Love with Words and Deeds

The near-zero temperature didn’t keep me indoors this morning. I had a few last-minute items to pick up for tomorrow’s family gathering. Much to my good fortune, the store wasn’t yet crowded and I found everything I needed with minimal effort. As I walked to the car, the cold imposed a piercing chill in spite of my warm clothing. During the drive home, I offered a serious prayer of gratitude when the car heater kicked in and its warmth penetrated my tingling toes. More cold greeted me when I stepped into our garage. As I hurried into the house, I offered my thanks once again, this time for our humming furnace. Though I don’t often think much of the conditions around me, this cold spell has certainly captured my attention. After stowing the groceries, I allowed myself a few minutes to warm up in the good company of our Christmas Tree.

A few needles had fallen here and there. Still, our Fraser Fir reigned majestically over our living room. “Dear Tree, you’ve served us well,” I said aloud. Though I continued to shiver a bit in spite of that humming furnace, I soon forgot my discomfort as I perused our decorated tree from top to bottom. My eyes eventually rested on the little village and crèche which lie at its feet. Though I love my husband’s handiwork in creating this tiny version of Bethlehem each year, I know that the Bethlehem which greeted Mary and Joseph more than two millenniums ago wasn’t nearly as peaceful. Our visit to the Holy Land last year offered us a taste of the narrow bustling streets which Mary and Joseph navigated to find lodging. After having no success, Mary and Joseph had to welcome their newborn son in a dark and dingy cave. I imagined what life must have been like after the excitement of Jesus’ birth faded into the tribulations of raising the baby boy destined to be the Messiah.

What struck me most about the Holy Family’s homeland was the close proximity of the important places mentioned in the scriptures. Throughout our travels, we often visited three or more sites in a given day. Of course, we did so via a comfortable coach bus which traveled paved highways at a clip. All the while, I noted the arid rocky landscape. Even with paths trodden by the scores of pilgrims who’d gone before them, travel for Mary and Joseph was difficult at best. What seemed “close proximity” to me presented a daunting challenge every time Mary and Joseph ventured beyond their own village limits. This is the reason that the efforts of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus were so remarkable.

These astrologers traveled a terribly long distance to find Jesus, probably more than five hundred miles. By the time the Magi arrived at Joseph and Mary’s door, Jesus was probably two years old. How amazed Mary and Joseph must have been by the Magi’s great reverence for Jesus! Unfortunately, this unprecedented act of faith came at a great price. These travelers had stopped at Herod’s palace to learn what he might have known about the newborn king. Their inquiry unintentionally alerted the tyrant to a possible threat to his throne. Of course, Herod’s only response was to rid his world of this potential king. Fortunately, the Magi were indeed wise men. They heeded an angel’s warning to avoid Herod when they returned to their homeland. Sadly, while the Magi planned to share with their own countrymen the good news that they’d found Jesus, Herod plotted to protect his throne with the slaughter of all Jewish boys under the age of two. Herod was determined to rid himself of the potential king. As I turned my eyes back to the little village under our tree, I sadly acknowledged that humankind’s hope for peace on earth and good will toward others was far from reality in Jesus’ day just as it is today. Still, the Magi shared the news of the treasure they’d traveled so far to encounter. Still, Mary and Joseph persisted in loving and caring for Jesus as only they could.

I had sat before our Christmas Tree for almost an hour when I looked up to discover snowflakes fluttering about. Idyllic as this vision seemed to be, reality quickly set in. When I approached the window for a closer look, I brushed against the cold glass and shivered once again. As I rubbed my arm in an effort to dispel the cold, I realized that Jesus’ world was uncomfortable as well. Just as I was forced to attend to this morning’s freezing temperature, all concerned had to dispel doubt and discouragement to make room for Jesus in their hearts. Mary and Joseph refocused their entire lives to parent Jesus. The Magi traveled treacherous byways to find Jesus. Jesus himself turned his quiet life topsy-turvy when he began teaching and living out God’s message of love and mercy and welcome. In the end, Jesus’ life among us changed those he met along the way and it changed the course of human history. That wonderful life has changed me as well.

My husband and I truly enjoy decorating for Christmas. Every light strung and ornament hung speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. I think everything we do speaks what our hearts cannot put into words. It seems to me that today’s feast provides each of us the perfect opportunity to assess what our lives are saying to those around us. I’m grateful that I have all of New Year 2018 to respond!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Good Reason To Love

Caiaphas said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider
that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:50

This is not my favorite scripture passage. Caiaphas sends a chill down my spine. He’s speaking about Jesus, the Good Shepherd who would leave his entire flock to find one lost sheep. He’s speaking about the Father of the Prodigal Son who gave that young man half his wealth, watched him squander it and then welcomed him home. Caiaphas mustn’t have heard the parable about the pearl of great price for which a man sold everything. He must have missed the tale of the woman who swept up and dusted her house again and again until she found her precious coin. Poor Caiaphas seems to have missed everything of importance that Jesus said because he’s blinded and deafened by his desire to maintain his own stature and to remain in power.

You know, there are many people near and far who are distracted by their troubles as well. Though some have lost their perspective through selfishness much like Caiaphas, most suffer distractions wielded upon them by the unexplained and/or deliberate injustices of our human existence. Perhaps Caiaphas’ callousness serves as a reminder that many of our fellow humans have little about which to rejoice today. Perhaps Caiaphas’ hatred of Jesus encourages us to love as Caiaphas could not love. Perhaps Caiaphas’ influence finally changes its direction because it inspires us to care for those who need us most.

Good and Gracious God, thank you for using even our weaknesses to teach us to love.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love and Be Loved

Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go with him for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

Matthew 5:41-42

Sometimes, those around us seem determined to push us to the nth degree to fulfill Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel. Though we feel compassion for those in need, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by the numerous demands on our time and our resources.

It is when I’m overwhelmed in this way that someone always manages to come along to minister to me. Though my busyness and expended resources are the result of my own choices, this makes no difference to the kind soul who comes to my aid. He or she simply says just the right thing or spends just enough time listening to ease me through my current rough spot. I always walk away from these encounters feeling replenished and revived, fully capable of responding to the next person who needs me. I can only hope that my benefactor is repaid in kind down the road.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind all along. Perhaps we’re meant to care for one another and to be cared for by one another until we make it home to heaven. There, God will take over the loving and the caring for each one of us.

Loving God, thank you for caring for us and for sharing this skill with us.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

W… Write with Every Breath

Good and upright is the Lord…
He teaches the humble his way.

From Psalm 25:8-9

W is for Write. I thought I did most of my writing at my keyboard until recently. I was reminded that I also “write” with my attitudes, spoken words and actions. Since the day I penned my first published reflection, I’d hoped to leave something significant to posterity in written form. In the years since, I’ve come to realize that the truths I share away from my keyboard will be far more long-lasting.

I think we’re all meant to leave something in the present moment and for posterity by the way we live. Though none of us can predict who will read our attitudes, our next spoken word or the things we do, someone somewhere is reading all of these things. Whether we opt to or not, we’re “writing” for others with every breath we take.

I admit that I’ve said some things which I hope will be forgotten and I’ve done some things that I wish I could undo. As much as I’d like to, I can’t edit these things out of my life. At the same time, I’ve been surprised by fellow souls who thank me for all that I did for them. These efforts were minimal in my mind, yet they made a world of difference to others.

You and I are given unique opportunities to “write” for others with every breath we take. For me, it’s time to take this precious opportunity to heart and to live accordingly.

Loving God, inspire us to reveal your wonder in everything we say and do.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Called To Serve

That is my joy, and it is complete.
He must increase, while I must decrease.

From John 3:29-30

A young woman I know is contemplating joining the convent. Since I’ve known her, I’ve found her to be amazingly selfless and service-oriented. My association with her conjures up memories of my dad’s sisters and my mom’s aunt who were also nuns. This friendship also brings to mind my own aspirations in this regard. From the time I realized what a nun was, I wanted to enter the convent, too. When I was a little girl, I often asked my mom her opinion of some “sister names” I had come up with. She smiled in response, always adding, “Well, I have five daughters and I think it would be nice if one of them became a nun.”

As it happened, I spent a lot of time with the sisters over the years, including an entire summer during college. Still, I never joined them. Oddly, it was during that summer away that the sisters encouraged me to accept a date with a young man who volunteered at the parish. Though this puzzled me at the time, their counsel proved helpful. I happily invited these sisters to my wedding the following summer!

Though my young friend has fewer sisters in her life than I had in mine, she is drawn to them for the same reasons I was: The good they accomplish. Like me, she realizes that God’s call to service has less to do with ones marital status than the status of ones heart. Nonetheless, this young woman will make God’s work her own within a community of like-minded women. Today, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for her and for all of the good sisters who’ve inspired her.

Dear God, light our way as we look for ways to serve you by serving those we have been given to love.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Samaritans All

After the funeral and burial of a dear friend’s brother, we stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant. This small group included our friend’s family and my husband and me. When we gathered at the table, I sat across from Mike and between a fourteen-year-old boy and his uncle. Because I hadn’t seen this young man since he was a little boy, I expected our conversation to be awkward at best. I’m happy to share that I was proven wrong just minutes into our exchange. Billy and I quickly discovered our common knowledge of my childhood neighborhood in Chicago. Apparently, Billy and his dad drive through my old stomping grounds when they visit extended family in the city. As Billy and I talked, he shared stories from his dad’s childhood which have become part of his own history. I responded with accounts of a few of my Chicago adventures which have also become part and parcel of who I am today.

By the time we parted ways, I realized that Billy has developed very strong feelings regarding many things as a result of his dad’s experiences and his own, especially our responsibility to step in to help when someone is in trouble. Apparently, his dad’s experiences and recent news reports contributed to this assessment. In Billy’s mind, this is the only logical response to a person in need. I admit that I share Billy’s conviction in this regard. I lived through similar events with my mom who habitually stepped in to see to the basic needs or safety of others. Billy seemed not to be surprised that my mom intervened in a fight on a bus. “That’s the only way you can keep people from getting hurt,” he observed. “Good for your mom!” he added. When we parted ways after that day, I offered a prayer of gratitude for this encounter and for Billy. I also added two requests: That someone like Billy intervenes the next time I’m in trouble and that I have the courage to do the same for someone else.

I think Billy’s sense of responsibility speaks to the heart of Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37). Luke tells us that a scholar of the law asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus replied with a question of his own: “What is written in the law?” The scholar answered that we must love God and our neighbor. Jesus complimented the man for identifying the means to eternal life. Unfortunately, the scholar wasn’t satisfied with Jesus’ reply, so he persisted by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” It was then that Jesus offered the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to care for a man at the side of the road who had been left for dead by robbers. A passing priest and a Levite not only ignored the man, but also crossed the road so as not to be contaminated by him. Their concern over the law regarding ritual cleanliness -staying away from defiled people and things- kept them from helping a fellow traveler. The Samaritan, considered to be an enemy of the community, stopped to help. When Jesus asked who was neighbor to the injured man, the scholar admitted that the Samaritan had acted as a neighbor. Jesus ended this encounter by telling the scholar, “Go and do likewise.”

Though we don’t know how the scholar responded to Jesus’ story, we can determine our own responses. The Samaritan’s remarkable compassion compelled him to help the wounded man. He dressed his wounds and delivered the man to an inn to recuperate. He left money to provide for the man’s care and promised to repay the innkeeper for any additional costs. It seems to me that the Samaritan could have no more left this man to die than his own mother or spouse or child. His compassionate heart urged him to do something. As I consider the goodness which defined the Samaritan, I wonder what defined the priest and the Levite who left the man to die. What drove them to value ritual purity more than they valued the life of a fellow person? What allows any of us to walk by, to step over or to run across the road from a brother or sister in need?

Most of us will never encounter a scene which demands action as dramatically as that dying man on the side of the road. I hope Billy and all of us never have to step into situations like those his dad, my mom and recent people in the news have endured. At the same time, I do hope that Billy and the rest of us embrace life’s frequent opportunities to do what we know is right when we encounter someone in need. Each good deed will become part and parcel of who we are. Eventually, we’ll find it impossible to avoid stepping up because helping has become second nature to us. Eventually, we’ll all become compassionate Samaritans as well.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved