Sunday, August 13, 2017


Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became
frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord,
save me!”
Matthew 14

It is normal to worry and feel tense or scared when under pressure or facing a stressful situation. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to danger, an automatic alarm that goes off when we feel threatened.

Although it may be unpleasant, anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, anxiety can help us stay alert and focused, spur us to action and motivate us to solve problems. But when anxiety is constant or overwhelming, when it interferes with our relationships and activities, we enter the world of anxiety disorders.

Panic attacks, as they are known in mental health circles, are episodes of intense panic or fear. They can occur suddenly and without warning. Sometimes the terror can be so severe that you feel as if you are about to die or totally lose control. The physical symptoms are themselves so frightening that many people believe they are having a heart attack.

I am in the healthy range normally, but I have stepped over the line sometimes. I have had my moments. My childhood was punctuated almost every day with fits of parental rage.  I never knew what was going to happen next. In my 57 years of priesthood, I have had to overcome severe and chronic bashfulness, have been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, have been thrown out of a ministerial association because I am a Catholic, have had fundamentalist preachers run me down by name on the radio and have had a knife pulled on me right here in this Cathedral over a homily that was given.  I have seen one of my rectory mates carted off for alcohol addiction and another leave the priesthood. I have been stalked by a schizophrenic and singled out in a hateful crusade by right-wing Catholics because we welcomed marginal Catholics here. While I was serving as its pastor, these cathedral walls cracked down the back and along one side and almost feel to the ground two-thirds of the way into this renovation. I have had my house broken into three times and I have survived two major health scares.

So what gospel did I choose for my 25th anniversary celebration? This one – Peter’s walk on water! What name did I choose to publish my books under? Sophronismos Press! Sophronismos is a special Greek word which means, loosely, “knowing how to keep your cool in the face of panic!”

Panic, anxiety and fear are part of life – especially today in modern America with the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan, a possible war with North Korea and a shaky economy for many and other major unknowns. Even Homer Simpson tries to calm his family with these outrageous lines. “All right, let’s not panic! I’ll make the money by selling one of my livers. I can get by with one!”    

This wonderful gospel crammed with symbols has one powerful lesson for us about how to handle stress and anxiety and that is  - to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus! When Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water toward him, he is really inviting Peter to trust him.  As  long as Peter kept his eyes, attention and faith fixed on Jesus was able to do the impossible. However, when Peter took his attention off Jesus and looked down at how deep the water was or looked around to see how strong the winds were, he began to sink!

The same is true for us! As I look back over my life, a life that I have monitored and documented in journals, I have come to see that those moments when I refuse to let the wind and the waves drag me down, when I kept the faith and kept trusting Jesus, some fabulous things have come out of the worst of times! My present situation is only the latest example.

In 2002, I was at the lowest point of my priesthood. Things could not have looked bleaker. The waves and the wind were overwhelming me. However, I kept coming back to this story as I have many times before. I decided not to focus on the problems that surrounded me, but to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. Fifteen years later, I look back and find myself absolutely amazed at the opportunities and blessings that have come to me since then! It has happened so often in my life that I no longer need to be convinced of the wisdom in this gospel. I know it to be true! As Jesus said in another place, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust!”

Let me end this homily with a couple of quotes about fear and worry that I have in my journal – that serve as my life coach and cheerleader. “For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.” “Love looks forward, hate looks back, but anxiety has eyes all over its head.” (Mignon McLaughlin) “There are more things that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” (Seneca) “How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.” (Thomas Jefferson)  “Fear can keep us all night long, but faith makes a fine pillow.” (Phillip Gulley)

If you are worried, stressed and filled with fear, lift your eyes from the things you are worried about, the things that stress you out and the things that you are afraid of! Instead, look up and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus! Trust him with your next step. One day soon, you will look back and realized that you just walked on water!

I keep a framed quote where I can see it every day. It is from Philo T. Farnsworth who said, "Impossible things just take a little longer!" As Jesus said, "With God all things are possible!" 

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