Every month, Connections offers stories, images, reflections and meditations relating to the themes of each Sunday’s readings.  Material comes from the evening news and the every day, from the stage and screen, from the music world and the marketplace – all designed to help homilists “connect” the world of Monday through Saturday with the Gospel proclaimed on Sunday.

To give you an idea of what Connections is all about, we’ve assembled the following sampling of stories, meditations and 'connecting' reflections from recent issues of Connections:

Sunday 22 / Pentecost 15 [September 2, 2018]
Sunday 23 / Pentecost 16 [September 9, 2018]
Sunday 24 / Pentecost 17 [September 16, 2018]
Sunday 25 / Pentecost 18 [September 23, 2018]
Sunday 26 / Pentecost 19 [September 30, 2018]

Sunday 27 / Pentecost 20 [October 7, 2018]
Sunday 28 / Pentecost 21 [October 14, 2018]
Sunday 29 / Pentecost 22 [October 21, 2018]
Sunday 30 / Pentecost 23 [October 28, 2018]

Please note that, in every issue of Connections, we offer TWO stories/meditations for each Sunday’s Gospel.

After reviewing this “electronic sampler,” if you’d like information on subscribing – or receiving the next complete issue of ConnectionsCLICK HERE for subscription information and an order form.


22nd Sunday of the Year B / 15th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 17]

”Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

To accept or refuse

Many years ago, a great warrior abandoned his life of war and destruction and became a monk, happily living a quiet life serving his brothers and the poor and sick of the villages around the monastery.

One day, an arrogant warrior rode through the village.  He terrorized the villagers with his threats and demands.  He soon made his way to the monastery where he recognized the monk from their adventures years before. The reckless warrior did everything he could to provoke his old adversary into a fight: the boor threw rocks, shouted insults, smashing parts of the poor monastery.  But the monk would not respond.  By dusk, the warrior finally grew tired of the game; he defiantly spat on the monastery door and rode off.

Some of the villagers who had been brutalized by the warrior, asked the monk why he did not confront the intruder.

“If someone offers you a gift and you do not accept it, to whom does the gift belong?” the old monk asked.

“He who offered it,” they replied.

“The same is true for anger, envy and ridicule,” the monk explained.  “When they are not accepted, they forever belong to the one who holds on to them.”

[Adapted from the Moral Stories website.]

In the hurts, indignities and injustices perpetrated against us, what is often worse than the act itself is what the act does to us as persons: we respond with suspicion, cynicism, self-absorption, anger, vengeance.  One of the most difficult challenges of being a disciple of Jesus is not to let those things “outside” of us diminish what we are “inside” ourselves, not to let such anger or vengeance displace the things of God in the sacred place of our hearts but to let God’s presence transform the evil that we have encountered into compassion and forgiveness.   

23rd Sunday of the Year B / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 18]

Jesus put his finger into the man's ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” -- that is, “Be opened!”
Mark 7: 31-37

Listening ‘funny’ . . .

A mother was planning a birthday party for her six-year-old son.  She wanted to protect him from the social consequences of inviting Jason, an unpopular child, to the party.  Jason stuttered, so he was constantly teased, often cruelly.

But Mom realized that her son had to make the decision on his own.

Mom was pleasantly surprised to discover that her son not only could take care of himself but also stick up for his friend.

When other boys at the party started making fun of Jason, her son confronted them, saying:  “He doesn't talk funny.  You listen funny.”

[Kathleen Chesto.]

We often listen "funny."  Fear and ignorance often distort our ability not only to hear but also to see the good in the midst of bad, the reasons to hope in the midst of despair.  The words Jesus speaks to the deaf man in today's Gospel – “Ephphatha” – are spoken to us, as well: that our hearts and spirits be “opened” to accepting God's love from those who are “different” and “uncool”; that our hearts and spirits be “opened” to realizing God's presence in times and places that make us squirm; that our hearts and spirits be “opened” to realizing God's grace despite our difficulty to trust, to accept, to understand.

