Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sad and Confused? Open Up the Word

This week’s gospel reading is the fascinating story of Jesus’ appearance to two of His followers on the road to Emmaus just after His resurrection.

The two people, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, were heading home after the Passover feast, and they were sad and confused. Sad because the man they thought would redeem Israel had been put to death by the religious leaders, and confused because some of the women disciples had reported that the tomb was empty and angels had announced Jesus was alive.

As the two friends walked, Jesus Himself came alongside and began to walk with them, but they did not recognize Him. Why didn’t they recognize Him? It’s hard to say. Maybe they had been crying and couldn’t see clearly. Maybe everyone’s head was covered to protect against the sun and the dust. Maybe they had only seen and heard Jesus from a distance and did not know what He looked like face to face. After all, Jesus rarely posted selfies on Instagram.

Anyway, to remedy their sadness and confusion, Jesus immediately began to explain the Scriptures. Well, not exactly immediately. The first thing He said to the two people was, “Oh, how foolish you are!” (Ouch, I hate it when the Creator of the Universe calls me a fool. But in my case, at least it happens only on days that end in “Y”.)

The gospel reading says, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them what referred to Him in all the Scriptures.” That must’ve been quite a lecture, to have the Incarnate Word of God interpret the written Word of God.

In one of the key verses of the gospel reading, the two disciples said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He spoke to us on the way and OPENED THE SCRIPTURES to us?” (emphasis added).

The answer to spiritual sadness and confusion is to open the Scriptures. But it is important that the Scriptures be interpreted and explained by someone with knowledge and authority. The Bible is not a self-interpreting document.

I’m sure many people can relate to what I did about 30 years ago. Realizing finally that the Word of God is important, I picked up a Bible and started reading it like a Tom Clancy novel. I figured I would simply start with the first chapter, “Genesis,” and read it straight through to the last chapter, “Maps.”

I muddled through Genesis and Exodus, recognizing some of the famous stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, etc. But when I got to all those tedious genealogies in Numbers, I couldn’t take it anymore. In total frustration, I put down the book and concluded two things: I was a moron, and the Bible was written only for theologians. (It turns out I was half right. The Bible was NOT written only for theologians.)

I was exactly like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, chapter 8. (Well, not exactly. I’m not Ethiopian.) He was reading from the prophet Isaiah in the Scriptures. St. Philip said to him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:30-31).

It’s imperative that all believers receive instruction in the Word of God. Thankfully, many Catholic parishes now hold regular Bible study classes. Also, there are new and exciting resources available online, such as Dr. Scott Hahn’s “St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies” (stpaulcenter.com); Formed.org, a terrific resource for Catholic information; and, of course, Mother Angelica’s miracle of faith, the popular EWTN media empire. 

Whatever you do, don’t follow my example. The Bible definitely is not a Tom Clancy novel. Find a local parish Bible Study, or view some good Catholic videos online. The key is to make the commitment to OPEN THE SCRIPTURES. You’ll never regret it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Hurray! Spring Has Sprung

Finally, the long cold winter is over and spring has arrived. Or as I call it, the blister season.

Don’t get me wrong, I love spring. Winter can be kind of brutal in these parts. For example, it’s just plain wrong to have what seems like no more than five hours of daylight per day. Notice I didn’t say “sunshine” per day, since during the winter months we can easily go two weeks at a stretch with nothing but a thick gray cover of clouds. And it’s very depressing to wake up in the morning, turn on the radio, and hear the weatherman say (in an annoyingly cheery voice, of course), “It’s four degrees outside right now! But relief is in sight, as it should reach the upper teens this afternoon.”

So, I’m thrilled spring is finally here, and I’m relieved that I made it through another winter season without frostbite, hypothermia, or skidding off an icy road into the guardrails. But at least during the winter I never get blisters.

As soon as the weather warmed up recently, when the last ugly brown snow bank along the side of the road finally melted, my first thought was to lace up the ol’ sneakers and take a brisk walk in the warm sunshine. The first half-mile of my springtime walk was great. But then something reminded me that “ol’ sneakers” is not just a quaint expression. My ratty Converse All Stars are in fact really, REALLY old. Any cushioning they might have once provided wore out sometime during the Carter Administration. Specifically, the something that reminded me my sneakers soon will be old enough to join A.A.R.P. was pain — a hot, shooting pain, which emanated from my left heel, my right pinkie toe, and the balls of both of my feet.

My purposeful, brisk stride was suddenly reduced to a slow, gingerly limp — making me look like I should’ve joined A.A.R.P. a few decades ago. At this point I discovered a sad fact: if you walk a half-mile in a straight line directly away from your house, there is no way to return home without walking another half-mile. (Must be some kind of math thing.) I was tempted to call home and beg for a ride, but I forgot to bring my cell phone.

When I finally returned to my house, all I wanted to do was peel off my sneakers and stick my feet into an ugly brown snow bank, or, since they all had melted, a bucket of ice water. But my wife had other ideas. As I limped up the driveway, she greeted me with a smile — and a rake. “Here,” she said. “You start in the front yard. I’ll start in the back.”

So, a couple of hours later, I not only had blisters all over my feet, but after raking up all the sticks and leaves and pine cones and dead possums that had accumulated on our lawn over the last six months, I had blisters on both hands as well. (Oh yeah, I also had a blister on my nose since I forgot to wear a hat or apply any sunscreen.) 

That evening I tried to ignore the pain as I took turns dipping various appendages into a bucket of ice water. My feet were screaming, my hands were raw, and my nose looked like W.C. Fields, only larger and redder. But when I looked out the window and saw it was still light outside even though it was approaching 8 p.m. — and not just gray filtered winter daylight, but actual springtime SUNSHINE — I said with a smile, “This is still a whole lot better than winter!”

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thomas Turns Doubt Into Faith

This week’s gospel reading tells the familiar story of “Doubting Thomas.” Years ago, when I first became a Christian, I remember reading this episode in the Bible, and I shook my head and said, “Thomas, Thomas, how could you be so stubborn? How could you insult Jesus like that? I wonder why He even picked you as a disciple in the first place?”

Then after Thomas expressed his faith in the Lord, Jesus summarized the incident by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

And right at that point, I smiled and said, “Yep, that’s me. I haven’t seen, but I believe. If Jesus had picked me to be one of the Twelve, I would have been so loyal and faithful to the Lord, they’d have had to write a separate book of the New Testament just about me!” (I could even envision a typical Mass thousands of years later: “And the second reading this week is from the Book of the Best Disciple, Bill…”)

Back when I was being so judgmental toward Thomas and the other the disciples, I had just become a Christian. My faith in Christ had given me the power to stop abusing alcohol and drugs, and I was convinced that living a life of righteousness and faithfulness was easy. Also, I was in my late 20s, which meant I was convinced that pretty much ANYTHING was easy.

But now, I’m a whole lot older and a tiny bit wiser, and I know myself a little better. I’ve learned from experience that living a life of righteousness and faithfulness is anything but easy.
 

And now when I read this Doubting Thomas episode in the Bible, I shake my head and say, “Thomas, Thomas, I am so glad Jesus picked you instead of me to be one of the Twelve, because I would have screwed it up big time!”

More than three decades of TRYING to live faithfully to Jesus and His teachings has proven beyond a doubt that I am very prone to fear, frustration, discouragement, and most of all, doubt. And I’ve got two things going for me the disciples didn’t have: (1) I have the whole New Testament neatly compiled, which spells out exactly what God’s plan is; and (2) I live in a community where there are no Roman soldiers patrolling the streets ready to arrest and crucify me if they think I’m a trouble-maker. (By comparison, those annoying kids with their skateboards aren’t so annoying after all.)

When I hear the story of “Doubting Thomas” recited as Mass this week, I won’t be smirking about his lack of faith. Instead I’ll be admiring him for his logical thinking, and most of all, for his hope. After all, Thomas did hang around Jerusalem for an extra week, at a time when it was very risky to be one of Jesus’ followers. He couldn’t quite believe that Jesus was alive until he had seen it with his own eyes, but he certainly was hoping it was true.

Thomas took a huge risk staying in Jerusalem to find out whether the story was true or not. And once he discovered that Jesus had risen from the grave, his famous proclamation, “My Lord and my God!” was just the beginning. Church tradition tells us that Thomas became the first Christian missionary to India, where he eventually was martyred for preaching the faith. 

So, if Thomas was able to change his doubt into rock-solid faith, then maybe there’s still hope for me. And I don’t even mind anymore that there probably won’t be a New Testament book written about me. Probably.

Friday, April 14, 2017

More Stunning Research Studies

The results of a major research project were published last month. This is what the study discovered: college students who use large amounts of alcohol and marijuana get poor grades, while students who don’t use large amounts of these two drugs get better grades.

Yes, I’m sure you are just as surprised as I am. Who knew?! What I mean is: who knew researchers could actually waste time and money on something so, let me see if I can find the right phrase, so FREAKIN’ OBVIOUS!!

I think the researchers are on drugs. Maybe they simply studied themselves.

News reports explained the study was a joint effort (“joint effort,” get it?) between Yale University and the Institute of Living in Hartford. They studied more than 1,000 college freshmen over the course of four semesters. The report did not explain if this means they monitored the students from the time they enrolled in college until the end of their sophomore year, or whether these potheads needed four full semesters to complete their freshman year.

The saddest part of the news report was the last sentence: “Primary funding for the research came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).” In other words, primary funding came from you and me, hard-working American taxpayers who are too busy to sit around a dorm room all day and wash down bong hits with Iron City Beer while listening to Led Zeppelin albums.

OK, maybe that description is particular to a certain freshman dorm room in central Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s, and today’s college freshmen prefer different brands of beer and music while sitting around all day getting wasted. But I could’ve saved the taxpayers a lot of dough. All they had to do is track my college grades with the amount of time I sat in a central Pennsylvania dorm room engaging in brain cell destroying activities. Or they could’ve simply used a little common sense, something that apparently is not allowed when requesting government funding.

The very next day I read another news report about yet another research study, the results of which were published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers at Tufts University analyzed volumes of data about people’s eating habits and their incidents of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Here is the summary of this extensive, complicated project: if you eat “bad” foods you’re more likely to have health problems, and if you eat “good” foods you’re less likely to have health problems.

Um, yeah. Again, a real shocker. Good thing a ton of time and money was spent to find this out, otherwise I would’ve continued to believe my proclivity for bacon and doughnuts was the key to living to age 100. Although, in my case, it was actually a health improvement when I switched from booze and bongs to glazed crullers wrapped in bacon.

The “bad” foods are processed meats, bacon, hot dogs, salt, red meat, and sugary drinks. Or to use the official scientific term: tasty stuff. The “good” foods are fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Or again to use the official scientific term: yucky stuff. Anyone who has not been in a coma during the last 30 years already knows this information — not that it affects our eating habits very much, because of the TYD (tasty-yucky dilemma).


The news report did not explain where the funding came from for this study. But I’ll bet you a chili dog with bacon that once again the taxpayers paid the bill. With so much tax money being squandered, it’s surprising the average citizen has any money left over to buy a hot dog and a beer. Or maybe that’s the NIH’s master plan?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Resurrection is the Heart of Christianity

This Sunday we celebrate Easter. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

I am amazed by people who truly do NOT believe Jesus rose from the dead, and yet are still convinced Christianity is a wonderful religion. These folks believe that Jesus taught some terrific things about social and moral issues, and if people would simply follow those teachings the world would be a much better place.

Now, there’s no doubt if everyone followed Jesus’ teachings, the world indeed would be a much better place. But Jesus’ view on charity, compassion, and society’s obligation to the poor was not His main message—nor was it a new message, as many philosophies before and after the time of Jesus had “love your neighbor” as the basis of social morality.

Jesus’ main message was Himself. Specifically, that He alone could forgive our sins; He alone could pay the price for our transgressions by dying on the cross; and He alone—pay close attention here—could conquer death once and for all by rising from the grave.

St. Paul makes it abundantly clear that without the Resurrection, Christianity is nothing special. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, Paul wrote: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty, too, is our preaching….If only for this life have we hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.”

That really says it all: if Jesus did not in fact rise from the grave, our Christian faith is pitiful, pathetic, and ultimately useless.

Therefore, it really is amazing that there are so many people who say, “Well c’mon, only those wacky Fundamentalists and conservative Catholics believe a resurrection can really happen. But that’s OK, as long as we focus on Jesus’ wonderful teachings about love and forgiveness, and hold hands and sing ‘Cumbaya,’ then the whole world will be happy.”

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. If Jesus’ body remained dead and rotting in the tomb, then in the grand scheme of things, our faith is worthless. Oh sure, this brand of Christianity might make people feel good for a while, but it is powerless over mankind’s biggest problem: death.

There are some different people on the other end of the spectrum who also amaze me. These folks DO believe Jesus rose from the dead on that first Easter morning, and yet this earth-shattering event does not influence their lives at all.

These people say things like, “Yeah sure, I’m a Christian. I mean, I was baptized, and I believe Jesus rose from the dead and all that other stuff. Now, can we please stop talking about religion, ‘cause I gotta get down to the casino and try to win some money to pay my liquor store bill!”

Frankly, I’m kind of confused. We have many people who call themselves Christian who do not believe the central claim of Christianity: the actual, physical Resurrection of Jesus. And we have many other people who at least claim to believe in the Resurrection, but completely ignore the fact that Jesus calls His followers to live holy and righteous lives.

So this week, as we celebrate the most important date on the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday, maybe we need to focus on these to two crucial components of the faith: 1) Jesus really, truly did indeed rise from the dead; no doubt about it. And 2) because the Resurrection is true, we must live our lives according to the Lord’s will, not our own sinful, selfish will. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Customer Service Is a Pain, I Swear

To: All customer service personnel in America
From: A customer

Please don’t take this as a complaint. The last thing I want to do is sound like I’m complaining because, frankly, that is the subject of this letter: complaining.

Look, I understand. Over the years, I’ve worked in customer service positions. I know it’s very hard work. I know it’s tiring and frustrating.

That having been said, however, I would just like to point out that as a customer, I don’t particularly enjoy it when you complain about how much you hate your job — right in front of me.
The other morning on my way to work I stopped by a franchised retail establishment, which shall remain nameless, and ordered my usual medium black coffee and a glazed cruller. Before I could finish saying the word “cruller,” the person behind the counter taking my order turned away and yelled across the room to another employee, “Yeah, if he thinks I’m coming in at (swear word) 5 a.m. every day this week, he can shove it up his (slang word for a part of the human anatomy)!”

Then she turned back, looked at me as if I were a pile of dog (swear word), and snapped, “Whataya want?!”

I have to admit, the entire scene made me so uncomfortable, I couldn’t eat my glazed cruller. (No, I’m kidding. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Everyone knows that even if I were in a coma inside a full body cast, I could still wolf down a glazed cruller without any trouble.)

It’s a fact that retail establishments which are open from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. seven days a week have a great deal of difficulty getting people to work all those odd hours. And it’s a fact that if an employee is a wimp and doesn’t speak up, he or she probably will get stuck with the really lousy shifts.

So, I understand that you don’t want to be dumped on by the boss. You should speak your mind, and maybe even use that same vivid locker room language while discussing it with your boss. But please, for heaven’s sake, do it in private! Don’t air your dirty laundry in front of the whole (swear word) store.

Now, please don’t take my advice just because I’m a customer. I’ve worked in many places with that annoying sign hanging on the wall: “The Rules of this Company: 1) The customer is always right. 2) If the customer is wrong, see rule number 1.”

We both know that’s a crock of (swear word). The customer is NOT always right. Customers can be demanding and rude. Customers can give you an ulcer and can, I know from painful experience, suddenly declare bankruptcy and walk away from the $50,000 they owe your firm. Oh yeah, the customer is definitely not always right.

Don’t listen to me because I’m a customer. Listen to me because it’s simply the right thing to do. If you take my advice and stop complaining in front of the customers, I promise three things will happen. First, you’ll feel better. Trust me, acting like a jerk in public doesn’t get it off your chest, it just gives you another thing to feel guilty about.

Second, you’ll have a much better chance of becoming the boss someday (and experience the joy of having employees swear at you!). 

Finally, if you stop complaining, one of these days I just may give you a tip. But don’t hold your (swear word) breath. After all, I’m a pain-in-the-(slang word for a part of the human anatomy)-customer.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Power of Confession

The season of Lent is a great time to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation (or to use the phrase we grew up with: go to Confession). There is something incredibly powerful in this sacrament, when we audibly speak our failings to the priest, and then, through the power of Christ, the priest offers us absolution.

I remember attending a penance service years ago during Lent. Before receiving the sacrament, there was a period of quiet reflection, as we were encouraged to examined our consciences. One of the priests slowly recited questions for us to contemplate, such as, "Do I think of God during the day?" and, "Do I try to dominate others, using little tricks to have my own way?" and, "Do I accept being the person I am, realizing I am God's creation?"

The questions were grouped into three categories: My life with God, my life with others, and my life with myself.

When I heard these three categories, I was reminded of the three men who had the greatest influence on Western Civilization during the past 100 years: Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

Darwin presented a new view of man’s relationship with his creator. Marx presented a new view of man’s relationship with his fellow man. And Freud presented a new view of man’s relationship with himself.

These new views of mankind’s three most basic relationships became wildly popular during the 20th century. As a result, that century was the most faithless, the most bloody, and the most neurotic in history. Regrettably, our current 21st century appears poised to smash those records.

You see, Darwin, Marx, and Freud based their views on the idea that God—the all-powerful, supernatural Creator described in the Bible—is nothing more than a fairy tale. They each built their philosophies on an atheistic foundation. But if God is real (as approximately 9 out of 10 Americans believe), then each of these men completely ignored the most important aspect of reality.

As they say in the computer world, "GIGO" (Garbage In, Garbage Out). No matter how well-reasoned your analysis might be, if you start with an entirely incorrect assumption, your conclusions are bound to be off track.

(By the way, just to clarify, when I refer to Darwin, I’m not questioning micro-evolution, the observable changes that occur within biological species over time. I do question, however, macro-evolution, the unproven theory that all life on earth arose from non-living matter by purely random, unguided, unplanned, trial-and-error natural processes.)

If it appears that our modern society is unraveling at the seams, well, it is. This is because so many people do not have healthy relationships with God, with their fellow citizens, or even with themselves.

The teachings of Darwin, Marx, and Freud leave little room for repentance and confession. A “survival of the fittest” mentality does not encourage one to admit mistakes. Nor does a ruthless class struggle for political and economic power. Nor does blaming Mom and Dad for all our problems.

Maybe this is why one of the least heard phrases nowadays is, “I’m sorry,” while one of the most popular phrases is, “It’s not my fault.”

Jesus didn’t give ordained priests the power to forgive sins because He wanted the clergy to be important big shots. He did it because he knew when other people repented and audibly confessed their sins to another person, they truly would be healed. Man’s three most basic relationships would be restored. 

If your relationships with God, with your fellow man, and even with yourself aren’t so hot these days, why not try Confession during this Season of Lent? You’ll be pleasantly surprised.