Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Should Christians Watch Violent Movies?

 During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered this important spiritual observation: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Well, Jesus didn’t say it exactly that way. The phrase is popular in the computer software world, and it means if you start with incorrect data, you’re going to end up with incorrect results.
This concept is mentioned in the Bible, sort of. In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). And in his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Col 3:2).
Paul meant that if we fill our minds with unwholesome thoughts, we will end up living unwholesome lives. In other words, Garbage in, garbage out.
This idea came up recently when I read an article on a Christian website that said believers should not watch movies with bad values. The article specifically mentioned James Bond movies.
Is it wrong for a Christian to watch James Bond movies? Um, asking for a friend.
It’s an undeniable fact that James Bond movies glorify violence, alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity. I guess you could make the same statement about three-quarters of all the movies and TV shows produced these days.
So, I guess the question is, can we watch popular entertainment without some of its unwholesome values seeping into our souls?
Well, I’ve watched a lot… er, I mean, my friend has watched a lot of James Bond movies over the years. And he doesn’t go around blowing things up and shooting people every 15 minutes. He hasn’t had a drink in 30 years, and he has never cheated on his lovely wife.
But can he really say he has not been subtly influenced by all the coarse themes depicted in James Bond films, along with all the other secular content he watches, reads, and listens to?
Hmm, that’s hard to say.
And speaking of “listen to,” what about popular music that is not very wholesome? I’m reminded of that classic song with a nice melody but horrible lyrics: “Imagine,” by John Lennon. The song opens with these words: “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky.”
The song is pretty much the Atheist Anthem. It’s about as ungodly as it gets. And this song is played frequently on my favorite Catholic radio station, along with many other well-known pop songs. I’m pretty sure faithful Catholics do not hear this song and suddenly renounce their religious beliefs and embrace Mr. Lennon’s dream of godless utopia.
In addition to enjoying James Bond movies, I also, er, I mean, my friend also likes listening to John Lennon and the Beatles. So far, my friend has not been tempted to try Eastern Mysticism, LSD, or comically odd hairstyles—as long as we ignore his 1975 high school yearbook photos.
As Catholics, we are not Bible-thumping fundamentalists who insist that watching any movie or having a single drink of alcohol are sinful behaviors and therefore prohibited. The Catholic Church teaches that alcoholic beverages are acceptable—in moderation. Alcohol abuse, however, is a sin.
The same, I suspect, is true for movies and music. If it’s occasional entertainment that doesn’t cause us to “conform to the pattern of this world,” as Paul described it, then it’s probably OK.
The Holy Spirit can help us discern what is best. If the only movies a person watches are in the James Bond genre, or if he or she only listens to coarse music, then maybe it’s become a “Garbage in, garbage out” situation, and it’s time instead to “think of what is above.” It might take some digging, but there is a fair amount of wholesome, uplifting entertainment available. 
I think I’ll give that a try… er, I mean, I think I’ll tell my friend.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

TV Addiction Is Getting Expensive

About two years ago, I signed up for YouTube TV, at a cost of $35 per month. It’s a terrific streaming service, owned by the digital behemoth Google, which allows you to watch television shows over the Internet. It includes all the major broadcast networks; a bunch of cable channels; and a plethora of sports options, including ESPN, NESN, Fox Sports, SNY, MLB, Golf Channel and about a dozen others. When I first signed up, I was so excited I blurted out, “With that much programming, YouTube TV is easily worth $100 a month!”
Well, it turns out, just as we all suspected, our dear friends at Google are in fact listening in on all of our conversations (and probably most of our thoughts). No sooner had I signed up for the service and made my joyful comment, they raised the price to $40 per month. Then last year, it went to $50 per month. And just last month, they announced another price hike, this time up to $65 per month.
On the one hand, you could make the case they’re still charging me less than what I said the service is worth. But on the other hand, this is, after all, an 85% price increase over the span of just a couple of short years. I mean, c’mon. Who would have the gall to treat their customers so shabbily (besides, of course, our delightful power company here in New England, Eversource)? 
I suspect YouTube TV is following the same business model developed by Joey “Dr. Mellow” McGillicuddy, who was the resident drug dealer in the town where I grew up. Dr. Mellow would sell his products to the high school freshmen for WAY below market prices. Then, when the kids were addicted — boom! — the clever doctor would jack up the prices and make a fortune off the newly minted pot heads.
Speaking of newly minted pot heads, is anybody besides me a little uneasy about the number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana? It’s turning into an industry that soon will dwarf Google for sheer size. The libertarian in me says, “Hey, people are going to get high anyway, so it might as well be regulated and taxed.” But the cautious senior citizen in me says, “Hey, get off my lawn!” No, wait. I mean, the cautious senior citizen in me says, “Hmm, do we really want to send the message to young people that becoming a ‘fog-brain’ is no big deal?”
Take it from me, a former 1970s fog-brain. I know using a substance that ruins a person’s ability to concentrate is not a good thing. Or to paraphrase Dean Wormer, “Fat, high, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
OK, enough about drug addiction. Let’s return to my original theme: TV addiction. When I complained to a coworker that YouTube TV raised their prices yet again, he said, “Well, then just cancel the service.”
A half hour later, after the smelling salts revived me, I realized the sad truth: I am addicted to TV. Just cancel the service? At the exact time when live baseball games finally are being televised? I can’t do that. The withdrawal symptom would be too painful.
So, whether it’s Dr. Mellow or Dr. Google, those drug dealers really know how to get someone hooked. Because it’s been so long since I’ve had anything to do with Dr. Mellow’s product, my concentration has never been better. And tonight, I’m going to concentrate on the baseball games, using, of course, YouTube TV. (Assuming Covid hasn’t shut them down again.) But if they ever raise the price above $100 per month, I definitely will cancel the service. Maybe.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Spiritual Sloth is a Deadly Sin

One of the Seven Deadly Sins is “sloth.” I always thought this meant physical laziness, and since I’ve been gainfully employed for the past 40 years and I do chores around the house on a semi-regular basis, I was certain sloth was the one Deadly Sin I didn’t have to worry about. (The other Deadly Sins, by the way, are Pride, Anger, Lust, Greed, Envy, and Gluttony. Since I’m an American living in the 21st century, I most certainly DO have to worry about these sins.)
However, I recently read an article that explained the concept of sloth, in theological terms, does not mean physical laziness, but instead it means spiritual laziness. The deadly sin of sloth is a lack of spiritual hunger.
When people have spiritual sloth, they get bored with God and all things religious. There’s no real passion or desire to engage in prayer, read Scripture, or be involved in church activities. Some people abandon all religious endeavors entirely. Others go through the motions: they recite rote prayers blandly; they skim through a few pages of the Bible without letting the words touch their hearts; they show up for Mass or church services on a regular basis, but their minds are a million miles away.
In short, their faith life is dry and dusty and sterile. These folks have more emotional passion when they watch a mediocre movie on Netflix than when they bow their heads and communicate with the Divine Being who created the Universe.
Some people lacking in spiritual hunger eventually walk away from all faith-related exercises. At least they’re being honest about it. God is not important to them and so they don’t waste their time with anything religious.
Other people who also lack spiritual hunger, continue to go through the motions out of inertia or a sense of obligation. They actually might be in worse shape. This is because they THINK they’re doing all the right things, and therefore God must be pleased with them. After all, they can boldly mark all the key items on some unofficial Christian Checklist: Recite prayers? Check. Read the Bible once in a while? Check. Go to church each week? Check. Throw a few bucks in the collection basket? Check. Refrain from robbing banks? Check. Avoid committing murder? Check. Never root for the New York Yankees? Check.
We are in a very strange moment in human history. For the first time in 2,000 years, Catholics are NOT obligated to attend Mass. During the past four months, the bishops said it’s OK not to attend Mass because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember the good ol’ Sunday Obligation? When I was a kid, the nuns who taught our Catechism class told us that maybe someone could be excused from going to Mass on Sunday if they were in a coma or locked in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Maybe.
I think I’m not exaggerating when I observe that many American Catholics have been spiritually slothful for quite a few years, long before the pandemic occurred. Now that we have this unprecedented experience of being excused by the bishops from having to attend Mass, I have a question: Once public Masses are in full swing again, how many Catholic will respond by saying, “When I went to Mass, I didn’t get anything out of it. When Masses were cancelled, I didn’t miss it. So, why bother going back?”?   
Spiritual sloth is real. A lack of hunger for God is why the Church has been so lukewarm for most of my adult life. If we only realize how awesome God is, and how much He wants to be the center of our lives and fill us with joy and passion, we won’t be spiritually slothful. It may be hard to believe, but the Divine Creator of the Universe is actually a lot more exciting than a mediocre movie on Netflix.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Medical Research: Grumpiness Leads to Dementia

Recently, I read a medical article that discussed RNT, which stands for Repetitive Negative Thinking. I was surprised to learn there’s an actual medical term for this. I always thought constant grumpiness was the default setting for everyone who works in the HVAC business. (And I suppose many people could chime in and say their particular occupation/industry is rife with RNT. It seems all of America these days is consumed with negative thinking — and I’m sure social media has nothing to do with it. Yeah, right.)
The main point of the article I read is that new research indicates Repetitive Negative Thinking is associated with memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s the interesting observation: it appears that people with memory problems do not become grumpy; instead, people who are grumpy develop memory problems. So, when we ask that age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the hissy fit? Medical research says if you spend your whole life complaining and criticizing, there is a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, if you go through life cheery and optimistic, chances are you’ll be the only one at the Senior Center who can answer the questions when “Jeopardy” is on TV in the recreation lounge.
The reason Repetitive Negative Thinking can lead to memory problems is because negative thoughts and words produce stress. And constant stress leads to all kinds of physical problems, including heart attacks. (So, the good news is, if you’re a grumpy person, you may avoid getting Alzheimer’s disease — because you might drop dead first. See? Problem solved!)
The article I read offered advice on how to become less grumpy. Step one: Quit the HVAC business. (No, I’m kidding. This is where you’re supposed to plug in the name of your particular occupation/industry, just for laughs. Of course, if my clients and co-workers learn that I’m making fun of the HVAC industry, they’ll get even more grumpy towards me.) 
Anyway, the steps the article actually advises to reduced chronic crankiness are the following:
First, smile more often, even for no good reason. It’s a proven fact this will boost a person’s mood. In my work environment, whenever someone is smiling for no good reason, it usually means he is plotting to hurt someone.
Next, the article says good posture helps improve your mood. By the way, the medical article was written by two doctors, and here is an exact quote: “If you slump, you tend to grump.” Where did they get their training, the “Groucho Marx School of Medicine”? 
Personally, when I’m at the office, I spend about seven hours each day hunched over my laptop computer. (I spend the other two hours in the break room looking for snacks.) By the end of the day, my spine looks like a question mark. Maybe I’ll have to get one of those stand-up work stations to improve my posture.
The next step is to focus on what you feel grateful for. I think I’ve got this one covered, since my office has photographs of loved ones: my darling wife, my beautiful daughters, my new grandson, and Xander Bogaerts.
The final suggestion is to give yourself happy moments. Well, when I was in college, I gave myself many happy moments, most of which were expensive, illegal, and almost killed me. The article explains: “If you know you like a certain song, play it to boost your mood — and it will.” OK, I can do that. I just hope the rest of the office doesn’t mind Jimi Hendrix blasting at 90 decibels.
Repetitive Negative Thinking is a genuine medical condition. I think we all should try to break this bad habit. You go first, ya grumpy bozo.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

What Is Heaven Really Like?

In recent weeks we’ve discussed the Christian belief in life after death, and Jesus’ promise that those who put their faith in God and seek to follow His commands will live forever in Heaven. However, we don’t spend too much time, if any, discussing what Heaven is like. There’s a good reason for that: the Bible is very vague about the details of Heaven.
One thing we know for sure, in Heaven the saints are not wearing white robes and playing the harp. I mean, the harp is a lovely musical instrument, as long as it accompanies the rest of the orchestra. Harp solos, on the other hand, are pretty tedious. For example, whenever Harpo played in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie, his skill with the instrument was fascinating—for about 20 seconds. Can you imagine thousands of harps, and only harps, playing together? No thanks.
The Bible gives us some cryptic clues about Heaven. Jesus said there are many dwellings in His Father’s house, and He will go and prepare a place for His followers. The old King James Version of the Bible translates this as many “mansions.” I’m not sure what the word mansion actually meant in the early 1600s, but it sounds good to me, as long as I don’t have to vacuum it.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, “Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard…what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Well, I’ve never seen or heard a thousand harps playing at the same time, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Paul meant. Paul was trying to say that Heaven will be so wonderful, our finite little human brains can’t even begin to comprehend it. We’ll simply have to wait until we experience it to understand.
That, of course, has not stopped people from speculating on what Heaven will be like. Dr. Scott Hahn recently published a new book titled, “Hope to Die—The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body.”
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Hahn, he’s the most well-known of a group of Protestant ministers who converted to Catholicism. He’s a professor at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH, and he’s written more books about faith than the number of Red Sox hats that I own. In other words, a lot.
Anyway, in his new book, Dr. Hahn offers his vision of what Heaven will be like:
“The best dinner party or family gathering you’ve ever attended, where everyone is feasting and talking and laughing and sharing stories, has nothing on the feasting and talking and laughing and sharing stories that will take place in heaven. Our greatest experiences of love, connection, and friendship here on earth offer us only the tiniest foretaste of the love, connection, and friendship we will experience in heaven, where every story will be shared and every story will be endlessly fascinating. Every story will be beautiful and interesting and compelling and engaging. Every story will make us laugh and weep for the joy of it all. Not one story will be boring. Not one story won’t hold our attention. Not one story won’t utterly and completely captivate us.”
What a beautiful description of Heaven. If you’re like me, the most joyful and cherished moments in your life were not when you got a raise at work or bought a new car. Instead, the most joyful moments happened were when you were in the presence of dear friends, laughing and eating and telling delightful stories.
After all these years, I’ve learned a few things, and I now know the most important part of life is entering into loving relationships with other people. Everything else folks often strive for—fame, fortune, power, prestige, pleasure—take a back seat to forming loving relationships with others.
Dr. Hahn’s vision of Heaven is terrific. The most joyful moments of our earthly experience multiplied by a thousand. If that is what Heaven really is like, I won’t even mind if there are a bunch of guys playing the harp.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

