“THERE” With God

When I woke that day, I’d planned to get through my morning routine in record time. Afterward, I’d proof this week’s reflection and send it off to meet an early deadline. Well, that was the case until the morning news sent me in another direction. I’d begun watching just in time to see a reporter standing in the midst of smoldering rubble. He was describing what he saw for miles around -one of the many western state towns burned to the ground by wildfires. That report was followed by an update regarding Hurricane Sally’s assault upon the gulf states. As I watched, my frustration regarding life-with-COVID-19 took a back seat and I opened my heart to those suffering all around me.

Suddenly, I found myself in that overwhelmingly painful place we visit when our heartache gets the best of us. I’d been there before. I know many of you have been there as well because you’ve shared your stories with me. “There” is that place far beyond disappointment and well past anger. “There” is that place where our misery gives way to tears as we wonder what to do next. I’m writing of those times when you or I or a loved one has done everything right only to discover that, in spite of our best efforts, our situation has gone completely wrong. After watching subsequent news reports, I was certain that those suffering these disasters questioned the wrong-turn in their reality as well. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who experienced the same…
 
Jesus’ landowner was a knowledgeable businessperson. He’d done everything necessary to net a healthy crop of grapes from his property. Jesus told his audience that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” It seemed that this landowner was a person of means accustomed to engaging in such transactions. He’d employed tenants to whom he gave housing and a living wage. In return, they would tend to his vineyard. Those tenants enjoyed the opportunity to live respectably and the landowner increased his holdings. That arrangement seemed to be a productive deal for all concerned.

Unfortunately, the tenants didn’t live up to their agreement and they wanted far more than their fair share. At harvest time, when the landowner sent his servants to retrieve his share of the grapes, two of them were beaten and one was killed. What should have been a simple settling of accounts developed into an ugly scenario. When the landowner sent a second cohort to gather what was his, they were met with violence as well. Completely shocked by all of this, the landowner sent his son to settle the matter. He was certain that the tenants would respect his family member and hand over what was due. Sadly, the tenants viewed the young man as an obstacle. Those tenants killed the man’s son hoping to secure even more of the landowner’s riches for themselves.
 
Honestly, I would never have predicted this end to Jesus’ parable. The landowner had behaved appropriately in every way. He was a good businessperson who paid his employees justly. When things went completely wrong and he lost his own son, what was he to do? When Jesus posed this very question to his followers, they responded, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Though I understand what Jesus’ followers were getting at, I can’t let go of the reality that nothing would bring back the landowner’s son. If I’d been in the landowner’s shoes, I would have been able to do nothing more than to weep over the senseless loss of my child until my tears ran out. Neither future tenants nor bountiful harvests nor successful business deals of any sort would have filled the emptiness within me. The families of those lost in recent wildfires, to COVID-19 and to senseless violence in every form likely share these sentiments.
 
After puzzling over this parable, I found that I don’t like scenarios which so accurately echo the heartache we suffer today. Though I’m reluctant to analyze Jesus’ words, this suffering compels me to do just that. Finally, deep within, I realize that God makes sense of everything. Deep within, I realize that God shares that “sense” with us whenever we open our hearts to God. It is God’s sense of things which makes it impossible for me to leave that landowner in his misery. It is God’s sense of things which insists that this isn’t the end for those hurt by wildfires and injustice and a virus.

Though Jesus didn’t offer an outcome to his parable, I will. I say that the landowner left his tenants to the authorities and then he moved on. He could find no solace in further bloodshed because his son’s death had robbed him of too much. I say that the landowner found a way to get past his trauma because God entered into his story to assure him that he wasn’t alone. I say that God helped him to embrace this life once again. Finally, I say that God will do the same for us for as long as our suffering lasts. God entered into your story and mine the day God breathed life into us. This is the reason that, as difficult as this life can be, we somehow pull ourselves up to begin anew. Actually, it is God who offers the hand we hold as we try, try, try again.

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Let’s Do It!

Life in this world continues to be tough. While I immersed myself in the news earlier on in this pandemic, I’m watching fewer newscasts these days. I’m also scanning the daily newspaper and reading it a bit more selectively. It’s simply too difficult to acknowledge all of the suffering around us. My misery hit a crescendo with the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Ongoing inequities place our more vulnerable neighbors at risk of illness and so much more. This adds to my angst. While news reports loudly echo more of the same, the voice of reason seems only a whisper. Crime continues to disrupt the lives of innocent people simply trying to make their way through another day. Add to that another round of wild fires assaulting California. Though I’ve turned my eyes heavenward more often than ever, I’ve found it impossible to speak. What can I say about these things that God doesn’t already know?

I’ve trusted God all of my life. This began when I observed my parents turning to God in the best and worst of times. When I was happy with my circumstances or those of my loved ones, I looked upward to offer thanks. When I was frightened or saddened about these things, I looked upward and prayed with even greater intensity. This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though God never actually spoke aloud to me, I always knew deep down that God was my greatest ally. During my often emotional teens, I sometimes ran the other way. Still, God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me (though they never actually abandoned me), I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

Fortunately, throughout high school and college, God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. When I took my first job, I rushed out of school and headed to work. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to manage my studies, employment, life at home and a boyfriend or two (yes, Mike is aware), I continued to make time for worship. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers which filled my childhood. Eventually celebrating the liturgy in English thrilled me. On weekdays, I often attended noon Mass at college to energize myself for what lay ahead. Though tough times and tragedy punctuated those years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto that relationship with God which had begun two decades earlier.

Much to my dismay, the onset of adulthood brought the realization that many people don’t rely upon God for much of anything. While I’d worked hard to prepare for life in this world, I had also found great consolation in God’s company along the way. Apparently, I was naïve is this regard. I was truly shocked by the “God is dead” discussions which emerged during my philosophy and theology courses during college. I attributed what I heard to each speaker’s need to rebel or to shock rather than to his or her actual beliefs. How wrong I was! I eventually understood that these sentiments had resulted from this world’s seemingly endless misery. Some of my contemporaries believed that it is up to God to solve humanity’s problems. When nothing happened, they surmised that God is indeed dead. As for me, as upsetting as our human condition has been throughout my life, I’ve never actually expected God to fix it. It seemed to me then, just as it does today, that it is we who need to roll up our sleeves and to do something.

I share all of this because today’s excerpt from Matthew’s gospel (16:21-27) addresses a turn of events which frustrated Peter even more so than my classmates had been. Jesus had begun to prepare his friends for the ordeal which would take him from them. Peter pulled Jesus aside because the last thing he wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus insisted that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life to find what matters most. While I understand Jesus’ intent, I also understand Peter’s distress. Things had finally gone right in Peter’s life. Peter knew without a doubt that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Then, before Peter could fully enjoy his good fortune, Jesus took it away by acknowledging the cross which awaited him.

I think it’s time to turn my eyes upward once again. After giving thanks for the goodness in my life, I will list the troubles which engulf us. Then, I will ask God’s help as I determine what I can do to improve things, both nearby and far away. Just as Peter eventually did, I need to accept that there are bumps in the road. Just like Peter, I must decide whether to jump over those bumps, to walk around them or to get my feet dirty by walking through them. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter and to us is steeped in absolute love and absolute confidence. Jesus is convinced of our ability to do something to change this world for the better. Like Peter, let’s do it!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

With God At Our Sides…

Stay-at-home mode has prompted me to expand my efforts when it comes to prayer. I’m certain that our patient Creator can testify to the frequent ongoing monologues I’ve whispered heavenward. On occasion, in an effort to give God a much-deserved break, I’ve turned my attention to my other allies in the hereafter. My effort began at our family photo wall. This display features dozens of images of loved ones who have graced my dear husband’s and my lives throughout our childhoods and well into adulthood. Most of those pictured dwell in the hereafter these days. Since the pandemic began, I’ve frequently stopped at that wall and lingered to pray. Each time, photographs of Mike’s and my parents, our grandparents, aunts and uncles and two of my siblings turned my thoughts to the difficult circumstances each of them endured.

Uncle Gee was born with polio in the 1920s when there was no vaccine or cure for the disease. Though he sported a terribly hunched back, he lived a productive life. Our grandparents and their children survived the Great Depression. When my grandfather became disabled in the midst of his career driving a truck, my mom and her siblings took on the financial responsibilities of their household. While they all completed high school, they simultaneously took jobs to keep their family above water. My mom was heartbroken at the time because she couldn’t fulfill her dream of going to college. Mike’s dad and my eventual stepdad served during World War II. Several of our uncles served as well while our aunts kept their families together until they came home. My own dad’s damaged heart kept him out of the army. It also kept him from living to forty. Two uncles served in the Korean War. None of them spoke of the wartime horror they experienced. We all survived the polio scare of the early 1950s. Unexpected incidents of illness and lost jobs added to the trauma. Photos of my brother who succumbed to diabetes and my sister who lost her battle with cancer are nestled among these family heroes. I stop at this photo wall frequently these days because, like our loving God, these loved ones understand what you and I are going through today.

I always begin my prayer by acknowledging what heroes each one of these precious loved ones is to me. Though I don’t think I would have called them heroes before the pandemic, this seems most fitting to me these days. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I had been immersed in their circumstances. Yet, here I am in the midst of a worldwide assault by COVID-19. Unlike these seemingly capable family members, I really don’t know what to do except to be here for those I’ve been given to love and to keep them and myself healthy and safe. Much to my good fortune, it is after I acknowledge my own ineptitude that this wall-full of sweet souls nudges my thoughts to the one who inspired them and who is standing by ready to inspire me as well…

This is when images of Jesus hard at work fill me up. He cured the lepers, the centurion’s daughter and the man born blind. Jesus raised up Lazarus and then wept bitter tears over the loss of John the Baptist. Jesus’ uncommon generosity and his unconditional love for God’s people drove everything that Jesus did. Even when Peter and the others failed to understand Jesus’ words and example, Jesus never gave up on them. Jesus offered them chance after chance after chance to do their best as only they could. Every time I pause to pray at that wall, my dear loved ones remind me that Jesus walked this earth as one of us and that Jesus understands everything we are going through. The best of part of this is that, no matter how often I fail others or myself, Jesus never fails me.

