Tuesday, June 18, 2019

We Need to DO Church

Do you know people who say something like, “Yeah, I believe in God, but I just don’t do church”?

This is a variation on the popular claim, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

When I hear this, my first thought is, Well, at least they believe in God. That’s a whole lot better than embracing atheism, which has become very trendy nowadays.

But in the long run, believing in God but not doing church is very problematic. You see, being confident God exists is a great first step, but church is where we learn who God is, what He has done for us, and what He wants from us.

If we don’t learn these important theological facts, then the “God” we claim to believe in will remain just a vague and undefined cosmic power, no more personal and specific than “The Force” in the Star Wars movies.

Regarding the need for regular church attendance, don’t take my word for it; take God’s word for it. In the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, we read, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

Apparently, even 2,000 years ago, when the New Testament letter to the Hebrews was written, they struggled with the problem of people claiming to believe in God but who couldn’t be bothered to assemble with fellow believers each week. I’m not sure if the primary excuses back then were an early tee time at the golf course or the need to watch the previous night’s highlights on JSPN (the Jerusalem Sports Programming Network). If not, I’m sure other reasons were offered why people preferred not to do church.

Here’s another good reason why we ought to do church: When Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, Jesus very clearly told them to say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

Notice, Jesus did not tell them to say, “My Father,” which seems like a perfectly fine way for a person to engage in prayer. He instead told them to say, “Our Father.” This is because faith in God is a team sport. We simply cannot do it well if we take the individualistic Lone Ranger approach. It is imperative that a significant part of our faith life is worshipping together as a community.

Here’s an analogy: People who believe in God are like burning logs in a camp fire. If you stack up the logs so they are leaning against each other, you’ll get a roaring fire. But if you separate the burning logs and lay them down on the dirt away from each other, very quickly the fire goes out and they grow cold.

If you haven’t noticed, life can be hard. It’s often filled with pain and suffering, heartache and sadness. It is very unhealthy, physically and emotionally, to attempt to go through life all by yourself, without any support from family and friends.

The same is true for our faith life. When a person claims to believe in God, but adds that he doesn’t do church, he is basically saying he is an anti-social hermit who shuns all contact with other human beings—at least regarding his spiritual life. And by the way, our spiritual life is the most important aspect of human existence. After all, our physical bodies will rot in a grave someday. Our spiritual life, that is, our soul, is eternal.

So, being an individualistic Lone Ranger regarding faith is not cool and trendy. It is instead emotionally warped, and just as dysfunctional as a recluse who hides in his cluttered apartment and avoids all contact with other people.

It’s great when folks acknowledge that God is real. But they must not do it alone. They need a faith community. They very much need to do church.

Friday, June 14, 2019

College Reunion with My Pen Pal

After many years, I finally got to meet my pen pal face-to-face. Yes, I actually used the phrase “pen pal,” a concept that is about as old-fashioned as rotary phones and gas station attendants who wear neckties.

My pen pal’s name is Avraham, and he is a devout Jew who lives in Israel, while I am a semi-devout Catholic who lives in Connecticut. “Alan,” as he’s known to his U.S. friends, grew up in New Rochelle, NY, and then moved to Israel soon after graduating from college. That is our original connection: we graduated from the same college in the same year. (To give you an idea of how “young” we are, Jimmy Carter was president when we graduated. And no, George Washington was not still alive.)

Although we spent four years on the same campus at the same time, we never actually met each other back then, probably because Alan spent much of his time in the Hillel Jewish House learning the intricacies of the Torah, while I spent much of my time in the Sigma Chi Fraternity House learning the intricacies of tapping kegs of Iron City Beer for breakfast.

Back in 2004, my class — Bucknell University, 1979 — had our 25th reunion, and at that time, all the people in my class were about 47 years old. (Whoa, that’s a lot of numbers for one sentence. I should’ve asked a math major to double-check it for me.)

Anyway, back at that reunion many of my classmates talked a lot about their high-powered careers and their daunting responsibilities. Also, it seemed to me many of us were trying hard to cling to our youthful appearances.

This time around, now that we’re in our early 60s, everyone talked a lot about retirement, either enjoying it now or looking forward to it soon. Compared to 15 years ago, we were noticeably less ambitious, and as a result, much less stressed out.

Also, there was a significant reduction in vanity. We all seemed to realize that hanging on to our youthful appearances is a silly pursuit (not to mention an impossible pursuit), so we just relaxed and didn’t worry about it. And you know what? My classmates still looked just as beautiful and sexy to me as they did on graduation day — and that goes for the women, too. (Of course, my eyes are also in their early 60s, which means my observations may be based less on nostalgia and more on blurred vision.)

However, there was one major disappointment for me at the recent reunion. I expected there would be a lot of discussion about our personal health issues. It seems people my age love to do that. But other than a brief incident, when I said to a classmate, “How ya doing?” and he replied, “Pretty good. My knees are shot, but whataya gonna do?” there were no long recitations of aches and pains, medical procedures, prescription drugs, and general whining and moaning about the physical trials of growing old.

The reason I was disappointed was because I had done my homework (first time ever on that campus), and brought along all my medical records, complete with X-rays of my gimpy knee and digital images of my latest colonoscopy. Oh well, maybe at the next reunion.

We instead chatted about two very positive topics: the joy of seeing our kids grow up and start their own families, and our retirement plans. Oh, and we also did the standard reunion thing: told wild stories about our undergraduate days, some of which were even true.

Overall, it was a great reunion. And I hope I picked up a few new pen pals in the process.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Atheism Is a Foolish Bet

Many years ago, when I was an atheist, I can remember being annoyed at Christians. All their talk about salvation and eternal life in Heaven really bugged me. This is what I thought back then: “You Christians are gonna feel so foolish after you die and find out you’ve been wrong all these years!”

Now, if you understand what atheists actually believe, you’ll know that I was the one being foolish. If my atheistic view was correct, then when a Christian dies, he is not going to feel foolish; he will feel nothing, because he will have ceased to exist.

The only one who had a chance to feel foolish after death was me, the atheist. If I was wrong about atheism, and then died and discovered there was indeed a final judgment before God, and after that either Heaven or Hell for all eternity, I would feel very foolish. Well, actually, foolishness would be the least of my worries at that moment. It would be more like despair and horror and total agony.

My thoughts back in those days were very similar to Pascal’s Wager, and I was betting on the wrong horse.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, and he offered a gambling analogy for religious faith. 
Imagine you must place a bet. If you choose option A and it turns out you are correct, you win nothing. But if you are incorrect, you lose everything. If you choose option B and it turns out you are correct, you win everything. But if you are incorrect, you lose nothing.

If those are the rules of the game, then it makes no sense ever to bet on option A, right?  You can’t win anything but you can lose everything. Option B is the only logical choice, as you might win everything but can never lose anything.

Option A is atheism. If you decide atheism is true, and you are correct, you win nothing, since at the moment of death you will cease to exist. But if you are incorrect about atheism, at the moment of death you are going to be in a very uncomfortable situation, with the aforementioned despair and horror and agony the most prominent sensations.

Option B is faith in God. If you decide God is real and put your faith in Him, and it turns out you are correct, you win everything: eternal life in the paradise of Heaven. But if you are incorrect, and it turns out God is not real, you lose nothing, since you, like all human beings, will cease to exist at the moment of death.

Now, I fully agree that deciding whether to believe in God should not be based on a gambling scenario and a “What’s in it for me?” attitude. People should put their faith in God because they sincerely believe He is real and they want to express their gratitude and love toward Him for all the blessings He has bestowed on us, especially the gift of life.

But you know what? God loves us so much that He is perfectly OK if our faith initially has less than noble motives. If we tentatively draw near to God because we conclude it’s the logical gambling choice, He doesn’t mind. Of course, over time, gratitude and love should become our main motivation, but God so desperately wants to be in a relationship with us, He is more than willing to have us begin the journey of faith for selfish reasons.

Back when I was an atheist, I never heard of Pascal’s Wager. All I knew was that I did not want to worship anyone or anything except myself. Thank God that God finally got my attention, and I realized putting my faith in Him was not only in my best interest, it was the Truth.

Now, many decades later, I can look back and see that atheism was not the logical choice, not even close. Please don’t gamble on eternity. Make the right choice.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Too Extreme to Run for President

Last fall, I was invited by the Winchester Council of the Knights of Columbus to be the guest speaker at this year’s awards banquet in May. I immediately said yes, and looked forward to joining them.

But then, after I already made the commitment, I was watching TV during the winter, and I saw Congressional hearings, where a judge had been nominated for a new post. A panel of U.S. senators were asking him questions.

Some of the senators were very concerned that this judge was a member of an extremist group. Oh no! Was this guy secretly affiliated with the Klan or some neo-Nazi militia? Nope. The senators revealed exactly which extremist group the judge belonged to: the Knights of Columbus!

The senators described the Knights as an all-male society that opposes women’s health care and is against marriage equality.  

Frankly, the only thing I ever thought was extreme about the Knights of Columbus were those feathery Captain Crunch hats they wear in parades.

Now, another way the senators could have described the Knights is like this: the K of C is a fraternal service organization that believes in the sanctity of life, and prefers the 5,000 year old traditional definition of marriage.

In my view, you could make a pretty good case that one of the most harmful extremist groups in our country right now is the U.S. Congress. And exhibit “A” would be the senators and representatives from the Nutmeg State.

But this whole thing has turned into a big problem for me. You see, it isn’t official yet — so don’t tell anybody — but I was planning to announce soon that I am running for President of the United States.

Yes, I admit there a few obstacles, such as: No one has ever heard of me. I have no money. I have no political experience. I spend too much time watching baseball on TV. And currently there are approximately 340 other people who have already announced that they are running for president.

However, I figured I could get past those problems with a clever campaign strategy. You see, my plan is that I will be the only candidate running for president who doesn’t really want to be president.

When you think about it, all the people who usually run for president desperately want the job. But if a person really wants to be President of the United States, that is a strong indication that person has some serious emotional problems. All of the candidates these days have massive egos, and they are power hungry.

It reminds me of that old Groucho Marx quote. When he resigned from an exclusive club, he explained his decision by saying, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me for a member.”

That’s how I feel about politics. I don’t want to vote for anyone who really wants to hold political office.

So, my strategy is brilliant. I will be the only candidate running on the platform that I’m way too normal to be a politician, and I’d rather not win. With that plan, victory is assured.

But now, my plans are in big trouble. When I declare that I’m running, you just know they’re going to do opposition research, and they’ll uncover the fact that I was the guest speaker at an event run by an extremist group. My campaign is going to be sunk before it even gets started.

So, it looks like I might have to go with Plan B instead, which is: keep going to work every day, pay my bills, go to church on Sunday, love my wife and kids, love my country, don’t break the law — you know, extremist behavior.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Pontius Pilate Sneers in the Face of Truth

Back during Holy Week in April, I hope you went to church on Good Friday, where you would’ve heard the Passion of Jesus from John’s gospel. Only John’s gospel gives us additional details of the conversation Jesus had with Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman governor of Judea during those years.

Jesus said to Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate replied with a question: “What is truth?”

I’ve often wondered exactly how Pilate said these words. Did he ask the question with sincere longing, kind of like, “Yeah, what is truth anyway? I really want to know.”

If so, this means Pilate believed that truth existed, that there is a final and accurate description of our situation here on earth, but it’s just very difficult to discover and understand.

Or maybe Pilate asked the question with sarcastic laughter. “Truth? You’re kidding, right?” He may have meant, “It’s impossible to know the real truth, at least in this life, so why waste your time trying to figure it out?”

If this is how Pilate viewed the idea of truth, at least he believed that truth existed, even though in his opinion mere mortals have no way of really discovering it.

Or maybe Pilate asked the question with a cynical sneer. “Truth? You actually said the word TRUTH?! Bah, what a fool. There’s no such thing as truth!”

This last option, I suspect, was the way Pilate actually asked his famous question. From the information we know about Pontius Pilate, it seems quite likely he was a typical pragmatic politician. His greatest concern was to increase his personal power and influence, while at the same time avoid getting blamed when things went wrong. And as so many politicians do nowadays, this means changing opinions on various topics to fit whatever is in your best interest at that particular moment.

Many people in our modern world, not just politicians, claim that there is no such thing as truth. Truth, in their view, is nothing more than personal opinion. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Well, if you believe that’s true, then it’s true for you. But I believe the exact opposite, which is true for me.”

This attitude is quite illogical. Just imagine if the subject being discussed is this: Is God real? If a skeptic says to a Christian, “If you believe in God, then it’s true for you. I don’t believe, so atheism is true for me.”

It is impossible for both beliefs to be correct. We’re talking about external objective reality, not internal subjective feelings. God either is real or He’s not. His existence does not depend on our opinions about it. Now, maybe it’s impossible for mere mortals to know for sure if God is real, but human ignorance doesn’t change reality. There is an absolute truth about this question. It’s either yes or no. “Both” or “neither” are not valid answers.

Claiming that truth is nothing more than personal opinion is known as moral relativism. Many folks think this is a recent phenomenon. But as the Passion account in John’s gospel indicates, Pontius Pilate may have been one of the earliest moral relativists in history.

Just think of the irony: this Roman governor sneered at the concept of truth. And yet, he was standing face to face with Truth itself. Jesus Christ referred to Himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” If He was who He claimed to be, the Divine Son of God, then He was and is the true Truth—for all people and for all time.

Pilate was completely blind to that.

If you did not hear the Passion account from John’s gospel on Good Friday, look it up in your Bible or online. Read the fascinating interaction between Jesus and Pilate. And whatever you do, don’t fall for the foolish claim that truth is just personal opinion. Truth is real, and Truth has a name: Jesus.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Trials of Job

It’s been rather hectic at work during the past few months. Which, of course, is a good thing because we all remember a decade ago when it was so UN-hectic at most businesses that many folks lost their jobs.

During this hectic time, it can get quite stressful, and I occasionally find myself muttering, “I must have the most stressful job in the world!”

This is a rather foolish thing to so say, since I don’t even have the most stressful job in my office. We have a team of commissioned salesmen, and they not only have to deal with cranky contractors all day, but not a penny of their income is guaranteed. If they don’t sell anything, they don’t get paid anything. I don’t know about you, but going into each new month not knowing whether you’ll receive a paycheck would keep me up all night worrying.

As I was thinking about work-related stress, I started paying attention to other people I encounter during the day. Many times each week my first stop in the morning is at a Dunkin Donuts store. I’m sure my engineering clients are delighted to see me when I arrive at their office, solely because of the technical knowledge, scintillating conversation, and up-to-date baseball information I bring with me. But possibly the bag of three dozen doughnuts I’m carrying brightens their mood, too.

Every time I step up to that counter and say, “Three dozen doughnuts, assorted, and senior discount, please,” the young DD employee’s whole countenance sags. As she glances over my shoulder to see seven other people impatiently waiting in line, for a brief moment the will to live disappears from her sullen eyes. Then she snaps to attention and frantically starts shoveling doughnuts into boxes, all the while apologizing to the other people in line.

At that moment I realize, “Her job is more stressful than mine.” And even though she has the fabulous fringe benefit of being surrounded by tasty doughnuts all day long, I’m pretty sure I do not want to switch paychecks with her.

During the past few months I’ve visited my dentist and a couple of other doctors. I’m sure these folks are well paid, but their day-in, day-out grind must be pretty stressful. When I do my job, there is no risk of accidentally causing an injury and drawing blood and getting sued (unless I have my eye on the last doughnut and someone else reaches for it first).

Then there’s my brother, the cop. Yes, he works in a fairly quiet suburban town, but nowadays there’s the very real chance that some drunk yahoo will try to run him over or take a shot at him. Plus, his shift keeps rotating every few weeks — days, evenings, midnight — which makes sleep deprivation a way of life. His job is definitely more stressful than mine.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the most beleaguered and tormented character in the entire Bible is named Job. (Pronounced “jobe,” but we all know what those three letters really spell.) Talk about stress! Job endured a series of devastating losses to his family, property, and personal health. Through it all, his so-called friends “cheered him up” by insisting that he surely had done something awful to deserve such hardship.

And don’t forget the folks who work fulltime for newspapers, who enjoy low pay, long hours, and tons of stress. (I don’t fall into this category, by the way, as I’m just a freelancer).

So, the bottom line is, my job is hardly as stressful as I think it is. But it would be nice if everyone was a tad less agitated at work. Especially me.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Can Only Catholics Be Saved?

I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify something. A few weeks ago, while talking about the sacrament of Reconciliation—known as Confession to us old-timers—I made this statement: “The Catholic Church is the only institution in the history of the world that offers answers to the two deepest longings of the human heart: true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven once our time on earth is over.”

After that particular essay made the rounds, I received feedback from some of my Protestant friends. They asked, rather forcefully, whether I was claiming that ONLY Catholics can go to Heaven.

Oh my, that is definitely not what I was trying to say. I am in no way repeating the mistake promoted by Fr. Feeney in the 1940s. (Cliffs Notes version of his story: Fr. Leonard Feeney of Boston preached that only Roman Catholics could be saved. Despite admonishments from his bishop and even the Vatican, he persisted and eventually was excommunicated. Thankfully, he admitted his error and reconciled with the Church before dying in 1978.)

The two wonderful things that I mentioned, true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven, are made possible solely by the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. The Lord, and the Lord alone, has the ability to save sinful and selfish humanity. We must be clear about that. Having our sins forgiven and avoiding the fires of Hell are possible only because of the grace of God. Grace, by the way, is defined as unmerited favor, something we do not deserve, nor can we earn on our own. It is a gift from God.

Now, of course, when God offers us the gifts of forgiveness and salvation through grace, we have to accept those gifts and use God’s grace to change our lives. As St. Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians, we are saved FOR good works, not saved BY good works. (See: Eph 2:8-10.)

This good news of forgiveness and salvation through Christ is the heart of the Gospel message. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).

That is the message, and Jesus is the source of the power that can make it happen. However, Jesus established a church here on earth, and He gave that church the authority to preach this message to the whole world. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, that church was the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear about our “separated brethren” in other non-Catholic Christian communities, including Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations. The Catechism says these groups possess four things: valid baptism; the right to be called Christian; the Word of God; and most important of all, the means of salvation. So, anyone making the claims Fr. Feeney made is opposing clear Church teachings.

But let’s not forget, it is an undeniable fact that all Christian denominations, including those of my Protestant friends, received the Good News of forgiveness and salvation originally from the Catholic Church. Even Martin Luther, no friend of Catholicism, acknowledged this. He said, “We are obliged to yield many things to the [Catholics]—that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing about it.”

So, don’t get nervous, my friends. I’m not doing a 21st century version of Fr. Feeney. I was just pointing out that the two things the human heart desires desperately—true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven—are made possible by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

This is the Good News of the Gospel, and only one institution has been proclaiming this message consistently for almost 2,000 years: the Catholic Church.