Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Neil Armstrong and the Other Guys

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, when Neil Armstrong and some other guy walked on the moon. You could make a strong case that this event is the most spectacular achievement in all of human history — not counting, of course, the invention of the glazed cruller, which is Number One on my all-time list.

At that moment in the summer of 1969, the entire world held its collective breath as Neil Armstrong, soon to be followed by some other guy, step onto the surface of the moon. After spending the previous four days rehearsing his momentous first words from the lunar surface (which probably annoyed the heck out of the other guy and the even lesser known other other guy), Neil hopped down onto that dusty terrain, took a deep breath, and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Oops, he forgot the “a.” It was supposed to be, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I saw a documentary years ago where Neil Armstrong insisted he said the word “a” before saying “man.” But in the background you can see two other astronauts, presumably the other guy and the other other guy, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. They knew Neil blew the line.

During the long journey back home from the moon, I suspect the other guy said, “Hey, was that one small step for man, and at the same time one giant leap for mankind?” Then the other other guy replied, “No, of course not. It couldn’t be both a small step and a giant leap for humanity. It was one small step for A man!”

The other guy laughed and said, “Yes, you’re right. It was A man!” Then they both broke into song, crooning that old church hymn: “A-man. A-man. A-A-man, A-man, A-man, Hallelujah!”

Finally, Neil yelled, “What are you guys, nine years old?! I said the word ‘a’! I just said it softly. Jeez Louise, I’m going outside to get some air.” To which the other guy said, “Um, bad idea, Neil. We’re in outer space. There’s no air out there. Hey man, we’re just kidding. Relax.”

Then the other other guy said quietly with a smirk, “A man, we’re just kidding. Get it? A man? Hee hee.”

Even though Neil Armstrong was pretty steamed about being teased throughout the entire 238,000-mile trip from the moon back to the earth, he ended up with the last laugh. Once they returned home safely, and the many celebrations and ticker-tape parades commenced, all the attention was focused on guess who? That’s right, Mr. First Man to Step on the Moon, that’s who.

Walter Cronkite himself set the tone for future journalists and historians, when he said this to millions of TV viewers during a big parade: “And here comes the car with the three Apollo 11 astronauts. The first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, is in the middle. And he’s flanked by the other guy and the other other guy.”

If you conducted a survey of random people on the street, and asked, “Who was the first man to walk on the moon?” many would quickly reply, “Neil Armstrong.” But when you asked, “And who were the other two astronauts with him?” I bet you would get mostly blank stares.

For the record (thank you, Google), the other guy was Buzz Aldrin, and the other other guy was Michael Collins. To all three astronauts, I tip my hat and say, “A man, you guys are terrific! Your amazing feat will never be forgotten — even if we can’t remember your names.”

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Are You a Martha or a Mary?

In the gospel reading at Mass this weekend, Jesus and His disciples visited the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha was in the kitchen busy with food preparation, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to Him speak.

Suddenly, Martha came storming out of the kitchen and said, “Hey! What’s wrong with this picture?! I’m slaving away over a hot stove in there, and Mary’s sitting here doing nothing?! C’mon, Jesus, tell her to give me a hand!” (Well, that might be a loose translation of what Martha actually said.)

The first time I ever heard this reading at Mass, at that moment I fully expected Jesus to say, “Good point. Mary, please go help your sister in the kitchen.”

But instead, Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Whoa, I’m surprised someone didn’t end up with a bowl of pancake batter dumped on His head.

I remember being shocked at Jesus’ comment the first time I heard this gospel reading at Mass. (Or at least the first time I paid attention to it.) He actually criticized the person who was working hard, and praised the one who was doing nothing.

As usual, Jesus was in tune with the person’s heart rather than outward appearances. He praised Mary, not because she ignored her chores, but because she understood the importance of listening to the word of the Lord.

In the same way, Jesus rebuked Martha, not because she was responsible and hard-working, but because she was so focused on her own goal—being the Martha Stewart of Palestine—that she had no time to listen to the word of the Lord.

Very possibly Martha was the kind of person who genuinely does a lot of good things, but who makes sure that everyone else knows it. Often, if this type of person does not receive some acknowledgment and praise, the Hissy Fit Express with be comin’ round the bend any minute now.

There are a lot of Marthas running around in our churches these days. Some people are on every committee and they volunteer for every event. They cook and they clean and they set up tables and they sweep the floors and they go to meetings and they organize and they make a million phone calls—all to help the church do its job.

And many times, these people are so involved in doing all these important activities, they don’t have time to worship. They are so focused on making each event successful, they forget to listen to the word of the Lord. They become just like Martha.

And like Martha, these people often become anxious and worried, frustrated and bitter. They feel like all the chores have been dumped into their laps and no one is lifting a finger to help. Usually, they are right. In most churches 90-percent of the work is done by 10-percent of the people. (How can we increase the volunteer rate? If I knew the answer, I’d write a book and make a zillion bucks.)

People need to strike a balance between Martha and Mary, between the physical and the spiritual, between the mundane and the sacred.

If someone has been so busy doing “church stuff” that he or she hasn’t had time to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to His words, it’s time to come out of the kitchen and relax for a while. We need to listen to the word of the Lord. We need to let it sink in and transform our lives. As Jesus said, it is the only thing required.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Beware of the Lizard Brain

What are we going to do about all this Lizard Brain behavior? I mean, really, it’s getting out of control.
If you’re not familiar with that term, according to Psychology Today magazine, “‘Lizard brain’ refers to the oldest part of the brain, the brain stem, responsible for primitive survival instincts such as aggression and fear.”

Dr. Joseph Troncale explains, “Many people call it ‘The Lizard Brain’ because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function. It is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear and fornication.”

So, I guess that means whenever I’ve just finished a large meal and consumed enough calories to sustain me for at least three days, and then blurt out, “Hey, what’s for dessert?” that’s my Lizard Brain talking. That’s the part of my brain that was programmed to think, “You know, Bill, this might be your last meal. The food supply might dry up. You’d better have a piece of pie. No, make that two pieces. And some ice cream.”

My Lizard Brain does not understand that our refrigerator and cupboards are full. My Lizard Brain never pays attention when I go to Stop & Shop, so it doesn’t notice aisle after aisle of tasty food just a couple miles from home. It also never notices the many fast food places I drive past on the way home from Stop & Shop, any one of which could nourish me if I was feeling faint. Most of all, my Lizard Brain is completely oblivious when I stand on the bathroom scale in the morning, and it doesn’t understand that I have to crane my neck to peer around my gut in order to see the numbers. As a result, my Lizard Brain just keeps telling me to chow down. (I think it’s also my Lizard Brain that tells me the bathroom scale is probably broken.)

The Lizard Brain is what compelled Harvey Weinstein and all the other creeps we heard about last year to do what they did. Whenever you see someone do something really foolish, most likely the Lizard Brain is the culprit.

In short, the Lizard Brain is what makes us act impulsively. The entire history of civilization has been one long struggle to have the cerebral cortex — the thoughtful, rational part of the brain — take control and suppress the wild urges of the Lizard Brain. Think of your entire brain as the driver’s seat of an automobile. The cerebral cortex part of your brain has two hands on the wheel (at 10 and 2 o’clock, of course), and maintains the posted speed limit while carefully keeping an eye out for other vehicles. Meanwhile, your Lizard Brain is a heavily tattooed teenager in the back seat who constantly yells, “C’mon, c’mon, how fast can this thing go?! Hey, let’s get off this exit — right here! Go ahead, cross over three lanes of traffic! You can do it! I’m sure there’s no one in your blind spot!”

For a while there, as a society we did a pretty good job of resisting the urges of the Lizard Brain. But then in recent decades our culture decided that suppressing the Lizard Brain was unhealthy and unfulfilling. The results have been, to put it mildly, chaotic.

Just think about some of the terrible problems we’re facing these days: substance abuse, obesity, STDs, senseless violence, the U.S. Congress, and reality TV shows. What do all these destructive things have in common? They are caused by Lizard Brain thinking.

I’d like to continue this discussion, but I have to go now because my Lizard Brain just told me there’s a leftover piece of pie in the fridge. Make that two pieces. And some ice cream.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What If God Was Not Good?

Some friends of mine in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement like to greet each other by saying, “God is good.” Then the other person replies, “All the time.” Often, they will repeat it, but in reverse: “And all the time…” then the reply, “God is good.”
The Bible tells us over and over that God is indeed good. “God is love.” “For God so loved the world…” “Love one another, as I have loved you.” “The Lord is kind and merciful.”

When we consider all the blessings and joys we experience in life, it is undeniable that God is good. But what if God was not so good? There is nothing in the rule book that says God has to be compassionate, forgiving, and merciful. What if He had the godlike attributes of the divine Creator—all-powerful and all-knowing—but had a really bad attitude? That would not be so enjoyable, would it?

What if God intentionally put obstacles in front of us during our journey through life, and then when we stumbled and experienced pain, He burst out laughing at us, like a nasty schoolyard bully? Boy, that would be miserable, wouldn’t it? That would mean God is similar to those characters in Greek mythology who were thought to have supernatural powers, but had really flawed personalities. Some of those Greek gods got drunk; some of them lied and cheated; and some tormented human beings here on earth, just for sport. That would be horrible if the real God was a self-centered creep like that.

Thankfully, the truth is, God is all-loving and He created us out of His abundant love. He wants us to be in a loving relationship with Him. He wants us to experience all the joys of life.

Unfortunately, there are many people nowadays who think God is not good. And the reason they think this is somewhat understandable: we often experience pain and heartache in this world. It is reasonable to wonder if God is so good, then why did He let me lose my job? Why did He let my son get addicted to drugs? Why did my spouse divorce me? Why did my best friend get cancer? Why does my back hurt so much that I can’t sleep at night? Why do I feel so sad sometimes I just want to crawl into a hole and die?

These heartfelt and painful questions are endless. Many, many people are suffering so much. If God is so good, why doesn’t He take away all our pain? It’s that age-old question that countless theologians have asked through the centuries: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why doesn’t God stop it from happening?
Well, the fact of the matter is, we live in a fallen world. Sin has corrupted our world so much that there is no shortage of pain and suffering. God allows it to happen—for a time—but He doesn’t cause it to happen.

An important thing to understand is that whenever something painful happens to us, God does not laugh like a schoolyard bully. Instead, He weeps with empathy and compassion for us. That is a big difference. He truly does love us, and He is good.

It’s also important to remember that this world is not our home, and we are only here temporarily. If this world and this life were all that existed, then our pain and suffering would be very tragic, and you could make the case that God is not very good.
However, our entire time on earth is just a brief dress rehearsal before the real show, which is eternal life and joy in God’s heavenly kingdom. In Heaven, there is no suffering, no pain, and no heartache. Here on earth, we are supposed to learn who God is and get a glimpse of what it means to be in loving relationships. When we get to Heaven, we finally will love perfectly and bask in God’s joy perfectly.

While we are here, though, it’s a struggle, interspersed with fleeting moments of joy and happiness. But don’t ever for a minute think that God is not good. He loves us so much.

God is good…all the time. And all the time…God is good.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Memories of the 4th of July

The 4th of July is special. It is America’s birthday, and most people have fond memories of this wonderful summer holiday. These memories may include fireworks displays, family gatherings, parades, picnics, baseball games, or boating excursions. Some people might even remember a time when Americans would pause on this holiday and contemplate its true meaning: a group of citizens courageously risked everything they had to tell the most powerful nation on earth, “Thanks but no thanks for all your meddling and oppressive taxes. We’re gonna govern ourselves from now on.” (Something, in my view, the states ought to say to Washington, D.C. once in a while — but I digress.)

Contrary to what my kids think, I was NOT present at the original signing of the Declaration of Independence, hanging out and sharing a few beers with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, along with their wives, Weezy Jefferson and Aretha Franklin. From what I gather, Philadelphia in July, before the invention of Bermuda shorts, air conditioning, and flush toilets, was not exactly the world’s most comfortable summer vacation spot. Ol’ Tom and Ben surely had fond memories of the original 4th of July, but those memories probably did not include how lovely wool clothing and powdered wigs felt when the weather was 97 degrees and humid.

My most fond 4th of July memory dates back to the early 1970s. I was 13 years old, and my family had just embarked on a cross-country camping trip. We had one small camper and seven people, including five kids between the ages of one and 13. Five weeks and 8,000 miles later we returned home without losing a single person. (We did, however, lose our sanity, somewhere in South Dakota, I believe.)

We actually spent the 4th of July in Ontario, Canada, which was pretty interesting, because back in those days Canadians used a very special term to describe the 4th of July: “Thursday.” They celebrate our Independence Day the same way we celebrate their Victoria Day, that is, with a shrug of the shoulders and a puzzled, “Huh?” (Or rather: “Eh?”)

But the really vivid memory occurred on July 2nd, when we were at a rural campground in upstate New York. (The word “rural” doesn’t do it justice. This place was like “Deliverance” meets “Little House on the Prairie” meets the PBS documentary “The Violent Life of a Cro-Magnon Village.”) It was the first time I ever observed people doing two particular things: drinking whiskey straight from the bottle and blowing stuff up.

An especially boisterous group of campers seemed to have more explosives than Patton’s entire Third Army. In the evening, from dusk until 3 a.m., these guys set up shop on the shore of a small lake and went through about seven bottles of rot-gut liquor and seven tons of cherry bombs, M-80s, quarter-sticks of dynamite, and possibly a couple of low-level nuclear devices. The more they drank, the more they thought it was hilarious to toss lit cherry bombs at each other. It was an awesome show.

I clearly remember one guy who decided to do an exaggerated Bob Feller windmill windup before hurling a cherry bomb out into the lake. Just as his pitching arm moved forward — KABOOM! — the bomb exploded in his hand. I think the ump called a balk.

He stood there for a moment, staring in puzzlement at his hand, as blisters the size of golf balls instantly formed on his palm. Then he held out his smoldering hand toward his pals. Everyone, including the guy with the injured hand, started to laugh hysterically.

The 4th of July brings back fond memories. Especially for those of us who still have all our fingers.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Revelation: God Speaks to Us

Here’s a question for you: What does “Revelation” mean?

Yes, Revelation is the name of the last book of the Bible, that confusing and mysterious book that few people understand. But I mean in a more general sense. Revelation means that something is revealed; something is made known; some bit of information is communicated from one person to another.

As Catholic Christians, we believe in what is called “revealed religion.” The dictionary defines this as: “Religion based on the revelation by God to humankind of ideas that would not have been arrived at by natural reason alone.”

We believe that God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses and David and all the prophets. We believe God inspired the authors of the Bible. Most of all, we believe God revealed Himself to us most fully in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

If God had been completely silent and never bothered to communicate with human beings, we never would have come up with Judeo-Christian beliefs on our own. Nowadays, a lot of people have drifted away from the “faith of their fathers.” And for many, the primary reason they’ve drifted away is because they no longer believe in revelation. They believe that God has never communicated with us, and therefore all religions, by definition, were invented by human beings alone.

If this is true, then the obvious question is: why should I follow a particular religion—even if my ancestors sincerely believed it—if is was just made up long ago by human beings? And the obvious answer to this question is: there is no reason why you should believe it. If all religions are merely man-made, and God did not tell humanity what He really wants from us, then everybody is on their own to figure out what works best for him or her.

Based on the way many people are living their lives these days, what works best seems to be a combination of sleeping late on Sundays, never attending church, and going through life with a rather self-centered attitude.

But if you really think about it, a silent God makes no sense. Let’s review what we know for sure: God created mankind, and He created mankind with distinct personalities and with the ability to communicate. (And if you’ve ever stood in line at Dunkin Donuts behind a group of high school girls, you’d say the compulsion to communicate.)

We know by logic and reason that the created being cannot be greater than its Creator. In other words, if we humans have the ability to think and to use words, then it’s impossible for our Creator not to have these same abilities. So, we can reasonably deduce that God has a personality and He has the ability to communicate.

Now, here’s the question we have to ask: What are the odds that God, after going to all the trouble of creating beings with the ability to communicate—the same ability He possesses—would then choose NOT to communicate with these creatures?

To quote Mr. Spock, “It is simply illogical, Captain.”

So, the claim that God has never revealed Himself to humankind actually has a gaping hole in its logic.

The only thing that makes sense it that the God of all Creation, who made the heavens and the earth, did NOT create human beings and then go off on a permanent vacation. He made us because of His love, and He loves us too much to abandon us.

This is revelation. God has revealed who He is. He has revealed who we are. And He has revealed what He wants from us. And what He wants is very simple: He wants our love. He wants us to trust in Him and be filled with His spirit of joy.

The best way to do this is to get out of bed on Sunday mornings, go to church, and think about the needs of others once in a while rather than yourself.

Revelation is actually very simple, and it is very logical. Please don’t fall for the popular notion that God is silent. People who are in love talk to each other all the time. And God is in love with us.

Friday, June 28, 2019

We Need Humble Heroes

Let me tell you about my personal hero, Harold Roloff. I know you’ve never heard of Harold, because I couldn’t even find a single speck of information about him on the internet. I was trying to find a listing for his obituary, so I could mention the year in which he died, but I came up empty.

To the best of my recollection, Harold died around 12 to 15 years ago. Here is how he became my hero:

The company where I work had just acquired a new line, that is, we made a deal with a manufacturer of HVAC equipment to become the local representative in Connecticut. Whenever this happens, it’s my job to take a crash course in the manufacturer’s entire product line, so that when a consulting engineer asks me a technical question about the equipment, I can confidently reply, “Um, yeah. Good question. I’ll call the factory and see if I can get you an answer.”

I was making arrangements to fly to Wisconsin for a few days of training at the factory, when someone said, “Hey, no one knows more about these products than Harold Roloff. And he lives right here in Connecticut.”

Harold had recently retired, but there was a problem: Harold had cancer and he wasn’t expected to live much longer. We contacted Harold to find out if he might be interested in meeting with me to discuss the technical aspect of the products, fulling realizing that under the circumstances he may not have been able or willing to do so.

Well, he was delighted to hear from us, but warned that he was feeling pretty weak and sometimes had to stop and rest if he talked for too long. We set up a meeting, and I drove to his home in eastern Connecticut, not sure what to expect.

Our four-hour meeting was, in a word, amazing. Harold laid out all his technical literature on the kitchen table. He went through the products and their features, along with the selection software program.

Harold would talk for about 15 minutes, then he would apologize and say he needed to catch his breath for a moment. He would close his eyes and just sit, waiting for some strength to come back into his body. I could tell he was very weak and in a lot of pain.

Multiple times I said, almost pleading, “Harold, we don’t have to go on. You’ve already been so helpful. Why don’t you go lay down?”

His wife peeked into the kitchen a couple of times, with a very concerned look on her face. But Harold just smiled and said, “No no, we have to keep going.” Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Bill, you don’t understand. I NEED to do this. I have so much information and experience stored in my head, and I just HAVE to pass it on to someone before I’m gone.”

After that, it was rather difficult to see the wiring diagrams clearly because of the tears welling up in my eyes.

Harold died about a month after our one and only meeting. Over a decade later, I still remember that day vividly.

Someday in the future, if I’m in a similar situation (later than sooner, I hope), I pray that I will be as selfless and caring as Harold was, so I can pass along whatever knowledge I’ve acquired over the years. I might have to sift through all the juvenile wise cracks and booger jokes stored in my head, but hopefully there is something worth sharing.

The most important thing Harold Roloff taught me that day is this: not all heroes wear capes.