“THERE” With God

When I woke that day, I’d planned to get through my morning routine in record time. Afterward, I’d proof this week’s reflection and send it off to meet an early deadline. Well, that was the case until the morning news sent me in another direction. I’d begun watching just in time to see a reporter standing in the midst of smoldering rubble. He was describing what he saw for miles around -one of the many western state towns burned to the ground by wildfires. That report was followed by an update regarding Hurricane Sally’s assault upon the gulf states. As I watched, my frustration regarding life-with-COVID-19 took a back seat and I opened my heart to those suffering all around me.

Suddenly, I found myself in that overwhelmingly painful place we visit when our heartache gets the best of us. I’d been there before. I know many of you have been there as well because you’ve shared your stories with me. “There” is that place far beyond disappointment and well past anger. “There” is that place where our misery gives way to tears as we wonder what to do next. I’m writing of those times when you or I or a loved one has done everything right only to discover that, in spite of our best efforts, our situation has gone completely wrong. After watching subsequent news reports, I was certain that those suffering these disasters questioned the wrong-turn in their reality as well. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who experienced the same…
 
Jesus’ landowner was a knowledgeable businessperson. He’d done everything necessary to net a healthy crop of grapes from his property. Jesus told his audience that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” It seemed that this landowner was a person of means accustomed to engaging in such transactions. He’d employed tenants to whom he gave housing and a living wage. In return, they would tend to his vineyard. Those tenants enjoyed the opportunity to live respectably and the landowner increased his holdings. That arrangement seemed to be a productive deal for all concerned.

Unfortunately, the tenants didn’t live up to their agreement and they wanted far more than their fair share. At harvest time, when the landowner sent his servants to retrieve his share of the grapes, two of them were beaten and one was killed. What should have been a simple settling of accounts developed into an ugly scenario. When the landowner sent a second cohort to gather what was his, they were met with violence as well. Completely shocked by all of this, the landowner sent his son to settle the matter. He was certain that the tenants would respect his family member and hand over what was due. Sadly, the tenants viewed the young man as an obstacle. Those tenants killed the man’s son hoping to secure even more of the landowner’s riches for themselves.
 
Honestly, I would never have predicted this end to Jesus’ parable. The landowner had behaved appropriately in every way. He was a good businessperson who paid his employees justly. When things went completely wrong and he lost his own son, what was he to do? When Jesus posed this very question to his followers, they responded, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Though I understand what Jesus’ followers were getting at, I can’t let go of the reality that nothing would bring back the landowner’s son. If I’d been in the landowner’s shoes, I would have been able to do nothing more than to weep over the senseless loss of my child until my tears ran out. Neither future tenants nor bountiful harvests nor successful business deals of any sort would have filled the emptiness within me. The families of those lost in recent wildfires, to COVID-19 and to senseless violence in every form likely share these sentiments.
 
After puzzling over this parable, I found that I don’t like scenarios which so accurately echo the heartache we suffer today. Though I’m reluctant to analyze Jesus’ words, this suffering compels me to do just that. Finally, deep within, I realize that God makes sense of everything. Deep within, I realize that God shares that “sense” with us whenever we open our hearts to God. It is God’s sense of things which makes it impossible for me to leave that landowner in his misery. It is God’s sense of things which insists that this isn’t the end for those hurt by wildfires and injustice and a virus.

Though Jesus didn’t offer an outcome to his parable, I will. I say that the landowner left his tenants to the authorities and then he moved on. He could find no solace in further bloodshed because his son’s death had robbed him of too much. I say that the landowner found a way to get past his trauma because God entered into his story to assure him that he wasn’t alone. I say that God helped him to embrace this life once again. Finally, I say that God will do the same for us for as long as our suffering lasts. God entered into your story and mine the day God breathed life into us. This is the reason that, as difficult as this life can be, we somehow pull ourselves up to begin anew. Actually, it is God who offers the hand we hold as we try, try, try again.

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

God’s Unlimited Second Chances

As I walked past the kitchen table, I saw that my husband-the-deacon was organizing a wedding file. Though he’d reviewed this paperwork several times over the past few months, Mike was rechecking the documents needed for the wedding which he’d witness the following day. The couple involved had begun planning more than a year ago. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has seen to it that almost every detail of their plans has had to be adjusted. The bride’s and groom’s bridal party has shrunken to themselves and two witnesses. Their guest list, which once included two hundred family members and friends, has been whittled down to twenty. Only the bride and groom will be “mask-less” during the ceremony. Their deacon and everyone else will be in full pandemic garb! The good news is that this couple continues to be very excited and very happy about their marriage in spite of the adjustments they’ve had to make. The rest of the good news is that this couple has renewed Mike’s hope –and my own- in better things to come for us all.

Perhaps this is the reason that, whenever I attend a wedding, tears trickle down my cheeks throughout the ceremony. Some are elicited by memories of my own wedding. My thoughts just before I walked down the aisle and throughout our ceremony remain a vivid memory. When I witness another couple exchanging their promises to love, honor and cherish each other, the successes of our marriage bring tears of joy. At the same time, these happy tears are tempered a bit by memories of my failures in this regard. At every wedding I attend, I follow these tearful bouts with three prayers. I pray that the newly married couple will not be discouraged by the failures that are a part of all of our relationships. I pray that these two will hold on to the love which brought them together and that they will continue to nurture it. Finally, I pray that they will discover the art of keeping joy alive every day that they share. My dear husband and I have managed to stay together for more than forty years mostly due to our feeble attempts at all of this.

I share these wedding reflections because we have much to learn from our experiences within marriage and within all of our relationships. Even when marriages fail and special friendships come to an end, they mirror the journeys on this earth which will take us home to God. We fall in love with our ideal partners or kindle friendships with those we care for with the expectation of a sharing our lives with one another. Unfortunately, because we’re human, we meet many obstacles along the way. When we encounter rocks on our paths, forks in the road and washed away bridges, we work together to recalculate our route and to carry on. When we navigate the paths of our relationships and of our journeys toward the hereafter, we reassess, regroup and try again all along the way. That couple who adjusted their wedding day details a few weeks ago unwittingly prepared themselves for the numerous bumps that they’ll encounter as they navigate life together and life in this world. It seems to me that this is the point of what Jesus has to say about all of our journeys and about God’s love for us.

Today, Matthew’s gospel (21: 28-32) presents one of Jesus’ parables which addressed all of this. On this occasion, Jesus spoke of a vineyard owner who had two sons. On the day in question, the man asked the first son he encountered to work his vineyard. This son refused in no uncertain terms. Fortunately, he thought better of his response to his father and fulfilled his request. This son went out to the vineyard and put in a full day’s work. When the man asked his second son to work, the young man immediately agreed to do so. However, that son had simply told his father what the man wanted to hear. He never went out to the fields and never lifted a finger to help.

After sharing this story, Jesus asked those listening which young man did his father’s will. Those present agreed that the son who worked was the righteous one, in spite of his initial response. Ah, “in spite of his initial response!” Fortunately for us all, Jesus recognized that failure at one time or another is inevitable. Jesus also recognized that our opportunity to turn things around is also inevitable. When Jesus remarked that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of heaven, he wasn’t condoning their sinfulness. Rather, he condoned what they did after they’d engaged in their wrong-doing. In spite of their sketchy pasts, those tax collectors and prostitutes took Jesus’ message to heart. They reassessed, regrouped and tried again. Jesus assured all concerned that this is all God asks of any of us.

I admit that I enjoy being on the fringes when my dear husband prepares for and witnesses weddings. Though the good deacon bears the brunt of the paperwork, marriage prep and wedding planning, I’m privy to the joy and the hope which come with witnessing the commitments of these couples. When they promise their love for a lifetime, they are also promising to reassess, to regroup and to try again whenever necessary all along their way. Like Jesus’ parable, these couples remind me and all of us that this is all any of us can hope for: To do our best, to acknowledge our errors, to make amends when we fail and to know, regardless of how often we repeat this process, that God loves us. Whenever we fail, God loves us and encourages us to try, try again…

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Option A or B or…?

When they heard the sound of God moving about in the garden,
the man and his wife hid themselves…

From Genesis 3:8

When I was a child, we had two family bibles. One was a nicely bound family edition and the other was intentionally kid-friendly. This large book consisted of cardboard front and back covers which held together several booklets. The covers and booklets were held in place by extremely long fabric laces. The seventy-two booklets which eventually completed this bible arrived by mail every month. With each delivery, my mom carefully undid the laces, removed the bible’s covers, inserted the new booklet, replaced the covers and retied the laces. Afterward, I poured over the new arrival.

Every page included colorful illustrations and reasonably understandable text. When I finished perusing each new edition, I habitually returned to the first book’s story of Adam and Eve, the snake and that forbidden tree. The Garden of Eden amazed me almost as much as heaven did. “Why,” I often wondered, “did Adam and Eve eat that stupid apple when God had given them so much else?”

In the years that passed since I posed that question, I accumulated a measure of maturity and wisdom. I found that life in this world poses similar questions every day. I also discovered that it’s up to us to answer as best we can in the moment at hand. Is Option A really my best choice or is it as foolhardy as eating that apple? It’s up to me to figure it out. In the mean time, God watches with great love and with great faith in my and all of our ability to do what’s best.

Dear God, the second and third and twenty-ninth chances you give us seem more important than ever these days. Please be with us as we do our best to choose wisely.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Lifetime of Second Chances

God created us in God’s image…
God looked at everything God created and found it to be very good.”

From Genesis 1

The treasures I recall from my childhood include our children’s bible. This huge book consisted of cardboard front and back covers which held together several small booklets. A new booklet arrived in the mail every month. Each time, my mom carefully removed the bible’s cardboard cover, inserted the new booklet and then replaced the cover. Afterward, my sisters and I poured over this newest addition where colorful pictures adorned every page. When we were finished, I always returned to the first booklet’s story of Creation, Adam and Eve, the snake and that forbidden tree. Eden looked amazing to me, at least as grand as heaven. “Why,” I often asked myself, “would Adam and Eve turn away from God who gave them so much?”

Life in this troubled world of ours answers that question every day. It’s lucky for us that God never returns the favor when we walk away. God simply watches with great expectations as we feebly do our best to make things right again. God also waits with arms outstretched for our return.

A friend recently shared a story from his childhood which illustrates this point. My friend was about twelve years old when he’d made a mess of a small chore. His ever-patient mom offered him the opportunity to try it again. My friend was so encouraged by his mother’s faith in him that, the second time around, he completed the task perfectly. My friend shared this story to make a point. “You know,” he said, “God gives us all a lifetime of second chances just like my mom!” I couldn’t agree more.

Generous God, thank you for the second and third and twenty-ninth chances which you offer us day in and day out. Give us the wisdom to embrace every opportunity to begin anew.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love Beyond Measure

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him…
He ran out to meet him, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

From Luke 15:20

Because I’m a reasonably good listener, people sometimes share their troubles with me. So it is that I do my best to lessen their burdens. First, I listen. Sometimes, listening is enough. Sometimes, I can do something tangible to help in a small way. Sometimes, the person involved needs a change of heart which can be difficult at best to come by. Sometimes, the person needs a change of venue in order to carry on with some semblance of peace in his or her heart. Sometimes, my troubled friend simply needs to feel loved.

On these occasions, I peer deeply into my own heart for the things which keep me going. Then, I share these things as best I can. You see, I can’t keep my heart from breaking for a person who doesn’t believe that God’s love is intended for him or her. So it is that I willingly invest several minutes and sometimes several conversations to convince this person otherwise. I say, “Though I was far from perfect, my mom loved me. Lot’s of people loved me. Though I’m far from perfect, I’ll never stop loving my kids. If I can be so stubborn in this in spite of my imperfections, how much better must God be at loving me? How much better does God love you?”

You know, many aspects of this life are out of our control. Still, we can all rekindle our trust and embrace God’s love. Though life around us seems to have run amok, God has not. “Yes,” God tells us, “I’m here for you!”

Dear God, you have voiced your love for us again and again. Help us to take your words to heart for ourselves and for one another.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Second Chances

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.

Psalm 51:3

I’m grateful for the signs of spring which renew my hope with every new sprout-sighting. The change of seasons always induces reflection on my part. Usually, this is very good news, except for those times when I reflect upon the negative for a little too long…

I’m often told that I have a selective memory. The worst of my personal history lies deep within me. The best of it glows in a rose-colored aura which attests to my many blessings. Occasionally, something unexpectedly jars a dark recollection from its hiding place. Such memories tempt me to give in to guilt or despair. I’m happy to report that I’ve resisted this temptation more often than not as of late.

You see, I learned something from my walk through Holy Week and Easter. I’ve also learned something from Spring 2019. Both experiences promise life after winter, life after failures and life after death. Regardless of my success or failure to use the moment at hand optimally, another opportunity awaits me in the moment after that. This doesn’t mean that I’ll intentionally waste even a second of the time I’m given. What it does mean is that when I make a mistake I’ll be as patient with myself as God is.

Merciful God, help me to do my best. When I don’t, help me to acknowledge my guilt honestly, to express my sorrow sincerely, to accept your forgiveness fully and then to move on.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved