Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Suffering, Fortitude, and Charlie Chubbo Christians

In this week’s second reading at Mass, St. Peter discusses Christian suffering. He writes, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you….whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed.”

Peter was obviously trying to encourage his readers to take heart and not be discouraged when difficulties arose. But Peter wasn’t saying that suffering for Christ is a necessary evil—an unfortunate side effect of preaching the Gospel. He was saying that suffering for Christ is actually a good thing. The very first line of this week’s passage says, “Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ.”

Rejoice? Really, Pete? These words sound so weird to our 21st century, American ears. In our modern culture, suffering—any kind of suffering—is the absolute worst possible thing that can happen to us.

And not just suffering. We now abhor even the slightest discomfort. A little headache causes us to call in sick to work. A paper cut is a valid reason for a two-week medical leave. A flare-up of hemorrhoids puts us into a coma for a month.

The most popular pharmaceutical products in our society are pain relievers, antacids, and sedatives. We would rather turn ourselves into over-medicated zombies than experience a little discomfort. If my grandfathers were still alive, they’d say we have become a bunch of wimps.

Now certainly Peter wasn’t trying to say that excruciating agony is a wonderful thing, while being comfortable is awful. We should not be thrilled if we develop a crippling disease. We don’t have to be delighted if a lawn mower accident slices off a few of our toes. It’s just that we are now so terrified of any discomfort at all, we are in effect withdrawing from the whole adventure of life. If you don’t occasionally experience the lows, then the highs become meaningless.

There is a basic principle of life that is unavoidable (and which has been best summarized, not by philosophers, but by guys down at the gym): “No pain, no gain.”

Our modern motto instead has become, “No pain…oh please, NO PAIN!”

Many Christians nowadays are like Charlie Chubbo down at the gym. You know Charlie, right? He’s the guy who wants to turn his Homer Simpson-like physique into a ripped babe magnet. He spends hundreds of dollars on a gym membership, but every time he gets close to breaking a sweat, Charlie retreats to the TV lounge for another cappuccino and jelly donut. Doing what is necessary to get into shape is simply too painful.

Most Christians truly want to follow God’s will. We look forward to entering Heaven and hearing Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But whenever our faith presents a painful or uncomfortable situation, we often retreat to the lounge of anonymity, quickly blending in with popular opinion so no one singles us out for ridicule.

(And don’t forget—in our culture, suffering for Christ usually amounts to no more than being mocked by non-believers. In other parts of the world, Christians are being murdered on a daily basis for their faith. By comparison, being called “intolerant,” “narrow minded,” or “old fashioned” ain’t exactly torture.)

Most of us really want to be good Christians and do the Lord’s will—just as long as it doesn’t hurt. We are Charlie Chubbo Christians: 100% good intentions and zero-percent discipline and fortitude. As Peter explained, and as life in general teaches us, without a little suffering and discomfort, no good will ever come of it.

A lot of us need to increase our threshold for discomfort. It will make us stronger individually and reap greater benefits for the Kingdom of God. 

Now drop and give me twenty.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What Am I Good At? Play Ball!

Recently I went to a business seminar, and the guest speaker repeatedly asked the crowd: “What are you good at?”

He emphasized that it’s crucial for people to identify their top skills, and then put them to work. “What are you good at?!” he shouted. “Are you good at problem solving? Are you good at communicating? Are you good a motivating your co-workers? Are you good at prioritizing tasks? You must find out: What. Are. You. Good. At?!”

I thought about it for a while, and in a moment of pure insight, I declared, “I am good at watching baseball.”

OK, that particular skill is not exactly in high demand in the business world. But it’s a fact: of all the zillions of things I do in a typical week — at work, at home, at church, at wherever — by far what I do best is watch baseball.

Now, let’s be clear. Many people “watch” baseball. That is, they walk into a room, look at the TV, and say, “Oh, the Red Sox are on. Who’re they playing?” After being told, they then say something like, “Is this the playoffs?”

Um, it’s May. Thanks for trying, but please go back to checking your Facebook page.

Watching baseball is truly an art. It’s also a gift, since a person is either born with it or not.

The talented baseball watcher doesn’t just know the difference between a slider and a cutter; understand why a baserunner must never risk making the first or third out at third base; and have the Infield Fly Rule committed to memory. It’s also imperative to be aware of all the swirling dynamics of an ongoing game, in the same way a composer grasps the various musical themes blending together in a symphony.

For example, the other day I was watching a game. It was the third inning and scoreless, but the pitcher was struggling with his control. The leadoff batter took the first two pitches way outside. I just knew what was going to happen next. I said, “This guy’s gonna walk, then in a couple minutes he’s gonna score.”

Sure enough, he walked on four pitches, took second on a wild pitch, went to third on a groundout to second, and came home on a bloop single to center. It just seemed obvious something like that was about to happen. Of course, my prophetic instincts aren’t always right. But it seems I’m correct more often than not.

Another crucial skill for the advanced baseball watcher is the ability to quickly and seamlessly connect what is happening on the field with something that occurred ten or 50 or 100 years ago.

Here are some typical comments a topflight baseball watcher might say during a game: “Ooh, he turned that double play like Ozzie Smith.” “That dude’s arm reminds me of Dwight Evans.” “He’s got his slider going today, but did you ever see Steve Carlton in his prime? Unhittable.” “Hey, watch this replay. He swings like Ted Williams, only right-handed.” “Why are they taking him out? Pitch count? Sheesh. Juan Marichal once threw 227 pitches in a 16-inning game. And he beat Warren Spann that night, who threw 201 pitches — at age 42!”


I’m still trying to figure out if being a gifted baseball watcher is a skill that will help at the office. I’m thinking probably not. But I’m glad the seminar speaker encouraged me to discover my true gift. When the seminar ended, the speaker hopped off the stage and jogged up the aisle high-fiving attendees. I said to the guy next to me, “He runs like Jackie Robinson.” I’m pretty sure I was the only one there who noticed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

St. Peter Must’ve Been Drunk

In this week’s second reading at Mass, St. Peter tells us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope (in Christ).”

Whoa! What was Peter thinking?! Talk to people about our religious beliefs? Was he drunk when he wrote that epistle?

And what were those bishops thinking when they chose this verse to be part of the Sunday readings at church? What do they think we are, a bunch of fundamentalist Jesus freaks?

We don’t talk about our faith. We’re Catholics, for Heaven’s sake. American Catholics at that. We are proud of the fact we do not let religious doctrines interfere with our busy lives. We’re modern, sophisticated, and enlightened. We’re proud that we are now indistinguishable from the rest of secular society.

Of course, even if we wanted to talk about our faith, we can’t. It’s against the law. This is America, don’t forget. We have the First Amendment, which very clearly spells out a strict separation of church and state. It says right in the Constitution (somewhere, I’m sure) that everybody has the right to have religious faith, as long as they keep it to themselves. I believe it’s in the oft-cited “Can’t impose intolerant values on others” clause.

Someone should really talk to those bishops. This is embarrassing. Don’t they realize we American Catholics have taken our cue from all those progressive Catholic scholars working at Catholic universities? For example, consider Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The school supports a “Medical Students for Choice” club, which not only promotes abortions, but also trains students how to perform them. How enlightened and progressive!

Or how about the chancellor of Boston College and the president of Notre Dame? A while back they told the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in no uncertain terms that they oppose any attempts to revitalize the authentically Catholic character of Catholic colleges and universities. That would infringe on “academic freedom,” not to mention raise the eyebrows of scholars at secular institutions, whose approval and acceptance they so desperately crave.

If we the laity have finally done such a good job of putting our religious beliefs into proper perspective, why in the world are we being subjected to such a bizarre Scripture verse, one calling on us to be ready to actually TALK about our faith?

The passage from Peter’s epistle goes on to give advice about how we should do this talking, and warns, “…so that, when you are maligned…”

OK, wait one minute. Now I know Peter was drunk. He knew in advance that when we talk about our faith in Christ it’s bound to offend people and get them angry at us, and yet he instructed us to do it anyway? What was his problem?!

Maybe things were different back in Peter’s day, but today the one thing we must avoid at all costs is offending anyone. Centuries ago those unenlightened, ignorant folks worshipped God as if He were real and personal. Today we know better. We now worship equality above all else. Everything’s equal. All ideas are equal; all behaviors are equal; all values are equal.

This way no one gets offended. We don’t have to get bogged down with questions of truth and values, right and wrong. Today we understand it’s better to have no beliefs than to have firm beliefs. It’s better to accept everything than to stand for anything.

But come to think of it, this Scripture reading and Peter’s instructions are not necessary. We American Catholics already know how “to give an explanation” about our faith. The most common expression in our modern vocabulary says it all: “Whatever…”

It couldn’t be more clear. Someone should tell those bishops to lighten up and join the modern world. 

(Oh, by the way, in case you’re not quite sure, this is satire. St. Peter’s command is really something we should follow.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tag Sales Prompt Lawless Behavior

Maybe I’m naïve. When I see a yellow sign hanging on a telephone pole that reads, “Tag Sale, Saturday, 9 am To 3 pm,” I assume it means, “Tag Sale, Saturday, 9 am To 3 pm.”

But apparently, what that sign really means is: “All Traffic, Parking, and Jaywalking Laws Are Hereby Suspended.”

That’s the only explanation for the bizarre behavior I observe on Saturdays in the spring. Whenever someone piles junk from the basement onto the driveway and hangs a yellow sign on the nearest telephone pole, all heck breaks loose.

People who are otherwise law-abiding, suddenly become rude and vicious scofflaws when they approach a tag sale. They think nothing of screeching their cars to a halt in the middle of a busy street, and then just parking the car right there, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET, blocking traffic in both directions while they scamper over to the junk pile looking for bargains.

I’ve seen people drive right up onto the lawn and park there — and not the lawn of the people holding the tag sale, but neighboring lawns, the lawns of people who have nothing to do with the tag sale. The confused homeowner leans out of the front door and yells, “Excuse me, ma’am. You can’t park on my front lawn. Please move your car.”

In reply, sweet little old ladies, former finalists in the Litchfield County Nicest Grandmother of the Year contest, have been known to spew a stream of profanity that would make a Hell’s Angel biker blush. When granny reaches into her purse, the frightened homeowner quickly ducks back into the house, thinking she’s about to pull out a pistol. Actually, she’s just pulling out exactly two quarters and four dimes, the total amount of money she will spend at the tag sale during the next two-and-a-half hours.

Recently I was driving along a busy section of Route 4 in Torrington. Two tag sales were in progress, on opposite sides of the street. Not only did the tag sale devotees park their cars anywhere and everywhere, including right on the double-yellow line, but they also walked anywhere and everywhere, including right in front of oncoming traffic.

As I approached the area, going about 35 mph, I slowed down to about 15 mph when I saw the commotion up ahead. I was about to pass by, when a man holding hands with two small children simply strolled right in front of my car. I slammed on the brakes and beeped my car horn twice, which in the international car horn language means: “Hey pal, what are you doing?! This is a state highway, not the food court at the Mall!”

The man glanced over and gave me a nasty glare, which in the international nasty glare language means: “Hey pal, what are you doing driving your car through this food court in the Mall?” If his hands had not been occupied escorting the two small children, I think he also would have given me a message using the international hand gesture language.

Tag sale enthusiasts remind me of college students. Regardless of minor issues such as laws against destroying other people’s property, if the school wins the national championship, some kids feel it’s their duty to set stuff on fire and turn over cars. The tag sale folks, regardless of minor issues such as laws against illegal parking and jaywalking, feel it’s their duty to transform a section of the street into a combination block party/demolition derby. 

For some people, maybe it’s worth risking life and limb to acquire a broken umbrella and two left shoes for 90 cents. But I’m not that brave. I think I’ll stay at home on Saturdays.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Letter to Fallen-Away Catholics

Dear friend,

We miss you at church. Yes, we really do miss you.

Life is very hectic nowadays, and often the weekend schedule is so busy there isn’t enough time to squeeze in Mass. Also, a very popular idea in our culture is that it’s OK to be “spiritual” but not religious. If people just think about God once in a while and pray to Him on their own without going to church, that’s perfectly fine.

Well, Jesus never said anything like that. In fact, He did say, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

What exactly does that mean? For 2,000 years, Christians have understood that Jesus’ words mean we must partake of the Eucharist. By virtue of a supernatural miracle, the Eucharist truly is transformed into the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ. And the Eucharist is not something we can have while at home, or while walking through the woods, or while thinking about God and being “spiritual” on our own. No, unless a person is sick or homebound, or there are some other circumstances, the Eucharist is available only in a sacred space, specifically in a church and specifically during Mass.

Jesus founded the Catholic Church when He said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

It’s interesting that Jesus entrusted His perfect message with an imperfect organization. Apparently, He figured if the Church was perfect, people might be tempted to worship the Church rather than God. So, despite many instances, especially in recent years, when both Church leaders and laypeople have sinned and caused terrible scandals, the Catholic Church still is the only institution on earth that has been given a divine guarantee of success. Jesus is the head of the Church, and He promised that not even the power of Hell will destroy it.

Contrary to what is often said by our popular culture, the Church actually is a very humble organization. Catholics know that everyone sins and falls short of God’s perfect glory, and so we realize we need to take part in the sacraments on a regular basis and receive God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace.

Many people claim that Mass is very boring; the same ol’ thing every week. Well, contrary to how our popular culture views virtually every human activity, the Catholic Mass was never designed to be a wildly entertaining experience. It was designed to be sacred worship.

But on the other hand, quite often the homily at Mass is very inspiring, and quite often the choir and musicians are fabulously talented. Even if Mass seems a little boring, that’s fine, because it is still the only way to receive the body and blood of Our Lord. Mass is the unique vehicle God created to allow struggling sinners (that would be us) to come into full contact with the Savior of the world. If we could only see how much the angels and saints in Heaven rejoice during every single Mass—even Masses that seem boring to us—it would take our breath away.

In a spirit of humility and fellowship, we sincerely ask you to consider joining us once again. Come back to Jesus’ Church. Come back to the faith your parents and grandparents taught you. Come back to the holy sacrifice of the Mass and receive the flesh and blood of Our Savior in the Eucharist and be part of our parish community once again. 

We miss you at church. Yes, we really do miss you.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Living Last Day Is Hard Work

There’s an old expression, “Live every day as if it were your last.” This is a nice sentiment, intended to encourage people to make the most of each day and not waste time. But did you ever think what would happen if you really lived each day as if it were your last? It might not turn out quite so sentimental.

The alarm clock buzzes at 5:30 a.m. I turn it off and lie back in bed. My wife nudges me and says, “C’mon, get up. You’ll be late for work.”

“Why bother?” I exclaim. “Payday is not until next week, and I’ll be dead by then.”

“What are you talking about?” she asks.

“Today is the last day of my life! I’m certainly not going to waste it by going to work!” I then pull the covers over my head and fall back to sleep.

My wife climbs out of bed and mutters, “I’ll call your boss and tell him you’re sick. And I WON’T be lying.”

After a while, I decide I should go to the office. “There are some things I’ve always wanted to say to certain customers,” I whisper to myself. “And since I’ll be dead tomorrow, it doesn’t matter if I get fired.”

I get up and drive to work — without buckling my seatbelt. Even though I drive at twice the posted speed limit, it takes me longer than usual to get to the office for two reasons: (1) I stop to buy a pack of cigarettes, figuring if I start smoking at this point it won’t exactly matter, and (2) the state trooper takes forever to write the tickets for multiple traffic violations.

It turns out I don’t spend too much time at the office. Security officials escort me to the front door soon after I call my three “most favorite” clients and tell them they look just like baboons — only not quite as smart. I thought it was a nice touch to jump up on my desk during the phone calls and do a Tarzan yell.

I spend the rest of the day living as if it were my last: test-driving new cars like Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”; going to the mall to use my VISA card in every single store; and buying a million-dollar life insurance policy so my wife will be able to clean up the credit card bills and assorted damage claims — using my VISA card to pay the premium, of course.

When I finally stagger into the house at a quarter to midnight, my wife exclaims, “Where have you been?!” Her anger turns to puzzlement when she looks out the picture window and says, “Where did that brand new Mercedes come from?”

“Don’t worry,” I say. “The dealer will track it down and pick it up tomorrow.”

I walk into the kitchen and begin to eat ice cream right out of the carton. “You’re lactose intolerant,” my wife says. “You’ll get cramps.”

“Not if I only have minutes to live,” I reply. After wolfing down a few spoonfuls, my busy last day catches up with me and I drift off to sleep.

The next thing I know the alarm clock is buzzing. It’s 5:30 a.m. and my head is pounding and my stomach has cramps. I also crave a cigarette. My wife nudges me and says, “There are state troopers at the front door! They’re looking for you!” 

“Aw, who cares?” I say. “Today’s the last day of my life.” I pull the covers over my head and groan, “Living each day as if it were my last is gonna kill me one of these years.”

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Young Pup Explains ‘James Bond Christians’

In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, he discussed the heart of the Christian faith: belief in the Resurrection. Here are some thoughts on that passage, written over 20 years ago, in the final chapter of a little book by a naïve young pup.

There are a lot of earthly benefits to being a Christian….But if there is no hope for eternal life, if the secular humanists are correct that life is a random, meaningless accident which ends tragically at the moment of death, then we might as well crack open a bottle of tequila and max out the VISA and MasterCard right now.

The hope and faith in eternal life is the key difference between Christians and secular humanists….This assurance, this hope, this confidence in eternal life makes all the difference. It is what allows us to live as “James Bond Christians.”

Well, OK, I’d better explain that one:

When I was a kid, I just loved those James Bond movies….The greatest thing about the character, Agent 007, was that no matter how perilous the situation became, he was always as cool as a cucumber. It was as if he KNEW no harm could ever come to him.

I can remember thinking that it would be so great to KNOW that my life was part of a grand script…and that no matter how awful a situation might be, everything would ultimately turn out fine. Then I could relax and not be scared and maybe be almost as cool as James Bond.

Well, despite being a weird analogy, this is what the Christian faith allows us to do. God has assured us that we are part of his grand plan in which we shall be victorious. When an eternal perspective is added to our natural life-span, we are able to realize that no matter what happens here and now, our ultimate fate is victory and glory.

With a faith and a hope such as this, we can handle whatever comes our way just like “James Bond Christians.” We simply know that God has prepared in advance a marvelous place for us for all eternity.

In conclusion…when it comes time for my funeral, I don’t want any weeping or hand-wringing, understand? Save the tears and flowers for some other occasion and have a graduation party instead.

Oh, wasn’t he so cute, with his cock-sure optimism, split infinitives, and misuse of the words “which” and “that”? Don’t you just want to give that mid-1990s guy a big hug?

But overall, he made a reasonably good point. Our faith in the Resurrection allows us to have confidence in eternal life. And it allows us even to laugh in the face of death, as St. Paul did: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

God never promised our journey here on earth would be easy—something the pup began to learn in recent years. However, despite our trials and tribulations, we still can be joyful and confident because our God is more powerful than death.

The Resurrection and eternal life make all the difference. The truth of the Resurrection and the promise of eternal life allow us to be shaken, but not stirred. (Sorry, I had to say that.) We face many difficulties, but when if we put our faith in Jesus and cling to His promises, we will never be defeated.  

(By the way, if anyone is interested in a copy of the little book, titled, “Boomer Trek: One Baby Boomer’s Surprising Journey from Secular Humanism to Faith in God”—complete with a comical photo on the back cover of the dark-haired pup—just send me an email with your address and I’ll mail you a copy of my first book.)