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!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Persecution Watch Continues

Here's another story of the persecution and death of a Christian in Pakistan, a story actually published on the New York Times website!

Pakistan Rights Groups Seek Answers on

By Waqar GillaniI and Sabrina Tavernise

Published: September 16, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan — A Christian man detained on blasphemy charges was found dead in his jail cell on Tuesday in eastern Pakistan. Human rights groups here said he appeared to have been killed, perhaps in collusion with the authorities.

The death of the Christian, Robert Fanish (or Danish), 20, is part of a rising trend of violence against minorities in Pakistan, a panel of Pakistani human rights groups said in a news conference on Wednesday. It follows the burning deaths of six Christians in July, and mob attacks against Christian houses and a church in March and June.

“This is a pattern,” said Asma Jahangir, the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a prominent watchdog group that is independent of the government.

Local police officials say Mr. Fanish committed suicide, a claim his family and human rights groups dismissed.

Christians are a tiny minority in Pakistan. They are barred from running for president.

Mr. Fanish was arrested on Saturday in the village of Jathikai and charged with blasphemy, a statute often used against minorities in Pakistan, human rights groups say. A Muslim family accused him of desecrating a Koran, but his local supporters said the family claimed that he had been admiring their daughter.

Whatever the case, he was taken to a jail in Sialkot, the district capital, and after two days of police questioning he was found dead in his cell, touching off Christian riots.

On Wednesday, the provincial government ordered an investigation into the death and are investigating whether to charge the jail staff with negligence.

The inspector general of prisons for Punjab Province, Kokab Nadeem Warriach, declined to say whether he believed that Mr. Fanish’s death was allowed or perpetrated by police guards. He said by telephone that three prison officials had been suspended, and that the investigation ordered by the provincial government would conclude this week.

The police said Mr. Fanish had hanged himself in his cell, using a strip of material ripped from his clothing. The Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights, an alliance of more than 30 human rights groups, said in a statement that it had talked to witnesses who saw marks of torture on his body.

The group said evidence in the case “raises strong suspicion of the involvement of the jail officials” in Mr. Fanish’s death.

Ms. Jahangir said local politicians often colluded with attackers, covering up their crimes, partly out of a deep-seated prejudice against minorities — Christians and Ahmadis, a minority sect in Islam — and out of a reflexive sympathy with other Muslims.

“These militants who attack minorities are protected by local politicians,” she said. “They protect them and keep their names out of police reports.”

That was what happened in the burning case in July, where the Muslim mob was whipped into a frenzy, apparently by the local leader of a mainstream political party.

Militants, Ms. Jahangir said, “are trying to enforce their will by attacking minorities.”

“They want to grab power,” she said. “They want to make people slaves.”

Waqar Gillani reported from Lahore, Pakistan, and Sabrina Tavernise from Islamabad, Pakistan.

To read more about this story, click here.

Jewish Holy Days

Jews throughout the world just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the arrival of the New Year 5771, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Most Christians know very little about these days that are so special to our Jewish friends. And so I thought I would provide a link to a wonderful article, written by David Goldman and published on one of the blogs sponsored by First Things magazine. Click here to read it.

Religious Persecution on the Rise in Asia

As some of you may know, I like to keep an eye on the persecution of the Church in our world, and on occasion I try to bring some of these events to your attention. I don't do this out of any sense of outrage. After all, Jesus told us expect persecution and, to some extent, to welcome it. That being said, I don't highlight these incidents in an effort to convince you to seek martyrdom...not at all. No, I do this for two reasons. First, I simply want to keep you informed about what's happening to your Church elsewhere in the world, because the mainstream media certainly won't. If you're unaware of these assaults on the Body of Christ, it's unlikely that you will take any steps, including prayer, to alleviate them. Second, I believe you and I are strengthened in our own faith when we are exposed to the example of those who are persecuted today for their love of Jesus Christ. And we just may need to call on that strength sooner rather than later. Only God knows.

Women in Orissa, an Indian state, protest anti-Christian riots
As perhaps a sign of more widespread persecutions to come, the nations of Asia are becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. Some formerly tolerant nations are turning a blind eye to anti-Christian violence perpetrated by religious fundamentalists. Others have or plan to enact laws prohibiting conversion. And in some -- particularly in communist nations like Vietnam, China and North Korea -- the government itself acts as the persecutor. Throughout Asia religious freedom seems to be suffering as governments cave in to the wishes of extremists or as ideology drives them to accept or actively participate in the persecution of religious groups, particularly Christian religious groups. Some examples of what's happening in Asia these days:

Hindu mob destroys a car outside a Christian church in India

Just a year ago in India, Hindu fundamentalists carried out a violent persecution of Christians that killed hundreds and created 100,000 or more refugees. And this happened in a nation that once took pride in its commitment to religious freedom. Unfortunately these persecutions have continued. Just recently a Catholic priest was murdered while on his way to celebrate Mass.

Christian couple in front of their home in Gojra (Pakistan) destroyed in anti-Christian violence on 8/2/09 (8 dead, 20 injured, scores homeless)

In Pakistan, just recently, an angry mob of over 3,000 Muslims went on a rampage through the Christian sector of a village where they burned eight Christians alive. Among those killed were four women and a young child. Over twenty others were seriously injured, fifty Christian homes were destroyed, and thousands were forced to flee for the lives to avoid being summarily executed by these extremists. The mob was incited by mullahs who wanted to rid the area of Christians. In other parts of Pakistan, the imposition of sharia law has led Christians and others to leave some provinces for fear of being arrested simply for practicing their faith.

In Egypt, Muslim police beat Christian

All of the Islamic nations of Asia make it difficult for those who would convert to Christianity and some have made conversion illegal, punishable in some instances by death. Two largely Hindu nations, India and Sri Lanka, are considering passing laws aimed at preventing conversions. Virtually all the countries of central Asia limit religious freedom to some extent.

Christian children pray at the destroyed church of St. Rum’s in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood; five churches were attacked in one day in pre-dawn bombings

As one might expect, in the communist nations of Asia religious persecution is government policy and is exercised in varying degrees of severity. The persecution of Christians over the past 60 years in communist China is well documented and, despite the nation's seeming acceptance of some free-market principles, it remains ideologically rigid when it comes to religion. In Vietnam, where many of the people still retain their Catholic faith, the Communist government has been exercising its muscle through recent persecutions that have included mass arrests, beatings, and destruction of Church property.

Vietnamese Catholics protest police beating of a priest

One of the sad elements of this trend toward increased religious persecution in Asia is the near silence with which it has been greeted by most Western nations. In their efforts to appear multicultural and politically correct Western governments seem to have forgotten that tolerance is a two-way street.

Unfortunately, we and our Western European relations no longer consider ourselves Christian nations, and certainly not Judeo-Christian nations. And so there is no real impetus to defend Christianity when it suffers persecution. Why defend what you don't believe in? What our politicians fail to realize is that those who would destroy Christianity aren't content to accomplish just that. They want to destroy both Christianity and the civilization that arose out of it...and that includes these same politicians. Foolish men!

President Obama bows to Saudi King Abdullah

President Bush with good buddy, King Abdullah

In his response to the rise of anti-Christian persecution, Pope Benedict pleads with Christians everywhere to pray, to pray not only for the persecuted, but for those who persecute. It is only through Christianity, through Christ's presence in the world, Christ's presence in us, that our world will be reconciled to the truth, that divisions among peoples and nations will be healed, and that the world will be transformed in Jesus Christ. Fortunately for the world, God is in control, even when it might seem He has left us to our own meager devices. And so we will pray; we will pray for the conversion of the world.

Come, Lord Jesus!!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More on the Historicity of the Bible

A few days ago (click to read blog entry) I wrote about archaeologists in Egypt finding coins inscribed with the biblical Joseph's image and name. Today I accidentally happened on another, similar article, this one published in Smithsonian Magazine, describing the discovery and excavation of what is thought to be the altar that Joshua built after he had led the Israelites into what was then Canaan. This spot was also where Joshua divided up the Holy Land and allotted each of the tribes its particular piece of the land.

Excavated Altar of Joshua on Mt. Ebal

It is a fascinating article and certainly worth reading by anyone who has any interest at all in the Bible. As I have mentioned before, we are constantly being told by scholars that this or that event described in Holy Scripture really never happened...and then the archaeologists come along and say to the scholars, "Not so fast..." In this one sense, then, God continues to reveal His truth thousands of years after the fact. Click here to read the Smithsonian Magazine article.

A Blast from the Past - Some Ancient History

Yesterday morning an old friend sent me a link to a photo of the crew of the Navy helicopter (side number 66 of squadron HS-4) that recovered the astronauts of the fated Apollo 13 lunar mission. At the time (April 1970) I happened to be the co-pilot of that helicopter and our squadron commanding officer, Chuck Smiley, was the pilot.

I'm the obnoxious (and very young) looking one in the right foreground. Chuck Smiley is in the left foreground. It was an honor to be so intimately involved in that historic event, an experience I will never forget.

To get a better view of the photo, visit the website on which it resides by clicking here. And if you're really interested, you can view a PowerPoint presentation on the Apollo 13 recovery operation. I put the presentation together some time ago using Navy and NASA photos, along with many others that I took myself. I've included the presentation below. To view it full-screen, just click on the icon in the lower right corner.

