A History Lesson

Remember not against us the iniquities of the past;
may your compassion quickly come to us…

From Psalm 79:8

A recent gathering reminded me of just how much I’ve forgotten. When a family member reminded me of a childhood incident which she thought had devastated me, I was hard-pressed to recall what had actually happened. Fortunately for me, I usually let these things go. The scar left by this particular injury faded into nothingness long ago.

I admit that there are a very few unpleasant memories which remain close to the surface. Though I never dwell on them, they do induce goosebumps or a queasy stomach if I give them the time of day. I never choose to think about these things. Still, a single word sometimes evokes memories which I cannot control. At times such as these, I take a deep breath and look upward. It helps to know that God knows my pain even better than I do.

We all add to our personal histories with every breath we take. This is no problem when joy accompanies those breaths. Unfortunately, the realities of this life include both good and bad events. It seems to me that the best we can do is to learn from them all. When someone or something hurts us, we try never to impose the same pain on others. When something brings us joy, we find ways to bring similar joy to those we have been given to love.

Loving God, thank you for walking with us as we make history with one another as best we can.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Do Your Best and Trust God!

While sorting through my files, I came across a story someone shared with me almost twenty years ago. Amazed that I’d kept it, I reread the narrative to determine why it had been important to me. When I reached the bottom of the page, I smiled in spite of the tear which trickled down my cheek. As I dabbed it away, I looked upward and whispered a prayer of gratitude. This discovery was perfectly timed because I was hard-pressed to complete a number of these reflections before leaving for our recent trip to Italy. This sweet story addressed not only the disciples’ dilemma in today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:30-37), but also the difficulties which have plagued us within the church, this world of ours and within our own hearts.

The story relates the terrifying adventure of a young boy in Florida. This active little guy swam in the lake behind his house whenever possible. One day, the boy rejoiced in his swim a bit too completely. He’d managed to swim farther from the shore than usual and found himself in close proximity to an alligator. This frightened child frantically paddled toward home, yelling for his mom all the while. His mother, who always listened attentively when her son was outdoors, dropped everything. She arrived just soon enough to see that alligator take hold of her son’s legs as he approached their pier. This determined mother pulled the boy with all of her might while that alligator did the same. Fortunately, a passing farmer heard the commotion, pulled a rifle from the back of his truck and shot it as he ran to help. The startled alligator let go of the boy and hurried away. Though his legs had been badly bitten, the boy survived. Afterward, he sported numerous scars which became a lifelong reminder of the incident.

When a local reporter heard what had happened, he hoped to talk to that brave youngster one day. After waiting for the boy to heal physically and mentally, the reporter requested an interview. While they talked, the man asked about the boy’s scars. The boy quickly pulled up his pant legs to reveal the evidence of his injuries. When the reporter pulled back from what he saw, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Mister! You have to look at my arms. You should see the scars my mom left because she wouldn’t let me go!” Though I don’t know the reporter’s reaction to the boy’s observation, I’m responding with more tears.

In his gospel today Mark tells us Jesus’ words once again troubled the disciples. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” Jesus’ friends didn’t understand. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus’ demise. At the same time, they were afraid to approach Jesus about this. Though Jesus had exhibited his devotion to them at every turn, they worried. Perhaps to distract themselves, they moved on to a far less important topic. “Who’s most important among us?” they wondered. Not long after, Jesus asked what they’d been discussing. When they said nothing, it was Jesus who moved on. He called their attention to a little child whom he hugged. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me, but the One who sent me.” Jesus dismissed his friends’ concern regarding their status and he addressed the heart of the matter: God’s ongoing love for each one of them and God’s call for them to extend that love to one another and to everyone they met along the way.

As I read today’s gospel, I considered the frantic mother who battled with that menacing alligator for her son. Though she’d been busy inside, nothing mattered when she heard her child’s cries. That mother responded to her son when he needed her most. While that alligator certainly left his mark on that little boy, so did his mother. It occurs to me that Jesus was busy with many things as well when he walked among us. Still, when he heard the cries of those who needed him, he abandoned the tasks at hand to respond. Jesus left his mark on everyone he met along the way. Jesus did this to assure all who heard him that God’s love for us is ongoing and complete.

As I prepared to write this reflection, I found myself swimming with that little boy in the proximity of a congregation of menacing alligators. (Did you know that a group of alligators is actually called a congregation?) Those gators seemed to come from every direction to distract me from my family, prepping for our trip and this writing. As I struggled at my keyboard, I looked up in frustration. It was then that I saw a favorite bit of artwork -a rendering of two hands cupped around the face of a child. Before attempting to begin this writing again, I thanked God for the reminder that someone is holding on to me as well. Though scars from this life’s battles sometimes threaten my hope, the scars from God’s grip comfort me. With that, I entrusted the troubles swarming around me to God and I began to write.
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s With Us!

Life has been tough as of late. Throughout the past several weeks, I’ve turned away from numerous newscasts. Each time, I found it impossible to listen to another example of our inhumanity toward one another. My misery hit a crescendo in response to the protests-turned-violent in Charlottesville. Subsequent news offered more of the same while the voice of reason seemed only a whisper. Add to this the reports of crimes which disrupted the lives of numerous innocent people who were simply trying to make their way through another day. These images remained with me until Hurricane Harvey assaulted southeast Texas. I admit that when I turned my eyes heavenward I found it impossible to speak. What could I say that God didn’t already know?

I’ve known and trusted God all of my life. My parents taught me to seek out God in the best and worst of times. When I was happy with my circumstances or those of my loved ones, I looked upward to offer thanks. When I was frightened or saddened about these things, I looked upward and prayed with even greater intensity. This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though God never actually spoke a word to me, I always knew deep down that I had a great ally in God. During my often emotional teens, I sometimes ran the other way. Still, God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for m, though they never actually abandoned me, I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.

Fortunately, throughout high school and college, God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. When I took a job, I often rushed from school to make it to work. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to manage my studies, work, life at home and a boyfriend or two (yes, my husband is aware), I continued to make time for Mass. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers which filled my childhood. Still, celebrating Mass in English thrilled me. On weekdays, I often attended noon Mass at college to energize myself for what lay ahead. Though tough times and tragedy punctuated those years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto that relationship with God which had begun almost two decades earlier.

Much to my dismay, the onset of adulthood brought the realization that many people don’t rely upon God for much of anything. Though I knew that I had exerted a good deal of my own effort to arrive at that threshold, I had also found great consolation in God’s company along the way. Apparently, I was naïve is this regard. I’d been truly shocked by the “God is dead” discussions which emerged during my philosophy and theology courses in college. I’d attributed these to each speaker’s need to rebel or to shock rather than to his or her actual beliefs. How wrong I was! I eventually understood that these sentiments had resulted from this world’s seemingly endless misery. These contemporaries believed it was up to God to solve humanity’s problems. When nothing happened, God did appear to be dead to them. As upsetting as our human condition has been, I’ve never actually expected God to fix it. It seemed to me then just as it does today that it is we who need to roll up our sleeves and do something.

I share this because Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-27) addresses Peter’s frustration with a terrible turn of events. Jesus had begun to prepare his friends for the ordeal which would take him from their midst. Peter pulled Jesus aside because the last thing he wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus went on to insist that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life in order to find what matters most. While I understand Jesus’ intent, I also understand Peter’s distress. Things had finally gone right in Peter’s life. Peter knew without a doubt that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Then, before Peter could fully appreciate his good fortune, Jesus took it away by acknowledging the cross which awaited him.

It occurs to me that I need to turn my eyes upward once again. I must acknowledge the goodness in my life with gratitude. Then, I must list the troubles which engulf so many of us. Finally, I must ask God’s help as I determine what I can do to improve our world, both nearby and far away. Just as Peter eventually did, I will accept that there are bumps in the road. Just as Peter did, I will decide whether to jump over them, to walk around them or to get my feet dirty walking through them. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter and to us is steeped in absolute love and absolute confidence in our ability to do something to change this world for the better.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

So Very Close…

The Lord is near to all…
From Psalm 145:18

I admit that I experienced great relief this past Monday when I looked at my calendar and found that this is indeed the last week of August 2017. It has been a traumatic month on many levels. I felt convinced that turning the page to September will somehow make things better for us all. In the mean time, I returned to a bit of inspiration which has helped me in the past.

I have a collection of prayer cards and bookmarks. Though I’ve discarded others, I’ve kept each of these because of its particular words of wisdom. I purchased one homemade creation at a craft sale some time ago. The anonymous prayer on this bookmark celebrates the author’s experience of God. This prayer doesn’t celebrate the author’s keen knowledge of church teaching or of the scriptures or of theology. This prayer simply acknowledge’s the author’s awareness of God’s presence with both his or her psyche and heart. It seems to me that this author knows God in the same way that he or she knows an intimate friend. The best part is that God reciprocates this friendship in very tangible ways.

I’ve given that bookmark a new home on my desk. Every day, it encourages me to pray that each of us sees God with the open and loving eyes of this prayer’s author. I can think of nothing better for any of us than to truly understand with our heads and our hearts that God loves us passionately and remains with us always. Imagine how different August 2017 might have been if this was the case! Imagine what we can accomplish during September 2017 if only we acknowledge that God is with us!

Dear God, please reveal your friendship so unmistakably that we cannot miss your presence around us and within us.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Indiscriminate Love

While waiting for an appointment, I tried several times to begin this reflection. Much to my dismay, distractions of every sort thwarted my progress. After vetoing my third attempt at an opening paragraph, I decided to close my eyes, contemplate life and offer a word of greetings to God. I’m usually quite good at blocking out the world around me. I thought I was succeeding until a conversation nearby became animated. The two women involved weren’t arguing. They were simply lamenting their grandchildren’s tough circumstances. Though I tried to return to my conversation with the Lord God, I couldn’t ignore the long list of troubles that these obviously dear friends shared. I closed my eyes to hide the tears which formed on their behalf. “Dear God,” I prayed, “please help them and those poor kids. Let them know that you’re with them in all of this.” My name was called before I could add an “amen” to my plea. Though I will likely never see those worried grandmothers again, their sadness remained with me.

When I sat at my keyboard later that afternoon, melancholy continued to overwhelm me. As difficult as those situations are, the same and worse exist throughout this world of ours. I wondered what any of us can do to help all of the suffering children and adults whose situations seem more hopeless than ever. I didn’t help those worried grandmas. How would I make a dent in the rest of the misery around me? With that query in mind, I returned to today’s scripture passages and to my initial attempts. At the bottom of a page-full of notes, I read, “Use the one-liners!” One-liners? It was then that I recalled the quotes from Isaiah, Paul’s Letter to the Romans and Matthew’s gospel which I’d written on my notepad. “Of course!” I said aloud. Before returning to the task at hand, I glanced upward and whispered my thanks for that well-timed bit of inspiration.

Though today’s readings are rich with meaning, I couldn’t turn my attention from those precious one-liners. In the passage from Isaiah (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7), the author quotes God’s insistence that foreigners who seek the Lord are as welcome to share God’s company as those born into their community and their faith. This discourse ends with, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” I couldn’t help surmising that God also adds, “And my heart shall be called a heart which loves all peoples.” Though I felt great empathy toward those heartbroken grandmas, God actually endures their pain with them. While I do my best to comfort the suffering around me, God remains at their sides for the duration. I acknowledged that simply knowing that Someone out there feels our pain is a huge consolation. I whispered, “Thank you for caring.”

In the passage from Romans (Romans 11:13-15, 29-32), Paul turns his attention to the Gentiles because his own people have rejected him. While he gives his all to the Gentiles, Paul reminds them that Israel remains in God’s radar as well. Paul insists that this is the case, “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” The point for you and me is that regardless of the discouragement or anger which seemingly draws us away from God, God remains with us. I whispered again, “Thank you for your company.”

Today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel (15:21-28) provides a somewhat puzzling example of God’s unshakable love for each one of us. I admit that at first reading Jesus seems a bit arrogant in his encounter with a Canaanite woman who seeks a cure for her tormented daughter. The woman has no intention of joining Jesus and his followers. Still, she approaches Jesus for a miracle. Jesus begins his response with his observation that as an outsider this woman has no business seeking the favor of the God of Israel. The woman pushes on and argues that even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table. Now, the men of Jesus’ day never engaged a woman in such intellectual banter. Though Jesus seems cruel in his remarks, he actually honors this woman’s wisdom and stature by arguing with her. Jesus honors the woman further when he rewards her profound faith with her daughter’s cure. Jesus tells her, “Oh woman, great its your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish!”

Though the cures for our ills and those of this world come far less dramatically, God remains with every man, woman and child who walks this earth whether or not we notice. In the mean time, it’s up to us to take those one-liners to heart and to live accordingly. As was the case with those worried grandmas, I cannot solve all of the problems which come my way. However, I can care and I can do something when the opportunity presents itself. In the process, I’ll make God’s precious presence evident to those who really need to know that God is with them.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Mother of Jesus

Out of my distress, I called to the Lord,
and he answered me;
From the midst of the nether world I cried for help,
and you heard my voice.

Jonah 2:3

On this feast of Mary’s arrival in heaven, my thoughts turn to my mom. My mother had great devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus. My siblings and I all reference Mary in one way or another through our first or middle names. My mom’s devotion became evident in her prayer as well. Before I went to kindergarten, I joined my family in the living room often to pray an evening Rosary for our very sick grandfather. We repeated this exercise again and again when our uncle and then our own dad also became ill.

My mom seemed convinced that, of all of heaven’s inhabitants, Mary understood her heartbreak over each of these crises. My mom also understood that prayer can be difficult when ones heart is overwhelmed with grief. So it was that she engaged us all in repeating the consoling words of the Hail Mary as we prayed.

Though I pride myself in addressing the Lord God and all of my allies above in my own words most of the time, occasions arise when my pain is so great that words escape me. It is then that I lose myself in the comfort of the prayer my mom taught me so long ago…

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed in the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved