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.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Homily - Saturday, 3rd Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Sm 12:1-7a, 10-17; Ps 51; Mk 4:35-41

Link to Video of Homily: Click Here
Have you ever been afraid for your life? Given the age of most of us here today, I suspect we’ve all had one or two life-threatening experiences. For some it may have been the diagnosis of a serious illness. For others it may have been a dangerous situation that you survived, one of those sudden near misses. During my many years as a Navy pilot I certainly had my share of the latter, and I have vivid memories of them all. I’ll share one with you this morning.

I was flying a helicopter on a very dark night in the northern Pacific, up near the Aleutian Islands. We had left Adak, an island in the Aleutians that attracted no tourists, and were returning to the ship. The seas were especially rough, with high winds and a water temperature near freezing.

We were about 15 miles from the ship when we heard a loud bang from the main transmission – that’s the huge gearbox that connects the two jet engines to the rotor system. We then started getting other, serious indications of a rapidly worsening problem. Believe me, if the main transmission freezes, the main rotor system will do the same, and that’s never a good thing. And if we ended up in the water, our chances of survival in that dark, stormy, ice-cold environment were very slim.

So we followed all the proper emergency procedures and made our way to the ship, hoping we could land before everything failed. I asked my copilot and two crewmen to pray, and the three of them – a Mormon, a Southern Baptist, and an agnostic – agreed that this was good idea.

Surprisingly, as they prayed and I tried to keep us in the air, I found myself thinking of today’s Gospel passage from Mark. It’s strange how such thoughts just pop into your mind when you least expect them..

You see, like the apostles the first thing we experienced was fear, fear in a storm over which we had no control. Wondering whether Jesus were awake or asleep, I uttered my first prayer: “Wake up, Jesus. It’s scary out here, and you’ve got some quieting words to say.”

But then, remarkably, as I prayed this most imperfect of prayers, I was overcome by a sense of complete peace – and peace always brings change. What had been a frantic plea, uttered in fear, was transformed into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving; for somehow I knew that all would be well.

As you can see by my presence here today, we made it back safely. But right after we landed on that aircraft carrier’s deck, as I began to shut down the engines, the main transmission froze. The subsequent engineering investigation couldn’t explain why it hadn’t failed instantly, why it kept working for those miraculous 10 or 15 minutes we needed to return to the ship.

After landing, the four of us – even the agnostic – joined hands and offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving. For we four had learned something that dark night. We had learned that the absence of faith is not doubt, but fear.

"Be not afraid,” Jesus tells us again and again. Recall how he rebuked the apostles in today’s passage from Mark:  “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” [Mk 4:40] With this He confirms the connection between fear and lack of faith.

But once we began to pray, once we turned to God in faith, weak as it was, our fears began to melt away. Each member of my crew later told me that God had simply pulled all the fear from their hearts. It was a time when God revealed Himself and His saving power to each one of us.

Brothers and sisters, the antidote to fear is faith, a gift freely given, but one that you and I must freely accept. Let God fill your hearts with His love; accept His gift of faith so there’s no room for any fear. Let Him calm your soul as He calms the wind and the sea. Just remember, Jesus won’t calm your soul without your consent, without your faith in His power to do so.

In the Gospel the disciples marvel at Jesus as one “whom even wind and sea obey”. But even more marvelous is a disciple who, in the midst of life's crises, turns to God in faith and obedience.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lottery Fever

According to this morning's news reports, the anticipated payoff from tomorrow's Powerball lottery drawing will approach a staggering $1.4 billion. This could and quite likely will increase as more and more people buy tickets during the final day's feeding frenzy. This payoff is a world record for lotteries and if no winning ticket is drawn the record will only be set higher.

Almost everyone I know has bought a ticket, or a fistful of tickets, in the vain hope that they will beat the astronomical odds that say otherwise. The odds of winning when one buys a single ticket are 292.2 million to 1. These odds do not change with the size of the payoff, but are based solely on the  way Powerball is structured. If, therefore, you are considering buying a ticket, the odds of your winning are about the same as pulling your name out of a gigantic hat holding the names of every American. It's estimated that you are 2,000 times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than to purchase a winning Powerball ticket. If you are a golfer, your chances of making a hole-in-one are about 20,000 times greater than winning this particular lottery. And so, if you've not been killed by a lightning bolt, or if you've never sunk a hole-in-one, I suggest you consider using your funds more constructively by buying an ice cream cone (with sprinkles, or "jimmies" as we call them in New England) or maybe one of those giant bakery cookies filled with macadamia nuts and chunks of white chocolate. Either of these will bring you more joy than the act of tearing up a losing ticket.

Of course, as you might have deduced, the person offering this advice has never actually bought a lottery ticket. Over the years I've been given a few and surprisingly have won more from these gifts than the gifts cost the givers. Despite the fact that my net "winnings" are rather modest and amount to perhaps $10, one can't deny that I have a track record of beating the odds. And yet, blessed as I am with such obvious good fortune, I have no intention of buying a Powerball ticket before tomorrow's drawing.

My reason for avoiding Powerball, or any other big-time lottery, has less to do with the ridiculous odds than with motives. The other day, as the anticipated payoff rose dramatically, I saw the results of a poll in which people were questioned about their plans should they have the winning ticket. When asked what one would do first, only a tiny minority mentioned charitable giving. The vast majority talked about buying things for themselves and their family -- cars, houses, trips, yachts, airplanes, motorhomes, etc. Several people even mentioned cosmetic surgery. In others words, their motives for playing the lottery were, quite simply, more selfish than altruistic.
300+ feet of what?

When such large amounts of money are involved greed tends to overwhelm other, more charitable motives. One sees this displayed among the super-rich who never seem to have enough. The 10,000 square-foot mansion is just too tiny, so construction soon starts on the 50,000 square-foot super home. A few years ago while on a 5-day cruise in the Western Caribbean, I spotted a yacht owned by an American industrialist. It was huge, over 300 feet long, with its own helicopter deck, and was for sale at an asking price of $125 million. I later discovered the owner was selling it because it was just too small. His other yacht is over 400 feet in length. And, yes, I know that he and others like him have all established charitable foundations which they support with their wealth. And yet that support comes from their surplus wealth and not from their need, not from their poverty. Jesus, of course, addresses this failing in an unmistakable way when He points to the widow who gives a small amount to the Temple treasury, but an amount that represented "all she had, her whole livelihood" [See Mk 12:38-44].

Interestingly, not long ago I came across a study that examined the charitable giving of the super-rich -- what it called the "myth of philanthropy." It concluded that the most wealthy actually gave far less than lower and middle income folks. It would seem that not much has changed since the time of Jesus.

Furthermore, one need only examine the record of past lottery winners to see how greed often ruled their lives leading them to squander their winnings on extravagance. As a result, many have found themselves with nothing after only a few years. When selfish gain and greed are the motives one can expect nothing good to come out of it. How did St. Paul put it?
"Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains" [1 Tim 6:9-10].
And if you don't like (or need) an ice cream cone or a cookie, why not drop a few extra bucks in the collection basket at church, or perhaps give a small donation to your local soup kitchen. Think of it as a means to experience first-hand the mercy of God. As St. Peter reminds us:
"Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins" [1 Pet 4:8].
God's peace.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Homily: December 30

Readings: 1 Jn 2:12-17 Ps 96; Lk 2:36-40

Early in Luke’s Gospel we encounter Anna and Simeon, two special, almost grandparental figures, perfect models for those of us in the winter years of our lives. They are blessed with the holiness and wisdom most of us seek but too few of us attain.

But this passage about Anna always calls to mind my Dominican eighth-grade teacher. I’m certain Sister Francis Jane looked exactly like Anna. From my perspective as a 13-year-old they were both old – very, very old. And they both saw their mission in life as one of announcing the Good News to everyone they encountered.

How did Luke put it?
“…she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Yes, Anna was telling everyone who came to the Temple to prepare themselves for the gift of redemption. What wonderful news! And it was the same message we eighth-graders received daily from Sister Francis Jane.

“Be prepared,” she’d say, “You and I don’t know when the Lord will summon us into His Holy Presence.” And so, for Sister Francis Jane, readiness just made good spiritual sense.

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of courses in spirituality, but despite all the deep theological insights I learned in those courses, I found myself ignoring most of them and going back to Sister’s four basic rules – rules she repeated again and again as we made our way through eighth grade en route to high school.

Her first rule was to pray.

That’s right, pray – pray every day. “Talk to the Lord,” she’d say. Nothing complicated about it. If you don’t have a prayer life, you can’t be Jesus’ friend. After all, what kind of person never speaks to his friend?

Her second rule was to watch.

Now she didn’t mean spending your time looking for the Second Coming. Too many people today seem to think the end is near every time there’s an earthquake, a flood, a war, or a rumor of war. In the words of the good Sister, “If you stand around looking at the sky watching for Jesus, you just might get hit by a truck – and then you’ll meet Him a bit prematurely.”

Yeah, she was a pretty funny. But what she meant was something a little more subtle. “Keep your eyes open,” she’d tell us. “Watch what’s going on in the world around you. Watch for opportunities to bring Jesus to others. Watch for the good things, and praise God for them. And watch out for the bad things, and then wait...and you’ll be amazed how God will use you to bring good out of the bad.”

“Don’t hide from the world,” she’d say, waving that bony finger at us. “God made the world. It’s good. It’s people who’ve made it bad. And you can’t change it if you hide from it.”

Her third rule of readiness was to avoid sin.

Too many people, she said, make friends with the devil, who dresses up sin trying to make the ugly attractive. I would hope as Catholic Christians we’d all want to be in a state of grace, a state of friendship with the Lord, so He will greet us as a friend when we meet. For this, the good sister said, we should be willing to sacrifice everything.

Her fourth and final rule of readiness was to use everything in our lives to fulfill our calling to serve.

By this she meant that parents should be good parents. Children should be good children. Brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, priests and nuns, deacons and bishops, doctors, lawyers, flight attendants, plumbers, salespeople, soldiers, carpenters… whatever we do in life, we should do it to the best of our ability.

But it also means we must be good Christians, that our work in the world is important only to the extent that it supports and furthers God’s work. Our preparation for eternity, then, must include using this world’s goods and pleasures for the glory of God and for the good of others. After all, what good is it to achieve great things in this world if they don’t help us achieve the salvation God wants for us in the next? We are all called to serve.

That, in a nutshell, is the late Sister Francis Jane’s program of spiritual direction.

Now, being always ready to encounter Jesus isn’t as easy as it might sound, especially in today’s world, a world that seems to place so many superfluous demands on us. In the days to come there will be a lot of talk about turning over new leaves and making resolutions for the new year — talk of diets, and exercise, and volunteer work, and watching less television…all good things.

But maybe you and I can do something a bit more meaningful. Why don’t we get ready for the Lord and start living each day as if it’s our last. Put away the old person with sin and weakness and live in a new spirit of grace and gratitude.