24th Sunday of the Year B / 17th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 19]

Along the way, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ . . . ”
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.   For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Mark 8: 27-35

The church downstairs

The pastor calls it the “church downstairs.”  They have a good problem: they need more chairs.

For years, Alcoholic Anonymous has met in the church hall every day of the week, sometimes twice a day.  The supportive pastor started thinking of those meetings as the “church downstairs” after a new parishioner told him how she came to join the parish after first going “downstairs” for several months.

The priest occasionally sits in on the meetings and it has helped him understand what it means to be “church.”  Three things about AA have struck him: 

First, there is a “genuine and low-key sense” of welcoming.  But it is not simply a matter of a designated greeter shaking every new hand.  In fact, “AA is at its most hospitable after the meeting is over.  No one is bolting for the door when the last word is pronounced.  Instead, people stay around for another cup of coffee, especially if someone new has joined them.”

The second thing the pastor has noticed is how the “church downstairs” rallies around the weak, the powerless, and the hurting.  “Even those some might relegate to the social fringe are met with acceptance in the group, not least because a common denominator — We are all powerless over alcohol — remains central.”

And the third thing that Alcoholics Anonymous groups demonstrate so well, the pastor admires, is “the belief that everyone has a story to tell and a right to be heard.  This belief is essential not only to the Twelve Steps, but to the sense of commonality and communion that is generated in the group.  Everyone can learn something from another person’s story . . . ”

Welcoming strangers.  Lifting the weak and struggling.  Listening to what everyone has to say.  Maybe that’s why they need more chairs at the “church downstairs.”

[From “The Church Downstairs: What Catholics Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous” by Father Nonomen, Commonweal, July 13, 2012.]

This is what Christ calls us to be as a church: a community that readily takes up our own crosses in order to help others bear up theirs; a family of brothers and sisters who instinctively put aside their own individual needs and hurts to bring healing and hope to the other members of the family.  In being members of such a faith community, we answer the question that Jesus poses in today’s Gospel; every decision we make, every action we take, proclaims who we believe this Jesus is and what his Gospel means to us.  Sometimes our answering that question demands that we put aside our own concerns, needs and fears, to say to ourselves and confess to the world:  You are the Christ; You are the Anointed One God has sent to teach us his way of humble gratitude, joyful service, and just peace.  

25th Sunday of the Year B / 18th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 20] 

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last and the servant of all . . .
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
Mark 9: 30-37

Grading the final exam

On the final exam in a psychology course taught last spring at the University of Maryland, this was the final question:

Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added to your final grade.  But there’s a small catch:  If more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points.

How would you have answered?

Well, 20 percent of the students selected 6 points so, true, to his word, the professor gave no extra credit to any of his students.

What was the point?  More than just a lesson in self-interest.  The course instructor, Dr. Dylan Selterman, explains that the question, originally published in a psychology journal 25 years ago, is intended to illustrate what is called in psychology “the tragedy of the commons.”  Dr. Selterman explains:

“[The tragedy of the commons is] basically a dilemma between doing what’s good for you as an individual versus doing what’s best for the group.  Now it stands to reason that people behave selfishly. But if too many people behave selfishly, the group will suffer . . . and then everyone in the group individually will suffer.”

In the seven years he has put the question on his final exam, Dr. Selterman says that, almost without fail, self-interest trumps the common good.  Only one class — his fall 2011 group — has received the extra credit, but he speculates that it may have merely been a fluke.  “In behavioral science, nothing is ever 100%,” he says.

Dr. Selterman believes that most students select the six-point option by way of a “go big or go home” mentality.  Others, he says, may do it out of fear of being slighted.

“The extra credit question is analogous to any public resource in the world that we would all use, like food or water or land.  Again, if people are mindful of their own consumption, then it’s fine, but if too many people are selfish, then we have now — like in California — water shortages.”

Dr. Selterman says he hopes his students at least walk away from his course with a sense “that their actions affect others and vice versa and, going forward, whenever they work in groups or whenever they interact with others in their community, that they carefully consider these things, these mechanisms, and that they work together constructively with others.  I would hope that any student who chose six points would, in the future, think twice about the selfish option and think about what’s best for the group and — by extension — what’s best for them.”

Students have asked him to modify the question so only those who choose six points get penalized, but he said that would be missing the point.

“In reality, if too many people overuse a common resource then everyone in the group suffers, not just the selfish ones,” he notes. “This is what I want students to learn from the exercise.  Their actions affect others, and vice versa.”

[USA Today, July 17, 2015; ABC News, July 14, 2015.]

Dr. Selterman’s final is an object lesson in Christian discipleship.  We are often more than willing to sacrifice the common good for our own self-interest; we measure the severity of a problem solely by its impact on us; we seek how to manipulate the misfortune of others to our advantage.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us to seek the greatness of being last, the authority of being the servant to others, the power of advocating for justice for the poor and victimized.  It is how we learn compassion; it is how we become responsible adults and contributing members of society; it is how we find meaning and purpose in our lives.  Jesus challenges all who would be his disciples to put another’s hopes and dreams ahead of our own, to seek to bring forth and affirm the gifts of others for no other reason than the common good, to seek reconciliation and community at all costs.  In doing so, we make the crosses we bear vehicles of resurrection, transforming our homes and hearts in God’s reconciliation, peace and compassion.  

26th Sunday of the Year B / 19th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 21] 

John said to Jesus:  “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me . . .  Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

Us vs. them

We all approach life pretty much the same way:

There’s us — and there’s them.

We’re all right.  They’re not.

We’re justifiably concerned for our family’s livelihood.  They’re in it for the money.

We’re resting.  They’re self-indulgent.

We’re pragmatic.  They’re manipulative.

We’re teasing.  They’re mean-spirited.

We know the truth.  They don’t understand; they’re ill-informed.

We’re concerned for the common good.  They’re out to grab whatever they can get.

Don’t ever question our good intentions, our values, our patriotism.  But watch out for them.

You can trust us — but be afraid of them.

We welcome all — with our doors locked.

We’re all created equal — but some of us are more equal than others.

We are all children of God — but we’re God’s favorites.

We’re the people of God — we pray for them.

In admonishing John in today’s Gospel, Jesus is calling for an end to the us- vs.-them perspective of the world; Jesus comes to build his Father’s kingdom, a community based on generosity, humility, respect and understanding for all, by all.  We may not think of ourselves as perfect, but we do (however unconsciously) consider our perspective of the world and our own belief and value systems to be the standards that others would be wise to embrace.  To “act in Jesus’ name,” however, means to reach out to all without condition, without prejudice, without judgment.  Thomas Merton put it this way:  “As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity, and even your best works will blind and deceive you.  And the more unreasonable importance you attach to yourself and your work, the more you will tend to build up your own idea of yourself by condemning other people.  Sometimes virtuous people are also bitter and unhappy because they unconsciously believe that their happiness depends on their being more virtuous than others.” 

27th Sunday of the Year B / 20th Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 22]

“’They are no longer two but one flesh . . .’
“Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
Mark 10: 2-16

Whites and darks, bless the Lord!

The night before their 10th anniversary, they did what they had done just about every Thursday night since they were married: the laundry.

In the family room, with the baseball game on, they sorted the mountain of just-laundered clothes.  She smoothed their daughter’s tees; he folded their son’s Spiderman pajamas.  She matched up what seemed like hundreds of socks; he separated the various undershirts and underpants.

As he kept one eye on the ball game while they worked, it struck her how their laundry had grown over the last ten years.  She remembered that first year of their marriage when they would hurry off to that dingy laundromat near their one-bedroom apartment with their single basket of clothes.  They were both working and in school; time and money were tight.  Now they had this beautiful home with (thank God!) a washing machine and dryer.  With the birth of their children, the single basket quadrupled, with diapers, play clothes and school clothes, and the never ending need to wash more towels.  There were, of course, disasters along the way: the time he shrunk her beautiful cashmere sweater, the time little Bobby left crayons in his pocket that turned all the whites into a bizarre shade of reddish orange.

As she continued to fluff and folded this week's laundry, she was overcome with a sense of gratitude.  Tonight, she saw these shirts and socks and shorts as nothing less than cotton and polyblend signs of God’s goodness.

Just then, her daydream snapped.  As she reached into the basket to grab a towel, he grabbed the same towel.  She looked up and smiled; he smiled back, not knowing what that tear in her eye was all about.  His touch still sent a shiver up and down her spine.  Yep, the marriage is still working, she thought.

Tomorrow night they would go out to dinner to celebrate ten years of doing laundry together.

[Suggested by the meditation “Laundry makes our marriage work” by Kristin M. Santos, in Our Family, Missionary Oblates of St. Mary, Battleford, Sask.]

A couple’s life together – a life centered in trust, forgiveness and love – and their generous response to the vocation of parenthood model the unfathomable and profound love of God: love that lets go rather than clings, love that happily gives rather than takes, love that liberates rather than confines.  The sacrament of marriage, as Jesus taught, is a total giving and sharing by each spouse so that the line between “his” and “hers” disappears into only “us.”  In the life they create together, life that sometimes means both taking on and letting go for the sake of the beloved, Christ is the ever-present Wedding Guest, who makes their simple, everyday life together a miraculous sacrament, in which the love of God is revealed to all of us in this couple’s love for one another.  

28th Sunday of the Year B / 21st Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 23]

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,”You are lacking one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10: 17-30

“I can be . . . ”

Kate Braestrup serves as chaplain for the Maine State Game Warden Service.  In her many articles and best-selling books, she writes insightfully about the challenge of bringing the presence of God into the demanding and often horrifying situations confronting the wardens in the rugged Maine terrain.

In her new book, Anchor and Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope and Service, she tells the story of a friend of hers: a state trooper who had a very rough childhood.

“Abandoned by his father, he was beaten by his stepfather, and occasionally these assaults resulted in injuries sufficient to put the child in the hospital.  On one occasion, when my friend was around nine, a State Trooper drove him to the emergency room in the back of a cruiser.  My friend retained a vivid memory of lying on the back seat, watching the telephone lines loop past against the night sky, and considering his options:  I can be like my stepdad.  I can be a victim.

“Or, he thought, looking up at the back of the trooper’s close-cropped head, I can be that guy.

Kate Braestrup knows the trooper who rescued her friend that night.

“His name is Malcolm,” she writes, “but he’s known as Mack.  What makes the story really interesting, from my point-of-view, is that he is not one of your enormous, stern, terrifying troopers.  Maine has its share of those, God bless ‘em, but Mack is on the small side as troopers go.  Though I have heard that Mack can more than hold his own when it comes to a rumpus, it is his intelligence, his kindness, and the quiet modesty of his manner that have always impressed me most.  Mack became the colonel of the Maine State Police before he retired a few years ago, but when my friend was a battered little boy, Mack was a new, young trooper with little kids of his own.

“Now my friend is a new, young trooper.

“I wonder what glimpses of manhood he offers to the boys he encounters in his work, what possibilities, what hopes are sparked by him?”

Today’s Gospel challenges us to see that we are more than the things we possess, to realize that what we become and do result from who we are and what we believe in the depths of our hearts, not because of our financial clout or physical might.  What we are able to give is the measure of our lives; the good we are able to do is the value of our time on earth.  A State Trooper’s kindness to a battered little boy results in nothing less than saving the child’s life — and enables the boy as an adult to do as much if not more good than the older trooper.  Each one of us possesses talents and resources, skills and assets that we have been given by God for the work of making the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now.  May we return to God the gifts he has given us in order to embrace eternity in the time to come.  

29th Sunday of the Year B / 22nd Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 24]

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and asked, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?
Mark 10: 35-45

In praise of the ‘cool’ kid

Growing up, we all knew a “cool” kid: the kid who was always the leader of the gang, who saw himself or herself as the best-looking, the most intelligent, the most able to take on and beat the challenges ahead.  The “cool” boy imposed his will by his physical power or his “smart” attitude; the “cool” girl projected the most sophistication and elegance and ruled the group by her air of superiority (there is a fine line between being “cool” and being a bully). 

The cool kids intimidated us.  We wanted to be cool, too — but, try as we might, “cool” was not in our DNA.   During that important rite of passage called adolescence, we all have our fundamental values tested — except the cool kids.  They lived in the moment, in the now.  While the rest of us suffered through the vulnerability and insecurity of those difficult years of junior high and high school, the cool kids were too in control to waste time on such insecurities.

Or so we thought.

In our later years, when the old gang gets together, we see that everyone has done pretty well, leading happy and productive lives; we made it OK. 

Except for the cool kid.

The cool kid may have enjoyed a little success, but discovered that attitude alone will not get you through adulthood, that it’s what you learn after you know it all that’s important.  During the reunion, the cool kid is once again the life of the party; the cool kid’s time has returned — the moment with the gang.  We smile, laugh at the cool kid’s antics, and understand.

We learned more than we realized from the “cool” kid.

[Suggested from the essay “In praise of creeps” by Paulo Coelho, Ode Magazine, November 2007.]

In today’s Gospel, the sons of Zebedee are trying to be the “cool kids,” placing themselves at Jesus’ side before the others in Jesus’ company.  But Jesus challenges their self-importance and self-centeredness by redefining the very meaning of “cool” in the Gospel scheme of things.  When James and John make their startling bold request of Jesus to sit at his right hand in his kingdom, Jesus tells them that they must be willing to immerse themselves in the suffering and pain Jesus will endure for the love of God.  Greatness in the kingdom of God means to totally give oneself in service to others in imitation of Jesus the Servant-Redeemer; consequently, such service can only begin once we “empty” ourselves of our own self-centered needs, wants, interests — and “coolness” — in order to be “filled” with the Gospel spirit of loving servanthood, compassion and forgiveness.

30th Sunday of the Year B / 23rdd Sunday after Pentecost B [PROPER 25]

Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me . . . !
“Master, I want to see.”
Mark 10: 46-52

Keep an eye out for turtles

A new bishop began his ministry by driving to all the parishes in his vast diocese to meet his priests and communicants.  He spent the hours driving from parish to parish listening to all kinds of educational tapes and recorded books, believing it was important to be an up-to-date, educated bishop.  And when he arrived at the church he was visiting, he would basically disgorge onto parishioners everything he just learned.  From the looks on people’s faces, however, he got the feeling it wasn’t working.

One morning, while he was driving to his next parish, he saw ahead of him a shape on the road.  It was a turtle.  He braked, pulled over, picked up the turtle from the middle of the road, and placed it safely on the other side.  As he continued to visit parishes, he started keeping an eye out for turtles — and there were a lot of them, struggling across busy roads to nearby streams and ponds.  It became the bishop’s practice to watch for them and to stop and pick them up if they needed help.

After a while, he stopped listening to the tapes because he might miss a turtle, and he started leaving the car windows open so he could smell the air, especially in the early summer.  The bishop discovered that he was more relaxed and attentive when he arrived at a parish, and this was what people wanted and needed rather than his take on the latest theology.

[From The Sacred Meal by Nora Gallagher.]

In the busyness of our lives, we become blind to the people who mean the most to us and to the pursuits that bring joy and meaning to our lives; in the many demands placed on us, we stop seeing the possibilities for doing good and affirming things.  We can recast a situation to justify or rationalize our own self-absorption, our lack of compassion, our avoiding anyone or anything unpleasant, our refusal to accept responsibility for our actions (or inactions).  In “looking out” for turtles, the bishop rediscovers the compassion and consolation that is the heart of his ministry to the people of his diocese.  Christ the healer comes to restore our “sight,” enabling us to realize the presence of God in our lives and to recognize the opportunities to restore and heal by the grace of that presence.  Our deepest prayer is the cry of the blind Bartimaeus:  “Master, I want to see” — to “see” God’s compassion and forgiveness, his mercy and justice in our midst.