they hid, wondering all the while if they, too, would hang from a cross. In spite of all that Jesus had said and done, they trembled. Though Jesus could have moved on to heaven without looking back, he returned to encourage his friends. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene to offer her the gift his peace. When Jesus appeared among Peter and the rest, he didn’t chastise or rebuke them for deserting him. He didn’t review his lessons or question their understanding. The first thing Jesus said to them was, “Peace be with you.” Jesus’ purpose throughout these post-resurrection encounters was to fill up the disciples with his enduring presence and his enduring peace. If they believed that Jesus was with them in everything, they would endure. If they believed that they would survive their own deaths as Jesus had, they would prosper. Jesus’ final lesson assured all who would listen that this life is indeed do-able because none of them would be alone in their efforts. One day, each one would cross into eternal life just as well.

The scriptures tell us that, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples returned to hiding. So it was that on the first Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit rushed in with a dramatic reminder of God’s enduring peace and presence in their lives. The wind and rumbling walls quickly drew their attention, renewed their hope and nudged them into action. The fire within them finally ignited fully and urged them out onto the streets of Jerusalem to spread God’s word. Suddenly, the things to come seemed within reach and the disciples’ lives became do-able after all.

As for me, I’ll continue to read about our journeys into the afterlife. Every word will underscore my conviction that God’s peace abounds and that God is with us in everything regardless of how alone we may feel at times. With every page I turn, I will celebrate this reality and reaffirm my conviction that, when all is said and done, this life is do-able and worth all of our effort. None of us will ever walk alone and we’ll all end this journey in God’s good company.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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God Guides Our Way

Last weekend, my tired husband and I drove north for some much-needed rest. Oddly enough, as we packed the car, I realized that resting would be our least likely activity during this time away. In addition to his duffel bag of clothing, Mike filled the car with a flat of marigolds, his drill and a new curtain rod. He felt certain he’d find the time between naps to beautify our little cabin both inside and outside. Because Mike would be busy with his to-do list, I brought along our laptop and my writing resources with the hope of getting a head start on this reflection. Since inspiration normally flows freely when I’m in the midst of nature, I assumed that I’d be finished in no time. This is the reason I also brought our Israel trip photos and two empty albums. Since my husband’s projects often take him longer than he expects, I knew I’d get to those albums. “It’s about time!” I told myself.

As it happened, the weather in Wisconsin was perfect. We walked our entire neighborhood while listening to chirping birds and enjoying the scents of springtime which filled the air. We enjoyed breakfast and lunch at the cabin and then joined the locals at our favorite eateries for dinner each night. We tackled our self-assigned chores between excursions to Oxford, Portage and Montello. It was the morning of our last full day away when I realized that I hadn’t given thought to filling this space. While Mike planted his marigolds, I reread today’s scripture passages and sat at the laptop to work. Much to my dismay, Mike finished planting, sprayed our driveway for weeds and cleaned our screened porch while I edited and re-edited the same miserable paragraph. I finally acknowledged that inspiration had escaped me. Rather than struggling further, I turned to that stack of neglected photos and began to fill the first album.

When Mike came inside a while later and saw me elbow-deep in photos, he congratulated me for finishing my writing. I didn’t correct my dear husband because I’d completely forgotten my failed attempt to fill this page. I’d returned to Israel and that was all that mattered at the moment. Every photo carried me back to that place which had become my home away from home. Every photo brought a measure of the tangible peace which I’d encountered there. I credit our wonderful guide for this. Each time Yossi revealed one of Israel’s treasures, it was as though he was introducing a dear friend. Yossi’s eyes brightened and his emotion peaked as he described the venue or artifact or landscape before us. Though most of what I encountered in Israel amazed me, it was Yossi’s ongoing commentary which gave meaning to what I saw and which touched me most deeply. This alleged secular Israeli had revealed the Holy Land’s gifts with clarity, passion and absolute love for their Source.

After thoroughly enjoying that return visit to Israel which our photographs afforded me, I offered a prayer of thanks for the peace I’d found there. Though I’d struggled with the miracle of that first Pentecost a few hours earlier, suddenly everything had become clear. I returned to our laptop and read the scripture passages once again. Of course, Yossi-the-Guide came to mind. I wouldn’t have appreciated all that I’d encountered in Israel if Yossi hadn’t pointed out and explained what I saw. Yossi enriched my understanding of the things which were already a part of me while also inspiring me with new knowledge regarding much more. I admit to turning my eyes upward to prayerfully acknowledge the obvious regarding today’s feast. You know, the disciples received equally diligent guidance along the way. Jesus didn’t leave them to wander aimlessly through the uncharted territory which lay ahead. After he’d taught them well through his words and his example, he did more. To ensure that the best was made of his lessons, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to guide the disciples as they continued his work. Fortunately for us all, Peter and the rest took the Spirit’s guidance to heart. They did this with such passion that those around them couldn’t help listening. Those who took the disciple’s message to heart responded in kind by generously sharing this guidance with one another.

On this Pentecost Sunday, I celebrate the precious gift of God’s presence in our lives. God has put heart and soul into guiding humankind since the beginning of time. This effort continued through Jesus just as it continues within each one of us today. If I had ignored Yossi’s wisdom, I would have missed the Holy Land’s treasures. If I had ignored the stack of photos I toted to Wisconsin, I wouldn’t have rediscovered the peace I’d found there. If I’d ignored the guidance God infused into that photo opportunity, this page would be blank today. God’s guidance is always ours. We need only to open our hearts to find it.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Share the News!

Sometimes, a sense of urgency overwhelms us and impels us to share information which we think will be helpful and maybe even crucial to others. When I attended college in Chicago, rushed as I was, I stopped more that once to offer directions to a wandering tourist. While working, when a fellow teacher seemed destined to ignite a major conflict with our principal, I counseled my colleague to consider an alternate course of action. Though I treaded trustingly when our sons were teens, I occasionally stepped into my combat boots when the path ahead appeared rocky at best. When I find myself in the presence of a troubled soul, I can’t help sharing everything I know about the amazingly loving God who never leaves our sides.

This was the case a few weeks ago when I shared a favorite book with a friend. We’d each experienced a recent loss and she seemed in need of more than my condolences. Though she is a woman of deep faith, this loss troubled her. While we share our belief in God’s merciful love, she wanted something a bit more concrete to hold onto. She was interested in the numerous accounts I’ve read from those who feel that they have traveled to heaven and back. Rather than trying to explain, I shared the book. This particular author had dismissed God’s existence until he “died” and then was revived from his clinical death. As it happened, this story eased her worry. When she returned the book, she sported a relieved smile.

This morning, I returned the book to its shelf. When I lifted the glass door of the bookcase to replace it, a stack of prayer cards fell to the floor. These mementos from numerous wakes and funerals evoke fond memories while reminding me to pray for and to those whom they honor. I store these cards with my books because frequent visits to this bookcase bring them to my attention often. When I finally gathered them from the floor, I lingered a bit over each one. I wondered what my people in the hereafter would tell my friend about life after this life. As I considered my own mortality, I wondered what I will add to the conversation one day. The afterlife travelers I’ve read about embraced the opportunity to share their experiences. “I may never have that chance,” I thought to myself. Perhaps this explains these and so many other authors’ sense of urgency regarding getting the word out. If I experienced an equally life changing event, what would I do? I would certainly write about it. Indeed, I already have…

Though I haven’t journeyed to heaven and back, I have received hints regarding the hereafter throughout my life. When I was a child, my parents lavished me with images of our God who loves and cares for us. When I went to school, the sisters and priests of our parish substantiated my family’s insights. Though I was told a thing or two about sin and punishment, I absorbed even more regarding the loving God whom Jesus revealed. Jesus interacted with everyone, both the powerful and those perceived to be the least of God’s children. In every instance, Jesus clearly illustrated God’s unconditional love, mercy and acceptance. These gifts were so essential that before he left them Jesus insisted that the disciples share them. Each of the four gospels closes with a reference to Jesus’ directive to share the good news of these gifts with the world.

To ensure that this would indeed be accomplished, God’s Holy Spirit came to strengthen the disciples’ resolve and to fill them with zeal for the task ahead. This news which had the potential to change our world simply had to be shared. With God’s Spirit bursting from within them, the disciples couldn’t help repeating all that Jesus had revealed to them. The reality of the God of Love is simply too important, too marvelous, too liberating and too life-giving to keep to oneself. This is the reason I fill this space day after day.

Sometimes, a sense of urgency overwhelms us and impels us to share information which we think will be helpful and maybe even crucial to others. God’s Spirit inspired the disciples to transform the world with this good news. God’s Spirit continued this effort in the numerous people who shared the same with me. Today, God’s Spirit returns once again. This time, the message echoes within each one of us. This time, it is we who will change the world with the good news of God’s love just as the first disciples did.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Gift of Pentecost

Until a few weeks ago, I had been on a bit of a roll. I had edited and added to a book which I’ve held in my head and my heart for far too long. I had reached Page 79 when life became complicated and I set aside this project for a while. I left the file open in order to add to it when time permitted -my first mistake. This morning, while working with another large document, I closed my book file. I wasn’t worried about this until I reopened it and discovered that the last twenty-plus pages were missing. I always click “save” throughout writing sessions and whenever I close them. I was so pleased with this progress on the book that I could not imagine that I forgot to save it. Nonetheless, the pages were gone.

I vacillated between anger and despair and then sought help. A friend suggested that I restore my computer. This helped with system issues, but didn’t restore the file. My son walked me through a file history check, but to no avail. My pastor called in the midst of my misery. “Did you have a back-up?” he asked. Well, I made a back-up for each of my previous books, but I failed to do so for this one. Because this world is plagued with far greater woes than my own, I refrained from praying for a miraculous file recovery. Instead, I made a back-up file of what I had and headed outdoors to mourn my loss and to clear my head.

The temperature struggled to reach fifty degrees in spite of the sunshine. I stuffed my hands into my pockets as I made my way down our cul-de-sac. I walked on out of my neighborhood and into the next subdivision. As I walked amidst the townhouses, a chilling breeze blew open my jacket. I zipped up and pulled my hood over my head. I looked toward the cloudless sky and declared, “Not funny!” Afterward, I picked up my pace just enough to create my own heat as I continued. As I warmed up, I inadvertently began to do what I most often do during my walks. I lost myself in Nature. I looked at the branches of every tree I passed to check the leaves. Not many months ago, green leaves turned yellow and brown and then fell to the ground to be trampled and blown away. I discovered that the cycle had continued in the buds and young leaves which had burst forth from charcoal branches everywhere. The wind continued, but I no longer minded.

I whispered an apology to the Almighty as I acknowledged that the cold breeze which assaulted me earlier had accomplished much more. That breeze gave me a chill. However, it also brought the pleasure and wonder, peace and comfort which I desperately needed. I had fretted so about losing those twenty precious pages that I had forgotten the source of my inspiration. Before I write anything, I pray for guidance. It occurred to me that perhaps God has something more valuable to fill those pages. Perhaps God used this event to remind me of the wisdom of backing-up my files. Whichever the case, something good had come of this misadventure. I realized once again that, just as God breathes life into the wonders of Creation, God will breathe life into whatever it is that I am meant to write. God breathes life into all of our efforts. With that, I prayed once again, “Thank you, dear God, for staying with me and for caring.” Before I could add an “amen” to my prayer, the wind blew my hood off of my head and pressed my sleeves against my arms. I took that as the Almighty’s “You’re welcome!”

That first Pentecost, the poor disciples were in a far worse frame of mind than I was when I set out for my walk today. While I had lost a few pages of questionable value, the disciples had lost Jesus himself. Though Jesus appeared among his friends several times after he rose from the dead, Jesus had ascended to heaven ten days earlier. All that remained with his followers were Jesus’ challenge to make disciples of all nations, Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit and Jesus’ insistence that he would remain with them always. Unlike you and I, the poor disciples worried and waited without benefit of two millennia of experiencing Jesus’ word at work. The disciples had no idea of what the future held. It was in the midst of their growing despair that God’s Spirit arrived in raging winds and tongues of fire. Like the cold breeze which chilled me to my senses, that wind and fire demanded the disciples’ attention and then filled them up. Though it took me a few days to get back to my book, Peter and the rest burst out of hiding and preached the Good News that very day. Though life proved never to be easy for them, the disciples persisted because they finally realized that they were never ever alone.

You know, God’s presence is not always tangible. My little Pentecost in the cold Midwest winds filled me with renewed resolve. Still, I sometimes walk in the fearful disciples’ sandals just as we all do. This is when we must let go of our worry and embrace the promise of Pentecost: God’s Holy Spirit is with us when we need God most; God’s Holy Spirit is with us always!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Guided With Love

While in Sicily last month, my husband and I found ourselves in the care of several amazing people. We spent our first full day on Sicilian soil with Gianfranco and Daniela who offered us an amazing tour through Altofante, a small town outside of Palermo where my husband’s grandparents and great-grandparents were born. The next morning, we rose early to meet our “official” tour director Fabio and our fellow travelers.