If you want to download the presentation to your PC and watch it later using PowerPoint, here's a link: Apollo 13 PowerPoint. I've also placed the individual photos on You can access a slide-show by clicking here.

It certainly brings back a lot of memories and, like the space program in general, reminds of God's greatness. What a gift His universe is and how blessed we are to be able to explore even one tiny corner of it.

The Cost of Bureaucracy

Anyone unconcerned about the ever-increasing cost of government and the bureaucracies it spawns, should take a moment and check out the statistics the Free Enterprise Nation has compiled on the growth of government and the salaries of government workers. For example...
  • When wages and benefits are combined, federal civilian workers averaged $119,982 in 2008, twice the average compensation of $59,909 for private sector workers.
  • In New York, some city workers amass more than $100,000 in overtime during their last year before retirement to create a monthly pension higher than their salary.
  • 420 of Illinois’s physical education teachers, 332 English teachers and 94 driver’s education teachers make more than $100,000 a year, with salaries for each position topping out at more than $160,000 a year.
  • In Houston, Texas the number of police officers has remained the same for six years running, despite a 40 percent budget increase to cover higher salaries, pension and health-care benefits.
  • In 2008, 40 percent of Vallejo’s 613 employees had salaries greater than $100,000 a year, the same year the California city filed for bankruptcy.
There will come a time when the cost of government will become unsustainable, when taxpayers and the private sector will simply be unable to pay for a government that continues to spend and expand at rates that far exceed the rate of expansion of the economy as a whole. One doesn't have to be an economist or a mathematician to figure that one out.

One of the long-term problems that will arise from this political and bureaucratic profligacy is that ultimately government will find itself in a position where it is unable to carry out its legitimate responsibilities such as providing for the common defense. Scary stuff.

The above represent only a sampling of the information the Free Enterprise Nation has put together. For details, see the CNBC article or even better go directly to the Free Enterprise Nation website.

Irving Kristol, R.I.P.

Irving Kristol, columnist and writer who was also one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, passed away on September 18 at the age of 89. His was an interesting life, one marked by a series of significant transitions as he moved from Trotskyite to socialist to anti-communist liberal to neoconservative. His religious beliefs underwent a similar series of transitions. Raised in a poor, non-observant Jewish family, he became increasingly religious and eventually came to believe that institutional religion was American society’s only hope for a recovery from its spiritual malaise. This no doubt contributed to his decision, late in life, to become a practicing Jew.

For 20 years Kristol taught social thought and policy at NYU and then in 1989 became a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. I first encountered him when, back in the late seventies, I picked up a copy of The Public Interest, the journal he co-founded and edited. I also enjoyed reading him in The National Interest, another journal he founded in the mid-eighties. While I didn't always agree with him, I found his arguments well thought out and persuasive. His son, Bill Kristol, has assumed the mantle, and is now editor of The Weekly Standard, perhaps the nation's leading neoconservative magazine.

Rest in peace.

William Safire, R.I.P.

William Safire, New York Times columnist and passionate defender of the English language, died Sunday at the age of 79. For years I enjoyed his weekly "On Language" column in the Sunday Times Magazine. Indeed, the Safire column and the crossword were the only reasons I ever bought that newspaper. Almost every week, as I read his column, I would utter "Ouch!" after encountering another linguistic sin of which I was guilty. Why then did I continue to read him? I'm not really sure. A touch of masochism perhaps?

In addition to his weekly language column, which he wrote for 30 years, Safire also penned over 3,000 political columns and was the author of more than a dozen books, many of them best sellers. Generally to the right politically, he was a great supporter of Israel and seemed to enjoy taking on the leaders of the liberal establishment. Indeed, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his scathing columns on the financial affairs of Bert Lance, President Carter's budget director.

I will miss his no-holds-barred prose. Rest is peace.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Coming (and Present) Persecution

Whenever I refer to the likelihood of a real persecution of the Catholic Church in this country, most Catholics I know immediately tune me out. First they force an indulgent smile of the sort you'd offer a small child when he says something patently absurd. Then they begin to plan their exit strategy. Their eyes search left and right for something or someone that might offer an escape or refuge from the crazy deacon. To them religious persecution is just not something they can imagine happening in the good ol' USA.

Too many Catholics seem blind to what's been happening in this country. Maybe for some it's because their faith is something they consciously practice only once a week when they attend Sunday -- or, all too often, Saturday -- Mass. Unless you live your faith, every hour of every day, it's unlikely you will notice the very real threats to and attacks on the Catholic Church that have become increasingly acceptable in our society.

I worry about these folks because I suspect that many will not hold up very well under the threat of real persecution. The majority of Germans and other Europeans simply "went along" with Nazism because to do otherwise was flat-out dangerous. We see the results in the tremendous loss of faith that Europe has experienced since World War II. I believe I can safely say that today most Western Europeans are, at best, agnostic. This is the Europe that Pope Benedict has been preaching to, pleading with them to revisit and return to the Christianity that formed them, the Christianity that enabled them to confront and defeat the many threats to human freedom over the centuries.

Much the same happened in the Soviet Union after the Revolution and later in Eastern Europe under communism. The only nation that was able to cling to its faith during those years of overt persecution was Catholic Poland. And from Poland came the beginning of the end of communism in Europe.

I could go one, but others have written about these things and done so far better than I. The following article, written by Deacon Keith Fournier of the Diocese of Richmond, is a beautiful example. Written five years ago, it shows remarkable prescience. Here's a direct link to the article, Please read it...

The Beginning of a Persecution Against Catholics is also the Beginning of a new Missionary Age. By Rev. Mr. Keith A. Fournier

...and remember, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven." [Mt 5:11-12]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Good News...and Only Good News

I thought it might be worthwhile to spread some good news and let you know that all is not bad in the world. Indeed, despite all the religious, ethnic and ideological hatred that seems to motivate so many folks these days, there are lots of good things happening. Here are a few...

Thomas Aquinas College. Our elder daughter graduated from TAC in 1993, so it's a school about which I am personally familiar. Located in beautiful Santa Paula, California, TAC is truly one of the most remarkable institutions of higher education in the country. Unlike so many nominally Catholic colleges and universities that have pretty much abandoned the Faith, TAC is unashamedly and wholeheartedly Catholic. If you want your child to receive a true liberal education and graduate as a civilized human being who understands the world and the Catholic Faith, you should consider TAC. The demanding curriculum is based on the world's "great books" so the students read, study and discuss the originals and not the watered-down pablum served up by most textbooks. I can guarantee you one thing: you won't find any over-the-hill Marxist ideologues among the faculty. I include this among my good news reports because TAC is growing and thriving and its graduates are doing remarkable things in the world and the Church.

US News & World Report
in its annual college guide, America's Best Colleges 2010, ranked TAC among the best liberal arts colleges in the country. Click here to read more. And if you'd like to read a recent article (in a secular newspaper) about TAC, click here. I expect you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA

ELCA Lutherans not of one mind...not by a long shot. As I mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), at its main meeting in Minneapolis last month, voted to approve actively homosexual clergy and the blessing of gay marriages. As a result, a significant number of ELCA Lutherans who disagree with the vote have decided to get together to address their response. So many Lutherans registered to attend the conference that the group (Lutheran CORE) had to move it to a larger venue, a Catholic church! In the words of the group's director, "It is wonderfully ironic that Lutherans who started 500 years ago as a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church would now return to a Catholic Church to re-form themselves." This is all good news because it shows that many of our Lutheran brothers and sisters have kept their sanity and their faith. To read an article in the Washington Times about the conference, click here. For more information on the ELCA opposition group, Lutheran CORE, click here.

We are all Evangelists... we are all missionaries. Pope Benedict, in his message for World Mission Day, affirms that all Catholics are duty bound to assist the mission ad gentes (the mission to the nations). This is especially good news because too many Catholics don't seem to believe they have a responsibility to evangelize, to spread the faith throughout their little slice of the world. Jesus, right before His Ascension, commanded His disciples to "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." [Mt 28:19-20] This was a command aimed not only at the apostles, but at all of us. To read the Holy Father's entire message, click here.

Irish Seminarians on the Rise. Good news out of Ireland. Despite all the problems that the Church in Ireland has experienced in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Irish seminarians. It's been a sad thing to watch the sufferings of the Church in this country that has been so strongly Catholic for so long. How wonderful that an increasing number of men are recognizing and accepting their vocations to the priesthood. Pray for the Church in Ireland. You can read more about this by clicking here.

Enough for now, I will make an effort to spread a bit of good news every week or so. I think we all need to hear it.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gators in Paradise

One thing that always seems to shock visitors and newly arrived retirees when they first arrive in Florida is the number of alligators crawling and swimming around the state. I believe -- and I'm not positive about this -- there are upwards of 2 million alligators living in the wild in Florida. I'm not exactly sure how they count them and I certainly wouldn't want to be one of the state's alligator census-takers, but I will assume this number is reasonably accurate. Whatever the number, it's big. There are a lot of alligators in Florida.

During our first week here in The Villages back in early 2004, in the course of one of our unguided get-to-know-the-area drives, Diane and I came across a small state park just a mile or so from our home. The park, located along the shore of a local lake, also included a small beach and swimming area, complete with a nice dock. (see the photo below).

Lake Miona State Park

In the center of the photo, just beyond the sandy beach, you will notice a large white sign. It lists the park's rules, and I have included a photo of the sign itself below. Reading through the list of rules, we encounter nothing unusual until rule number 10: "Do not feed alligators or wildlife." Now, this might seem normal to Florida folks, but to the rest of us, doesn't this seem a bit odd for a rule posted at a swimming area? Seems to me you run the risk of violating this rule simply by taking a swim.

Park Rules (click to enlarge)

Since then we have encountered (always from a safe distance) dozens of these nasty-looking creatures, both here in The Villages and elsewhere throughout the state. I've even come across gator roadkill on Florida's Turnpike, so you know these critters get out of the water occasionally and roam around where we'd least expect to encounter them.

This past week, during our grandchildren's visit, we were enjoying an ice cream down by Lake Sumter Landing, one of The Villages' two town squares, when we spotted a relatively small (perhaps six or seven feet long) alligator basking in the water near the boardwalk...apparently waiting for a careless, unsuspecting grandchild to topple into the lake.

"Cute" young gator at Lake Sumter Landing, The Villages

And so, even here in our artificial paradise, evils lurk. But, perhaps I shouldn't be so judgmental about our toothy friends. After all, God did create them, and as my granddaughter, Camilla, said when she spotted the gator swimming just a few feet away, "Oh, look, Papa, he's so cute!"

President Obama Idolized in Public School

The Burlington, New Jersey school system has performed an excellent public service by providing parents with the perfect reason not to send their children to public school. If you ever doubted that today's public schools indoctrinate rather than educate, the below video will erase those doubts. Watching it the first time was sickening. Watching it again was infuriating, and reminiscent of the kind of propagandizing and indoctrination one might expect from North Korea, Mao's China, Stalin's USSR, or Hitler's Germany. If you disagree and think it "no big deal" (as one CNN commentator labeled it), then just imagine the public and media outcry if these same children had sung the praises of George W. Bush.

Check out the lyrics:

Mmm, mmm, mmm, Barack Hussein Obama
He said all should lend a hand to make the country strong again
Mmm, mmm, mmm, Barack Hussein Obama
He said we must be fair today, equal work means equal pay
Mmm, mmm, mmm, Barack Hussein Obama
He said take a stand, make sure everyone gets a chance
Mmm, mmm, mmm, Barack Hussein Obama
He said red, yellow, black and white, all are equal in his sight
Mmm, mmm, mmm, Barack Hussein Obama
YEAH. Barack Hussein Obama

The lyrics also included the following:

Hello Mr. President, We honor you today
For all your great accomplishments, we all do say hooray
Hooray, Mr. President you are No. 1
The first black American to lead this nation

Did you notice the line that was lifted from the song, "Jesus Loves the Little Children"? Instead of "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight..." we get "Red and yellow, black and white, all are equal in his sight..." And to think, public schools prohibit children from singing the praises of God, our Creator...

I think, perhaps, it might be more useful for our schools to teach our children that, unlike dictators, our elected representatives and political leaders are the servants of the people, and that the people are sovereign.

Ah, yes, in the words of the old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Joseph in Egypt

One of the more interesting developments in modern scriptural studies is how many scriptural scholars have in recent times come to dismiss the Bible as an historical document. And yet, with every passing year the fruits of archaeology seem to undercut the current wisdom as the evidence increasingly supports the historical accuracy of the Bible. For example, many scholars have gone so far as to deny the reality of the Exodus event, and with that the very presence of the Hebrew people in Egypt. And now these poor scholars must explain away the fact that archaeologists have recently discovered ancient coins bearing the image and name of Joseph, son of Jacob. The coins also bear the date of the time when Joseph was thought to live. The story, reported in Cairo's Al Ahram newspaper, was covered by the website of Archaeology Daily News. Here it is in its entirety:

Archaeologists have discovered ancient Egyptian coins bearing the name and image of the biblical Joseph, Cairo's Al Ahram newspaper recently reported. Excerpts provided by MEMRI show that the coins were discovered among a multitude of unsorted artifacts stored at the Museum of Egypt.

According to the report, the significance of the find is that archaeologists have found scientific evidence countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead.

The period in which Joseph was regarded to have lived in Egypt matches the minting of the coins in the cache, researchers said.

"A thorough examination revealed that the coins bore the year in which they were minted and their value, or effigies of the pharaohs [who ruled] at the time of their minting. Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt, and bear his name and portrait," said the report.

The discovery of the cache prompted research team head Dr. Sa'id Muhammad Thabet to seek Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt.

"Studies by Dr. Thabet's team have revealed that what most archaeologists took for a kind of charm, and others took for an ornament or adornment, is actually a coin. Several [facts led them to this conclusion]: first, [the fact that] many such coins have been found at various [archaeological sites], and also [the fact that] they are round or oval in shape, and have two faces: one with an inscription, called the inscribed face, and one with an image, called the engraved face - just like the coins we use today," the report added.

For more information on this archaeological find, click here.

Just one more wonderful discovery, and I'm certain we can look forward to more in the future.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Homily - 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Reading: Mark 9:30-37

"If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

As we hear these words of the Gospel, these words of Jesus, the living Word…as we hear them proclaimed here today…How many of us actually think about what Jesus is saying to us? The disciples thought about it, at least for a minute or so, and then pretty much rejected it all.

It began with all that talk of Jesus being killed – this was the second time He’d told them about His upcoming passion and death – and that flat-out scared them. How could the Messiah, the Promised One who would free God’s people…How could the Messiah be put to death? It just didn’t make any sense. And if those in power actually did kill Jesus, what would they do to them, his disciples? Oh, yes, they were afraid. They were afraid to question Him about it because of the answer they might receive.

And then there’s all this talk about being a servant. That didn’t make any sense either. How can the first be last? How can they, the Apostles, the most important and loyal of Jesus’ disciples…How can they be considered servants?

That was the problem with the disciples. They loved Jesus, and they followed Him…well, they followed Him physically. But they really didn’t follow Him, did they? They didn’t follow Him with their hearts because they refused to listen to Him. Like so many of us they just tuned Him out; they pushed the old mute button when what He said didn’t mesh with the lives they’d constructed or the future they’d imagined.

They did that a lot, because so much of what Jesus said was so downright upsetting. It was upsetting in the most literal sense. It upset everything the world considered normal; it just turned everything upside down. And it was nothing new to them. Jesus had been turning their world upside down from the start:

The first will be last…

The meek will inherit the earth…

Blessed are you when you are persecuted…

Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child, will not enter it…

Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it…

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven…

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…

This is just not the way the world thinks. And it’s certainly not the way the world works. And so it was only slowly that the disciples came to understand the true meaning of their vocation, what it means to be a disciple.

But in the meantime they found themselves caught between two contradictory impulses: a desire to both flee from and cling to the Lord. Yes, they were tempted to leave because deep down, at the gut level, they were coming to realize that true discipleship would change their lives completely, and lead them in a direction they didn’t particularly want to go.

You see, they wanted to be important, to be successful. They wanted to be at Jesus’ side when He was declared King of the Jews. Oh, they saw a great future for themselves and it simply didn’t coincide with what Jesus was telling them. This must have been heartbreaking for Jesus. How long had they been with Him? Two years? Three years? And still they didn’t understand.

And what about you and me? We’ve been Christians for how long? For 50 years, 60 years, 70 years…? And how well do we understand? Jesus knows that neither we nor the disciples have a clue. And so he tries to teach us…if only we will let Him. If only we will listen.

He picks up a little child and holds it lovingly, and He says to us…

Do you see this child? Do you see this child who needs to be fed, clothed, washed, taught, and loved…well, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to him. You want to know who’s the greatest? Look here, look at this little child who needs everything and gives nothing. Just look here. And then welcome this child and welcome all like him… Welcome those without power, or influence, or status, or income…Welcome those who struggle to make it through each day…Welcome those the world considers unimportant…Welcome those the world despises…Welcome those who can never pay you back. And when you welcome them, you welcome me. Welcome the little child. Be last. Be the servant.

This, Jesus tells us, is what being a disciple is all about. Now do we know what He means? Can you and I accept it? Or is the price too high? Does Jesus really expect that we’ll give up what we’ve spent a lifetime getting? Does He really expect us to willingly sacrifice our reputations, our comforts, even our lives for His sake?

The world tells us that importance is better than insignificance, that strength is better than weakness, that praise and respect should be sought and blame avoided. And then Jesus, in His crazy world, turns it all upside down. Our world rewards its winners and cast aside its losers. And guess how the world labels Christians? How did Ted Turner put it? “Christianity is a religion for losers.” Pretty well sums up the world’s opinion, doesn’t it?

I think we can agree that Jesus’ message is as threatening today as it ever was – and this threat can manifest itself in the most subtle ways.

Earlier this week I spoke to a local civic organization trying to raise some money for the Wildwood Soup Kitchen. In the course of my comments I mentioned that we turn no one away. Everyone who comes to the door is invited to sit down and enjoy a hot meal.

One man questioned me on this: “But how can you be sure that someone isn’t taking advantage of you? Don’t you think some of those people might not really be all that poor?”

I think he was a bit taken aback when I told him I didn’t care, that we don’t serve meals…we serve Jesus Christ. Jesus commanded us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger. He didn’t tell us to create bureaucracies, to check pay stubs, or W-2 or 1040 forms.

I let God worry about what’s in the heart of another, because I sure don’t know. All I know is that Jesus told us to see Him in others. And I’m certainly not going to deny Jesus a meal.

You see, brothers and sisters, in our world, God is little more than a vagrant, just as He was when He walked the earth through the towns of Galilee and Judea. And so Jesus explains this by holding up that child before us and commands us to welcome him.

And who is this child? Who is this child Jesus holds before me? Before you? Who do you and I need to receive? Who are the poor and the weak in our lives? Who’s standing last in line? What do they want of us? What does God want of us? Do we understand that true discipleship means a lot more than simply writing a check?

Often enough it means getting our hands dirty. And sometimes it means sacrificing all that we have, perhaps even our lives, in defense of Jesus Christ. But one thing is certain: To be a disciple, you and I must choose. We can’t have it both ways.

And so he asks us, “Do you really want to follow me everywhere? Do you have any idea what this means and who it is you want to follow? Do you know I am the Lamb who is on His way to be slain and that my business is to redeem the world with my Blood? Can you follow me there?”

Each of us must wrestle with these questions: “Am I truly the disciple I am called to be? How am I answering the call?” You’ll never know what God intends for you if you don’t have a prayer life…for it’s only through prayer that we can come to now God’s will for us.

And then, on that day – the day that will mark the end of my world – when I stand before the Kingdom and Jesus asks to see the signs of my discipleship, when He asks to see the calluses, the scars, the bruises, the wounds of the true disciple, will there be anything to show him?

I suspect it will be only then that I’ll finally get it, only then that I’ll understand what Jesus meant when He told us, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and servant of all.”

Until then, all I can do is try to do His will and pray, “Oh, my God, don’t let me disappoint you.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Travels with Grandkids

Well, it's certainly been a busy two weeks, enjoying the visit of our elder daughter and four of our grandchildren. We still have a week to go, so I ask that you pray for our continued sanity. Actually, the little people have been absolutely wonderful. They range in age from little Eddie, who's pushing three, to Pedro, a mature eight-year-old, so it's not easy to find group activities that all will enjoy. This time, though, instead of the usual Disney and related mind-numbing entertainment, we decided to do something a little different. So far it's been a great success; so if you have little ones and find yourself in central Florida, here are some ideas that can make your stay especially memorable and enjoyable.

Our first excursion was to Tampa, about a 90-minute drive from our home. We booked a two-bedroom suite at Chase Suites, a very nice hotel right on the water and relatively convenient to most of the places we intended to visit. On our first day we took the little guys to the zoo...

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. This is a wonderful zoo that kids of all ages will enjoy. It was once again rated the best zoo in the USA by Parents Magazine -- very kid-oriented with lots of fun things to see and do. Click here and check out their website. The only disappointment, and it was minor, was the River Odyssey Eco-Tour on the Hillsborough River. It was a nice boat ride, and the crew were very pleasant, but it wasn't particularly interesting. I guess we've been spoiled by previous visits to Silver Springs and Mount Dora where the boat rides always churn up lots of alligators and other wild critters. We spent most the day at the zoo and then returned to the hotel for a little dip in the outdoor pool, followed by dinner at the local IHOP (always a treat for youngsters).

Grandson, Eddie, fascinated by the chimpanzees at the Lowry Park Zoo

A cheetah on the prowl at the Lowry Park Zoo

The next day we visited the aquarium and were again pleasantly surprised...

Jellyfish at the Florida Aquarium, Tampa

The Florida Aquarium. Located downtown near the shipping terminal, this is a terrific aquarium. Be sure to take in any of the planned demonstrations and other events scheduled for the day of your visit. You'll receive a schedule of events when you purchase your tickets. The kids loved the up close and personal encounters with the penguins, alligators, snakes and sharks. All in all, it was a wonderful day. Click here to visit the aquarium's website.

A seahorse at the Florida Aquarium, Tampa

Pedro & Camilla interact with a boa constrictor at the Florida Aquarium, Tampa

Yesterday we took off in a different direction and headed north to Gainesville and the Florida Museum of Natural History, located on the campus of the University of Florida. Normally, I might be a bit leery about taking a group of very young ones to a museum, but this one is different. First of all, it's very kid-friendly and admission to the museum itself is free. But the real plus is the Butterfly Rainforest, a closed rainforest-like environment populated by hundreds of butterflies from all over the world. There's an admission fee for this, but it's worth every cent. You follow a path through the exhibit at your own pace and simply marvel at these wonderful creatures who surround you every step of the way. Although you are not permitted to initiate any contact with the butterflies, if you sit down on one of the many benches and wait a few moments, one or more will inevitably land on you (especially if you wear a loud floral Hawaiian shirt). You can take all the photos or videos you like, and if you click here you can view a slide show of some of the photos I took during our brief stay.

A butterfly settles on grandson Pedro's foot

A colorful bird shares the Butterfly Rainforest

One of the many varieties of butterfly in the Rainforest

What a wonderful creation God has given us. Being is certainly very, very good. More on some of our other outings in my next post...

God's peace...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Exegesis and Theology...Not!

Over the years -- at retreats, continuing education programs, courses, etc. -- I've heard a lot of odd things roll off the tongues of professors, theologians, scriptural scholars and others. Because I'm such a compulsive note-taker, I've written down many of these remarkable comments. This morning, while doing a little housecleaning in my den, I came across a few of the old notebooks in which I had jotted down some of these gems. And so, I thought that at least a few of you might enjoy reading them along with my inadequate responses.

"You have to be careful when reading the New Testament since some of it really doesn't apply today, at least not without substantial additional redaction." -- By a well-known New Testament scholar in answer to a student's question (1995)

Whoa! There are so many troublesome things in this statement that one hardly knows where to begin. Let me begin by stating that once one gets so caught up in the zeitgeist and decides that some of the Gospel doesn't really apply to today's more "sophisticated" forms of Christianity...well he might as well toss the whole thing. This, of course, is exactly what many folks like this have done. And what they haven't tossed, they have turned into an ideological manifesto that can be massaged and reinterpreted to ensure it applies to and supports their constantly changing lifestyles and shifting politics.

Why these people think they even need the Gospel is beyond me, but I suppose many are still at least culturally attached to their "faith" and need the reassurance and consolation they have associated with it. Or perhaps it's all about power, and their appeals to Scripture are needed to attract new adherents to whatever cause they espouse. Or I suppose it could just be simple intellectual arrogance and pride of the sort that's behind the generation of so many off-the-wall, wacko concepts.

And then there's that "redaction" comment. Of course, by "redaction" the exegete really meant a form of radical editing of the sort that has generated some of our more questionable Biblical translations. Ah, well, let's pray that our scholar has changed his views since 1995 and is now more willing to accept the Gospel as the Holy Spirit gave it to us. Trust me, it's radical enough as it is.

"We really don't know who the real Jesus was since virtually everything we know about him was written by his followers." -- By a priest and professor of theology during a Sunday homily (2004)

This has to be one of the more absurd comments I've ever heard in a homily, and so I won't expend too many words critiquing it. What the good father seems to be saying is that we really can't trust those disciples to speak or write the truth about Jesus. After all, they obviously liked Him and so would be unlikely to say anything negative about Him.

It's important to remember that the four evangelists never intended to write biographies; they were witnesses who wrote testimonies of their faith. The Holy Spirit had them include just enough biographical information about Jesus to support that faith and show Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. Unfortunately it would seem our homilist also completely disregards the rather important role of the Holy Spirit in the development of Holy Scripture. Either that or He doesn't trust the Spirit to speak the truth either.

I suppose if Pontius Pilate or Herod Antipas or Caiaphas or all three had left us their impressions of Jesus, our theology professor would have given these more weight than the Gospels.

"You can't understand the Gospel unless you have a strong grasp of the cultural, political, and religious aspects of life in first century Palestine." -- Moral theologian during a lecture on "Morality in the Gospels" (1996)

This is one of those statements that, to the educated person, sounds fine at first...until you think about it from a perspective of faith. Believe it or not, the Gospels were not written for theologians or Scriptural scholars. They were written for all of us -- for the wise and the not so wise, for the rich man and the beggar, and for the the educated and the illiterate. Yes, the Gospels were written even for the illiterate, for those unable to read them. My own first exposure to the Gospels came before I had learned to read, largely from my father who would regularly read or recite Gospel passages to my brother and me. And do you know something? Even as a child I could grasp the essential meaning of much of what I had heard.

Too many scholars get so wrapped up in the cultural and political particulars of the setting that they fail to grasp the timelessness of the Gospel message. And it is this message that the average Christian will usually comprehend without access to all that specialist knowledge. Yes, the Gospel can enlighten the mind, but through the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit it moves the hearts of all who approach it with humility and faith.

Enough for now. The grandchildren are calling for Papa, so I must respond. More later...

God's peace...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grandkids Visiting - Making Ice Cream

I don't expect to post very much on the blog for a while since our daughter and her four little ones are visiting for a few weeks. We've been doing all sorts of exciting things, most involving rides in the golf cart. This evening we're making ice cream and trying to hold off until after dinner before we devour it. Here's a photo I took a few moments ago. Cute bunch, aren't they?

What little blessings they are.

And while I'm at it, so I don't run afoul of the grandchild equal time rule, I'd better include photos of our two other grandchildren...

...another pair of blessings.