Bring Christmas Joy to Every Day!

Recent Christmas shopping and wrapping drew my thoughts to the precious parcels we present to our loved ones each year. Whether we’re gifting a family member, a dear friend or a person in need whose name appears on a colorful tag, we express our love through these offerings. Though our children have been adults for some time, my dear husband and I continue to do the same. We do our best to gift them with something which will bring smiles to their faces on Christmas Day. This year, as Mike and I plotted in this regard, I recalled the year when Christmas morning’s surprises weren’t quite enough for our older son. Our firstborn was seeking a bit of Christmas Joy long before December 25…

It was a quarter century ago and a few weeks before Christmas when our son Mike returned home from a friend’s house. “Why don’t we put out our presents before Christmas?” he asked. “My friends’ parents wrap up the gifts and put them out right away. They get to look at them and try to figure out what they’re getting. We don’t get to see anything around here!” Because he was in high school at the time, Mike’s observations perplexed me. Though he’d begrudgingly participated in our annual trek to Wisconsin for a Christmas Tree, he hadn’t shown much interest in decorating it. I was hanging ornaments alone when Mike voiced his concerns. When asked what he might like for Christmas, this son of ours provided minimal ideas which implied that a bit of cash might be the best gift of all. At the same time, he quizzed his younger brother frequently about what he wanted for Christmas. My elder child vacillated between wanting to prepare for Christmas Day and his inability to wait for Christmas Joy.

I considered my son’s predicament as I placed a few more ornaments on the tree. Memories of events that inspired annual ornament purchases (Mike’s first Christmas, his fascination with Santa, then sports, then the telephone, then girls and then driving) filled my head. Mike enjoyed Christmas as a little boy, but he struggled at that time to find meaning in the holy day. I maintained then, as I do today, that the Christmas Season is my favorite time of year. I couldn’t bear the thought of my own child not celebrating Christmas with equal enthusiasm. With that, I left my decorating to devise a way to give my son an early dose of Christmas Joy. “I think your idea of getting the gifts ready early is great. Tim and Dad will go crazy trying to figure out what we got them,” I said. Never mind that my elder son would join his dad and brother in this wondering! Every few days thereafter, I put out a gift for Mike or Tim or my husband. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much package shaking. I think each of them was afraid of ruining any surprises in the process. My three men did, however, look very carefully to detect even the smallest change in the configuration of gifts lying near the tree. In the process, my men huddled together often to discuss their gift possibilities. They also spent more time than ever enjoying the tree and the collection of ornaments which spoke of Christmas Past, the joy of Christmas Present and the promise of Christmas-to-Come.

When all was said and done, I realized that my son Mike didn’t actually care all that much about his gifts being displayed early on. What he did care about was the sense of joy which he’d enjoyed as a little boy but couldn’t recapture as a young man. Mike envied his friends’ opportunity to relish the Christmas Joy which their gifts represented. Mike also wanted much more than a one-day celebration which would come and go with the ticking of the clock. My son wanted to experience Christmas Joy on the day we talked and every day thereafter! Fortunately, my son managed to find what he needed in this family tradition which we initiated that year. As I write, this year’s gifts lie neatly wrapped and ready for perusal. Both of our sons and their wives are doing the same for one another and the five grandchildren they’ve given us. Yes, Christmas Joy abounds today as it does every day!

Today, Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:10-18) chronicles some of John the Baptist’s efforts to announce Jesus’ coming. God had inspired John to encourage the people by sharing the joy which had arrived in Jesus. The people had struggled for centuries and John’s followers were more than ready to embrace the long-awaited Messiah. It was John the Baptist’s good fortune to be the first to assure them that their waiting was over. God was among them!

I think my son Mike had the right idea when he looked for Christmas Joy a little early that year. He’d lost something important to him and he wanted to recapture it. In the process, he unwittingly shared his newly recovered joy with the rest of us. God invites you and me to do the same. Just as John the Baptist risked his life and my son risked an argument with his mother to celebrate God’s presence among us every day, you and I can do what we must to bring the Joy of Christmas to the moment at hand.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

It’s All About Love

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Things seem not to have changed much since Charles Dickens penned these words to open the first chapter of A TALE OF TWO CITIES*. Dickens released his book chapter by chapter in a weekly journal he debuted in March 1859. I dreaded tackling this book when it was assigned reading in high school. However, in the wake of recent news, I find Dickens’s opening observations to be quite pertinent. It seems that these sentiments have described the human experience since the beginning of time…

October 27, 2018 was a truly enjoyable Saturday until it wasn’t. That morning, a man driven by hatred shot his way into a Pittsburgh synagogue where he murdered eleven worshipers. He wounded six others in the process. When I heard this news, I immediately lost interest in the M&M packets I was pouring into the large bowl near our front door. Donning my most-orange flannel shirt to greet Gurnee’s trick-or-treaters no longer amused me. Though the aroma of beef stew simmering in our crock pot did its best to entice me, I had no appetite. What should have been a carefree day had morphed into a period of mourning over the loss of yet another measure of our humanity. I found myself in the worst of times.

In spite of the amazingly polite and appreciative trick-or-treaters who frequented our door, my thoughts returned to that synagogue and to similar events which have rocked my world. It was April 1968, when another of our fellow humans assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A heartbroken junior in high school, I couldn’t accept that any one of us could respond to the author of the I Have a Dream Speech with such hatred. A few years later, some friends were drafted to serve in Vietnam, while others thanked God that their birth dates allowed them to avoid the war and remain in college. I wrote often to the guys in the service while I protested the war here at home. I loved my friends in Vietnam and I marched as I did to bring them home as quickly as possible. The shooting at Kent State in May 1970 tore me apart once again. I cringed as I wondered how our home turf had also become a war zone. Those who lost their lives in that synagogue weren’t given the time to ask that question. Our neighbors in violence-ridden neighborhoods tell us that they’ve lived in a war zone forever. So I ask, “Dear God, will it ever be the best of times?”

Before I continue, I acknowledge with genuine gratitude and joy that we’ve all been blessed with the best of times at one time or another. Perhaps this is the reason it’s so difficult to accept the terrible events which hurt us so. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus embraced his work among us with such fervor. Jesus himself was born among us in the worst of times. Roman occupiers mercilessly lorded it over the Jewish people throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Herod was a tyrant who inspired ruthlessness in those who served him. When Jesus’ parents settled in Nazareth, their tiny town was overcrowded and unsafe. Still, Joseph and Mary provided Jesus a happy home there where he learned firsthand about the love of God and the love of his neighbors. Through his parents, Jesus came to know our Benevolent Creator who, above all else, loves us and wishes us the best in this life and in the hereafter. Yes, even Jesus found that the best of times can be elusive. Jesus endured the worst of times just as often as we do.

In today’s gospel (Mark 13:24-32), Mark indicates that Jesus was sometimes quite dramatic in his response to the evils around him. Jesus told the people, “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “And they will see the Son of Man coming from the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds.” Jesus seemed to say to them and to us, “Yes, this too shall pass!” Jesus knew God’s love and God’s intent for our happiness firsthand. This is the reason Jesus came. This is the reason Jesus shared in our trial and tribulations, pointing out all the while the joy to be found in God’s love for us, in loving God and in loving one another. When happier times seemed too elusive to imagine, Jesus called the people’s attention to the joy to be found in the things to come. Jesus assured all who would listen that the worst of times served to make the best of times all the sweeter!

When I look back upon the difficult times in my life, I’m amazed that I made it through them. At the same time, when I look back upon the happiest times of my life, I’m amazed at my capacity for joy. Though I’m tempted to wonder what God was thinking in all of this, I need only to turn to Jesus. Jesus would be first to say, “Love, Mary. In the best of times and the worst of times, it’s all about love.”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*Charles Dickens, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Book the First, The Period, page 1, March 1859.

Find Joy and Share It!

As we begin our worship today, the pink candle which flickers among the purple calls us to rejoice. The Advent Season is half over and our anticipation of Christmas will soon be satisfied. As I consider the lessons of the past week, I find that I relied quite heavily upon the inspiration I drew from Isaiah. The First Sunday of Advent, Isaiah called us clay formed into goodness by God’s own hand and we prayed that God would make it so. Last Sunday, Isaiah moved us from God’s hands to God’s heart. The prophet called us lambs held in God’s bosom and soothed by the rhythm of God’s heartbeat. We prayed that our hearts might be synchronized with God’s so we might respond to this world as God does. Indeed, this prayer was answered for me…

This past Saturday, my sister Rita hosted a gathering of our cousins. This annual reunion rouses the Christmas Spirit in even the most harried of us. Cheerful conversation and bread broken together made for a most enjoyable afternoon. Though my cousins and I have raised our own children and added several grandchildren to the mix, as we sat around Rita’s table, I quickly returned to my childhood. Though we’ve all evolved into vintage versions of our former selves, I found great joy in envisioning my cousins, my sisters and me as children.

As is always the case, after sharing each of our families’ current events, our conversation drifted to the many family members who are no longer with us. Only our dear Uncle Gerard remains of all of our parents. We’ve also lost cousins who were far too young to take their leave. Still, the spirits of these loved ones lingered about us as we laughed over the decades of great times we shared with them. As I considered my family members in the hereafter, I could almost hear my mom and dad assuring me, “You know, Mary, if you really believe what you say you believe, you know that this is what we lived for. We are in a very good place!” I was tempted to respond aloud, “Yes, but I still miss you!” Of course, I thought better of this as I didn’t want to leave my extended family with the impression that I’d gone over the deep end with no life-preserver! Rather, I reminded them of our parents’ great faith and how they comforted us each and every time we had to say good-bye. Though our collective childhood was punctuated too often by these events, my most vivid memory of our family gatherings continues to be the joy we found in the midst of them.

As I prepared for this writing, it occurred to me that my faith-filled upbringing has much in common with our Advent 2017 journey. Both have much to teach us. The past year has been a sobering experience on many levels. Worldwide unrest, unyielding natural disasters and ever-worsening violence have given us all reason to step back to find some perspective. At the same time, our hearts nudge us forward to do something to improve things. My parents’ faith gave me some sense of God’s ongoing concern and our Advent journeys do the same. As we focus upon the joy of Christmas 2017, we must become the clay in God’s hands and the lambs in God’s arms. We must do what we can to transform every day with the joy God infused into the first Christmas.

This is where we find Isaiah in today’s first reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11). This prophet who allowed himself to be molded by God’s hands and who aligned his own heart with God’s heart announced, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord…” As Isaiah came to understand God’s intent more fully, he preached tirelessly to encourage those around him to do the same. Centuries later, John’s gospel (1:6-8, 19-28) echoed Isaiah’s message through The Baptizer. When asked his role in the grand scheme of things, John the Baptist responded, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” He continued Isaiah’s attempt to bring understanding to the people regarding all that God has in store. As was the case with Isaiah, John’s work was difficult. As for you and me, we can choose to be hard-hearted people completely distracted by this life’s troubles or we can allow God to mold us into joyful lambs who can’t help sharing the good news of what lies beyond our journeys here!

The joy we find in this church today invites us to look beyond the windows into a world of opportunity to spread the promise of Christmas. However we choose to do so, we can bring joy to the moments at hand. However we choose to do so, we can make every day Christmas Day for ourselves and for those we’ve been given to love both nearby and far away.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Joyful Expectation

Now the people were filled with expectation…
Luke 3:15

The week before Thanksgiving, I wrapped the Christmas gifts which my husband and I had already purchased. When he asked why I was determined to do this, I reminded him of our older son’s Advent discontent years earlier when he was in high school. Mike the Younger was having a tough time of it because I was a little too adept at keeping Christmas gifts “under wraps” before Christmas morning. Apparently, his friends’ parents wrapped and displayed gifts as soon as they were purchased. This allowed their offspring to engage in some good-natured detective work regarding what each package might contain. All of this added to their anticipation of their families’ gift exchanges. These antics also likely added to the joy Christmas morning when various guesses regarding the gifts at hand were proven to be accurate or not.

I gave a good deal of thought to my elder son’s complaint that year. I also considered his often reluctant and sometimes wholehearted participation in our family’s Advent traditions. Young Mike participated in our trek to Wisconsin for a Christmas Tree that year, but showed little interest in decorating it. When asked what he might like for Christmas, this son of ours provided a few ideas which implied that this wasn’t necessarily his main focus at the moment. At the same time, he quizzed his younger brother frequently about the contents of his Christmas wish list. Our elder child vacillated between wanting to celebrate and trying to ignore what had once been his favorite day of the year.

In an effort to rekindle the Joy of Christmas in my offspring, I decided to comply with his suggestion regarding our gifts. Since his younger brother had come to a “revised” understanding of Santa’s role in all of this, I knew there was no danger of ruining his Christmas in the process. When Mike came home from school that afternoon, I told him that I thought his idea of getting the gifts ready early was great. I added, “It’ll drive Tim and Dad crazy trying to figure out what we’ve gotten them.” Never mind that my elder son would join his dad and brother in this wondering! Every few days thereafter, I added a gift to our Christmas cache. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much package shaking. I think my three men feared ruining any surprises in the offing. They did, however, look very carefully to detect even the smallest change in the configuration of gifts which awaited them. In the process, they huddled together often to discuss the possibilities. In the end, the joyful anticipation of Christmas returned to our home.

As I look back upon that long-passed Advent, it occurs to me that my son probably didn’t actually care all that much about gifts being displayed early on. What did concern him was the sense of expectation that he had enjoyed as a little boy and that he could not recapture as a young man. Mike envied his friends’ opportunity to relish the promise of Christmas that their gifts represented. My son also wanted more than a one-day celebration which would come and go with the ticking of the clock. Though he likely didn’t realize it, Mike wanted and needed an experience which lasted the entire season! In a roundabout way, my dear son found this in the family tradition which we initiated that year and in the many other traditions which are part and parcel of our family Christmases. This is the reason I prepared this year’s gifts early. Though the flu kept my son Mike and his family from examining those gifts on Thanksgiving Day, there is still plenty of time for them to peek at the wrapped treasures where a hint of the promise of Christmas Joy lies.

You know, the people who awaited the Messiah were restless and unsure of that coming, much like my son who wrestled with the coming of Christmas. Their sometimes intense expectation was often overshadowed by their extremely difficult lives under Roman rule. In his gospel (Luke 3:10-18), Luke tells us that God responded to the people’s angst through John the Baptist. John rekindled the people’s anticipation with the good news that the Messiah already walked among them. John did everything to ensure that those who heard him took notice. Luke tells us that the people held onto John’s every word and were “…filled with expectation.” They rejoiced because something great was in the making. Finally, this life’s imperfections faded in the joy of a promise fulfilled. Though we hear John the Baptist’s message two millenniums later than his contemporaries, the good news remains the same. The Messiah continues to walk among us. All the while, he fills us with joyful anticipation of the moment at hand and of the amazing things to come!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hope Today and Always

The persistent sunshine pierced the darkness in our bedroom to announce the beautiful morning. Though our shades normally prevent such intrusions, the sun made its way in to invite us to embrace the new day. While my dear husband headed to the kitchen for his coffee, I raised the shades to admire the crisp November morning. I told myself, “Today, I will walk!” I try to walk at least three times each week, though my recent efforts have been sketchy at best. I do this because I enjoy walking and because I want to remain in shape enough to play with our grandchildren. Though our granddaughters do most of their playing upright these days, our little grandson’s tummy time requires my presence at floor level. In the interest of remaining somewhat limber, I ate a quick breakfast, grabbed my jacket and headed outdoors. I retraced my customary route through the neighborhood, past the post office and into the next subdivision. As I walked on, it occurred do me that less than fifty days remain in Year 2015. Where has the time has gone, Lord?

The past several months have brought change. Our younger son and his wife became parents in August when Little Daniel was born. Danny’s early arrival resulted in numerous trips to the hospital where we worried and waited until he was big enough to come home. In the meantime, our older son and his wife sent all of their daughters to school. Though the youngest is still in preschool, she now attends five days per week like her older sisters. Soccer, dance and religious ed are part of their family schedule as well. Fortunately, visits with Grandpa and Grandma are also included. On that peaceful mid-November day, I gave thanks that life for us has been joyful for the most part these days. At the same time, I admitted that I felt somewhat out-of-place in the peacefulness of it all. In the midst of that thought, a crisp breeze made its way up my sleeves and sent a chill down my spine. Are you trying to tell me something, Lord?

As I ambled further, I gazed at the bright blue sky. I acknowledged that this sky takes on a different hue when it reigns ominously over the troubled days which beset us all. I considered those who aren’t feeling very much at peace these days. A friend’s brother endures terminal illness. Another’s dad does the same. A husband battles medical complications which should never have taken root. A woman battles with less tangible, but equally painful demons. A new arrival in the Mideast adjusts to the sound of gunfire. A lonely friend continues to hope for love, though with less fervor these days. One of the working poor wonders how long her struggle with daily expenses will persist. A newlywed asks, “Is this all there is?” That chill took hold once again. Are you telling me something, Lord?

As I rounded the corner toward home, I remembered that scriptures waited to inspire and this reflection waited to be written. Still, I stopped to admire the blue sky once more. Generations had come and gone under that sky. More will do the same in the years and centuries to come. Joyful and sweet days will continue to punctuate human history, just as days of despair and sadness will leave their marks. As I considered the tough times in my own life and the lives of those I have been given to love, I realized that even in my sorrow I have been blessed. As I considered this, a strong breeze disrupted my neighbor’s neatly piled leaves. They swirled high in the air and then nestled on the sidewalk as though that was precisely where they were meant to be. The trying times in our lives swirl us high into the air as well. Like those leaves, we recover to live on. Like those leaves, we find ourselves precisely where we’re meant to be. I finally got it. You are telling me something, Lord!

When I sat at my keyboard to write, it occurred to me that this life often brings reason to fret, to question and to mourn. To add to our suffering, the difficulties which shake our world seem never to be well-timed. When we think we cannot bear the weight of another burden, something more occurs which threatens our collapse. It is within these moments that something –or is it Someone?– from within takes over. We find ourselves on autopilot, we persist and we endure. Jesus understood these difficulties well. It is no wonder that he couldn’t pass an outcast without offering his help. Jesus forgave sins, mended broken hearts and cured maladies of every sort. Jesus offered hope where there was none. The scriptures (Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-14, 18 and Mark 13:24-32) assure us that God offers the same hope to you and to me. God’s constant companionship and God’s promise of the things to come make this life more than doable. Lord, you make this life worth living!

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Joy To Come

They carried to him all those afflicted
with various diseases and racked with pain:
the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed.
He cured them all.

From Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

The realities of winter and our daily routines have returned in full force. This holiday season brought a new loss and memories of many loved ones passed. Though our certainty regarding the current bliss of these dear souls remains steadfast, the sting of their departures remains as well. Daily routines tend to soften such emotions. Still, the sadness of loved ones unable to see beyond today’s sorrow adds to the melancholy in the air.

When the people we love are sick, it is difficult to see God’s hand in their suffering. When depression, addiction or a misguided heart brings them pain, we wonder why. The scriptures teem with examples of the healing powers of Jesus, and we ask why not now?

When I find myself struggling with these questions, I look to Jesus who hung on a cross and endured his suffering. Jesus knew what was coming afterward, and he determined that eternal life for us all was worth the trouble. Aren’t our troubles worth it as well?

Generous God, you sent Jesus to live among us and to show us that the best of this life is only a taste of what comes afterward. Thank you!

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved