It’s Worth It!

If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
From John 15:20

A few weeks ago, my husband received a call from a friend with whom he served as a hospice chaplain. Afterward, Mike smiled as he recalled some of the remarkable people who shared their last days with him. Whenever he talks about these experiences, one of his favorite patients always comes to mind. Though a day of hospice visits often proved to be taxing, Mike returned home with a smile whenever he saw Marie. This elderly woman was filled with the most amazing bits of wisdom and she generously shared one or another of them during Mike’s visits.

My husband will never forget his favorite morsel which came in these words: “They can say life is a bowl of cherries, but I say it’s a bowl of pits!” Throughout the remainder of his visits with Marie, this comment stood out. He and Marie laughed often at the truth of her observation!

As life unfolds around us and we behave ourselves and try to do the right thing, we sometimes feel entitled to carefree days and smooth sailing. Unfortunately, as the current pandemic unceasingly reminds us, this isn’t the case for any of us. As the passage above from John’s gospel reminds us, even Jesus didn’t have it easy on this earth. Why, then, would things be any different for you and me? The best we can do is what Jesus did: Love and care for one another in the same way we hope to be loved and cared for in spite of what is going on around us.

Dear God, thank you for the gift of Jesus. In spite of everything, he convinces us that this life is worth all of our effort.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In God’s Creatively Loving Hands

Happy Easter? Yes! HAPPY EASTER! In spite of all that has occurred since COVID-19 turned this world upside-down, we have reason to rejoice and to be glad on this holy day. Now I admit that I observed Lent 2020 in somewhat nontraditional ways. In was just fifteen days after Ash Wednesday when weekend Masses and group liturgies of any sort were cancelled. Schools were closed, religious education classes were suspended and most of our workplaces adjusted drastically to the threat wielded by this pandemic. At that point, I adjusted my Lenten plan as well. Rather than losing myself in worry over the unknown which lay ahead, I decided to do what I could to make the situation more bearable for all concerned. But how? Because I do my best thinking when I’m busy, I decided to clean off my perpetually messy desk. Perhaps I’d find a bit of inspiration in the chaos…

After assembling “keep” and “recycle” and “shred” piles from the clutter, I was on a roll. I decided to clean up my computer files as well. In the process, I came across “Letter To Jim”. I’d sent this to a fellow writer some time ago. In one of his columns, Jim had lamented the tragic times at hand. He wondered, as we all do, why terrible things happen to us. I’d wondered the same many times over the years which is likely the reason I responded to my friend with the following: “In my life, the most precious moments seem to come in the midst of or in response to tragedy. You have probably noted that my recent reflections have been sprinkled with concern over my mother’s health… I vacillated between praying for her recovery -which seemed impossible to be complete- and her passing -which would have meant sure peace for her. God knew better and gave her a partial recovery that has resulted in some short term memory loss and a completely joyful heart. What more could I have asked for? How could I have known? …which is why we really are obliged to place all of this in God’s hands. What a marvelous craftsman God is who fashions joy from the most hideous pain.”

To be honest, I was surprised by that last sentence. I don’t recall writing it. Because my mom passed away in early 2003, I must have written it in 2002. Nonetheless, I find it to be more true than ever today. Tragedy turns our lives topsy-turvy more often than we care to count. This was the case for Jesus and his unwitting followers that first Holy Week. This has been the case for all of humanity long before Jesus’ coming and throughout history since. COVID-19 offers one of the more dramatic examples of life’s tragedies which we’ve seen in some time. Like you, I’ve wondered such events surrounding my loved ones, neighbors and fellow parishioners can be turned around. I’ve wrung my hands in complete frustration, finally raising a fist to heaven as I quote Jesus on behalf of the suffering about whom I’ve worried so. I’ve prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken ___?”, filling in the blank with the names of numerous people over the years. My frustration has consistently led me to the realization that there are times when all I can do is to pray. It was at those times that I handed over my worry to God “…who fashions joy from the most hideous pain.” Eventually, the problems at hand were resolved. As was the case with my mom’s illness and passing, resolution came in beautifully creative ways only God could have imagined. I believe that it is God’s intent to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic in an equally beautiful and creative way.

I began this reflection with “Happy Easter” because Easter Sunday reminds us that there is joy to be found in the aftermath of the tragic episodes in our lives. Jesus’ passion and death ended with resurrection. God provides the same in the resolution of all of the life altering events we survive. Over the next several weeks, though many more people may become ill, many more others will respond heroically. From each of these challenges, resurrection will follow. Just as doctors and scientists will gain new understanding of this disease with every new case, we will find new understanding of our capacities to endure and our capacities for goodness. In the aftermath of this virus’s assault upon humanity, none of us will return to our past selves. With relief over having survived, we’ll emerge stronger and more fortified than before. Deep within our hearts, we’ll discover a measure of joy far more intense than we’ve ever known.

This is Easter 2020 and, more than ever before, we have reason to embrace Easter Joy. Today, we celebrate God “…who fashions joy from the most hideous pain.” God transformed Jesus’ death into a source of hope for humankind and God promises the same in our victory over COVID-19. Today and every day, may God bless us all with hope in the aftermath of the moments at hand, with love for those God has given us to cherish and with an appreciation for the imperfect moments of our lives that God fashions into joy. Yes! Happy Easter!

©2020 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

Holy Week… Wednesday

Then Jesus went with them to a place called
Gethsemane. He said to his disciples,
“Stay here while I go over there and pray.”

Matthew 26:36

In Israel, the Garden of Gethsemane rests next to the Church of All Nations. I can’t help making my own interpretation of this architectural juxtaposition. The church’s name acknowledges the many countries which contributed to its construction. For me, the church’s name designates much more. Jesus opened his heart to his fellow Jewish people as well as to many others who were ostracized by their communities. Jesus made room for anyone who longed for his company. It seems to me that Jesus was teacher, preacher and caretaker to all nations, just as we should be.

Though this grand church’s architecture draws tourists’ eyes from afar, it is the garden at its side which beckoned me nearer. In this place, Jesus opened his heart to us all once again. When I arrived, I was reluctant to step onto this holy ground. A lifetime of images I’d created in my head and in my heart filled me up as I imagined Jesus’ praying there so long ago. It was Jesus’ custom to go off by himself when he turned to his Abba in prayer and this evening was no exception. Though I cannot know the content of their prior conversations, this night the talk between Father and Son had taken an extremely serious turn. This night, after consulting with his Father one last time, Jesus chose to continue the journey which has made all of the difference in this world to me and to us all.

As I look out my window this morning, I consider that garden in faraway Israel. Though we have several decades-old trees in our yard, none can compete with the centuries-old olive trees which grace the garden where Jesus committed himself to the trauma of his final days. Still, my relatively youthful trees remind me of Jesus’ endurance. During the most difficult days of his live, Jesus did what he had to do. On this Wednesday of Holy Week, all God asks is that we persist as well. Like Jesus, we must do what we have to do even if that means simply staying home, staying safe and staying well…

Dear God, we know you are with during these difficult days. Thank you!!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What Were You Thinking, Lord?

I don’t think any of us will forget Lent 2020! I wish this was the case because our homilies, parish mission, Stations of the Cross, Lenten Holy Hours and this season’s editions of Something To Think About have been so inspiring. I wish this was the case because we all managed to change a bit for the better as a result of reflecting upon the gift of Jesus’ presence among us. Rather, our memories of these forty days will focus upon the startling adjustments we’ve all made to our daily lives in response to COVID-19. Many of our efforts to observe Lent have been rerouted or derailed as we’ve concentrated on keeping our loved ones and ourselves safe and healthy. Our world has literally been turned topsy-turvy by all of this.

As I attempted to prepare for this writing, my thoughts wandered. I looked upward to pray for our human family as we fight on to find an antidote for those infected by the virus and a vaccine to make the rest of us immune. I went on to pray for my friends and my own extended and immediate family. When I attempted to get back to this writing, I was happily interrupted my a multi-person series of texts from my sisters, niece and nephew. Not long after, our sons surprised Grandpa and me with a three-way FaceTime call. What a joy it was to see that all concerned are safe and well! Suddenly, my upside-down world seemed manageable. As I returned to this writing, I realized that this world has been turned upside-down again and again throughout history. Our human family has survived and even flourished amidst the unexpected again and again. As I considered that first Palm Sunday, it occurred to me that Jesus’ world was turned upside-down as well. I wondered what Jesus was thinking in the midst of all of this. Though I have no way of knowing his thoughts, I imagined Jesus offering his own prayer …

…Judas has warned me. Though he smiles at the crowds, he wrings his hands in the face of Caiaphas and the others in the temple. Judas tells me that I spend too much time with outcasts. He wonders what the poor and the sick and the sinful will do to help our cause. I try to tell him, “Judas, don’t you see that these are the ones who need me?” He doesn’t hear me. Judas is agitated today. Though the crowds wave palms and call my name, Judas tells me to beware. Rumblings of discontent fill the air. While the people make a path for me with their olive branches and capes, the temple guard mumble against me. I know Judas is considering his options. If things continue as they are, Abba, what will he do? Peter, John, Thomas and the others dismiss their worry. They can’t help losing themselves in today’s joy. Abba, what will come of this?

All of this began in the desert. I thought I knew what was coming then. I urged John to baptize me to show the people that change is in store. Peter and Andrew followed me as soon as I called them. When they saw the resolve of these two, the others joined me as well. The people are suffering. They would accept the poverty if they were free of the tyranny. It is no wonder they rejoice in you. That mountainside encounter with Peter, James and John was but a taste of what is to come. Abba, the crowd closes in on us as we walk. This one who chants, “Hosanna!” looks like the woman I met at Jacob’s well. I will always cherish the moment she embraced your love. She continues to live in your name. Bless her with strength for the journey. The man who was blind is another witness to your glory. He repeats the tale of his journey into the light to all who will listen. He understands, Abba, because he once lived in the darkness of isolation. You have blessed me with many reminders of your love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus made their home my own. When it was most difficult to understand, Mary and Martha held onto hope and believed. Now, Jerusalem welcomes me, but will their welcome last? When the darkness comes, Abba, light their way. When the darkness closes in, Abba, light my way…

No, I cannot pretend to know Jesus’ thoughts as the crowd cheered him into Jerusalem that day. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus made it to Gethsemane, to Pilate’s hall, through that scourging and along the streets of Jerusalem with a crossbeam on his bleeding shoulders. I cannot pretend to know how Jesus lasted as long as he did on that cross. Jesus’ world was turned upside-down, far more powerfully than ours is today, yet he endured. What I do know is all that Jesus has taught me: That God remains steadfast in loving every one of us; that we must pay this blessing forward by loving one another. This is Lent 2020 and our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces, schools and this church have been turned upside-down by a strange virus. Like Jesus that first Palm Sunday, we aren’t certain of what the coming day or week will bring. Still, like Jesus, we persist because Jesus showed us the way and his Abba walks beside us all the while.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Always In Good Company

“My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.”
John 13:33

While in Israel, I overheard two travelers from another group consoling one another over a friend who was unable to join them for their trip. The person who couldn’t travel with them had been ill and didn’t recover as quickly as they’d hoped. Because these three considered this trip to Israel to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, this turn of events anguished them all. The two who had made it consoled one another with their promise to pray at every holy place they visited for the person they’d unwillingly left behind. Their tone indicated that this illness might be their friend’s last.

As Holy Week approaches, I imagine conversations regarding Jesus’ situation among his friends. I suppose none of them were anxious to return to Jerusalem with so much uncertainty regarding Jesus’ work. Where would Jesus’ teaching take him? Where would it take them? Was Judas already expressing concern regarding all of this? Were the others happy to follow their teacher or were they struggling with worry as well?

Those fellow travelers found consolation in praying for their sick friend. She would be with them in spirit as they expressed their concern for her to God. The poor disciples weren’t as adept at prayer as those travelers who had to leave their friend behind. Though they had Jesus in their midst, they weren’t certain of what to make of his presence in their lives. Though they’d witnessed so much, they’re weren’t privy to The Big Picture.

These days, I find myself in the shoes of the uncertain disciples. Like them, I sometimes wonder what will come next. It is then that I focus on The Big Picture. It is then that I remind myself that God is with us all regardless of where this journey with COVID-19 takes us next.

Loving God, help me to be patient with others and with myself as we puzzle over all of this. Help us to remember that you are with us though it all.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

All God’s Family

There were also women present looking on from a distance.
They were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger
and Joses, and Salome. These women had followed Jesus when he
was in Galilee and they attended to his needs.

Mark 15:40-41

It is evident to scripture scholars that both Peter and Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus throughout his ministry. The groups traveled together, while Peter led the male cohort and Mary led the woman. The gospels are filled with references to the men, especially the twelve who were Jesus’ closest friends. There is little mention of Mary Magdalene and most of the other woman until Jesus’ crucifixion.

In Jesus’ day, women were of minimal value in the public sector. It is to Mary Magdalene’s credit that she managed her own affairs. Many women left as widows or who were alone and childless lived in dire poverty. In the Jewish community, the rare woman boasted political power. Spiritually, women were ostracized during their menstrual cycles and after childbirth. They regained their standing only after they were cleansed in the temple. Still, none of this kept Mary Magdalene and the other women from Jesus as he hanged on the cross. Though they were certainly not allowed to come to the foot of the cross, they were there.

Each one of us has suffered injustice, prejudice, ridicule and worse as a result of a quality over which we have little or no control. How often we have been devalued by others in spite of God’s propensity to call each one of us son or daughter. Just now, what a blessing it is that so many around the world have come together to fight COVID-19, to find the antidote that will save those who are ill and to develop the vaccine that will protect the rest of us. The gender or skin-color or age or ethnicity of the heroes who accomplish these things won’t matter. What they do on our behalf will matter more than ever!

Today, God invites us to recognize and to value the world-full of brothers and sisters God has given us to love.

Loving God, help me to see my human family as you do.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved