The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

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(b.1964)

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Archive for December, 2013

Merry Christmas All

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Last August I wrote that each week I’m writing a homily based on the current readings in the Catholic lectionary. It’s been both rewarding and difficult. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of positive feedback but I do confess that writing a homily while working a 40 hour week has, at times, been time consuming.

Today is Christmas and I’m posting the homily I wrote. You can find the readings here.

Brief synopsis of the readings: There are four masses for Christmas: Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, and During the Day. I’ve chosen to preach on the readings for the Mass at Midnight, for no other reason that they are my favorite. The first reading from Isaiah uses imagery of light out of darkness. He also speaks of a child being born who will be Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. The Gospel is from Luke and it is one of the most evocative images. If you’ve ever watched The Charlie Brown Christmas, this is the account Linus gives when on stage.

And now it’s finally arrived: we’ve made it through Black Friday, doorbusters, endless traffic jams at the malls, competition for the hot new gift, and, and, and, the Season of Advent. The Messiah whose coming we have been awaiting is now here. But how can we tell? This newborn baby looks like the rest of us, born in a barn, and with uncertain parentage. Is this Jesus really the Messiah? Wonder Counselor? God Hero? Father Forever? Prince of Peace? I have to tell you, this is a little disappointment. Is this really how God meant to bring his Son into the world? Me, I’d make a bigger entrance.

Well, that’s probably another good reason that I’m not God. It’s been kind of a theme for me, but when we talk about Salvation through Jesus Christ it’s much more than we can imagine. The Jews of Jesus’ time were, frankly, looking for a military leader who would defeat the Romans occupiers.

But God had bigger plans for us. He sent us a Messiah who is much more than a military leader, he sent us Jesus who was both God and Human, both Divine and Corporeal. He sent us a Messiah who could not only bring us the Truth of Salvation, he could also experience and celebrate our own experience.

We can look on this helpless baby, this bundle who cannot walk or talk, as something small and inconsequential. Or we can look at this baby through God’s eyes: as someone who will become the One who conquered death. OK, let’s face it: we all love babies. We love them not for what they can do, but for who they are. We love babies because we love the fact that we can care for those who are helpless and we know they will grow with the potential to do great things. We know that this bundle of joy may one day be an Albert Einstein or a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela. And even if this bundle doesn’t do that, he or she will become a person we will continue to love. He or she will grow up and be a husband or wife, a mother or father, a coworker or entrepreneur. A good friend and neighbor, a confident and good listener. A great bowling partner or copilot. The man or woman who teaches history or soccer, the person who throws the incredible curve or finds a way to finally explain trigonometry.

When I look at Jesus as an infant, I like to think that we get a glimpse of how we all look to God. Only God knows our potential, and let’s face it: we don’t know our own potential, let alone that of others. We are not given that gift.

But we are given the gift to do what this infant in the manger does: we can see hints of the gifts of others. Just as Jesus was able to look at lepers and strangers and the outcast and say “You are just as wonderful as anyone and you belong with us” we can do the same.

When Pope Francis chose to celebrate his 77th birthday with the homeless, I think he understood exactly what Jesus had in mind when He decided to redeem the world. We may look on them as homeless, as those who are there because of their own bad choices, but Pope Francis chose to look on them as exactly the people Jesus did.

When I look on Jesus as an infant, I’m struck by how he needed those around him. Not only Joseph and Mary, who gave him the nutrition and love every human needs, but even the farm animals who gave up their feeding trough so he would have a place to sleep. I look at the shepherds who were consoled by the angel. These were not great men: they were looked down upon because the violated the Sabbath by watching over their flocks by night. They didn’t provide anything physical to Jesus but in their prayers they recognized that much like their lambs, this baby would grow into something they needed. Their humility game them the eyes to see the Truth.

And now, over two thousand years later, we still need to be in that manger scene. We often fool ourselves into thinking that we are self sufficient and that what we have is a result of what we’ve done. We may have done great things, but this night we celebrate that they pale in comparison to what was done long ago and far away. We need to understand again that the thin, reedy voice of an infant blows into our world the very breath of Heaven.

You can read all of the homilies I’ve written for 2013 here. If you wish, I can also email my weekly homily to you. Just drop me an email.

In the meantime let us continue to pray for each other and for peace on earty.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 14, The Money Chronicles Volume 10: Happy Birthday Federal Reserve

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Hallmark missed this, but yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Reserve, sometimes abbreviated as the Fed. The Federal Reserve is a confederation of 12 banks located around the country, and they are “the banks of last resort.” In other words, during times when the economy is in recession or doing poorly, banks can borrow money from the Federal Reserve to stay solvent.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. There’s an excellent article at NPR’s Planet Money blog. The article begins with the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Insurance companies in England were paying huge claims and so much money was leaving English banks that they clamped down the money flow to American banks. This led to some American banks failing, or not being able to pay their bills. Since there was no FDIC or bank insurance, any money deposited in those banks was lost.

If this wasn’t bad enough, people who had their money in safe banks began to panic and tried to withdraw all their money. This led to bank runs, and eventually to the Panic of 1907. The federal government had no power to do anything, and the panic was ended only when J.P. Morgan gathered other wealthy bankers and put up the money to keep the American economy going.

Senator Nelson Aldrich (R-RI) saw this and realized that panics were become too frequent and we could not depend on the wealthiest people to bail out the entire country. He introduced legislation that year to create the Federal Reserve. It took a while to pass both houses of Congress, but it did and on December 23, 1913 President Wilson signed it into law.

In addition to being the bank of last resort for troubled banks, the Fed also set the interest rate at which they will lend, and this sets the standard for the interest rate banks lend to other banks. During times of inflation the Fed will increase the interest rate to “tighten up” the money supply. During times of recession (as happened in 2008) they will lower interest rates to encourage borrowing.

There are those who oppose the Fed and they do this for two reason. First, they say that the board of governors (who govern the Fed) have too much power. Since they essentially set interest rates for much of the money flow in the country they control too much of what happens in the economy. They also believe that since banks know they will be bailed out, they can be irresponsible. If the banks keep all their profits and don’t have to worry about their losses, they have no reason to be careful.

I understand both of these arguments but in the final analysis I think we’re better off giving the government the flexibility to guide the economy.

The Money Chronicles Volume 9: Whatever Time Warner Calls It, It’s Not Customer Service

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Like many households, we get our TV content through cable, namely Time Warner Cable. We’ve been a customer of Time Warner for about 20 years. About 14 years ago we upgraded to a larger channel package, and about 10 years ago we added high speed internet. During that time the price has gone up, but we’ve made no changes in our plan in 10 years.

Last week got a letter that said our “special promotional rate” is ending and our rates will go up about 28%. But…the good news is that because we’ve been such good customers, our increase will be only 21%.

As they say on ESPN, “C’mon man!” Do they really think this is anything more than a 21% increase in our cable bill? Do they really think I’ve been enjoying a temporary promotional rate for 10 years?

We have several options other than Time Warner Cable, but I like the high speed internet and want to keep our email addresses. So the other night I did a live chat. I’m posting it here:

Nyla> Thank you for contacting Time Warner Cable. At the end of our chat you will be given the option of taking a brief sturvey. My name is Nyla and I would be happy to help you. Hi Tom! Let me access your account detaills for the same. Please allow me a moment.

Tom> Thank you Nyla. I currently get both my cable TV and my internet through Time Warner Cable. Right now I pay $96.00 per month for both. If I cancel my TV but keep the high speed internet, how much would that be?

Nyla> I understand your concern. Please allow me a moment. I see that you are having the bundled service at the discounted rates and you are planning to switch to Internet only plan in the near future. I am afraid as I do not see any new offer that can be set up on your account at his moment. However, I found a good deal of $99.99/mo for 12 months promotion. It includes all the three services as of now. I am afraid, I do not have the code to add that promotion and therefore, I am unable to confirm whether your account is eligible for this promotion. If you want I can provide you the phone number to check the eligibility and check other details available for you. Also, please note that currently your account is on extended promotion.

Tom> Yeah, that doesn’t really answer my question. How much would it be for me to get only the high speed internet access and nothing else?

Nyla> The normal rates for this bundled services are $105.99 and you are getting that at a discount of $26.00 effectively making it $79.99. As your services are bundled I cannot get the actual rates.

Tom> Why not?

Nyla> However, you are having the Standard Internet on your account. The normal rates for that alone currently are $54.99. As two services are bundled and therefore they are at discounted rates. I cannot unbundle them to see the individual charges for each.

Tom> Does that mean that if I cancel my TV cable and keep internet access, my monthly bill from you is $54.99?

Nyla> I can help you with the number to see what you might be eligible for. No.

Tom> OK, then what does it mean?

Nyla> I cannot unbundle the services to get just the Internet prices for you. There are different types of bundles available for different areas, different customers according to different plans. Due to restricted system access, I am unable to do that.

Tom> Can you connect me with someone who can?

Nyla> I request you to call the Customer Service at 1-888-892-2253. Sure. Sorry for the typo.

Tom> I’m talking with you from La Jolla, California. Just out of curiosity, where are you?

Nyla> Tom you have to call the above provided number. We are located in Western India.

Tom> OK Nyla, thank you for your time.

Nyla> Again, my name is Nyla. Thank you for chatting with Time Warner Cable. We value you as a customer and are here to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you would like to take a brief survey, please click on “Close” and the survey will load.

Does it appear to anyone else that Nyla isn’t really customer service, but a salesperson?

Direct TV, expect a call from me.

Pope Francis: He’s My Person of the Year Too!

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

We got word today that Pope Francis has been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

For many of us liberal Catholics, it’s a recognition of the joy we’ve been experiencing since his election on March 13th. I’ve said this before, but we knew things were changing in the Vatican when, after his election, he waved off his limo, got on the bus with the rest of the cardinals and paid his hotel bill.

He hasn’t changed any doctrines and unfortunately affirmed Church teaching on male only priesthood and gay marriage. Those changes will probably have to be made by Francis’ successor.

His dramatic change has come in the public face of the Vatican. After the last two papacies (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) this shift has been dramatic; John Paul and Benedict often acted as if the Church were under siege and must remain pure, even if that led to a Church that was smaller and more out of touch.

Francis has continued the papacy of Blessed John XXIII where the windows have been thrown open and fresh air has blown in. Francis refused to move into the luxurious papal apartment and lives in modest surroundings.

He has repeatedly said we need to shift our focus away from issues of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control and toward how we care for the poor. His pragmatism is refreshing: let us work on things we can change and leave alone those things we can’t, and let us not alienate those who disagree. As one who dissents from church teaching on homosexuality and birth control, I find this refreshing and respectful.

In July he was flying back from Brazil to Rome and was asked about homosexuality. This was his response: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He told a group of diplomats that in looking for who to promote to bishop they should look for priests who are “gentle, patient and merciful, animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.”

My only concern is that he is 76 years old. He needs to start appointing Cardinals who will elect his successor. I pray he keep doing what he’s doing.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 13: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

His death was supposed to be a footnote. It was supposed to be a local story, buried in the inside pages of the paper: Imprisoned Terrorist Nelson Mandela dies in Prison.

It didn’t happen that way. In the days since his death he has made worldwide headlines. Frankly, it was time. He was 95 years old and had been in critical condition since developing a lung infection nearly 6 months ago. He was home but his home was transformed into an intensive care unit.

Mr. Mandela’s life story is largely public and known. After becoming a lawyer in apartheid South Africa he joined the African National Congress. He first embraced the idea of nonviolence in battling apartheid, but later abandoned that and co founded a militant wing called Spear of the Nation. Because of his actions he needed to go underground, but was found and arrested in 1962. Tried and convicted of trying to overthrow the government, he expected to be sentenced to death but instead was sentenced to life in prison.

For the next 27 years he languished in prison. By the 1970s and 1980s he became the public face of the injustice of apartheid, even though there were no pictures taken of him since 1963. His release from prison in 1990 seemed a miracle.

But for me, his release wasn’t the miracle. It’s what happened to him while in prison and how he sculpted post apartheid South Africa. While nobody knew in 1990 how he would spend the rest of his life, many feared he would take the opportunity to exact revenge on those who harmed him. They feared he would respond to injustice with injustice of his own.

He didn’t. After his election as President of South Africa in 1994 he founded the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. He knew that truth must come before reconciliation, and that reconciliation is the only path to true peace. As I think about this, I can’t help but remember Archbishop Tutu’s belief about forgiveness:

Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.

His time in prison changed him from someone who advocated violent resistance to someone who saw that revenge only continues the cycle of violence. He loved his nation and that love healed him of his anger toward his captors.

We are all better for it. Much like Gandhi and Martin Luther King before him, he taught us the ferocious power of love and forgiveness. I’m grateful that Mr. Mandela is the only one of the three to not die violently.

For those of us who live on, our mandate is clear: we are called not only to stop tolerating injustice, we are called to forgive those who benefited from it. Once those who create or benefit from injustice are defeated, we must not exact revenge on them. Their sin must be called out, but they must be forgiven. Only then will there be peace.