We’re Shepherds All!

When I heard familiar voices outside, I grabbed my hoodie and headed to the front door. Neighbors had been marooned out of town since the onset of our stay-at-home attempts to control the Corona Virus. They’d finally made it home and were wearily, but happily unpacking their car. I yelled from across the lawn to welcome them back to the neighborhood. My neighbor Kathy had come out to do the same. In the midst of it all, she looked in my direction to say, “You know, I don’t know what day it is any more. Since we can’t go to church, I’ve lost my bearings. Sunday used to be my anchor day. Now, I don’t know. It’s tough.” At first, I was surprised by Kathy’s comment. Because I’ve continued to post on my blog every day, I’ve adhered to a schedule of sorts. The writing, the online liturgies streamed from so many of our churches, as well as my ongoing conversation with our patient God have apparently kept me more grounded than I realized.

After bidding my neighbors farewell, I returned to my keyboard to begin this writing. When I reread today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:1-10), I recalled that Jesus’ contemporaries had lost their bearings as well. They had also lost access to the anchor which should have kept them grounded. This passage tells us that Jesus was angry as he spoke on that particular day because his troubled neighbors had no one to turn to in their suffering. They should have been able to go to the temple to pray for consolation and to seek counsel from the priests and scribes there. The people should have found comfort simply by being in that holy place. Rather, the Pharisees had manipulated The Law to own their benefit. They had imposed rules of every sort which limited the people’s access to their worship space, to the temple staff and to God. The virus which threatened in Jesus’ day had replaced compassion with control and had denied God’s comfort to those who needed it most.

Jesus responded to the situation by calling those who truly wished to serve the people to emulate shepherds. Though the temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their jobs prevented them from adhering to the letter of The Law, Jesus held up shepherds as ideal examples of leadership, caring and love. The shepherds of Jesus’ day spent long hours in fields with their herds. Though they lacked education and power of any sort, they were key to the prosperity of wealthy sheep owners. Jesus reminded the people that shepherds dutifully guarded and nurtured the sheep in their charge. Every sheep knew its keeper’s voice, keenly aware of the special call only he could produce to beckon it to his side. When it came time to be led in or out of the pasture, each sheep followed the voice it had come to know and to trust. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the shepherd’s guidance was essential to each animal’s survival. Jesus expected no less of those entrusted with God’s people. Jesus lost his patience in the temple that day because the Pharisees and their company had lost sight of their mission to anchor God’s people by lovingly shepherding them.

I think my neighbor felt that she’d lost her bearings because she thought she had lost access to the anchor she’d found at her parish church. It occurs to me that, without realizing it, Kathy has become the anchor she longed for. She listened compassionately as our friends described their lengthy isolation in cramped quarters. In the midst of admirable social distancing, Kathy and her husband provided refreshments since the returning couple was greeted by both an empty house and an empty refrigerator. Kathy had certainly provided the welcome which Jesus expected the temple staff to provide two millenniums ago. What a great example of shepherding Kathy was!

It seems that Easter Season 2020 will continue to be filled with moments of uncertainty and solitude for us all. The good news is that we will endure these difficult times in very good company. Our Good Shepherd reassures us all that none of us suffer alone. Kathy felt that she’d lost her anchor because it has come to her in a different form these days. Rather than finding solace and peace in the church building and the people whom she’s come to love there, Kathy has become the anchor where those things abide for others. In the rare event that she falters in her new role, Jesus will lift her up onto his shoulders and carry her through. You and I are invited to be anchors for one another as well. If you’re wondering how you might proceed, think of Kathy’s kindness and respond as she did to those you’ve been given to love. However we support our loved ones though this COVID-19 ordeal, as he does for my dear neighbor, Jesus will be with us to shepherd us every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We Can Do It!

The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus.
They were looking for some heavenly sign from him as a test.

Mark 8:11

It’s never been easy for me to stand by and watch the suffering of those around me. Whether they are my own family members, dear friends, a street person or children brutalized half a world away, I find it impossible to accept that there is nothing I can do to help. It is in the midst of this frustration that I become like the Pharisees of old. They badgered Jesus for signs from above to legitimize his preaching. I find myself groaning as they did: “If only you would show yourself to those in power, they’d do something to fix this mess!” I realize that repairing this world is a multi-leveled task. It seems to me that a change of heart among the higher-ups and the rest of us would certainly help.

After behaving like a Pharisee and demanding God’s intervention, God remains in the quiet of my heart. God needs not to utter a single word because I already know the solution. God leaves it to each one of us to do the best we can as we see it. Whether we are a higher-up or one of the rest of us, each of us is charged with the responsibility to do the best we can to fix things. Each of us is also given the free will to opt in or to opt out of caring for others. God’s assistance comes from within our hearts and in the example of people of good will who urge us to bring love and peace to the moment at hand. Every time we respond, we will transform this world one loving act at a time.

Patient God, forgive my impatience with others and with You. Help me and all of us to do what we can to love those we have been given to love, here and everywhere.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Responds With Love… Always!

The good deacon and I returned from a wonderful trip to Italy several days ago. For reasons unknown to me, I continue to struggle with a bit of jet-lag at the moment. I’ve found it difficult to settle into the routines which had structured my days before our travel. I puzzled over this while I walked the neighborhood. When I returned home with no insight, I retreated to our backyard. I ambled about the patio to bid my farewell to the colorful flowers and greenery which had delighted me this past summer. As always, my dear husband had put his green thumb to good use in selecting, arranging and nurturing the annuals which surround our home. Early every October, Mike reluctantly pulls up his handiwork, making mental notes about the coming year’s selections all the while. As I said good-bye to my floral friends, I added my apologies for ignoring them for days at a time. Before we left for our vacation, worry regarding many things had drawn me to my knees and away from much else. As I considered the flowers which would soon take their leave, I found myself painfully aware of this life’s fragility.

I went into the house for a glass of water and attempted to set aside my melancholy. I tried to focus on the things I had to do, especially this writing. As I drank that cool water, I wished that a few drops of inspiration would fill me up as well. With that, I refilled my glass. Rather than heading to my keyboard, I went out to our screened porch. I sat to gaze at the flowers of Summer 2018 for a while longer. Though I’m usually invigorated by our annual fall cleanup, I was glad that we wouldn’t get to it for a few more days. In spite of my affection for winter, the thought of losing everything in sight to make way for snow pained me. In spite of my certainty regarding the potential contained in every falling leaf, the leaves strewn about our yard distressed me as well. Though the browning petals and stems which Mike will soon pull from our flowerbeds also promised new life to next year’s plantings, melancholy overwhelmed me…

Sometimes, when life as we know it is threatened, pain engulfs us and threatens to rob us of our hope. For me, this is most often true when the solutions to the problems at hand are beyond my grasp. When I finally and reluctantly admit that there is nothing I can do on my own, I turn to God. Over the years, I’ve learned to take God’s love for us very personally. From the time I was a child, I’ve known that God’s love remains with us in the best and worst of times and through everything which occurs in between. It seems that I’ve known forever that hopelessness simply isn’t an option for God’s loved ones and that we are all God’s loved ones. With that in mind, I looked at our drooping blossoms differently. I looked at my worries differently, too. I admitted that I’d allowed these things to take their toll for far too long. I also admitted that pouring out my heart to God made all of the difference in the world. Pained as I was, I finally acknowledged that all will unfold as it should. Just as our dying flowers will nourish next spring’s growth, God’s presence in the midst of my troubles nourishes me.

I’m sharing all of this with you because I don’t want you to be thrown by Jesus’ stance in today’s gospel (Mark 10:2-16). Mark portrays Jesus with a stern and uncompromising attitude. I want to be certain that you realize that Jesus directed this harshness toward the Pharisees and not toward God’s suffering people. The Pharisees relentlessly attempted to trap Jesus in blasphemy. On this occasion, they tested Jesus with questions regarding divorce. Jesus’ response made it clear that he understood The Law regarding this issue. Jesus also made it clear that God’s intent is to support us in our loving relationships with one another. After this discussion, Jesus continued to respond with love and compassion to those he met along the way, including those steeped in marital strife.

God, who knows our suffering better than we know it ourselves, offers the same to you and me. Whether the life of a loved one or the life of a cherished relationship is threatened, God experiences our dread with us. It’s not God’s intent to cause those of us who’ve experienced divorce to squirm in our pews today. The decades I’ve spent assisting people with the annulment process have provided me a glimpse into their pain. Though my heart aches in response, God understands the pain of a failing marriage far better than I. Our human relationships can be sources of great joy and God asks that we do our best to nurture that joy. When these relationships become sources of great sorrow, God asks that we address this sorrow honestly. Sometimes, we can work through the sorrow and return to our joy. Sometimes, we have no choice but to walk away. In either case, we do so in the presence of our loving God. On the occasion I describe above, it took me far too long to turn my worries over to God. I encourage you not to make the same mistake!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Still God’s Beloved…

You are no longer strangers and sojourners;
you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God…

From Ephesians 2:19

One of my favorite experiences in Israel was being amidst the hustle and bustle of people in the streets of Jerusalem. It was there that I tasted the urgency of Jesus’ contemporaries. Life was tough in Jesus’ day. The Jewish people lived under Roman rule which had little appreciation for the plight of the poor. The people also suffered under the temple hierarchy who valued The Law more than the people for whom The Law had been given. Jesus himself endured the Pharisees’ criticism because they couldn’t see past their infatuation with rules and control. It was Jesus’ failure to adhere to ritual cleanliness and his association with outcasts which infuriated these adversaries most.

The good news is that Jesus ignored the criticism and made room for whoever desired his company. He associated with perceived sinners of every sort. He touched lepers and the blind. He even saved a woman caught in adultery. He would have done the same for the man involved had he been threatened with stoning as well.

Though you and I aren’t often ostracized quite as dramatically as these, we suffer our own varieties of exclusion, loneliness and despair just the same. The good news for us is that God responds in like manner to you and me. When the rest of the world pushes us away, God embraces us. When no one lifts a finger to help, God assures us of the Divine Presence at our sides. The hustle and bustle of our human existence hasn’t changed much over the two millenniums since Jesus walked among us. God’s love for us also hasn’t changed!

Dear God, thank you!

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love As Jesus Did

“If I do not perform God’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works.”

John 10:37-38

Throughout my life, I’ve been told often that I’m naive. Still, I continue to trust in the goodness of my fellow humans. I’m not foolish enough to believe that there are no evildoers among us. Still, I do believe that in the right circumstances most of us would choose to do the right thing. So, I persist in trusting those I meet until they give me reason not to do so.

Jesus wasn’t naive at all. He knew that those who questioned his motives were blinded by hatred. Jesus’ threat to the status quo and to the power of his enemies was more than they could tolerate. Though Jesus’ works helped the neediest and most marginalized of his contemporaries, these kindnesses fueled the anger of the temple leaders. If acceptance and mercy soothed the people too much, their fear of the consequences of their alleged sins might dwindle. The scribes and Pharisees power over them might also dwindle. In the face of all of this, Jesus delivered God’s message of love, forgiveness, inclusion and mercy. In the mean time, Jesus’ enemies worked diligently to find a way to dispose of him. Jesus persisted anyway because every person he ecounterd absolutely worth the trouble.

You know, the people Jesus comforted had been looked upon as the drudges of society for much of their lives. Still, Jesus invested his time and his love in them. Though I don’t have Jesus’ capacity to love, I do have my own. So it is that I must persist as well.

Loving God, help us to open our hearts generously to those you have given us to love.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Reveal God’s Love

“The works that I’ve given to accomplish,
these works that I perform testify on my behalf
that God has sent me.”

From John 5:36

For just a little while, I’m once again citing my childhood impatience with some of Jesus’ contemporaries. As a pre-teen (I think I’d be a “tween” today), it seemed obvious to me that Jesus’ lessons, parables and works had to have come from a loving God. I wondered often why it was so difficult for the Pharisees to accept the same. They knew that Israel had awaited the Messiah for some time by then. They knew better than the rest of the people the Messiah’s origins and the circumstances of his eventual arrival. Still, they rejected Jesus.

Sadly, I admit that I sometimes do the same… Jesus accomplished amazing things from his humble state, yet I wonder if my retirement will be comfortable. Jesus needed no worldly authority to serve others, but I’m sometimes saddened when others don’t value my input. Jesus habitually sought the company of outcasts. Still, I sometimes seek out the local power-brokers to promote my causes. Jesus set aside his own concerns whenever he was needed. As for me, I sometimes withdraw because I’m tired of doing all that I do. Jesus prayed at every opportunity and I can go for hours without whispering a word to God above.

Though I wish the Pharisees had embraced Jesus rather than rebuffing them, I’m going to forget about their behavior and focus on my own. I know that Jesus revealed our loving God quite accurately and it’s up to me to do the same as best I can.

Good and Patient God, help me to reveal your love as only I can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved