Time For New Life

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

Ecclesiastes 3:2

Memories of the loss of my dad have stirred memories of another loss I experienced in July. This time, the year was 1999.

My friend battled cancer and, after long bouts with chemotherapy, John’s future seemed secure. He was a good man and a good priest. His life made all of the difference in the world all who knew him. Eventually, word spread that John had beaten the cancer and a collective sigh of relief rose to the heavens.

With this good news to inspire me, I headed to my computer to write my next article and to get a letter off to John. My poor friend was a captive fan to whom I mailed my reflections each week. I always included a letter to let him know that my husband and I were thinking about him. Because we would observe July 4th a few days later, the holiday set my tone. I wished John a generous measure of freedom with which to get on with his life. My litany began with “…freedom from illness, freedom to breathe in as deeply as you want to and with no pain! I wish you freedom from chemotherapy and I wish you hair! I wish you the freedom to get back to the people and the work you love and the freedom to come and go as you please.” I mailed that letter with a smile. I could hardly wait until John would once again be well enough to come over for dinner.

Sadly, John never read this particular letter. He returned to the hospital the day after its writing. Pneumonia had set in and John lacked the stamina to fight it. When John’s life among us ended, he embraced ultimate freedom.

While John enjoys life in the hereafter, I admit to a bit of melancholy. I still miss my friend.

Loving God, I think the most difficult part of this life is saying good-bye. Today, please touch the hearts of all who mourn with your peace.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

In This Together With Jesus!

Sometimes, our worries overwhelm us so completely that we miss the joy that lingers within reach. We wonder where God can possibly be in all of this. Today, Luke, the masterful narrator, reminds us of how amazingly nearby God actually is…

In his gospel (Luke 24:13-35), Luke tells us that Cleopas and a friend left Jerusalem for Emmaus a few days after Jesus’ death. The two men were still reeling over the events of the past week. They shook their heads and fretted over what might have been and what had actually occurred. Jesus had offered such hope to the people! They rallied to welcome him when he arrived in Jerusalem. No one suspected that he would be crucified five days later. Then, as they mourned Jesus, some of the women reported seeing a vision of angels at his empty tomb. The disciples who ran to the tomb afterward found the scene just as the women had described it. When Cleopas and his companion embarked upon that seven mile walk to Emmaus, they puzzled over whether to mourn or to celebrate.

Just a short distance into their walk, the two encountered a stranger who confused them further. When this man acknowledged that he knew nothing of what had happened at Calvary, the two disciples wondered how anyone near Jerusalem could have missed the news of Jesus’ death. Little did these two realize that they knew far less of what had occurred than their new acquaintance did. After listening to Cleopas explain, the stranger responded with a few lessons of his own. He spoke of Moses and the prophets who followed Moses. He explained the references the prophets had made to the Christ. This stranger made it quite clear that what had happened should have been no surprise to those who studied the scriptures. This suffering was predicted as was the messiah’s glory. When the stranger completed his lesson, he prepared to leave Cleopas and his friend until they pressed him to stay and to share their evening meal. It was when they gathered at the table that the stranger broke bread just as Jesus had. How excited the two were when they recognized that Jesus had been with them all the while!

You and I have walked with Cleopas and his companion on occasion throughout our lives. Over the past forty or so days, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to shake our heads and to fret over developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply staying at home has been challenging for many of us, especially since there is so much to be done elsewhere. Troubles within our workplaces and the lack of jobs weigh heavily upon us. Illnesses that once seemed manageable have been exacerbated by our inability to keep up with once easy-to-access care. Those who battle emotional and spiritual illnesses too often have only themselves to rely upon. Healthcare workers and first responders on the front-line in this battle find themselves exhausted all of the time. Others who provide vital necessities such as food and gasoline and furnace repairs never signed up for such hazardous duty, yet they serve the rest of us bravely. The list of those called to serve above and beyond is very, very long.

During the Easter Season, we normally put our hearts and souls into living the joy that comes with knowing that life after this life is a reality for us. When the worst of our earthly woes threaten, we habitually return to God’s promise of better things to come for consolation. After all, Jesus gave us living proof that everything he endured was worth the new life he embraced afterward. Jesus went on to assure us that the same is true for us. No matter what this life entails, what comes afterward is worth it all. Still, this Easter Season, we find ourselves worrying and wondering. Like Cleopas and his friend, we reel with sadness as we puzzle over all of this. “Why? Why? Why?” we ask. Yet, like Cleopas and his companion, we don’t completely succumb to our fear. We could ignore those who need us, but we don’t. Like Cleopas, we look beyond our own needs to care for one another. It is in this caring that we celebrate Easter Joy after all.

When they realized that it was Jesus who had walked with them, Cleopas and his friend returned to Jerusalem to tell the others. How could they keep this good news to themselves? You know, our encounters with Jesus aren’t usually as dramatic as Cleopas’ experience, but today they are. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, news and other special programs continuously report the heroic efforts of people just like you and I. Like Cleopas and his friend, they hurry to individuals and families, to the ill and the needy to do what they can. Though the magnitude of need threatens to overwhelm, they persist. Like Cleopas and his friend, we really are in this together. And, as he was for Cleopas and his friend, Jesus is with us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let’s Let Jesus Out!

After puzzling at length over today’s gospel and how to begin this writing, I took a break to check my email. It was there that I found a wonderful concept regarding our amazing Risen Lord from a dear friend whom I met in Germany some years ago. Ludger is a priest who is usually very busy. However, like Father Chris and Father Joe, his ministry has morphed into something quite different for the time being. So it is that he is finding creative ways to explore his own faith and to share his discoveries with his people. I’m grateful that I’m one of Father Ludger’s people these days and I hope he is one of mine. Ludger often shares wisdom from his own thinking and tidbits he’s picked up from others. He reads my daily blog and I email him my Sunday reflections early in the event there might be something homily-worthy in my words. Ludger normally doesn’t have time for more than our single weekly email exchanges. However, social distancing allowed him the time for this additional interaction.

Father Ludger wrote that, in an effort to find inspiration during these difficult days, he turned to Tomas Halik, a fellow priest and philosopher. In his writing, Father Halik cited a meditation offered by Cardinal Bergoglio at the Vatican a few days before he was elected pope. The soon-to-be Pope Francis quoted a line from Revelations 3:20 in which Jesus says, “Behold, I am knocking at the door.” Ludger wrote that we usually understand this to mean that Jesus knocks at that door to be invited in. However, the future pope turned this around to say that Jesus knocks at the door in order to go out. “Where does Jesus want to go?” I wondered. My online search for Halik’s writings failed to explain this. When I searched for Cardinal Bergoglio’s reflection, I found a second commentary on his thoughts written by Cardinal Blase Cupich. Though the Cardinal wrote this three years ago, its title could have been written today: Pope Francis’ ‘field hospital’ calls us to radically rethink church life.

If our current world war against COVID-19 wasn’t such a tragedy, I would have laughed as I read this. Instead, I recalled recent news stories regarding the field hospitals being created all across this country and around the world. Because established hospitals may not be able to meet future demands, sports stadiums, naval vessels and even McCormick Place have been transformed in response to the rising number of patents stricken by the virus. Oddly enough, Cardinal Bergoglio proposed the same strategy to his fellow cardinals back in March 2013. He told them that the Church could no longer keep to itself and tend to the status quo. It was then that he offered that quote from Revelations where Jesus announces that he is knocking at the door. I wondered where Jesus wants to go…

Lent and Easter 2020 have evolved in unexpected ways for us all. Our virus-control behaviors have become our new normal. I try to respond with a positive attitude and a bit of creativity. Still, I’m sometimes hapless and helpless when it comes to improving the situation at hand. Because I’ve made a habit of wanting to fix everything, I often ignore that inner voice which suggests that sometimes I need to let go and let God. Still, as strangely as Lent and Holy Week unfolded, on Holy Saturday morning I found it easy to put on the sandals of Jesus’ first disciples. As my dear husband and I walked the neighborhood to contemplate the day, I remarked that we are experiencing what Jesus’ first followers experienced. I told Mike, “We have no idea of what will come next during this COVID-19 dilemma and they had no idea of what would come next after Jesus’ crucifixion.” Did Jesus knock on heaven’s door to leave so he could assure the disciples that all would be well? Today’s gospel tells us that Thomas also made his way out. Did Thomas knock that upper room door open so he could get out to see what was happening on the streets of Jerusalem? Did Thomas wonder if he and his friends would disperse once Jesus’ death faded into memory or might they salvage Jesus’ ministry? Thomas didn’t know what lay ahead, but Jesus did. Jesus knew what was coming and he returned to assure Thomas and the others that all would be well.

My friend Father Ludger was truly inspired by this challenge to listen for Jesus’ knock and then to let Jesus out. I’m sure his parish family will benefit greatly from his response to that challenge. I’m grateful that Ludger shared this challenge with me because it will make the days ahead far more productive on my part. Rather than looking within, wringing my hands and praying for answers, I’ll let Jesus spill out of me. In everything I say and do, I’ll allow Jesus to lead the way. I’ll ask often, “What would you do, Jesus?” and then I’ll follow his lead. Will you join me? Let’s do all we can from wherever we are to keep those in our care safe and healthy. Let’s reach out online or through a text or a phone call or a note to share our wisdom and ourselves as my friend Ludger did. Let’s find ways to share hope and love and a bit of cheerful company just as Jesus would. Yes, let’s open the door and let Jesus out. Let’s share Jesus with the most vulnerable and needy for as far as we can reach from our little corners of the world.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always With Us!

“Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked
to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?”

From Luke 24:32

Because my husband diligently chronicled our trip to Israel with wonderful photographs, we purchased two albums for his handiwork. We realize that in this the digital age we can enjoy our memories in full color on our laptop. Still, having them in hand where we can linger over each one is a luxury we’re not ready to give up. We keep our photo albums on display in our family room. This prompts visitors and us to enjoy them often.

While looking through those albums one stay-at-home day, I came across photos of the church and monastery we visited in Emmaus. I also revisited Luke’s gospel which tells us about Cleopas and his companion who had just left Jerusalem and traveled along a road to Emmaus. It wasn’t long after Jesus’ death and they were discussing all that had happened during those dark days. As they walked, they encountered a stranger. Though everyone they’d met in Jerusalem was affected in some way by Jesus’ death, this man seemed to know nothing of it. After explaining along the way, this man offered his sense of those events. When trio eventually stopped to eat together, this stranger broke bread just as the disciples said Jesus had done. Cleopas and his friend immediately realized who this stranger was. Jesus had been with them all the while!

Throughout what remains of this COVID-19 era and for a long time afterward, we will have ample opportunity to discuss all that is and has occurred. Between those conversations, we’ll do our best to keep ourselves and our loved ones safely at home. Hopefully, we’ll also find the time to pray. It seems to me that every time we take the time to talk to God, we become more certain, like Cleopas and his friend, that God is with us all the while!

Loving God, help us never to forget that you are with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

He’s With Us

“Are you the only resident of Jerusalem who does not know
the things that went on here these past few days?”

From Luke 24:17

It was almost two weeks after we returned from Israel when I finally shook my jet-lag. At that point, I was able to look back to savor this experience. I simply had to share this amazing adventure through these posts. In the process, I’ve revisited each site and every encounter with Israel’s people. I truly hope all of these memories remain with me forever!

Ash Wednesday, when I began this effort, I couldn’t think of a better way to observe Lent. I’ve cultivated my friendship with Jesus all of my life. Spending time is his homeland added a new dimension to our connection. As I reviewed our itinerary and the photographs from our trip, I realized that I’d forgotten more than I remembered. While Mike searched for photo ops, I had engaged in quite a bit of internalizing. I couldn’t help taking to heart the things that happened on that hallowed ground so long ago. I couldn’t help stepping into Mary Magdalene’s and Peter’s and Jesus’ sandals. Little did I know at the time that soon we would all wear the sandals of the suffering.

It is Cleopas who poses the question in the scripture passage above. Jesus had disguised himself for this meeting, leaving Poor Cleopas to wonder who it was that knew nothing of Jesus’ death. As I consider their conversation, I feel certain that today no one would have to ask if you or I had heard of COVID-19. As was the case with Cleopas and his friend, the world as we once knew it has been turned upside-down.

The good news is that Cleopas and his friend aren’t the only ones to whom Jesus has shown himself. You and I have two thousand years of Jesus’ influence to rely on. Are we any more miserable than the suffering souls Jesus encountered along the way? Are we any less deserving of Jesus’ love? Jesus doesn’t think so. Like Cleopas and his friend, we aren’t alone on this road…

Loving God, thank you for staying with us through it all!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved