Pray Well!

“This is how you are to pray.”
Matthew 6:9

I haven’t walked for the past few days because my husband and I have been tending to our yard. This was an attempt to prepare our home for what we hope will evolve into a typical summer. I cleaned the outdoor furniture and swept the screened porch while Mike planted flowers everywhere. In spite of the lovely results of our labor, we admitted that it is quite likley that we will be the only ones who’ll enjoy them firsthand. So it was that, today, I walked. In spite of the rain, I walked. Though this might seem to have been an effort to get some exercise, it was actually my effort to get God’s full attention. I left home with a laundry list of requests regarding the world-full of troubles that continue amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This walk would provide the time necessary to dictate this list to my ever-patient God.

Yes, this reflection is being written by the very same person who has assured you that she is filled with God’s peace and that God knows all of our troubles better than we do. Fortunately, as soon as I made it to the end of my block, an insistent breeze returned me to my senses. It pushed me along just briskly enough to remind me of this truth. With that, I uttered that truth in a single sentence and then continued my walk in silence. “You know what’s wrong, Dear God, and I know you’ll be with us as we deal with it. Thank you.”

Loving God, teach me always to pray selflessly and with absolute faith in your love for me and for all of us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Home Again!

When he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

Every morning while we toured Israel, I checked our itinerary before we set out for the day. This helped me to retrieve what I knew about each site. In addition to historical and geographical tidbits regarding these places, events related to Jesus of Nazareth came to mind. As a result, I arrived at each destination with a heart open to the gifts of the new day.

I clearly recall the day we were headed toward the Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee and Magdala. A sense of homecoming quickly enveloped me as I considered scripture passages related to these places. The events I recalled made me feel as though I was returning to revive ancient memories. Oddly, I felt expectantly anxious to get to the heart of what had occurred at each one.

Though I’ll supply details later, today, it is enough to say that I was never disappointed. I may not have stood on the precise patch of ground where Jesus spoke the beatitudes or multiplied loaves and fishes. I may not have stepped in Mary Magdalene’s footprints. I may not have sailed Jesus’ course on the Sea of Galilee. Still, I felt that I walked where I was meant to walk in order to rekindle important relationships from long ago. I wouldn’t have felt more at home if I had been the prodigal son whose father kissed him and embraced him to welcome him home after a far too long absence.

Loving God, thank you for being present to me and for welcoming me into every moment.
With you, the time is always right.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Find The Time

All who touched him got well.
From Mark 6:56

Lent 2020 begins tomorrow. Every year, I try to set aside these forty days much the way a couple sets aside time to be together. If my husband and I are smart enough to retreat in order to nurture our love for each other, it makes sense to do the same in our relationships with God. So it is that I’m attempting to recapture the zeal of my childhood Lents by planning ahead for this special walk to Easter.

I’m at an advantage this year because images of Jesus’ homeland are etched into my memory. While in the Holy Land, I couldn’t help seeing Jesus’ shadow among the crowds in Jerusalem, in the dusty desert, near the synagogue in Magdala and on the paths winding through Capernaum. The gospels leave little doubt regarding Jesus’ popularity with ordinary people. His palpable presence everywhere I turned touched my heart. Though the temple hierarchy saw Jesus as a threat and the Romans considered him a nuisance, those of little or no stature -including me- find everything in him. This is the reason Lent is so precious to me. It gives me the time to get to know more about that irresistible Jesus who doesn’t need a thing from any of us, but who longs for our company just the same.

Today, let’s begin to plot our Lenten journeys. On Ash Wednesday, let’s assume our places among Jesus’ contemporaries. Let’s seek him out in every nook and cranny we pass along the way. Let’s seek him out in those we love, in those who love us and in those who need our love more desperately than ever. Trust, he will be in all of those places.

Dear God, as I prepare for my Lenten journey, encourage me with a glimpse of that heart which is blind to my imperfections and loves me as I am.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Enough!

So be perfect, just as God is perfect!
From Matthew 5:48

I realize I referenced the scripture passage above yesterday, but its message bears repeating. At first reading, Jesus’ request that we be perfect seems to be asking too much of us. Fortunately, I revisited that word “perfect” from the perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries. To them, striving to be perfect meant trying to be an entire, complete and full-grown version of oneself. The most important part of this is that our “self” is good enough for God. We are good enough whenever we attempt to put our best foot forward…

A few months ago, my sister saw FROZEN 2 at her local theater. Though this Disney flick is marketed to children, my sister shared that it offers a consistent message to all who gather to watch, adults included. Georgette observed that throughout the film’s unfolding, numerous wrongs needed to be put right. Though uncertain much of the time, our animated counterparts simply did what they saw to be the next right thing!

Georgette expounded upon this wisdom… “When things are wrong with the world and/or with us, it is important to remember God’s presence, glory and great love for us in every way. If we can embrace that, we can shed the guilt (and the uncertainty!) and move on to do the next right thing! How liberating to have the path open to do just that! How much better a world we would live in if we do this!”

My wise sister added, “Forgiveness and allowing people to grow in their own way and at their own pace is severely missing in this world today. This actually stunts the growth of all of us. So, we need to pray for open eyes and loving hearts to prevail.”

I couldn’t agree more!

Loving God, thank you for creating us with the capacity to do so much good! Be with us as we do our best to put our best foot forward every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Entire, Complete and Full-Grown!

This coming week, churches everywhere will be filled to capacity as we gather to observe Ash Wednesday. Receiving ashes will hopefully be the first of many opportunities each of us will embrace to give meaning to our Lenten journeys and to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives. Lent has been a particularly important time to me for as long as I can remember. Though I haven’t always succeeded in either developing a Lenten plan of action or in implementing said plan, I do always emerge from this season as an improved version of myself. Though this progress isn’t always externally observable, the changes within me are very, very real…

This year, as I look toward Lent, images from my recent visit to the Holy Land fill me up. There is nothing perfect about that home to Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers, yet it inspires me just the same. Even the non-believers we encountered, including our allegedly agnostic guide, added to the richness we experienced. We began our tour on a roadside high above Jerusalem. Our view of the holy city included a mosque’s golden dome, the steeples of Christian churches and the rooftops of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues. After allowing us a moment to absorb all of this, our guide reminded us, “All of our lives began here!’ And, indeed, they did!

Later, we walked through the Jewish Quarter and then scaled a rooftop near the place where Jewish men gather to study the Torah. On an adjacent rooftop, Muslim boys played soccer in a feverish attempt to hone their skills for an upcoming match. I couldn’t miss the irony in all of this. Our group had come to deepen our understanding of Israel, the holy places it houses and the people who are descendents of those who walked with Jesus. The men who studied the Torah hoped to deepen their relationship with what they perceive to be God’s Law. The boys who threw themselves into their soccer practice hoped to achieve their personal bests in order to win another game. I’d come to get to know Jesus a bit more intimately. Though all of us breathed the same air and observed the same sites that afternoon, we’d each gathered with our own agendas in hand. Today, Jesus seems to give a nod to those agendas. Today, Jesus encourages us to follow our paths as best we can and as only we can.

My assessment of Jesus’ motives begins with the first reading from Leviticus (19:1-2, 17-18). The writer tells us God sent Moses to offer the Israelites another lesson regarding God’s will. God instructed, “Tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Though I cannot be certain of God’s intent with regard to our holiness, my dictionary explains: Holy means “belonging to or coming from God; consecrated, sacred; set apart for God.” When God called Moses and his people holy, God assured them that each one was and is very special. Centuries later, when issues arose among Paul’s followers, he echoed God’s sentiments. In today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 3:16-23), Paul began by asking, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?” If there was any doubt, Paul insisted, “You are holy!” Though Jesus seemed to contradict God’s openness to our humanity in the last line of today’s gospel (Matthew 5:38-48), let me assure you of the contrary.

Matthew wrote that Jesus continued to explain The Law to the people. Jesus wanted to be certain that what was expected was clear to all concerned. Jesus told his disciples that they must rise above the expectations of those around them. Jesus ended this challenge by saying, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I cannot be certain of the disciples’ feelings regarding this expectation. As for me, I often have trouble being my best average self. Perfection in this sense is almost always beyond my capabilities. Fortunately, this was not Jesus’ intent. Scripture scholars tell us that Jesus’ understanding of perfection was far different from our own. The word “perfect” which Jesus used came from an ancient word for entire, complete and full-grown. Jesus didn’t expect his followers to be flawless. He asked only that they evolve into entire, complete and full-grown versions of themselves. Apparently, becoming the best we can be in the moments at hand is quite enough for our loving Creator.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned as I brushed shoulders with those who occupy Jesus’ homeland these days is that each one of us is as uniquely gifted as Jesus’ followers were. Jesus’ invitation to be perfect seems attainable after all. Whenever those Torah scholars and soccer players, my fellow travelers and you and I put our best efforts into the things we do, we approach Jesus’ goal for us. With every attempt, we emerge a bit more entire, a bit more compete and a bit more full-grown. Perhaps our efforts this Lent will bring us all closer to God’s plans for us. Perhaps we’ll celebrate Easter 2020 a bit more perfect in God’s hope-filled, encouraging and loving eyes.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Build The Moment At Hand

Just minutes after I sat at my keyboard to begin this writing, I was tempted to retreat to my recliner for a nap. My dear husband and I had returned from the Holy Land two days earlier. In spite of my fatigue, I’d convinced myself that inspiration would come quickly and that my jet-lag would morph into a distant memory. Much to my dismay, I was wrong on both counts. Though I’d slept well the night before, I was ready for a nap before noon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give in to my fatigue. This reflection needed to be posted in short order and I had to take advantage of the small window of writing time at hand. In the end, I turned away from my keyboard to peruse the journal I’d carried across Israel. Perhaps it held the inspiration I longed for…

I wasn’t disappointed. As I read through my hurriedly scribbled notes, every phrase elicited a precious memory. Halfway through that little notebook, I saw Nazareth written at the top of a list. I’d noted the towns Jesus visited throughout his ministry. As I read Nazareth, images of the ruins of that tiny town filled me up. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before they married and it was there that Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mother. The scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth early on to comply with a census. While they were away, Jesus was born. After the Magi’s visit, the couple fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. When Herod died not long afterward, they returned to Nazareth to raise Jesus. Most visitors to Nazareth see the portion of Mary’s childhood home displayed in The Church of the Annunciation. This tiny cave-like room is connected to the remainder of Mary’s house as well as to her neighborhood. Much to our good fortune, our tour leader knows the site’s curator. This welcoming gentleman proudly ushered us toward additional unearthed homes which border the church’s exterior. It was there that I caught a glimpse of life as Joseph, Mary and Jesus knew it…

Today’s feast of The Presentation of the Lord acknowledges the journey Mary and Joseph made from their home to the temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:22-40) tells us that the couple did so because The Law required them to present Jesus to the Lord when he was forty days old. Though the trip from Nazareth to the temple was only six miles, traveling on foot with an infant through desert-like conditions certainly complicated that endeavor. We can only hope that Little Jesus cooperated by sleeping between feedings along the way. When they finally arrived, Joseph and Mary likely breathed a sigh of relief. They probably expected an uneventful experience until Simeon approached them. Simeon was a devout man who had prayed unceasingly for peace in Israel. As soon as he saw the young family before him, Simeon embraced Jesus. He’d waited a lifetime to see the one who would bring salvation to his people. With that, Simeon told Mary, “…this child is destined to be the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce.” I can only imagine what Mary and Joseph were thinking…

As I consider that tiny neighborhood hewn from rock back in Nazareth, I appreciate the power of Simeon’s comments more than ever. The simple existence suggested by that archaeological dig was complicated far beyond Mary’s and Joseph’s expectations. When Simeon spoke, did Mary’s thoughts return to the onset of her pregnancy? Did she wonder why she wasn’t warned of what was to come? Did Joseph recall the dream that explained Mary’s condition and the subsequent dream that saved his young family from Herod’s terror? Still, in spite of their worry, Mary and Joseph left the temple that day and returned home with Jesus. Though they walked an uncertain and perhaps treacherous path, Joseph and Mary persisted. They became the nurturing family which prepared Jesus for his life’s work. Luke’s gospel tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Ultimately, Jesus changed the face of humankind with his lessons in love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy, patience and humility. Jesus taught his followers to flourish amidst the unexpected just as his parents had done…

After rereading my journal, I revisited our photos from Israel. Though many feature ancient sites not as well-preserved as Nazareth, I no longer refer to any of them as ruins. It occurs to me that the world-full of artifacts which chronicles human history is far more than a collection of ruins. Indeed, they are the building blocks from which humankind has constructed the moments at hand since time began. Mary and Joseph responded to Simeon’s startling insight by building a life for Jesus which has impacted this world ever since. Today, God calls you and me to respond to the startling and joyful, heartbreaking and amazing moments at hand just as creatively. You see, God has great faith in our ability to flourish amidst the unexpected just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph did.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved