We’re Shepherds All!

When I heard familiar voices outside, I grabbed my hoodie and headed to the front door. Neighbors had been marooned out of town since the onset of our stay-at-home attempts to control the Corona Virus. They’d finally made it home and were wearily, but happily unpacking their car. I yelled from across the lawn to welcome them back to the neighborhood. My neighbor Kathy had come out to do the same. In the midst of it all, she looked in my direction to say, “You know, I don’t know what day it is any more. Since we can’t go to church, I’ve lost my bearings. Sunday used to be my anchor day. Now, I don’t know. It’s tough.” At first, I was surprised by Kathy’s comment. Because I’ve continued to post on my blog every day, I’ve adhered to a schedule of sorts. The writing, the online liturgies streamed from so many of our churches, as well as my ongoing conversation with our patient God have apparently kept me more grounded than I realized.

After bidding my neighbors farewell, I returned to my keyboard to begin this writing. When I reread today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:1-10), I recalled that Jesus’ contemporaries had lost their bearings as well. They had also lost access to the anchor which should have kept them grounded. This passage tells us that Jesus was angry as he spoke on that particular day because his troubled neighbors had no one to turn to in their suffering. They should have been able to go to the temple to pray for consolation and to seek counsel from the priests and scribes there. The people should have found comfort simply by being in that holy place. Rather, the Pharisees had manipulated The Law to own their benefit. They had imposed rules of every sort which limited the people’s access to their worship space, to the temple staff and to God. The virus which threatened in Jesus’ day had replaced compassion with control and had denied God’s comfort to those who needed it most.

Jesus responded to the situation by calling those who truly wished to serve the people to emulate shepherds. Though the temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their jobs prevented them from adhering to the letter of The Law, Jesus held up shepherds as ideal examples of leadership, caring and love. The shepherds of Jesus’ day spent long hours in fields with their herds. Though they lacked education and power of any sort, they were key to the prosperity of wealthy sheep owners. Jesus reminded the people that shepherds dutifully guarded and nurtured the sheep in their charge. Every sheep knew its keeper’s voice, keenly aware of the special call only he could produce to beckon it to his side. When it came time to be led in or out of the pasture, each sheep followed the voice it had come to know and to trust. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the shepherd’s guidance was essential to each animal’s survival. Jesus expected no less of those entrusted with God’s people. Jesus lost his patience in the temple that day because the Pharisees and their company had lost sight of their mission to anchor God’s people by lovingly shepherding them.

I think my neighbor felt that she’d lost her bearings because she thought she had lost access to the anchor she’d found at her parish church. It occurs to me that, without realizing it, Kathy has become the anchor she longed for. She listened compassionately as our friends described their lengthy isolation in cramped quarters. In the midst of admirable social distancing, Kathy and her husband provided refreshments since the returning couple was greeted by both an empty house and an empty refrigerator. Kathy had certainly provided the welcome which Jesus expected the temple staff to provide two millenniums ago. What a great example of shepherding Kathy was!

It seems that Easter Season 2020 will continue to be filled with moments of uncertainty and solitude for us all. The good news is that we will endure these difficult times in very good company. Our Good Shepherd reassures us all that none of us suffer alone. Kathy felt that she’d lost her anchor because it has come to her in a different form these days. Rather than finding solace and peace in the church building and the people whom she’s come to love there, Kathy has become the anchor where those things abide for others. In the rare event that she falters in her new role, Jesus will lift her up onto his shoulders and carry her through. You and I are invited to be anchors for one another as well. If you’re wondering how you might proceed, think of Kathy’s kindness and respond as she did to those you’ve been given to love. However we support our loved ones though this COVID-19 ordeal, as he does for my dear neighbor, Jesus will be with us to shepherd us every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Ask…

“For the one who asks, receives. The one who seeks, finds.
The one who knocks, enters.”

Matthew 7:8

The other day, after a productive morning of writing, I ran out of steam. When this occurs, I usually take a break outdoors or turn to a favorite book. If the weather isn’t cooperating or that book doesn’t help, I look back to my own writing for a bit of help. That day, though my own inspiration had run out, something -or someone- inspired that walk back through my own words. This is what I found…

I’ve been working hard not to do so. Still, I admit to giving in to a bit of discouragement… Many people with greater concerns suffer far more than I. Still, I cannot seem to shake the feeling that I’m getting nowhere fast and that no one seems to care one way or the other. When this occurs, I look beyond my circle of family and friends for support.

Since the Source of my hope resides above, I look upward for encouragement. When I do this, I discover that my discouragement has come from within… It occurs to me that my family and friends do not often hear me say a thing about my heartfelt concerns. For the most part, they are unaware of the things which trouble me most. If this is the case, how can I expect them to respond with the encouragement I long for? It seems to me that I must not only listen well. I must also learn to speak up as needed.

I couldn’t believe what I read! Those of you who read these posts regularly are likely aware that I recently muddled through some tough times. It occurred to me that if I’d followed my own advice and shared more freely with those who love me, I would have emerged far more quickly from my misery.

Loving God, help us all to speak from our hearts to those who love us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Called To Be Shepherds

I truly enjoy the scripture passages we share throughout the Easter Season. They celebrate Jesus’ life among us by echoing his most important lessons. While Jesus’ message regarding God’s love for us is best taught by his example, his parables and discourses run a very close second in illustrating God’s affection for you and me. This is especially true this Mother’s Day. Today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:27-30) is a mere sixty-two words in length. It’s among the shortest gospels we read throughout the church year. Still, in spite of its brevity, these few lines offer a powerful account of God’s love for us. This passage portrays Jesus in his preferred role, that of a shepherd. The shepherd-mom in me understands completely. When Jesus said, “I know you,” he confirmed that his love reaches to our very cores and that nothing will ever change this. His followers understood completely as well. Just as I understand the relationship between mother and child, they knew the significance of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep.

Still, some of Jesus’ contemporaries resented shepherds. These hired hands had little education and even less money than their needy neighbors. The temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their work made it impossible for them to fulfill The Law’s demands. Shepherds often failed to keep the Sabbath and to eat within the dietary constraints of their faith because they remained with their sheep most of the time. At the same time, wealthy sheep owners found dedicated shepherds to be indispensable. In spite of their meager wages, shepherds dutifully and lovingly guarded the sheep in their care day in and day out. The sheep knew their keepers’ voices. There was never any confusion when it came time to be led in or out of the pasture. Sheep spent their days in the peace that came with their shepherd’s diligent protection. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, their shepherds persisted in protecting them. Sheep in the company of a good shepherd lived their entire lifetimes contentedly and completely unaware of the danger which lurked beyond their pasture.

I find this Mother’s Day reading of John’s gospel to be well-timed. It encourages us to acknowledge the relationship between Jesus’ work of caring for us and our own work of caring for one another. What a comfort it is to be nurtured with selfless love! As for me, I find great consolation in God’s presence. Jesus’ words and works have convinced me that God walks with me everywhere regardless of the danger which lies ahead. Being cared for so completely has empowered me to try to do the same for those I meet along the way. The same is true for us all. Whenever we recognize that we’re cared for, we can’t help moving beyond our roles as sheep to the challenge of shepherding one another. We can’t resist sharing what we’ve been given. Fortunately for you and me, we needn’t look far to see how Twenty-first Century shepherds care for those they’ve been given to love. Role models of every sort surround us.

For most of us, these lessons begin with our mothers. From the moment we make our homes in their wombs, we change our mothers’ lives forever. In spite of the physical symptoms of pregnancy, these courageous women reorganize their homes and their lives to make places for us. Their persistent fatigue is no match for the persistence of their love. They love us and nurture us for as long as it is necessary and for a long time thereafter. God’s incapacity to forget us is mirrored splendidly in the shepherd-mothers among us. And what of our shepherd-dads who stand with our moms to offer us their love? We’re also blessed with shepherd-friends who consistently respond with just what we need. Consider the friend whom we see far too infrequently, yet who always picks up the conversation as though it began just minutes earlier. Whether it’s a bad hair day or a bad weight phase makes no difference because our friends love us. They attend to the needs of our hearts. Shepherd-coworkers support us in kind. When the tedium or the insanity of our jobs threaten to drive us to the unemployment line, these even-tempered and dedicated colleagues urge us on. Their smiles in the midst of trauma, their steady hands upon our drooped shoulders and their willingness to try just one more thing before giving up make all of the difference to us. Their company on the road to Friday makes our work week tolerable and even enjoyable. We accomplish much more than we might have because they are with us. Yes, this life offers endless opportunities for us to share our shepherding skills.

Shepherd-spouses, shepherd-children, shepherd-siblings and shepherd-significant others, shepherd-neighbors, shepherd-priests, shepherd-deacons and shepherd-friends bless us. Shepherd-coworkers and shepherd-grandparents, shepherd-moms, shepherd-dads and shepherd-volunteers nurture us. With them, we muddle through the unhappiness of life and we bask in life’s joy. Again and again, we find ourselves hoisted upon the shoulders of the our Shepherd-God who is present in the good shepherds around us. Afterward, we climb down, fortified with peace and a joy which simply must be shared. We straighten our own shoulders and stand tall, ready to shepherd when we’re called. Today, let’s echo God’s message to us all: I love you! Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Shepherding!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always In Our Shepherd’s Care

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life.
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell
forever and ever.

Psalm 23:6

I recently shared that my annual check-ups resulted in the news that I’m in very good health. This news was accompanied by the urging that I tweak my exercise regimen and diet a bit. I’m happy to report that I’ve worked somewhat diligently to do both. In the process, I’ve enjoyed longer treks outdoors and an uncharacteristically varied diet. Creature of habit that I am in all things, this is quite an accomplishment.

I admit that I can’t take full credit for this effort. The truth is that I reference Psalm 23 frequently as I plod along. The Good Shepherd who inspired the psalm watches over me every step of the way. The same shepherd cares for each one of us with the due diligence of the shepherds of old. Though God’s care is powerful whether we recognize it or not, there is great comfort to be found in acknowledging this Watchful One who cares for us so deeply.

Many people have troubles far more pressing than mine. With that in mind, I pray for all of my fellow sheep who face their troubles with far more courage than I. After all, we’re in this together. When one of us finds the way, we all get a bit closer to where God wants us to be.

Loving God, help me to take your example to heart and to lovingly shepherd those you have given me to love.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Never Give Up!

God leads me in right paths…
From Psalm 23:3

When I consider the state of this world, I wonder why God bothers. At times, when I consider the state of my own heart, I wonder the same. Why do you bother, Dear God? Your gifts are more numerous than the grains of sand which cover this earth’s beaches. Still, we ignore them or misuse them in equally bountiful ways.

Fortunately for me, God takes note of my despair long before it morphs into something unmanageable. In the midst of my laments, images of kindnesses great and small distract my thinking. Moments in nature, in the company of those I love, at prayer and at peace with the moment compel me to utter words of thanks without much thought. While I remain baffled at this transition from hopelessness to contentment, God leans back and admires this bit of Divine Handiwork.

The discouragement which I find is this world of ours is a far more perplexing matter. When I find it so difficult to reel in my own frustrations, how am I to repair the far larger messes which surround us all? Did I write, “How am I to repair…?

As I consider Psalm 23 once again, I understand. God will never cease to lead us in right paths because it is in God’s nature to do so. When one loves as completely as God does, one never EVER gives up on the objects of that love! It’s up to us never to give up on the objects of God’s love either. Like God, we need to have faith in ourselves and in those we’ve been given to love. Only God knows the good we can do.

Loving God, thank you for your ongoing encouragement in things great and small. Remind me never to give up on this world because you will never give up on a single one of us.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Good Shepherd

In spite of the unseasonably cold weather and the snow which had fallen north of the Illinois border, my dear husband and I made a trek in that direction for a few days. Though our transition into Spring 2018 has been an extremely slow process and patches of green were few and far between, the scenery along the way is always a welcome diversion from our daily routines. We sometimes take what Mike calls “the scenic route” in spite of the additional twenty or thirty minutes it adds to our drive. Mike enjoys navigating the county and small-town roads with their leisurely pace and quaint structures all along the way. When we make it to the winding byways nearest the cabin, Mike is in heaven. As for me, I enjoy gazing out the window for the duration. Oddly, though we’ve alternated between our two routes for a quarter century, I’m always fascinated by the things I see along the way. Regardless of numerous previous sightings, every farm and hillside reveals something new to me as we meander by. This time, it was a large herd of sheep which surprised me. The snowfall hadn’t yet melted away and this woolly mass stood firm on what should have been grassy green ground by then.

As I considered the determined band before me, I was certain that I’d never seen this particular pasture before. I refrained from pointing it out to my dear husband because I knew he’d tell me that we’d passed that particular pasture hundreds of times. Rather, I tended to my own musing regarding the amazing gathering which had caught my eye. From my vantage point in the car, each sheep seemed to be a perfectly coiffed specimen. Their woolen coats boasted every shade of beige. Though usually a nondescript color, the beige hues of these sheep accentuated their fluffy appearances. Their color also made them clearly visible against the backdrop of white snow beneath them. I wondered why anyone would send sheep out in the midst of this year’s stubbornly lingering winter. I quickly reminded myself that Wisconsin farmers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to their animals and their crops. So it was that I dismissed my worry and returned to admiring these wooly wonders. “You have to love sheep!” I said to myself. “They’re just so adorable!”

As we drove on, I recalled the sheep with whom I’ve come into close contact over the years. When we visited Mike’s cousins in Croatia, they housed a few sheep on their property. When we visited Brookfield Zoo with our granddaughters, the petting area which includes sheep was a mandatory stop. Last summer, we walked among the sheep at Lambs Farm with our grandson. As I considered these close encounters with my woolly friends, I couldn’t deny the realities of their habitats. In Croatia, at the zoo and at Lambs Farm, certain “aromas” and other “realities” accompanied these seemingly cute and fluffy mammals. We had to watch where we stepped whenever we were near them. When we were close enough to check, we found that these critters’ “fluff” is actually wiry and rough at best. As I reconsidered the sheep we’d past a few miles back, I admitted that if we’d stopped the car long enough to take a walk among them, I might not have found them to be so lovable after all. Still, in spite of this honest observation, I quickly told myself, “But someone I know would do anything for a sheep!” Your and my greatest blessing is the love of our Good Shepherd.

In today’s gospel (John 10:11-18), John shares Jesus’ description of a good shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day because he knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day-in and day-out. As for the sheep, they knew their keepers’ voices and they followed them closely when being led in and out of their pastures. A good shepherd’s diligence allowed his sheep to spend their days in safety. In truth, the shepherd’s uninterrupted presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. In Jesus’ day, no caring shepherd ever allowed his sheep to wander beyond his watchful eyes. Like the shepherds he respected so, Jesus also promised never to allow one of God’s sheep to wander our of his sight or out of his heart.

It occurs to me that in spite of the snow and cold, the Wisconsin farmer who allowed his flock to graze that day wasn’t far from his herd. Perhaps he sensed that they were as stir-crazy as we because of the lingering winter weather and he allowed them the fresh air they craved. Happily for us, Jesus the Good Shepherd senses our every need as well. While we enjoy or endure the moment at hand, Jesus remains to shepherd us with his comforting and healing presence. Though Jesus doesn’t remove the obstacles which are part of our human landscape, Jesus remains. It seems to me that our best response is to welcome Jesus’ company with a word or a “baa” of gratitude.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved