Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Love Enemies? You Gotta Be Kidding!

In the gospel reading at Mass this weekend, from Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, Jesus is preaching to a crowd in what is called “The Sermon on the Plain.” After hearing what He said, I suspect many people might label it “The Sermon on the You Gotta Be Kidding!!”

Jesus declared, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” and, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

So, now I bet you understand why some might’ve referred to this event as “The Sermon on the You Gotta Be Kidding!!”

Can Jesus possibly be serious when He tells us to pray for people who mistreat us, bless people who curse us, do good things to people who hate us, and, the most unbelievable of all, LOVE OUR ENEMIES? C’mon, He can’t be serious, can He?

Well, as amazing as this might seem, Jesus is not exaggerating. He really wants us to do those things. The key is the definition of the word “love.” In the English language the word “love” can mean many things: lust, sex, friendship, brotherhood, fraternity, enjoyment, excitement, fond attraction, etc.

However, in Greek, the language of the original New Testament texts, the word Luke used to record Jesus’ command is agape (ah-gah-pay). This is a very specific word meaning divine love, the sacrificial love God has for all humanity, an altruistic concern for the welfare of others. It has nothing to do with lust or sex or friendship or fond attraction. (In older English translations of the Bible, the word used was “charity.”)

This is, to be frank, a major relief. It is possible to “love” someone without necessarily liking him or her. No matter how much we dislike someone, no matter how much that person may have hurt us, it really is possible to wish that person well. Sometimes, of course, “well” means that person should repent, turn away from sinful attitudes and actions, and enter into a close relationship with the Lord.

If we remember that God created everyone in His image, that He loves everyone as His precious child, and that He desperately wishes for each and every one of us to repent and put our faith in Him, then it becomes possible to care about the well-being of every person—even those we might label as our “enemy.”

When I think of Jesus’ statements in these terms, I can honestly say that I love people I strongly dislike, for example… well, I was just about to rattle off the names of some politicians who claim to be faithful Catholics but who think it’s perfectly fine for babies to be dismembered as they are being born. But I’ll refrain from mentioning those names in an effort to demonstrate love and charity toward them. Anyway, I can honestly say I love those people—as long as we define love as hoping they one day will repent, turn away from their sinful attitudes and actions, and enter into a close relationship with the Lord.

It’s not easy to love our enemies, that’s for sure. For example, I just spent the past half hour composing and then deleting multiple paragraphs that listed some of my least favorite politicians by name and lambasted them for using the word “choice” to promote infanticide. When I reread what I wrote, it was clear there was no love at all present in my heart, so I was forced grudgingly to delete and start over.

It’s certainly not easy to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who mistreat us. But if we focus on the fact that God loves these people and, most importantly, pray that Jesus will fill our hearts with grace, we can do it. In the process we will be less inclined to shout at Jesus, “You gotta be kidding!”

Also, it will be helpful if we stop watching all those angry political talk shows on cable TV. Just sayin’.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Air Travel Adventures, Part 2

Last week I discussed the odd fact that flying on a commercial airline is very tiring, even though all we as passengers actually do the whole time is stand in various lines and sit down a lot. That shouldn’t be very tiring at all. But the fatigue is caused by mental stress rather than physical exertion.

In that column, I only talked about the flight my wife and I took down to Florida. I didn’t mention our return trip home for a couple of reasons. First, I ran out of space, as that 600-word limit often catches me by surprise. The other reason is because I was so exhausted from the flight to Florida, I didn’t have enough energy to write anything. No, that’s not really true. It’s just that being in the Sunshine State, surrounded by palm trees, white sandy beaches, and multitudes of ladies in swimsuits (relax, most were in their 80s — we stayed in a retirement village), did not inspire me to grab my laptop computer and start typing away.
All I wanted to do was lay out in the sun like a slug, and think about which restaurant to visit that evening.

So, now that I’m back home in cheery New England (temperature when we landed: 19 degrees; temperature two days later: minus-5), let’s talk about the return flight home. People nowadays frequently use the word “privilege,” as in “white privilege,” “male privilege,” or “economic privilege.” But there is one privilege so stunning that it’s completely unfair: TSA precheck privilege.

I don’t know why the airline’s computer spit out our boarding passes with “TSA precheck” printed on them — maybe because I fly a lot for work or because neither of us has attempted to hijack a commercial airliner for many months now. But whatever the reason, we were SO glad. The line to get through security at the Ft. Myers airport was the longest I’ve ever seen. I think the end of the line stretched all the way back to Interstate 75. However, the TSA precheck line off to the side only had a couple dozen people in it. My wife and I walked past hundreds of stressed-out folks in the regular line to get in the TSA precheck line. To be perfectly honest, I felt very embarrassed about it.

I quickly got over my embarrassment when I realized that if we were not in the TSA precheck line, we would miss our flight and be forced to stay in sunny, warm Florida. (Oh wait, that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it?)

The other impression of our flight back home was the “reverse Wizard of Oz effect.” You know how in the movie, Dorothy walks out of the house — filmed in black and white — and when she steps into the land of Oz, everything suddenly is in bright and vivid colors? Well, that’s kind of what it’s like going TO Florida in January. 
But the return trip is the exact reverse. After a week surrounded by festively colorful flowers, trees, birds, and key lime pies, we touched down at Bradley Airport. I glanced out the plane’s window and said, “Did the pilot accidentally fly to Siberia?” Everything was dull and drab and icily sterile. It was like Dorothy’s black and white Kansas, only with more snow and less dust.

We arrived home just in time for that delightful “polar vortex,” which hit half the country in late January. I wonder if I’m getting close to that 600-word limit? Well, let me tell you one last hilarious story about our flight home. Right after we got off the plane, we—

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Resurrection Is the Heart of Christianity

In the second reading at Mass this weekend, St. Paul offers one of his most shocking teachings. He wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins….If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Corinthians 15:17,19).

In other words, St. Paul was saying that if a person doesn’t believe Jesus actually, physically rose from the dead, then that person might as well stop calling himself a Christian and rather than going to Mass he should instead join the Sunday morning bowling league.

(No, wait. I’m kidding. Far too many people have already stopped going to church. I don’t want to be accused of adding to the problem.)

The fact of the matter is: belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the heart of the Christian faith. If He did indeed rise, then we have a chance to spend eternity in Heaven. But if He did not rise, and it was all just a fancy fable made up years later, then we might as well go bowling, because we are, as Paul wrote, still in our sins.

Unfortunately, the idea that someone can rise from the dead is a major stumbling block for many folks nowadays. I guess that’s not too surprising, since the idea of a dead guy coming back to life flies in the face of everything we know about our natural world.

After all, science tells us that when an organism dies, it stays dead. Medical researchers have never chronicled a single case where a dead person came back to life. The cemeteries in our communities are the quietest places in town—except on those occasions when high school kids decide to have a beer party among the grave stones.

An important concept at work here is known as the “anti-supernatural bias,” which is the idea that the natural world is the ONLY world. The thinking goes something like this: “Since I’ve never seen a supernatural miracle, that proves they cannot happen.”

If we believe the natural world is the only world, that is, if our starting point for understanding reality is the declaration that miracles are absolutely impossible, then of course a miracle such as a resurrection cannot happen.

But if we expand our understanding, if we acknowledge that there just might be a supernatural dimension to reality above and beyond the natural dimension, and therefore miracles, though extremely rare, are possible, then we can rationally and reasonably believe that rising from the dead might occur.

If you would like some powerful evidence that there is a supernatural dimension to reality, then spend some time studying the genetic code. The data encoded in our DNA is more sophisticated and complex than the most advanced computer software ever written by the brilliant engineers at Microsoft, Google, or Apple. If you think such an immense collection of intricate information and instructions just formed itself by accident without any outside intelligent guidance at all, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell to you.

Admittedly, believing that resurrections can occur is kind of challenging. But once we come to understand that God is real and that He can perform miracles, a hope in resurrection transforms curious stories about a Jewish carpenter into a life-altering, joyful faith. God’s promise that He will raise our mortal bodies allows us to look death right in the eye and laugh, just as St. Paul did in one of his other shocking statements: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

When we come to believe that Jesus really, physically rose from the dead, it changes everything. We can, like Paul, mockingly laugh at death. And we can go to Mass with grateful and joyful hearts—which is a lot better than going bowling.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Why Is Flying So Tiring?

Why is it, I wonder, that flying on an airplane makes a person so tired? Here is what my wife and I did recently. First, we sat in our car for 45 minutes as we drove to the airport. Then we sat on the shuttle bus for five minutes. Then we stood in line for 15 minutes. Then we stood in another line for 20 minutes. Then we sat for an hour at the gate. Then we stood in line for 10 minutes. Then we got on the plane. Then we sat for three hours as the plane flew to Florida. Then we got off the plane. Then we stood at the baggage carousel for 10 minutes. Then we walked for two minutes to the rental car office. Then we drove for 30 minutes to our destination. And when we got there, we were exhausted.

As far as I can remember, we didn’t do any running. We didn’t do any push-ups. We didn’t do any cartwheels (not that we even can, which goes for the push-ups, too). We didn’t do any heavy lifting, although the suitcases weren’t exactly light, but they have wheels, so rolling them through the airport wasn’t as if we were, say, lugging a sofa up a stairwell. I’m pretty sure neither of us was called upon to pilot the plane. (That’s the kind of thing you would remember, right?) Also, I know we were not required to flap our arms or pedal with our legs to keep the aircraft aloft. In fact, we didn’t do anything strenuous. And yet, when we arrived at our vacation destination, we were beat. I wonder why that is?

I suspect our fatigue was mental rather than physical. During our entire journey, I was required to do a little driving, which calls for some degree of mental concentration, but the vast majority of the time someone else was at the helm. (Is “at the helm” an airline term? Probably not.)

For most of the trip, we should have been able to sit back and relax. But did we do that? No, of course not. And why did we not relax? That’s simple: every step of our journey was fraught with uncertainty.

Now, I’m not saying we were on a dangerous Lewis and Clark-type expedition, heading out into the uncharted wilderness with nothing but a case of Slim Jims and a keg of gunpowder. (Which would’ve been seized at the security gate by TSA agents anyway. The Slim Jims, I mean; they’re dangerous!)

It’s just that in order to travel successfully from Connecticut to Florida by air, many different things have to happen exactly right. Over the years, my wife and I have experienced just about everything that could go wrong in these situations. We’ve had cars that got a flat tire halfway to the airport. We’ve had airline computer systems crash so no one was able to check in or print boarding passes. We’ve has security lines so long you would’ve thought we were camping out overnight to buy World Series tickets. We’ve had the plane we were supposed to travel on not show up from O’Hare because of thunderstorms in Chicago. And most bizarre of all, we’ve had the plane show up on time, and after we boarded it, they couldn’t get one of the engines started again. So, after deplaning (is that even a word?) we sat around the airport for six hours waiting for the maintenance crew to locate a set of jumper cables.

The bottom line is: traveling by air is exhausting. I understand the weather in Florida was nice during our vacation, but I’m not sure, since I slept the whole time.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Love Enemies in Our Hateful Culture

If you haven’t noticed, our culture is very polarized these days. The level of hateful anger is alarmingly high. Historians tell us this is not the worst it’s ever been in U.S. history. For example, back in 1968 our nation was almost ripped apart, with an unpopular war in Vietnam, racial strife, assassinations, and riots in the streets. And of course, many, many years ago, in the 1860s, the nation was truly ripped apart by the Civil War, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and entire American cities destroyed.

So, I guess it’s reassuring to know things have been worse in the past. Well, actually, no, it’s not all that reassuring, since it feels like another civil war could begin at any moment.

Nowadays, one of the most severe accusations you can level at someone is to call him or her a “hater.” But ironically, the people who most often fire out this accusation are themselves consumed with hate. The attitude used to be, “You don’t think the way I do, so I disagree with you.” Now the attitude is, “You don’t think the way I do, so I hate you!” There’s just way too much hate in today’s culture.

The recent obsession with anti-social media makes things worse. Yes, I know it’s called social media. When Internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were first invented, they were indeed social—for about nine minutes. But then people realized these high-tech communication networks could be used to spew venom toward large groups of people at once, and ever since they’ve really been mostly anti-social media.

In times such as these, when hatred and polarization are spiraling out of control, there is only one person to turn to for advice. (No, I don’t mean the Tweeter-in-Chief, who is high on the list of notable venom-spewers.) The person I have in mind is Jesus Christ.

Now, it’s true that social media was a bit more primitive in 33 A.D. For example, the apostles often had to go days at a time without a decent wifi signal.

During His amazing Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered this important teaching: “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).

On first glance, you might think that this is very hard to do. And then on second glace, you might think this is absolutely impossible to do. We’re supposed to love our enemies?! We’re supposed to pray for those who persecute us?! OK, I guess we can pray that our enemies get struck by lightning or hit by a bus. That would be following Jesus’ command, right? No, not right. When you want something bad to happen to someone, that’s not praying for them; that’s cursing them.

There is really only one way we can follow Jesus’ command and truly love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We must focus on the fact that every single person on earth was created by God in His image, and is very much loved by God.

That’s right, even that annoying person who posts all those hateful and infuriating comments on Facebook was created in God’s image and is loved by God. Most likely God is not thrilled with his behavior these days, but God still loves him. And we need to love him, too.

Obviously, loving someone whose behavior is rather unlovable is not an easy thing to do. But whenever someone says or does something that raises our blood pressure, instead of formulating a witty and nasty reply—which only inflames the situation—we must remember that God loves that person. Is it smart to hate a person who God loves?

There are two other things we need to do. First, be ready to invoke another of Jesus’ famous sayings: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Empathetic tenderness is always a whole lot better than seething hatred.

Here’s the second thing that must be done: delete your Facebook account. No, really. Do it today! It may be the best thing that ever happened to your soul.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Obsolete Words Reveal Our True Age

Recently I read an article titled, “40 Words that Reveal Your True Age.” The main theme of the article is that even if a person was born and raised in the 20th century, we are now living in the 21st century, so it’s time to stop talking as if your favorite TV show is “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

There are some phrases on the list that I never use, such as: ice box, milkman, and slide rule. But I do remember my parents saying those words.

Here are some words that are obsolete today, but which I frequently employ in my everyday speech:

Rolodex – Maybe some people still use a Rolodex, but I threw mine away in about 1995. However, when I need to find someone’s phone number, I often say, “Let me check my Rolodex,” as I open the “contacts” app on my smart phone.

Dictionary – We probably still have a dictionary somewhere in our home, but I haven’t touched it in at least two decades. I find that the dictionary.com website is a whole lot quicker, although I still say, “I’ll look it up in the dictionary.”

Answering machine – I’m pretty sure I mostly say “voice mail” nowadays, but I will occasionally say something like this to my wife, “Oh, the red light’s blinking on the phone. I’ll check the answering machine.”

Cassette tape – I still own cassette tapes, but I no longer have any cassette players to play them. I’m not sure why I continue to hold onto these tapes, but some of them are my most favorite mixtapes of the 1970s and ‘80s, and it would be sad to see them go. By the way, the word “mixtape” is also on the obsolete word list. The correct word now is “playlist.”

Flash bulb – I’m pretty sure I don’t use this phrase anymore, but I have fond memories of Christmas mornings in the 1960s and giggling with my siblings as our dad extracted a used flash bulb and swore under his breath when it burned his fingers. Then he quickly popped in a fresh one so he could damage our little retinas some more while capturing the joyful moment in pictures.

Operator – I recently uttered this sentence: “Just call the operator and see if she has their current phone number.” First off, I’m not even sure if there are operators working for the phone company anymore. And secondly, if there are, why would they automatically be “she”? I know that makes it seem like I was raised in the 1800s, but in my defense, I said that because we couldn’t find the current phone number using Google, Bing, Siri, Alexa, and Ask Jeeves. (If you’re not sure what “Ask Jeeves” is, or more accurately, was, just Google it.)
Carbon copy – I certainly remember the carbon copy days, especially when I put the carbon paper in backwards and instead of making a copy, I ended up with my page being typed on both sides of the same piece of paper. I don’t currently use the phrase “carbon copy,” but when I want multiple copies of a document, I do say the next word…

Xerox – There was a time when the Xerox company was so dominant, copy machines, regardless of the actual manufacturer, were known as “Xerox machines.” Now, I’m not even sure the firm still exists.
The article I read warned that if you still use these obsolete words and phrases, other people will know how old you are. Hmm, I’m pretty sure regardless of the words I use, the gray hair and deep lines on my face send the clear message: this guy’s favorite TV show is “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Speaking the Truth in Love

In this week’s Scripture readings at Mass, a few verses jump out: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:4); “When the people…heard this, they were all filled with fury” (Luke 4:28); “Love is patient, love is kind….it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4,6).

These three passages, one each from the three readings, summarize the Pro-Life movement.

First, the Lord God tells the prophet Jeremiah that he was divinely selected even before his conception to be a great prophet in Israel. Contained within this declaration is the clear message that God forms people in the womb, therefore, they are not merely “a clump of cells” that can be discarded like a loose piece of knee cartilage, but unique precious human beings.

The pro-life verses in Scripture are, of course, not the only evidence that pre-born life is sacred. In the 46 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, modern science has made remarkable discoveries: children in the womb have heartbeats and brainwaves; they feel pain; they smile, frown, sleep, and get the hiccups; they suck their thumbs.

Here are two sincere questions for pro-choice people: If it’s not alive, why is it growing? And if it’s not a human being, what kind of being is it?

When you ask these questions, you’ll most likely get the same reaction Jesus got in this week’s gospel reading: “When the people…heard this, they were all filled with fury.”

Nothing infuriates pro-choicers more than directing the conversation away from their important, yes, but secondary issues—the right to privacy, personal autonomy, decisions between a woman and her doctor—and putting the focus instead on the primary issue: is a human life being destroyed or not?

The fury that arises when people take a stand for the sanctity of life is probably why, after attending Mass regularly for over three decades, I rarely hear anything about abortion during homilies.

I have, however, read many articles where priests explain if they ever gave a strong pro-life homily, half the congregation would walk out in a huff and the other half would write nasty letters to the archbishop criticizing the priest for being “divisive.”

Well, I guess it’s a real risk to speak the truth. Jesus demonstrated this when His truthful criticism of the people’s unwillingness to accept the words of a prophet caused them to be “filled with fury” and attempt to kill Him. Later on, fury over Jesus’ truthful words DID result in His death.

Our third notable Scripture passage this week, from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, offers a guideline for dealing with difficult issues: “Love is patient, love is kind….it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.”

The key to presenting an uncomfortable and often divisive message is love. If our motivation is to win the argument or condemn those with a different viewpoint, it is unlikely any minds or hearts will be changed. But if our motivation is love—a love for God, a love for the truth, and a sincere love for those who disagree with us—then the truth of God just might sink in and transform someone’s heart.

Success is not guaranteed, obviously. Jesus spoke the truth with love and kindness and they still wanted to kill Him. But in the grand scheme of things, as Mother Teresa pointed out, we’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful.

Whether it’s proclaiming pro-life homilies at Mass, or discussing uncomfortable issues with family members and co-workers, we must rejoice with the truth. Yes, we might cause a little tension or ruffle a few feathers. But that’s what we have to do, because that’s what the Lord commands us to do.