God Is With Us… ALWAYS!

Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days, I’ve been on a bit of a roll. Last week, I shared that leisurely mornings have allowed me to organize my thoughts and my heart each day with our benevolent Creator in mind. Almost every day, my husband-the-deacon and I have also made time for a walk outdoors. Even on the cloudiest bad-news days, I’ve managed to find reason to appreciate God’s goodness in it all. I began this paragraph by saying, “Throughout most of our seventy-plus stay-in-place days…” because the other day was quite different. For perhaps obvious reasons, I vacillated between anger and despair over the suffering and loss caused by our bout with COVID-19 and our inability to work together as one people to fight it. In an effort not to give in to these feelings, I gave Mike a peck on his cheek, grabbed my hoodie and headed outdoors. I fully intended to clear my head and my heart in the process.

That day, 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 went on toward village hall and into the subdivision to the north. As I walked along the winding streets, 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 on my way. Eventually, I warmed up and 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 on its leaves. Not many months ago, green leaves turned yellow and brown and then fell to the ground to be trampled or blown away. This cycle has continued in the buds and young leaves which now burst forth from charcoal branches overhead. Though the wind continued its brisk assault, I no longer minded.

As I walked on, I looked skyward again. This time, I whispered an apology. I acknowledged that the cold breeze which pushed me along earlier had accomplished much more. Though that breeze gave me a chill, it also gave me the peace and comfort which I’d longed for. I’d fretted so about that virus’s attack on life as we once knew it that I’d forgotten the Source of that life. I’d worried so about our inability to work together in dealing with all of this that I’d forgotten all of the good people who have and continue to do just that. It finally occurred to me that perhaps God has something far more valuable for me to experience during this pandemic than anger and despair. God didn’t cause that virus which wreaks havoc on our lives. However, God did create us with the ability to respond to it. It is God’s faith in us and love for us which breathes life into our efforts. With that, I looked up once again. That time, I said, “Thank you, dear God, for remaining with me and with all of us. Just help us to take notice of your presence more often!” 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 God’s assurance that I never walk alone. None of us do.

I share all of this as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday with good reason. This is the last day of Easter Season 2020 and what an unusual season this has been! Our lives changed drastically in mid-March when staying-in-place became the norm. Without warning, we lost access to life as we once knew it. The same was true for Jesus’ friends two thousand years ago. The poor disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus and, as their final trip to Jerusalem drew closer, they were in a far worse frame of mind than I was when I set out for my walk the other day. While I had lost my focus for a bit, the disciples were on the verge of losing Jesus. Though we can see light at the end of the tunnel today, Jesus’ followers could not. They watched him taken prisoner, deserted him when he needed them most and then watched him die on that cross from afar. What worse could have happened?

John’s gospel offers a different Pentecost account than the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three speak of Jesus’ resurrection, subsequent appearances and his ascension into heaven. It was after Jesus’ ascension that the Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire and spurred them into action. Today’s gospel from John (20:19-23) ushers us back to the first Easter. It was on that day, when the disciples heard of the empty tomb, yet still hid in absolute fear, that Jesus appeared. It was on that evening, when the circumstances of Jesus suffering and death were fresh in their minds, that Jesus appeared. The first words Jesus spoke were, “Peace be with you!” Like that quiet presence which walked with me the other day, Jesus slipped into that room to walk with his friends through their grief and fear. Jesus added, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” With those words, Jesus promised his friends that they would never ever be alone.

You know, God’s presence isn’t always tangible. Though God used that breezy day to renew my peace, I still sometimes walk in the fearful disciples’ sandals just as we all do. It is during times such as these that we must let go of our worry and embrace Jesus’ Pentecost promise: God’s Spirit is with us when we need God most, now as our new normal unfolds, and always!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Dance to The Spirit’s Music!

May and June have proven to be very busy. My husband and I have or will be involved with an assortment of baptisms, graduations, birthday celebrations and weddings. We celebrated Mother’s Day and we happily look forward to Father’s Day. In the end, an amazing assortment of God’s children will have gathered at each of these events. More importantly, an amazing exhibition of God’s Loving Spirit among us will have unfolded as well. Though taken alone these events may seem to be commonplace, each is extraordinary in some way. A few weeks ago, one particular happening proved extraordinary in the most unexpected and amazing ways…

When a good friend approached his fiftieth birthday, his wife and children decided that this milestone called for a party. Their dear husband and dad had recently completed some extremely demanding training and he’d had a bit of a health-scare. To celebrate his successful outcomes in both areas, our friend’s family organized a gathering in his honor. My dear husband and I had the good fortune to be included. When the day arrived, the weather was uncharacteristically cooperative, so Mike and I spent the entire morning and afternoon working outdoors. Tired as we were afterward, we set aside our work to join our friends for what proved to be a truly enjoyable evening. When we arrived, the entire family warmly welcomed us in. After greeting the other guests, we settled in for lots of pleasant conversation and a delicious meal. It was shortly afterward that another friend pulled me aside and pointed out the karaoke machine. “What?” I asked. “Are we going to use it?” My friend assured me that the machine wouldn’t have a moment’s rest that evening. As the party continued, nothing proved to be more true than that observation…

Before I continue, I assure you that I know what karaoke is, that I love to sing and that I love to dance. I also admit that I’ve never used a karaoke machine, I’m a mediocre singer and I’m a terrible dancer. Before your imaginations enter high gear, I assure you that I drank very little, if anything, which might have inspired my participation that evening. Having said all of that, I also admit to having joined in singing and dancing to almost every song that was played for three hours. The best part of all of this is that the other guests did the same. They assured me that participating with abandon was the best way to unwind, to rejoice and to celebrate the moments at hand; yes, each and every one of those moments at hand. All the while, we joined as one to cheer on the-holder-of-the-microphone, all who served as his or her chorus and all who danced. As for me, a sense of joy and belonging and the absolute freedom to be me filled me up. I determined in short order that this was the best party I’d attended in my entire life.

My revelry culminated in my dear husband’s willingness to lead the singing of Mr. Bojangles. This 1968 release (Jerry Jeff Walker, 1968, Atco Records) has been a favorite since I first heard it. As Mike sang, I couldn’t help dancing as the story of the drifter-turned-dancer unfolded. When Mike sang about the poor man’s dog dying, I shed a few tears and touched my heart. When Mike sang, “Whoa, he jumped so high, clicked his heels…”, I couldn’t help myself. Though I’d never ever dared to do this before, something compelled me to click my heels as well. And so I did. I honestly didn’t realize the amazement of my feat until this roomful of friends gasped and then cheered in delight. Much to my surprise, I did the same twice more before Mike finished that song…

I share this story on Pentecost Sunday with good reason. I admit that, in spite of my productive day, I went to that party with a heavy heart. Old worries had resurfaced and I wondered if I’d be able to set them aside long enough to celebrate our friend’s birthday. As you see, my fear was unfounded. The loving spirit of those gathered that evening not only dispelled the negativity which threatened, but also filled me with absolute joy! You know, Jesus’ friends awaited the first Pentecost with far greater trepidation than my own. They’d arrived at Jerusalem in triumph only to have Jesus arrested and condemned five days later. Most of Jesus’ friends deserted him as he hanged dying on the cross. Those who remained could do nothing to save him. When Jesus rose and appeared among them, he remained for forty days. All the while, hope eased its way back into the disciples’ hearts until Jesus left them once again. Jesus’ parting words included a call to proclaim the good news to every creature and a promise that Jesus would always be with them. Still, when Jesus left, hope escaped his friends once again and the disciples hid themselves away from the people. It was in the midst of wringing their hands and wondering how they might survive this second loss of Jesus that God’s Loving Spirit filled them up. Finally, the disciples understood. Finally, Jesus’ message made sense of this life and the next. With that, the disciples burst out of hiding to proclaim their good news to all who would listen. God’s Loving Spirit propelled them just as it propels us forward again and again.

You know, I’ll never forget that wonderful birthday gathering. The loving spirit which permeated my friend’s home gifted everyone present with a mini-Pentecost of sorts. I think each one of us had a part in sweetening the joy of that evening and in fueling all of our hope in the reality of good things to come. Though life isn’t perfect for any of us, God’s love for us is perfect. And this is all that matters. On this Pentecost and every day after, may each of us sense God’s Loving Spirit within us and find reason to click our heals and to dance once again.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Still Celebrating Easter?

“My God, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me…”

From John 17:24

Last Wednesday was the first warm and sunny day we’d had in a while. Early on, my husband headed to the garage to begin his planting. Mike worked on his pots and planters while I trimmed a few boxwood bushes which had done serious battle with the frost. I swept the patio and arranged the furniture there while Mike ran to the garden shop for a few more plants. After lunch, my favorite gardener returned to his flowers and I reluctantly headed upstairs to begin this writing.

Since Memorial Day was only five days away, I had a difficult time returning my thoughts to Easter. After all, we’d sung our alleluias and enjoyed that wonderful lamb dinner almost five weeks earlier. Even those pesky remnants of Easter grass (Which continue to linger!) didn’t help much. It was the sunshine pouring through the study window which finally drew my thoughts to Easter’s joy. “How can I have lost sight of that?” I asked myself aloud…

At church, we actually celebrate Easter for eight weeks. On paper, the Easter Season closes on Pentecost Sunday. Still, the warm rays which caused the window and study floor to glow said otherwise. Regardless of the calendar’s date, the sun persisted in doing its job. Even through clouds and the worst of storms, the sun’s warmth makes its way to us. The sun is always there. It occurred to me that the same is true regarding Easter Joy. It’s always there, too.

Those who walked with Jesus celebrated Easter for what remained of their earthly lives. Their faith in the things to come inspired them to share what they knew with everyone they met along the way. The sun lingering overhead reminded me that you and I are invited to do the same.

Generous God, thank you for the gentle nudges which remind us to celebrate Easter Joy always.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

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