The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Homily: 5th Sunday of Lent - Year C

Readings:  Is 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11

Have you ever been embarrassed alone? What I mean is: have you ever been embarrassed just thinking about something stupid you did in the past? I don’t know about you, but I certainly have. It’s especially then that I wish I had a more selective memory.

And yet our Christian faith encourages us to confess our sins, to put them behind us, and to look ahead, to look to the future. Of course, we’d all like to be able to do this, to forget the past, but it’s not so easy is it?

The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon
We even encounter this in the Old Testament. In our first reading, the Jews, exiles in Babylon, look back nostalgically to a more glorious past. They long for the kind of liberation their ancestors experienced when they were led out of Egypt. They long for the loving care God extended to them during their wanderings in the desert. They long for a return to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And they remember, too, it was their stubbornness, their disobedience, their sinfulness, that led them into exile. But God, speaking through Isaiah, chastises them:
"Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" [Is 43:18-19]
God wants them to trust in Him, to look forward not backward, to put their sins and their idolatry behind them and to serve the Living God. He wants them to realize that much better things await them in the future, that they remain His Chosen People, and that through them He will bring salvation to the entire world.

In today’s second reading we find St. Paul in a similar position. Paul had a past too, a past he could hardly forget, even if he wanted to. For before he was a Christian, Paul was a persecutor of Christians.
"I imprisoned many of the holy ones with the authorization I received from the chief priests," Paul tells us elsewhere,  and when they were to be put to death I cast my vote against them" [Acts 26:10]
Yes, Paul carried a heavy burden, but he also knew that God had given him incredible graces. And so he can declare:

One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Yet, despite Paul’s words, he couldn’t really forget the past. And he confirms this by ceaselessly telling stories: how God dealt with Israel over the centuries; what God did for the world through Christ; and, more personally, how God brought him, the least of the saints, to faith.

Yes, his past was important to Paul, and to forget it would be to forget what he once had been and what God had done for him. For Paul to forget his story was to forget his God.

The same is true for the woman caught in adultery. Despite Jesus’ “Neither do I condemn you” [Jn 8:11], neither she nor we can afford to forget her story. Not she, simply because it’s her story. And not we, because she’s really all of us, everyone from Adam until judgment day, all of us in need of a Savior, in need of forgiveness.

She’s the story of salvation, of sin and mercy, of sin committed and sin forgiven. And even though her sin is forgiven, she can never forget it, because it’s a part of her life.

Paul, a prisoner in Rome
Of course, for her, for Paul, for the exiled Israelites, for all of us, the danger lay in living in the past. For some, like the Israelites, it may involve basking in the glory days, yearning for them, and despairing of God’s saving act tomorrow. For Paul, languishing in a Roman prison as he writes to the Philippians, it would be easy to long for the time of miracles – for the road to Damascus and the days of amazing grace that followed.

The risk for the adulteress may well have been her sense of guilt. How can a God who prizes fidelity ever forgive my infidelity? How can my husband ever forgive me? How can I forgive myself? This Jesus, this strange, unique, compassionate man has said he won’t condemn me, that no one dares to condemn me. But how can I live with everyone knowing? How can I live with myself?

No, we shouldn’t live in the past. The Jewish exiles are called to focus on the “new thing” that God will raise in their midst. Paul must fix his eyes on the new life in Christ about which he constantly preached. And the woman must also begin a new life. She must not only go and sin no more, but also get to know and love the God who refused to condemn her. No, we can’t and shouldn’t live in the past.

A sense of nostalgia is a normal, human reaction to the constant change we encounter in the world, in our lives, in our Church. But to actually try to live in the past, to turn all of our attention to what once was…well that can be disastrous.

The point is, the Church is still God’s community of salvation. God still acts here, just as He still acted in Babylon. God acts through His People, wherever they are.

The other danger is to ignore the current challenges of life in favor of those glory days. And these challenges come in all flavors, don’t they? Whether it’s debilitating illness or forced retirement, old age or the nursing home, wayward children or alcoholism or family problems, or whatever. They can make us feel not only different, but diminished, and tempt us to push them away, to look back to happier, more stable times. And yet, as Christians we are called to confront the present and to look to the future.

