Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Island Life

I'm just getting around now to posting some photos from my overnight last Wednesday-Thursday--making it now a full 18 months straight that I've spent at least one night camping out.  Wanting to mix things up a bit (and feeling it was safer with two escaped murders on the loose), I decided this was the night to try out camping on an island.  Since I already had an afternoon meeting at Camp Guggenheim, that seemed like the perfect place to launch out on this adventure.  Campsites on the islands in Lower Saranac Lake are managed as a rather unique campground by the DEC, and when I went to see what was available, I was lucky enough to get an island all to myself: Site 13, which is the only site on Green Island, about 1.3 miles across the water from the beach at Guggenheim.

I arrived in the evening, and set up my tent in the midst of the really cool, large rocks that surround the campsite.

And I got my tent up just in time before it started to sprinkle.  And just after I shut out the lights at 10:00pm...it started to pour.  A great test for my tent, and it passed with flying colors.

I was up early the next morning, in time to take in a spectacular sunrise.

There was plenty of time--and peace and quiet--for praying, making breakfast, sipping coffee, reading a good book, hanging the tent out to dry, and thoroughly exploring my tiny kingdom...before packing everything back into my kayak for the trip back to the mainland at midday.

I highly recommend island living!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Off the Island

Mass was quite a bit smaller than usual in Chasm Falls today (about 40 people), since we all had to be cleared through a State Police checkpoint before getting to the church...but as of last evening, we weren't sure if we'd be able to have Mass at all. (I understand that the Troopers were asking folks, "What's your pastor's name?" to make sure they were legit.) Such crazy times! Pray for all those in law enforcement working on this case. Pray for those in our community isolated by the security measures. Pray for a safe and swift resolution.

   Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Three guys are stranded on a deserted island
when—of course—they find a magic lamp 
with a genie inside. 
The genie looks at the men and says,
“I normally grant three wishes,
but since there are three of you, 
this time I’ll grant you each one.” 
The first guy, 
sick and tired of being on the island,
jumps forward and says, 
“I wish I could go right back home!” 
And, poof!  He disappears. 
The second man says, “I wish that, too!” 
And, poof!  He disappears. 
The genie turns to the last guy 
and asks for his wish. 
“Gee,” he says.  “It’s kind of lonely now. 
I sure wish my friends were still here…”

I spent Wednesday night on an island.
Most of you know I love the outdoors, 
and like to camp.
Given recent events,
camping out on an island 
in the middle of Lower Saranac Lake
seemed a good bit safer than staying
in the woods on the mainland anywhere nearby—
and it’s something I’d been wanting to do anyway.
It was great!
With just one campsite, 
I had the entire island to myself.
Such peace and calm!  
Such beauty and freedom!

It was while on the island
that I started to reflect on this Sunday’s gospel.

St. Mark presents us with the stories of two women.
One has been sick as long as the other has been alive.
Though they probably never met,
their stories are tightly intertwined.
In both cases, we see Jesus reaching out
very personally and tenderly to each of them.
There’s a rather moving intimacy in the way
Jesus responds to their need and their faith and heals them.
And yet there’s a wide cast of other characters also involved:
a large, pressing crowd;
Jesus’ own close-following disciples;
desperately worried parents;
loudly grieving relatives, friends, and neighbors.
It struck me:
while Jesus is present individually to those who seek his care,
his encounters with them are not private—
even if only a small circle of others are in the room.
These two women are part of a much wider network of souls,
and what happens to or for them—whether for good or for ill—
has a vital impact on so many, many others,
even if it’s not immediately recognized.

I brought that gospel insight back with me from the island,
and it strikes me how it relates
with some big things in the news these days.

Of course, we’ve all had a keen interest these past few weeks
in the manhunt for two escaped murderers from Dannemora.
When it became clear they were likely in this immediate area,
a funny thing occurred to me:
I was now their pastor.
In the Catholic understanding of things,
a parish priest is assigned to look after
not only those registered in his parish,
nor just even all the Catholics who live close to the church,
but is to have concern for the spiritual welfare
of every person within his jurisdiction.
As long as they’re hiding in these woods—I thought—
I bear a certain responsibility for their souls!
Of course, it wasn’t prudent for me
to go sit among the trees around Mountain View,
hoping they might stop by looking for confession…
But the impact, for me, of these fugitives
moved beyond the inconvenience of roadblocks
or even fears for safety.
In ways only clear to God, there is a deeper connection.
And when I first heard Friday afternoon
that Richard Matt had been shot and killed,
I immediately prayed for him:
that God would have mercy on his soul.
It just seemed like it was what his pastor ought to do.

There was other big news Friday—
news that can seem a whole lot more distant from us—
and that news was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision
which effectively legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.
I’ve never read a Supreme Court decision before,
but I read this one.
Let me just say: it’s long!
Nonetheless, I suggest giving it a look yourself
instead of simply accepting everything
so many supposed experts are saying about it.
The majority opinion contained no surprises:
arguments we’ve all heard before,
which seem to me far better suited to the court of public opinion
than they do to such an esteemed court of law.
What’s striking is in the dissent:
the four dissenting justices each wrote their own opinions,
which—I understand—is highly unusual.
If you’ve got time for nothing else,
take a look at those of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.
Their arguments are so lucid, reasonable, and sane,
it’s hard to imagine how they did not prevail.
What’s troubling are the predictions they make—
predictions of the effect this ruling will have on America:
on the law and our relationship to it; on the role of the court;
on the fabric of our society; on children and family life.
They echo many things our Catholic Bishop’s
have long been saying in anticipation of this decision,
just without making direct reference to God.
And the insights of these four justices
all reflect the real, if sometimes hidden, interconnectedness
that binds us all together—whether we like it or not.

Sure, it sounds fair enough to say that this issue
is all about sacred rights to liberty, privacy, and due process.
“Live and let live!
What should the government or the Church care
about the goings on in people’s bedrooms?”
But none of us live in perfect isolation.
None of our acts are completely private.
And that’s most especially true for those of us
who are members of the one Body of Christ!
Yes, we come to know Christ as individual believers.
Our faith must be personal—we must own it for ourselves.
But it’s never my private preserve—
never just about “me and Jesus.”
Like the two women in the gospel,
we are all intimately connected through, with, and in Christ,
even if we never actually meet one another.
What a single one does or decides,
what happens to any individual—good or evil—
has a real impact on us all.

A bit like my opening joke,
it’s more than a little ironic, really,
that while alone on an island I was so compellingly reminded
that, in fact, “no man is an island,” as the poet once wrote.
A brief time alone helped me realize anew
how closely linked we all are.
A few hours of quiet prepared me well
to process the news repeated at high volume.
Often times—
as it was with the hemorrhaging woman and the daughter of Jairus—
we must tune out the noise of the surrounding crowd
in order to hear the healing voice of Jesus.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Trust Your Father

   Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I was in a small town in Vermont the other day,
and stopped to check out a small bookstore there.
That’s where I picked up this little book:
How to Build A Fire, 
And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew.
It’s a book filled with 
what was once common knowledge,
passed on from one generation to the next.
There are chapters on how to change a tire,
how to drive a nail, and how to shine shoes;
on how to apologize, how to ask for help,
and how to bounce back after failure.
I’ve noticed an increasing number of books like this
being published these days.
The books themselves are great,
but they point to a troubling trend:
that this kind of wisdom 
just isn’t getting passed down
by fathers and grandfathers anymore.

I wouldn’t be the only one to share the opinion
that America is facing a bit of a crisis in fatherhood.

Thumbing through the book,
and reflecting on the gospel reading for this Sunday,
I got to thinking:
Isn’t that what Jesus is doing with his disciples in the boat?
He’s fathering them!

Now, most folks hear the word “fathering”
and think in biological terms.
That’s ironic, of course,
when so many sexual encounters today are sterile,
whether they’re naturally so
or because we’ve effectively neutered them—
ironic, too, in an age when, should a child be conceived,
it’s increasingly likely to happen in a clinic,
rather than the marriage bed.
Biologically speaking, we’ve nearly succeeded
in making fatherhood obsolete.

No, I’m not talking about the fathering
which produces the human body;
I’m talking about the fathering
that fosters the growth of the soul.
That’s getting to be a lost art, too.
We neglect to teach boys and young men
not only manners and mechanics;
we fail to teach them what most contributes to authentic manly virtue:
we fail to teach them how to be men of faith and prayer.
Where are all the guys in church?
Many accuse the Church of being male-dominated…
…but just take a look around the pews
and you’ll get a rather different picture.

It’s in this deeper, truer, spiritual sense
that we find Jesus fathering his disciples
while their boat is tossed about on the sea.
As the disciples are making the crossing,
you could say that Jesus is taking their training wheels off.
By his actions even more than his words, he’s saying:
See what confidence I have in the Father?
I can curl up on a cushion and sleep right through the storm!
I need you to have that kind of confidence in me.

But they’re terrified!
“Do you not yet have faith?” Jesus asks them.
The faith Jesus wants to hand down to these, his spiritual sons,
isn’t so much a matter of committing doctrines and rules to memory;
it’s about learning to trust.
“Having faith” is really just another way to speak of “taking risks”—
being willing to put it all on the line
because you’ve put your complete trust in God.

Storms will always come: trials, scandals, and dangers;
troubled relationships and poor health (whether ours or a loved one’s);
financial struggles and an increasingly violent world.
But for us as for those disciples at sea,
the worst storms are swirling about within the boat,
not swamping it from outside.
Yes, life is hard
but it’s harder still if we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear
or despair of things getting better;
if we carry on as if everything depends on us alone
or try to taker and maintain total control;
if we lack for faith.

I was fathered by a pretty great dad.
Perfect?  No…but what dad is actually expected to be?
Among all the things he taught me—and is teaching me still—
I’m most grateful for the gift of my Catholic faith.
Dad didn’t teach me the faith by giving me sermons
or performing great acts of piety.
You know what stands out in my memory?
The fact that, growing up on a farm,
when there could have been many compelling excuses,
we never, ever missed Sunday Mass.
No matter how many things went wrong in the barn,
or how many chores remained still to be done,
we dropped everything to get to church.
The work could wait; our duty to God could not.

These last couple of years,
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what it means to be a father.
(Now, don’t worry:
I’m not about to reveal that I have some secret love child!)
“Father” is more than a merely customary title given to priests.
It points to a real relationship between a priest and his parish.
He’s the head of the family—even if he’s not its most senior member.
And just like any other dad: he’s not perfect…
…but what dad is actually expected to be?
I’ve come to learn that,
even when I’m doing what I’m sure to be right,
it won’t always be appreciated at the time.
What teenager—our fine graduating seniors, included—
has ever agreed with every decision dad makes?
But how many an adult looks back and reluctantly admits:
Go figure!  My father was right!
God appoints priests to father his family,
not so that he can keep his children happy,
but so that they might become holy.
As your father,
I’m so incredibly humbled when you trust me—
not because of who I am or what I myself can do,
but because you put your faith in the one who called me.

My new book might have a chapter
on “How to Banish Monsters Under the Bed,”
but Jesus has shown us that he can quiet
even the most violent of storms.
Let us be renewed in the faith of our fathers!
Let us place our full trust in him
whom even wind and sea obey.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

And Justice for All

I'm back from Rome, after a very fruitful pilgrimage.  We had good weather, good food, and good company.  Now I just need some good rest to get past this jet lag...

   Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Little could I have guessed that, when I got back from Rome,
the North Country would be right in the middle
Roadblocks and helicopters, bloodhounds and accomplices,
have been the big story for a whole week now.
There are a limited number of facts…
…but everybody’s got an opinion.
And there’s one opinion I’ve heard 
pretty much across the board:
I hope they catch those two quick 
and throw the book at them!
We want to make sure they get what they deserve.

Within the human heart,
there is a clear, deep-seated desire for justice.

But have you ever gotten a speeding ticket?
And then desperately tried to wiggle your way out of it?
Or have you been—shall we say—
a bit “creative” when filing your taxes?
I’m not at all trying to equate either one 
with homicide or a jailbreak,
but there’s a part of us that will go 
to quite extraordinary lengths
to avoid getting what we deserve.

Within the human heart,
there’s also a clear, deep-seated hope for mercy.

As we return to the Sundays of Ordinary Time,
our second reading is one frequently chosen for funerals—
containing as it does the consoling belief
that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.
But it’s the ending of that passage which grabs my attention today—
although it rarely, if ever, gets much attention at funerals anymore:
We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
so that each may receive recompense,
according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.
It’s a conviction that’s echoed
in the Prayer Over the Offerings of the Funeral Mass:
that the faithful departed, who believed Jesus to be a loving Savior,
may find in him a merciful judge.
It’s not a conviction, however, that I often hear echoed
in the words of remembrance shared by family or friends;
those generally sound more like the proceedings of a canonization.
I understand the urge, in our hour of grief,
to think of our loved ones as headed straight to heaven.
But isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think
that heaven is due us, regardless of our faith or actions?
Sure, we expect the other guy—
especially any really, really bad one—
to be held responsible for his misdeeds.
But what about ourselves?  And those close to us?
Do we hope to be treated according to a different set if rules?
Do we really believe in judgment?
I should clarify:
Do we believe in any judgment other than our own?

The escape routes from personal responsibility
which we so often devise
are a whole lot more complex
than the one dreamed up by two inmates at Dannemora.

The kingdom of God,
while grown from tender shoots and tiny seeds,
is like a large, majestic tree
with branches enough to accommodate
every soul the Lord’s ever created.
But just because a tree is very big
doesn’t mean that all birds are going to make their home in it.
Yes, God’s mercy is boundless…
…but his justice is also perfect.
God loves us enough to fully respect our free will—
that way in which we are most like him
and unlike the rest of bodily creation.
God respects the choices we have made and holds us to them:
whether for good or for evil, for him and his kingdom or against.
In this life, we are to pray to the Father, Thy will be done,
and do our part to make it so on earth as it is in heaven.
We must learn God’s law and choose to obey it;
we shall be judged accordingly.
But in the next life, it is God who says to us, Thy will be done,
since it will come to pass for us in heaven or hell
as we passed our time in the body on earth.  (cf. C. S. Lewis)

It’s the Church’s ancient creed, repeated Sunday after Sunday,
that the Only Begotten Son of God
will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Yes, God is merciful—
but we must not presume on that mercy.
And God also is just, indeed—
and there can be no escaping the divine justice:
we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
As we believe Jesus to be a loving Savior,
let us live as men and women always ready
to stand before such an awesome and merciful judge.