Today’s gospel (Matthew 14:13-21) gets to the heart of what I’ve learned from those who’ve made their way through this life before you and me. The passage begins just as Jesus received the news that John the Baptist had been murdered. Jesus attempted to withdraw from his friends to mourn because he loved his cousin John. Though he perched himself in a small boat far away from his followers, word of Jesus’ whereabouts spread quickly. Before he could shed a tear, that throng surrounded Jesus. Matthew wrote, “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them and he cured their sick.” As heartbroken as he was, Jesus knew that there was nothing more for him to do for John the Baptist just then. The people before him, however, were another story. So it was that Jesus abandoned his own suffering to embrace the needs of those gathered on the shore that day.

Today, as I wrestle with this pandemic’s havoc, I’ll stop by that photo wall again. There I’ll be reminded of Jesus’ unending patience, his compassionate heart and his absolute love for us all. More importantly, I’ll once again hear Jesus’ ongoing insistence that you and I are indeed God’s first love. Once again, I’ll take a deep breath and move on to whatever the day will bring in God’s good company. I think I’ll survive this after all and so will you…

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Do What Only You Can Do

Should someone press you into service for one mile, go along for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you and do not turn your back…

From Matthew 5:41-42

Sometimes, the people or circumstances around us seem determined to push us to the nth degree. Though we feel compassion for those in need, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by the demands on our time and resources. Though we support a cause passionately, we sometimes don’t know where to begin to help. It’s when I’m overwhelmed in this way that someone always manages to come along to minister to me. This was the case the other day. Though we couldn’t see one another face-to-face, two quite generous “someones” reached out to me via the U.S. Mail.

A note and card came from a parishioner who doesn’t access the internet. Her only source of information regarding our church is our Sunday bulletin. When she told me this, I offered to mail her a copy each week until she feels safe enough to return to Mass. Her note offered a sweet “thank you” for my efforts. The second letter was from a nun in Ohio. Every week, I mailed a copy of my Sunday reflection to a fellow nun whom I’ve know for many years. Sadly, my nun-friend passed away. Her friend wrote to tell me how much my friend had enjoyed receiving my notes each week.

I have to tell you that these messages made all of the difference in the world to me. I think I’ve managed my weariness over COVID-19 and my heartbreak over injustice in this country fairly well. Still, when I retrieved the mail that day, I had a headache and a heartache over all of this. Those letters reminded me that the little I can do to improve the human condition these days actually is important to someone.

Loving God, help us all to continue doing what we can.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Look At The “God” Side

With me at your right hand,
you will not be shaken.

Psalm 16:8

My husband lifted his foot and rested it on the ottoman in front of him. “This really hurts. It’s a bad foot day,” he said. Then he quickly added, “But if this is the worst that happens today, I’m a lucky man.”

Our life together hasn’t been trauma free. Still, my husband and I try to look at the bright side of things when tragedy touches us. I was blessed with this mindset early on. My husband wasn’t. It took years of nurturing his own faith as best he could for him to develop his positive stance toward life’s negatives. Though this transformation occasionally reverts to a work in progress, I admire his persistence. Even in the midst of our pandemic woes, the dear man has continued to smile.

You know, God has encouraged us from the beginning to look at the bright side of things. From the very beginning, humankind failed to do this. Still, God persisted. God sent Abraham and Moses and the prophets and then Jesus of Nazareth to get our attention. Who but one from God could have conceived of the prodigal son’s forgiving father and the good shepherd who would lay down his life for even one of his sheep? Who but one from God could have lived love and compassion, mercy and forgiveness with such perfection? Yet, in spite of his goodness, tragedy touched Jesus’ life as well.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is this: Because we aren’t yet in heaven, this life will not be perfect. Still, God loves us and remains with us through it all. Hopefully, this is enough to get us all to look at the bright side of things.

Loving God, thank you for your ongoing presence which urges us on.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

V… Vision

And the Spirit lifted me up and
brought me in a vision to the Spirit of God…

From Ezekiel 11:24 Ezekiel 11:24-25

V is for Vision. This reference has nothing to do with my ability to see the world around me. The vision to which I refer is that internal sense of direction which guides each of us when all else fails. Though I’ve weathered some difficult events and losses in my own life, these things pale in the shadow of the suffering which others endure. I cannot help being amazed as those around me cope with their circumstances. Though situation after situation promises only the most dire outcome, these suffering souls proceed and endure with hope and grace.

As I consider my own life, I know that each incidence of survival was transformed into triumph by God who remained deep within me. Though I could see no end to the suffering on the surface, I knew better days lay ahead. Somehow, I could see that all would be well in God’s time. Those who have shared their stories with me are absolutely convinced that they completed their journeys through suffering unscathed only because they remained focused upon God all the while.

V is for Vision, our vision of our ever-loving, ever-merciful and ever-caring God who walks with us through everything. Even when that vision is blurred a bit by our tears, God remains at our sides.

Loving God, thank you for remaining with us, even when we fail to open the eyes of our hearts to you. Enhance our vision that we may always see that you are here.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved