All God’s Lambs

The Lord is my shepherd and there is nothing I shall want.
Psalm 23:1

I’ve shared earlier that I spent the much of October tending to my physical well-being. This effort included eye exams, annual physical, a mammogram… You get the idea. In the end, I discovered that I’m in very good health in spite of some minor adjustments I needed to make to my exercise regimen and my diet. My orders were to change these things for the better and so I have.

I admit that I was slightly disconcerted by my need to tweak my lifestyle. When I recognized this bit of angst, I chided myself. You see, I’ve walked with many loved ones through serious illnesses. I sat at their sides as they processed the scenarios that lay before them. In every case, I was deeply moved by their bravery through their transitions from anger to fear to sadness to practical concern for those left behind to joyful anticipation of the things to come. All the while, I offered frequent prayers of thanksgiving for the grace which allowed these amazing people to manage their illnesses and to embrace their journeys home to God.

The results of my physical exams indicate that my journey home to heaven most likely lies in the distant future. Why then did I bemoan the minimal changes required of me? I admit that I turned to the Psalms where I always find the right words for the moment. Without hesitation, I went to Psalm 23. The image of a happy little lamb elicited a smile as this sweet creature danced through the tall grass in the beautiful pasture that materialized in my imagination. Within seconds, this lamb’s revelry became my own. “The Lord is my shepherd and there is nothing I shall want…”

With that, I continued to smile as I scheduled my walks for the week and tweaked my menu.

Loving God, thank you for shepherding me so lovingly.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Put Love First

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat and walk.”
Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked.

John 5:8-9

Though this conviction took root when I was a child, I continue to be convinced that Jesus couldn’t resist a troubled soul. On the occasion cited above, Jesus assisted a man whose at least partial paralysis confined him to a mat which lay on the ground. Though the man somehow found his way to the healing waters of Bethesda, he could find no one to help him into the pool. Every time he seemed close, someone else went in before him. Jesus noted the poor man’s predicament and offered him far more than could be found in that pool. The man accepted Jesus’ gesture with absolute faith.

Jesus’ good deed drew the attention of the Pharisees because it occurred on the Sabbath. When Jesus cured the man and then instructed him to pick up his mat and walk, he violated the Sabbath by causing the man to work by carrying his mat. When the Pharisees saw the man do this, they chastised him. When they discovered that Jesus was responsible, the Pharisees began to plot against this troublemaker who seemed oblivious to The Law. Jesus responded to the Pharisees in kind, pointing out their error in placing The Law above the basic needs of one of God’s people.

I admit that my greatest frustration with the Church and organized religion in general is our propensity to confine God, God’s goodness and God’s blessings to our limited understanding. We issue edicts and attempt to enforce rules which sometimes get in the way of our service to one another. It seems to me that, when in doubt, the best we can do is to make love and the well-being of those we’ve been given to love our top priorities.

Patient God, thank you for our capacity to love. When we’re motivated by love, we always get things right.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s Good To Be Noticed

Jesus entered a house and wanted no one to know
about it, but he could not escape notice.

From Mark 7:24

My husband serves as “family grocery shopper” most of the time. When I joined him in retirement, I tried to retrieve what had once been my responsibility. After my first few trips to the store, Mike finally asked, “What takes you so long? I can find the stuff on a list twice as long in half the time. What are you doing there?” When I thought about what had transpired on these outings, I told Mike that, each time, I had run into a neighbor, a friend from church or a former colleague. Of course, I took the time to chat. Why not? I had all of the time in the world.

A few months later, I relinquished my hold on our shopping lists at least half of the time. As visits to our grandchildren and my writing schedule increased, I realized that efficient shopping trips were sometimes in order. I also ventured to the store on occasion because my grocery-store encounters were sometimes unexpectedly important to me or to the person I ran into.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus’ moments of peace were often disrupted by those who needed him. The same is true for you and me. All that is asked is that we respond as best we can.

Dear God, I am grateful that others occasionally need me. Help me to respond to them as you would.

©2018 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

Do Your Best and Trust God!

While sorting through my files, I came across a story someone shared with me almost twenty years ago. Amazed that I’d kept it, I reread the narrative to determine why it had been important to me. When I reached the bottom of the page, I smiled in spite of the tear which trickled down my cheek. As I dabbed it away, I looked upward and whispered a prayer of gratitude. This discovery was perfectly timed because I was hard-pressed to complete a number of these reflections before leaving for our recent trip to Italy. This sweet story addressed not only the disciples’ dilemma in today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:30-37), but also the difficulties which have plagued us within the church, this world of ours and within our own hearts.

The story relates the terrifying adventure of a young boy in Florida. This active little guy swam in the lake behind his house whenever possible. One day, the boy rejoiced in his swim a bit too completely. He’d managed to swim farther from the shore than usual and found himself in close proximity to an alligator. This frightened child frantically paddled toward home, yelling for his mom all the while. His mother, who always listened attentively when her son was outdoors, dropped everything. She arrived just soon enough to see that alligator take hold of her son’s legs as he approached their pier. This determined mother pulled the boy with all of her might while that alligator did the same. Fortunately, a passing farmer heard the commotion, pulled a rifle from the back of his truck and shot it as he ran to help. The startled alligator let go of the boy and hurried away. Though his legs had been badly bitten, the boy survived. Afterward, he sported numerous scars which became a lifelong reminder of the incident.

When a local reporter heard what had happened, he hoped to talk to that brave youngster one day. After waiting for the boy to heal physically and mentally, the reporter requested an interview. While they talked, the man asked about the boy’s scars. The boy quickly pulled up his pant legs to reveal the evidence of his injuries. When the reporter pulled back from what he saw, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Mister! You have to look at my arms. You should see the scars my mom left because she wouldn’t let me go!” Though I don’t know the reporter’s reaction to the boy’s observation, I’m responding with more tears.

In his gospel today Mark tells us Jesus’ words once again troubled the disciples. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” Jesus’ friends didn’t understand. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus’ demise. At the same time, they were afraid to approach Jesus about this. Though Jesus had exhibited his devotion to them at every turn, they worried. Perhaps to distract themselves, they moved on to a far less important topic. “Who’s most important among us?” they wondered. Not long after, Jesus asked what they’d been discussing. When they said nothing, it was Jesus who moved on. He called their attention to a little child whom he hugged. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me, but the One who sent me.” Jesus dismissed his friends’ concern regarding their status and he addressed the heart of the matter: God’s ongoing love for each one of them and God’s call for them to extend that love to one another and to everyone they met along the way.

As I read today’s gospel, I considered the frantic mother who battled with that menacing alligator for her son. Though she’d been busy inside, nothing mattered when she heard her child’s cries. That mother responded to her son when he needed her most. While that alligator certainly left his mark on that little boy, so did his mother. It occurs to me that Jesus was busy with many things as well when he walked among us. Still, when he heard the cries of those who needed him, he abandoned the tasks at hand to respond. Jesus left his mark on everyone he met along the way. Jesus did this to assure all who heard him that God’s love for us is ongoing and complete.

As I prepared to write this reflection, I found myself swimming with that little boy in the proximity of a congregation of menacing alligators. (Did you know that a group of alligators is actually called a congregation?) Those gators seemed to come from every direction to distract me from my family, prepping for our trip and this writing. As I struggled at my keyboard, I looked up in frustration. It was then that I saw a favorite bit of artwork -a rendering of two hands cupped around the face of a child. Before attempting to begin this writing again, I thanked God for the reminder that someone is holding on to me as well. Though scars from this life’s battles sometimes threaten my hope, the scars from God’s grip comfort me. With that, I entrusted the troubles swarming around me to God and I began to write.
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Things That Stay With Us

It was after dinner Monday evening. Since my dear husband and I had spent the day with our grandson, I was fully prepared to snuggle in my recliner until bedtime. Mike sat a few feet away in his own chair with his laptop in position for an email and Facebook check. I would have dozed off as Mike typed away if he hadn’t begun to whistle Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Before I could question Mike’s choice of melodies, I remembered that Danny and I had sung that song several times throughout the day. Danny is allowed to watch an episode or two of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood most days and he’s learned the lyrics to this and a few other favorites. Danny often sings them while we play. As for me, I remember every word because I used to sing those lyrics decades ago with Mr. Rogers and with our own sons. As Mike whistled away, I offered my thanks for Mr. Rogers’ influence during our sons’ formative years and for his continued presence to Danny through Daniel Tiger. I ended my prayer by observing, “Nice that those lyrics have stayed with me.”

Mike stopped whistling as he became engrossed in the evening’s Facebook posts and I dozed off. I awoke only when Mike asked me what my plans were for Tuesday. I didn’t tell him that I’d been napping and that I’d dreamed myself back to my own childhood. I’d been gazing skyward toward the white clouds which lingered above the backyard of my childhood home. Many a summer evening, I sat on a swing with my eyes fixed on the billowing white clusters above me. I loved the clouds because I knew that just beyond them God kept watch over me and my loved ones. Though my parents had never put it quite this way, their continued reliance upon our benevolent Creator assured me of this reality. “Nice that those memories have stayed with me,” I mumbled to myself.

When I finally turned my attention to Mike’s question, I told him that I had nothing special planned except to write. When he went on to ask if I wanted to see a movie and then added that the Mr. Roger’s documentary was available, I jumped at the opportunity. Mike would likely have chosen to see something else since we haven’t been to a movie in some time. Still, in spite of the thirty minute drive we’d have to make for the showing, my very dear husband checked the show times and then asked which one I’d prefer. As for me, I’d already begun to anticipate this viewing because I’d seen snippets a few days earlier. As I considered Mr. Rogers’ contribution to the welfare of so many children, I pictured him in his trademark sweater singing his welcome to the neighborhood to everyone within earshot. “Nice that his kindness has stayed with me,” I thought to myself.

The following day when Mike and I made our way into the theater, I was grateful that the Tuesday afternoon crowd was sparse. If my reaction to the previews I’d seen earlier was any indication, this would be a joyful and tearful afternoon for me. As it happened, the documentary offered far more than I expected. I recalled several of the episodes which were featured. I’d forgotten that Mr. Rogers had tackled tough topics which challenged even the most seasoned parents. He addressed divorce and death, racism and war. He featured persons with disabilities whose different bodies also housed amazing talents. Mr. Rogers explained everything in terms children could understand. At the same time, he reminded the adults who took the time to watch to appreciate the value each one of us brings to this world of ours. Outtakes with the crew revealed Fred Rogers’ humanity and his genuine nature. What we saw in those decades of episodes was indeed the real deal. What we saw in Fred Rogers’ activism in support of children’s television and in support of all of our humanity was the real deal as well. “Nice that the importance of this dear man’s work has stayed with us,” I told Mike on the drive home.

I share all of this because Fred Rogers learned from the best. When he focused upon the most important messages our children need to hear and did his best to see that those truths stayed with them, he did as Jesus did. When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first missions, Jesus hoped a few things would stay with them as well. Mark’s gospel (6:7-13) tells us that Jesus prepared his disciples carefully. After offering them the best of his teaching and the best of his example, Jesus gave a few final directives: Take nothing but a walking stick… Wear sandals and a single tunic… Stay where you are welcomed… Shake off the dust of any place that doesn’t welcome you… I can’t help wondering what Jesus whispered as he watched his best friends walk out into the distance: Remember I am with you… Reveal God’s love in every word and deed… Know that your best is good enough for me… I love you… This passage closes with the happy news of the disciples’ success. Nice that the things Jesus shared stayed with them, isn’t it? Nice that the things Jesus shared stay with you and me.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved