Sister’s Life Lessons

Some months ago, I received an email from a high school friend. Nadine had written to tell me that fellow alums were planning a reunion. My classmates and I have reached a milestone anniversary of our graduation from high school and a party is definitely in order! Thoughts of Nadine and many other classmates elicited a smile. After sending a grateful response to that email, I hurried to our calendar to record the date. As soon as I turned to September, I realized that I won’t be able to attend that reunion. The same day, my dear husband will witness the marriage of a very special couple. Mike and I wouldn’t miss their wedding for anything. So it was that I sent Nadine a subsequent email to express my regret. This past week, when I received a follow-up reminder of that reunion, I decided to enjoy a small reunion of my own. I pulled my yearbook from the shelf and nestled into my recliner. As soon as I opened that book, memories filled me up. I admit to some tears as I read the kind comments my classmates and teachers had written to me inside the covers and in the margins of almost every page. The four years we shared were a gift…

After returning my yearbook to its shelf, I checked the Sisters of Mercy website for tidbits regarding my former teachers. As expected, I found that most of them are enjoying the fruits of their labor in the hereafter. When I scrolled down the names of the sisters who’ve passed away, Sister Imelda evoked a smile. Sister Imelda held the dubious honor of serving as my freshman homeroom teacher. This role required her to account for her students’ whereabouts every weekday morning and to immerse us into the freshman religion curriculum. It was during religion class that Sister Imelda left an indelible mark on me. Difficult as it could have been to get our attention, Sister did so with ease. She provided a question box for our anonymous queries on any topic. At the beginning of every class, Sister responded to one of our submissions. I came to appreciate Sister Imelda’s bravery in doing this after sitting on the teacher’s side of the desk before my own students. Our class of fifteen-year-old girls provided extremely creative questions. Every time, Sister responded graciously and thoroughly. We’d learned far more about sin, faith and morals than we cared to by the end of that year. More importantly, by June each of us also saw God in a completely different and truly awesome light.

I continue to embrace Sister Imelda’s image of God because Sister insisted that ours is the God of Love. Rather than guilting us into submission, Sister presented the rules we tried to live by quite practically. She insisted that these guidelines for living served as shields to keep us safe. When we did our best to do the right thing, we stayed close to God. Sister added that our close proximity to God was our most prized possession. “As long as God is nearby,” Sister said, “you’ll be fine.” Of course, we concluded that God’s presence depended upon us. When a classmate submitted an anonymous question regarding God’s proximity when one managed to commit a mortal sin, Sister reassured us. I’ll never forget Sister rising from her seat with her finger pointed at us as she proclaimed, “That’s when God is closest to you and don’t you forget that! God doesn’t want to lose a single one us!” This was probably the first time in my life that I actually believed that God loves me and remains with me regardless of my guilt. On that day, I began to take even the harshest lessons from my religion classes and sermons as reassurances that God remains with me in everything.

Today’s scripture passages and those we’ve encountered in recent weeks are about as unsettling as some of the questions my classmates and I posed to Sister Imelda that year. The passage from Wisdom (Wisdom 9:13-18) tells us that we understand nothing unless we are gifted with understanding by the Holy Spirit. But what if someone isn’t among the gifted, we wonder. Sister Imelda would say, “God speaks to all of us. We simply need to take the time to listen.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon (Philemon 9-10;12-17), Paul tells his friend how to deal with his runaway slave. Paul had befriended this slave and he wanted the man to remain with him. Because this wasn’t possible, Paul sent the slave back to Philemon and asked Philemon to see his slave in a new light. Paul asked his friend to treat the slave as he would treat Paul himself and he fully expected Philemon to do nothing less. But what if Philemon refused? Sister Imelda would say, “You can’t make choices for other people. You can only give them your best shot, offer them good counsel and pray for the best.” In the end, Philemon did as Paul asked. Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:25-33) further forsakes this world’s view of things. Luke tells us that Jesus called the people to hate everything they held dear in order to free themselves to be disciples. But who can look upon their families and their wealth and walk away from them? Sister Imelda would say, “Jesus used strong examples to show us that it’s really hard to live as he did. All Jesus really asks is that we do our best with what we’re given and that we love one another. That will be enough!”

Sister Imelda’s wisdom has served me well. Though today’s scriptures seem difficult to follow, God’s underlying message urges us on just as Sister Imelda did. Sister Imelda convinced this high school freshman that God loves us though, sometimes, difficult words are necessary to get our attention. In the end, Sister Imelda would say, “As God’s much-loved children, we’re asked to allow God into our lives, to do our best within the circumstances we’re given and to help others to do the same. It’s just that simple!” I couldn’t agree more!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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The God We All Share

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Matthew 16:15

Though I’ve been involved with a faith community in one way or another all of my life, I taught in the public school system. When I graduated college, there were still enough nuns to staff the Catholic schools in my vicinity. As a result, I took a job in a public school. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was precisely where I belonged.

I taught in a small community which was Christian for the most part. Many school families and co-workers professed Catholicism and Christianity. Many others professed Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and atheism. Because I grew up in a solidly Catholic family, I’d had little on-going contact with people of other faiths until then. My education in this area grew tremendously as a result. While I found the array of belief systems around me to be very interesting and enlightening, I found our unity in the midst of trauma to be most compelling. When tragedy touched our little community, we all prayed, “Oh God!” in unison.

When life on this earth goes awry, something within each of us causes us to reach out to the One who cares for us all. Regardless of what we call our Creator, God listens to each and every one of us when we pray. Regardless of what we call our Creator, God remains with each one of us through everything always.

Loving God, thank you for creating us with hearts which long for you. Help us to see one another and to love one another as you do.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

I… I Am!

“If they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied to Moses: I am who I am.

From Exodus 3:13-14

I is for I AM. Regardless of the variety of names we humans assign to God, God chooses to be called “I AM.” I find great consolation in this name because God offers it in the active present tense. This name leaves no doubt that God is, God was and God forever will be. Though our lives pass more quickly than we care to acknowledge, I AM will never pass from the moment at hand. It seems to me that, since I AM is the only constant of which we can be certain, it makes sense to acknowledge God’s presence with regularity and with gratitude.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in doing so I often monopolize this God of ours. Some days, God and I are in conversation from morning until night. I’m also embarrassed to admit that these conversations are often one-sided, not because God has nothing to say, but because I rarely give God the opportunity to speak. Still, God finds ways to get my attention. God’s efforts come most often in the beauty of nature, in an unexpected encounter, in a great idea or in encouraging words. They also come in those unmistakable inklings from deep within which insist that I am truly valued and truly loved. In spite of my numerous imperfections, God is with me.

I show my gratitude for the gift of God’s presence best by acknowledging to myself often that God is with me. When I do so on a regular basis, I find it impossible not to make that presence known. Rather than announcing that I AM has sent me their way, I reveal God’s presence to those I’ve been given to love simply by being lovingly present to them.

Loving God, help me to make your presence tangible, especially to those who consider themselves less-than-lovable today.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

F… Faith!

God remembers forever this covenant
which God made for a thousand generations…

Psalm 105:8

F is for Faith. I discovered very early on that faith is a gift to be treasured. For me, faith is that sense deep within which keeps me ever-mindful of God’s presence in my life. Whether we view God as a distant entity, a constant and nearby companion or as someone quite different from either, it is our faith which tells us that God is.

For me, faith is life-giving and life-saving. Knowing that God is with me and within me sustains me in the best and the worst of times. Though I’m imperfect in numerous ways, God’s love for me urges me on. My faith is further nourished by the beauty of humanity-at-large, the wonders of nature, an amazing book, a heart-warming movie and lyrics or a melody which touches my heart. Everything and every person around me impacts my faith in one way or another.

My response to all of this is to reveal my faith in all that I say and do. My tenderness might bring life to faith that once lay dormant within another soul. My compassion might heal when medicine falls short. My presence might dispel persistent sadness. A card or phone call or visit might offer a reminder that we are deeply loved. Our efforts in this regard might just offer an experience of God which another person would otherwise not have.

My faith in God’s love for me is truly the most powerful catalyst in my life.

Loving God, help us always to remember that YOU ARE WITH US and that YOU LOVE US FOREVER!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Freedom to Worship

Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and follow after it.

Psalm 34:15

I recently overheard a young man mumbling about church. Apparently, his experience included far too many references to hell and damnation and far too few regarding community and caring and love. Because I know him reasonably well, I decided to pursue a conversation. Because he knows me reasonably well, he eventually worked up the courage to ask me why I still go to church.

After what evolved into a very productive and pleasant exchange, we went our separate ways. With us, we carried our understanding and respect for one another. In the end, we had agreed that all of us are free to relate to our loving Creator as best we can in our own ways. Some will be guided by a community of believers; some will be guided by other experiences; we’ll all be guided by our hearts.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a more-than-tolerant family within a diverse community. In the process, I met many good people who happened to look or to behave or to believe differently than I did. Still, they were very good people. The more my world expanded, the more these differences increased. Still, I encountered very good people who looked or behaved or believed differently than I did. It seems to me that God is pleased with all of our efforts when they cause us to turn from evil, to do good, to seek peace and to love one another.

Patient God, thank you for making each of us unique and for giving us all the freedom to live and to love you accordingly.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Welcomes Us All

But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 5:44

A dear friend recently suffered a broken heart. While attending a worship service, her zealous pastor made it quite clear that there is only one true church and that those who do not belong to that true church will not enter heaven. Now my friend is a convert to her faith and her entire family is of a different faith. To complicate matters further, a family member is a minister in that “different” faith. The final blow came in the recent passing of someone dear to her who was also a member of that “different” faith.

As I responded to my friend, I admit that my heart vacillated between absolute empathy with her and complete anger with her pastor. In the end, I reassured my friend with everything I know about God’s indiscriminate love and I joined her praying for her pastor.

It seems to me that, just as God has sprinkled this earth with a variety of us humans, God has also revealed the Divine in a variety of ways. God leaves it to us to find what fits and to live accordingly. God also leaves it to us to allow one another the same courtesy.

Loving God, help us to emulate your inclusive and loving ways in our attitudes and actions toward all of your children.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved