God’s in The Midst of Everything!

Though Christmas 2018 already seems a distant memory, I won’t soon forget my husband’s gift to me. Mike knows that I truly enjoy live theater. After investigating the current shows, he opted to purchase tickets for Fiddler on the Roof. Mike discovered that tickets were still available for the play’s final week. All was going well until it came time to select seats online. The two “best available” options were on the aisle of the first row center on the main floor and on the aisle of the first row center of the loge. Since both sets of tickets were offered at the same price, Mike had no clue which were the better option. Would I prefer to be up close and personal with the cast or to have a panoramic view of the entire stage? Brilliant spouse that he is, Mike decided that my input regarding seats was more important than my being surprised on Christmas morning. When posed with my options, it took only a moment for me to announce, “Front row center for sure!” Two weeks ago, when we made our way to those seats, I knew that we wouldn’t be disappointed. It was during the first scene that lead character Tevye and his fellow villagers made it clear that they were performing just for Mike and me.

Though I can sing most of the show’s tunes from memory, I’d forgotten the details of the plot until Tevye, his family and their neighbors gave life to the story. The drama unfolded in a small early Twentieth Century Russian village where most of the inhabitants were of Jewish heritage. Tevye, husband to Golde and father to five daughters, was steeped in the traditions dictated by his culture and his faith. Tevye’s relationship with God became evident when Tevye revealed his favorite form of prayer. Whenever things were very good, very bad and everywhere in between, Tevye turned his eyes upward to address the Lord God directly. Tevye’s trust in God was so great that, after posing his requests, he always added, “But on the other hand…” Tevye always left the final say to God. Though the rest of the audience seemed to find Tevye’s prayer amusing, I squirmed in my seat. This lovable man’s efforts echoed my own prayer far too closely. I’m embarrassed to admit that Tevye’s sometimes sarcastic tone toward God sounded a bit too familiar. Though I squirmed a little more at this realization, Tevye seemed unperturbed. Every time he turned toward God, Tevye was confident that God heard him, that God was indeed in charge and that God would respond appropriately. Even in the midst of the darkest turns of events, Tevye persisted in his prayer. No one in that village was closer to God than Tevye and I want to be like him in that regard.

I share my encounter with Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof because the mother of Jesus addressed her son with Tevye’s confidents. Today, we hear the passage from John’s gospel (John 2:1-11) which recounts Jesus’ first miracle. Jesus and his family attended their neighbors’ wedding. Not long into the festivities, Mary heard that the couple was running out of wine. She immediately approached Jesus for help. Jesus, who was slowly easing into his ministry, told his mother that “his hour” hadn’t yet come. Mary, seemingly oblivious to her son’s reply, simply told the stewards to do whatever Jesus asked. Like Tevye, Mary was certain that Jesus had heard her, that Jesus was in charge and that Jesus would respond appropriately.

Though none of us know much about the lifetime of interactions Mary and Jesus shared before that wedding. I can tell you that Tevye had experienced a lifetime of grueling toil, persistent poverty and persecution before I met him in the theater that night. His experiences in that small Russian village proved to be very similar to Mary’s and her family’s experience in Nazareth. Though they were God-loving people who followed their faith’s traditions devoutly, Mary’s family endured persecution at the hands of their Roman government and its unscrupulous agents. Yet, in spite of their suffering, Mary and her family turned to God. In their joy and in their sorrow, they had prayed as Tevye learned to pray centuries later. It’s no wonder that Mary turned to Jesus with complete confidence.

If you’ve listened to the news lately or read the paper, if you’ve looked down the street or into your own backyard, you’ve likely seen evidence of joy and evidence of suffering in its too numerous insidious forms. When it comes to things being very good, very bad and everywhere in between, our experiences aren’t very different from those of Tevye’s and Jesus’ families. It seems to me that the moral of the story is this: God hears us, God is indeed in charge and God always does and will continue to respond appropriately. All that we are asked to do in the midst of any situation is the best that we can. Then, we must raise our eyes to heaven up close and personally as Mary and Tevye did. With their confidence, we must invite God into the best and worst times of our lives and into everything in between. The truth is that, whether we turn to God or not, God is with us!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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They Couldn’t Resist Him!

Jesus said to them, “Come after me;
I will make you fishers of men.”
They immediately abandoned their nets
and became his followers.

Mark 1:17-18

In a few days, several friends will fly off to Israel. I’m feeling a bit melancholy regarding their departure as I was supposed to join them for this adventure. Unfortunately for me, circumstances arose which caused me to delay this return trip for another time. Still, as quickly as I wrote about my disappointment, I couldn’t help smiling. I’ve been to Israel twice before and both trips left me filled with awe. Though I know Jesus’ story well, walking where he walked and meeting his modern-day countrymen and women firsthand touched me in amazingly unexpected ways.

It was in Israel that I finally began to understand what caused the disciples to walk away from everything to follow Jesus. Simon and Andrew were hard-working men who left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Perhaps Jesus couldn’t contain the wonder within him. Perhaps just being nearby was enough to draw people to him. The scriptures recount numerous instances of Jesus’ interactions with lepers and blind people, sinners and the lonely, all of whom found the courage to approach Jesus.

Though I’ve never seen Jesus as his contemporaries did, I did walk where he walked. I breathed the air he breathed and I sailed on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus so often found solace. The truth is that I can’t imagine my life without his influence. When I consider the Jesus I’ve come to know, I understand the attraction. It must have been overwhelmingly amazing to walk with a visible Jesus because simply being where he was proved completely overwhelming to me.

With that, I wish my Israel-bound friends an equally amazing encounter!

Loving God, thank you for the gift of Jesus who transformed my life from the moment I first heard his name.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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

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