Sunday, July 27, 2014

Scripture for Castaways (17.A)

Desert Island Discs is one of the longest-running programs on the BBC. Each week different celebrities are asked to choose eight recordings they would take with them as castaways marooned on an island.

The guests have ranged from Margaret Thatcher to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Elton John.

I’m not likely to be invited, and I’m not at all sure what music I'd choose. But if they ever ask me to pick eight verses of Scripture for a desert island, I know what would top my list: Romans 8:28.

Romans 8:28 is the first line of the second reading at today’s Mass: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Stranded with only these words for comfort, I could happily endure a diet of coconuts and raw fish. In fact, St. Paul’s words would start proving true as soon as I started at long last to lose some weight.

But my belief that God turns all things to the good of those who love him is not hypothetical. For many years I have seen this promise fulfilled in my own life and the lives of others. Over and over again I have seen events—good and bad, even tragedies—become the foundation of spiritual growth and blessings.

It’s easy enough to see how good things can work for our good—for example, prosperity can make us grateful—although we also know that success provides its own temptations. The astonishing thing, though, is that God promises to bring good out of bad things. That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning: how God can use our sufferings and setbacks to bring us blessings.

To understand this, we need to look at almost every word in Romans 8:28.

Paul starts off by saying “we know.” This isn’t wishful thinking on his part. The apostle assumes that his reader has already some experience of God working for good in their trials and tribulations. This puts the question to us: don’t we know this, too?

Haven’t you a story about someone losing his job and finding his faith? About a plan that was frustrated, only to lead you down a better path? About a selfish person transformed by a grief? If we think hard enough, most of us can come up with examples of how good can emerge from evil.

Then Paul continues by saying “all things.” All things work together for good. Not some things. Not most things. All things.

This is one of the reasons I love this text so much. “All things” includes minor annoyances, which can teach me patience, everyday disappointments, which can build fortitude, and personal failures, which can strengthen humility.

But all things also includes the worst sort of tragedy, the true disasters that very few of us will ever experience. This text knows no boundaries, because God has no limits. Whatever life throws at us is subject to his divine plan. So even my darkest fears are controlled by my faith that God will make things turn out for good in the end.

The priests and bishops who lived and even died in the prisons of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia experienced God working for good as they grew in holiness. They saw God at work in their lives and in the lives of the fellow prisoners they served. God not only turns bad things to my good, but to the good of others.

One scholar puts it this way: Many of these things are evil in themselves; it is the marvel of God’s grace and wisdom that in his sovereign plan they converge upon and contribute to human good. “Not one detail works ultimately for evil to the people of God; in the end only good will be their lot.” (John Murray, “The Epistle to the Romans,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 314.)

Paul says “all things work together.” The word “together” suggests that God makes use of all our experiences in his all-embracing plan, pulling them together in harmony like the composer of a symphony. To stay with that image, we might say that everything that happens to us works in concert for our welfare, not just individual incidents or adversities. Our whole lives, in other words, are in God’s hands.

Then we come to some very important words: “for those who love God.” Romans 8:28 is not natural philosophy. It’s not the biblical equivalent of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “adversity build character.” These proverbs are true enough, but they are not divine promises.

Paul is speaking to Christians—to those who love God. We must cooperate with him in love if the promise of good is to be fulfilled.

On the other hand, he adds “who are called according to his purpose.” Somehow or other, the divine plan embraces each of us, weak and strong, faithful and doubtful. It’s not simply a reward for loving God: it’s a birthright of the baptized.

Part of our duty as Christians is to examine our lives in the light of faith. Have you ever noticed God bringing some good out of a misfortune that you or someone you loved has suffered? Can you look back now and see a pattern you never saw before?

Sometimes we miss God’s footprints. I’ll close with the story of a young priest I met once. In his first parish there was a woman who hated him—she didn’t dislike him, she hated him. There was no reason, no history at all. But her hatred was so strong that she spied on him every day, and sent reports to the bishop of his every move.

To me, it sounded like the worst suffering imaginable. But when the time came for the priest’s next assignment, he missed the angry woman very much.

“It was so easy to be good,” he laughed, “with someone watching your every move. I hardly needed a conscience at all!”

God works for good in all things, for those who love him.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Message: Undiluted (16.A)

I used to be a waiter at a fancy North Vancouver restaurant called the Black Sheep. It was located in an old church, although I don’t think that had anything to do with my future vocation.

In those days, the late seventies, flaming coffee drinks were all the rage. We put on a great show making Spanish and Irish coffees right at the table.

One night an elderly lady asked me what I was making for the next table.

“It’s called Irish coffee, ma’am,” I said. “We make it with a cup of strong coffee, a shot of Irish whiskey, and top it off with whipping cream.”

She thought for a moment.

“Well, it sounds delicious, but do you think I could have it with decaf?”

That should hit home for many of us—don’t we try to get our spiritual Irish coffee made with decaf? We like the Gospel watered down a bit, or diluted with worldly wisdom—but Jesus gives it to us straight.*

He tells us straight up that to be in union with God we must acknowledge him as sovereign: as Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and more particularly as Lord of our lives and of every aspect of our world.

All three of today’s readings help us to understand this.

Jesus gives us three parables in the Gospel. All three proclaim that the Kingdom of God is growing despite every obstacle. Neither Satan nor human sinfulness can stop it.

The great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of “the paradox of the Kingdom growing in a world so unready for the divine.” Ready or not, the Kingdom of God grows like dough in a bowl.

Our talented seminarian Larry offered to make pizza on the barbecue. He went off to the store to buy ingredients, and came back with two little packages of frozen pizza dough.

I thought “Rats! No way am I going to get enough to eat tomorrow night.”

But by the time the dough thawed, Larry didn’t know what to do with it all.

As von Balthasar says, the Kingdom of God wins out.

This truth has implications for the Church, for our understanding of human history, and for how we look at God. But this morning let’s focus on what it means for us in daily life.

The second reading helps us apply the Gospel teaching to ourselves. How many times has it seemed like a waste of time to keep trying to live like a Christian in a world overgrown with weeds? How many times have we doubted our relationship with God when our hearts are so divided and impure?

St. Paul says we must stop depending on ourselves; we must stop our panicked weeding and turn to the farmer with the problem. We’re mere farmhands, while God is the wise owner of the field who knows what needs to be done.

In our case, what needs to be done is this: we must ask the Holy Spirit’s help. We must, as the first reading reminds us, turn directly to God “whose care is for all people,” who is “sovereign in strength” and who fills his children with hope.

We have our own role to play and our own duties to fulfill, but over-dependence on ourselves blocks a right relationship with God, who the first reading says has power to act whenever he chooses.

In St. Paul’s words, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Most particularly, the Spirit helps us to pray.

Every once in a while, the great Apostle sounds like a real tough guy, running races and all that. But today he tells us to let go in our prayer and let God take over.

The same confidence that Jesus offers us in the Gospel today—confidence that God is in charge, despite everything—should fill our times of prayer, even when we are naturally anxious or upset.

Sure, the Kingdom of God wins out in history; God has the last word on everything. But it also wins out in our individual lives, because (as St. Paul tells us elsewhere) “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rm 8:28).

Depending on God, and trusting in his plan for ultimate victory, also helps us be more patient with ourselves and with each other. It’s an antidote to a kind of perfectionism that can lead to self-hatred, judgment of others, and often frustration with the Church—in which we must tolerate many weeds among the wheat.

Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to help us with our weakness. With repentance for our sins, especially those of pride and doubt, we can turn our cares and our whole lives over to God with complete confidence.

That's the message of today's readings, straight and undiluted. And the whipped cream on top is peace, the gift Jesus promised the Apostles when he told them about the Holy Spirit. And that is what he promises all of us when we allow the Spirit to intercede for us according to the will of God.
*  The application comes from James F. Colaianni, ed., Sunday Sermons Treasury of Illustrations.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Prayer an Oasis (Sunday 14A)

Are you well-rested, well-organized and caught up with your to-do list?

Has the first part of 2014 gone smoothly for you and your family?

Are your health and finances in equally good shape, and is everything great at work?

Is life with your children a constant joy—or life with your parents, for that matter?

If you answered yes to all the questions, you can take the next ten minutes off and check the World Cup standings on your smart phone.

Just don’t get up and go outside for some sunshine. It will probably start to rain, or you’ll trip on the steps—because things never go well all the time.

And my guess is that most of you have answers to those questions that are a lot like mine. A recent survey showed that four out of five Americans see a need for less stress in their lives; I think that would be accurate in Canada, at least in our part of the country.

Father Joseph Krempa, whose homilies are particular favourites of mine, says we live in a world where people are weary in soul: “There is so much stimulation, artificial excitement [and] varying opinions that the mind becomes numb. The processing of so much information can exhaust us.”*

And in today’s paper there is a comic strip about a woman being interviewed for a job as a truck driver.

“You want to drive a truck? Do you realize how tough that job is? On the road before dawn, regardless of the weather. Endless pick-ups and drop-offs. No-one will thank you. You’ll be taken for granted.”

So what makes you think you’re qualified to be a truck driver?”

The woman answers “I drive my four kids to all their sports practices.”

“You start Monday,” the boss replies.

Jesus doesn’t have a solution to all these pressures of life. What he does offer is a remedy for the ills they produce.

The remedy is rest. The Lord knows we have burdens of many kinds, and he tells us today we must carry them with his help. We must be inefficient enough to spend some “down time” with him, and humble enough to count on him.

This lesson against self-reliance and self-importance starts with our first reading, a prophecy that’s fulfilled on Palm Sunday. The Messiah’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem is not in a chariot pulled by a team of horses; he comes to the holy city humble, and riding on a donkey.

In the Gospel, Jesus invites us to follow his example by accepting our burdens without complaint, as he did. Most of us know the prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

But not as many know the next words of the Serenity Prayer: “…living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next.”

We find rest for our souls when we accept things as they are.

Along with his example of acceptance and surrender, Jesus offers us rest in him. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest.”

We find this rest when we pray. Father Krempa says that prayer is an oasis in the desert of our frantic lives. An oasis is a place where the weary traveler can find refreshment and can stock up on water for the rest of the journey ahead.*

We all need a spiritual oasis. It can be a visit to the church, a weekday Mass, or a time of prayer at home.

It can be a quiet time spent reviewing our day with Lord before bedtime. It can be an evening walk with the Rosary in hand.

Often the prayerful reading or recitation of the psalms leads us to an oasis of green pastures and restful waters.

One of the best sources of a spirituality that can make a difference in our daily lives is Father Jacques Philippe’s book Seeking for and Maintaining Peace. It’s a sure guide through the desert of our busyness to the rest that only God can give.

As Father Krempa says, prayer is not a “one-size fits all” activity. To be a true spiritual oasis—a place where we can draw real strength from Christ—we must find and stick with those prayers and methods that bring our soul peace.

Pope Francis says an interesting thing about overwork and stress in his letter On the Joy of the Gospel. “The problem,” he writes, “is not always an excess of activity but rather activity undertaken badly… without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable. As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness.”

For many of us, things slow down in the summer. It's a good time to grow spiritually before the next wave of activity crashes in on us. We could make it a project to form one new habit of prayer that can help us find the rest our souls—and our bodies—really need.

* S. Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire-Cycle A, p. 99.