Fabio ushered us aboard our bus and then counted heads exactly as I had done years earlier when embarking upon field trips with my students. I laughed because Fabio’s seriously pensive look mirrored my own from decades earlier. One can never underestimate the potential for surprises when charged with a bus full of children or tourists! Fabio knew that any one of us might undo his carefully planned schedule and add to his graying hair by the end of the day. As it happened, Fabio’s touring savvy, his insistence that we maintain our schedule and his selection of local guides allowed him to immerse us in the best of Sicily.

When we arrived at our first stop, our local guide for the day joined us. Fabio introduced Pino who revealed his wisdom, wit and love for Sicily throughout his commentary. On this particular day, our itinerary included visits to The Old City of Palermo and Monreale Cathedral. When we stopped to enjoy these treasures firsthand, it was as though Pino was introducing us to a dear friend. Pino’s eyes brightened and his emotion peaked as he described the venue before us. I admit that Sicily’s sights never ceased to amaze me. Still, it was our guides’ commentaries which gave meaning to what I saw and touched me most deeply.

Pino introduced each sight with his prepared narration. Pino’s words brought the Old City and the cathedral to life. Afterward, as we absorbed the wonder before us, Pino added personal observations, the products of his own wisdom and his lifelong career as a teacher. “Historical facts are helpful,” Pino shared, “but only if they teach us something which will improve our future.” Pino continued with his own assessment of Sicily’s journey to the present: “Many people from powerful countries passed through and left their mark in this land in good and beautiful and lasting ways. Sicily thrived when the three faiths at our roots lived in harmony. Yes, when the Muslim people and the Christian people and the Jewish people worked together, Sicily prospered. We are all God’s sons, you know?” I took a minute to jot down Pino’s words as I processed what he was saying. “Today, others look down on Sicily because we have this open door policy. We are easy to access, so they come from everywhere. But who are we to send these people away? Are we not all sons of God?”

When we returned to our hotel that evening, I could not shake Pino’s observations. I chuckled to myself as I acknowledged how deeply Pino’s sincerity had touched me. When Pino referred to “God’s sons”, I was not at all tempted to correct him by saying, “God’s sons and daughters.” No, Pino’s words were heartfelt, and I had to take them in just as they were offered.

As I consider the miracle of the first Pentecost, Fabio, Pino and their fellow guides come to mind. Throughout our stay, we would have missed the best of Sicily if our guides had not pointed out and explained what we saw. Our guides’ counsel inspired all concerned with newfound knowledge and understanding. Fortunately, the disciples had equally diligent guides along the way. God did not leave them to wander aimlessly through the uncharted territory which lay ahead. God had sent Jesus to provide tangible lessons in living and loving. To be certain that the best was made of those lessons after Jesus’ Ascension, God sent the Holy Spirit to guide the disciples as they continued Jesus’ work. Peter and the rest could not help shouting God’s good news to all who would listen. God’s love and guidance were so heartfelt that the disciples took them in just as they were offered and they responded in kind.

On this Pentecost, I am compelled to accept the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as well. The God of Love has put heart and soul into guiding humankind along the way since the beginning of time. God’s effort continues on your and my behalf today. If I had ignored our guides in Sicily, I would have missed the best the island has to offer. If I ignore the Holy Spirit’s counsel along the way, how much more of this life will I miss as I wander along?

Come, Holy Spirit. Enkindle in our hearts the fire of your love and guide us safely home to you!

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Holy Spirit

There are also many other things that Jesus did,
but if these were to be described individually,
I do not think the whole world would
contain the books that would be written.

From John 21:20-25

On the eve of the first Pentecost, the disciples hid themselves for fear of the scribes and Pharisees. Who knew which of them might be the next to hang from a cross? Though Jesus had appeared to them numerous times after rising from the dead, they continued to live in fear and confusion. Jesus opened every encounter with them with the same words, “Peace be with you!” Still, the disciples clung to one another and trembled. Jesus promised the Spirit would follow with all that they needed to continue his work. In spite of everything, they did not know what to do next.

In spite of the generous ways God has been revealed to me throughout my life, I join in the disciples’ trepidation in the face of the uncertainties ahead. Fortunately for me and for all of us, God’s Spirit will never allow you or me to waver too long. There is simply too much left to do!

Holy Spirit, open my heart to you on this eve of Pentecost and every day of my life.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved