Let’s Do It!

Life in this world continues to be tough. While I immersed myself in the news earlier on in this pandemic, I’m watching fewer newscasts these days. I’m also scanning the daily newspaper and reading it a bit more selectively. It’s simply too difficult to acknowledge all of the suffering around us. My misery hit a crescendo with the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Ongoing inequities place our more vulnerable neighbors at risk of illness and so much more. This adds to my angst. While news reports loudly echo more of the same, the voice of reason seems only a whisper. Crime continues to disrupt the lives of innocent people simply trying to make their way through another day. Add to that another round of wild fires assaulting California. Though I’ve turned my eyes heavenward more often than ever, I’ve found it impossible to speak. What can I say about these things that God doesn’t already know?

I’ve trusted God all of my life. This began when I observed my parents turning to God in the best and worst of times. When I was happy with my circumstances or those of my loved ones, I looked upward to offer thanks. When I was frightened or saddened about these things, I looked upward and prayed with even greater intensity. This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though God never actually spoke aloud to me, I always knew deep down that God was my greatest ally. During my often emotional teens, I sometimes ran the other way. Still, God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me (though they never actually abandoned me), I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

Fortunately, throughout high school and college, God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. When I took my first job, I rushed out of school and headed to work. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to manage my studies, employment, life at home and a boyfriend or two (yes, Mike is aware), I continued to make time for worship. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers which filled my childhood. Eventually celebrating the liturgy in English thrilled me. On weekdays, I often attended noon Mass at college to energize myself for what lay ahead. Though tough times and tragedy punctuated those years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto that relationship with God which had begun two decades earlier.

Much to my dismay, the onset of adulthood brought the realization that many people don’t rely upon God for much of anything. While I’d worked hard to prepare for life in this world, I had also found great consolation in God’s company along the way. Apparently, I was naïve is this regard. I was truly shocked by the “God is dead” discussions which emerged during my philosophy and theology courses during college. I attributed what I heard to each speaker’s need to rebel or to shock rather than to his or her actual beliefs. How wrong I was! I eventually understood that these sentiments had resulted from this world’s seemingly endless misery. Some of my contemporaries believed that it is up to God to solve humanity’s problems. When nothing happened, they surmised that God is indeed dead. As for me, as upsetting as our human condition has been throughout my life, I’ve never actually expected God to fix it. It seemed to me then, just as it does today, that it is we who need to roll up our sleeves and to do something.

I share all of this because today’s excerpt from Matthew’s gospel (16:21-27) addresses a turn of events which frustrated Peter even more so than my classmates had been. Jesus had begun to prepare his friends for the ordeal which would take him from them. Peter pulled Jesus aside because the last thing he wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus insisted that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life to find what matters most. While I understand Jesus’ intent, I also understand Peter’s distress. Things had finally gone right in Peter’s life. Peter knew without a doubt that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Then, before Peter could fully enjoy his good fortune, Jesus took it away by acknowledging the cross which awaited him.

I think it’s time to turn my eyes upward once again. After giving thanks for the goodness in my life, I will list the troubles which engulf us. Then, I will ask God’s help as I determine what I can do to improve things, both nearby and far away. Just as Peter eventually did, I need to accept that there are bumps in the road. Just like Peter, I must decide whether to jump over those bumps, to walk around them or to get my feet dirty by walking through them. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter and to us is steeped in absolute love and absolute confidence. Jesus is convinced of our ability to do something to change this world for the better. Like Peter, let’s do it!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Great Timing

Timing is everything, you know? I went for a walk the other day hoping to find some measure of peace along the way. Though a gentle breeze nudged me forward beneath the beautiful blue sky, I remained restless. When I arrived home I went into the house via our garage. Inside, I passed cardboard boxes I’d accumulated from online purchases. Though I’d never been a fan of internet shopping, COVID-19 has changed that. Because it was a reasonably cool day, I decided to put my nervous energy to good use. Perhaps my delay in recycling those boxes was providential. I’d reaffirm my commitment to purge by purging! I realize that I’ve written about this before and I admit that I haven’t made much progress. This is the reason I told myself, “There’s no time like the present!” I grabbed a box and headed upstairs to tackle my bookcases once again. Though their shelves are no longer overflowing, they are filled to capacity. After making that acknowledgment, I told myself, “Just one more shelf…”

My mood changed as I perused my novels, books on death, dying and the afterlife, inspirational books Mike and our sons have given me over the years, scripture resource books, my high school yearbook, favorite children’s books and an old catechism. I scanned the inspirational books first. Each touched me just as it had the day I received it. Tears formed as I tucked them back onto their shelf. As I picked up my high school yearbook, I wondered how long it had been since I’d read the scrawled messages on its pages: “Stay as great and sincere as you are… Y.C.S. was special because of you, but remember to slow down once in a while… Thanks for handling Sister Syra so well. You got us through Special Chorus… To a great kid… May your positive social deviance continue to change the world…” Of course, I slid my yearbook back onto its shelf.

I’d already decided to keep everything until I picked up that catechism. I might have disposed of it if a holy card stuck between it’s pages hadn’t piqued my interest. That card marked the chapter titled GRACE. I was taught that grace is God’s very life within us. I looked at those shelves full of my books and then upward. I whispered, “Dear God, I’ve met you in every one of them.” My novels renew my empathy for my fellow humans. My books on death, dying and the hereafter sustain my hope. Those children’s books feed my imagination and strengthen my bonds with our grandchildren. The inspirational books from Mike and our sons insist that I’m loved. That yearbook filled with my classmates’ and teachers’ messages testify to the encouragement I’ve received throughout my life. I had to ask, “Dear God, have I thanked you recently for the amazing people who’ve supported me along the way?” I placed that catechism on the shelf with the rest of my books. I looked upward again because I had a few words to add to my prayer: “I didn’t put any books into that box because you continue to touch me through them, especially today. Dear God, your timing is impeccable.”

Though that cardboard box remains empty, my heart is full. I didn’t part with a single book, but I did find what I needed to sooth my spirit and to fill this page. You see, Matthew’s gospel (14:22-33) speaks of God’s impeccable timing and God’s grace as well. God’s grace (God’s very presence!) is always with us and especially when we need God most. This passage begins just after the disciples fed the crowd with the bread and fish Jesus had blessed. Afterward, Jesus went off to be alone. John the Baptist had been murdered and Jesus hadn’t yet had the time to mourn him. Jesus hoped for a few minutes of peace while the disciples set out on their boat. Without warning, a terrible storm engulfed that boat. They’d just experienced another of Jesus’ miracles, yet Jesus was the farthest thing from his friends’ minds. As that perilous storm continued, Jesus set aside his own needs once again to come to their rescue. Jesus walked across those raging waters. Sadly, rather than celebrating Jesus’ intervention, the disciples screamed in fear. They thought Jesus was a ghost! Only Peter, who often relied on his heart more than his head, recognized Jesus. Peter immediately asked Jesus to help him walk through those waves to meet him. Peter stepped off the boat and almost made until he realized what he was doing. Suddenly, Peter focused upon the roaring wind and water rather than upon Jesus and he began to sink. Only when Peter turned back to Jesus and reached for Jesus’ hand was he finally safe.

God’s response to Peter is much like God’s response to us whenever we’re in trouble. Throughout this pandemic and all of the worry which accompanies it, God has been here. As was the case for the disciples in the midst of that storm, God offers a hand with impeccable timing to you and me. Throughout this pandemic and always, God provides moments of safety and moments of grace precisely when they’re needed. Like Peter, all we need to do is to reach for God’s hand along the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Faithful Attraction

They immediately abandoned their nets
and became his followers.

Mark 1:18

The other day, while sharing my joy over finally adhering to my writing schedule, a friend asked, “Where do you get all of those stories?” I laughed as I recalled my mom’s designation “Little Big Ears” in response to my uncanny ability to absorb everything the adults around me said. Much to my mom’s dismay, I filed this information away and then too often repeated it at the wrong time. The good news is that I eventually developed some discretion. While my listening skills remained intact, my judgment regarding what to and not to repeat improved immensely. You will read none of our family secrets here!

Another bit of good news is that I’ve also attended to God’s story since childhood. I attribute this to my parents who shared their faith freely. Their stories, a very engaging children’s bible, a dear priest friend who gave me far more time than he had to give and some well-taught religion classes enriched my understanding of God who somehow has always seemed present to me.

When I consider how quickly the disciples walked away from their daily lives to follow Jesus, I imagine what drew them in. Simon and Andrew, strong, burly and hard-working, left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Martha and Mary opened their home and their hearts to Jesus even when their brother Lazarus died. Though Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who wanted for very little, her devotion to Jesus was complete. Jesus couldn’t contain the wonder within him and his presence was enough to draw people nearer. Yes, I understand the attraction.

Generous God, thank you for the gift of yourself and for the gift of Jesus. You have transformed my life from the moment I first heard your name.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Choose the Better Portion

Mary has chosen the better portion
and she shall not be deprived of it.

From Luke 10:41

This passage from Luke was written about another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It seems that Jesus visited the home these siblings shared because he considered them dear friends. Martha was very busy preparing the meal and everything else related to Jesus’ stay. Rather than helping Martha, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as soon as he settled in to visit with their guests. Beside herself with worry, Martha pointed out this situation to Jesus. Much to Martha’s dismay, Jesus sided with her seemingly lazy sister. Apparently, Mary did the most important thing anyone could do when in Jesus’ company. She listened.

It seems to me that Mary Magdalene emulated both Martha’s and Mary’s roles in her relationship with Jesus. While she tended to Jesus’ need for food and shelter, she also tended to his company. This competent and strong woman who held her own in the worst of circumstances also loved with great resolve. I feel quite certain that she didn’t miss much of what Jesus said or did.

It occurs to me that, in the midst of life-with-COVID-19, I must try to be more like both Mary the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. While I respond to the requirements of each new day as is my norm, I must also take the time to sit at Jesus’ feet and to savor his every word like the Marys did. I did this very well while in Israel, though not so much since I returned home. When our battle with COVID-19 began, I became more rattled than usual. So it is that, every day, I begin again as I am today. There is plenty of time to do what I must and plenty of time to enjoy the love so generously sent my way.

Dear God, be with me as I do what I must for those I’ve been given to love and as I nestle closer to you.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Who Is He?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;
others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:13-16

On our way to the River Jordan, we passed the Banias Spring. This spring is one of the main sources of the Jordan River and the home of Israel’s largest waterfall. The area’s long ago inhabitants seemingly appreciated its beauty and utility. The City of Dan was located there in biblical times. On a ledge above rested Fort Dan which stood before a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Later, the Romans and King Herod himself ruled there. When Herod’s son Philip took over, he renamed the area Caesarea Philippi, not to be confused with the other Caesarea on the Mediterranean which was also Herod’s city.

All of this information set my head spinning until I recalled a small, but important detail regarding this place. The passage above from the New Testament tells us this is the place where Jesus asked his closest friends what the people were saying about him. As you have already read, Simon Peter was brave enough to respond.

Every site I visited in Israel revealed more of Jesus’ identity to me. If he asked the same question of me today, I would respond, “You are the source of everything I know about God. I live as I do because of you.”

Dear God, help me to reveal your presence in all that I say and do.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Where Are My Keys?

I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
From Matthew 16:19

I’m sure it was quite a surprise to Peter that he was chosen to lead the first Christian community. Peter had no idea of what being given the keys to the kingdom entailed. Still, Jesus entrusted him with this responsibility. Though Peter was thick-headed and cowardly at times, in the end, Peter allowed his heart to direct him. He is the one who first said aloud what the other disciples feared to whisper even to themselves. In the end, after Jesus was crucified and risen, it is Peter who led the disciples to share the good news of God’s love for us with the world.

As a child, I told myself that I would have been much different from the disciples if I had walked with Jesus. I couldn’t understand how anyone could question a thing Jesus said or did. Today, I know better. In spite of the numerous and generous ways in which God has been revealed to me, I question and worry and despair with the best of them. For us humans, I guess seeing is believing.

The problem is that we fail to see. The treasure lying before our eyes and within our hearts is invaluable. Nonetheless. we fail to see what God has given us. Still, God entrusts us with the keys of the kingdom as well. Like Peter, we’re invited to follow our hearts and to reveal God’s love in all that we say and do. Like Peter, our imperfections aren’t meant to keep us from the good we can do. Today, this seems more important than ever.

Trusting God, you have made us the caretakers of your word and works. You’ve given us the keys to your kingdom. Help us never to misplace them and to always use them well.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved