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, August 31, 2015

Homily: The Passion of St. John the Baptist (August 29)



Readings1 Thes 4:9-11; Ps 98; Mk 6:17-29
Today we celebrate the passion or martyrdom of John the Baptist, the one whom Jesus called the greatest of all men, the greatest of prophets.
I suspect that most of us really don’t think very much about John the Baptist. And John’s probably very happy that we don’t. After all, in his humility, a humility rarely duplicated, he considered himself no more than a sign pointing away from himself, pointing the way to Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease” [Jn 3:30].
John focused solely on Jesus: in his birth and his life, even in his death. John’s birth and life were a signal to humanity, an announcement: the Lord is coming; be prepared. Indeed, John announced the Lord’s coming even before he was born. As Luke tells us, when a pregnant Mary traveled to Judea and approached Elizabeth, John leapt in his mother’s womb, greeting the unborn Jesus. [Lk 1:41].
Elizabeth and Mary Rejoice
Even before birth, John was moved by the Holy Spirit to fulfill his life’s mission. Some theologians have suggested that John, at the moment he greeted Jesus, was baptized by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, born without original sin. But whether or not this is true, John was still called to announce the Lord from the very beginning.
At his birth John’s father, Zechariah, proclaimed that his son will be “prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” [Lk 1:76]. And so John’s life was totally committed to preparing the world for Jesus, the Lamb of God, preaching the baptism of repentance. 
Imagine if you can the extraordinary impression the figure and message of John the Baptist made in Jerusalem’s highly charged atmosphere. Many Jews must have thought, “At last we have a prophet again.” What a furor he must have raised. Consumed by his mission to prepare God’s chosen people for the arrival of their Messiah, He roused them from their complacency and turned them from their petty concerns to the things of God.
In his Gospel, Mark makes John’s impact clear: People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins” [Mk 1:5].
“…all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…”  Not a few, not a lot, but all. Yes, John had a tremendous impact. He could have claimed to be the Messiah and started a major uprising, exactly what many Jews sought. This alone was reason enough for Herod to lock him up. How did Mark put it? “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody” [Mk 6:20]. 
Humility, righteousness and holiness were foreign to Herod. And because he couldn’t understand John, He feared him. Fear always accompanies power because the powerful fear that which threatens their power. Yes, Herod feared John’s popularity.
But before John was imprisoned, while he was still baptizing in the Jordan, Jesus came to him and allowed John to baptize Him, an event that signaled Jesus’ public ministry. This was also John’s sign to step aside, to send his disciples away, pointing to the Lamb of God [Jn 1:29].
"Behold, the Lamb of God"
“…the Lamb of God” were words that must have had an amazing effect on the people. After all every day lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. But here was John, pointing at Jesus and calling Him God’s Lamb, the One who would be sacrificed for the sins of all. How this must have shocked those first-century Jews.
Jesus takes John’s disciples and turns them into saints, into miracle workers, into tireless missionaries, into priests of the New Covenant. John is the voice because Jesus is the Word.
John would die in Herod’s prison, at the whim of a spoiled daughter, a conniving wife, and a weak, drunken king. And yet, he knew his death was necessary, for only in death could he truly decrease, only in death could he ensure that Jesus would increase.
The Beheading of St. John the Baptist
That, brothers and sisters, is the measure of John’s life. He decreased to the point that he had nothing to say for himself and everything to say for Jesus. In losing his life, John found his life. He disappeared into greatness, just as Jesus promised.
But Jesus also says “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” [Mt 11:11]. What a beautiful reminder for us – to remember our dignity as baptized Christians. For we are called to share God’s life through baptism and the gift of God’s grace. Of course this demands that we live according to our dignity.
Are our lives like John’s, an offering to God? God wants to fill us with His glory all the days of our lives. Like John, we too were chosen by God before we were born, chosen to proclaim God’s goodness through our lives. 
Allow yourself to be touched deeply by God’s love for you. Resolve to live today out of love for God, and like John, carry this Good News wherever you go.

Hatred and Truth

Some years ago, as an employee of a large multinational company, I had frequent interaction with a colleague who despised Israel. His hatred was so deep, so all-encompassing, that he believed Israel, a nation about the size of New Jersey, was the ultimate source of all the world's problems. I can recall sitting next to him in the company cafeteria on the morning of Sepember 11, 2001. As we watched the horrendous events of that morning on a large screen TV, I suggested that it was probably the work of Islamist terrorists. He just groaned and said, "No way. The Israelis are behind this. You'll see." The next day I asked him if he'd seen the news footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets as they celebrated the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Yes, he had seen them but he was certain they were phony: "Probably some old file footage they threw on the air." As you might expect he became a full-fledged truther, convinced that 9/11 was the work of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Over time, though, it became clear that the nation of Israel was not the real target of his hatred. On several occasions he let his guard down and grumbled about the "(bleeping) Jews". He was nothing more (or less) than a garden variety anti-Semite.
Truthers: 9/11 an Israeli plot?
My former colleague is, of course, not alone in his hatred. It's very much in vogue today to despise Israel for doing anything that promotes its continued existence and to overlook any violence against Israel by its neighboring Muslim states. And yet, when we take even a cursory look at Israel's enemies, what we find are a collection of despotic regimes that make every effort to focus their citizens' hatred on Israel. This, of course, is a strategy of distraction. If those in power can convince the people that all their ills originate with Israel and the Jews, the people will be less likely to turn their attention to the despots who rule them. Adolph Hitler was fairly successful doing much the same back in the 1930s.

When it comes to Israel, though, one often hears that, as a nation, it should never have been brought into being, that the Jews were latecomers who evicted the land's rightful inhabitants, the Palestinians. I've expended a lot of energy arguing against this, but when someone is motivated by an irrational hatred, no argument will move him. And then, the other day, I came across an article written by Dennis Prager, an unapologetic supporter of Israel. The article compares the creation of two nations -- Israel in 1948 and Pakistan in 1947 -- and asks why the legitimacy of Israel is so often questioned while that of Pakistan is universally accepted. It's an interesting question and the obvious answer is as disturbing as my former colleague's deep-seated hatred. Here's a link to Prager's column: Why is Pakistan More Legitimate than Israel?
Christian Persecution in Pakistan
The United States and Israel have shared a special and close relationship since Israel's founding. Although, like any relationship, it's had its ups and downs, our common dedication to individual freedom and representative, constitutional government have kept the relationship close. Ironically, Muslims in Israel have more political freedom than their co-coreligionists in any other Middle Eastern state, and certainly more than that experienced by Jews and Christians who live in Islamic nations. I would also argue that Israel is really the only nation in the Middle East that reflects the values of Western Civilization. This becomes particularly important as the Christian populations of most Middle Eastern countries decrease, largely as a result of persecution by Islamists. As the radicalization of the Islamic world increases, Israel may well be our only reliable ally in the region.
ISIS Murdering Christians

Our president, however, seems to be more willing to appease our sworn enemies than to support our beleaguered ally. The recent agreement with the Iranians is an obvious example in that it provides a definite pathway to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It also provides this regime with billions to spend on delivery systems and the support of its puppet terrorist organizations. One can only wonder how the Israelis, along with the other gulf states, will respond to the very real threat posed by a nuclear Iran with lots of cash to spread around among its terrorist friends. I can foresee no possible positive outcome as a result of this agreement.

The president has labeled those who do not support the agreement as "crazies" while his supporters blame the Zionist lobby. I have never thought of myself as a crazy Zionist, but I guess that's what the administration thinks I am...of course I'm joined by a majority of the American public. (See CNN poll.) I also suggest you read this article by Steve Apfel in The American Thinker in which the author exposes the "blame the Zionists for humanity's ills" bogeyman for what it is.

Pray for our nation and its political leadership. And pray for the Christians of the Middle East. They are a courageous people, unafraid to declare their faith in the presence of murderous hatred. Could we do the same?
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death..." [Rev 12:10-11]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Unplanned Thoughts

Occasionally I find the time just to sit down, usually outside on our lanai, and think a bit about all the strangeness that typifies our world. Because I am currently trapped here in our home, afflicted by an ailment, I have a lot more time to ponder such things. I am suffering through an attack of shingles, which is a very mundane name given to a very irritating illness. I had it once before, 15 or 20 years ago, but that time it manifested itself on my chest. This time it has attacked my head -- shingles on the roof, so to speak. It's extremely irritating, maddening even, since it offers both itching and pain. I am, of course, taking the prescribed medications and hope to be back to normal soon. We'll see. My mother would have told me to suffer these symptoms gladly and offer them to Our Lord for those who are in need of God's grace...so I will do so with minimal complaining.

In the meantime, there is good news today for those of us who are relatively poor. Early this morning, after praying Morning Prayer, I turned on the news and saw that the stock market was anticipating a severe plunge to rival that of the previous week. When the market opened, the Dow Jones Average dropped over 1,000 points before rallying somewhat. The last time I looked it was down 600 or so points, although the last 30 minutes of trading might be the most telling of the day. Now, for me this is good news since I no longer own a single share of stock. I am, therefore, relatively untouched by all the volatility experienced by the stock and commodity markets. While owners of oil company stock are bemoaning the drop in the price of oil (now somewhere around $39 a barrel), I am happily paying far less at the pump to fill up my Kia. As I said, good news for the poor.

Another thought that struck me this afternoon was that the Black Lives Matter people really don't care about black lives. If you really cared about the lives of black people, you would also care about the lives of all people. But they don't. The Black Lives Matter movement (Can I call it a movement?), seems to focus solely on young black men who have been killed by white policemen. This probably represents only a tiny percentage of the young black men who suffer violent deaths. Sadly, the vast majority of these young men die at the hands of other young black men. But for some reason these lives don't matter. Black Lives Matter is no more than radical, racial politics in action. Just latch onto a clever slogan designed to appeal to the low-information citizen, look for venues to disrupt, and you can be certain of good coverage by the mainstream media.

The three young Americans who disrupted the vile plans of the Islamist terrorist on that French train deserve all the accolades they have received. Even the Socialist prime minister of France, François Hollande, couldn't resist honoring them. Indeed, Hollande presented each with the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest medal, for their remarkably brave actions. What impresses me most about these three young men is their humility. Each one praised the other two and those others on the train who came to their assistance. How refreshing to encounter such humility in these days of blatant self-promotion. How different from our politicians who actually seem to believe the world revolves around them. I can't think of three better role models for our youth than these three young Americans --  Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler. May their tribe increase.

That's enough for now. My head hurts. Perhaps a glass of Merlot before dinner. Couldn't hurt.

Pax et bonum...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Homily: 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time


Readings: 1 Kgs 19:4-8; Ps 34; Eph 4:30-5:2; Jn 6:41-51
Some years ago, a high school student asked me why, if God really exists, He doesn’t manifest Himself in some obvious way. “I mean,” he said, “like, if Jesus really is God, why doesn’t he just appear, you know, in the sky or somewhere? Or maybe He could perform some really big miracle, something that everyone could see.”
“And what would that accomplish?” I asked.
He stared at me as if I were, as they say, totally clueless. “Well, you know, everyone would have to believe in Him. I mean, how could anyone ignore it?”
“And you think that this would change people?”
“Well, yeah. Wouldn’t it change you?”
I admitted that a miracle of the sort he envisioned would no doubt have its effect on me. It would certainly reaffirm my faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
“But what of those who don’t already believe?” I asked. “Or those whose faith is weak, and whose lives reflect this weakness? Would they suddenly transform their lives, become holy and obey God’s commandments?”
“Sure.” he said, “I mean, it would be pretty dumb not to.”
For a moment, I considered my own faith...and my sinfulness, and my inability to justify the disparity between them. Yes, I found myself thinking, it is pretty dumb to believe and yet to continue resisting God’s Will through sin and disobedience.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul chastises the Christians at Ephesus on this very point. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit, he tells them, with your bitterness, your anger, your malice, your slander toward one another. In other words, it’s not enough to say we’re Christians; we must be Christians -- as Paul says -- “imitators of God,” imitators of Christ.
 But like the Ephesians we instead let ourselves be consumed by anger, by hatreds, by lust, by greed. In varying degrees, we all do it, don’t we?
We see it in families, in homes where love is absent and communication is limited to criticism, angry outbursts, and worse.
We see it in the workplace, where too often the just wage is sacrificed on the altar of investor’s profits. Or where commercial decisions are made with no thought given to their moral implications. As the chief executive of a large corporation once said to me, “I don’t see where personal morality has any place in business decisions.” And he claims to be a Christian.
We see it in our professions, where, for example, some doctors supposedly committed to healing devote themselves to bringing only death...to the unborn, to the sick, to the elderly.
We see it in our popular culture, in movies and on TV, on the Internet, in our music... where immorality reigns supreme, where God’s Word and His Church are mocked, where the Ten Commandments are consigned to the dust heap of irrelevance. "Hey, it's a new millennium," they tell us.
Sometimes we even see it in the parking lot after Mass, but that’s a subject for another homily.
Like some of the Ephesians who so exasperated St. Paul, too many of us try to compartmentalize our lives into Christian times -- pretty much restricted to Sunday mornings -- and other times, when just about anything goes.
Strange behavior, isn’t it? Here we are, believing Christians, who are told by Jesus -- No, commanded by the Son of God -- to repent, to change the direction of our lives so they reflect the Gospel. And instead of obeying, we carry on as if...well, as if He didn’t exist. And yet it’s He, the Creative Word of God, who sustains our very existence. In the words of my teenage friend, “pretty dumb” of us, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why Jesus was so fond of comparing us to sheep, perhaps the least intelligent of His warm-blooded creatures.
Back now to that conversation with the young man…
To convince him that God knows what He’s about, that spectacular miracles in themselves don’t create faithful Christians, I turned to chapter 6 of John, the source of today’s Gospel reading.
The scene depicted took place in the synagogue at Capernaum the day after Jesus had fed thousands by multiplying a few loaves and fish. His listeners, many of the very same people who had filled their bellies with bread at that miraculous picnic on a Galilean hillside, were all attentive until He began to reveal His true identity. “I am the bread which came down from heaven,” he told them.
Ignoring the miracles they had witnessed, instead of listening to Him, they challenged Him: “Now, wait just a minute. You’re not from heaven. You’re from Nazareth. We know you. You’re the son of Joseph and Mary.”
Interesting, isn’t it? They’re simply unable to reconcile their earthly knowledge of Jesus as the local boy who helped out in Joseph’s carpenter shop with what they’ve seen Him do or with the claim He’s just made.
Like Elijah in today’s first reading, Jesus is rejected; and the parallel doesn’t stop there. Elijah had just performed a spectacular miracle in God’s Name in which he had defeated the priests of the pagan god, Baal. And the result? Elijah was forced to flee into the desert for his life.
But Jesus doesn’t flee. He persists and says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. I will raise him up on the last day.”
Faith, then, isn’t something we can achieve through our own efforts, like a promotion at work. It’s a gift from the Father, a free, totally gratuitous gift. We must, however, be disposed to receive it. And we must cherish it, nourish it, and help it grow through prayer and acts of love.
“Follow the way of love,” St. Paul instructs us, “even as Christ loved you.”
But Jesus goes on, and adds these remarkable words, “I am the bread of life...If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
Here Jesus reveals the very essence of the Good News: He has come for one reason: to offer His Life so that we may share in eternal life with the Father. As we will see in next Sunday’s Gospel, with these words Jesus also introduces God’s most extraordinary gift: the Eucharist, the bread of life, the true miracle performed daily on this altar and thousands of others throughout the world.
You see, Jesus knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows how we struggle on this brief journey to Eternity. He knows how we suffer through the illnesses, the sacrifices, the addictions, the rejections, the fears of this life. He hears our cries when those we love are hurting, for He, too, has suffered.
To strengthen us, to nourish our souls, to keep us close to Him, the Father gives us His gift of Love. He gives us His Son, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine. He permits us to share, again and again, in the sacrifice of Christ.
The people in the synagogue at Capernaum rejected this message, the Good News of salvation. They rejected the gift. And they rejected Jesus Himself. Why? Because it all got in the way of what they thought they knew.
From our perspective. 2,000 years later, we see that human nature has remained essentially the same. Spectacular miracles won’t guarantee faith. Faith demands a receptive heart open to God’s Word, and a willingness to transform our lives.
So, as we receive the Bread of Life at Communion today, let’s approach with faith-filled hearts, committed to living the Christian life that God wants for each of us. Then, in the words of today’s psalm, we too can “Taste and see how good the Lord is.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Are We Alone?

The bookcase in our guestroom contains perhaps 100 books, split almost evenly between fiction and non-fiction. I place them there under the assumption that some of our guests might actually enjoy turning the pages and reading a real book in this day of eBooks and Kindles. Apparently some do. A few years ago a guest appeared at breakfast with one of my books in his hand -- a book of Irish poetry. He then noted with some surprise that I had included quite a few science fiction novels among the fiction in the bookcase. "I've never understood the attraction of science fiction," he said. "It's all so bizarre, far too weird to take seriously -- all that outer space stuff and monsters and strange planets. Nothing real. Nothing human."
Nasty Aliens on the Attack

He apparently assumed I was far too cultured to allow such "literature" to pollute my personal library and asked, "I suppose you have a few friends who actually read it?"

The question, of course, was meant to appease me, to offer an escape hatch so I could claim no personal interest in the genre. But in a rare display of honesty I replied, "No, I include them because I like them. I believe that some of today's best writing can be found in science fiction. Read almost anything by Gene Wolfe and you'll see what I mean. And don't forget, several of the famed Inklings, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, were all writers of what today would be called science fiction or fantasy."

Our conversation, which had started with such promise, seemed to deteriorate from there. My guest's real stumbling block was his refusal to suspend his disbelief: "How can you believe all that stuff? Do you really believe in UFOs and a universe filled with weird creatures in flying saucers?"

He was even more surprised when I answered, "No, not at all. In fact, I believe we humans are unique, completely alone in God's universe. Don't you agree?"

"Well," he began, tossing me another bone, "I suppose it's possible..." Then he got serious, sounding very much like the late Carl Sagan: "But not at all probable. When you consider the vast size of the universe -- billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars -- there must be countless planets that support life, even intelligent life."

"No," I said, "I believe we're the only ones. I think God created everything else just to remind us who He is."

That ended the conversation, and allowed Dear Diane to begin a new one: "Who wants waffles, and who wants eggs?"
Waffles and Eggs: A fine product of life (chickens & wheat) on earth

I found it extremely interesting, and puzzling, that I, who believe we humans are alone in the universe, should enjoy science and fantasy fiction, while my friend, who accepts the probable existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, abhors science fiction. My excuse is that I simply enjoy a good story with interesting, well-developed characters. I also appreciate the literary challenge of creating worlds and cultures that bear little or no resemblance to our own. And yet I believe that science fiction is also fictional science. As for my friend, I can't speak for him or explain the apparent contradiction between his beliefs and his literary tastes. I never got around to asking him.

Interestingly, most scientists would agree with my friend. How can a universe so mind-bogglingly vast contain only a single planet populated by intelligent beings? Indeed, there's a group of scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) that has spent years scanning the universe with radio telescopes searching for signals from other civilizations. Their search is based on their belief, like that of my friend, that the universe must contain many earth-like planets on which intelligent life has evolved.

SETI Hunting for Smart Aliens
This search for extraterrestrial life was spearheaded by Frank Drake of the SETI Institute, predictably founded in California back in the 1960s. Drake devised what came to be called the Drake Equation, used to this day by those engaged in the search. Interestingly, the equation, although used by many claiming to be scientists, is highly non-scientific. Speculative at best, it is based on a series of highly subjective best guesses, all leading to even more unlikely conclusions. The "equation" estimates the number of stars in the universe, how many have planets, the number of these that could possibly sustain life, the likelihood that life will form on these habitable planets, and the probability that intelligent life will evolve...and on and on.

Based on all this guesswork, Drake and the SETI folks estimated that in our galaxy alone there are probably 10,000 or more planets supporting intelligent lifeforms that are sending signals out into space. Many of the scientists involved believe it's inevitable that we'll detect these signals from other worlds very soon.

There are a few problems, though. The SETI estimates may well be very wrong. For example, we have no idea what percentage of stars actually have planetary systems. And we certainly don't know how many planets have what could be considered habitable environments with solid surfaces, an atmosphere, and water. We don't know because we've never found one.

Most disturbingly, though, the SETI folks assume that if a planet has what they consider to be a habitable environment, then the likelihood of life forming is 100%. The thinking is that the scientific laws that govern our planet are the same throughout the universe. Since life formed on earth, it must also form on any planet with a similar environment. Recent research, however, seems to argue that the possibility of life on other planets, even those that might be most hospitable to its formation, is very low. The research is based on the premise that life on earth began very early, and it took nearly four  billion years for intelligent life to evolve. If you're really interested in all this, you can read the paper written by two Princeton astrophysicists here: Life Might Be Rare -- but to read and understand it, you might first want to pick up a doctorate in astrophysics.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... [Gen 1:1]

We know for certain that life exists in only one small place in the entire universe: Earth. And yet we have scientists who call themselves exobiologists, those who study extraterrestrial life, despite the fact that so far they have nothing to study. Sounds like a pretty easy job to me. There also remains much speculation about the initial formation of life on earth, because scientists really don't know exactly how life came to be. And so they search the heavens for signs of intelligent life and try to create life here in the lab from scratch. To date both efforts have been futile. Through it all they struggle mightily to avoid any mention of God who will no doubt have the last word, just as He had the first Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men." [Jn 1:1-3]
Kinda sums it all up, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Islam Destroys Its Own Heritage...and Ours

There have been more than a few news stories in recent years describing the destruction of ancient sites and artifacts by so-called fundamentalist Muslim groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, whatever...). I suppose the first to make actual headlines was the Taliban's 2001 destruction of two giant statues of Buddha that had been carved into an Afghan mountainside 1,500 years ago, before the advent of Islam. Taliban soldiers spent an entire day pulverizing the statues with dynamite, rockets, artillery and tank fire. This was, of course just the beginning of a far more widespread destruction ordered by Mullah Mohammed Omar, then the Taliban's spiritual leader. It was recently learned that the good mullah died of TB In Pakistan a couple of years ago. Anyway, while he was still alive he stated that he really didn't want to destroy the Buddhas, but eventually went along with it because the West was more concerned about saving the ancient statues than feeding the starving Afghan people. The fact that he and his followers were largely responsible for that starvation seemed to escape him. Of course he also came to believe he was simply following Islamic teaching that declared all images to be nothing less than idolatry and, therefore, worthy of complete destruction. Presumably, his decision also gave the Taliban troops some needed target practice in the absence of women, children and infidels.
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas - 1963 (left), after destruction (right)

Shortly after the destruction of the Buddhas was confirmed, Unesco's director-general, Koichiro Matsuura, was all aflutter and stated: "Words fail me to describe adequately my feelings of consternation and powerlessness as I see reports of the irreversible damage that is being done to Afghanistan's exceptional cultural heritage." Boy, did he nail it: "consternation and powerlessness" -- the perfect description of the United Nations at work.

The Taliban, who make the Byzantine iconoclasts look like rank amateurs, continued their frantic work of idol destruction until our response to the 9-11 attack forced them to realign their priorities...at least for a time. Allowed by the Pakistanis -- another of our helpful and loyal Middle Eastern allies -- to operate in Afghanistan from bases across the border, the Taliban are making a comeback of sorts. Should they succeed and once again rule Afghanistan, one can only assume they will pick up where they left off and find other Buddhas to erase.

The Taliban are not unique. Since our departure from Iraq, the Islamic State now controls a large hunk of Iraqi territory, not to mention its expanding presence in Syria. Actually the Islamic State has a presence in much of the Middle East and North Africa. See the map (below) to get a sense of the reach of this growing threat, one that our president labeled the J. V. team. 
Islamic State control and influence
The Islamic State has become infamous largely for its televised beheadings of Christians and others whose beliefs conflict with their own. It's enough to say that the warriors of the Islamic State behead those they consider infidels in direct obedience to Quran 8:12 witch is pretty explicit:
"When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them."
Like the Taliban, the Islamic State doesn't stop with murder and mayhem. It also considers all shrines, monuments, temples and churches -- any relic of infidel idolatry -- to be worthy of only one thing: complete destruction. They even destroy mosques if they happen to reflect religious thinking contrary to their understanding of shariah. In Iraq the Islamic State has been bulldozing or blowing up countless Muslim shrines and tombs. For example, last year in Mosul ISIS destroyed what Muslims believe to be the tomb of the prophet Daniel along with the tomb and mosque of the prophet Jonah. They haven't limited their destruction to Iraq, but have obliterated many ancient Muslim tombs and mosques in Syria, Libya and wherever else the Islamic State exerts control. They have also murdered any Muslims, including even Imams, who might object.
Islamic State destroyed the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis in 2014
Of course, the Islamic State has focused most of its destructive energy on the Christian churches of Syria and Iraq. Many of these churches date as far back as the 6th and 7th centuries. They are now gone, completely destroyed. In too many instances worshipers were inside these churches and perished when their spiritual homes were blown up or burned.
Islamic State destroying artifacts at the Mosul Museum
The Islamic State has also targeted many of the most ancient sites in the Middle East. Nimrud, a 13th -century B.C. Assyrian city, has been leveled as have a number of other equally ancient cities, virtually all of them World Heritage Sites.
Mosul Christian Church destroyed; four children murdered
As a result of all this, Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened "to comprehensively document the condition of, and threats to, cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria to assess their future restoration, preservation, and protection needs." But that's not all. UNESCO has labeled the destruction of Nimrud a war crime and the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Islamic State's destruction of cultural heritage. Wow! If these actions by the global community don't put a stop to the destruction, nothing will. I wonder if the State Department and the UN will also document the widespread murder of Christians, so widespread it borders on genocide, by the Islamic State wherever it holds sway. After all, there's nothing like a document or two to strike fear in the hearts of barbarians.

Of course, none of this is new in the Islamic world, neither is it limited to destruction carried out by the Taliban and Islamic State. In 2011 Egyptian Muslim mobs attacked the L'Institut de l'Egypte, a truly venerable institution of learning in Cairo. It contained a 200,000 volume library that focused on all aspects of Egyptian history and life. The mob attacked it with Molotov cocktails and burned its entire contents while soldiers of the regime (then strongly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) stood by laughing.
The mob outside the Burnded-out Shell of L'Institute de l'Egypte
These same mobs, again abetted by the police and the military, have destroyed Coptic Christian churches regularly throughout Egypt.

Interestingly, Muslims not only object to the shrines and churches, historic and modern, of other faiths, but they also seem to enjoy destroying their own heritage. For example, over the past 30 years the Saudi government has destroyed over 98% of the Kingdom's historic and religious sites -- this according to the UK's Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. This would be similar to the Catholic Church demolishing every Gothic and Romanesque Cathedral in Europe. Even the most secular of atheists would object, if only on aesthetic and historical grounds.

I can recall, back in my high school years (over 50 years ago), reading a book that described the destructive nature of Islam as it spread across the Middle East and North Africa. It would seem very little has changed.

Of course, while we bemoan the loss of so many churches and ancient historic sites, we must focus first on the genocide being carried out throughout the Islamic world. The Christian communities, that have been a vibrant part of the Middle East since the time of Christ, are being systematically destroyed while we sit back and do little or nothing. Oh, yes, we have been doing something: we've been enabling the Iranians, in effect giving them billions which they will happily funnel into any number of terrorist organizations. 

Pray for the brave and faithful Christians of the Middle east.