Friday, October 21, 2016

Jail Break

Prayer and penance for people in Purgatory  
Luke 12:54-59 
Jesus said to all the people: As soon as you see a cloud coming up in the west, you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. When the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to get hot,” and it does. Are you trying to fool someone? You can predict the weather by looking at the earth and sky, but you don’t really understand what’s going on right now. Why don’t you understand the right thing to do? When someone accuses you of something, try to settle things before you are taken to court. If you don’t, you will be dragged before the judge. Then the judge will hand you over to the jailer, and you will be locked up. You won’t get out until you have paid the last cent you owe.   

          One of the fun games you find at a church carnival is called “Jail-a-Friend.” How does it work? Well, first you have to have a “jail.” Second, you have to designate someone as “sheriff.” And third, you have to have a friend you can throw into jail. Whom would you like to elect as the Sheriff of Immaculate Conception School? Now, who would you like to throw in jail; let’s pick three people.   

          Now, here’s the important part of this game: how do you get the people out? How do you break them out of jail? Well, the people in jail can’t use their own money, so they have to call their friends to pay for them to get out. You see, once you are in jail, you cannot get yourself out, others have to help you. Are there any friends who’d like to help these three get out of jail, or should leave them there? That’s what I thought.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus is also talking about going to jail, but he means a different kind of jail. He says, “Try to settle things before you are taken to court. If you don’t, you will be dragged before the judge. Then the judge will hand you over to the jailer, and you will be locked up. You won’t be let out until you have paid the last cent you owe.” Now, Jesus is not talking about a pretend jail, like at a church carnival. He’s actually talking about purgatory. You see, after we die we’ll meet Jesus (the Judge), and we will have to “pay” for all the wrong things we’ve done. Now, just like in the carnival game of “Jail-a-Friend,” you need others to pay to get you out, so too, our prayers help get people out of purgatory-jail.   

          Boys and girls, today I want to tell you about three things you and I can do to get people out of the Purgatory-Jail, a kind of spiritual “jail break”! First, we can pray for people in purgatory at Mass. In the bulletin every week, we list the “intention” of the Mass, even this children’s school Mass has a special intention. That intention is the name of someone who has died and is in “purgatory jail” that we’re trying to get out and go to heaven. Every Mass is trying to break someone out of Purgatory-jail. Second, there are envelopes in the pews. On the front of them, you write the names of people who have died (not those who are alive), and we put those envelopes on the altar, and pray for them in 9 Masses called a “novena.” We do that so we can break them out of Purgatory-jail. And third, some people pray for the dead as part of their “Grace Before Meals.” They add at the end of Grace this brief prayer: “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” Before they eat, they pray for a jail break.   

          Today let us pray for those who have died; our prayers can truly help them get to heaven faster. Tomorrow, let’s hope someone will pray for us and break us out of jail.  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!   

The Five Percent

Embracing the hard part of leadership and life  
2 Timothy 4:10-17B  
Beloved: Demas, enamored of the present world, deserted me and went to Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Luke is the only one with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful to me in the ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus in Troas, the papyrus rolls, and especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me a great deal of harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. You too be on guard against him, for he has strongly resisted our preaching. At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.    

          Someday soon, I hope you will read something by John Maxwell, who’s the leading light in the field of leadership. In one book, he made this surprising but sage statement, he wrote: “Ninety-five percent of the decisions a CEO makes could just as well be made by a reasonably intelligent eighth grader. But the CEO will be paid for the other five percent.” That means that Ben Forsgren or Ashley Hill or Katie Barrett, as eighth graders, can already make 95 percent of the decisions that the head of Google or Walmart or Disney makes right now. But only if they can make the other five percent of the decisions will they be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year like those CEOs make.  
          The other five percent are choices and decisions that are unpopular but nonetheless right, when you might have to stand alone, when there will be a cross and a cost, when you believe that is what God wants you to do but no one else does. And one eighth-grader I’ve seen embrace that other 5 percent is Kate Goldtrap. Why? Well, because she’s absolutely unafraid to stand alone in front of a stadium full of fans, twirl her baton, dance, sometimes drop the baton, pick it back up, and keep on going and smile sweetly through the whole routine. I don’t mean to embarrass you, Kate, by singling you out, but you’re willing to do the other five percent that would be terrifying for most people (including me). I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we see your name as the CEO of some multi-national corporation.

          In the first reading today, St. Paul is also anxious to embrace the other five percent, to do what others won’t or can’t. He writes: “Demas, enamored of the present world, deserted me and went to Thessalonica, Crecens to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia.” A little later he adds: “Alexander the copper smith did me a great deal of harm,” and he also says, “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.” In other words, St. Paul finds himself in the same shoes as Kate Goldtrap, not twirling a baton, but having to stand alone and do what’s right even if he messes up or others oppose and ostracize him. That’s the other five percent. He explains he’s able to do this with the help that comes from Jesus. You see, doing the other five percent won’t just help you become an effective CEO, but it will also allow you to behave as a true Christian, which is worth far more than a million dollar paycheck.

          Boys and girls, here at Trinity we want to teach you how to choose that other five percent. Heck, maybe even coming to Trinity was a “five percent choice.” Some of your friends may have gone to another junior high, but you were willing to stand alone, and make what you believed was the right choice for you. Okay, so maybe your parents forced you to come here, but that counts, too! How much courage does it take for Zane and Mary Kate to run for student council president? That’s the other five percent. Maybe you say “no” to drugs and alcohol, to sex or “sexting,” while others say “yes” – that’s the other five percent. Trying golf or tennis or underwater basket-weaving (we don’t really have that) all demonstrates you’re willing to attempt the other five percent.  Leaders do a lot of the things that other people do, but they get paid for what no one else will do.

          In the movie “A League of Their Own,” (about a women’s baseball team), Tom Hanks gives some great advice to “Dottie” who wants to quit the team right before the World Series. She says to him, “It just got too hard.” He replies: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t everyone would be doing it. It’s the hard that makes it great.” Whether you’re trying to be a CEO or a Christian or a baton twirler, you have to embrace the other five percent: that’s “the hard,” and that’s what makes it great.

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

People Are Crazy

Taking time to discuss the things that matter  

Luke 12:13-21  
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”  
          You may not know this but I’m a country music fan. And the reason I like it is because it often touches themes that are not only earthly but also heavenly, not only emotional but also eternal, that is, subjects really worth singing about.    One such song is Billy Carrington’s popular, “People Are Crazy.” The first stanza goes: “This old man and me, were at the bar and we, Were having us some beers, And swapping I-don’t-cares, Talking politics, blonde and red-head chicks, Old dogs and new tricks, And habits we ain’t kicked. We talked about God’s grace and all the hell we raised, Then I heard the old man say, ‘God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy’.” Now, notice what these two men discuss sitting at the bar: politics and religion, love and life, holiness and grace. These are the things that truly matter.   

          Here’s the last stanza: “Last call it’s 2 a.m. I said goodbye to him, I never talked to him again. Then one sunny day, I saw the old man’s face, Front page obituary, he was millionairy (that’s redneck for “millionaire”), he left his fortune to, some guy he barely knew, the kids were mad as hell. But me, I’m doing well.” Now, I’ll give you one guess whom the old man left his fortune to. You see, that stranger had given that old man something that his own children had not: time and attention, love and respect. For a few hours, he didn’t feel like a rich old man, but like a loved old man.
          In the gospel today, we hear another story of who gets the inheritance. Someone in the crowd said to Jesus: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” And Jesus replies: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” I’m sure Jesus would have loved to play Bill Carrington’s song for that man if he could have. In other words, don’t make money and possessions your main goal, instead put people first. Take time to be with people and talk about things you hear in country music songs, like politics and religion, love and life, sin and grace. When you put people first, the possessions will find their own proper place, maybe in the hands of a stranger.   

          My friends, may I suggest you look for opportunities and occasions in which you can have truly meaningful and worth-while conversations over topics that have eternal weight and consequence? Try to do that with your parents, especially as they get older and closer to that great finish line of life. How sad if they only find strangers to share their wisdom with. Try to do that with your spouse. Sometimes we get so busy with daily duties and chores we forget to discuss what life is ultimately all about. This lack of discourse often leads to marital distance and difficulties and finally to divorce. Try to share your deepest hopes and longings with your children. Their hearts are hungry for you to inspire them to greatness; don’t deprive them.

          And if by chance you can’t think of anything to talk about with these people, maybe you need to listen to more country music, especially if you’re a “millionairy.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Extra Chairs

Using our critical thinking to follow Jesus  

Luke 12:1-7  
At that time: So many people were crowding together  that they were trampling one another underfoot. Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven–that is, the hypocrisy–of the Pharisees. “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops.   

          Have you ever heard of the phenomenon called “the herd mentality”? Put simply, it is following the crowd, the majority of people, instead of critically thinking and carefully deciding what path to follow for yourself. Several years ago, I read a book called The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, where he explained that, “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” That is, by person to person contact. I have personally been both blessed and burned by the herd mentality here in Fort Smith. When I first arrived as the new kid in town, all the Catholics came here for Mass and we had to put out extra chairs. Now, I’m yesterday’s news, and everyone goes to Barling for Mass, and they have to put out extra chairs. I wonder where our “roaming Catholics” will end up tomorrow. That’s the herd mentality spreading like a virus.   

          Over and against this herd mentality stands the poetry of Robert Frost, who wrote these unforgettable lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” In the poem a traveler comes to a fork in the road and must choose one or the other. One is well-worn with traffic, the other is hardly touched. The uncritical crowds take the well-traveled road; Robert Frost recommends the other one. Archbishop Fulton Sheen often said: “Dead fish float down stream; it takes live fish to fight the current.” You can go with the crowd, or you can go against the current.   

          In the gospel today we see Jesus’ popularity on the rise, as if he were the new pastor in Fort Smith and all the roaming Catholics are running out to see and hear him. The gospel records: “At that time: so many people were crowding together that they were trampling one another underfoot.” In other words, Jesus had to put out extra chairs for the over-flow crowds. But notice what Jesus preaches that day: a very challenging message. He says, “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.” Just think of all the things we say and do in private being broadcast on the evening news! In other words, Jesus says in effect, don’t follow me because everyone else is doing it. But think critically and choose carefully which path to pursue. And of course, when Jesus preached his final sermon from the Cross, only a handful heard it. The dead fish had already floated down stream, and no one needed any extra chairs.   

          My friends, here are a few helpful hints for fighting the herd mentality. First, have a healthy suspicion whenever you see people chasing after the latest fad or fashion: the newest Iphone, the most vogue hairstyle, the coolest clothes, the trendiest restaurants. You’ll save a lot of money not being part of the herd. Two, always ask the question “Why?” Why should I watch this T.V. program? Why is he telling me this information? Why am I going to Mass in Barling? And third, don’t settle for sound-bites or headlines. Take time to read the whole article, the entire book, and then reflect on what you read. Think critically and choose carefully.   

          Here’s the entire last stanza of Frost’s poem: “I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!  

Watch Yourself

Growing in self-awareness by watching our ancestors  
Luke 11:47-54  
The Lord said: “Woe to you who build the memorials of the prophets whom your fathers killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building. Therefore, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and Apostles; some of them they will kill and persecute’ in order that this generation might be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who died between the altar and the temple building. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood! Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.” When Jesus left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him and to interrogate him about many things, for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.   

          Many people enjoy “people watching,” where they’ll find a seat at a road-side cafĂ©, or a bench at the mall, and watch the parade of humanity pass by. Sometimes you try to guess what two people are discussing, or why a small child is crying, or where people are going. For me personally, I love “student-watching” at Immaculate Conception School or Trinity Junior High. One thing I’ve started to notice is that children often evince traits of their parents: they walk like their dad, they laugh like their mom, they love hunting like their dad, they play football like their older brother, they bake pies like their mom. A good teacher can tell in two minutes whether a student comes from a stable, loving home or an unstable, abusive home.   

          I’ll never forget once Bishop Sartain observed that I laugh like my older brother. He said I sort of bend over when I laugh. I immediately responded, mildly offended to be compared to my brother, saying, “No I don’t!” They bishop smiled. But, of course, that’s exactly how I laugh, and now every time I laugh, I remember the good bishop’s comment and my own glaring lack of self-awareness. Apparently, the bishop enjoyed not only people-watching, but also priest-watching.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus is doing some “Pharisee-watching,” but he’s pointing out family traits that are very troublesome. He says, “Woe to you who build the memorials of the prophets whom your fathers killed.” Then he goes on: “Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building.” In other words, just like Bishop Sartain helped me to see a family resemblance in how I laugh like my brother, so Jesus helps the Pharisees to see a family resemblance in how they hate and oppose the prophets like their ancestors. And how did the Pharisees respond? They said just like I did: “No, we don’t!” But everyone else who was “Pharisee-watching” with Jesus could see exactly what Jesus was talking about, and so can we. One of the most fascinating things about people-watching is how easily we can see things in others that they are completely oblivious to.  
          My friends, today take a little time to do some people-watching, but don’t watch other people, or school students, or priests, or Pharisees. Rather, watch yourself. Today, try to be more self-aware and notice how and why and where and what you yourself do. One effective way to do this is by studying your parents closely and realizing that many of their faults and failings you too have inherited, while many of their skills and successes are also found in you. This can also serve as a useful examination of conscience and help you to see your sins. If your parents are argumentative and confrontational, you may be, too. If your parents abuse drugs and alcohol, you may, too. If your parents are overly worried about public perception and keeping up with the Joneses, you may be, too.   

          You know, many children grow up declaring defiantly: “I’ll never be like my parents!” Whenever I hear a young person say that, I remember when Bishop Sartain heard me say that, and I smile and think, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

An Inside Job

Making the spiritual a priority over the physical   
Luke 11:37-41  After Jesus had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.”    

          Today, I want to share with you why I decided to become a priest, and maybe it will inspire someone here at Trinity to be one, too. When I was in 8th grade at St. Theresa School in Little Rock, there was a little blonde girl that I really liked. I believed I loved her. One day, I mustered up the courage to call her and ask her to go to have lunch with me at Taco Bell. She answered the phone and said, “No, thanks.” So, I decided I might as well become a priest! I’m just kidding, that’s not the real reason, although that really happened.   

          Actually, in grade school and high school I did think about being a priest, but not because of a broken heart. Rather my heart felt a desire to help others (as many of you do, too). But I also began to see there are two distinct ways to help others. One, you can help them by giving them food to eat, or clothes to wear, or a house to live in. Providing for someone’s physical needs is very good and very necessary. But you can also help them spiritually – teach someone right and wrong, love someone unconditionally, help them to know Jesus, share with them about heaven and hope, introduce them to the Bible. And as I thought about these two paths of helping others, I asked myself which “need” lasts longer: the physical or the spiritual? Well, the physical lasts 80, 90, or 100 years, but the spiritual lasts forever. And who takes care of spiritual needs? Obviously, priests do! You see, priests put a higher premium on the spiritual over the physical; that’s why they become priests.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus tries to teach a Pharisee to prioritize the inside (the spiritual) over the outside (the physical). A Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner but is shocked that Jesus does not wash his hands before he eats. Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach, saying, “Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil.” In other words, of course you must take care of the physical needs – like washing your hands – but far more urgent are spiritual needs – like mercy and modesty, prayer and peace, grace and generosity. Pharisees, like priests, must not forget that the spiritual ranks higher than the physical.

          One of the great blessings but also burdens of junior high school is you really begin to notice the physical side of you. The boys’ voices start changing and so they don’t want to sing in church. Some girls shoot up in height and become basketball and volleyball stars. Your brains are absorbing information at lightning speed, faster than your teachers can teach! You are becoming leaders on the field, on the court, in the bandroom, in the classroom and even of the whole school. We’ll hear from Zane Watson and Mary Kate Wewers who want your vote to be student body president. Boys and girls, I watch with awe and wonder as you develop into mature young men and women. I’m very proud of you.

          But let me remind you of what I learned in 8th grade, and what Jesus teaches in the gospel: keep the spiritual a higher priority than the physical. How do you do that? Here are three ways: (1) don’t judge another person by their appearance: dark or light skin, tall or short, pretty or handsome. People’s physical qualities come and go, but it’s the spirit that stays, and that’s where we see each person is a child of God. Treat each person as a child of God.  (2) There’s a quotation hanging in the office that reads: “Be kind to each person, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” On the outside someone may look happy and carefree, but inside they may be going through “H. E. double hockey sticks.” Everyone suffers inner turmoil, be kind to them, don’t be mean. And (3) don’t think other families are better than yours; they’re not. My friend, Fr. Clayton Gould, likes to say, “Everyone is normal until you get to know them.” What does that mean? It means that all families are dysfunctional and have problems and argue and fight, not just yours. When you look inside a family, and see the spiritual side, you see everyone is crazy.   

          If you prioritize the spiritual over the physical, you’ll live your life very differently: you’ll be much happier, and maybe even become a priest.  And by the way, if you ask a girl out to eat, don’t take her to Taco Bell, at least invite her to Golden Corral.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Stinking Happy

Embracing our additions and God’s freeing grace  
Galatians 4:22-24, 26-27, 31–5:1  
Brothers and sisters: It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the freeborn woman. The son of the slave woman was born naturally, the son of the freeborn through a promise. Now this is an allegory. These women represent two covenants. One was from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar. But the Jerusalem above is freeborn, and she is our mother. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are children not of the slave woman but of the freeborn woman. For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.   

          Some of the happiest people I know are those whom I least expected to be happy, namely, recovering alcohol and drug addicts. While I was pastor of St. Raphael, members of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) would ask to speak at Mass and invite others to attend their meetings. And I couldn’t help but notice the irrepressible smile on their faces. They were genuinely, deeply and uncontrollably happy. You could tell this was not “an act.” The source of their unbridled joy was twofold: on the one hand, they humbly admitted they were addicted to drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, they had turned to God to free them from that slavery. And guess what? He did! These men were truly free, no longer slaves to addition, and that’s why they were so stinking happy.   

          Around the same time, I read a tremendous little book by Gerald May, called Addiction and Grace. In it, he wrote we are all addicts. He said: “The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addictions to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word.” As a psychiatrist, May wanted to heal people of their addictions but he met with little success. Then one day, he met a faith healer, who held his hands and said, “I wouldn’t take my dog to you because you think you are the one that has to do the healing.” In other words, like the men in AA, May realized only God can free us and heal us of our addictions. Only then will you be stinking happy.   

          In the first reading today, St. Paul tells the Galatians the secret to being stinking happy, too. Galatians 5:1 could be considered the “core of Christianity” because it says: “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” St. Paul, like those humble and happy recovering alcoholics, knew that we are all addicted to something. Indeed, sin and addiction are almost interchangeable terms: both obstruct the flow of God’s love in our lives because we turn to something besides God and become enslaved to it.  But we can also be freed from that slavery by Jesus. Only when you acknowledge both of these two sides of spirituality - addiction and grace - will you be fully free and hopelessly happy. 
          My friends, do you want to be happy? I mean, do you want to be really happy, even stinking happy? Well, let me suggest you not look outside for that happiness: in material things, in public praise, or awards and achievements. But rather, look inside your heart. There, you will see the two things that Gerald May saw: (1) we are all addicted to many things (fine food, fantasy football, facebook), and (2) only God can free us from these addictions (we have to open our hearts to his grace). St. Paul said: “For freedom Christ has set us free,” because only then will we be truly happy. You see, only when we are no longer slaves but free men and women will we be able to walk around like those men from AA, with an irrepressible smile on our faces.  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

I Am a Drunkard

Recognizing and rejecting racism in our hearts  
Luke 17:11-19  
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed. And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”   

          What is one of the first questions you ask someone when you first meet them? After you learn their name, you usually ask, “Where are you from?” Why do you ask that? Well, because as soon as you learn their hometown, you immediately assume lots of things about them. If someone is from Fort Smith, for instance, you know they’re Razorback fans, and they cheer for the St. Louis Cardinals, and they run through red lights at intersections, and they fly the Rebel flag from the back of their pick-up trucks, and they listen to 80’s rock-n-roll, and they walk around without a shirt on, and they’re all related to each other, and they still hang people for capital offenses behind Judge Parker’s courthouse. I’ve only been here 3 years, so I’m sure I’ll change my opinion soon. But you see what happens when you think you know people based on where they are from: you make gross generalizations that are often grossly wrong.  
          Do you remember that great scene in the movie “Casablanca” where the German officer, Major Heinrick Strasser, first meets Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick Blaine, who happens to run a saloon? Strasser asks, “May I ask you a few questions, unofficially, of course?” Rick replies: “Make it official, if you like.” Then he asks, “What is your nationality?” Rick thinks a moment and says, “I’m a drunkard.” Captain Renault, who’s also at the table, adds: “And that makes Rick a citizen of the world.” But you see what Strasser was trying to do by asking that question? He wanted to know where Rick was from so he could pigeon-hole him with his preconceived ideas of people from different places (Hitler’s Germany was notorious for that). But Rick was too smart: his nationality was a drunkard.   

          Our readings today invite us to transcend our own preconceived notions of people and places and even our preconceived ideas of God, that is, try to avoid pigeon-holing. In the first reading from 2 Kings, Naaman, from Syria, is cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisha. And what does Naaman want as a momento of that miracle? He asks for “two mule-loads of earth.” He explains why, saying, “I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the Lord.” In other words, Naaman mistakenly concludes that God is somehow closely associated with a certain place – the land of Israel symbolized by the dirt – and so he wants to take some of that land back with him. He still has to learn that, like Rick Blaine, God does not have a nationality. He doesn’t belong to any nation; rather, all nations belong to him. Indeed, as it says in Isaiah 40:15, “See, the nations count as a drop in the bucket, as a wisp of cloud on the scales; the coastlands weigh no more than powder.” It’s great to sing “God bless America,” but realize he also blesses other countries (especially India!). Don’t try to tie God down to “two mule-loads of earth.”   

          In the gospel Jesus shows that his lordship is not limited to the land of Israel or to the people of Israel. He crosses into Samaria – pagan territory – and heals ten lepers. To highlight how Jesus heals non-Jews, the only one who returns to say “thanks” is a Samaritan, a foreigner. This shocked the Jews, who believed they had exclusive dibs on God, and his miracles should only be performed inside their borders. You see, God’s love embodied in Jesus is bigger than any border.   

          It is in this context that I’d like to say a word about racism, especially as we hear reports about white police officers shooting black citizens, and the protests and riots that ensue. Here are three things to pray about and ponder over. First, racism is a sin; it is a failure to see another person as a child of God. When you hear about a police shooting, do you jump to conclusions? In your mind, have you played the “judge, jury and executioner,” without having all the facts, or just based on what you see on social media? Do you have a bias and believe all African Americans are guilty until proven innocent, instead of the other way around? Or, do you believe police officers tend to be more brutal against blacks than whites? Beware of the biases in your own heart, and if you do see it, go to confession. Why? Because racism is a sin.   

          Secondly, be careful about believing God loves America more than the rest of the world. For sure, God loves the U.S. and he has blessed us tremendously. But look at it this way: if you are a parent and have 2 healthy children and one child with special needs and severe disabilities, to whom will you give extra time, more attention and added affection? Of course, you’ll lavish your love on the more needy child. And you’d hope that the healthy siblings wouldn’t get jealous, but rather pitch in and help. Similarly, God’s heart and grace are poured out upon the whole world, but especially where his children are most in need. Like the Jews, we shouldn’t be jealous because God is not bound within our borders, but rather see how we can help the needy and neglected.   

          And thirdly, ask yourself: what would Jesus do in the face of racism, of bias, of bigotry? Well, we have his example in healing foreigners in the gospel today. But the Church also speaks out. In 1979, the United States bishops wrote a document on racism called, “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” In it they said very eloquently: “The new form of racism must be brought face-to-face with the figure of Christ. It is Christ’s words that is the judgment on this world; it is Christ’s cross that is the measure of our response; and it is Christ’s face that is the composite of all persons but in a most significant way of today’s poor, today’s marginal people, today’s minorities.” In other words, try to see racism through Jesus’ eyes and feel it with his heart; and not the Jesus of your imagination, but the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus taught by the Church.   

          Retired Bishop John H. Ricard, the President of the National Black Catholic Congress said it well when he remarked: “Blacks experience and see racism everywhere. Whites look at blacks and say, ‘What’s your problem?’” Do you see racism everywhere, or do you think it’s not a problem? Before you answer that question: remember what some people think about people from Fort Smith.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!  

Friday, October 7, 2016

Money, Sex, Power

Following the lead of the Spirit rather than the world  

Galatians 3:1-5  
O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?– if indeed it was in vain. Does, then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard?

          There is a curious contrast between how Christians live and how the world around us revolves. Indeed, I would propose that our priorities and the world’s priorities are polar opposites. And there are three main areas where this contract comes into sharp focus, namely, in money, sex and power. Just think about the three vows that religious priests and nuns take: poverty (opposed to money), chastity (rather than sex), and obedience (instead of ego and willfulness).

          Several years ago, Bishop Sartain (now archbishop of Seattle) told us priests that his salary as a bishop was exactly the same as that of priests. Ever since then I’ve never wanted to be a bishop. I mean, what’s the point?? Second, think about the practical consequences of abandoning celibacy and having more married priests: you’d hear a lot more sermons about money! Why? Because parishioners would have to provide financial support for a family, not just for a bachelor. And third, power or prestige: the pope has said no more monsignors before the age of 65 and he decried so-called “airport bishops” who travel too much instead of staying in their diocese serving their people. You see, the life of a priest should be a sharp contrast to the values of the world: no money, no sex, no power. And when we live that way, we become the gospel on two legs.

          This contrast is what’s got St. Paul so fired up in the first reading today. He chastises the Galatians, saying: “Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you ending in the flesh?” Now, be careful: by the term “flesh” he is not criticizing the human body, which in 1 Corinthians 6:19 he calls “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” So, the body is good.  Rather, by “flesh” he means all the disordered, worldly desires that are summed up in “money, sex and power.” In other words, he wants the Galatians to catch that Christian contrast; our values and priorities should clash with those of the world: poverty, chastity and obedience.

          My friends, I believe this Christian contrast is not only meant for priests, but also for married people. That is, married people should also embrace a spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience. For instance, many marriages struggle over money: sometimes there is not enough money, sometimes there is too much money. Some couples even sign “prenuptial agreements” to determine who will get the money if there is a divorce. Instead, practice poverty, a simpler life-style. Other marriages wreck on the rocks of sex or infidelity or adultery. But many couples fail to see that the physical adultery was the consequence of the emotional adultery that preceded it. That is, sharing your heart often leads to sharing your body. Don’t neglect your need for emotional intimacy.  And third, power. One husband boasted: “I always get the last word in every argument. Those words are, ‘Yes, dear’.” Instead of a power-play, seek to serve each other; be obedient to each other.

          I believe as the world becomes less and less Christian, our contrast with the world will come into sharper focus: money, sex and power, or poverty, chastity and obedience. We must all become the gospel on two legs.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Holy Hotheads

Learning the skills of disagreement and debate  
Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14  Brothers and sisters: After fourteen years I again went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”   

          One of the hardest skills to learn in human relationships is arguing well. Sooner or later in every family or friendship there will be disagreements and disputes and it’s vital for both sides to know how to engage in the controversy. We see a lot of examples of such discussions in this political debate season, and not all of them are very helpful.   

          But did you know the saints also got into controversies and knock-down-drag-out arguments? There’s probably no better example of “holy hotheads” than the correspondence between St. Augustine and St. Jerome back in the 4th century. Augustine started it by criticizing Jerome’s new Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome sarcastically fired back that Augustine should know the value of an authentic translation as “a bishop and teacher of the churches of Christ!” Jerome defended himself further saying, Augustine must not “go on thinking I am a master of lies, for I follow Christ.” Finally, he says, “don’t stir up against me a mob of ignorant people who respect you as a bishop but have little use for a feeble old man like me.”  Wow, these two didn’t hold back. It’s like that that old saying, “no one fights like family.”  
          In the first reading from Galatians we see another holy hothead in St. Paul’s controversy with St. Peter. Paul writes with little saintly restraint: “When Cephas (meaning Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.” He goes on a little later: “But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, ‘If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile, and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” By the way, don’t forget that Paul was speaking to Peter, the first pope! I gotta tell you, I really cringe when I hear these conflicts between these two great pillars Peter and Paul, and in the Bible of all places, because it seems nothing could sound less saintly.   

          Nevertheless, I believe there’s something we can learn from these conflicts and controversies between holy hotheads. First, realize that even though “no one fights like family,”  all families do fight. I used to think it was a sign of a weak relationship when people argue and fight, but just the opposite may be true. It’s because I trust you and love you that I can express the depths of my feelings to you. St. Jerome told St. Augustine exactly what he thought because he believed Augustine’s love could handle it. Secondly, when people do not discuss and debate their feelings openly, those strong feelings get buried and start to fester, and come out in other destructive behavior. Some turn to alcohol, others to entertainment, others to sex. And third, don’t be a “holy doormat” when you disagree with someone, and let people walk all over you. You have an opinion and your own ideas and unique inspirations of the Holy Spirit, too. And you have a right to express them. After all, the very first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is “freedom of speech.” You see, Augustine and Jerome, Paul and Peter each had something to say, and they each had a right to say it.  And so do you.

          I wonder how many marriages fail because couples don’t know how to argue well. After his divorce, the poet John Donne wrote simply: “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone.”  He didn’t say much; maybe he should have said more.  Learn how to argue well: it doesn’t mean your relationship is on the rocks; it may mean it’s built solidly on a rock.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Boat of Blondes

Appreciating the immensity of our ignorance

LUKE 17:5-10.  
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

          One of my favorite sayings is, “you don't know what you don't know.”  I like it because it makes you have to think a little to really get the gist of it.  It's deeper than simply being ignorant of something like say rocket science.  I may not know any rocket science – and I don't – but I still am aware of this lack of knowledge.  And because I'm aware of it, I could fix that ignorance by going to school and learning rocket science.  This saying, however, goes one step further: it is ignorance of something I don't even know I am ignorant of.

          The best way to illustrate this point is with a blonde joke (my apologies to all your blondes).  A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink.  After a few too many drinks, he turns to the person sitting next to him and says: “You wanna hear a blonde joke?”  The guys answers: “I am 240 pounds, world kickboxing champion and a natural blonde.  My friend here is 190 pounds, world judo champion and a natural blonde.  My other companion is 200 pounds, world arm wrestling champion and is also a natural blonde.  Now, do you still want to tell me that blonde joke?”  The man thinks a minute and replies: “Not if I have to explain it three times!”  The gist of the joke is that blondes do not know what they do not know; that's the gist of all blonde jokes.

          Now, I'm not really picking on blondes today because we're all in the same boat: no one knows what they do not know.  Try to think about it like this: when you were 10 years old you thought you understood a few things about life, but when you turned 20 you realized how ignorant you were at 10.  And then when you turn 30 you look back at your 20 year old self, and you realize you knew very little at 20.  At 40 you look at the “30 year old you” and see what a fool you were at that age.  At 50 you do the same and see how silly you were at 40.  What happens at 60?  What might likely happen at 70?  Let me ask you something: when will that end?  When will you finally understand everything?  Maybe 80?  Perhaps 90?  But by then you get Alzheimer’s and forget everything you learned!  And this kind of ignorance you can't “fix” like going to school and learning rocket science.  Why not?  Because we don't know what we don't know; just like you didn't know at 30 what you learned at 40.  In other words, we're all in the same boat as blondes; we’re all blondes.

          In the gospel today, Jesus insists on the ignorance of the apostles, too.  They say to Jesus, “Lord increase our faith.”  And Jesus replies: 'If you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.”  And clearly none of them had even that much faith because they could not have told that tree to jump into the sea.  In other words, it is good to pray for more faith, but first realize the immensity of your ignorance.  If your faith – what you believe, what you think you know – isn't even the size of a tiny mustard seed, then how much more must there by that you don’t even know that you don’t know?  A lot.

          My friends, may I suggest a few ways to embrace our own ignorance, and by doing so, start to grope in the darkness and inch toward the light of truth?  First, don't be too smart for your own good.  In other words, be willing to admit when you make a mistake and learn to say, “I don't know.”  Can you say that easily?  Let’s say you really are a rocket scientist and know many things, but there are still immeasurably more things you do not know.  The ancient philosopher, Socrates, famously said: “The only thing that I know is that I don't know.”  There is more wisdom in that one line than in all the information on the internet.  Our ignorance is much larger than the internet.

          Secondly, pray.  Like the apostles ask the Lord to give you more faith.  If it is true that we don't know what we don't know, then faith is knocking on the door of the Unknown, and hoping Someone will open that door and let us in.  And what lies on the other side of that door we'd never guess in a million years.  St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  Through prayer we begin the scratch the surface of all that we didn't know we didn't know.

          Thirdly, ask for help, and accept other people's offer of help.  Sometimes when a church staff member asks me about a difficult situation, I'll turn around and ask them, “What do YOU think we should do?”  And very rarely do I disagree with their suggestion.  In fact, often they come up with solutions I'd never imagine.  They help me to know what I didn't know.  Fr. Norman McFall, a friend, visited a lady in the hospital and before he left he asked her, “Would you do me a favor and pray for me?”  She was shocked, and said, “How can I a lay person pray for a priest; you don't need my prayers.”  He answered, 'If Pope Francis can go around the world asking for people to pray for him, I figure I need to ask also.”  Ask for help, ask for prayers.  Why?  Because there are so many things you don't even know you don't know.

          And fourthly, don’t be afraid or angry when someone questions you or contradicts you.  Has your husband or wife ever pointed out things you do that really irritate them?  How did you respond?  Many people get upset.  Why?  Because the spouse is point out something we didn't know was a bother, but it's something we need to change.  And what happens when those things go unchanged or ignored?  The answer is simple: a 60% divorce rate in the United States.  There can be a steep cost when you don't know what you don't know.

          During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington paid a visit to Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams.  They enjoyed some tea together, and General Washington thanked Abigail for her letters to John Adams while the Continental Congress was in session.  He said, “We will miss your letters.”  Why did General Washington say that?  Because Abigail Adams helped the Founding Fathers begin to know what they didn't know.  By the way, I don't believe Abigail Adams was blonde, but George Washington might have been.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Good Greed

Learning to desire God’s glory and goodness
LUKE 10:17-24
The seventy-two disciples returned rejoicing and said to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

                One of the greatest saints by heavenly standards was someone extremely small and insignificant by earthly standards.  I’m talking about today’s feast of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Now, what made her so great in God’s eyes was a kind of “good greed.”  She had a voracious appetite for spiritual things; that’s all she wanted and she wanted all of it.

                The early signs of a spiritual giant were sprouting in Therese even as a little child.  One day, while sitting in her mother’s lap, Therese suddenly exclaimed: “Poor darling, Mamma, I do wish you were dead.”  Her mother scolded her for that, but Therese explained quickly: “It’s only because then you will go to Heaven; you told me you have to die to go there!”  She also wished her father would die when her love got the better of her.  On another occasion, an older friend came to visit carrying a basket of dolls and accessories.  She said to Therese and her sister: “Here, my dears, choose what you want.”  Therese’s sister took a ball of silk braid.  But Therese announced, “I choose everything!” and she carried off the basket, dolls and all.  St. Therese added: “I think this trait of my childhood characterizes the whole of my life,” that is, she had "good greed;" she was greedy for God and his grace, heaven and holiness.

                In the gospel today, Jesus wants to cultivate this same good greed in his disciples.  Jesus gives the 72 disciples (not just the 12 apostles) power over evil spirits, and they cast out demons left and right.  But Jesus says: “Do not rejoice because spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  In other words, don’t seek earthly popularity and praise -- everybody loves an exorcist! -- but be greedy for heavenly glory.  You see, when it comes to spiritual stuff, you should say like St. Therese: “I choose everything.”

                May I suggest a few ways you, too, can foster this “good greed”?  First, try to come to Mass one more time each week, and not only on Sunday.  I’m always edified by the 75 to 100 people who come to daily Mass here at Immaculate  Conception.  You are like St. Therese and greedy for God’s grace.  Second, pray the rosary daily.  We all need a mother’s tender touch in our lives, and I feel Mother Mary’s love every time the rosary beads slide silently through my fingers.  And third, support your church or a favorite charity with a financial gift.  In the past few years we’ve received six-figure donations as part of someone’s estate.  Now, the funny thing is these benefactors did not live in a big house or drive a fancy car: no one knew they were rich.  They lived simply, they saved their money, and when they died, they left it to the church.  No one noticed them when they lived on earth, like St. Therese, but in heaven they enjoy the glory of God.  That’s good greed.

                St. Therese of Lisieux died at the young age of 24 after suffering pulmonary tuberculosis, in a Carmelite convent, in relative obscurity: she was a nobody.  But today, there are over 2,500 churches named for her world-wide (including my home parish in Little Rock), she has been declared a “Doctor of the Church,” and her autobiography, called The Story of a Soul, has sold millions of copies (I bought one of them!), and it has been translated into every major language.  120 years after her death, St. Therese is great in heaven and on earth.  Like she said: “I choose everything.”

                Praised be Jesus Christ!