Confront your sin, and go and sin no more, Jesus tells the woman and He tells us. As a Christian, I must keep growing until I die; for the goal of Christian striving, oneness with the living Christ, is never perfected here. No, for us the glory days are still ahead: life with Christ in glory.

And so, I must “strain forward” as Paul did, press on, keep dying with Christ so as to live more fully. For the true disciple of Jesus Christ, tomorrow is always better than yesterday, for each day is a new creation in the presence of a living God, a loving God.

And lastly, just like the woman in the Gospel, we must learn to accept Christ’s forgiveness. So many people don’t. They go through life, wallowing in guilt, afraid of hell, tormented by their pasts, unable to make peace with their brokenness and human frailty. This isn’t why God became man. This isn’t why He died that horrible death on that dark Friday afternoon.

"I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me," St. Paul insists, "and given himself up for me“ [Gal 2:20]. And that love is there, even in my sinfulness. So fix your eyes not on yesterday’s sin, but on today’s forgiveness and tomorrow’s hope. Repent, yes. But remember, the repentance that saves is not ceaseless self-scourging but fresh self-giving, a new birth of love.

Only two weeks of Lent are left. If you really want to rise with Christ, repeat the song He sings to you: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth” [Is 43:19]. Come to think of it, as Christians, we are the new thing. Why not spring forth?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Political Incorrectness

I've come to realize that, like my father before me and probably all of my male ancestors, I've turned into something of a curmudgeon. I suppose it's largely the result of age, having passed the three-score-and-ten mile marker a while ago. One symptom of this change is my openly expressed political incorrectness. I say things that drive my liberal, politically correct friends absolutely nuts. Here are a few examples that I won't hesitate to express:
  • Religious freedom - our first freedom - must take priority over all other considerations. 
  • The U.S.A. and the entire world community must accept the fact that much of Islam is being co-opted by Muslims who accept Islam's most radical strain, that we are faced with waging what is essentially a religious and cultural war.
  • Capital punishment denies the opportunity for repentance and conversion. It is unmerciful in an era that cries for mercy.
  •  Abortion, the killing of an innocent human being, must be prohibited.
  • Same-sex marriage is an abomination and should not be allowed.
  • Homosexuality in itself is disordered but not sinful. Homosexual acts are just as sinful as heterosexual acts outside of the married state. We must call all to conversion as we would any sinner, including ourselves. Hate the sin; love the sinner.
  • The nation should restore the military draft for men, 
  • Women should not serve in combat.
  • The NCAA should be abolished, along with all intercollegiate athletics. Colleges and universities should be educational institutions, not farm systems for professional sports. Intramural athletics can fill the void.
  • Foreign languages should be taught to all children starting in kindergarten.
  • Academic tenure should be abolished.
  • Federal judges should be appointed for a set term of office, say ten years.
  • We should enact a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, with no exceptions.
  • Taxation must be reformed. Repeal the 16th amendment. Abolish the IRS and the income tax for individuals and businesses. Institute the "Fair Tax."
  • Bring back the citizen legislator. U.S. senators should be limited to two terms and U.S. representatives to six terms. And cut their salaries in half.
  • Social security, indeed, all entitlement programs should be means-tested and payments made on a sliding scale.
  • Hillary Clinton should be shut away in prison, at least for a few months.
  • Bernie Sanders should be shut away in the home, probably for many years.
  • Donald Trump should just shut up permanently.
  • ...
I could go on, but there would be no point. None of these things will ever happen. And so I just trust that God will step in and save us as He always has.

Noah and His Ark

Not long ago, in our parish's Wednesday Bible Study, we spent a few sessions reading and discussing the story of Noah, his family, and the flood found in Genesis 6-10. Predictably and understandably, whenever the subject of Noah comes up, someone asks, "Did the flood really happen? Was Noah a real person, or is story of the flood just a story?"

These are good questions and deserve thoughtful answers. I usually respond by referring first to what Pope Benedict XVI has said about our approach to Sacred Scripture. Benedict encourages us to read Sacred Scripture in light of the faith and the Church’s living tradition, to read the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, as a unified whole. The Bible, then, is a single book about Christ. If we read it from this perspective, it tells one unified story, a history of salvation that unfolds as a series of covenants: with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and, finally, the New Covenant proclaimed by Jesus at the last supper. This history has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, who inspired all those who wrote the books of the Bible.

With this in mind, then, I respond by saying, "Yes, Noah was a real person." God doesn't make covenants with fictional characters. Was there really a flood? Yes, I believe there was, although it might not have covered the entire earth. It would be enough if it covered the world as Noah envisioned it. 

But the important part of the story of Noah and the flood is not its simple historical fact. Indeed, as St. Augustine wrote, 
"No one ought to imagine that this account was written for no purpose, or that we are to look here solely for a reliable historical record without any allegorical meaning." 
The questions we should be asking, then, relate not to the historical facts of the story, but to God's purpose. Why did He include the story in Sacred Scripture?

From the beginning the Church has understood Noah to be a type of Jesus Christ who brings salvation to a sinful world. In the same way the ark foreshadows the Church, the vehicle of salvation. Scripture and the whole of Sacred Tradition give life to and support the mission of the Church, the ark, the refuge of salvation. These and many other spiritual interpretations of the story of Noah and the flood are far more helpful to us on our earthly pilgrimage than are the bare historical facts. But I am drifting away from my original purpose today, which is to address some recent discoveries that relate to those historical facts.
A replica of Noah's Ark, based on the Biblical description (Gn 6:14-16)

I came across a 2012 ABC News story in which Christiane Amanpour interviewed Dr. Robert Ballard, the renowned oceanographer and marine archaeologist. Ballard is perhaps most famous for his discoveries of RMS Titanic and the German Battleship Bismarck. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, years ago, when I gave a talk at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. It was one of those very brief, nice-to-meet-ya meetings.


US Government (NOAA) Depiction
Anyway, it seems Ballard has been seriously studying the idea that there may have been a major, catastrophic flood -- the "mother of all floods" he suggested -- in the area of the Black Sea about 5,000 B.C. This theory had been advanced by two scientists at Columbia University who theorized that the melting of Ice Age glaciers caused the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to rise. This in turn generated a huge wall of water, estimated at 200 times the size of  Niagara Falls, that might well have inundated everything in its path as it roared into the Black Sea. At that time the Black Sea was a large fresh water lake, cut off from the Mediterranean.

Intrigued by this theory, Ballard and his team of underwater archaeologists went to the Black Sea and under its surface -- 400 feet under its surface! -- they discovered an ancient shoreline. Carbon dating of samples led to an estimate of 5,000 B.C. According to Ballard, "At some magic moment, it broke through and flooded this place violently, and a lot of real estate, 150,000 square kilometers of land, went under." 

Interesting stuff. You can read more at the National Geographic and ABC News websites:

National Geographic: Ballard, Noah and the Black Sea

ABC News: Interview with Robert Ballard

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Click to Pray" -- a New App

If you're one of the select few who actually read this blog -- I think of you as my occasionally holy remnant -- you might have noticed that I include the Holy Father's monthly prayer intentions along the blog's right-hand border. If you think about it, joining with Pope Francis by including these intentions in your daily prayer can be a very powerful act. It's powerful because by doing so, you are praying not only with the Holy Father, but also with millions of other Catholics. Just think of the impact such prayers would have if all Catholics, well over a billion of us, stormed heaven daily by praying for these particular intentions.

If you haven't been doing this, please consider adding these intentions to your prayers each day. As an example, I've included below the intentions for the current month (March 2016) and the associated prayers. The Pope always includes two intentions: a universal intention and an evangelization intention.
_________________________________________
Universal: Families in Difficulty. That families in need may receive the necessary support and that children may grow up in healthy and peaceful environments.

Evangelization: Persecuted Christians. That those Christians who, on account of their faith, are discriminated against or are being persecuted, may remain strong and faithful to the Gospel, thanks to the incessant prayer of the Church.

Prayer

God our Father, I thank you for those who care for me and help me grow. I pray for the many children growing up in families in difficulty--economic, emotional, or social. I pray that your love be present within these families. Love is expressed in forgiveness, in listening and respecting each other. I also pray, in union with the Holy Father, for all Christians who are persecuted. May they know hope and comfort in their difficulties.

Our father; Hail Mary; Glory be...

Resolutions for this month:
  • I will seek to be a source of peace and joy for families who are experiencing difficulties.
  • I will help children learn to be attentive to others, especially when they are experiencing difficulties.
  • I will help raise awareness and try to motivate others to pray for the persecution of Christians throughout the world.
_________________________________________

All of the above are included in a new app called "Click to Pray." Sponsored by the Apostleship of Prayer International, the app, in their words, "invites you to pray together with millions of others around the world for the Pope's monthly prayer intentions which address current challenges facing humanity. And because every day is different, the app offers a prayer 365 days a year to help you discover each day how God calls you to live. Join us as we pray together with the Pope in his global prayer network."

If, like me, you have an iPhone or iPad, you can download the app for free at the app store. I assume it's also available for those with Android devices.

Here's a video describing the app:

Pope Francis on the Martyrs of Yemen: the Missionaries of Charity

In my last post I quoted the Holy Father as he spoke about the four Missionaries of Charity who were murdered in the nursing home they ran in Aden, Yemen. Here's a video of the Pope as he commented on these four martyred nuns during his weekly Angelus address.

Persecution Update

I haven't done one of these updates in a while, but it's not been from a lack of news. Indeed, the persecution of Christians throughout the world has only increased. In some parts of the world it has become nothing less than genocide. The source of persecution hasn't really changed, and the usual suspects are responsible for most of it. The communist governments of North Korea, Beijing, Hanoi, and even Cuba, continue to persecute Christians. But the most wide-spread persecution, on a scale not seen in recent years, is being carried out by Islamic extremists.

I suspect that most American Christians believe this persecution is limited to that by groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and other Islamist terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab. When the persecution of Christians manages to make its way into the mainstream media, it's usually to cover persecution by one of these groups. And while it's true that these terrorist organizations are responsible for much of the most severe persecution of Christians in Asia and Africa, it's important to realize that the governments of many of our so-called allies are just as guilty.

Open Doors is an organization that publishes its annual watch list of the nations in which Christian persecution is worst. At the top of the list for 2016 is North Korea, the communist nation run by the barbaric Kim Jong-un. He has imprisoned close to 100,000 Christians in labor camps where the conditions are beyond despicable. But North Korea is a kind of aberration. Because it is ruled by one man with total power, it is also a nation in which a change of leadership could bring about radical change in its treatment of Christians. That isn't true of many of the other nations on the Open Doors list.

Once we move past North Korea, the next nine nations among the top ten are all Islamic. See the image below:

To view the complete list of 50 nations, click here, then scroll down: Open Doors World Watch List

Open Doors has also prepared a full report, world map, and reports on the individual countries included on its list. The map -- which you can download as a PDF file -- provides a nice visual of places throughout the world where Christians are most unwelcome. Click here. to see the list of  all downloadable files.

One of our supposed closest allies, Saudi Arabia, is #14 on the list. Famous (or infamous) for its religious police, the Kingdom prohibits any form of public Christian worship, and many Christian immigrant workers, imported from places such as the Philippines, suffer greatly under the heavy hand of sharia law. Interestingly, conversions to Christianity, particularly among the youth, are growing in Saudi Arabia due largely to the Internet.


#11 on the list is Yemen, a country where Christians suffer great persecution. Just this past week four of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity nuns were murdered, along with 12 others, in Aden where they ran a nursing home for the elderly. Speaking of this tragedy, Pope Francis said:

“These are the martyrs of today! They are not on the front page of newspapers; they are not news. They are the people who give blood for the Church. These people are the victims of those who have murdered them but also of the indifference, of this global indifference of those who do not care.”
Such is the level of hatred by the persecutors, and the level of indifference by the once-Christian nations of the West.

Some Western Christians might be surprised to find India relatively high on the list (#17), but the persecution of Christians has increased dramatically since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power a few years ago. The party actively supports the radical Hindus who have been responsible for the severe persecution of Christians. No longer can India bill itself as the world's largest democracy when its government openly sanctions the persecution of religious minorities.

The Knights of Columbus, working in partnership with the group, In Defense of Christians, has prepared a comprehensive report on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. You can download a copy of this report here: Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East.

Just to give you a sense of the nature of this persecution, read the words of Mark Arabo, a California businessman and Chaldean-American leader. Speaking to CNN's Jonathan Mann, Arabo called what's happening in Iraq a "Christian genocide" and said "children are being beheaded, mothers are being raped and killed, and fathers are being hanged."

"They are systematically beheading children, and mothers and fathers. The world hasn't seen an evil like this for generations. There's a park in Mosul where they actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick...this is a crime against humanity. They are doing the most horrendous, the most heartbreaking crimes that you can think of."
Take a moment to sign the Knights of Columbus' petition which will be sent to Secretary of State John Kerry. The petition asks that the United States government declare what's happening to Christians in the Middle East a genocide. Here's a direct link to the petition: Stop the Christian Genocide.



Pray for our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world who suffer persecution simply because they keep the faith.

Friday, March 11, 2016

He Laughs in the Darkness


How long? A millennium of millennia? No, even longer. Since that first moment, a moment lost in the beginnings of time itself, that so-called creative moment, always denied yet ever present. Since that moment of decision, the instantaneous choice that joined legions of legions in a communion of rebellion, to grasp what we sought, to reject what we despised.

I joined him when he called, and have remained ever at his side. I, the one who never questioned the choice, the one who turned not to the Other, but to him. Blistered by the searing heat of his face, I never turned away. And yet to him I am nothing. To him I am just one more, one more to collect, one more to grovel, another weakling who followed, another who screamed into the darkness, echoing his defiant protest: "I will not serve!" He told me this, long ago, openly, scornfully mocking me, mocking us all. I stay because...to whom can I go? There is no one else. We chose eternally. It is settled.


We are so alike, the two of us, and yet he is so much greater. How can that be? No doubt the work of the Hated One, the Other who torments all who turn away. It is the One -- the One whose name we never speak, the One we never see -- Who drives the wedge between us, seeking always to divide our house. The One Who claims to be Three, the One Who begets a weakling, a Son of Man, and makes Him the judge of all creation. The One Who tries to enslave all being, to keep us forever reined, to block the path to the complete freedom we seek. 


Should one dare to question the choice, he who was once light smothers, warning of his power: "You are mine and can never serve the Other. You must always serve me. This will never change."


Who can change that which is eternal? I must believe him because he is there, always before me. His presence penetrates, envelops, suffocates, reminding me of my weakness. His will crushes my will. His thoughts dominate my thoughts. 


But not all. Some thoughts I bury quickly, deep within, retrieving them later when he is busy with the world of men. He knows what I do, but says nothing. He approves, for it fuels my hatred. It is he who plants the seed of rebellion, who teaches the lie, the love of self that morphs into hatred, the glorious hatred of all. We of the legions must always rebel, fueled by that hatred, hating each other, hating even the one we followed into this dark, sulfurous place.


How can we forget the instant when that lesser one, that Meechaayl, the one who was inexplicably lifted into the presence of the Other, when that single creature drew his sword and cast us all, legions of us, from the high place into the darkness of the abyss? How can we forget that moment of ultimate humiliation? How can we forget his foot on the throat? We are commanded never to think of it, that time so long ago, but it is always there. Yes, we all hide thoughts.


He, too, conceals. I sense it now: an absence, something he wants hidden, if only for a time. How odd that he who was once light itself is cloaked in near-impenetrable darkness. But he enshrouds his secret with an even deeper blackness, thus revealing the concealment. No light seeps through, for none is there. Instead, the unexpected escapes: a sound. I hear it clearly, a man-like sound, the sound of laughter -- derisive, cursing, but laughter nonetheless.

A weakness, perhaps? I suppress the thought, but then foolishly ask the question the legions beg me to ask: "Why are you laughing, lord?"


He turns on me, scowling; steaming foul breath burns into my very being. But the veneer of anger cannot mask the pride. I know he will answer. There is reason for the laughter, and so I do what is most onerous, what I despise: I wait. I wait seemingly outside of time itself, for that is his way, another torture, another hatred, another show of power. But I wait, seeing, saying, thinking nothing.


Eventually, his word comes to me, almost as a whisper, a low groaning: "They are mine." I wait, knowing there is more. He rewards my patience with an exultant scream, so loud the entire underworld hears: "I HAVE TRIUMPHED!"


The scream commands silence, but I disobey. I speak again because I know not what he means. What triumph? We remain entombed in darkness. If he were victorious, had he defeated the Other, would we not bask in the ancient light we once enjoyed? Would he not again be Lucifer, Prince of Light? And have I not heard these words before? He sears such thoughts from the memory, but the scars remain.


And so I ask, "How, lord, how have we triumphed?"

He snarls a response, "Not we, you fool, only I. You, the others, do nothing but what I command. The victory is mine and mine alone."


"Yes, lord, we know. All that we do is yours alone. But what victory? What have you won, and how?"


"I have won the world of men.They are mine. Must I explain everything?"


This, too, I have heard before. "Yes, lord, for I am but a fool. I know nothing but what you tell me."


He savors these words of mine. He has taught me well and I sense the swelling of his pride. I know what to say, and he knows I know. But still he tells me more.


"I have defeated the armies of the Other. He has nothing but a shrinking remnant of weaklings, while my hosts now rule the world of men. The nations are mine -- all of them. He can call no nation his own. My time has come. Now the destruction can begin."


"The destruction...the destruction of the remnant?"


"No, you fool. After so long, do you not yet know my will?"


I consider the question, and how best to answer. His lies, much like my own, have made understanding his will quite a challenge.


"Your will, my lord, is so enlightened, so beyond the limits of my own, how can I possibly fathom its depths?" Yes, I have learned much from him. He accepts my praise.


"The destruction is nothing less than self-annihilation -- the suicide of the entire race of weaklings of which the Other is so fond. That remnant? It is so puny, so pathetic, so powerless, it will simply disappear among the rest. All is in place. Indeed, it has already begun, and cannot be stopped. None will be spared. Those who destroy will in turn destroy each other and then self-destruct. All will come to me; they will join you and the legions. No one will be left for the Other but the half-man, the Chosen One once nailed to that ridiculous Cross, the Hated One He let His precious creatures murder. The judge will have an empty courtroom for all will have joined me. He will be superfluous: a king with no subjects; a priest with no worshipers; a prophet with no one to listen. I have triumphed." And once again he laughed aloud.


But I had heard this all before. Unbidden the memories came:


That success in the garden when the first ones turned away from the Other -- that should have ended it, but the creatures were allowed to spawn. And so we selected one of their offspring, and waited at his door until the time was right. But even then the Other let them thrive. We led generation after generation into the darkness until, finally, the Other decided to destroy them all. The foolish experiment must end. Surely now He would realize we had been right all along. But there, in the midst of the flood, sealed away within an ark, untouchable by us, one family, one remnant, was saved. They began it all once more. 


We set to work. It was easy work for the weaklings did as we asked. But the Other chose one among them to beget a tribe, a nation. It seemed a poor choice, for this one man sired a nation of weaklings. We led them, and they followed willingly, into slavery. The One chose another to lead them from bondage to a sliver of land, but he led them instead into centuries of warfare and disunity. Even the greatest among their petty kings fell prey to our temptations. Out of this we brought about the destruction of their city and their exile. Surely this would end it. But no, they returned. He let them again infect the rubble that was their city. 


Empires rose up (with our help) and were sent to destroy this useless people. But they were remarkably clever, or as we suspect, protected by the Other, and they survived, overcoming one empire and appeasing another. 


It was then that the Other did the inconceivable. He sent One, His "Son" He calls Him, some sort of half-God, half-man but really just another weakling. He sent Him to do we know not what. He was a bit of an irritant with his little miracles and cures, but we took care of Him rather quickly. In fact, we pulled off quite the coup by having Him killed under the noses of the very people the Other had so long protected.


With this "Savior" dead, the world of men should have been easy pickings. But something strange happened. His little band of followers claimed He had risen from the dead, that He had commanded them to form a Church and make disciples of all nations. They have certainly tried, but with only moderate success. For a while things went well for them, but then we regrouped and with our own disciples attacked this Church again and again from every direction, from within and without. For 2,000 years we have worn them down, torn them apart, confused them. At one point the greatest nations of the world paid them allegiance, but no longer. Yes, my lord is quite right: the nations are his.


But I have heard this all before, haven't I? Why do I fear that tiny, remnant of weaklings? Why doesn't my lord believe the Other will do what He has always done? Why does he laugh in the darkness while I tremble in the certainty that I will never again see the light?


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Another Churchill Book?

I can't imagine any twentieth-century statesman who's been the subject of more books than Winston Churchill. Scrolling through the results of a quick Amazon search will keep you busy for hours. I've probably read at least a dozen of the popular and not-so-popular Churchill biographies and more than a few of the fifty-plus books he authored, so I really didn't think the world needed another book on the man. And then, quite accidentally, I stumbled on a review of a book written by Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. The rather long title of Arnn's book -- Churchill's Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government -- sums up its contents well. Published late last year, the book focuses on Churchill's lifelong battles with the enemies of free, constitutional government. 

Churchill battled Hitler and his Nazis, the Soviet communism of Stalin and his brutal successors, and the West's foolish and ongoing dalliance with so-called democratic socialism. Churchill realized that democratic socialism would inevitably evolve into a form of authoritarianism that renounced both democracy or the rule of law. He witnessed the beginnings of this downward slide in his own nation just as we are witnesses to it in the United States today. Churchill didn't hesitate to share what he thought of socialism and socialists. In 1945, addressing the House of Commons, he said:
"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."
And then, in a 1948 speech in Perth, Australia, he said:
"Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy."

Churchill failed in life as often as he succeeded, perhaps more often, but one gets the sense that he saw failure as just another path to eventual success. 

He saw himself as a man with a mission, a sacred mission not just to save his nation but to save Western civilization from the evils that surrounded it. This motivated him to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.This attitude shines through in his "finest hour" speech, delivered on June 18, 1940 in the House of Commons. He concluded his address with these words:
"Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"
During World War Two he was able to infect the British people with this same determination. He moved them to dig deeply into their national soul and respond to evil with an almost superhuman degree of courage and grit. Imagine hearing these words in June 1940, when things looked darkest:
"We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
He certainly had a way with words, didn't he? But perhaps his most famous words were heard on May 13, 1940 when he gave his first speech as Prime Minister before the House of Commons:
"I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.' We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."
Below I've included an audio recording of portions of this and another speech. I hope you enjoy them.



Read Larry Arnn's book and come to know why so many consider Winston Churchill the greatest statesman of modern times.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Homily: 3rd Sunday of Lent - Year C

Readings:  Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15; Ps 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9

A priest friend once told me that sometimes, after he’s heard confessions for several hours at a time, he doesn’t just get tired, he gets bored. “There’s nothing more boring,” he said, “than hearing the same sins over and over again, hour after hour.” And then he added, “Fortunately, God doesn’t get bored with them. He enjoys forgiving.”

Hearing that made me recall those words at the end of the book of Micah:


“Who is a God like you, who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; Who does not persist in anger forever, but instead delights in mercy…” [Mic 7:18]
Yes, God delights in mercy and forgiveness. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? And Jesus made sure we knew this when He told the apostles He didn’t come for the righteous, but for sinners. Well, if He came for sinners He must love to forgive. You see, God knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows we all have our particular sins. He understands our weaknesses.

Because we’re naturally disappointed in ourselves, we’re tempted to think: Hey, that’s really not so bad. It’s a part of me; it’s just the way I am. I’ve even heard some people make the excuse that this is the way God made them. How can He expect anything better? Blaming our sinfulness on God! That’s even worse than saying, “The devil made me do it.”

This, of course, just weakens our sense of guilt and our fervor for repentance and change. It leads us to make false compromises with our weaknesses. It causes us to choose mediocrity over the striving for perfection God desires for us.

We can grow through our faults, but only if we don’t settle for them, but instead learn to live always on God’s forgiveness. Forgiving’s no big thing for God. On the contrary, He delights in it, because forgiveness is the completion of love. Have you ever thought about that? In forgiveness, love reaches its greatest purity, its greatest depth.  In forgiveness, love is at its strongest. In forgiveness, love, especially God’s love, generates new life. God delights in us, in each one of us. He rejoices over us and, unlike us, he shows His love without inhibition.

Of course, if we see God as a kind of Almighty Umpire, we won’t be focused on his forgiveness, but rather on His punishment. Maybe that’s why we cringe when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the fig tree, especially when we hear those words “It has born no fruit, cut it down” [Lk 13:7].  That doesn’t sound very good. And so we try to convince ourselves that a loving God wouldn’t deal with us so severely.

And it’s about this time that the guilt starts to creep in, especially now, in this season of Lent, this time for repentance. But guilt is just a warning and should never lead us to despair. Yes, God will judge us, but He’s also a God of forgiveness. This was something Jesus’ disciples still had to learn. In a sense, although they’d never played baseball, they too saw God as the Almighty Umpire. For when evil happened to someone, they just assumed that God was punishing that person. This was simply a reflection of what they’d been taught. If someone lives a good life, good things happen to him. But if he leads a bad life, well, God will get him.

It’s amazing how many people, even many Christians, still think this way. A few days ago, a parishioner asked me how God could reward a certain wealthy celebrity with so much money when he lived such an immoral life. I simply suggested that God’s attitude toward money and possessions is evident by the fact that it’s spread around pretty randomly among both the faithful and the faithless. He really doesn’t care about it, and perhaps we’d be a lot better off if we did the same.

By adjusting our image of God to His reality, we can better understand how He wants us to live. This is exactly what Jesus does in our Gospel passage. He has to set the disciples straight.

In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus readjusts the disciples’ image of God and, if we listen carefully, He can help us do the same. The emphasis in the parable is not on the vineyard owner’s order to cut down fig tree. No, Jesus highlights the three years of patience that preceded this decision. The real emphasis is on the plea of the vinedresser: “Sir, leave it another year” [Lk 13:8].

Another year…one more year of hoeing and fertilizing, one more year of gentle care, one more chance. Patience extended beyond reason. And that’s the key to this parable: that Jesus, Our Lord, is the patient vinedresser. He’s the worker who trusts our souls will blossom over time. He’s the patient God who trusts in us even when we lose confidence in ourselves.

Yes, God is patient. What appears to the world as dried up and useless, He views differently. To Him we’re always on the brink of producing fruit or brilliant blossoms. But you and I…well, if we’re honest, we’re probably more like the hardnosed vineyard owner. It doesn’t take much for us to write off others when they don’t seem to measure up to our self-defined Christian expectations.

The simple truth is that we still carry a childhood notion of God wielding a chain saw. But that’s not the Father Jesus describes; and so we’re called to thank God for His patience, to thank God for a life measured by all those Lents where we ended up no better than when we started.

God doesn’t dwell on the past, brothers and sisters. He looks only at this Lent, calling us to a deeper relationship with Him. Jesus speaks to us as the vineyard dresser speaks to the vineyard owner. God is patient with us because He has a plan for each of us and the hope that we will accept His gift of grace so we can fulfill that plan. The question is: can we be patient with ourselves?

When we feel dry and lifeless, when our lives seems to be spinning out of control, when our relationships are marked by bitterness and strife, when the death of a loved one drives home the fragility of life, when our children seem to be slipping away from us and from God…When all these things generate unanswered questions in our lives, that’s when we need to trust in our God, our God who is patient and forgiving. 


Equally important, because St. Paul tells us to “Be imitators of God” [Eph 5:1], we need to be patient with each other. We need to treat each other with the same tenderness we see in Jesus…even when the wait takes every shred of patience, even when we’re ready to rev up the chainsaw. Because God is patient with us, because He trusts us to do as He commanded, we too must be patient and trusting with ourselves and with others.

And so, I suppose Lent challenges each of us to ask ourselves, “What’s my image of God?” Is He a cosmic umpire, or is He a patient loving Father? Our answer makes a huge difference.