Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is named President Donald Trump’s national security adviser

February 20, 2017

The Associated Press

Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has been named President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

He’s replacing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after reports he misled Trump administration officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Trump made the announcement while at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and noted that Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who has been acting NSA since Flynn left, will remain as the chief of staff for the National Security Council.

“That combination is something very, very special,” Trump said of McMaster and Kellogg.

Trump noted that he has “tremendous respect for the people I met with” for the role, including former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, who Trump said is going to work with his administration in a “somewhat different capacity.”

Gabon’s forest elephants slain for ivory at alarming rate

February 20, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Researchers warn that there could be less than 100,000 forest elephants left due to illegal ivory poaching in Gabon and Central Africa

MIAMI (AFP) – Poachers are killing elephants for their ivory at an alarming rate in the central African nation of Gabon, leading to a loss of 80 percent of the population in the last decade.

Some 25,000 elephants have been slaughtered in Minkebe National Park, an area that had been considered a sanctuary, said the report in the journal Current Biology.

“Because Gabon is thought to hold the largest remaining population of forest elephants, the implication is that forest elephants are in even more trouble than previously believed,” said researcher John Poulsen of Duke University and the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux in Gabon.

“With less than 100,000 elephants across all of Central Africa, the subspecies is in danger of extinction if governments and conservation agencies do not act fast.”

ADVERTISING

The poachers are primarily coming into Gabon from the bordering country of Cameroon, the report said.

“We can no longer assume that apparently large and remote protected areas will conserve species — poachers will go anywhere that a profit can be made,” said Poulsen.

To estimate the number of elephants in the forest in 2014, researchers surveyed dung in the forest.

They then compared population size estimates for 2014 to estimates calculated in the same way in 2004.

A key driver of the poaching is demand for ivory, which must be curtailed, researchers said.

“China’s recently announced ban of domestic ivory trade will help enormously, if it is effectively implemented,” said Poulson.

“The international community needs to put pressure on all remaining nations that allow the trade so that all legal trade is stopped.”

Another strategy is to recognize forest elephants as a distinct species from African savanna elephants, to draw attention to their often forgotten plight.

Gabon has taken steps to protect elephants since 2011, elevating forest elephants’ conservation status to “fully protected,” creating a National Park Police force, doubling the national park agency’s budget, and becoming the first African nation to burn all confiscated ivory, the report said.

However, Poulsen said more action is needed, such as coordinated international law enforcement to prosecute wildlife criminals and new multinational protected areas.

“The clock is ticking,” he said.

Poland in Response to EU: Rule of Law Not Under Threat

February 20, 2017

WARSAW — Poland appeared to dismiss on Monday demands that it implement judiciary reforms deemed essential by the European Commission to uphold the rule of law, raising the danger Warsaw could be stripped of its voting right in the 28-member bloc.

The Commission had given Warsaw two months from December to implement measures to protect the powers of the Constitutional Court, after a series of new appointments and reforms appeared to weaken its independence.

The unprecedented monitoring procedure that the Commission launched against Poland more than a year ago could end in Warsaw losing its voting right in the 28-nation European Union if all other EU leaders agree to that.

Tensions between Warsaw and Brussels have grown steadily since the eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party swept to power in late 2015 and moved to change the way rulings are made at the top court and to exert more control over state prosecutors.

The Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday that it had submitted a response to the Commission’s concerns. In a statement on its website, however, it said the changes Poland had implemented had been in line with European standards and had created “the right conditions for a normal functioning” of the Constitutional Court.

“Once again, Poland stressed that the existing political dispute around the principles of functioning of the Constitutional Court cannot be the basis for formulating the claim that there is a systemic threat to the rule of law,” the ministry said in its statement.

It also accused Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans of “stigmatizing” Warsaw. Timmermans had urged other EU members to support Brussels in its dispute with Poland.

“It is clear that the Commission cannot do it alone,” Timmermans told Reuters in an interview on Saturday. “The member states and the Commission have to stick together. Everybody has to take their responsibility.”

“(Timmermans’s call) on other member states to create a common front with the European Commission against Poland are a glaring example of violation of these rules,” the ministry said.

Warsaw said that a dialogue between the Commission and a member country should be based on rules of respect for sovereignty, objectivity and national identity.

“We urge the Vice-President of the European Commission to stop such actions,” the ministry said.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Writing by Lidia Kelly; editing by Ralph Boulton)

***************************************

Poland Dismisses EU Concerns in Response to Rule-of-Law Probe

February 20, 2017, 12:20 PM EST
  • Rules provide stable basis for court to function, cabinet says
  • Government criticises EU Vice President Timmermans’ comments

Poland dismissed concerns from the European Union that it’s backsliding on democracy and the rule of law with an overhaul of its constitutional court, setting itself on a collision course with allies who are trying to hold back the populist tide threatening the bloc.

In an official response to recommendations made on Dec. 21 by the commission to restore checks and balances in Poland, the government said disputed changes it has made to the Constitutional Tribunal had strengthened rule of law. It rejected comments by a top EU official as “aimed at stigmatizing an EU member state.” If the commission deems Poland’s answers as unsatisfactory, it has the right to resort to Article 7 of the bloc’s treaty, which allows it to seek sanctions including the suspension of voting rights in the European Council.

“The current political argument around the Constitutional Tribunal can’t be the basis to claim that the rule of law is threatened in Poland,” the government said in the response Monday. Strengthening the democratic rule of law, including building “a stable basis for the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal, is the government’s most important goal,” it said.

Joining the global backlash of political actors seeking to overturn a world order decades in the making, Poland’s ruling Law & Justice has spurned the liberal, multicultural values that uphold the EU in a push to return the country of 38 million to its traditional roots. Since winning a 2015 election, it has overhauled the constitutional court in moves that the tribunal has ruled illegal. It has also fired journalists from state-run news outlets and pushed public media to support its policies. Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said last year he was ready to fight EU and NATO partners “to make Poland a truly sovereign nation.”

The cabinet has also threatened to punish opposition lawmakers, who enjoy immunity, if it deems they broke laws in protests earlier this year. The last time the EU gave Poland several months to respond to its guidance on how to restore the constitutional court’s authority or face losing its voting rights, Warsaw replied at the last minute by accusing bureaucrats in Brussels of being stupid. It’s the first ever probe into rule of law in an EU member state.

Read More About Poland’s Clash With the EU

“It is time for the European Commission to acknowledge that the dialogue with Poland has failed and move on to the next steps and recommend resorting to Article 7,” Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society European Policy Institute, and Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to the Commission Feb. 16.

The dispute has weighed on Polish assets. While the zloty is outperforming its regional peers the koruna and forint this year with a 1.8 percent gain against the euro, it’s 0.6 percent weaker since the Council of Europe condemned the government for endangering democracy last March. S&P Global Ratings also downgraded the EU’s largest eastern economy more than a year ago after the first changes to the Constitutional Court.Still, any move to strip Poland of its voting rights on the EU stage is unlikely to succeed because it would require unanimity among the bloc’s 28 countries. Law & Justice’s biggest ally in the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has signaled he won’t support such a measure.

That has not weakened the commission’s resolve, and Vice President Frans Timmermans repeated last week that the EU “will not drop this issue.”

In the statement Monday, Poland’s government criticized Timmermans’ comments as “politically motivated” and a “blatant example of violation” of the “objectivity and mutual respect for sovereignty and national identity” that it expects in its dialog with the EU.

https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-02-20/poland-dismisses-eu-concerns-in-response-to-rule-of-law-probe

North African diplomats seek solutions for chaotic Libya

February 20, 2017

By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA

The Associated Press

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The presidents of Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia will hold a summit soon to try to find ways to reconcile neighboring Libya’s rival political factions and stem the country’s chaos, diplomats said Monday.

The summit was announced in Tunis after a new round of diplomatic efforts for Libya, where two rival administrations are jockeying for power and where the Islamic State group and other extremists have prospered amid the political vacuum. Libya’s neighbors are highly concerned about spillover of extremist violence.

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people standing and suit

Tunisia Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, center, shakes hands with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry, right, and Algerian Minister of Maghreb Affairs, African Union and Arab League Abdelkader Messahel, prior to their meeting to discuss efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict in Tunis, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Diplomats meeting in Tunis released a statement declaring their “attachment to Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” arguing against foreign intervention or any military solution to Libya’s crisis.

U.S. warplanes have conducted airstrikes on suspected extremists in Libya, which hasn’t emerged from chaos since the killing of Muammar Gadhafi in a 2011 uprising and ensuing civil war.

The diplomats announced the Libya summit among Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, but said the date would be set after meetings with the Libyan parties.

Libya’s most powerful army commander, Khalifa Hifter, is expected in Tunis in the coming days, according to Tunisia’s foreign minister Khemaies Jihnaoui. Jihnaoui met with the Egyptian foreign minister and Algeria’s African and Arab affairs minister Sunday and Monday in Tunis.

A new health scare Monday for Algeria’s leader threw a shadow over the upcoming summit, planned in Algiers. The Algerian leader canceled a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the last minute because of what his office called acute bronchitis, raising new concerns about his health after a 2013 stroke.

Environment: More Damage At Great Barrier Reef Recorded

February 20, 2017

The Great Barrier Reef is still reeling from the biggest mass bleaching event in history

The Great Barrier Reef is still reeling from the biggest mass bleaching event in history. CREDIT: FELIX MARTINEZ

By Gavin Haines
The Telegraph

.

Aheatwave that has brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of Australia – leading to bush fires, power outages and a rise in deaths from heat stress – could have a devastating effect on the Great Barrier Reef.

Though the mercury is set to drop this week, scientists fear the extreme weather event could place stress on the underwater ecosystem, which is still reeling from the worst bleaching events in its history.

Bleaching happens when corals become stressed by high water temperatures, which happened on a massive scale in 2016 when an underwater heatwave ravaged the 1,500-mile reef.

Bleached coral photographed at Maureen's Cove, the Whitsundays last Thursday
Recently bleached coral was spotted at Maureen’s Cove, the Whitsundays last weekCREDIT: AUSTRALIAN MARINE CONSERVATION SOCIETY

Scientists claim 93 per cent of the reef was affected last year and that 22 per cent of its coral had died as a result. The same scientists now fear the reef could come under attack once again as parts of Australia bake in temperatures exceeding 47C.

According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), which has published photographs of its findings, newly bleached corals were discovered last week near Townsville, Queensland and around the Whitsundays.

The waters off eastern Australia are unusually warm for this time of the year, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has placed vast swathes of the Great Barrier Reef on red alert (Alert Level 1) for the next four weeks, meaning coral bleaching is likely.

Parts of the far northern, northern and central reef have been placed on Alert Level 2, indicating mortality is likely. Corals south of Cairns, in the Whitsundays and in parts of the far northern reef, that were badly hit last year, are at mortal risk.

Photos have emerged that reveal fresh coral bleaching around Palm Island, Townsville
AMCS photographs also reveal fresh coral bleaching around Palm Island, Townsville. CREDIT: AUSTRALIAN MARINE CONSERVATION SOCIETY

“Signs of new coral bleaching in February, plus the likelihood of extensive severe bleaching and even mortality in the next four weeks, is extremely concerning,” said Imogen Zethoven of AMCS.

“Last year we witnessed the worst bleaching event on record for our reef. Over the entire reef, 22 per cent of corals are dead.”

Around 1.9 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef annually, contributing A$5.6 billion (£2.7billion) to the local economy and supporting 69,000 jobs. However, Australia’s biggest tourism asset appears to be in grave danger due to climate change, which campaigners claim is being exacerbated by the Australian coal industry.

“The government must stop special treatment for the coal industry,” warned Zethoven. “Climate change will be catastrophic for our reef unless we urgently move to cut pollution. We cannot afford to risk such a valuable national treasure.”

An estimated 22 per cent of the reef was destroyed during the 2016 coral bleaching event
Scientists say 22 per cent of the reef was destroyed by bleaching in 2016 CREDIT: STR

In 2016, Telegraph Travel reported how many of the sites used to film the series, Great Barrier Reef, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, had succumbed to coral bleaching.

“We actually went out to the same locations where we filmed a lot of David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef series and found significant bleaching over many, many species,” said cameraman and marine biologist, Richard Fitzpatrick. “It was pretty shocking.”

In the hit BBC series, Sir David forewarned about the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef, which in 2015 was spared a place on Unesco’s list of endangered heritage sites.

“The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger,” said the television naturalist. “The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and its acidity – threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reef will be gone in decades and that would be a global catastrophe.”

Sir David Attenborough has warned of the "grave" dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef
Sir David Attenborough has warned of the “grave” dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef CREDIT: AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION/ABC/HANDOUT

Should I cancel my dive holiday?

Despite the bleak outlook, some dive sites are holding up well.

“A lot of the live-aboard sites are on the edge of the reef, and are flushed by oceanic currents, so they are actually probably the most resilient parts of the reef,” said Fitzpatrick.

Rather than abandoning trips to the Great Barrier Reef, according to reef naturalist, Paul O’Dowd, tourists should consider visiting sooner rather than later.

“My advice to anyone wishing to see the reef is that they get over in the near future not the far,” he said. “It is still spectacular, in many ways, and any reputable operator will have a few relatively unscathed sites on their mooring portfolio.

“You will still see scores of brilliantly coloured fish. However, the issue of whether we have anything to show in a decade, after potentially more bleaching events, is less positive.”

Police search French far-right party’s HQ in EU parliament jobs probe

February 20, 2017

AFP and Reuters

© AFP archive

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-02-20

French police were searching the headquarters of Marine Le Pen’s National Front party west of Paris on Monday in relation to a probe into alleged misuse of European Union funds to pay parliamentary assistants, an FN official told Reuters.

“It looks on the face of it like a media operation whose goal is to disturb the course of the presidential campaign,” the National Front said in a statement.

The European parliament has said that, in her role as French National Front leader, Le Pen had during the 2011-12 legislature paid party staff with EU funds, which EU rules say should be used only to pay EU lawmakers’ assistants.

Amid Trump Controversies, Tax Overhaul’s Uncertain Path

February 20, 2017

Congressional Republicans say an ambitious plan is in the works, but obstacles remain

House Speaker Paul Ryan helped craft a tax plan but it is dividing Senate and House Republicans and the business community.

House Speaker Paul Ryan helped craft a tax plan but it is dividing Senate and House Republicans and the business community. PHOTO: JIM LO SCALZO/EUROPEAN
PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
.

Feb. 20, 2017 11:52 a.m. ET

Almost lost in the multiple recent Trump White House controversies—some significant, some silly—is this reality on a matter of real substance: Clouds of uncertainty hang over the one matter that many Republicans would put atop their priority list, a big tax cut.

There is a Republican tax-cut plan, an existing one crafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady. But it is splitting Senate and House Republicans, as well as the business community it is designed to help. Nobody is quite sure what the White House position is, or when it will become clear. And the whole process is being slowed down by the struggle over whether and how to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which itself is bogged down in uncertainty.

Meanwhile, history suggests the time to strike with big economic legislation is quickly. When Ronald Reagan took over the White House in 1981, he proposed his historic tax-cut plan on Feb. 15. When George W. Bush moved into the Oval Office in 2001 he proposed a tax-cut plan on Feb. 8. And when Barack Obama became president, Congress actually passed a giant economic stimulus package so he could sign it into law on Feb. 17. All those dates now have passed.

“The longer you wait, it lessens the odds of getting something done,” says Stephen Moore, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who co-wrote a tax plan for the Trump campaign last year.

Congressional Republicans say they are on track to get rolling on a big tax package by late spring or early summer. Certainly nobody ever said big tax legislation is easy; the landmark tax-reform plan of 1986, the last time there was a real, wholesale overhaul of the system, actually was in gestation for a couple of years.

A tax plan of some kind remains likely, but three big complications stand in the way:

Resolving Obamacare first. Republicans decided their first order of business upon taking full control of government was to fulfill the drumbeat of promises to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.

Yet actually doing the deed is proving more complicated than the sloganeering suggests. Can it really be repealed before it is replaced, or does the replacement have to be done concurrent with the repealing to avoid leaving millions of American in an insurance lurch?

Still, GOP leaders consider handling Obamacare first vital for procedural reasons. It’s necessary to resolve the costs and tax implications of the health plan to write a new budget. And under congressional rules a new budget plan is necessary to provide an umbrella under which a tax overhaul can be passed with a simple majority, thereby avoiding a potentially deadly Democratic filibuster in the Senate. So, unless Republicans are willing to try to get the eight Senate Democratic votes needed to pass a tax bill, tax change will be hostage to Obamacare.

Problems with a cornerstone of the Ryan/Brady plan. The House Republicans’ plan is built around the so-called border-adjusted tax, which essentially would tax imports into America while leaving untaxed exports from America. It is an idea designed to not only encourage exports but also to make the U.S. an attractive corporate tax haven that attracts investment rather than loses companies to foreign competitors.

But the border-adjusted tax does something more: It would raise an estimated $1 trillion over the next decade to finance broad cuts in corporate tax rates without exploding the deficit.

The idea is splitting the American business community between companies that emphasize exports and those that benefit from imports. Rival business coalitions have sprung up to support and oppose it. On the purely political front, the idea is generating significant opposition among Republicans in the Senate sensitive to businesses that say they will be hurt.

House Republican leaders insist skeptics, including in the Senate, will come around once they see there’s no easy alternative to border adjustment. “There is no magical way to do real tax reform that doesn’t upset anyone,” says Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Mr. Ryan.

Uncertainty about White House intentions. President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that a plan is in the works there, but it isn’t clear what that means. Will the White House offer a detailed plan or only principles, will it propose reforming personal as well as corporate rates and will it be concerned about adding to the deficit or not?

Requests for clarity from the White House elicited only a vague statement: “At this time all ideas are still on the table. The President has made it clear that he supports tax reform to simplify the tax code, lower taxes for middle-income families, and lower the business tax rate to make companies more competitive.” Mr. Trump addresses a joint session of Congress Feb. 28. Watch that space.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

.

Bangladesh calls for efforts to curb Muslim Rohingya influx

February 20, 2017

Reuters

By Ruma Paul | DHAKA

Bangladesh’s foreign minister called on the international community on Monday to address Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority, tens of thousands of whom have fled in recent months to Bangladesh from its mainly Buddhist neighbor.

Speaking at a meeting with Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, who is in Dhaka in a three-day visit, A. H. Mahmood Ali said a peaceful resolution must be found, a foreign ministry statement said.

Ali also described efforts by Dhaka to engage with Myanmar bilaterally by establishing border liaison offices and talks on security cooperation, the statement said.

Lee is visiting the Cox’s Bazar area on the border with Myanmar, where the foreign minister said the influx of Rohingya was having an adverse impact on the local population and undermining security.

Nearly 70,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh to escape a crackdown launched after nine policemen were killed in attacks on border posts on Oct. 9 that Myanmar blamed on Rohingya militants.

They have joined more than 200,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh, many living in official and makeshift camps, straining resources in one of Asia’s poorest regions.

Rohingya have faced discrimination in Myanmar for generations. They are not classified as a distinct group under Myanmar’s citizenship laws and are regarded instead as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, entitled only to limited rights.

The authorities in Dhaka meanwhile say they are Myanmar nationals and must ultimately go back.

The U.N. human rights office said in a report this month that Myanmar’s security forces had committed mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya Muslims and burned their villages.

U.N. officials working with refugees in Bangladesh have told Reuters the death toll from the security sweep could be more than 1,000.

Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of human rights abuses, and says a lawful counterinsurgency campaign has been underway since the October attacks on the security posts.

The violence has dismayed and outraged some of Myanmar’s neighbors, with mostly Muslim Malaysia being particularly vociferous in its criticism.

About 1.1 million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar.

Bangladesh is seeking funds for a plan to relocate new and old refugees from Myanmar to an isolated and undeveloped island in the Bay of Bengal called Thengar Char.

The plan was much criticized by humanitarian workers when it was first proposed in 2015, not least because Thengar Char often floods in the monsoon.

Following her visit to Bangladesh, Special Rapporteur Lee will share her findings in a report to the UN Human Rights Council which will be available online on March 13, the foreign ministry statement said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Catherine Evans)

US-led coalition expects to stay in Iraq after Mosul

February 20, 2017

AFP

© AFP | Stephen Townsend expects the US forces he leads to stay on after Mosul is recaptured

BAGHDAD (AFP) – The commander of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group said Monday he expected its forces would be allowed to stay in Iraq after Mosul is recaptured.”I don’t anticipate that we will be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said.

The US commander was speaking at a press conference in Baghdad wrapping up a brief visit by the new Pentagon chief, Jim Mattis.

“I think the government of Iraq realises it’s a very complex fight and they need the assistance of the coalition even beyond Mosul,” Townsend told reporters.

Iraqi forces on October 17 launched a huge operation backed by the coalition to retake Mosul, the main northern city in Iraq and the jihadists’ last major bastion in the country.

They have so far retaken the eastern half of the city and on Sunday launched an operation aimed at flushing IS out of Mosul’s west bank.

The coalition formed in 2014, after IS seized about a third of Iraq and declared a “caliphate”, nominally includes more than 60 nations, but Washington’s main partners are France, Australia, Britain, Italy and a handful of other countries.

The coalition has carried out more than 10,000 air strikes on IS targets in Iraq and Syria and played a significant role in retaking the territory lost three years ago.

It has also trained tens of thousands of local ground forces.

The coalition has more than 9,000 personnel in Iraq, more than half of them Americans. They are deployed in an advisory capacity but have sometimes been drawn into combat.

“This is a partnership,” said Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“There’s been a lot of rocky times out here but there is no doubt from my discussions today the Iraqi people, the Iraqi military, the Iraqi political leadership recognise what they are up against and the value of the coalition,” he said.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been accused by his own camp of allowing foreign troops on Iraqi soil, insisted Iraqi forces were “the only ones fighting” but said outside help was crucial.

“Continued support for Iraq is very necessary,” he said in a statement.

Prayer and Meditation for Tuesday, February 21, 2017 — Be sincere of heart and steadfast, incline your ear and receive the word of understanding.

February 20, 2017

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 342

Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

Photo: Sky of Fire, El Calafate, GuardianWitness

Reading 1 SIR 2:1-11

My son, when you come to serve the LORD,
stand in justice and fear,
prepare yourself for trials.
Be sincere of heart and steadfast,
incline your ear and receive the word of understanding,
undisturbed in time of adversity.
Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not;
thus will you be wise in all your ways.
Accept whatever befalls you,
when sorrowful, be steadfast,
and in crushing misfortune be patient;
For in fire gold and silver are tested,
and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation.
Trust God and God will help you;
trust in him, and he will direct your way;
keep his fear and grow old therein.

You who fear the LORD, wait for his mercy,
turn not away lest you fall.
You who fear the LORD, trust him,
and your reward will not be lost.
You who fear the LORD, hope for good things,
for lasting joy and mercy.
You who fear the LORD, love him,
and your hearts will be enlightened.
Study the generations long past and understand;
has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed?
Has anyone persevered in his commandments and been forsaken?
has anyone called upon him and been rebuffed?
Compassionate and merciful is the LORD;
he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble
and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth.

Responsorial Psalm PS 37:3-4, 18-19, 27-28, 39-40

R. (see 5) Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.
Trust in the LORD and do good,
that you may dwell in the land and be fed in security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will grant you your heart’s requests.
R. Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.
The LORD watches over the lives of the wholehearted;
their inheritance lasts forever.
They are not put to shame in an evil time;
in days of famine they have plenty.
R. Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.
Turn from evil and do good,
that you may abide forever;
For the LORD loves what is right,
and forsakes not his faithful ones.
R. Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.
The salvation of the just is from the LORD;
he is their refuge in time of distress.
And the LORD helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.
R. Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.

Alleluia GAL 6:14

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He was teaching his disciples and telling them,
“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”
But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent.
For they had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“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.”

.
********************************
.
The first reading from the Book of Sirach, (a book also sometimes called “The Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom “) is about the best two paragraph description of the travails of life and what to do about them ever put to paper.
.
First: bad things may happen. Life is NOT A BOWL OF CHERRIES. “Prepare yourself for trials.”
.
Then “Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not.”
.
“Don’t give up the ship!”  Some might say, “Time takes time” or “It is what it is.” Or maybe “All in God’s time.”
.
This was the perfect reading for me today as I have been staring into the eyes of a guy that had a stroke a few years ago and he still has trouble accepting that he is no longer the King of the Universe.
.
This lack of acceptance leads to anger, fear, anxiety, worry, barking orders at “care givers” and all kinds of “negative vibes.”
.
One moment he seems to have a Pathological Aversion to Death. The next moment it seems he may just kill himself.
.
One day I told him the people around him were so fed up with his unhappiness that “someone might just put the pillow over your face and finish you off.”
.
He said that could never happen because everyone was a “care giver dedicated to the improvement of the patient.”
.
He was not too happy when the nurse suggested we take a vote on who should handle the pillow!
.
It seems to me, among all the mysteries of life, the one that has caused the most books to be written is the broad subject of suffering. Why do we suffer? How do we suffer? How can we best help others to suffer?
.
Take it from one who actually bought and plowed through many of the books on suffering: there are a few simple truths.
.
First: we will probably all encounter suffering.  If you don’t: just wait your turn.
.
Second, and this is closely allied to the first, we cannot totally escape from suffering. Millions have tried. Often this leads to drug addiction, suicide or some suffering that is worse than the suffering at the start..
.
Finally, for Christians, Suffering Allies us With Jesus.
.
Many of us have a very hard time being as patient, loving and kind as Jesus. But be that as it may: we can accept a little suffering now and again without too much struggle or complaint.
.
No matter what happens to us in this life, it seems next to impossible that many of us will experience anything close to the suffering that Jesus Christ endured for us.
.
Suggested reading: “Come, Lord Jesus; Meditations on the art of Waiting,” by Mother Mary Francis.
.
If we should write a book about ministry in hospitals and nursing homes my working title would be, “Just Wait: Bad Things Will Eventually Happen to Us on This Earth.”
.
Keep smiling!
.
Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting
.
Related:
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

**************************************************

.

Reflection by The Most Rev Msgr William Goh Archbishop of Singapore
.
21 FEBRUARY, 2017, Tuesday, 7th Week, Ordinary Time
IF YOU ASPIRE TO SERVE THE LORD, PREPARE YOURSELF FOR AN ORDEAL

SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Sir 2:1-11; Ps 37:3-4, 18-19, 27-28, 39-40; Mk 9:30-37]

My son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.”  These words remind me of what Jesus said to the prospective disciples who wanted to follow Jesus.  To one, He said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk 9:58) To another, he said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Lk 9:60) To the third, He said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:62)  And to the disciples who were squabbling for position, glory and power, He said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  (Mt 20:22)

Indeed, we have many who are willing to become priests, religious, Church workers, ministry members, volunteers in Church or charitable organizations but who are not ready for the sacrifices and the sufferings ahead of them.  As a result, many who enter the service with great passion, enthusiasm and joy, leave the ministry with much bitterness, disillusionment, anger and resentment.   Some have even lost their faith and left the Church all together.  This explains why the Church cannot move forward because we have many disgruntled servants of the Church, clerical and lay.  When we have wounded priests, religious and lay workers, they often tend to act out of their hurts and thus compromise the message of unconditional love and joy.  When we find Church workers, helpers and priests to be petty, harsh, hot-tempered, arrogant, reactive, judgmental, defensive, argumentative and insensitive, it means that they need much healing.

How, then, can we avoid falling into disillusionment or despair in the face of challenges and difficulties?  Firstly, we must never forget that we are servants. “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”  As servants, we should not expect any reward or gratitude.  Jesus did say, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Lk 17:10)   All the talents and resources given to us are from God to be used for service.  So we have no right to boast or even demand gratitude.  We are here to do what we can and leave the rest to God.  If we have done our part, let us leave success to God.

This was the mistake of the apostles.  They had the wrong idea for following and serving Jesus.  They were arguing who was the greatest.  They wanted to be in positions of power and glory with Jesus.  This is why Pope Francis always warns us about spiritual worldliness.  Even in the spiritual world, the temptations of the world can come under the guise of religious service.   Many use religion to get attention, power, honour and recognition.  We know how often politics use religion to obtain power, but it is equally true that some use religion to attain political powers. So many serve, albeit with an unconscious pursuit of some form of recognition and appreciation.

Secondly, Sirach tells us, “Be sincere of heart.”  Sincerity of service is necessary if we want to persevere in doing good works.  This is why Jesus “took a little child, set him in front of them, put his arms round him, and said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”  Welcoming a little child precisely means to seek innocence of heart.  Welcoming a child is to serve without the possibility of the child returning our favours.   So when we serve, our intentions must be pure, like a child who chooses to serve out of love; not because of honour and recognition.   We must serve those who cannot repay us.

Thirdly, we must remain “steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes”, as Sirach advises us.   Many begin well but they lack perseverance.  They give up easily when difficulties come along.  Members resign when they face difficulties with fellow members or with those in authority.  Sometimes, it is good for us to ask whether we are serving God or serving man.  St Paul reminds us, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.”  (Col 3:23f)  If we truly believe that we are serving the Lord, how can we walk in and walk out as and when we like?  When things are not to our liking, we resign.  If the Lord calls us to take the cross and walk after Him, to resign just because we are not happy means that we are not serving God but serving ourselves in the first place.  God is our master and employer; not the priest or the chairman.  

What we need to do is to stay united with the Lord.  Sirach tells us, “Cling to him and do not leave him, so that you may be honoured at the end of your days.  Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation.”  When we stay with the Lord and accept His will, we will be able to face all suffering and humiliation, like the apostles who gave thanks to God for allowing them to suffer for Him.  “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”  (Acts 5:41)  Through suffering, we grow in grace and in faith.  We must be submissive to the will of God. Through obedience to His will, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, God will show His power and see that we are victorious at the end.   Instead of taking things into our own hands, we must allow the grace and power of God to work and change our enemies and bring us to victory.

Most of all, we must trust in the Lord.   This is what Sirach is asking of us.  He said, “Trust him and he will uphold you, follow a straight path and hope in him.  You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy; do not turn aside in case you fall.  You who fear the Lord, trust him, you who will not be baulked of your reward.  You who fear the Lord hope for good things, for everlasting happiness and mercy.”   When we trust in the Lord, we know that He will see us through.  Success in the ministry is not in our hands but totally the work of God.  We should not be worried too much about success but learn to trust Him.  So long as we walk in His path and follow Him,  He will reward us and show us His mercy.

How can we be so sure that the Lord is trustworthy and is faithful to His promises? Sirach urges us, “Look at the generations of old and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame?  Or who ever feared him steadfastly was left forsaken?  Or who ever called out to him, and was ignored?  For the Lord is compassionate and merciful, he forgives sins, and saves in days of distress.”  Indeed, we just have to look at our own lives and the history of the Church.  In spite of the many scandals that have rocked the Church, we still stand strong after 2000 years. Nations have come and gone but the Church as an institution remains because the Lord promised to be with us until the end of time.  We might be decimated at times, persecuted and discredited.  But we will come back and be renewed in zeal and in holiness.

So let us commit our lives to the Lord and His work.  This is what the psalmist is exhorting us.  “Commit your life to the Lord, trust him and he will act.  If you trust in the Lord and do good, then you will live in the land and be secure. If you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant your heart’s desire.  Then turn away from evil and do good and you shall have a home for ever; for the Lord loves justice and will never forsake his friends. The salvation of the just comes from the Lord, their stronghold in time of distress.”    Let us do all we can according to our abilities.  We leave the rest to the Lord.  Success belongs to Him.  As St Teresa of Calcutta says  “Let us be faithful not successful.”

.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore 
 

.

**********************************