Our Difficult Endeavor

Often, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor… Today, Luke’s gospel (12:49-53) tells us that Jesus made this quite clear. I admit that this passage had been among the most troubling and difficult for me to understand over the years. I prefer Jesus’ lessons regarding love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I treasure the image Jesus put forth of God as Abba, our dad who considers us all God’s children and God’s family. Yet, in this gospel, Jesus announced, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on this earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father…” I didn’t continue this quote because I’m certain you get the idea. Why, just a few weeks after teaching us to be true neighbors (Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan?), did Jesus change course? It occurs to me that Jesus may have done this to prepare us for what certainly lies ahead. Perhaps Jesus hoped to offer us encouragement for those times when we’d have to proceed alone because even our loved ones fail to understand.

This past Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the last event of Mary’s life. Today’s gospel nudged my thoughts toward Mary’s lifetime. Before she left this life, Mary experienced years of uncertainly, anguish and even division among her loved ones while trying to do the right thing. This likely began when the angel invited Mary to become the mother of Jesus. Mary knew what the scriptures taught regarding the long-awaited messiah. Like her contemporaries, Mary didn’t expect that messiah to be born to a powerless and impoverished maiden. When you and I are faced with difficult choices or forced into relentless suffering, we can turn to two thousand years of Christianity for inspiration. We endure and we rise above our suffering because we’ve learned to do so from Mary’s own son. Unfortunately, poor Mary found herself in uncharted territory when that angel asked her to enter into an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Seeking her parents’ understanding was quite a hurdle to overcome! What of her unsuspecting fiancé? What of her faithful fellow Jewish believers who might have seen this as cause to stone her? Still, in spite of the uncertainty, Mary followed her heart armed only with her faith in God’s presence at her side.

After Jesus’ birth, Joseph shared Mary’s faithfulness to God and to the child whom they would raise together. It was in their home that Jesus developed into the person who enriched human history with everlasting results. What wonderful examples this laborer father and peasant mother must have been! What difficult discussions they must have had beyond earshot of their son! Joseph and Mary nurtured Jesus within a family who seemed typical of those who inhabited Nazareth. Like neighboring couples, Mary and Joseph didn’t necessarily agree on every aspect of Jesus’ upbringing. Imagine the conversations which streamed through their work and leisure. Imagine the laughter and worry they shared at mealtime. Imagine the talks between Jesus and his mother and father before bedtime. Poor Mary and Joseph were certainly blessed by their child, but he also overwhelmed them. In the end, whatever occurred between these three has made all of the difference in this world to the rest of us.

While Mary survived Jesus’ childhood, she couldn’t have predicted what life after Joseph’s death would be like. Nor could she have imagined the triumphs and troubles which followed Jesus throughout his ministry. What did her neighbors say when Jesus left the widowed Mary to pursue his work? What did these friends say when they heard tidbits of Jesus’ teaching during the weeks, months and years that followed? Who warned Mary of the horror that threatened when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time? Somehow, Mary was among the people who crowded the way as Jesus plodded along that path to Calvary. Somehow, Mary found her place at Jesus’ cross. As she stood helplessly beneath him, did Mary question her choices regarding Jesus’ upbringing? Did Mary mourn missed opportunities to urge he son in another direction? Did Mary question her faith in the seemingly faraway Abba who stood by through all of this? The mother in me can imagine nothing worse than standing at the foot of my son’s cross. Still, though Mary Magdalene, Joanna, John and others may others have attempted to usher Mary away for her safety, none succeeded. Mary had agreed to be Jesus’ mother and she held onto that title until the end. Yes, doing the right thing is a difficult endeavor.

Perhaps Jesus’ insisted that he’d come to divide us because he’d learned early on that even those closest to us don’t always understand the reasons we do what we do. Mary and Joseph set out to parent Jesus with no assurances. Jesus set out to do his Abba’s work with no assurances. The disciples who first heard this one-time laborer’s preaching followed without guarantees. The man born blind and Mary Magdalene opened their hearts to Jesus with no regard for what others thought. In the end, each one opted to do what he or she felt called to do just as Jesus had. This life can be harsh at times. Just as Jesus prepared us to bask in God’s love for us and our love for one another, he prepared us for the troubles we’d encounter along the way. When unrest and division occur as a result of our doing the right thing, Jesus assures us that the good that follows will outlast it all. Jesus proved this beyond a doubt, don’t you think?

©2019 Mary Penich-All Rights Reserved

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The Body, Blood and Heart of Jesus

I’d been running most of the day. By mid-afternoon, I realized that I needed to sit for just a few minutes to relax and to regroup. My heart ached under the weight of a long list of woes which needed attention. People around me were suffering in varying degrees and there seemed to be little that I could do for any of them. Though I’d kept my promise to pray for each one, I felt the need to do more. So it was that I decided to share this bit of quiet time with The One who understood completely. Before voicing my petitions once again, I wondered, “How many more of God’s kids are suffering today?” My Friend from above didn’t need to respond. I already knew that God’s family teems with broken people.

“The human condition is tough,” I whispered to myself and to God above. As I contemplated this reality, a hymn we’d sung at church the previous Sunday came to mind. When I was a child, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name often. I found comfort in Ignaz Franz’s Eighteenth Century lyrics because each verse acknowledges God’s greatness and that, indeed, God is in charge. Though it isn’t one of my favorites, this hymn truly touched me that day. In the midst of my worry, it helped me to focus upon God’s wonder and my smallness. I became less regretful regarding my inability to end the suffering around me because God is in charge and presenting God with all of these needs was the most productive thing I could do at the moment.

After arriving at that bit of wisdom, I recalled how I’ve relied upon Matt Wessel’s Be With Me to lift my spirits over the past several months: “Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray.” Years ago, these words filled my car every time I drove from Gurnee to Glenview to visit my dying mom. They were the mantra which carried me through my sister’s passing as well. Matt’s lyrics touch me deeply because they dare to be as familiar with our God as Jesus invited us to be. Just as our children ask Daddy or Mommy to linger a bit longer at their bedsides while they travel off to Dreamland, we ask God, our loving parent, to linger with us through tough and frightening times. What is most consoling is that we needn’t end our prayer with “Be with me.” Matt’s lyrics urge us on to invite God to remain with us for the long haul: “Stand beside me; walk beside me; give me comfort; make me stronger, and raise me higher.”

Before returning to all I had to do that day, I considered one more favorite. On Eagle’s Wings has been sung at almost every funeral I’ve attended for the past several decades. “Perhaps I won’t cry if I sing the words to myself,” I thought. So it was that I quietly voiced Michael Joncas’ lyrics to myself and to God above. The thought of soaring toward the sky on an eagle and then nestling into the palm of God’s hand assured me that my prayers were well-placed. With that and a full measure of peace in my heart, I took a deep breath and embraced the remainder of the day.

Though some of those for whom I prayed that day aren’t yet out of the woods, it is with a lighter heart that I celebrate today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Though Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t have these familiar hymns in which to find comfort, Jesus gave them far more tangible means to do so. Jesus offered the gift of himself through every moment of every day he walked among them. Though we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s gospel isn’t a Last Supper narrative. Rather, Luke’s gospel (9:11-17) recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. While the disciples missed the significance of what occurred, early Christians came to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ blessing, breaking and sharing of that bread and fish. Offering nourishment to the hungry provided a poignant example of God’s call for us to do the same. Jesus echoed that call through the meals he shared with outcasts of every sort. Jesus echoed that call when he healed the leper, the blind man and the Roman’s Centurion’s servant. Jesus echoed that call in parables like The Prodigal Son which revealed God’s unlimited love for us and our amazing capacity to love one other. Jesus echoed that call in every look, touch and in every accepting and healing embrace. When we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, we celebrate this Jesus who gave his body, his blood and his loving heart in service to us all.

On this very special day, we consider the way of life with which Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Just as Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do, Jesus urges you and me spend ourselves, our bodies, our blood and our own loving hearts, in service of those we’ve been given to love. While we cherish the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to share this gift through our relationships with one another as well. Those wonderful hymns reminded me that Jesus shared his body and blood every time he responded to the needs of others. Jesus asks only that we try to do the same. When we do, we will transform this world and relieve the suffering of God’s family as only we can. We will truly partake of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ loving heart, one act of kindness at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, text by Ignaz Franz 1719-1790; translated by Clarence Walworth 1820-1900

Be With Me, text and music by Matt Wessel. ©2003 Matt Wessel

On Eagle’s Wings, Text and music by Michael Joncas, text based upon Psalm 91. Text and music ©1979, OCP.

U… Unity…

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
From Mark 11:17

U is for Unity… A few weeks ago, a groom-to-be took his beloved’s breath away with a lovingly orchestrated proposal. Just prior to his bending on one knee, this young man’s and his beloved’s families appeared to witness it all. This effort touched the bride deeply. This couple has drawn close to one another’s families. Their presence hinted at this couple’s intent to nurture these family ties while also laying the foundation of their own family-to-be. When Mike and I joined everyone afterward, we found that all concerned glowed in the love of these two young people.

This couple’s love is tangible. It’s evident in the way they look at each other and in the way they treat one another. Their love washes over all of those around them. It has certainly touched Mike and me. It seems to me that this should be true regarding the love we share as God’s family as well. We needn’t congregate in the same worship places, but we do need to respect one another and to see one another as God’s beloved child. We need to love one another as we love ourselves. We need to set aside the non-essential details of our differences and focus upon the essential needs of all of God’s family.

The couple we celebrated that evening will likely go on to raise children of their own. They’ll love their offspring and their potential mates and their potential grandchildren as only they can. They’ll celebrate the family they have become in everything they say and do. God has breathed life into billions of children and God loves each one of us. God’s only request is that we love each another and care for one another. U is for Unity, the unity we strive to create within God’s family.

Loving God, mold us into one family.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

U is for…

“Which of these was neighbor to the man who fell in with the robbers?”
They answered, “The one who treated him with compassion.”.

From Luke 10:36-37

U is for Unity. I recently attended my cousin’s 80th birthday party. Yvette is the eldest cousin on my dad’s side of the family. She’s also one of the nicest people I know. It was truly my pleasure to gather with our extended family to honor her. I’ve always been particularly touched by my dear cousin’s devotion to her loved ones. While her husband and their five children top this list, Yvette has been a loving and supportive presence for her own parents, siblings and the rest of us as well. During all of the years since I came along, I’ve observed Yvette’s positive presence among us. Her own family’s relationships indicate that Yvette’s children have picked up on this as well.

You know, the unity within Yvette’s family is tangible. It seems to me that this should be true of God’s family as well. We need not congregate in the same worship spaces or in any places of worship at all. We do need to respect one another and to see each other as God’s children. We need to love one another as we love ourselves and our own families. We need to set aside the non-essential details of our differences and to focus upon the most essential needs of all of humankind.

My cousin raised five children who in turn are raising children of their own. Unique as each one is, I know Yvette loves them all. God has breathed life into billions of children and God loves each of us even more so. God’s only request is the same as that of any loving parent: That we love another and learn to get along. Yes, U is for Unity. You and I are meant to be for Unity, too!

Loving God, help us to love one another and to work together to transform this world into a fitting home for us all.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Remember When?

I sat at my computer to check the email messages I hadn’t been able to get to. Just before my husband and I headed north for a few days, my printer broke. Though I’d hoped to remedy the situation before Mike and I left, my inability to print remained until the day after we returned. The family tech experts (a.k.a. our sons) indicated that a new printer was in order. After purchasing said printer, I turned to my inbox. While determining which messages to deal with first, I found a “Forward” from a dear friend. In spite of my frustration regarding all I had to do and though my fear of computer viruses usually keeps me from opening forwarded emails, I gave this one a look. The friend who sent it dislikes SPAM and viruses as much as I do and he is as busy as I am, so I assumed his message merited my attention. The subject line “Remember When…” enticed me to take a stroll down Memory Lane.

The truth is that I wasn’t disappointed by my friend’s email. My printer issue had really gotten to me because I do my final proofreading of these reflections from a printed copy. Keri, our ever-patient bulletin editor can tell you that my submission last week was certainly last-minute. Perhaps I needed this interlude with nostalgia to forget my printer woes and to move on. As it happened, from the first photo in my friend’s email, I was hooked. It featured two high school girls wearing gym uniforms suspiciously similar to the one I wore for four years. As I scrolled down to each subsequent photograph, images from my childhood filled me up. A small television set with a very tiny screen which took several minutes to warm up brought me back to my childhood living room. There I saw my brother who insisted that we watch “Sing Along with Mitch” every week. And, every week, my brother sang every song with great gusto and completely off-key. It was in that same living room that I often nestled next to my mother in an overstuffed chair to enjoy the vintage movies playing on that tiny screen.

As I continued through that email, I encountered Hula Hoops and a full-service gas station where attendants actually wiped windshields with every fill-up and provided tire air at no cost. A vintage class picture featured clones of my own grade school classmates who donned familiar uniforms. A cloud which resembled a heart transported me to the rusty old swing set in our backyard. I loved swinging alone while I stared at the sky. When I did this, I found shapes of every sort among the clouds. Sometimes, I imagined God looking down at me from behind those clouds where I truly believed heaven awaits us all. Pictures of a dial telephone, S&H Green Stamps and a cel from a vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon caused me to tear up a bit. Suddenly, my Uncle Gee appeared before me as he dialed up my grandmother on our family’s single black telephone. I couldn’t help reciting “VanBuren 6-1-0-9-9”, the first telephone number I’d ever memorized. By the time I’d scrolled down to the end of that email, I’d mentally celebrated numerous high points from long ago. Though I’d intended to allow myself only a few minutes, I’d spent a half-hour on Memory Lane.

The following weekend, when I arrived at St. Paul’s for Mass, a lone First Communion booklet on the gathering space desk whisked me back to Memory Lane. Once again, I was immersed in the heartwarming comfort brought on by that nostalgic email. While walking to my pew for Mass, I remembered kneeling in my parish church decades earlier. I recalled my parish priest’s suggestion that we begin every Mass by asking God to take care of our family and friends and to forgive us for anything that needed forgiving. I’ve done this for decades, always ending with a bit of quiet to allow for God’s contribution to the conversation. Though God can be very quiet at times, that morning, God seemed to look with me as I saw myself walking toward the altar to receive Holy Communion for the very first time. The heartwarming comfort which that email had elicited morphed into a soul-drenching fullness that I truly cannot explain. I only know that I found myself filled up from top to bottom, inside and outside with God’s presence.

On this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, I can find no better way to celebrate than to stroll down Memory Lane once again. This time, rather than focusing upon old photos, I turn my eyes and my heart to Jesus. Jesus shared himself completely when he walked among us. The love between Father and Son filled Jesus so much so that it permeated Jesus’ every word and deed. To be certain that this love remained with us, Jesus left us the gift of himself in the Eucharist. Happily, there is no need to walk down Memory Lane to embrace this gift. Jesus who walked among us so long ago remains with us today and he will be with us always.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Choice Is Ours

Last year, a dear friend relocated to Chicago. We both grew up in the city where I remained through college graduation. My more adventurous friend headed north to attend college in Minnesota. While I’ve lived in the area my entire life, he began a successful career here and then continued it out west and out east until retiring to our hometown. Kevin’s return has prompted a few reunions which indicate that our friendship remains intact. At the same time, we’ve discovered that though a good deal has changed over the years, some things never will.

When we met in junior high school, Kevin’s intelligence, quick wit and courage were immediately apparent to me. Though I look up to Kevin, other of our classmates towered over him. Still, he maintained his stature among our peers by using these characteristics flawlessly. Though these things assisted Kevin socially, they were even more helpful to others when the chips were down. Kevin managed to say just the right thing to defuse a fight, to defend a classmate or to set a teacher straight in the face of injustice. Throughout high school, when we all embraced the causes of the day, Kevin was more well-read, well-spoken and well-intentioned than most of the rest of us. In high school, I dated someone Kevin considered to be less-than-savory. He didn’t hesitate to share this opinion and to support it with clear evidence. Much to my dismay, he was correct in his assessment. In more important areas, especially the social injustices of our day, Kevin stepped up competently and whole-heartedly. When I questioned the wisdom of my own involvement in such interventions, Kevin’s enthusiasm removed my doubt.

These memories give me cause to consider Luke’s gospel in ways which escaped me in the past. One passage from Luke (12:49-53) had been among the most troubling and difficult for me to relate to over the years. I prefer Jesus’ lessons regarding love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I very much appreciate the image Jesus put forth of God as “Abba” or “Daddy” because we are all God’s children. Yet on the occasion chronicled in this passage, Jesus spoke of families and houses divided because of him and his message. As I consider why Jesus departed from his teaching on love to say he had come to divide us from those we love, I recall my own actions in the face of injustice.

When I was in high school, I worked at a nearby grocery store. All was well as I had a good manager who exhibited the work ethic he expected of his employees. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to be in such a wholesome environment until our manager retired and was replaced by his polar opposite. My coworkers and I noticed the change almost immediately. A few were thrilled with this new opportunity to get away with as much as possible, while the rest of us were taken aback by the new status quo. Though the parent company provided pricing standards, items in our store were priced higher to increase profit. Though the police were to be called when shoplifters were caught, this manager forced perpetrators to empty their wallets and then sent them on their way. When we could no longer stand by and watch all of this, several of my co-workers and I made an appointment with the district manager. Though we saw no change as a result of our effort, that wayward manager eventually caused his own firing.

Jesus seemed out-of-character in this passage from Luke when he suggested that families be divided. Today, I see that division wasn’t Jesus’ goal. It’s up to all of us to discern Jesus’ meaning. In keeping with God’s unconditional love for us, Jesus certainly wished us to live as sisters and brothers who care for one another. However, in keeping with God’s gift of free will, Jesus acknowledged that our ability to choose God or to walk away from God will cause division among us. Jesus told his followers that they needed to make their choices and to be prepared for the discomfort and the division which might result.

My friend Kevin wasn’t always comfortable with what he felt he had to do. Still, he chose to do the right thing. That wayward manager’s choices were as difficult to live with as was our choice to report his behavior. The same is true for us all. Though the choices before us differ, the overall intent of those choices is the same. We can opt to live as God would have us live or we can opt out. The gospel’s message is clear. God loves us and we are free to choose whether or not to return that love. Either way, we’ll be divided from the ways of this world or from God.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved