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

History’s Jesus

A family record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.
Matthew 1:1

As he guided us to and from sites in Israel, our guide’s other roles frequently emerged. Yossi is both an archaeologist and a professor of biblical religions. He is also an astute student of Israeli history and current events as well as of human nature. This became apparent when Yossi spoke of The Pilate Stone which was discovered in 1961. Archaeologists and historians agree that his small slab of limestone offers definitive proof that Pontius Pilate indeed existed and that he served as Roman Prefect. It was in this role that Pilate handed over Jesus to be crucified.

While making his commentary, Yossi added that there are some who continue to doubt the historical reality of Jesus. With that, he went into professor-mode to list secular sources which reference Jesus. The ancient historian Tacitus noted that Nero blamed Christians for the fire which destroyed Rome in 64 CE. Those Christians believed in “The Christ”. Another historian wrote that Pliny the Younger asked advice regarding how to deal with Christians since they included adults and children of both genders. In the Talmud, written by Jewish Rabbis between 70 and 200 CE, Jesus is referenced as a sorcerer among other things. Yossi maintained that these writers’ failure to endorse belief in Jesus promoted Christianity by proving in the secular arena that Jesus actually existed.

I’ve never considered the possibility that Jesus didn’t live among us. Though I realize there are people living on this earth who’ve never heard Jesus’ name, I’ve always considered Jesus’ life among us to be a given. Still, I wonder how evident this reality is in my life. Though I reference Jesus ad infinitum in my writing, do I reference Jesus in my living to that extent?

As I continue in my efforts to participate responsibly in our battle against COVID-19, I need to reflect the love Jesus taught me to share in all that I do.

Dear Jesus, thank you for your loving example.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Look and See!

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about our visits to the Holy Land, especially this past year’s adventure. Because it is unlikely that I’ll travel there again, I was careful to listen to our guide’s every word and to take in everything within view as completely as possible. I didn’t want to miss even the tiniest detail of the sites before me. I was pleasantly surprised by both my clear recollections of the things I’d seen before and my appreciation of the new sites added to this year’s itinerary. Each one elicited heartfelt gratitude as images of Jesus’ place in all of this filled me up. I thanked God often for gifting me with perceptive eyes and a perceptive heart which served me well for the duration of this trip.

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we revisit the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind, my thoughts turn to a contemporary who was deprived of his vision from birth much like the man whom Jesus met that day so long ago. This person was our tour guide Yossi. As I’ve mentioned before, Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life. While he provided amazing commentary throughout our tour, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi always smiled as he revealed Israel’s treasures to us one by one. Eventually, we discovered that Yossi’s vision of life in Jesus’ homeland wasn’t always as clear and acute as it was when we met him…

Yossi was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that communist setting, there was neither time nor place for talk of God. Though Yossi’s family eventually left to live and work independently, they also remained independent from God. With his blindness toward his Creator intact, Yossi grew into a successful hardworking and community-minded Israeli. He continues to be keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. In spite of his secular status, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of Yossi’s alleged lack of faith. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts because he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his tablet and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi reverently read passages which featured this teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide considered himself to be secular because he didn’t want to be confused with the religious Hasidic Jewish people. In Yossi’s mind, they were the blind ones who saw nothing beyond the rules and regulations dictated by their faith. They seemed to have lost sight of the needs of others because stringent rules took precedence over everything and everyone else. In contrast, Yossi lead us to the home of a couple who have dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel among the Jewish people. Jacob and Elisheva found a great treasure in Jesus and they do all they can to open the eyes of others to Jesus’ message. Though they suffer both subtle and overt persecution, the couple persists in revealing the gifts they’ve found in Jesus to all who will listen. “We can only open their eyes,” Elisheva said. “It is up to them to look and see.” As she spoke, I wondered, “Had Yossi opened his eyes and seen?”

It seems that his neighbors and the temple authorities were the blind ones when it came to the plight of the unseeing man in today’s gospel. These misguided souls saw the man’s parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction upon him. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. It was Jesus who looked beyond the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. Jesus saw precisely what God sees whenever God peers into an aching heart. Jesus saw a suffering soul whose only need was God’s healing love and Jesus went on to share that love with him. The man’s cure was an unexpected bonus.

While listening to Yossi, it occurred to me that an encounter with Jesus along the way had likely done the same for him. Though he was deprived of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz and grew into adulthood, something urged Yossi to open his eyes. When he did, Yossi saw the gifts God offers to us all. Like the man born blind, Yossi was changed forever in the process. Even without eyes to see, the blind man recognized Jesus as an emissary of God’s love. In spite of his Godless upbringing, Yossi recognizes the same. How fortunate you and I are to be blessed with that same vision of God’s healing love!

It seems to me that it is more important than ever for us to keep our visions of God’s healing love in the forefront for ourselves and for those who share this difficult time with us. While we do our best to keep our loved ones and ourselves healthy and safe, we also pray that those infected with the virus and the brave souls who care for them also find consolation in God who remains at their sides.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peacemakers All…

Blessed are the peacemakers;
you shall be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

While in Israel, I was amazed by the circumstances of its people and its property. Israel occupies a large portion of what we consider to be the Holy Land. Interestingly enough, the holiest places within its borders are controlled by various entities including Muslims, Christians and Jews. Our guide is an Israeli citizen who respects his countrymen whatever their beliefs. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic and Italian (among other languages). As a result, he gained us access to sites where others are denied entry. Whenever this occurred, Yossi didn’t revel in his success. He simply pointed out that being respectful of the ways of others and meeting others on their own turf or terms usually leads to peaceful encounters which benefit all concerned. “This is the way to peace,” Yossi would say.

Perhaps this is the reason Yossi exhibited some impatience with his Hasidic Jewish neighbors. I was surprised to learn that they make up only ten percent of Israel’s population. Most of this sect live in their own neighborhoods where they adhere to the strictest code of conduct. Our guide also surprised me when he shared that eighty percent of the population is non-religious. It seemed to trouble Yossi to acknowledged that the holiest place on earth is home to so many non-religious people. Yossi shared that the strict rules and intolerance of a few had soured many Israelis’ views of organized religion.

As I pondered all of this, I considered the “secular” Jewish people who shared the path with us during our stay. Though they didn’t profess a religious affiliation, they did work toward change through their interactions with neighbors of multiple ethnicities. I wondered if they realized that they were peacemakers just like Yossi.

Loving God, help us all to work toward peace with loving hands and loving hearts.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Let Us Pray…

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faith…

Galatians 5:22

I’ve shared before that one of the most precious and inspiring treasures we encountered in Israel was our tour guide Yossi. Though this was our third trip to Israel, we never tired of Yossi’s commentaries regarding the sites before us, his homeland, Jesus and life in this world. Every encounter revealed another facet of this remarkable man.

Remember, Yossi was raised in an Israeli kibbutz where communism ruled and God was extinct. He describes himself as an atheist who loves his country, but who is also acutely aware of its flaws. Yossi asked us often to pray for his people as all concerned needed to set aside their differences. They needed to live in peace. Now Yossi is an archaeologist and a professor of this subject at the university. Still, his scientific and non-religious background never kept him from asking us to pray…

When we visited one of the Holy Land’s beautiful churches, Yossi pulled his flute from his backpack. This dear man who claimed not to know God settled himself in the sanctuary to play. As Yossi blew into his flute, he closed his eyes. Each note fulled that church and our hearts. A visible peace enveloped Yossi. I whispered to myself, “You may think you’re an atheist, Yossi, but just now you’re closer to God than many of us will ever be. Thank you for allowing me into your holy space.”

Yossi thought he couldn’t pray. Yet he spoke to God quite clearly through his music. Sometimes, you and I feel distant from God as well. Sometimes, life’s circumstances or the troubles brewing deep within us seem to rob us of God’s presence in our lives. It is during these times that we must do as Yossi did that day. We must settle into the sanctuary which is our hearts and pour out our hearts to God. Just as Yossi likely discovered that day, God is far closer to us than we know.

Dear God, thank you for remaining with us in everything!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Only A While Longer?

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

While we were 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 own 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 fellow traveler’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 as we are at prayer. 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 which inspires us along the way.

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

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved