Welcome Home!

In spite of the cancellations of Independence Day fireworks displays, festivals and picnics, I couldn’t ignore one of my annual rituals. The other night, I seized the opportunity to raid our video library for the copy of Forrest Gump. I nestled into my favorite chair to relive history with my fictional friend. Though the screenplay is quite good, what I enjoy more are the many clips from actual events dispersed throughout the film as the story unfolds.

Though Independence Day 2020 promised to be quite subdued, the date’s impact upon me is tangible. My Dad passed away July 4, 1959, and it was my Uncle Norbert’s birthday. We mourned their sister at her wake July 4, 1989. Though one would expect this holiday to burden me with a dark mood each year, the opposite is true. In spite of their absence this year, fireworks are to blame. Because of these family connections, fireworks displays always speak resurrection to me. This is the reason I continue to be taken by the Forrest Gump scene in which Forrest and his girlfriend Jenny watch the Bicentennial Fireworks of 1976. The Statue of Liberty fills their tiny television screen with all of her glory. Fireworks of every color form a sparkling halo around her head. Is that burst of light in the darkness anything like our movement from this life into the next? Though this particular clip is short, the glimpse of Lady Liberty and her spectacular backdrop sets off fireworks in my mind that linger long after the movie ends.

Still, it isn’t just the fireworks. The Statue of Liberty first conjured noble sentiments within me when I was in high school. I participated in a chorus who performed select vocal pieces for special events. One of these was drawn from The New Colossus, the poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed on the base beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. The poem closes with “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Though patriotism wasn’t always in vogue when I sang those words in the sixties, even then, I couldn’t control the fullness in my heart that swelled every time these words passed through my lips. I admit to those feelings again as I write. Lady Liberty’s proclamation is awesome, indeed. This nation’s display of these mighty words at our shore demands quite a commitment from those of us who call these United States our home.

My mom and her parents were born in this country, though it isn’t many branches back on her family tree where we find immigrants from Canada and Europe. My dad’s parents and some of his siblings were born in Canada. My husband’s grandparents migrated from Croatia and Italy. Our associate pastor Father Joe’s family has roots in Italy as well. Our Pastor Father Chris took Lady Liberty’s invitation (and the Cardinal’s!) to heart when he left the seminary in Poland to finish his studies and serve as a priest here. This concept of welcoming those who wish to make this country their home has always comforted me. Where would any of us be if someone along the way hadn’t welcomed our families with open arms?

Having a place to call home is a basic need that all of humanity shares. Regardless of what happens to us while away, our homes promise us the acceptance, comfort and rest we so desperately need. The one who first penned “Home Sweet Home” wrote much more than a cliché. “Home Sweet Home” proclaims the promise and invitation Jesus extends today. Earlier in his gospel, Matthew shared that Jesus understood our expectations of the places we call home. After engaging in his ministry for a time, Jesus had done well for himself. His followers were coming to understand his message. He’d cured the sick and worked other wonders which attracted quite a following. Still, when Jesus returned to his own hometown of Nazareth, he was rejected. Those who once looked upon him like family and as a friend found this new Jesus to be too much to accept and they wanted be rid of him. Perhaps it was in that disappointment that Jesus found reason to share the true meaning of home not long afterward.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 11:25-30), Matthew tells us that Jesus made his thoughts regarding home quite tangible. Though we might find ourselves rejected as Jesus was, Jesus promises, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Perhaps I’m so taken by fireworks and Lady Liberty because they proclaim quite vividly God’s longing to draw us back home. In the mean time, it’s up to us to welcome, to accept and to comfort those around us. We know the rejection Jesus felt far too intimately to allow it to take root in others. Today’s gospel challenges us to grasp Lady Liberty’s lamp and to light the way home for one another until we all make our way home to God.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hospitality… Our Way of Life

While checking email this morning, I came across a reminder from my niece. Angela is going to be married in November. She and her fiancé have planned a very special day for all concerned and they want to make everyone’s participation in this event as enjoyable as possible. While Angela, Dave and some of the family live nearby, many others will travel to celebrate with them. This is the reason Angela sent her note. It includes hotel contact and check-in procedures and information about the area so those interested can plan accordingly. Since Mike and I live only thirty minutes from the location, we won’t need accommodations. Still, I sent Angela my thanks as this information will be very helpful to many of her and Dave’s guests. After clicking “Send”, I looked upward as I’ve done so often during the past three months. “Dear God,” I begged, “please help us to get this pandemic under control so Angela and Dave can enjoy their wedding day with everyone they love around them.”

After adding my “Amen” to that plea, I read today’s scripture passages. I laughed aloud when I saw that hospitality is the underlying theme. I admit that I looked upward once again. This time, I asked, “You are kidding, right? Dear God, we’ve been ordered to be anything but hospitable for the past three months! What am I supposed to…” Determined as I was to complain further to our patient God, thoughts of Angela and Dave interrupted my effort. These two have every intention of being more than hospitable to their guests. In spite of the possible adjustments which may be required by the pandemic, they are doing everything in their power to see to their guests comfort and enjoyment. In the midst of all of this, Angela and Dave aren’t pacing and wringing their hands. They’re simply doing what needs to be done with the hope that all concerned will be able to celebrate with them. As I considered this dear couple’s efforts, I revisited those scripture passages…

It occurs to me that extending and receiving hospitality are basic humans needs and Angela and Dave aren’t alone in their efforts to be hospitable these days. While I’ve done my best to stay-in-place for the past three months, first responders have welcomed the seriously ill into their company. Media images of ambulance drivers and police officers escorting patients into hospitals and clinics replay in my memory. Many restaurant owners who closed their doors in response to the pandemic have kept their kitchens open to feed those doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who’ve had no time to worry about meals. Others who were sequestered in their homes ventured out to deliver parcels to food pantries. Those whose jobs weren’t essential enough to keep them working were welcomed to take home a week’s groceries. Children suddenly banned from school by a virus they didn’t understand were welcomed into virtual classrooms by teachers who did understand. Essential workers placed themselves in jeopardy day after day to welcome the rest of us into their stores and gas stations and pharmacies. When I ventured out on an essential errand, I rediscovered the value of a welcoming smile. Though social distancing was painfully necessary, doing without the smiles of those around me was worse. How I wished I had a cellophane mask so the clerks and cart cleaners and stock persons would know that I was smiling in their directions with deep gratitude.

We might view Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality as a family obligation. We might view the welcome extended to the rest of us by all of these essential workers to be nothing more than what their jobs require of them. The recipients of these kindnesses, however, hold a different opinion. The hospitality of others –their welcoming of us into the moments of their lives– makes our lives livable. In the seemingly ordinary things done for others during these extraordinary times, we’ve helped one another to survive. Though Angela and Dave weren’t necessarily heroic in sending that wedding reminder, they’ve certainly renewed their guests’ hope in better things to come.

Angela’s and Dave’s hospitality and that of all of those I’ve witnessed these past three months mirror God’s intent for each one of us. Today’s scriptures seem to agree. In the first reading (2 Kings 8-11, 14-16a), a woman of influence welcomed Elisha the prophet into her home because he visited the area often and needed a place to stay. She also saw Elisha as God’s beloved. In the second reading (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11), Paul assured us that hospitality offered during this life will be repaid generously in the next. In the gospel (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus asked his disciples to look upon the neediest among us just as that woman looked upon Elisha. Jesus promised that even the smallest efforts to welcome the least of us will be rewarded. Though we don’t need to socialize with every person we meet along our way, we do need to welcome one another into the moments at hand as best we can, masks and all! Today, God invites us to make offering hospitality to one another our way of life.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Home Again!

When he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

Every morning while we toured Israel, I checked our itinerary before we set out for the day. This helped me to retrieve what I knew about each site. In addition to historical and geographical tidbits regarding these places, events related to Jesus of Nazareth came to mind. As a result, I arrived at each destination with a heart open to the gifts of the new day.

I clearly recall the day we were headed toward the Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee and Magdala. A sense of homecoming quickly enveloped me as I considered scripture passages related to these places. The events I recalled made me feel as though I was returning to revive ancient memories. Oddly, I felt expectantly anxious to get to the heart of what had occurred at each one.

Though I’ll supply details later, today, it is enough to say that I was never disappointed. I may not have stood on the precise patch of ground where Jesus spoke the beatitudes or multiplied loaves and fishes. I may not have stepped in Mary Magdalene’s footprints. I may not have sailed Jesus’ course on the Sea of Galilee. Still, I felt that I walked where I was meant to walk in order to rekindle important relationships from long ago. I wouldn’t have felt more at home if I had been the prodigal son whose father kissed him and embraced him to welcome him home after a far too long absence.

Loving God, thank you for being present to me and for welcoming me into every moment.
With you, the time is always right.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Come, Find Me…

Let whoever is simple turn in here…
Come eat of my food and
drink of the wine I have made.

From Proverbs 9:4-5

Three days before we left for Israel, I surprised myself with my packed suitcase and my unexpected calm. Before flying anywhere, I normally fret for days regarding what to bring and how to keep my bag under 50 pounds. This time, I managed to stow everything I needed in a 32-pound mid-size bag. A day later, my husband had done the same. The morning of our departure, we were ready long before our friend arrived to drive us to the airport. All was well.

As we drove along, I enjoyed the view while absentmindedly listening to the news. When the report turned to continuing unrest in the Middle East, my thoughts turned to those earlier trips to Israel. Both times, security in and out was very tight. Yet, both times, I also felt welcomed in this country which is surrounded by its enemies. Though I’d heard that Israel’s own people were often at odds with one another, I’d found that unexpected friendships had been forged among them. As we drove on, I felt an unexplained calm as I looked forward to the next eight days…

In the terminal, my husband and I checked in with our tour leader. Nancy thanked us for joining the group and she made us feel as though our presence made all of the difference in the world to her. When the sunshine pouring into the terminal rested its warm hand on me, I realized that our presence always makes a difference. Wherever I found myself for the next eight days, it was up to me to determine what that difference would be.

Dear God, you infuse every moment you give us with opportunities to find you in one another. Help me to make the most of each of these encounters.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

There’s Always Room

“For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all people.”

From Isaiah 56:7

Finally, I feel prepared for Christmas. Everything here at home is ready and I can hardly wait to celebrate with my family. Everything at our parish church is ready, too. Since our parish was founded, my husband, our friend Terry and a crew of dedicated volunteers have decorated our worship space for Christmas. Before we had a church building, they transformed the school gym we rented into a beautiful and prayerful space. Since our church building was completed, they’ve done the same to inspire all who come with Christmas joy.

As always, we expect standing-room-only crowds. Like all churches, our numbers include “Christmas and Easter Birds” whose only appearances occur on these two holy days. This is fine with us. Like family, we know they are coming and we make every effort to seat them as comfortably as possible. All concerned work extremely hard to prepare our beautifully adorned church, amazing music and engaging liturgy. Everyone from our youngest parish children to our devoted seniors is involved. Our hope is that all who join us feel welcome. After all, our church is God’s house! And, after all, it’s Christmas! What better day is there to welcome everyone home?

Loving God, you open your house to all who come to your door. While some of us feel free to knock often, there are others who don’t. Please inspire all of your children to realize that they are welcome to your home any time and always.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Lifetime of Second Chances

God created us in God’s image…
God looked at everything God created and found it to be very good.”

From Genesis 1

The treasures I recall from my childhood include our children’s bible. This huge book consisted of cardboard front and back covers which held together several small booklets. A new booklet arrived in the mail every month. Each time, my mom carefully removed the bible’s cardboard cover, inserted the new booklet and then replaced the cover. Afterward, my sisters and I poured over this newest addition where colorful pictures adorned every page. When we were finished, I always returned to the first booklet’s story of Creation, Adam and Eve, the snake and that forbidden tree. Eden looked amazing to me, at least as grand as heaven. “Why,” I often asked myself, “would Adam and Eve turn away from God who gave them so much?”

Life in this troubled world of ours answers that question every day. It’s lucky for us that God never returns the favor when we walk away. God simply watches with great expectations as we feebly do our best to make things right again. God also waits with arms outstretched for our return.

A friend recently shared a story from his childhood which illustrates this point. My friend was about twelve years old when he’d made a mess of a small chore. His ever-patient mom offered him the opportunity to try it again. My friend was so encouraged by his mother’s faith in him that, the second time around, he completed the task perfectly. My friend shared this story to make a point. “You know,” he said, “God gives us all a lifetime of second chances just like my mom!” I couldn’t agree more.

Generous God, thank you for the second and third and twenty-ninth chances which you offer us day in and day out. Give us the wisdom to embrace every opportunity to begin anew.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved