Sunday, February 26, 2017

How to ‘Rein in’ Worrisome Thoughts

Worrying begins at a very young age.

(Eighth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 26, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 6: 24-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Eighth Sunday 2017]

Rein in your thoughts!

Those four words, I would say, sum up the Lord’s message to us in this gospel text we just heard from Matthew, chapter 6.

Rein in your thoughts!

To “rein something in,” as most of us know, means to stop it or to get control of it or to limit it in some way.  And so we speak of a government trying to “rein in” spending (usually without success!), or a cowboy attempting to “reign in” his horse.

Well, at times our thoughts need to be “reined in” as well: our angry thoughts, our uncharitable thoughts, our impure thoughts—even our worrisome thoughts (which are the ones Jesus explicitly makes reference to in this gospel).

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for the day is its own evil.

Jesus could have said, “Rein in your thoughts of worry” and it would have had the same meaning.

Now that’s easier said than done—especially if you’re older, or if you have a serious illness (as some of us do).  I know that since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s back in 2010 my thoughts turn, more than ever before, to the future—and to the great “unknowns” of the future: How will my health be next month, next year—and beyond?  What will my quality of life be like?  What other symptoms am I going to have to deal with in the future besides the ones I’ve already got?  Will I be able to care for myself in my later years?  Will there ever be a cure—and if there is, will I be eligible for it when it’s finally discovered?

Those of you with cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes—or any other serious malady—have similar questions that cross your minds, I’m sure.

And that’s quite understandable. 

But if we don’t deal with these thoughts and rein them in (so to speak), they can and very often will depress us.  They can even paralyze us emotionally—which is why Jesus is so adamant in this gospel about trusting God and not allowing worrisome thoughts to control our lives (even if we’re blessed to be in great physical health!).

So how do you deal with these thoughts personally?  How do you deal with thoughts of worry when they make an unwelcomed appearance in your mind? 

Well, one way—one very effective way—to deal with them is to “stand on the word of God,” as our Protestant brothers and sisters would say.  In this context, “standing on the word” involves replacing thoughts of worry and fear with thoughts from the Bible about faith and trust—especially the thoughts that Jesus gives us in this text.  In fact, this is a very good passage of Scripture to try to memorize (at least in part), so that you can call its message to mind whenever you’re tempted to worry.

Lord, I’m very concerned with this situation, but you tell me in Matthew 6 not to worry, and that you will provide for my needs even more than you provide for the needs of birds and flowers and everything else in the world of nature.  Help me to seek first your kingdom—your way of holiness, and to trust that tomorrow will “take care of itself”—as will this situation I’m dealing with.

That’s one way to “rein in” worrisome thoughts: stand on God’s word.

Let me share with you now one other approach.  This is one that I’ve found very helpful and have used a lot—especially since my Parkinson’s diagnosis.  And it’s really quite simple:

Whenever you’re tempted to worry about the future, think of the past—specifically your past; and, especially the trials, difficulties and sufferings you’ve experienced in your past life.  Do that, and then remind yourself of something that you know—of something that you know with absolute certitude:

God was faithful, and he got me through it all!

And how do you know that?

Because you’re here!  That’s how you know it.

If the Lord had not been faithful and hadn’t gotten you through it all, you wouldn’t be here this morning!  You’d be somewhere else.  You’d probably be in River Bend or St. Sebastian’s or one of our other local cemeteries.  The rest of you would be at room temperature in some other location.

So, if God has been faithful, and has given you the grace to deal with EVERY trial of your past life (and, as I just said, we know he has), isn’t it reasonable to believe he will do the same in every trial you face in the future?

Why should we think that God will suddenly change and NOT give us what we need in days and years to come, when he’s always given us what we’ve needed in the past?

And so, in those moments when I’m tempted to worry about my future with Parkinson’s, I think about my parents dying at relatively young ages, and many of the other trials and tragedies I’ve experienced over the years, and I say,

Lord you brought me through all those sufferings—some of which I didn’t think I could deal with; and you’ve given me the grace to deal with Parkinson’s now for more than 6 years.  So I’m going to trust that you will continue to do the same thing for me in the future.  I trust that what you’ve done for me in the past, you’ll do for me today and every day of my future life—whether I get physically get better or not.

That way of thinking “reins in my thoughts” and lessens the worry—sometimes eliminating it entirely.

Obviously prayers also help, as do meditations like the one St. Francis de Sales wrote sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century.

Apparently people worried a lot back then too!

I’ll leave you with his words:

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day. He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you the unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Loving Your Enemies: What It Means and What It Does NOT Mean

The nine shooting victims

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 19, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2017]

On June 17, 2015 a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study class at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.  There he shot and killed nine innocent people—all African Americans—in a sick, demented attempt to start a race war.  Most of you remember the tragedy, I’m sure.  It was all over the news when it happened. 

Dylann Roof has expressed no remorse for what he did on that June night two years ago.  From all external indications, he remains a bitter and hate-filled man, as he sits in prison awaiting his execution.  Just last month a jury recommended the death penalty for Roof, and a judge sentenced him to die by lethal injection.

The sentence has yet to be carried out.      

Now what’s really amazing is this: In stark contrast to Roof’s hatred and bitterness is the love and forgiveness that some relatives of the victims have expressed since these killings took place.  In fact, just a few days after the murders, family members had the opportunity to speak directly to Roof and tell him whatever they wanted to tell him.  Here are some of the things that were said on that occasion …

Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the victims said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

The sister of another victim said, “That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that [my sister] always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

The granddaughter of one of those killed said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul—is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

Finally, the relative of another victim, when asked about the message she would want Dylann Roof to hear, stated: “I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

Now I’m not sure what passage of Scripture they were studying at that South Carolina church right before this tragedy occurred, but it would have been fitting if it had been the text we just heard as our gospel reading this morning—especially the part where Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”

This, of course, is one of the most difficult commandments of Jesus to obey in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives.  We all know that—by experience!  It’s difficult for us because we all share a human nature that’s tainted by original sin.  Consequently, our first instinct as human beings is to hate and curse our enemies, not love them.  But loving them is certainly possible—as the four people I just mentioned made clear to Dylann Roof by the things they said to him just a few days after he murdered their loved ones.

But it was hard!  One of them made that fact crystal clear when she said that she was “very angry” and that she was “a work in progress” with respect to forgiveness.

God bless her for her honesty.

But the important thing to note is that she was moving in the right direction by making the effort (that is to say, the choice, the decision) to deal with her anger, and love this man who had so brutally killed her sister.

Here we get a few important insights about what it means (and what it does not mean) to love your enemies.

First of all, to love your enemies is a choice, it’s not a feeling; it’s a decision, it’s not an emotion.  “Liking” is an emotion: we all have certain people whom we like more than others.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s normal human behavior. 

“Loving” is different.  Loving, in the sense that Jesus uses the term here, means (in the words of Scripture scholar William Barclay) “unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill.”  In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Barclay says this: “If we regard a person with agape [the Greek word for love that’s used in this text], it means that no matter what that person does to us, no matter how he treats us, no matter if he insults us or injures us or grieves us, we will never allow any bitterness against him to invade our hearts, but will regard him with that unconquerable benevolence which will seek nothing but his highest good.”

That’s a key insight, because it reminds us that it’s possible to have “unconquerable benevolence” and “invincible goodwill” toward everyone—even toward people we dislike.  Make no mistake about it, my brothers and sisters, the four people whom I quoted a few moments ago do not like Dylann Roof and what he stands for; they probably have had very few (if any) good feelings about him or toward him.  But, by the grace of God, they have made the decision to desire what’s best for him—his “highest good,” as Barclay would say.  That’s especially evident in the comment of the last woman, who said, “I forgive [Dylann Roof] and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

To desire that the person who murdered your loved one, someone near and dear to you—to desire that such a person repent and go to heaven someday: that’s love!  That’s Christian, agape love.  That’s the kind of love Jesus is talking about here in this text.

It doesn’t mean you pretend that the evil your enemy did never happened.  It doesn’t mean you have to be “best buddies” with him or her from now on.  It doesn’t mean you have to dispense with justice and punishment—not at all!  Believe it or not, sometimes agape love requires those things.  As Barclay put it, “If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that we must punish him, that we must restrain him, that we must discipline him, that we must protect him against himself.”

Of course, it will be remedial punishment, not vengeful punishment—but it will be punishment nonetheless.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “The real test of the Christian is not how much he loves his friends, but how much he loves his enemies.”

Since that’s the case, I think it’s safe to say that the four grieving relatives quoted in this homily are currently passing the “test”—with flying colors!  In the midst of a situation in which it would be very easy for them to hate their enemy, they’ve chosen to love him with agape love.  As far as I’m concerned, they all deserve “As” on the exam.

By the grace of God that we receive at this Mass, may we make the choice to follow their example in our lives.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to be a ‘Salty’ Catholic

Stephanie and Brian Packer and their four children

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 5, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 13-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2017]

She’s definitely a “salty” lady.

Her name is Stephanie Packer.  She’s a 34-year-old Catholic woman who lives in Santa Ana, California with her husband and four children.  She’s also dying.  She was diagnosed in 2012 with scleroderma, an autoimmune condition that was attacking her lungs.  Her doctors told her she had only three years to live.  Well, given the fact that she received that diagnosis four—almost five—years ago now, the doctors were obviously wrong.  But Stephanie continues to struggle physically, and needs very specialized treatment for her illness.  For example, in June of last year (just after California’s law permitting physician-assisted suicide went into effect) Stephanie’s medical team recommended that she be treated with chemotherapy for a period of time.  At first the people at the insurance company agreed to pay for the chemo, but then they refused.  However, they did tell her that they were more than willing to pay for something else: a lethal dose of suicide pills—at the bargain basement price of $1.20. 

Maybe they were hoping that she was one of those women who just can’t resist a sale.

Stephanie, not surprisingly, was horrified!  She later said, “It was like someone hit me in the gut.  The most cost-effective solution was now assisted suicide.”

My brothers and sisters, this is why I and so many others have said that this so-called “right-to-die” movement, spearheaded by groups like Compassion & Choices (which used to call itself the Hemlock Society) is a sham.  It’s a lie—because the right-to-die very quickly becomes the DUTY-to-die!

Always and everywhere—you can count on it!

That’s what the agents at the insurance company were saying to Stephanie, was it not?  “Listen, lady, you’re a burden on the system.  You have the duty to get out of the way and let us treat the sick people out there who have at least some hope of recovering from their illnesses.  If you really care about other people, Stephanie, then you’ll save them some money and do yourself in.  Even your family will appreciate it, because you’ll no longer be a burden to them—and they’ll only be out a dollar and twenty cents!”

Many of you will remember Brittany Maynard.  She was the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who killed herself in 2014 out in Oregon (where physician-assisted suicide was already legal).  She was hailed in the secular media all over the country because she exercised her “right to die on her own terms.”  As Stephanie Packer accurately stated, “It glamorized suicide as a heroic event.”

Well that incident inspired Stephanie to go public with her story and to become an advocate for the elderly, the terminally ill, and others who are potential victims of this evil.  Her story has been covered by media outlets like CNN, NPR and The Washington Post.  This past November she even testified before the state senators of New Jersey, asking them to reject the proposed Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide in that state.

She’s received a lot of positive feedback for her efforts—but a lot of persecution as well.  So has her husband, whose life was actually threatened after her NPR interview.

But through it all, as I indicated at the beginning of my homily, Stephanie Packer has been a “salty” lady—a very salty lady.

Now I suppose that requires a bit of an explanation.  So here it is …

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew 5 Jesus tells us that we are to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  To be the light of the world is to allow the truth and love of Jesus Christ to shine through us by our good works—by the kind of activities that Isaiah speaks about in our first reading: feeding the hungry, sheltering the oppressed, clothing the naked, not turning our backs on our own, etc.

That’s clear enough.

But what does it mean to be like “salt”?

Well, remember that Jesus said this back in first century Israel, and, as Scripture scholar N.T. Wright reminds us in his commentary on Matthew, salt had one “main function” in the first century world: to keep things “from going bad”.  It wasn’t to make food taste better (although I’m sure it did!).  The main use of salt back then was as a preservative.  Remember, there weren’t any refrigerators or freezers in Israel in the first century.  There weren’t even any iceboxes!

So when I say that Stephanie Packer is a “salty” lady, I’m saying that she’s a woman who’s doing her best to see that things don’t “go bad” here in the United States through the further legalization of physician-assisted suicide.  And may God bless her for her efforts—and for her willingness to suffer persecution in order to spread the message!

If only we had had more doctors—and citizens like Stephanie—in our country back in 1973: men and women who were willing to come forward and take a public stand in order to preserve the right-to-life of the unborn.  Abortion would never have become legal in this country!  But, unfortunately, there weren’t enough “salty” people around at the time, and so our nation “went bad” (so to speak) on that issue in the Roe v. Wade decision.

And that’s the way it’s been with so many of the controversial moral issues of recent decades, such as pornography and euthanasia and so-called “gay marriage.”

Many sins have now become socially-acceptable activities here in the United States of America, because (to use the image of Jesus in this gospel) the “salt” of many Christians has “lost its taste.”  Consequently, we’ve failed to preserve many of the virtues and good laws that once made our nation great.

I think the Lord is telling us today that it’s time to bring back the salt!  Physically speaking, of course, doctors tell us to avoid salt because it raises blood pressure, but in the spiritual dimension “salt” is just what the doctor has ordered!  (That’s Doctor Jesus, the divine physician.)

And it all begins at home, in our families (at least it’s supposed to!).  Parents tell me all the time that they worry about their children’s future; that, in effect, they don’t want to see their children “go bad.”

Praise God for that.  Every Christian parent should have that desire for his or her children.

But for children not to “go bad,” parents need to making the effort every day to be as “salty” as possible—teaching them, in other words, what it means to be a follower of Christ by their words and even more importantly by their deeds (which is what Stephanie Packer is doing for her four children with respect to the issue of physician-assisted suicide).

So parents, when you sit down for dinner with your children in the future and they say to you, “Mom, dad—please pass the salt” try to hear that, not only as a request for the small container at the other end of the table with the white stuff in it, but also as a plea: a plea for you to be the best Catholic—the saltiest Catholic—that you can possibly be, so that they will learn from you how to be the saltiest Catholics that they can possibly be.