God’s Unique Handiwork

I admit that today I’m writing quickly and offering prayers of thanksgiving all the while. The good deacon and I are returning to Israel for a final visit. While I’m absolutely thrilled about this, completing everything on our to-do lists beforehand has been challenging. When I finally felt that I had things under control, Mike reminded me that we needed to head north to check on our little cabin in the woods before boarding that plane. Fortunately, this bit of caretaking could be accomplished in a single day. Three days later, we set out just after the morning rush-hour morphed into manageable traffic. Mike chose the new scenic route we discovered during a recent stormy drive home. Though I rarely read in the car, I turned to this week’s scripture passages to get a head start on this writing. I needed inspiration and I hoped that it would come in the scenery I’d enjoy along the way. Though I read and reread the scriptures, I didn’t receive that nudge from above which elicits an audible “aha” and an idea I can’t ignore…

As it happened, we made excellent time until we saw what seemed to be a huge cloud of fog looming over the road ahead. Before we could comment on that eerie vision, we realized that the fog was actually a mass of tiny snowflakes which grew larger with every passing second. While Mike lamented the possibility of driving that last hour in a blizzard, I whispered a prayer of gratitude. As the poor man carefully drove on, the beautiful flakes dancing around the car captivated me. “Thank you!” I whispered again. I didn’t realize as I prayed that my plea for inspiration would soon be answered quite generously.

You see, of all of the amazing beauty which nature offers, I love snow most. As a little girl, my favorite art projects involved making snowflakes. I remember my teacher patiently demonstrating how to fold and cut scraps of white paper to fashion beautiful snow designs. She reminded us not to worry about the patterns we’d make because each of our creations was meant to be as different as real snowflakes. In the end, we covered our classroom windows with hundreds of unique bits of paper snow. Years later, a high school science teacher confirmed that every snowflake is different. During college, while I waited for Chicago el trains many a wintry day, I studied the snowflakes that rested on my blue pea coat. Their uniquely intricate artistry fascinated me.

As Mike and I drove through what evolved into a mere twenty minute diversion, I took advantage of the opportunity to study snow once again. Did you know that some snowflakes seem to fall in straight lines to the ground while others just a few inches away slant to the right or the left? Still others puff up into billowy clouds before making their descent. Some snowflakes zigzag to and fro regardless of the presence or absence of the wind. When the wind makes itself known, these seemingly hapless comings and goings continue more frenetically than ever. As I reminded myself that it was I who should move frenetically because of all I had to do, my spirit basked in the beauty of the snowfall that blanketed our car that day. As Mike navigated through that mini blizzard, the inspiration I was granted came to fruition.

It occurred to me that you and I aren’t very different from the snowflakes that brought me such peace that day. Each of us is unique in his or her own right. In spite of our opinions or those of others, our personal packaging and personalities, interests and talents are among God’s best work. Some of us travel in straight lines, while others zigzag with a bit of uncertainty or simply because they choose to do so. Still others find themselves suspended in the clouds before making their way home. Some travel only to the right or to the left. All of us adjust our courses with the wind. Is that wind actually God’s Spirit guiding and inspiring us along the way? In the end, like snowflakes, God sprinkles us where we’re meant to be to transform this earth as only we can.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew (4:12-23) tells us that Jesus was heartbroken over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Still, Jesus followed God’s Spirit and John’s work by beginning his own work among us. Convinced of our importance to one another, Jesus began his ministry by calling others to his side. Peter and Andrew, James and John couldn’t imagine where that journey might take them, yet they willingly became the first of the community who would follow Jesus. Like the snowflakes which tossed and turned in the wind outside of our car, the disciples’ lives turned topsy-turvy during the three years that followed. All the while, God’s Spirit led them as Jesus walked at their sides. In the end, Jesus and his friends transformed the world even more beautifully than the blanket of snow that surrounded us on the way to the cabin that day.

Jesus invites you and me to answer God’s call and to open ourselves up to God’ Spirit as well. Though our journeys will likely not be as adventurous as those of the first disciples, our impact upon this world can be equally dramatic. Whether we veer to the left or the right, zigzag or land in a cloud, when we move with God’s Spirit, we accomplish what we are called to do and we end precisely where we are meant to be.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Servant and Caretaker King

Recently, I’ve found that my outdoor excursions aren’t as enjoyable as they were earlier in November. Cold temperatures challenge my ability to dress appropriately. I struggle to layer myself lightly enough to run errands, but warmly enough for those treks from the car to my destination. In the midst of all of this activity, I’ve had to accept the reality that autumn winds have removed most of the colorful leaves which once brightened my way. When I walk between errands or for exercise, I no longer enjoy the array of fall colors which never failed to take my breath away. I also no longer crunch and crackle as I amble along. The leaves I once walked on have been blown or raked into piles. In the midst of errands the other day, I realized that there is a story here.

When I finally returned home that day, I ignored my desk-full of work. Rather, I took what would likely be one of my last outdoor walks this year. Not long after heading out, I noticed a few stubborn leaves clinging with all of their might to otherwise barren branches. As I walked on, I found more determined leaves holding tightly to the trees they called home. In spite of the winds that battered and shook them, they held on. Each one seemed unwilling to give in to the inevitable. I imagined those leaves staring down those mighty gusts. Did they whisper prayers of thanks for every additional second that they were able to hold on? Those seasoned leaves were living their lives to the full as best they could and they weren’t about to let go before they absolutely had to do so.

A few days later, I bundled up, grabbed a rake and went out to the yard. As I tackled the lawn-full of leaves, I found that most of the determined leaves I’d applauded the other day had joined those swept away by the wind and humankind. Only a few remained stuck at the bases of bushes and fences. As I perused the scene, I silently congratulated them all for a job well done. I also acknowledged that their work isn’t complete after all. They’ll rustle and settle and rustle again until the first heavy snow forces them into a final resting place. They’ll lose their leaf-like appearance to decay and they’ll enrich the soil. That soil will nourish the trees which will produce another season’s leaves. Each one will go on to repeat their brave counterparts’ stubborn ritual. Oddly enough, there is story here which renews my understanding of today’s celebration.

This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year and the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. I admit to a smile at this title. Jesus’ affinity for the lowly and the outcasts among us suggests that he prefers the role of servant and caretaker. We’ve spent the year listening to Jesus as he taught us God’s ways. Jesus preached love and forgiveness, joy in the face of poverty and peace in the face of suffering. Jesus worked hard to convince us that God loves us as we are with all of our human frailties intact. While Jesus provided us a lifetime of good example, he also assured us that God expects only what we are able to do, nothing more and nothing less. Jesus walked with the seemingly unworthy and he chastised the presumptuous ones who tried to use his acquaintance to increase their own power or stature. Jesus consistently made time for the poor in spirit and the materially poor. Jesus responded mercifully to the worst of us as he tenderly loved us all. In the end, Jesus hung on a tree with all of his might, stubborn and determined not to let go until his work was finished. I cannot help imagining Jesus pondering the brave leaves who hold onto their trees as he once did. Is Jesus smiling because, just as their work to enrich the soil continues season after season, his work continues in and throughout the lifetime of each one of us?

It seems to me that autumn’s leaves offer an additional lesson regarding this King of the Universe. Our king doesn’t count himself among the powerful and mighty of this world though he is powerful and mighty in his love for us. Today’s gospel (Luke 23:35-43) tells us that Pilate put Jesus’ title as king in writing when he penned the inscription which hung on Jesus’ cross. However, it is Jesus whose selfless life illustrated all that this kingship entails. Like those leaves which beautify every spring, summer and fall and then die to give life to those who come after them, Jesus lived and then died and now lives again to give life to you and me.

Indeed, we have a good deal to celebrate. Today, our relationships with Jesus take on new life. We go out into the autumn air with an invitation to share that renewed life. If trees-full of leaves can so generously grace us throughout the year, how much more can we grace one another’s existence? If Jesus could cling so lovingly to that cross and to the lifetime which led him to it, can we also bring our love to the moments at hand? Can we grace those around us with the best we have to offer just as autumn’s leaves grace us? Just as Jesus graces us? If we try, I have no doubt that those around us will catch glimpses of Jesus all along the way!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Be With Me…

Just a note… I haven’t forgotten the alphabet! On Sundays I’ll post my usual longer reflections and then return to my ABCs the rest of each week.

Most January weekends, a few of our parishioners stop on their way out of Mass to say, “See you this spring!” They sport relieved smiles as they explain that they’re headed to the warmer weather in Florida or another typically snow-free destination. I admit that I used to wonder how anyone could leave home for an entire season. Today, I finally understand as I zip my jacket over my flannel shirt and hoodie. “I’m tired of being cold!” I moan. I say this in spite of the bright sunshine beyond my window which transforms tiny flecks of snow into diamonds. Nature lover that I am, I’m puzzled by my attitude. The mere hint of snow usually lifts my spirit, but this isn’t the case today. Still, I head out on an errand which this week’s busyness forced me to put off until now.

Nagging concerns distract me on the way to the garage. As I ease into my car, I see the strings of Christmas lights I rolled up yesterday. It always pains me to take down our decorations as I’m habitually reluctant to let go of Christmastime. I pride myself in making an annual attempt to transform The Twelve Days of Christmas into The Twelve Months of Christmas as best I can. Stubborn woman that I am, I promise myself that New Year 2017 will be no exception. Still, troubles great and small complicate my life these days. So it is that I decide to take action. Running an errand in the freezing cold isn’t the best setting for reflection. Still, I shift into meditative mode.

As the frost disappears from my windshield, I switch the radio to the CD player. When nothing happens, I remember that I removed my Christmas CD when I checked traffic the other day. I fiddle through the cache of CDs in my obsolete map holder and discover Be With Me*. It’s the work of Matt Wessel, a young man who performed fourteen Concerts for Life at my parish church to benefit The American Cancer Society. I purchased Matt’s first CD back when he was in high school to be supportive of this young and talented musician. I purchased the rest for purely selfish reasons. I love Matt’s music because it speaks to me in the best and the worst of times. Though today isn’t the worst day of my life, it certainly isn’t the best. I insert the disc and back out of the garage. I stop in the driveway to check traffic and to bypass the first three songs. I need to hear the title song because I can’t speak its sentiments for myself: 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. At once, I realize that I’ve found the words I should have spoken days ago. I stop the car and allow Matt’s song to pray for me.

The stubbornness I mentioned earlier can be a troublesome trait, especially when it comes to my propensity to “fix” things. Though I know that I’ll never be able to remedy all of the world’s troubles or all of my own, I try. When I fail, which has often been the case during the past few weeks, I succumb to melancholy. Tears sting my eyes and I finally pray for myself, “Be with me, Lord…” I realize that I don’t have to go it alone, not today and not ever. During the most difficult times of our lives, none of us are left to go it alone. I drive on to tend to my errand. As I consider this writing, I smile as I thank God for the consistently well-timed inspiration which never fails me.

Today’s scriptures reference our communal need for God’s presence. In the first reading (Isaiah 8:23-9:3), Isaiah rejoices in the relationship with God which gives life to the Jewish People. In the second reading (1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17), St. Paul registers serious disappointment with his friends at Corinth. They’ve wasted much time and energy bickering. They all consider themselves Christians. Still, they differentiate among themselves because of who brought them into the faith: Paul, Apollos, Peter or Jesus. There is no negotiating as to who is the greatest of their teachers and Paul insists that they unite in the name of Jesus. After all, it is Jesus who is with them in everything! Matthew’s gospel (4:12-23) references Isaiah’s passage to underscore the arrival of this Jesus for whom they have waited. Later, Jesus exhibits his own appreciation of God’s presence and of those God has given him to love. Jesus’ heart breaks over the arrest of his cousin John the Baptist. John is family in both the human and the spiritual sense. His absence hurts Jesus just as our losses hurt us. Yet, even in his sorrow, Jesus embraces others when he calls Peter and Andrew, James and John. Even in his sorrow, Jesus seeks out helpers to bring the good news of God’s loving presence to all people.

Finally, my errand is accomplished, my melancholy is banished and I smile. I repeat Matt’s prayer and I promise to make it my own as I thank God for being with me today. God never allows us to go it alone even when we think we’re alone. God resides in each of our hearts and so it will always be.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*See mattwesselmusic.com