Tuesday, June 19, 2018

John the Baptist’s Humble Passion


This weekend the church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist. Few people in the Bible were as colorful and controversial—and passionate—as John the Baptist.

John was the first person in Scripture to acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord. When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, greeted Elizabeth, pregnant with John, Elizabeth exclaimed, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy!” (Knowing John’s personality, Elizabeth’s belly probably quivered like a sack full of puppies.)


John’s divinely ordained mission in salvation history was that of forerunner. His job was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. It was only a supporting role in the grand story of God’s relationship with mankind. However, he played the part with passion and joy, and most importantly, he did not upstage the star of the show.

John the Baptist lived a counter-culture lifestyle and didn’t care what anyone thought about him. He lived in the desert, and as Matthew’s gospel explains, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair….His food was locusts and wild honey.” (This is weird, even by California standards.)

John was also brash and bold. When the respected religious leaders from Jerusalem came to see him, he shouted in their faces, “You brood of vipers!” Later on, he publicly denounced King Herod’s adulterous affair, and as a result was quickly tossed into prison. Soon after, Herod had John executed.

Although John’s brashness and boldness were obvious to anyone who came near him, his greatest trait, the one which guided his life the most, was humility. Now wait a minute, you say. Humility? John wasn’t humble. He was loud and obnoxious and he drew a big crowd wherever he went. How can you say humility was his greatest trait?

Well, we need to remember the true definition of humility. Being quiet and shy does not automatically make a person humble. Humility is being unconcerned about yourself—not comparing yourself to others nor worrying about what they think of you.

The opposite of humility is pride (the first and worst of all sins). Just as loud and brash people can be humble—if they are unconcerned about themselves—quiet and reserved people can be filled with sinful pride.

John the Baptist was not concerned with typical prideful thoughts, such as: “What’s in it for me?” “What will other people think of me?” “Does this camel’s hair robe make my butt look big?”

As John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, some wondered whether he was the long-awaited Messiah. John quickly refuted the idea. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he declared. “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.”

John easily could have parlayed his popularity into greater power and influence. But as soon as Jesus appeared, John knew it was time to step aside and let the true star have center stage.

When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John was stunned. He tried to deter Jesus and said, “I need to be baptized by you.” A prideful person never would have done that.

John the Baptist is a wonderful role model for all believers. His only desire was to do God’s will. He didn’t care about himself or what others thought about him. He directed everyone’s attention to Jesus rather than to himself. And to make things a bit more exciting, he didn’t hesitate to point out hypocrisy when he saw it, whether he was confronting pompous religious officials or the secular ruler of the land, King Herod himself.

We all should follow his lead: seek God’s will, and do it boldly, passionately, and most of all, humbly.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Grown-Up Hobbies Are Not Cheap



When I was a kid, my hobby was playing baseball in the backyard with neighborhood friends. We would play all day, every day, for the entire summer. The total cost of my hobby was exact $7.49 (six bucks for a bat, one dollar for a cheap baseball, and 49 cents for a roll of duct tape to repair the bat when it eventually cracked and to wrap around the baseball when the cover started to rip).

Now, many decades later, I don’t really have a hobby anymore — unless you count sitting on the couch and watching TV every evening. So, I thought it might be a good idea to find an activity that doesn’t turn my brain into a big bowl of guacamole, only with less conversational skills.

Unfortunately, I encountered a major problem trying to find a grown-up hobby: I have yet to win the lottery. You see, you can’t have a hobby nowadays unless you’ve won Power Ball or your name is Bezos. Here is a list of some hobbies for adults and their respective costs:

Boating – Owning a boat is a lot like having a cocaine addiction, except it costs a lot more and produces way more anxiety. Small boats cost as much as a BMW automobile; mid-sized boats cost as much as a Maserati; and large boats cost as much as a 7-bedroom colonial on four acres in Greenwich. But the cost of purchasing a boat is only a fraction of the true cost. You also must add in a trailer, the new truck required to pull the boat and trailer, docking fees, gas, insurance, and a team of fulltime mechanics.

Fishing – The cost of fishing is identical to the cost of boating, but you also have to add in a zillion dollars worth of “fishing gear.” Plus, you have to consider the “social cost” of having your hands always smelling like fish guts. Yeah, I’m pretty sure the ladies really dig that.

Snow Skiing – The proper equipment for skiing costs thousands of dollars. Lift tickets are obscenely expensive, and a new Volvo station wagon with a ski rack — which I believe is required by law in certain Yuppie areas of Vermont — is rather pricey these days. But the largest expense about skiing is the fact you have to hire your own personal orthopedic surgeon. Those guys do not work cheap.

Motorcycles – A few of my co-workers are into motorcycles. As best as I can figure, it’s a lot like boating, except when you fall off you don’t go “splash,” instead you go “crunch-crunch, scrape-scrape.” Maybe you can pair-up with a skiing enthusiast and share his surgeon. To give you an idea of the cost of motorcycling, if you want to buy a $12 black tee-shirt, you pay $12. But if you want to buy a $12 black tee-shirt with the Harley-Davidson logo on it, you pay $74. And the tee-shirt is the least expensive item in the world of biking.

Camping – Insects crawl into your nostrils while you sleep. Nuff said.

Golf – The financial cost of clubs, clothing, lessons, and greens fees is outrageous, of course, but the emotional cost of golf is worse. Few people know this, but golf was actually invented by sadistic Nazi scientists to measure how much frustration human beings can endure. Apparently, the answer is “a lot,” based on the number of people I know obsessed with golf.

After analyzing the cost of various grown-up hobbies, there’s only one thing to do. I went to Walmart this morning and bought a bat, a ball, and roll of duct tape. Now I have to round up a few neighborhood kids. And, at my age, an orthopedic surgeon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Great Things Come in Small Packages


In this week’s gospel, Jesus offered a parable to explain the Kingdom of God. He said, “[The kingdom] is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and put forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

There are a couple of ways to interpret this parable. On the one hand, it illustrates the Christian paradox, “Small is great.” Christianity teaches many paradoxical concepts: We conquer by yielding; we reign by serving; we are exalted by being humble; we become wise by becoming fools for Christ; we are made free by becoming His slaves; we must hit down on the ball to get it up in the air (oh wait, that’s a paradox of golf); we live by dying; etc.

The paradox “small is great” flies in the face of worldly wisdom. We’ve all been taught the important maxims of the world: bigger is better; he who dies with the most toys wins; money is power; might makes right; do unto others before they can do unto you; etc.

“Small is great” makes no sense from a worldly point of view. But God doesn’t view things from a worldly point of view. His is a heavenly perspective. And in God's eyes, the small and weak, the meek and humble, are the truly great ones.

Think of those who relied solely on the power and greatness of man: Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, etc. Sure, they all achieved temporary fame and fortune, but where are they now? What was their eternal achievement?

Now think of those who relied solely on the power and greatness of God: Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, etc. What did they achieve on earth by being so small and humble? Oftentimes, it was poverty, pain, and persecution. But where are they now? What was their eternal achievement?

Who do you think is in a better situation right now, Francis of Assisi, the humble, rag-covered beggar who spread the love of Christ wherever he went, or Stalin, the iron-fisted tyrant who murdered millions of his own people and brutalized half the world during his reign of terror?

A second way of interpreting the parable of the mustard seed is that it symbolizes Jesus’ life. A tiny seed was planted in the soil, just as a poor man from an insignificant time and place was killed and buried. The tiny seed sprung up to become the largest of shrubs, just as the poor man rose from His grave to become the most important figure in world history. The branches of the shrub became so big that birds built nests in its shade, just as Jesus’ redemptive power became so great that the entire human race could be saved.

Over a century ago Dr. James Allan Francis wrote an essay titled “One Solitary Life.” It reads in part:

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home….He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves….When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed…all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of mankind on this earth as much as that ONE SOLITARY LIFE.

Quite an impressive little mustard seed, wouldn’t you say?


Friday, June 8, 2018

Exotic Vacation Plans


A couple of months ago I received a very exciting offer from my college alumni association. They are organizing a two-week expedition next winter to Antarctica. (No, it’s not what you think. Winters here in the U.S. are actually the summer seasons south of the Equator. So, January and February are the warm months down there, when the daytime temperatures skyrocket all the way up to about minus-four Fahrenheit.)

I swear, I’m not making this up. The fancy eight-page color brochure explained that we first will fly to Buenos Aires, and then fly to the southern-most tip of South America to board a ship, the M.S. L’Austral. The vessel will cross the Drake Passage to Antarctica, where we will visit these well-known destinations: Half Moon Island, Port Lockroy, and Booth Island.

On board, according to the brochure, will be a team of world class naturalists who will lead our expedition groups on shore excursions, so we can explore Antarctica’s diverse wildlife habitats, including penguin rookeries. (C’mon, admit it, your personal bucket list, like mine, has this entry: “Visit penguin rookeries near the South Pole.”)

I read through the brochure, and then said to my wife, “This is very exciting. I’ll have to use up all my vacation days at work, but it will be well worth it, as the expedition organizers are going to pay me $14,000 to sign on for this research voyage.”

She took the brochure from me, perused it briefly, then said, “Um, no. This says you have to pay them $14,000 to go on the cruise.”

“What?” I said.

“Or,” she continued, “you can pay $18,000 if you want to stay in the Prestige Suite, located on Deck 6.”

I said, “You mean this is not a scientific expedition to uncover the mysteries of Antarctica, certain to be featured in a future National Geographic TV special?”

“No,” she replied. “It’s just a fancy cruise ship for people who apparently have already visited all the normal cruise ship destinations.”

I sat in silence for a while, re-reading the brochure. After about ten minutes, I looked up and said to my wife, “So, are you saying I can’t go?”

She never answered. I guess it’s still a possibility.

About a month later, I received another eight-page color brochure from my alumni association, this time offering the opportunity to go on a nine-day Amazon River adventure aboard the expedition vessel Zafiro. Based on the brochure photos, the Zafiro is definitely larger than the boat Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn used in the movie “The African Queen,” but not by much.

With this trip, we fly to Lima, Peru, and then travel to Iquitos, which is located at the Amazon River basin. We board the Zafiro there, and then head up river and explore the Amazon and its many tributaries.

Once again, there are world class naturalists on board, who lead small boat excursions along backwater rivers and flooded forests in search of exotic wildlife. Some of the wildlife mentioned in the brochure are pink river dolphins, bats, and red-bellied piranha.

After listing all the features of the Zafiro, such as air-conditioning, Peruvian cuisine, an observation deck, and a bar and lounge, the brochure offers this disconcerting sentence: “There is no doctor on board.”

Usually, my college alumni association organizes trips to more traditional locations, like Paris or Las Vegas. I suspect they recently hired one of Jacques Cousteau’s descendants.

So, I’m not sure which trip I’ll choose, the one where frostbite nips at my nose, or the one where piranha nip at my toes. Or maybe my wife will decide for me, and this year’s vacation will be in a different exotic location, like East Hartford.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

How Did Life Begin on Earth?


Did you hear that stunning news report the other day? Out in the Midwest, a tornado ripped thru a Home Depot store and sent everything flying in all directions. And then, left standing in the wake of that devastating twister, was a fully-functioning, 3-bedroom ranch-style house, complete with plumbing, electrical wiring, and a wifi home entertainment system. The chaotic force of the tornado, just by chance, put all the components together in the exact right arrangement. It was amazing.

Nah, I’m just kidding. We all know that could never happen. The odds are zero that every piece of wood, metal, glass, wires, sheetrock, nails, paint, and shingles would randomly fall into place and form a functioning house. It’s mathematically impossible.

But here’s another news flash: for the last four or five generations, science teachers have been telling their students that an even more unlikely event occurred: many years ago, swirling chemicals randomly formed themselves into a living organism, able to take in nutrients and expel waste, and able to reproduce itself. This was the beginning, it is taught, of the long history of life on earth, as this first organism reproduced, mutated, and evolved into all the amazing and diverse forms of life we see today.

The information encoded into the blueprint of life, the DNA molecule, is far more complex and intricate than the drawings and plans needed to build a 3-bedroom home. And yet, the story is presented in science classrooms that chaotic, swirling chemicals, with no outside guidance other than the laws of physics, accidently formed into a complicated, precision organism.

Um…sure. The terms “odds are zero” and “mathematically impossible” come to mind.

Because the desire to explain the universe without acknowledging God as Creator is such a strong urge in the modern scientific community, this glaring problem is ignored. One famous scientist who could no longer ignore this problem was Francis Crick, the man who became famous in the 1950s, along with James Watson, for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA.

Did Dr. Crick acknowledge that God was the Creator of life on earth? Well, not quite. He proposed instead a theory known as Direct Panspermia. This theory claims that space aliens “seeded” the earth with the building blocks of organic life. In other words, the complex data encoded into DNA molecules is so intricate, and the chance that a living organism accidently came into existence is so remote, that DNA must’ve formed on a planet with more favorable conditions than earth. Then advanced creatures capable of space travel brought that genetic code—the seeds, if you will—to our planet, so the long history of life on earth could begin.

Once again, I say, um…sure.

I don’t know about you, but we’re getting to the point, even for an atheist, where belief in a supernatural creator God seems a whole lot more feasible than this wild theory.

Here’s the first paragraph of an article in Scientific American magazine: “The Earth is beaming with life and yet there is no consensus on how life arose…..The origin of life is one of the great unsolved mysteries of science.” 

Do you remember being taught that in your science classes? Me neither. They taught me that it was a proven, scientific FACT that swirling chemicals accidentally, randomly formed themselves into a living organism. A proven FACT.

Quite often the Church is criticized for being anti-science, but on this particular topic it’s actually science that is anti-science. Now, does this mean the God described in the Bible is definitely true? No, but it means science has in no way proven that God does not exist, the exact thing my science teachers taught me.

Whenever you are told that modern science has proven that there is no God, don’t believe it for a minute. That claim makes about as much sense as a tornado smashing through a Home Depot and then leaving a brand new house standing in its wake.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Natural Disaster in Our Own Backyard


A couple of weeks ago, during one of the typical water cooler conversations at my office (conversations which sometimes seem to take up more hours each day than any actual work), the topic was the volcano eruptions in Hawaii.

When people originally purchased the homes that now have been engulfed and destroyed by lava, it must’ve been an interesting conversation with the real estate agent. “Oh, you’re just gonna love this place!” the agent probably said. “Great views. Secluded neighborhood. Truly paradise!” Then the prospective buyer asked, “But it’s built on an active volcano, right? I mean, isn’t that a concern?” “Oh no,” the agent answered, “People barely even noticed the volcano during the past 20 or 30 years, so there’s nothing to worry about!”

My homeowner’s insurance company freaks out if my chimney flue isn’t cleaned on a regular basis. I wonder how steep the premiums are when your house is located three blocks away from molten lava?

At the water cooler, we started talking about all the places that are threatened by natural disasters. California is often called paradise, but they have to deal with earthquakes, droughts, wildfires, and mudslides.

People living in the Gulf coast states, Florida, and the Carolinas are at risk for devastating hurricanes.

The folks in the Midwest get whacked every summer by killer tornadoes. And those living near major rivers get flooded out every few years it seems.

I summarized our discussion by making this sweeping declaration: “Here in Connecticut, it might be too dark and cold for too many months in the winter, but at least the only disasters we have to deal with are manmade, such as high taxes, crumbling roads, and a lousy football program at UConn. At least we’re safe from natural disasters!”

I’ve got to stop making sweeping declarations.

Exactly one day later, a nasty line of thunderstorms raced across our state and produced four different tornados. Not one, but FOUR different tornados! Here in Connecticut! Gee whiz, I could probably count on one hand the number of tornados that have hit the Nutmeg State during my lifetime. (Please don’t send me emails with precise tornado numbers gleaned from extensive Google searches. I’m just using a figure of speech to convey the idea that we ain’t exactly Oklahoma, OK?)

Tragically, two state residents were killed during that recent storm; hundreds of houses and vehicles were severely damaged by falling trees; many days after the storm, tens of thousands of homes were still without power; and aerial footage showed swaths of destruction that made what were once dense forestlands look like a bunch of toothpicks scattered on the ground.

So, for the next water cooler discussion, the topic will be: where the heck can you live that is safe from natural disasters? I think the answer is obvious: nowhere.

Ever since the storm hit, I’ve been uneasily watching a row of tall pine trees on my property line swaying in the breeze. I did some quick calculations: Hmm, if the trees are 90 feet tall, and the base of the trees are 60 feet from my house, and if the wind knocks down one or more of the trees directly toward my house, let’s see, carry the five, move the decimal place over, that means, um, that means the trees will not hit me — as long as I’m at work having a conversation at the water cooling. However, If I’m lying in bed, the trees could squash me like a bug.

Maybe it’s time to sell my house and move to a safer part of the country. I hear you can get some great real estate deals these days on the big island of Hawaii.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Real Presence of the Body and Blood


This week we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. In the gospel reading, Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He took some bread, broke it, gave it to His disciples and said, “Take it; this is my body.”

Notice He did not say, “This symbolizes my body,” or “This represents my body.” He said, “This IS my body.”

Then he took a cup filled with wine, gave it to them and said, “This is my blood…which will be shed for many.”

Earlier in His ministry, as recorded in John chapter 6, Jesus laid the groundwork for the sacrament He instituted at the Last Supper. While teaching a large crowd He said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”

Most of the Protestant world, and far too many Catholics, think Jesus was just speaking figuratively in John 6 and at the Last Supper. “It’s bread, it’s wine,” they might say, “and it still looks and tastes like bread and wine, so how can it actually be Jesus’ flesh and blood?”

Well, that’s a reasonable question. The simple answer is: “Cuz Jesus said so.” But let’s also take a look at what St. Paul wrote. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul said this about celebrating the Lord’s Supper: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”

Now, how can someone sin against the Lord’s body and blood if it’s just plain old bread and wine? If it’s just a symbol or metaphor, what’s the big deal?

St. Paul then adds, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” If it’s just symbolic, what is Paul talking about when he says “recognizing the body of the Lord”?

Paul’s words are quite strange — IF it’s just a figurative, symbolic ritual. His words, however, make perfectly good sense if Jesus’ body and blood truly become present. 

Some folks claim that the Catholic Church invented the concept of the Real Presence in the 13th century, when the word “Transubstantiation” was first used. But if that’s the case, how do we explain the following statements by early Christian leaders?

  • “[Heretics] abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” – St. Ignatius of Antioch, 110 A.D. 
  • “We call this food Eucharist…not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these.…the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him…is both the Flesh and the Blood of that incarnated Jesus.” – St. Justin Martyr, 150 A.D. 
  • “[Jesus] has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood…and the bread, a part of creation, He has established as His own Body.” – St. Irenaeus, 195 A.D. 
Even though the bread and wine still look and taste like bread and wine, we must take it as an article of faith that the body and blood of Jesus truly becomes present in the Eucharist. Why? Well, cuz Jesus said so.

I know that sounds like something you’d shout in frustration to a relentlessly inquisitive 5-year-old, but in this case, it really is the best answer. Jesus said it, and if we truly believe Jesus is divine, then obviously He is capable of performing whatever miracle He wants.

Instead of being so skeptical, we should instead embrace the Eucharist with love and joy. For that is exactly what Jesus’ body and blood are: the love and joy of God, made present in a very special way right in our midst.

On this special feast day, let’s be filled with faith and trust the words of our Savior: the Eucharist truly is the body and blood of Christ. Thank God for that!