Friday, April 20, 2018

Prophetic Words Reveal a Man’s Limitations

Throughout my life, I’ve always tried to follow the wisdom of my favorite Old Testament prophet, Clint Eastwood, who said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

 For example, a few years ago, it was suggested that instead of being just a member of the church choir, I also should be one of the cantors, that is, one of the folks who sings solo parts during Mass. I thought about it for maybe one-tenth of one millisecond and then replied, “No way! Not unless Jesus gives me a brand new voice. And even then, the answer is still no!!” 

Sitting in the back row occasionally grunting out some low harmonies is one thing, but doing a solo is just not in my skill set. I know my limitations.

 This is similar to another wise saying offered by a different Old Testament prophet, my mom, who said, “Don’t make a fool of yourself in public.” This was true back in the 1970s, and it’s still true today. (Although she considers this weekly column proof that I ignored her advice, which, I guess, most of the time is the case.)

 Anyway, I mention this idea about knowing one’s limitations because of a current news story. Amid the swirling craziness in Washington DC, President Trump is pondering whether he should be interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Political columnist Rich Lowry points out that even if Mueller is not conducting a “witch hunt,” as Trump often claims, the Special Counsel would be delighted to pounce on the slightest misstatement offered by the president. Lowry explains, “[Trump] shouldn’t voluntarily subject himself to a process suited to create an impeachable offense where there wasn’t one before.”

From what I’ve read, most people close to the president are advising him not to meet with Mueller. However, given that Mr. Trump is unfamiliar with the wisdom offered by Clint Eastwood, and he truly believes he has no limitations — not to mention that he’s totally convinced he is able to talk his way out of any situation — I think it’s likely the president will be sitting down with Mueller in the near future.

And if that happens, because our Dear Leader has a habit of speaking first and thinking later, Mueller with be able to compile a few dozen conflicting and damaging statements offered by the president. As soon as the Democrats retake Congress after the midterm elections in November, the impeachment proceedings will commence posthaste, and right around this time next year, I predict, President Pence will be taking the oath of office. Then, of course, a new Special Counsel can begin digging into everything ever said and done by Mr. Pence, including a “does not play well with others” comment on his Kindergarten report card in 1964, and his impeachment proceedings will commence even posthaster.

 And why will all this happen? Because a certain flamboyant real estate developer from New York never watched the “Dirty Harry” movies and learned this important lesson: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

(Oh yeah, by the way, Clint Eastwood did not say that in the Old Testament; it was actually in a movie. But my mom definitely is a prophet, but more of a New Testament type.)

So, when 2019 becomes known as the “Year of Impeachments,” I won’t bother watching the proceedings on TV. I already know how it will turn out. Instead, I’ll be watching a DVD of the movie “Magnum Force.” Too bad the people in Washington never watched it.

 On the other hand, the way things are going right now, impeachment followed by public execution might happen by next Monday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

God’s Inclusive Exclusivity

This week is labeled on the Church calendar as the “Fourth Sunday of Easter.” But we might as well call it “Politically Incorrect Sunday.” In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter makes a proclamation that has offended people for centuries—especially in recent generations when Relativism has reigned supreme in the popular culture.

Speaking about Jesus, Peter declares, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under Heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

Oh boy. Talk about narrow and intolerant. You can’t put a gentle spin on that sentence. Peter is saying plainly that the ONLY way to be saved and enter into Heaven, the ONLY way to avoid eternal damnation, is through Jesus Christ.

Before getting upset, a couple of points should be noted. First, Christians didn’t invent this Jesus-only doctrine; Jesus did. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So, don’t start screaming at believers for being the messenger. If the Jesus-only doctrine really rubs people the wrong way, they should take it up with Jesus Himself. But remember: if God is really God, then He has every right to offer the world salvation via one path or via many paths. He also has the right, by the way, not to offer this sinful world salvation at all. Thankfully God did offer a sinful world salvation, and apparently, going by the words of Jesus, He chose one path.

Secondly, Peter’s claim that “there is no salvation through anyone else,” is not the same thing as saying, “There is no salvation through any other church denomination but mine.”

Many folks subtly transform the Jesus-only doctrine into the “Our liturgy-only doctrine,” or the “My creed-only doctrine,” or the “This tradition-only doctrine,” or the “Our translation of the Bible-only doctrine.” This technique, transforming God’s way into “Our special interpretation of God’s way,” is what really offends people—and rightfully so.

The Gospel reading this week offers some insight into how God can be exclusive—the Jesus-only doctrine—while at the same time be much more inclusive than we might think. During His famous “I am the Good Shepherd” speech, Jesus tucks a curious little concept right in the middle of it. After explaining that He will lay down His life for His sheep, and that His sheep know Him, Jesus changes gears and adds, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice.”

Maybe by “other sheep” Jesus also was referring to groups with no apparent ties to Christianity, such as Jews, Hindus, Muslims, the Democratic National Committee, and Jesuit-run universities. After all, Jesus is the eternal “Word” through whom all things were made. Maybe people who have reverence for the mysterious force which created the world are really worshipping Christ without knowing His name.

Jesus said He is the way, the truth, and the life. Maybe those people who sincerely seek the truth are actually seeking Him and don’t yet realize that the true Truth has been personified in Christ.

It just might turn out that God’s plan of salvation is very narrow and Politically Incorrect—salvation through Jesus only—and at the same time it is very inclusive and broad. Love is like that.

When we get to Heaven, we may be surprised by who is there (and maybe even more surprised by who is not there). Most of all we should be grateful that God offers us a way to get there at all.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Don’t Forget to Feed the Animals

Recently I was on a three-day business trip. About 20 salesmen and engineers from all over the country gathered at a manufacturer’s facility for a series of meetings and training seminars. Over the last 30 years I’ve been on so many of these trips I’ve lost count. (Which makes some of my coworkers wonder why, after so much training, my favorite comment in the office is, “Um, good question. I dunno.”)

I may not have learned all I should on these many trips, but I have learned that it’s very important for the host company to feed its visitors. Most of the companies I’ve visited do a great job, especially the firms located in the Midwest, where they feel obligated to show those of us who are “east coast city slickers” what REAL barbeque is supposed to taste like. A few years ago, I was scheduled for my annual physical exam right after returning home from a trip to Missouri. My doctor got concerned when test results showed that my blood was 73-percent barbeque sauce.

Anyway, on my recent trip, the host company put a delightful young lady in charge of feeding all the visitors. There were only two problems: 1) she weighs 90 pounds, and 2) she’s a vegan. Her definition of “feeding the visitors” and the visitors’ definition of “feeding the visitors” could not have been more different.

You know how sometimes when you’re at a hotel, and what they call breakfast turns out to be “continental breakfast,” that is, just a fancy way of saying “no breakfast”? I guess there are some people in the world who think a cup of coffee and a croissant the size of your thumb is an actual breakfast, but I definitely don’t think that’s true, nor do most of the guys I regularly run into in the HVAC engineering world.

On the first morning of the recent trip, we were told not to bother buying breakfast at the hotel restaurant because there would be food at the company offices. When we got to the offices and saw what was available, some of the guys said, “Gee, I wish I had a continental breakfast right about now.”

If you took the total amount of food present, and divided by 20 people, there definitely was enough sustenance per person to keep a 90-pound vegan alive — for a couple hours. But the 20 confused carnivores in the room averaged, I would estimate, at least 220 pounds each, and so it was a somewhat awkward situation. Most of us consoled ourselves by saying, “Well, when they bring out the snacks during our 10 a.m. break, that will kind of be our breakfast.”

Oops, we had a 10 a.m. break all right, but apparently 90-pound vegans are unfamiliar with the concept of “snacks.” I guess she didn’t want us to ruin our appetites, as it was only two more hours until we each got a slice of soy cheese and tomato. Mmm, mmm, good.

At the end of the three days, as is common, our hosts asked for feedback on how to make the training seminars better. An engineer from Oklahoma said, “I think the training would be better if you gave us some protein. I mean, man, late yesterday afternoon I thought I was gonna faint!”

The host, somewhat surprised by this off-topic comment, asked, “Well, what do you suggest?”

The guy from Oklahoma replied, “Just bring a cow in here and give us a couple of sharp knives. We’ll take care of the rest.”

I’m not saying that folks in the HVAC industry are pigs, but — ooh, pigs. That reminds me: some bacon would’ve been nice, too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Jesus Transcends Denominations

The Catholic Church sincerely believes that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church and gave her the full deposit of faith. But many people misinterpret this to mean the Church teaches that all non-Catholic denominations are NOT teaching the truth and therefore their members are going to Hell. This often leads to harsh words and occasional fisticuffs (and in centuries past, actual wars).

However, that idea could not be further from the truth. It is, in fact, possible to believe the following two statements at the same time: 1) The Catholic Church has been given the “fullness of the faith” by God, and 2) Other non-Catholic groups believe more than enough of the faith for salvation.

So, to put it in personal terms, I can wholeheartedly wish that every person on earth becomes Catholic, and without contradiction, I also can say if someone enters into a relationship with Christ at, say, a Baptist or Methodist church, I will cry tears of joy for them.

You see, the key to Heaven is not found in a particular church institution. The key to Heaven is Jesus. The Bible mentions this fact only about a zillion times. Here are a few: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). “Jesus said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). “The jailer said to Paul and Barnabas, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).

Now, even though the key to Heaven is Jesus, the institutional Church is not unimportant. It is the vehicle God chose to spread the Gospel message from generation to generation. After spending a fair amount of time studying the history of Christianity, it became clear to me only one institution was founded by Christ Himself and commissioned to spread the Good News: the Catholic Church. The Church was given the full deposit of faith by God, and has been preaching that message uninterrupted for 2,000 years.

This, of course, does not mean the Catholic Church herself is perfect. Far from it. A study of the history of Christianity reveals that many Church officials over the centuries behaved so terribly, it almost seems they had a secret, sinister plot to destroy the Church. But it wasn’t nearly that dramatic—it was just plain ol’ sin at work.

In God’s wisdom, He entrusted His perfect message to an imperfect institution. Maybe He thought if the Church was perfect, people might be tempted to worship the Church rather than God. Well, as events have shown in recent decades, no risk of that happening anytime soon.

Again, the key to Heaven is Christ, and Christ can be found most fully in the Eucharist at Mass. But as an old saying I just made up goes, “A little bit of Jesus is a whole lotta Jesus.” He most definitely is present in other Christian denominations. I suspect He also is present, in a hidden sort of way, in certain aspects of other non-Christian religions.

If your non-Catholic friends or co-workers start giving you the business by saying things like, “So, your Catholic Church says I’m going to Hell, huh?” very calmly reply, “Oh no. As long as you put your faith in Jesus, you’re in good shape. If you worship Jesus at the local Baptist or Methodist church, I will shout, ‘Hooray for you!’”

Then after a brief pause, feel free to add, “But really now, wouldn’t you like to be a member of the one Church founded by Jesus, the Church that’s been given the fullness of the faith?”

Then get ready to duck.

# # #

(Note: this essay was written before those sensational Holy Week headlines: “Pope declares there is no Hell – Vatican scrambles to clarify.” I’ll comment on that story in the near future, as soon as I pick up my jaw from the floor.)

Friday, April 6, 2018

Don’t Be a ‘Court Gesture’

Recently I read an interesting article about certain common gestures and how they are interpreted in foreign countries. For example, standing around with your hands in your pockets usually mean you’re feeling at ease or even trying to look “cool.” Although in my case, I was only “cool” once in my life, for about three minutes in 1975, so the “at ease” option is the only one I understand.

However, in China and Japan, standing with your hands in your pockets is a sign of being rude. Travelers are instructed to keep their hands hanging loosely at their sides to keep from offending the locals. But what if you really are concerned about the concept of being “cool,” that is, the weather is much colder than you expected? What if it’s a very chilly morning and you forgot to pack gloves? Hmm, it could become an international incident. Good thing I have no business trips scheduled for Asia any time soon.

Another gesture that is frowned upon in Asia is our American habit of automatically shaking hands with everyone we meet. Over there the proper custom is to bow when you greet someone. But what if you have a bad back, and a lot of bowing will risk an injury? What if you’ve been in sales for 35 years, like me, and shaking hands is such an ingrained habit that you instinctively reach out your right hand, even when you come near a street lamp, telephone pole, or mail box?

In America a common hand gesture is the “thumbs-up” sign. It means “good” or “right” or, if you’re the star of a movie about World War II fighter pilots, it means “ready for take-off.” But in nations such as Iran, Iraq, and certain parts of Italy and Greece, the thumbs-up gesture means “up yours, pal,” which, regardless of your ethnic heritage, is not a pleasant message to send.

A hand gesture very similar to the “thumbs-up” sign is the “OK” symbol, where you make a circle with you thumb and index finger. We know this sign means “fine,” “good,” “I understand,” etc. However, in the countries of Turkey and Brazil, the OK gesture communicates, according to the article I read, a “vulgar slang.” The article did not elaborate on the exact nature of the vulgar slang, so I did a Google search and discovered that in Turkey, if you flash the OK symbol to a man, it means you are questioning whether he finds women physically attractive — if you get my drift — only in cruder, ruder, and much more insulting terms.

So, I guess if you’re in Istanbul, and the taxi driver asks, “Did you say the Marriott, sir?” just reply, “Yes.” Don’t flash the OK sign, unless you want a hairy fist crashing into your face.

Here in America, the two-finger “V” symbol is known as the “peace sign” (or the “we need two more beers over here, please,” sign).

But in Britain and other Commonwealth nations, the “V” symbol, especially with the palm pointing inward, is a major insult. Basically, this two-finger salute is double the ubiquitous one-finger salute. So, if you find yourself in a London pub, and you wish to order a couple more pints, do not casually lift two fingers toward the bartender, unless you want those two pints poured over your head.

When watching those old war documentaries, I though Churchill flashing the “V” symbol meant “V for Victory.” But I guess he was just telling Hitler, “Up yours, pal.”

All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not planning to fly overseas anytime soon. The only foreign countries I need to visit this year are Miami and New York City.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Death is Not Natural

While my father lay dying recently, I tried to console myself by saying, “Well, he lived a long, full life, and now death is just a natural part of life.”

Yes, he did live a long, full life. And if there were some way to guarantee that I’d also make it to age 86, I’d sign on the dotted line without hesitation. But wait a minute: death is NOT a natural part of life (no matter what Yoda said). Death is an obscenity, and was NEVER a part of God’s original plan.

Death was brought into the world through sin. When creation rebelled against its Creator—with Adam and Eve leading the way and everyone since following in their footsteps—that ideal paradise situation was lost.

The fall was so severe, the effects of death so destructive, that it took nothing short of divine intervention to remedy the situation. God became man, paid the ultimate price for sin by dying on the cross, and then rose from the tomb conquering death once and for all.

We can rejoice in the glorious fact that death is no longer final because of the atoning work of Christ. Our souls can live for eternity if we trust in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that death doesn’t hurt. It’s still painful and heart-breaking and a gross corruption of God’s good creation. And it is NOT a natural part of life.

We know death is horrible because of the way Jesus reacted when confronted with death. In Matthew’s gospel we read, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

Jesus needed to be alone for a while and grieve. The death of John the Baptist caused Him to be filled with sorrow. Just like us when a loved one dies, Jesus too had to take time to mourn.

If death is just a natural part of life, Jesus should have rejoiced at the news that John the Baptist was dead. “Woo hoo!” He should’ve shouted, pumping a fist into the air. “John’s in Heaven. No more pain, no more suffering, and most of all, no more locust burgers for lunch!”

But that’s not what Jesus did. Not even close.

The whole concept of death was abhorrent to Jesus. This is why at another time and place He wept while standing before Lazarus’ tomb. He knew He was about to raise Lazarus back to life, and yet death was so repugnant that He couldn’t help but weep at its corrupting effect on His once good creation.

Oh sure, some people claim the real reason Jesus wept was because of the people’s lack of faith. I don’t think so. For three straight years He had been dealing with people who didn’t understand or didn’t believe. He never wept then. But He wept in front of Lazarus’ tomb because the stench of death—not just in His nostrils but in His soul—was so painful. Death had defiled His awesome creation.

Maybe this poignant moment with Lazarus was the emotional boost Jesus needed to march toward Jerusalem and put an end to this obscenity once and for all. Because that’s exactly what happened: Holy Week and the Passion came right after the raising of Lazarus. And thank God that Jesus willingly submitted to the repugnance of death so that we could live in Heaven forever.

It’s sad that my dad died. He did live a long, full life. But I have to stop telling myself that death is just a natural part of life. It’s not. It makes the Lord weep.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Time to Go Back to Paper Books

About six years ago I purchased an Amazon Kindle, which is a small electronic gizmo that allows you to read books on a screen. The device can store thousands of volumes in its microchip memory, and these volumes are known as e-books. This term means “electronic books,” but I think it really comes from people’s reactions when they open their credit card bills and exclaim, “E-gads! How many books did I download last month?!”

After spending about $100 for the Kindle, I didn’t want to spend another ten or twelve bucks for each book I downloaded, so I focused primarily on books that were old enough to be in the “public domain.” In other words, I could download these books for free.

I read many books by Dickens, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, and even Shakespeare. Back when I was reading these books, my wife pointed out that I was finally doing the high school homework assignments I was supposed to do in 1974. She’s right. When I was 17 and required to read those books, it seemed like torture. I chose instead to call my girlfriend (now my wife) the night before a test and beg her to summarize the book for me. (Some people had Cliff Notes; I had Joyce Notes.) But many decades later, as a middle-aged schlep, I discovered that reading these classics was a lot of fun. Not having to worry about taking a test, the results of which could ruin my chances of getting into college, may have been a major reason why I enjoyed it.

However, after six years and hundreds of books (OK, OK, dozens of books), I have come to a startling realization: I am sick and tired of reading books on a glowing screen.

It’s not that I can’t see the print; I can see it fine. It’s just that I miss having a hunk of paper in my hands, with real pages that I can turn, rather than swiping my finger across a screen.

I miss using Post-it notes for bookmarks. I miss being able to quickly see how many pages I have left in a chapter. I miss grabbing a red pen and underlining an inspiring passage and scribbling some notes in the margin. Yes, I realize that Kindles and iPads allow you to create electronic bookmarks and highlight passages and insert little pop-up boxes with your personal notes, but it’s just not the same. Besides needing to take an advanced software class just to learn how to activate these clever little features, using electronic bookmarks and creating little pop-up boxes feels too much like being at my job.

Where I work, I have to use electronic gizmos all day long, including synchronizing my email folders and my appointment calendar to my iPhone and iPad; connecting to the office’s network and printers via wifi; and programing the phone system to automatically send voice messages to my cell phone via audio files attached to email notes. It seems every three days something is being upgraded or modified, and a whole new learning curve must be climbed. Many weeks I spend more time being trained how to use electronic devices than I spend doing my job.

So, when it’s time to relax and enjoy a good book, I want it to be a low-tech experience. I want a hunk of paper in my hands. Now obviously, I don’t want to destroy an entire forest to print up a pile of books just for me. If only there was a place in town with a collection of books people could borrow. Wouldn’t that be great? Someone should look into it.