“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

Live For One Another

She stood next to my bed and gently nudged my shoulder. “Mary, can you get up? Daddy died last night. Maybe you want to go to Mass.” I know this seems an odd way for a mother to inform her eight-year-old of her father’s passing, but it wasn’t. I’d fully expected this news. For days, my family had gathered each evening to pray for my dad’s happy death. Going to Mass that morning seemed the perfect opportunity to assure my dad’s safe arrival in the hereafter. So it was that I leapt from my bed, dressed and ran down the block to church.

I didn’t acknowledge my grief that morning until I stopped at the pew where Father O’Connell was kneeling. He resembled my dad just enough to elicit the uncontrollable sobs through which I shared my news. As he wiped away my tears, Father reminded me that my dad will never be sick again and that he’s in heaven. When I sat with Father for Mass, I was half-convinced that this would end well and half-convinced that my life would never be the same again. Fortunately for me, Father O’Connell’s ongoing kindness, my mother’s remarkable strength and the support of our extended family and friends allowed my siblings and me to reassemble our lives. Those who came to our rescue truly made all of the difference in the world to each one of us.

I revisit my dad’s passing because, though this loss changed my life forever, it is a drop in the ocean of misery which has washed over this country and our world over the past several months. COVID-19 will leave deep scars upon many of us. The pain of racial inequality which has devastated too many lives throughout our nation’s history continues along its rocky path. If that isn’t enough, two hurricanes tore into the Gulf Coast to destroy entire communities while fires burned on to destroy too much of California’s forests. Flooding on the east coast followed. It was after all of this that someone told me that her sister woke one morning to discover house was afire. Though I’m usually in possession of a surplus of words, I didn’t know what to say to this dear woman. It was only when she added that she’d sat with her sister and helped her to plan what to do next that I found hope in the situation. In her practical approach to a terrible situation, I also found hope for the rest of those suffering around us.

It occurs to me that life-changing events are just that and the survival of those involved most often depends upon the responses of the rest of us. I survived the loss of my dad because many people helped my heartbroken family simply to do what needed to be done. It seems to me that this is also a productive approach to the difficulties which plague us today. With that bit of inspiration, I turned to today’s scriptures for additional encouragement. My first reading left me completely discouraged. Harsh words regarding forgiveness seemed not to be what this world or any of us need to hear at the moment. I set aside this writing for a full day because I didn’t know how to continue. It was when my friend told me about that house fire that I turned back to those scriptures.

In the first reading (Sirach 27:30-28:7), the scribe used strong language to demand that all who had issues with others set aside their anger. Sirach insisted that, if they failed to do so, they shouldn’t expect God to treat them with any less disdain. In the gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus seemed to agree when he responded to Peter’s question regarding how many times one is required to forgive another’s transgressions. When Peter suggested seven times, Jesus demanded seventy-seven acts of forgiveness and even more if they are needed. Though I scratched my head when I first read these passages, when I turned back to the second reading from Paul (Romans 14:7-9), I finally understood. Paul wrote, “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.” Sirach and Matthew featured these lessons regarding forgiveness because we are only free to live and to die for one another when we set aside our differences and walk together on the common ground of our suffering and our joy.

Overwhelmed as I am by current events, I’m inspired by them as well. All across this country, people have set aside the details that make us different to embrace the possibilities which we share. Doctors and nurses, firefighters and teachers, grocery store clerks and truck drivers, cleaning crews and clergy of every faith, peaceful protesters on both sides who take the time to talk with one another and my friend who walked her sister through surviving that fire… All of these people live for one another and for us in remarkable ways. How can we not be inspired by such courage and generosity? This coming week, when another headline in the paper or a newscast or an online news-feed offers unsettling news, I’m going take Paul’s challenge. I’ll try to live for my fellow humans as well. Like my friend who sat with her sister to plan out life after that house fire, I will plan for life after the misery at hand with whomever I meet along the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rest and Rejoice

Sing joyfully to the Lord;
break into song and sing praise.

Psalm 98:4

A few weeks ago, my husband and I drove up north to our favorite getaway, a little log cabin in the woods. In spite of the fact that we would stay-in-place just as we have here at home, we gave in to this much-needed opportunity to enjoy a change of scenery. Mike doesn’t enjoy driving. However, he is always thrilled to be at the wheel when we’re headed north. Though I always volunteer to share the driving, he rarely takes me up on my offer. This time around, I was grateful. I happily lay back and enjoyed the view beyond the car windows. Nature didn’t disappoint as summer’s splendor generously revealed itself. As much as I love walking outdoors at home, I love the ever-changing view as we drove along even more. As it happened, we made excellent time and were surprisingly refreshed when we arrived.

Though we intended to relax, as soon as we settled in, we found small projects to tend to. The first was Mike’s fourth stay-in-place haircut. Though I haven’t cut anyone’s hair since our sons were babies, Mike observed that I’ve done a respectable job for him so far! Afterward, we replaced bulbs in our outdoor lights and wiped down the screened porch. Before we knew it, it was dinner time. Fortunately, we had food as we’d brought along enough for our stay.

When Mike and I finally sat at the table, we laughed at how little we had relaxed that day. Still, we felt much better than we had when we decided we needed this get-away. Mike wisely observed, “Maybe we don’t mind working at the cabin because we don’t have to do it. We do it because we want to.” How right he was…

Gracious God, thank you for this opportunity to revive our spirits. Now we’re ready to get back to the work at hand in full earnest.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Glimmer of God’s Goodness

Wherever we are, we are the light of God’s goodness.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta

The young woman bagging my groceries listened and watched. When she heard me tell the cashier that I had a case of Snapple in my cart, she eased the cart forward. Then, she gently placed each bag into the cart, being certain that nothing was damaged in the process. After I paid for my groceries, the young woman asked if I needed help outside. Though I normally pride myself in being able to load up the car myself, I needed help that due to a very sore back.

As we walked to my car, the young woman said, “I’m sorry about your back. Did the doctor look at it?” I shared the saga of my morning exercise routine and my week-long failure to adhere to it. “My goodness!” she said as she placed the groceries into my car. “Well, you get back on schedule and do what you’re supposed to do. You’ll be just fine. When I say my prayers, I’ll pray for you. I’m going to pray right now on my way back to work.” Before turning away, that sweet young woman offered me her most encouraging smile.

Yes, I smiled as well. The truth is that I smiled all the way home. This harbinger of good cheer is one of the “special” young adults employed by our local grocer. Though she is allegedly developmentally challenged, this young woman is in no way challenged when it comes to bringing light to others. Her promise to pray for me is one of the most unexpected and welcome blessings I’ve ever received!

Dear God, thank you for those who light our way with their kindness.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Gift of Hope

I am your God,
who takes hold of your right hand,
calming your fears.

Isaiah 41:13

While leaving the post office the other day, I ran into a woman who wore a very familiar-looking sling. I couldn’t help asking if she’d had shoulder surgery. When she replied in the affirmative, I listened as she described her recovery to date. I also shared some things which seemed to help me way back when. The most important advice I could give her was to persist in her physical therapy, to practice every movement allowed and to take her time. Only she could determine what was and wasn’t too painful. When we parted ways, I couldn’t help recounting my own experience in this regard. I admit that I shuddered at the thought!

When I discovered that my shoulder was in need of repair, a very short surgery, a very lengthy recovery and my fear of the unknown overwhelmed me. I survived only because of the many amazing people with whom I’d walked through far greater health concerns. They truly inspired me through those difficult days. Some have long since moved on to new life. Others faced each new day with the resolve to return to good health which they eventually did.

My encounter with that fellow shoulder-surgery-survivor touched me in unexpected ways. Though recalling that miserable recovery period filled me with angst, that I survived it filled me with renewed hope. Our chance meeting served as a reminder that I do have it in me to survive everything this life places in my path. I need only to remain open to the wonderfully encouraging people around me and to follow the advice I offered outside of the post office that day.

Compassionate God, you make your presence known in amazing ways. Help all of the suffering to recognize that you are at their sides through all that they endure.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Presume To Pray…

Abraham spoke again:
“See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord,
though I am but dust and ashes.”

Genesis 18:27

While waiting to get my hair cut, I overheard a mother and daughter steeped in conversation. The younger of the two was contemplating a tattoo to commemorate her ongoing health battle. She shared that others criticized this gesture as a gloomy reminder of her situation. The girl looked upon this as a banner of hope in recognition of her successful battle. I was seated too close to pretend I didn’t hear. I apologized and then asked the young woman about her health. She identified her disease and smiled at her success to date. A few minutes later, I wished her well as she and her mom went off with their stylists for a bit of TLC.

I was grateful regarding the timing of our parting because I could no longer keep my eyes from filling with tears. Though this young woman has every reason to believe that she will enjoy a long life, I worried. My brother suffered from the same disease decades ago. He didn’t follow his dietary and treatment regimens as well as he might have. Though he had much to live for, he didn’t appreciate his predicament until was too late.

So it was that I prayed… I asked God to be with this young woman as she embraces the days ahead, especially when she becomes discouraged. Then, I prayed for my brother whom I lost too soon. “Lord, give him a warm hug for me.” Then I turned my prayer to him. “You were never one to sit still. Watch over this girl and nudge her onto the right path. Okay?” Though I didn’t hear him say a word, I know my brother rolled up his heavenly sleeves to help!

Thank you, dear God, for listening and for dispensing that hug for me.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved