When will the “All clear” announcement end our separation?

Millions of people, in a wise effort to mitigate the ravages of COVID-19, are painfully experiencing separation and isolation from loved ones and friends. Two meters of physical distancing. Quarantines. Stay-in-Place orders. We are anxiously awaiting the “All Clear!” announcement so we can safely embrace those from whom we have been separated and at a distance. It may be weeks. It could be months.

Of all the stories of separation I have read in recent times, Shelley Pennefather’s story was painful to read – painfully sad in a different way. It reaches back to the past – long before COVID-19 but it continues to this day in 2020. It’s heart-wrenching to think that her separation and isolation are continuing even as I write this post.

Basketball Star

The leading scorer in women’s basketball history at Villanova University is Shelley Pennefather. Prestigious Villanova in Philadelphia is most well-known for the success of its men’s basketball program. The Villanova Wildcats men’s team has won the NCAA tournament three times – 1985, 2016, and 2018. Their women’s team has never enjoyed the same success, but their teams, coached by Harry Peretta, have had many winning seasons.

Shelley Pennefather, from Virginia, was a star even in High School days. Her teams went 70-0 and won 3 state titles. She moved to New York for her senior year, and her new high school went undefeated that year. When she played for Villanova, she scored 2,408 total points, making her, still today, the school’s all-time leading scorer, for both men and women. This was all done without the benefit of a 3-point shot, as that had not come into play yet. In 1987, she was awarded the Wade Trophy, as the nation’s best woman basketball player. She gave the award to her coach.

Distance for Basketball

Shelley comes from a large, very close, and very religious Catholic family. As devout Catholics, their beliefs were at the very forefront of their lives, every day, all of them. Upon graduation, she was offered a $200,000 scholarship to play basketball in Japan.  She moved far from home to play the sport she loved.

Pennefather played for three seasons in Japan but became increasingly lonely and grew more homesick as the months passed by. During the off-seasons, she would return to America and involve herself in community work and helping the poor.

Longer Separation for Religion

Shelley Pennefather front center.

In 1991, she made the biggest decision of her life. With both the blessing and the heartbreak of her large family, she became a nun. And not just a nun that we may see at a funeral or shopping at the grocery store. She became a cloistered nun. The word “cloistered” means “to be sheltered, and kept away from the outside world, in a monastery or convent”.

The basketball star joined The Monastery of the Poor Clares in Alexandria, Virginia, and became Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. They are one of the strictest religious orders in the world. Wearing their full habits, they sleep on straw mattresses and wake up at 12:30 AM every night, to pray. They never rest for more than 4 hours at a time; they are barefoot for 23 hours of every day, except for the one hour they are allowed sandals in the courtyard.

Isolation from Loved Ones

They are cut off from society. She is not allowed to leave, or text, or email. She can write a letter to family and friends, but only if they write her first. She gets two family visits a year but can only talk with them through a screen. She is only allowed to hug her family once every twenty-five years. When her father passed away years earlier, she was not allowed to go to his funeral.

2019 was her twenty-fifth year as a cloistered nun. After a quarter of a century, she was finally allowed to give her 78-year-old mother a hug. More than likely the last hug between the two of them.

These nuns believe their prayers for humanity will help world suffering, and that the sacrifice they are making, will lead to the salvation of the world.

A Far Worse Separation

Prayers for a suffering world and for vulnerable people in society is a noble undertaking. But sacrificial living and a robust prayer life can never remove the greatest of all barriers identified so clearly in the Word of God – the Bible. There’s an isolation and a separation far worse than any religious duty can impose or any virus can inflict.

The heart-wrenching stories of families separated from loved ones fighting for their lives as ventilators fail to bring them around – those stories are being told around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic exacts its brutal toll. No written words in a post like this could ever convey the depths of pain people are experiencing just now.

Whether physical distancing orders will still be in place in six months’ time – no one really knows. But even that is a long time! Unlike Shelley Pennefather, we didn’t choose to be cloistered.  Having said that, we are incredibly thankful for any action governments have taken to mitigate the effects of the virus. But – we would love to get the good news as soon as possible from the authorities – “All clear!”

You probably know where this post is going – it’s heading in a spiritual direction. The Bible identifies the most serious of all barriers from God’s holy perspective. Graphically, the barrier looks like this:

 Your iniquities (sins) have made a separation between you and your God… Isaiah 59:2

Many ignore the reality of this spiritual separation – especially when life is good. But when life has been flipped on its back and fearful vulnerabilities emerge and our shell of invincibility has been cracked open – then we think more deeply. To live one’s entire life at a distance from God and to have never enjoyed a personal relationship with Him is tragic; but, it is infinitely worse to die and enter eternity forever separated from God. No amount of prayers for the dead will ever budge a person out of their eternal location.

Real Place of Eternal Separation

At the risk of offending some, the story Jesus shared in Luke 16 is still a warning to this very day. Two men lived. Two men died. Tragically, one died the way he lived – separated from God by his sins. It was too late to alter his trajectory then. On the other side of death, he landed in a place of dark isolation and suffering – separated from God. Jesus called this place Hell. From that destination, the man cried out for mercy but was told there was a barrier of separation ‘fixed’ or locked in place that would eternally prevent any mercy or migration from Hell to Heaven. (Luke 16:26)

If you would like to have the separation between you and God eliminated today – there is only one way. People try to span this distance in multiple ways – but the Bible is clear: no amount of human effort or sincerity works for salvation.

  • No amount of prayers or faithfulness to a religion can atone for our sins.
  • No self-sacrifices, acts of charity or personal deprivations can bring us to God or help us find merit with God.
  • When it comes to eternal life and establishing a relationship with God we have absolutely no favor-credits to offer God.

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. Titus 3:4-5

God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

In multiple places throughout the Bible, we are positively told we need to be ‘rescued’ because of our helplessness and sins. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus talked about her Saviour / Rescuer. (Luke 1:47) Implicitly, she acknowledged that in her helpless condition she needed exactly what we all need – not someone to help get us to God – but someone to completely rescue us and single-handedly bring us to God.

Religion wrongly teaches that we must do our part towards our own redemption and salvation and Jesus will do the rest. But, Jesus didn’t come to be our helper – He came to be the Saviour.

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8

People make incredible sacrifices but when it comes to our sins – no sacrifices we could ever make have the remotest possibility of removing even one sin. When it comes to sin there is only one sacrifice that is pleasing to God.

He (Jesus), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God. Hebrews 10:11-12

On the cross, at the end of His suffering for sin, Jesus triumphantly announced to the universe: “It is finished.” John 19:30 Jesus Himself paid the sin penalty in full. Everything God’s holiness required regarding the barrier of sin, Jesus fully satisfied.

As much as we can hardly wait to get the “All Clear!” signal regarding COVID-19, the “All Clear!” announcement from the Cross was infinitely better!

There is no longer any reason for you to remain separated from God.  Religiously, Shelley Pennefather chose to be cloistered and separated. Physically, you did not choose to be separated due to COVID-19. But, spiritually and eternally the choice is totally yours – as to whether you remain separated and at a distance from God.

Who his own self [Jesus Christ] bare our sins in His own body on the tree [cross]… For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God. 1Peter 2:24, 3:18

With the barrier of sin being successfully dealt with on the Cross, Jesus now graciously offers to give you peace, acceptance and rest by bringing you to God. He said:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

The choice is yours.


Special thanks to Dr. Lindsay Parks for forwarding the Pennefather story and providing the summary.

  • ESPN.com         https://www.espn.com/womens-college-basketball/story/_/id/27297631
  • https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/faith-and-character/faith-and-character/pennefather-heeds-her-calling.html

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