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

Carry On!

Though my daily posts are usually much shorter, I’m taking advantage of this special day to say a little more…

“And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.”

From Luke 2:16-21

Whenever the scriptures referenced the mother of Jesus, I used to picture my favorite statue, painting or Christmas card. These renderings portrayed a serene and beautiful young woman. She either held the child Jesus or prayed with folded hands. Mary’s clothing was impeccable and often trimmed in gold. A halo surrounded her head to assure me of Mary’s holiness. Early in my life, these representations accounted for my understanding of Mary. The wistful child in me whole-heartedly embraced what I thought I knew. When I became an adult and then a spouse and a parent, this perception changed. I had to acknowledge that Mary’s life wasn’t always marked with the serenity which that artwork suggested.

Though Mary likely experienced a childhood typical of her day, it didn’t last long. Historians tells us that young women of Mary’s day were often betrothed and given into marriage in their early teens. The scriptures tell us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Tradition tells us that Joseph was likely several years older than she. Conventional as this arrangement was, it went awry the day an angel visited Mary. This messenger invited Mary to accept a pregnancy which wouldn’t begin in the usual way. Though Mary didn’t plan to be with child this early in her young life and certainly not before she married, something impelled her to accept God’s invitation. Unfortunately, when the angel disappeared, Mary was left to inform her poor parents and poor Joseph of the situation. Imagine how that must have gone!

Did Mary’s parents think their daughter was foolhardy or sinful? Or had they seen something in this child which indicated that she would accomplish the amazing one day? Though, for Mary’s sake I hope it was the latter, her parents likely worried and fretted just the same. Their daughter could have been stoned to death for being unfaithful to her betrothed. And what about Joseph? Did he think Mary was less than the woman he’d fallen in love with? Did he wonder how she could betray their love that way? Fortunately for all concerned, another angelic visitor clarified the situation and Joseph married Mary as planned. Still, in spite of this chapter’s happy ending, Mary experienced many more difficulties throughout her life. Yet, in spite of all of these troubles, Mary carried on. How? Only God and Mary know.

It seems to me that New Year’s Day is the perfect day to celebrate Mary. As I do this, I’m going to set aside the saintly images which inspired my childhood. Rather, I’ll look to the Mary who endured and overcame very human troubles which exceeded everything most of us will experience. I’ll look to the woman who changed swaddling clothes, searched for a lost child, mourned her husband and sent off her son to preach a new message to an unforgiving world. I’ll look to the woman who followed the accounts of Jesus’ work, who begged God to protect him and who wept before the cross on which he died. How did Mary find the strength to stay as they tortured Jesus? How could she have left him? In all of this, Mary carried on. How? Maybe God and Mary aren’t the only ones who know after all.

Many of us have survived devastating illnesses, heart-breaking losses and fractured relationships which simply wouldn’t heal. Many of us have survived persistent frustrations at work, in school, in the neighborhood and even at home where we should find refuge from these things. Many of us have survived events in our families and in the world at large which seemed far too much to bear. This was the case in Mary’s world and this continues to be the case in our world as well. The key concept here is that, as of today, we have survived our troubles just as Mary did. It seems to me that Mary was indeed very special to God and so are we.

This New Year’s Day, I thank God for last year’s gifts. I acknowledge the troubles of 2019 and thank God that I’ve survived them. I also thank God for being with me in everything. Finally, I thank God for the gift of New Year 2020 and ask that the gifts of 2020 outweigh its troubles. However it goes, I will carry on as Mary did. We’ll all carry on because, like Mary, that is what we do.

Happy New Year!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Best Friend Forever

God is near to all who call…
From Psalm 145:18

While de-cluttering my bookshelves for the umpteenth time, I came across a stack of prayer cards. One caught my attention because it is a homemade creation I picked up at a craft sale some time ago. The anonymous prayer featured on the card expresses the sentiments of someone who wishes each of us to experience God as powerfully as he or she does. This prayer doesn’t ask that others are blessed with a keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. Though these are all good places to seek some understanding of God, this prayer asks that we sense God’s presence not only with our minds, but with our hearts as well. It occurred to me that this prayer’s author knows God in the same way that he or she knows the best of friends. What is more amazing is that God seems to reciprocate this relationship in very tangible ways.

I’ve taken that prayer card and given it a new home on my desk. Every day when I check my calendar, it reminds me to talk to God with the open and loving heart of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always. Indeed, God is a best friend to us all.

Dear God, thank you for showing yourself to us in so many ways. Please, reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we can’t miss your presence around us and within us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love Above All Else

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

The scriptures make it quite clear that Jesus couldn’t resist a troubled soul. On the occasion cited above, Jesus assisted a man confined to a mat 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 the 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 carry his mat. When the Pharisees saw the man doing this, they chastised him. When they discovered that Jesus was responsible, the Pharisees began to plot against this troublemaker who seemed oblivious of The Law. Jesus responded to the Pharisees by pointing out their error in placing The Law above the basic needs 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. When in doubt, it seems to me that the best we can do is to make love and the well-being of others our top priorities.

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

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

How Can I Say This?

Jesus went up to the mountain to pray,
and he spent the night talking to God.

Luke 6:12

I recently participated in a great conversation regarding prayer. As we chatted, those with me shared their favorite means of communicating with God. I repeated what I’ve often shared in this space: I do my best praying while walking outdoors and talking to God in my own words. Since my walks have been less regular these days, I’ve found myself talking to God whenever I’m alone and in the midst of almost everything I’m doing. Still, there have been occasions when I’ve found it impossible to voice my misery or that of someone I’m praying for. When I’m at a loss for the right words, I most often turn to the Book of Psalms. Each of its 150 entries voices sentiments appropriate to either the joyful or the troubling moments which punctuate our lives.

Not long after that conversation, I ran into a friend who’d been there. He couldn’t help telling me about his recent interaction with The Book of Psalms. What he found there had helped him to express himself more meaningfully. My friend reminded me of what I’d said: “When in doubt, go to the psalms.”

When I returned home that day, I pulled out my bible and perused the Book of Psalms for a refresher. Yes, there is a psalm for every occasion under heaven. Take a peek to see for yourself.

Dear God, thank you for the psalmist who spoke so well for us all!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Finally, I Understand!

Each week, I prepare to fill this space by praying for inspiration and then reading the scriptures we’ll hear at the coming Sunday’s Masses. Sometimes, as has been the case today, I reread them several times until the message sinks in. Usually, a recent event which relates to the theme comes to mind and I have my story. Today, I find myself struggling with Luke’s Gospel and I’m not certain of where to go from here. Last Sunday’s passage from Luke included my favorite of Jesus’ parables, The Prodigal Son. Jesus used this story to assure us that the Prodigal Son’s father extended the same loving and merciful welcome to his son which God offers to each one of us over and over again. Much to my dismay, that wonderfully loving and hope-filled parable was preceded and followed by passages which offer difficult and puzzling exhortations from Jesus. So it is that I’ve stopped to pray one more time before continuing…

Here I go… In today’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13), Luke recounts another occasion on which Jesus used a story to teach. Jesus offered the tale of a man who handled the financial affairs of a wealthy landowner. That landowner discovered that his steward had cheated him. So it was that he ordered that steward to account for his actions. The dishonest steward could see that his firing was imminent. Because he was too proud to dig ditches or to beg, the steward took action. To ensure his financial future, he called in his master’s debtors. The steward directed one to cut his debt by twenty percent and another to cut his debt by half. The steward’s newfound allies would certainly see to his well-being after his master fired him. During that final accounting, the master marveled at the efforts of his dishonest employee. That wealthy landowner seemed not to be surprised that his steward had found a way to save himself.

Let me explain that when the steward cut the debts of his master’s clients, he did so by the amount which would have been his own commission. Though The Law forbade charging exorbitant interest rates, it was common for stewards to tack their own fees onto their masters’ loans. When the steward erased his share of those loans, he befriended possible benefactors while also seeing to it that his master was fully repaid. Though the steward failed to keep his job, he succeeded in making a bad situation tolerable by cutting everyone’s losses before he moved on. Jesus surprised me by focusing upon the creativity of that steward rather than taking issue with his dishonesty. It occurs to me that perhaps Jesus did this to draw attention to the realities of life in this not-so-perfect world. Perhaps Jesus hoped to encourage us to use our ingenuity to draw some good from the negative circumstances which surround us just as that steward did.

I’d like to think that most of our good deeds don’t stem from our wrong-doing as was the case with the dishonest steward. Nonetheless, our goodness is often inspired by the imperfections of life on this earth. The devastation wielded by Hurricane Dorian overwhelmed its victims in the Bahamas as well as on our own east coast. Wildfires in the west have done the same. Our recent observance of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks provided a stark reminder of the new brand of evil which was born that day. Today’s streamed and broadcast news programs provide ongoing evidence that violence has become a way of life in both faraway countries and nearby communities. Yet, in the midst of all of this suffering, efforts to bring assistance and relief came and continues to come from every direction. Just as they did in response to the 9/11 tragedy, heroes among us roll up their sleeves and pick up the pieces in faraway countries as well as here at home. These generous souls do whatever is needed to make things better as only they can.

Finally, I think I understand Jesus’ point. Finally, Jesus’ focus upon the steward’s dishonesty and his attempt to pick up the pieces and to make things right for himself makes sense. Life in this world is indeed imperfect, sometimes because of our own wrongdoing, sometimes because of the misdeeds of others and sometimes because of circumstances over which none of us have control. Whatever the case, Jesus used the tale of that dishonest steward to encourage us to do something. Jesus asks each of us to be equally creative in making the most of the difficulties at hand. You know, two of my favorite newscasts end each segment by highlighting individuals who demonstrate the amazing capacities we humans have to be our best and to do our best to love and to care for one another. It seems to me that God would like to end each day by recounting with us our own efforts to be our best and to do our best to love and care for one another.

I hope you’ll agree that my prayers for inspiration were answered today. I also hope that you’ll join me in taking this parable to heart. Though the Parable of the Prodigal Son continues to be my favorite, my affection for Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Steward has grown. That prodigal son keeps us ever mindful that God will always love us and God will always forgive us whenever that forgiveness is needed. That conniving steward assures us that even our worst behavior has the potential to accomplish good in God’s scheme of things. There is so much that needs our attention today! Will you join me in picking up the pieces and making something better as only we can?

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved