Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Sound of Silence (19.A)



Back in 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that advances in technology would mean we’d all end up working just 15 hours a week. The very same year, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley predicted the two-day work week. Both men warned that someday we would have so much leisure time, we would be bored out of our minds.

In 1965, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate predicted we would be working 14 hours a week by the year 2000, with at least seven weeks of vacation time.

Wikipedia points out that the only thing they were right about was the consequences of technology: only it’s meant more work, not less.

And more work has meant less time for ourselves, our families, and for God. Many of us carry our work around with us in our pockets, our smart phones dinging and ringing throughout the evening and early morning.

As a false escape, we turn up the volume, wasting time on the internet, reading less and less, and only rarely doing nothing. We expect a measure of entertainment at Mass, or we say we get nothing out of going to church.

I’m not lecturing you—I’m one of you, caught up in the craziness of overwork as I try to balance two ministries, one in the parish and the other at the Permanent Diaconate Office.

But today the Word of God offers us a way out of this mess. The way out is called silence. Obviously we can’t be silent most of the time, but a little of it goes a long way.

Elijah’s problems make ours look tiny. In the first place, he’s on the run, fleeing from an evil queen who’s out to kill him. In the second place, he’s discouraged and feels like a total failure; he even prays to die before he gets to the point where we meet him this morning.

But the Lord doesn’t let him down. He tells Elijah to stand by. And just as we’d expect—just as Elijah expected—the drama starts. A mighty windstorm. But no sign of God. Then an earthquake. Again, God’s not to be found in it. Even a fire. But the Lord’s not there either.

Elijah did not encounter God in these high-energy, loud-volume events. Instead, he recognizes the Lord in the sound of silence.

Don’t get caught up trying to figure out what silence sounds like—the text can also be translated as a whisper. The point is that God chooses to launch this crucial conversation with Elijah in the quiet of his heart, as the prophet listens.

When was the last time you were deliberately silent? When did you last power down your phone, and close the door, or sit alone on a park bench?

I just came back from a five-day retreat; I know that’s not possible for most of you. And it’s hard to find a decent cave in the North Shore. But all of us can listen for the sound of silence in our hearts, finding a place to hide from life’s storms for just five minutes.

Today’s Psalm promises that the Lord will speak, that the Lord will speak a word of peace in our hearts. And he will surely do that if we give him even the slightest chance.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

ALL Things Work for Good (17.A)



There’s been so much going on in the parish—Father Paul leaving, Father Giovanni coming, the delightful visit of Sister Helen—that you probably didn’t notice we’ve been reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans for more than a month. I confess I wasn’t paying attention to that myself.

But this Sunday the second reading jumped right out at me. No surprise there, since it’s my favourite passage in Scripture. I’ll tell you why in a minute or two, but first let’s look back a few weeks, when we heard the Apostle say “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”

With those words, St. Paul begins one of the most encouraging passages in the entire Bible. He offers three truths to encourage and console the suffering Christian. And since all of us suffer some of the time and some of us suffer much of the time, we need to understand his teaching and how it applies to our lives.

The first ground of encouragement, the one we heard at Mass two weeks ago, is simply that present sufferings aren't worth comparing to the glory that is to come: that is “the great disproportion between the sufferings we endure in this life” and our future reward. Earthly sufferings just don’t compare with heavenly glory. This is a logical conclusion—we think like this all the time when we undergo something painful, whether it’s chemotherapy or surgery or even dieting, because the gain far outweighs the pain.

The second ground of encouragement, which we read last week, is that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” We don’t face suffering alone: we have God’s help. We don’t even need to pray by our own power: the Spirit intercedes for us. Even the faith we need to benefit from that first source of encouragement, the hope of heaven, comes more from God than from us.

And today St. Paul presents the third ground of encouragement for those facing trials or sufferings: the fact that all things work together for our good.

Think hard about what he means by “all things.” Not some things, and not only good things. Many things that happen in our lives and in our world are evil things. “It is the marvel of God’s wisdom and grace” that he makes even the worst things work for good.

Not one single thing “works ultimately for evil to the people of God.” The end result of the greatest misfortune is good for those who love God. *

Obviously, the three words “those who love God” are the key that unlocks this wonderful promise. We’ll come back to that later.

I told you this was my favourite passage in the Bible. Let me explain why.

Some years ago I went to the doctor and he asked me a question. “If I could write you one prescription that would lower your blood pressure, help you cope with stress, ward off Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers, would you take it?”

“You bet,” I said with real enthusiasm.

“Then exercise every day,” he said.

I never filled the prescription, sad to say.

But I’ve had more success with Romans 8:28, where St. Paul promises even more than the doctor did. This is the verse of Scripture that I've used constantly to make sense of my life and lives of others; it’s the number one truth I use to understand the world and history; and it’s my antidote to discouragement of every sort.

There’s something important in how Paul begins this verse. He says “We know that all things work together for good…” He’s speaking from experience—not just his, but that of the Christians to whom he’s writing.

That God turns everything to the ultimate good of his people is not something to take entirely on faith, something we’ll see proved only in heaven. Like St. Paul, I can stand before you this morning and say we know this. We know from experience God’s plan and power to transform bad things to our ultimate good.

To respect the privacy of people, I can’t tell you detailed stories of individuals and families; and to avoid embarrassment, I won’t tell you detailed stories about me! But you know these stories—the troubled marriages that have been strengthened by misfortunes, the characters that have been built by financial or other hardships, the spiritual growth that’s come in times of illness, and so on. Throughout history, and throughout my ten years in this parish I have seen moral failures transformed into victory and growth by the power of God.

I like the simple example of the Canadian TV and movie star Michael J. Fox, who called himself “a lucky man” because Parkinson’s disease interrupted a life of complete selfishness. The misfortune was, in a sense, his salvation.

Personally, the fact that God works for good in all things helps me face my fears, even of things that are highly unlikely to happen. I am convinced that if I was falsely accused or imprisoned, paralyzed by illness, or facing a premature death God would use these great evils to give me spiritual goods vastly greater than the evils themselves.

Knowing God defeats evil—even our sins—can be a way of knowing God better. What makes his majesty and his sovereignty clearer than his power over even the greatest evil? It’s easier to accept God’s dominion over death when we understand his dominion over sin.

People often ask me about unanswered prayers. That’s based on an understandable and common human assumption, that we know what is best for ourselves and those we love. But when we believe God is always at work for our ultimate good, we may be more inclined to accept that things don’t always work out as we planned—since we know they’ll work out as he plans.

And God works for good not only in the lives of individuals. He works for good—if we let him—even using the sins and failures of society and the Church. For instance, you all know how many Catholics, especially young ones, have left the practice of the faith. The Catholic culture that filled churches has evaporated, creating what looks like a crisis.

But such is God’s power and providence that the crisis is already proving to be an opportunity. Pope emeritus Benedict, while still a cardinal, said “Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world...”

What will happen remains to be seen. But we already know that the collapse of cultural Catholicism has given rise to what we’re calling intentional disciples—men and women who come to church not out of duty or social pressure but because they want to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament and a community of fellow believers.

Clearly God is at work drawing good from the present situation, distressing as it is—because, of course, there were many blessings to be found in the Christian Catholic culture that’s now all but disappeared in Canada.

God works for good in all things—I rely on those words, and quote them often to myself and others. But they’re not a cure-all or a magic potion. We have to let St. Paul finish his thought: All things work together for good for those who love God. And he says “all things work together,” because the promise operates within the framework of discipleship and of faith; it’s not automatic.

And therefore, it’s one more reason we are striving as a parish community to love God more by knowing Jesus better and following him more closely.

I hope we all leave church this morning feeling stronger than we came in, assured that God rewards us with heavenly glory, that he gives us the help of the Holy Spirit, and that he turns all things to our ultimate good. These three encouraging promises give us practical confidence and consolation in our daily struggles and in every suffering we face in our own lives or in our families.

I'll end with a line I stumbled across on the internet: “Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”
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* My source for this and other thoughts in today's homily is the commentary by Prof. John Murray in The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary on Sacred Scripture, pp. 300-315.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Wordless Homily: Sponsoring A Fourth Refugee Family

We welcomed the two Dayekh families, Syrian refugees whom the parish sponsored, to the 11 a.m. Mass today, along with many of our volunteers and donors, and Liz Boppart-Carter from neighboring Capilano Christian Community, our partner in this great effort.
 There were touching tributes to Father Paul after both morning Masses last Sunday as we prepared for his departure.  There were also a few jokes at his expense and even one or two poking fun at me! 
The speakers highlighted Father Paul’s many gifts and listed the splendid things he’s accomplished in just two years.  Even I was impressed.
But I was also a little bit jealous.  It’s been six years since my twenty-fifth ordination anniversary, which was the last time anyone listed my accomplishments.  I thought I should get equal time, just to be fair, so I decided to list my recent accomplishments for you this morning.
My recent accomplishments are… uh… just let me think… there must be something.
How about Alpha?  Nope.  That was a dedicated team of parish volunteers, not me. I just showed up to eat.
Oh—speaking of eatingmonth after month hundreds of people in the Downtown East Side enjoy great breakfasts and lunches at the Door is Open.  Ooops!  It's the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society who do that.
Maybe Project Advance?  The campaign almost reached its goal in record time.  But that’s not me either, it’s you, not to mention our dedicated campaign chair and his volunteers.  I’m really just another donor.
There must be something for which I can claim some credit.  Ah—our refugee sponsorship!  First the Shaboo family from Iraq then the two Dayekh families from Syria.  Surely I can take credit for that?
I wish I could!  But let me tell you—the pride I do take in your generosity beats any sense of personal accomplishment I could feel.  I marvel at the leadership shown by the members of our settlement teams, and at the incredible hard work of the numerous volunteers who have helped these wonderful families find shelter, furniture, educational opportunities, and so much more.
This Canada Day weekend we formally declare the independence of the two Dayekh families, who are now self-supporting.  We rejoice in their courage and hard work.  And although our formal commitment to them has been fulfilled, we remain their friends and, most of all, their brothers and sisters in Christ. [The congregation broke into applause.]
Now, the success of the Dayekhs in establishing themselves in Canada, combined with the excellent stewardship of our team leaders and the generosity of our donors, allows me to make a remarkable announcement to you today.
The parish is now preparing to make a commitment to sponsor a family of nine who fled the genocidal conflict in Rwanda many years ago but have waited ever since for a permanent home. 
Living as refugees in Kenya, the Gatare family—a husband and wife and seven children—have posed a great challenge to our archdiocesan refugee office.  This large family has waited so long to find a sponsor that five of the seven children are now classed as adults—meaning they require individual financial guarantees that are beyond the resources of most parishes.
At the same time time, the refugee office informed me that the Iraqi family we had agreed to sponsor—which was stalled by the government moratorium on non-Syrian refugees—has now found a home in the US.
After we heard that news, together with the new request, our accountant went to work.  She added up the donated funds remaining after our fulfilled commitments to the Shaboo and Dayekh families, plus the $20,000 earmarked from Project Advance during the Year of Mercy.  The total?  Almost exactly the sum required.
There are some formalities to be completed, but I look forward to announcing the signing of the sponsorship agreements and soon thereafter the arrival of Joseph and Agnes Gatare together with their children Simon-Pierre, Zacharie, Sarah, Jean-Paul, Jolie-Josephine, Bella-Louise, and Jordan.
 When the family arrives, we hope that our dear friends the Dayekhs will have the chance to welcome them warmly.
All in all, we have pretty good reasons to celebrate this Canada Day—not to mention a homily without words on the Gospel today. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Intentional Disciples: Have No Fear!


The always-amazing Father Paul Goo chose to give our parish a gift on the Sunday when we celebrated his farewell.  (He leaves us after two years for studies in spirituality at the Gregorian University in Rome.) 

In his homily yesterday, he presented a clear summary of what it means to be an intentional disciple.  Since forming intentional disciples is currently our parish focus and goal, his words will be echoing well after he's unpacked his bags in the Eternal City.

Read his splendid homily here in his Facebook post.

A parishioner also shared this blog post from her brother in Prince George.  It's also an excellent summary of what intentional discipleship means and of the fine work of Sherry Weddell and the Catherine of Sienna institute.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Life After Alpha: Corpus Christi 2017


Everyone’s heard about the success of our Alpha Course, which ends this Thursday night. The question now is: what next? What comes after Alpha—both for the guests and the hard-working team?

For the team, it’s an easy answer: a well-deserved rest. They’ve been cooking and cleaning and hosting for months.

But after that, we’ll need to offer opportunities for continued growth in Christ and to explore ways of helping people move from curiosity to discipleship.

And, of course, it’s not just about Alpha. Many of us struggle with that big question “how do I develop the relationship with Christ I keep hearing about?”

Yesterday sixty or so parish leaders spent the entire day trying to answer these questions, for themselves and for our parish family. We were guided by Kathleen Coolidge from Colorado, where she works with Sherry Weddell, author of the book Forming Intentional Disciples.

After nearly eight hours of prayer and reflection, the group reached two simple conclusions. The first is that our parish must begin asking God to show us how to become intentional disciples and how that can make us a parish of missionaries. We need to pray fervently for a harvest both inside and outside of the parish.

The second conclusion is that we need small group faith studies—groups of five or six where we can share and deepen our faith.

You’ll hear lots more about this as our parish plan for evangelization—funded entirely by Project Advance 2017—moves forward in the months to come.

Today, let’s not focus on the future but on the present. I’d like to ask you a really simple question: why are you at Mass today?

It’s a personal question, and everyone will have a different answer. But I suggest that our answers will relate to one or more of these three things: Behaving, Belonging, or Believing.

Some folks come to Mass for what’s called “fire insurance.” They want to stay clear of hell, so they take seriously the Christian obligation of Sunday worship. They’re behaving.

Others aren’t so worried about the next life. They come to Mass because they feel part of a community. They have ties to the parish, or the school, or the neighborhood, and gathering with others feels right or even necessary to them. In a word, they belong.

Thirdly, many people come to Mass because they believe. Their hearts are convinced of the truth we celebrate in today’s feast—that in the Eucharist they receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

Are you here because you behave, because you belong, or because you believe? Don’t think there’s just one right answer. Our readings on the feast of Corpus Christi cover all three.

In the first reading, Moses reminds the Israelites of the commandments of the Lord. Every school child knows that one of them is to keep the Sabbath day holy. He urges obedience to the law of God, who has shown them his power in so many ways. Moses builds the case for behaving as God commands.

In the second reading, St. Paul says that we are one body, precisely because we share in the one cup and the one loaf that is the Body and Blood of Christ. He is tell Christians in a very powerful way that they belong around the table of the Lord.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to believe—to believe in something even some in his audience had trouble accepting. It’s not a simple teaching: he says one, he is the living bread; two, that it comes down from heaven; and, three, that those who eat this bread will live forever. For some of his listeners, this was just too much to swallow.

We’ve heard the teaching so often that it’s lost some of its shock value. Don’t forget that in the same conversation there were people who thought Jesus was talking about cannibalism.

This is why we have today’s feast every year—to give us a chance to think about the deepest reasons for gathering at the Lord’s Table every Sunday. We may be here because we want to behave, we may be here because we belong, but surely we want—all of us—to believe, to believe with all our hearts what Jesus says and the Church teaches.

Other than Jesus himself, no one has ever offered a better reason for us to be here than St. Thomas Aquinas. In an antiphon for the first feast of Corpus Christi, almost 800 years ago, he wrote this about the Eucharist: O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given us.

If you are here to behave, God bless you. We live in a disobedient world, so you’re doing something good and praiseworthy.

If you’re here because you feel you belong, welcome! Our parish will always do its best to be a welcoming and inclusive place, where everyone is treated as family.

But all of us—including behavers and belongers—are called, at our own pace, to become believers who receive the Body and Blood of Christ as the living bread that brings life, now and forever.

And all of us have been called to be here so that we can know how much God loves us. Jesus gave us his Body and Blood because he loves us. We’re here because God loves us.

Our parish has really only two reasons to exist: first, to help us know how much God loves us. Second, to help us tell others how much God loves them.

This Sunday, please join me in praying with thanks to God for the success of Alpha and yesterday’s workshop, with hope for the fruitfulness of what comes next, especially parish faith studies, and with joy on this glorious feast. 


Let’s use words adapted from the American monk and writer Thomas Merton: As we celebrate the Eucharist today, let us feel God’s love so powerfully that we become doors and windows through which that love streams out and pours back into His own house. (cf. Seeds of Contemplation, p. 67).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Most Holy Trinity (2017.A)



Ever since we started talking so much about the Alpha course, people are coming up to me asking what it means to have a “personal relationship” with God.

It’s a good question, since the language of relationship is somewhat new to many Catholics. And for some, even the concept seems new—though of course it isn’t.

Today’s feast of the Most Holy Trinity and the readings we’ve just heard can help us figure out what it means to have a personal relationship with God.

In fact, the first reading gives us a simple summary. First, we must do what God asks us to do, just as Moses did by climbing up Mount Sinai. And of course we must know what God expects of us. Notice that Moses has the Ten Commandments in his hands as he heads up the mountain to meet God. It’s pretty hard to be in a relationship with a parent if we don’t know what the relationship requires and never do what we’re told.

Second, we must know God by name. God tells Moses his name, Yahweh, the Lord. It’s unlikely God will reveal himself to us in a personal conversation, but throughout the Bible he tells us who he is and what he’s called.

Because knowing God by name is shorthand for knowing him. Again, this is revealed in the Scriptures. Even in this short reading from the Old Testament we learn a great deal about the Lord—he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

In the New Testament, Jesus calls the Father “Abba” and refers to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete—the comforter, counselor or advocate.

The second reading points to something crucial for those who want a personal relationship. The Trinity itself is a relationship of persons. Those who want a relationship with God are called also to a relationship with one another—“agree with one another, live in peace,” St. Paul says. We need to put our other relationships in order if we’re to live intimately with the God of love and peace.

One of St. John Paul’s favourite teachings from Vatican II is where the Council says that we are called to live in community precisely because we’re created in the image and likeness of the Trinity. The Council speaks of “a certain similarity between the union of the divine persons and the union of God’s children in truth and love.”

This similarity indicates that human beings… “can only fully find themselves through a sincere gift of themselves.” In other words, we are only ourselves in as much as we give ourselves to others, made as we are in the image of our Trinitarian God. (Gaudium et spes, 24)

That sounds a bit complicated, but it comes down to one thing: you won’t find a relationship with Father, Son and Spirit by living with me, myself and I.

Finally, today’s Gospel tells us that the open door to a personal relationship with God is by faith in Jesus, the Son of God. While our relationship with God is a relationship with all three persons of the Trinity, we find the relationship most readily by knowing Jesus, who has told us that he is the gate for the Father’s sheep. As Jesus tells Philip, “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.”

This personal relationship we’re hearing so much about is not the fruit of years of effort or some special grace. It’s God’s desire for us: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” He sent the Son on a mission, with a purpose, “that everyone who believes in him… may have eternal life.”

Now what does “eternal life” mean?  Later in John’s Gospel we find it defined as a relationship, when Jesus prays these words to his Father: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

A personal relationship with Jesus is neither scary nor difficult. It’s what God wills for all those who take the trouble to know him through prayer and the reading of Scripture, who work at obeying his commands and responding to his direction, and live lives of peace and order within his Body, the Church.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

God our Father Keeps His Promises (Ascension.A)



There’s a very sad story on the front page of this morning’s newspaper. In just five years, Nina, Chelsey, Wade, Kelsy and Nadine Saint-Ange have seen their eldest brother murdered and lost both their parents.

Now the siblings are struggling to stay together as a family. They have no other family nearby, and when their father died suddenly on May 8, only one adult turned up to support them.

That adult told The Province “They have nothing. Their father had left a significant amount of debt, there was no will and no plan for the children. Their extended family are all from Montreal, there is no one who can help.”

These are not youngsters—they range in age from 22 to 15. Yet the paper correctly describes them as orphans.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Saint-Ange family when I read the last sentence of this morning’s Gospel text, which also happens to be the last sentence of St. Matthew’s entire Gospel.

Jesus said “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

His words firm up a promise he made to the disciples at the Last Supper: “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18). And they fulfill the prophetic words of Isaiah in the Old Testament “do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10).

It’s hard to fault Mr. Saint-Ange for not planning for his children—he was just 45 when he died, a long-haul trucker who had nothing much to spare. And even the best financial planning couldn’t have met the deepest needs of his wounded family.

God’s plan for his children, by contrast, is comprehensive life insurance. Perhaps I should say “life assurance.” His plan makes the broken human family whole. His plan, revealed and completed in Christ, brings us into an intimate family relationship.

This can’t have been easy to accept on the day our Lord ascended into heaven. After the joy of the Resurrection, Jesus is again disappearing from view. In our first reading, after Jesus disappeared from view angels ask the disciples, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”  I think I might have answered rather sharply, “Why do you think?”

But it’s surely meant as a rhetorical question, to which no answer’s expected. Why stand here staring when the next chapter is about to unfold? Don’t look up—look around you, and see the plan begin to unfold.

And it’s a question we can ask ourselves on this Ascension Day. Do we look for God in the skies, off in the distance, when he’s right here with us?

John Eldredge, my current favourite among Protestant spiritual writers, tells about meeting an old acquaintance, a man he hadn’t seen for a few years. He noticed right away that the fellow wasn’t half the man he used to be, and wondered whether he’d been ill. But in fact, he’d just been worn down by a series of disappointments and setbacks.

As he walked away from the encounter, Eldredge asked himself “What happened? He held such promise.”

The answer, he decided, had to do with assumptions. The disheartened man had assumed that God, being a loving God, was going to bless his choices, was going to make life good. And he hadn’t, leaving the man dazed and hurt.

When we hear Jesus say “I will not leave you orphans” and “I am with you always,” we can make the same assumptions. Since we believe in his promises, and he keeps his promises, he’s going to give us a happy life. A + B = C, as John Eldredge sums it up. So we feel abandoned and betrayed when life doesn’t work out.

The false assumption is based on the notion that God’s way of staying with us, of being with us, of fathering us is life insurance—material support for our material needs. But I’ve said it’s life assurance, a much more personal thing.

Today Jesus promises us what those bereaved children lost when their father died: an intimate relationship, daily contact and counsel.

If we assume that God is our financial planner, we’re likely to be disappointed. But if we understand that he’s a loving Father, wanting a Father’s relationship with each of his children, we start to see his plan. We find the plan in many places in the Old Testament—I particularly like the words of Jeremiah “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God”—but it’s completely fulfilled in Christ, who enlightens our hearts to know the hope to which we are called, the richness of our inheritance and the immeasurable greatness of his power.

Contrast that assumption with the A + B = C math that puts God “up there,” and gives him the job of making our plans turn out the way we want them to.

Why stand looking up toward heaven when God wants an intimate conversation with us, right here and right now? Because that's his plan.