Beloved By God

Brothers and sisters:
You are no longer strangers and sojourners,
but fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God…

Ephesians 2:19

Life was tough for the contemporaries of Jesus. The Jewish people endured Roman rule which had little appreciation for the plight of the poor. The people also suffered under the temple hierarchy who valued The Law more than the people for whom The Law had been given. Jesus himself endured the Pharisees’ criticism because they couldn’t see past their own infatuation with rules, regulations and control. It was Jesus’ failure to adhere to ritual cleanliness and his association with outcasts which infuriated these adversaries most of all. The good news is that Jesus ignored the criticism and made room for whoever desired his company. He associated with perceived sinners of every sort. He touched lepers and the blind. He even saved a woman caught in adultery. He would have done the same for the man involved had he been threatened with stoning as well.

Though you and I are not always ostracized quite as dramatically as the people of Jesus’ day, we suffer our own varieties of exclusion, loneliness and despair just the same. The good news for us is that God responds in like manner to you and me. When the rest of the world pushes us away, God embraces us. When no one lifts a finger to help, God lays hands upon us and heals us.

Gracious God, thank you for calling each one of us your beloved.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Thanks for The Inspiration!

We have all been blessed with amazing people in our lives. Whether our acquaintances with them are short-term or last a lifetime, these individuals change us in unexpectedly remarkable ways. I gratefully acknowledge that I’ve been generously blessed in this regard. I honestly have no idea of who I would be if I hadn’t shared the path with the many exceptional souls who have graced my life. The guide who led us during our visits to the Holy Land is counted among them. Yossi claims to be a non-believer who is incapable of praying. Yet, during our time together, Yossi revealed the God of Israel through much of what he said and did…

I never expected to visit Israel’s holy places. That I’ve done so three times surprises me more than you can imagine. My first trip proved to be a homecoming of sorts. Yossi acknowledged early on that Israel is as much our homeland as it is his own. Yossi pointed out that our roots lie deep within Israel’s soil just as his do. Because I’d researched most of our destinations beforehand, I often allowed Yossi’s words to fade into the background while I absorbed the sites before me. I call this encounter a homecoming because I felt that I’d been to Nazareth and Magdala, Capernaum and Jerusalem a hundred times before. I’d visited these places and many others through my parents’ accounts of Jesus’ life, the scriptures, catechism classes, theology courses, several great homilies and good books. Over the years, I’ve developed enduring relationships with Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Martha, Mary and Lazarus to name few. For most of my life, I’d pictured each of them interacting with Jesus. These images came to life with Yossi’s every word regarding Jesus and the God to whom Jesus led the people.

My husband and I returned to Israel a second time to assist with the tour. This time, we helped to keep the group together while Yossi shared his wisdom regarding the sites and the God who seemed with us at every turn. This time, I found myself anticipating Yossi’s commentaries as I’d recalled each one with surprising accuracy. This time, Yossi spoke with greater urgency when he asked us to pray for peace in his country. “I cannot pray,” he reminded us, “so you must do this for me.” This time, I told Yossi often that he talked to God far more eloquently than most people I know. Every time, Yossi smiled shyly before resuming his narrative.

In January, Mike and I traveled to the Holy Land once again. This was an emotional endeavor in many ways. This would likely be our last encounter with Yossi on Israel’s soil. It would be our last opportunity to sail the Sea of Galilee and gaze upon the shoreline Jesus frequented. In Magdala, my tears welled up as the clouds rained upon the synagogue’s ruins. It was there or nearby that Jesus and Mary Magdalene forged the friendship which took them to Calvary. During this trip, I couldn’t help hanging on to Yossi’s every word. Yossi’s descriptions of Jesus’ work, the politics of Jesus’ time and the ruthlessness of the Pharisees tore at my heart. Jesus’ people suffered greatly under Roman rule. Jesus’ people also suffered greatly under the temple hierarchy who used their positions to secure their power and their own comfort at the people’s expense. Yossi shook his head as he acknowledged that much hasn’t changed since Jesus walked among us. “We need Jesus’ God to bring about peace,” Yossi insisted.

I share all of this because you and I are challenged to make the changes Jesus set in motion so long ago and which Yossi hungers for today. Our call begins with Sirach’s (15:15-20) encouragement to trust God. When we trust God, we will work to improve this world because we realize that the outcome which awaits us is worth the effort. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), Paul encouraged his followers to rely upon God’s wisdom rather than that of the world. Paul insisted that when we think as God thinks, we’re equipped to transform this world into God’s image of what it should be. Matthew’s gospel (5:17-37) tells us that Jesus called his disciples to do just that. Jesus listed the commandments one by one and then reinterpreted their meaning. It was not enough not to kill, not to commit adultery and not to lie. The Pharisees did as much. Jesus asked his followers to focus less upon the letter of The Law and more upon the spirit in which The Law was given. Once the disciples embraced the loving God to whom The Law guided them, Jesus knew they would indeed change their world.

It seems to me that Yossi has taken Jesus’ challenge to heart. He never missed an opportunity to remind us to pray and then to work toward peace in his country and here at home. Yes, I have been blessed with many amazing people in my life. I count Yossi among them because he echoes Jesus’ message and the essence of God’s love for us in both his words and his actions. More importantly, Yossi inspires me to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Glimpses of God

Since the creation of the world, invisible realities,
God’s eternal powers and divinity, have become visible
through the things God has made.

Romans 1:20

I’ve shared often that I love the outdoors. Though I’m not a mountain climber, boater, skier or even a seasoned hiker, I do enjoy brisk walks in any weather. It matters little if I’m exploring new territory or retracing steps I’ve taken for a dozen years. Whichever the case, I always manage to find something new to appreciate along the way. It seems to me that God intended these amazing discoveries when God orchestrated the creation of this world and the universe which surrounds us. Though I’d like to think that I’ve come to appreciate a bit about God throughout the decades, I admit that I’ve failed to scratch the surface of the Almighty.

With so much in nature to learn about God, imagine how much more we humans have to teach one another about our Maker! After all, of the things God has created, we humans are the ones who are made in God’s image. Perhaps I need to give a second and third and hundredth look toward my brother and sister humans. Perhaps it is in these amazing discoveries that I will finally scratch the surface and revel in a glance at God’s essence.

Creator God, help me to find you in all of the work of your hands, especially in the people with whom you have graced my path.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Dance for Joy!

As I continue my journey through Advent 2019, I renew my resolve to bring a bit of Christmas to every day. While trying to do my best in this regard, images of dance in many forms fill me up. My dear husband and I attended some very special weddings this past fall. We recently received a link which allows us to view photos from one of them. While Mike and I enjoyed them all, I most liked the photos which captured guests on the dance floor. Though I’m not at all a good dancer, my feet take over when I’m happy and I dance. Our granddaughters’ first response to joy is to dance. They dance after a good soccer move, when opening birthday gifts and when allowed special outings with their friends. Our grandsons dance when we agree to watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas for the umpteenth time. I must admit that they come by this propensity quite naturally as their parents are great dancers. I think our grandchildren are onto something when they throw themselves into moments of joy like these. I think we’re onto something as well when we embrace the joy that comes our way with enthusiasm.

Last Sunday’s scripture passages pointed to the difficulties which threatened Jesus’ loved ones. Fortunately, they responded as best they could to make the most of their situations. Today’s passages offer frequent references to joy, joy that is powerful enough to elicit a dance. In the first reading (Isaiah 1:1-10), Isaiah describes the day when one will come who is filled with the spirit of the Lord, “…a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength.” This one will embody these things so perfectly that he will transform this wretched world into God’s holy mountain, a second Eden where peace and joy reign over everything. How wonderful it would be to enjoy just one day in such a place!

In the gospel (Matthew 3:1-12), John the Baptist emerged from the desert after praying, contemplating and making Isaiah’s message his own. John’s enthusiasm and passion were great and people in a variety of circumstances came to listen and to be baptized by him. Even some Pharisees and Sadducees sought John’s baptism. Perhaps they worried that John spoke the truth regarding the one who was to come. What a joy it would be to share John’s certainty! In his letter to the Romans (Romans 15:4-9), Paul encouraged his followers to recognize that Jesus personifies everything which Isaiah’s and John’s audiences hoped for. Paul pointed out that we who have seen, heard and touched Jesus for ourselves have no choice but to rejoice. What a difference it would make in our lives if you and I fully embraced what Jesus has to offer!

It was just two weeks ago on the Feast of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, that we focused upon Jesus’ last moments. Though this observance is meant to be a celebration, there wasn’t must to dance about as we listened. The gospel told us that the day darkened and Jesus’ life began to slip away. Still, Jesus offered God’s peace and everlasting joy to a most unlikely recipient. While passersby jeered at Jesus and one of the criminals who hung with him demanded to be saved, Jesus’ second companion in death simply asked for mercy. Overcome with love, Jesus dismissed his own suffering to dance the dance of compassion. Jesus offered this criminal ultimate joy and his own dance into eternity. Apparently, there is always reason to be found to dance.

I know that it’s unlikely that Isaiah and Paul, the apostles and the man crucified next to Jesus danced their way to many places in this life. Though Jesus knew the outcome of his work, it’s unlikely that he danced his way to find breakfast each morning and then on toward the waiting crowds. Though I dance with our grandchildren every time Grandpa and I visit them, I don’t physically dance my way to the grocery store or the gas station or to anywhere else my errands take me. I don’t even dance into church for Mass each week. Yet, like the man on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him, Isaiah and Paul, the apostles, you and I have reason to dance.

Jesus’ love impelled him to respond to someone in need regardless of his own suffering, The love that we have come to know impels us to dance the dance of love as well. We respond to the imperfections of this life just as Jesus did. We find the courage to dismiss our own worries long enough to turn to those who need us. This Advent and always, we do our best to be like Jesus. Though our legs may not move in choreographed fashion, our hearts dance the dance of with love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Never Short of God’s Love!

Amazingly enough, my dear husband and I actually have a bit of leftover Halloween Candy. This is truly remarkable since the good deacon was quite adept at pilfering his favorites from the candy bowl at the front door when I wasn’t looking! As I search for a good place to hide these calorie-laden extras, I can’t help thinking about the adventures of this past week. Halloween always urges me to walk down Memory Lane. The lull between trick-or-treaters provided ample time for this excursion. This past week, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days compelled me to continue my journey. You see, many of my family members passed away when I was a child. As a result, I learned early on to keep these loved ones close by in my thoughts and in my prayers. Back then, after attending Mass on All Saints’ Day, my mom always reminded us of the significance of All Souls’ Day. We would visit church once again that day to remember and to pray for our departed loved ones. I found great comfort in acknowledging each one of them and I appreciated the opportunity to celebrate their arrivals in heaven. So it is that, during Halloween week and often throughout the year, I stop at our wall of family pictures to remember. This past week, I lingered longer than usual to celebrate these precious souls who are so much a part of me.

I admit that our photo wall doesn’t include any canonized saints just now. My family members and I bear the burden of being truly human. This characteristic takes form in both our creative and mundane imperfections. My family members who have passed away and those who remain with us never cease to amuse me and to amaze me with the variety of ways in which they respond to their personal shortcomings. They have taught me much about making the most of who we are. Perhaps this propensity to make the most of our human condition is the reason I’m drawn to Zacchaeus in today’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10).

Luke tells us that as Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem he passed through Jericho. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a wealthy man, heard that Jesus was near and he was intent upon seeing him. Being very short in stature, Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus over the heads of those who’d gathered along the way. Rather than miss this opportunity, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree that had grown over the path where Jesus walked. Now Zacchaeus was a public official already held in contempt because he cooperated with the Romans by gathering taxes from the people. Still, Zacchaeus disregarded what the people thought of him as he made a spectacle of himself up in that tree. Apparently, none of this mattered to Jesus. When he saw Zacchaeus, Jesus called up to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” As the ecstatic Zacchaeus made his way to Jesus, the crowd grumbled. After all, Jesus had accepted the hospitality of a sinner and Zacchaeus wasn’t just any sinner. Tax collectors were known to gouge the people for their own profit and Zacchaeus’s wealth suggested that he was guilty as charged. Fortunately for Zacchaeus, he recognized the opportunity before him and he responded to Jesus immediately. Zacchaeus told Jesus that he’d give one half of his wealth to the poor and that he would return anything he had extorted fourfold. It seems that Zacchaeus recognized that being short in stature was the least of his burdens. The lifestyle he’d assumed at the expense of his neighbors was far more detrimental to his well-being. His selfishness had kept him from loving as only he could.

Wise Zacchaeus made the best of his shortcomings by turning his life around. Zacchaeus’s effort touched Jesus and Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” When he called Zacchaeus a descendent of Abraham, Jesus acknowledged to the crowd that Zacchaeus had just as much right to God’s mercy and love as they did. Zacchaeus’s willingness to turn his life around by sharing the riches he’d accumulated indicated that Jesus’ faith in him was well placed. Zacchaeus provides a great example of redemption to us all!

I’m drawn to Zacchaeus because he isn’t very different from those who inhabit my family photo wall, from me and from us all. His humanity is as genuine as yours and mine. Jesus’ willingness to keep company with Zacchaeus assures me that Jesus is just as eager to keep company with us as well. Like Zacchaeus, we can all draw Jesus’ attention, perhaps not by climbing a tree, but through our own equally creative efforts to emulate Jesus’ ways in our lives. Like Zacchaeus, we can take our shortcomings and turn them into grace-filled opportunities to care for those we’ve been given to love. Like Zacchaeus, Jesus counts us among the descendants of Abraham. Like Zacchaeus, God blesses us with mercy and love because of the goodness God sees in us all.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved