Sunday, August 31, 2014

Inconvenient Truth

   Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

Last evening, Fr. Justin and I were invited
to join some parishioners for dinner in their home.
(Thanks to all of you who have been doing that!)
There was a lot of great food,
and a lot of entertaining banter around the table.
Toward the end of the meal,
we were hearing about the family’s more religious habits:
about grace always said before meals, even in restaurants;
about the way the youngest had called his grandfather a “sinner”
when he heard him say God’s name…but it wasn’t while he was praying;
and about how Mom was trying to teach the kids to “offer it up”
when they had to do something they didn’t exactly want to do.

I urge you, St. Paul writes,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.
“Offering” and “sacrifice” are clearly themes
found in our readings this Sunday.

For many Catholics today,
the idea of sacrifice on a personal level
really only comes up during Lent,
with the custom of giving something up for the season.
Of course, after 40 days, you then get whatever it was back.
But in the Bible, “sacrifice” has a much more definitive sense.
The word “sacrifice” comes from Latin words
meaning, “to make sacred.”
The idea was to set something aside
as a gift to God, and God alone.
Throughout the Old Testament,
we find God’s people surrendering things of value—
gold and silver, sheep and oxen,
the finest wine and the best grain of the harvest—
in order to seek the Lord’s favor,
or express their thanksgiving, or beg pardon for their sins.
If the gift given was alive, it was to be slaughtered;
otherwise, it would be poured out, or burned,
or contributed to the temple treasury.
This culture of sacrifice can seem barbaric, or at least wasteful…
…unless you stop to consider its deep meaning:
these things were all being offered to God in such a fashion
that they could never, ever be taken back again.
(Of course, we also find God refusing such sacrifices
when the external ritual didn’t match up
with what was going on in his people’s hearts.)

At some point in my first couple of years of priesthood,
I remember sitting with one of our senior priests
who, while rocking in his chair, boldly asked,
“You know what’s the single biggest mistake
the Church has ever made?”
Needless to say, we were all ears!
He announced, “It was allowing anticipated Mass.”
His statement had me a good bit confused.
While my family now always goes on Sunday morning,
my earliest memories of going to church
were at 7 o’clock on Saturday night—
a time that worked great for our farming schedule.
The priest explained,
“It was such a big mistake because it made us think
that practicing our faith ought to be convenient.”
I’ve pondered those words many times over the years,
and I think he just might be right.
I’m as guilty as the next guy of sometimes trying to figure out
how best to get my faith adjusted to the other demands of life,
rather than getting my life adjusted to the demands of my faith.
And that’s never more the case
than with our most precious commodity of all: time.

And so we hear St. Paul urging us to “offer it up”:
to yield our bodies as a living sacrifice;
to allow our minds to be renewed;
to permit our wills to be transformed
by God, instead of by this age.
In other words, God isn’t after our stuff;
God’s wants us—and he wants all of us,
not just what’s left over after everything else.
The Lord will not be satisfied until his will, his plan, his way,
is at the very top of our list—
until he gets from us the best time we’ve got to offer,
and not just whenever we might conveniently squeeze him in.

That’s why Jesus says that those who would follow him
must deny themselves and take up their cross.
Somewhat like our temporary Lenten sacrifices,
we sometimes describe as “crosses”
our petty burdens and minor annoyances.
But that cleans up the cross far too much.
For those who first heard Jesus say it,
the cross could be nothing other than an instrument of death.
God is once again demanding sacrifice—
not because he needs it,
but because the Lord knows that we do.
This, of course, is nothing Jesus himself isn’t willing to do…
…and we know there was nothing at all convenient about his cross.
For those would follow after Christ
not only in name but in deed
it is letting go that leads to gain,
dying to oneself and to the world
which is the only way to truly save your life.

Whether it’s Sunday Mass, daily prayer,
or opportunities to study about our Catholic faith,
what time do we sacrifice for God?
Are we willing to be inconvenienced?
Or have we come to expect the Lord’s ways to bend to our ways,
instead of the other way around?

We follow a Savior who willingly sacrificed everything for us.
Let us do likewise.
Joined to him, “offer it up.”

Saturday, August 30, 2014


While I did get an unexpected chance to camp out a week ago, I'm counting another outing Wednesday-Thursday as my "official" August night in the woods.  Fr. Scott Belina and I parked at the Adirondack Lodge and began our 6+ mile trek into the wild.  We passed by what's left of Marcy Dam (where this very same duo started this year-long series of adventures back in January)...

...then around the steep edges of Avalanche Pass... the far end of Lake Colden...

...where we camped very near the Opalescent River.

We spent the night in a tent, since we got into the backcountry a bit later than we'd hoped and the lean-tos were already filled up.  (I didn't even think to take a photo of our campsite until we got out tent completely packed up.  Sorry!)  The weather cooperated, and so did the bears (which are, it seems, a bit active in that neck of the Adirondacks).  It was a peaceful time passed in good company in a truly spectacular corner of the world.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Upcoming Adventure

As some of you already know, I've signed up for the Adirondack Canoe Classic, otherwise known as the "90-Miler": a three day paddling race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.  I'll be in a canoe with my friend, Lawrence Bartel, with whom I hiked the 120 mile Northville-Placid Trail last September.  Lawrence is a veteran of the race.  (He's been after me for 8 years to do this...and has finally worn me down.)  We're registered in the "open touring" class...which is non-competitive.  We're in it to finish.  Lawrence and I paddled together a week ago on Long Lake, where he taught me a "racing stroke," and based on that experience, I'm pretty sure we'll be able to achieve that goal.

I'm sending you this message for two reasons: (1) I want your prayers!  (2) In case you're anywhere in the neighborhood, I thought I'd send along the schedule so you could check in on us.

Friday, September 5: The race begins early (at 8:00am, I think) on Old Forge Pond, and ends mid-afternoon in Blue Mountain Lake (35 miles on the water + 3.5 miles of over-land carry).  (We'll be spending this night and the next in the DEC campground at Fish Creek.)

Saturday, September 6: The race resumes on Long Lake and wraps up on the Raquette River 5 miles east of Tupper Lake on Routes 3 & 30 (30 miles + 1.25 miles carry).

Sunday, September 7: The home stretch leaves Fish Creek Campground on its way to the finish line on Lake Flower at River Front Park in Saranac Lake (25 miles + .5 miles carry).  Lawrence figures we'll be pulling in between 12:00-12:30pm.

I'd be happy to see you anywhere along the way...just don't be offended if I can't put down my paddle to wave!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Upon This Rock

While this spot is usually given over to my Sunday homily, I don't have one to post here for you today. Fr. Stitt gave me the unexpected gift of offering to cover my Masses, and I took him up on it.  It would have been to have the chance to reflect with you on St. Peter receiving the keys to the Kingdom...but instead I headed out on a short solo camping trip to check on a different sort of "rock"--one in the Adirondacks, not Rome.

None of my camping trips go completely as intended...and this one was no exception.  

My original hope was to camp in the lean to at Trombley Landing on the Raquette River (between Saranac and Tupper Lake)...but when I hiked in the 1.6 miles to get there early Saturday afternoon, the place was already rather full.  So, it was back out to the car, and on my way to the Debar Mountain Wild Forest.  

This would be familiar turf, and an area which I know is rarely occupied.  I've stayed a couple of nights on Grass Pond before; I'd start out on the same trailhead (just north of Paul Smiths), but with a different destination: the Sheep Meadow.  I've hiked there (3.6 miles) several times in the past, but never stayed the night.

I arrived a bit later than I would have liked (now with almost 7 miles walking with a pack for the afternoon), but the weather was super, I had the place all to myself, and there was still time aplenty to bring up water from the creek, gather wood for a fire, and find a place to hang my food in the trees after supper.  As happened on my last camping trip, my water filter failed again--making me extra glad I always have a backup plan for drinking water.  It also seems that someone (not sure weather beast or barbarian) took it upon themselves to attempt some "remodeling" of the campsite's privy...

That always makes time in the woods just a little more interesting than you really wanted it to be.

It was probably one of the quietest nights of my life: other than the occasional distant hooting of a couple of owls, there wasn't a rustle, a peep, or sounds of any sort.  And the night sky was perfectly clear, giving me a "stellar" view of the Milky Way.  Before such mysterious beauty, one can't help but ponder his place before the Beautiful Mystery that's behind it all.

What's left of the "meadow" (it's getting increasingly overgrown) had a surprising abundance of late season wild blueberries to offer, adding a delicious touch truly worthy of Sunday morning to my breakfast...

After a chance to pray and read a spell, it was time have a quick lunch, pack up camp, and leave this Sheep Meadow behind for the pastures the Lord usually has me tending on the weekend.  Thanks, Fr. Stitt, for this unanticipated sabbath rest!

Sunday, August 17, 2014


   Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

Ever wonder what a dog thinks?
            Hey, these people I live with love me, feed me,
            provide me with a warm, dry house,
            pet me, and take such good care of me…they must be gods!

And ever wonder what a cat thinks?
            Hey, these people I live with love me, feed me,
            provide me with a warm, dry house,
            pet me, and take such good care of me…I must be a god!

In this Sunday’s gospel, we find Jesus hounded
by a persistent Canaanite mother
desperate for her daughter’s liberation.
The Lord’s pursuer is doubly an outsider:
a woman in a man’s world;
a pagan foreigner—a Gentile—approaching a righteous Jew.
The simplest response—
and the one most of us, I think, would have expected—
would have been for Jesus to just give her what she wants…
…and get her off his case.
That seems to be the approach his disciples favored.

How Christ responds to her is quite startling, to say the least.
At her first request, he makes no reply at all.
At her second, he brushes her off as a dog.
You must understand:
dogs then did not hold the lofty status
they currently enjoy in American culture—
where they’re frequently equal to kids or grandkids.
There’s no softening Jesus’ remark:
he’s not affectionately calling her he “sweet little pup.”
In Jewish law, dogs were considered unclean,
since they scavenged for their food.
To call someone a “dog” was an humiliating insult.

But this woman will not be deterred by either silence or scorn.
A third time she pleads—
and this time, Jesus not only grants her wish, but sings her praises.
Last week, after the scene on the stormy sea,
Jesus called Peter a man of “little faith.”
(We can only assume he was thinking much the same
about all his cowering  Apostles.)
Yet now, just a few verses later,
he tells this bold stranger: “O woman, great is your faith!”

What is going on here?!?

What if Jesus is acting so peculiarly this Sunday
because he wants to make sure this woman—
and all who would hear her story till the end of time—
might realize he’s much more than a wonderworker on demand?
Maybe Jesus holds back—even provokes and challenges—
in order to purify her motives,
to make clear what she really desires;
not to drive the Canaanite mother away, but to draw her closer.
In other words: Maybe Jesus is just playing hard to get.
The woman in the gospel had not studied the law and the prophets.
She hadn’t witnessed Jesus curing the sick or raising the dead.
We have no idea if she’s previously led a life of virtue or vice.
But she had heard rumors—
incredible stories circulating about this man—
and they stirred something deep within her heart.
She somehow felt that she could trust him—could believe in him—
and he was going to take advantage of this openness.
The Canaanite woman fully intended
to obtain a cure for her daughter;
Jesus fully intended to obtain something more:
to draw this woman 
into a personal and lasting relationship with him.

I remember being struck in high school
when one of my teachers pointed out
that many people play religion as if God were a slot machine:
if I just do the right things, say the right prayers,
push all the right buttons,
then God will dole out what I’m asking—
like some supernatural Pez dispenser.
Experience has sadly taught me
that that teacher was probably right—
assuming, that is, that many people approach Christ
the way they approach his Church:
Just give me what I want—
no fuss, no muss, no strings attached.

My friends,
the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman
ought to make us see that what’s of greatest consequence
is not how much we know about the Bible or our catechism
(although such knowledge is a big help);
is not whether we’ve received all our sacraments
(although they are certainly vehicles of God’s grace);
is not a question of giving to Church or charity
(although such are surely godly deeds).
No, what’s truly fundamental—but so commonly overlooked—
is growing in a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ.
Do you know Jesus in a living, personal way?
Do you really love him?
Do you trust him above anything and anyone else?

Jesus knows best how to get through
to each one of us, in every different circumstance:
sometimes, that’s to answer us right away;
sometimes, it’s to make us wait;
sometimes, it’s to get us to plead and beg;
always, it’s to try and draw us closer—
to get us to put all our faith and hope in him.

So don’t think like a cat—
believing that everything revolves around you;
expecting all good things to come as your due.
Instead, curl up like a dog at the Divine Master’s feet—
the Lord who unfailingly provides for you;
who sometimes disciplines and denies you;
who always, always loves you,
and longs for you to love and trust him in return.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


After one Mass, someone said, "Father, don't leave. We need you!"  After the next Mass someone else said, "If you go, could please you take me with you?"

   Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

Fr. Tom knew things weren’t going well
whenever he heard me say,
“That’s it!  I’m leaving for the monastery!”
In fact, it always made him a little nervous
because, deep down, 
he suspected that—one of these days—
I just might do it.
(And for that very reason
I haven’t yet said it to Fr. Justin…)

I can pretty safely say
that anyone who takes their faith seriously
has, at least once, 
been likewise tempted to turn tail.

That’s certainly the case with the prophet Elijah,
whom we find perched atop Mount Horeb.
In the face of much opposition,
he’d stuck to his guns and done what was right—
all at God’s instigation.
But his actions, while good and true, were anything but popular,
and he now finds himself a hated and hunted man.
Desperate and discouraged,
Elijah climbs the Lord’s mountain to hide out in a cave.
And it’s there—
not in the powerful displays of hurricane, earthquake, or raging fire,
but in the quiet whisper of a gentle breeze—
that Elijah rediscovers what he most certainly already knew:
that he could not out run his problems,
and he certainly couldn’t run away from God.
In the still silence,
Elijah is reminded that he should be much more frightened
of being unfaithful to God than of anything his enemies could dish out.
And so he heads back down the mountain
to face again all he had earlier attempted to flee.

Some recent spiritual reading reminded me
that God does not speak or work except in peace—
not in trouble and agitation.
And yet there are so many things which disturb us,
so many things which could send us running for cover:
the struggles of life and fear of suffering;
our own faults and the shortcomings of others;
fretting over tough decisions and adapting to change.
We’re even rather capable of agitating ourselves.
So many causes for unrest!
So many storms to toss our boats about!

After St. Teresa of Avila died in 1582,
following a life marked by much grace
but also many reasons for great distress,
a short poem was found written
on a scrap of paper tucked inside her breviary;
it reads:
            Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you.
            All things are passing, but God never changes.                                   
            Patient endurance obtains all things.
            Whoever has God wants for nothing.
            God alone suffices.
Elijah ran away for precisely the same reason
that Peter sank when walking to Jesus on the sea—
and why I sometimes threaten to become a monk:
his faith was shaken;
he looked down toward his difficulties
instead of looking up toward God—and therefore lost heart.

Listen again to what Jesus whispers through the wind and waves:
Take courage.  Be at peace.
It is I.  Do not be afraid.
Why should your faith falter?

No, you cannot run away from your troubles.
But—thankfully—neither can you run away from God.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Quality Ingredients

   Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

Fr. Stitt often says
that when he sees me working in the kitchen,
it makes him think of Ready… Set… Cook!
an old game show of which I’ve never otherwise heard. 
From the way he describes it,
cooks would compete against each other
to quickly prepare a winning meal
with whatever ingredients were provided.

I’ll admit:
I rather like the challenge of coming up with something to serve
based on the raw materials we just happen to have in the rectory
on any given day.
Lately, I’ve had a lot more to work with than usual:
in only the last two weeks or so,
we’ve received yellow beans, zucchini,
sweet peas, sugar snap peas, cucumbers,
tomatoes, green onions, sweet corn, blueberries,
ice cream, smoked salmon, several cuts of beef,
maple syrup, and a few nice bottles of red wine—
all from the generosity of family, friends, and parishioners.
Many thanks to everyone who’s shared of their bounty with us!
And, since Fr. Justin likes vegetables a good bit more than Fr. Tom did,
I’ve got a lot more room for creativity in the kitchen these days!

I got to thinking:
my work in the kitchen
is an awful lot like my work as a pastor.

You can see what I mean in Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel.
Jesus' heart is moved with pity for that hungry throng,
gathered around him in a deserted place.
He finds a way to not only feed them,
but to teach his Apostles an important lesson, too.
Jesus does what my grandmother did on countless occasions
to feed her large family in lean times:
he uses a couple very simple ingredients to make enough for a crowd,
and does so by looking up to heaven:
by trustingly placing them—and, above all, himself—
into the hands of his Father.

The work of the Church these days—
here in the North Country, at least—
is often about finding ways to do more with less.
We have fewer priests, fewer people,
and fewer financial resources than in years past.
But many of the needs we see—
and to which the Church is called to respond—
are just as big and urgent as ever.
We could easily get overwhelmed and discouraged,
as did the disciples when Jesus said,
“Give all these hungry people some food yourselves!”
Or we can roll up our sleeves and get creative,
taking what we have at hand—however meager it might seem—
and allowing God to stretch it (and us!) to achieve his purpose.

Over the past few years,
I’ve several times heard or read the idea
that God provides every parish with every gift it needs
in order to accomplish his plan.
The more I think and pray about it,
the more and more I believe that is absolutely true.
The challenge is helping people to discover
that they’ve been given those gifts—
that God has called and equipped them for a particular purpose
which he intends them to fulfill.

And when I say them, I mean you.
And when I say you, I mean everybody.

Have you ever considered
that there’s a place in the life of the Church
which, by God’s design, only you can fill?
It’s certainly a point to ponder!
We know that, in the kitchen,
the quality of our cooking depends in large part
on the quality of the ingredients with which we have to work.
When it comes to the Church,
are we bringing our very best forward?
Are we contributing “the good stuff,”
or merely our leftovers?
Is what we’re willing to give
in proportion to what we come hoping to receive?

Just think of what Jesus was able to set out on the table
when sharing a Last Supper with his disciples:
he took the very basics—a scrap of bread, a sip of wine—
and with the creative power found only in the Lord’s hand,
made them into the means by which
we can experience his abiding presence on earth
and even now get a taste of heaven.

If we could only put ourselves trustingly into the Lord’s hands—
those hands which cured the sick, 
which multiplied the loaves,
which blessed and broke and gave the Bread of Life—
just imagine what amazing things he could do with us!
Ready?  Set?  Let's cook!