They Is Confused by Plural Pronouns

The other day a morning radio host offered his daily musical history quiz. He said, “On this date in 1962, this artist signed a record contract in their living room, with their parents present because they were only 16. The answer after this next song.”
I started thinking about it, since I had nothing else to think about while shaving at 6 a.m. Because the radio guy used plural pronouns three times, and said “they were only 16,” I thought maybe the singers in question were twins, since they apparently were the same age. I wracked my brain, which is always rather foggy that early in the morning, but couldn’t come up with any singing twins. I thought of lots of singing duos, but no twins. Then I said to myself, “Maybe it’s Donny and Marie Osmond. I always thought they were not twins, and I don’t think they were singing professionally in the early ‘60s, but no other names come to mind.” If I was a contestant on Jeopardy, and the topic was “Singing Siblings,” I would’ve shrugged and not pressed the button.
Finally, the song ended and the radio host gave the answer: “Leslie Gore.” I waited a moment, then muttered, “Leslie Gore — and who else?”
Then it dawned on me: the radio guy was employing plural pronouns that are not exclusively plural anymore.
Last December, the Merriam-Webster people announced the 2019 Word of the Year was “they,” specifically the singular use of “they” as a pronoun to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary. By the way, it’s a good thing the word “nonbinary” was added to the M-W dictionary just a few months earlier.
A news story used this example: “Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Sam Smith announced their decision to use gender neutral pronouns.” The article did not mention how old Sam was when they signed their first record contract.
Now, if you think I’m going to get into a big discussion here about gender binarity, and the passionate debate over how many genders there are (Facebook says at least 58), you are mistaken. 
I’m a libertarian who believes in “live and let live,” and I wouldn’t touch this subject with a ten-foot pole (or as the Grinch said, a 39-1/2 foot pole).
Besides, many of the things I thought were important four decades ago turned out not to be very big deals after all. So, these days, I’m picking my battles.
If some folks don’t like the fact that many pronouns are exclusively male or female, I sort of get it. Well, almost sort of. But my beef is with the singular-plural issue. It just seems bizarre for they/them/their to refer to one person.
For example, on the business-oriented social media platform LinkedIn, I often get notices like this: “Today is David’s work anniversary. Wish them congratulations by posting a message.” 
If David does not identify as male, then he will be, um, I mean, then there will be offense taken if the note said, “Wish him congratulations.” 
LinkedIn should do what I just did — dump the pronoun entirely. The notice should be phrased like this: “Today is David’s work anniversary. Offer congratulations by posting a message.”
See? It doesn’t offend the non-traditional gendered community, and it doesn’t offend those of us who got yelled at by Mrs. McGillicuddy for an entire year during 4th grade Grammar class until we got our pronouns right. 
I’ve been around long enough to remember Leslie Gore, which means this dog is way too old to learn new grammar tricks.
Let’s just avoid those gender specific singular pronouns as much as possible. When I read or hear someone use a plural pronoun instead of a singular pronoun, I mutter to myself: “We are not amused.” 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Jesus Can Handle Our Burdens

The Fourth of July. Independence Day. It was Saturday, July 4th, when our parishes here in Connecticut had their first public weekend Masses since early March. It was a wonderful experience. Attendance at the 5 p.m. Vigil Mass was limited by design. Everyone wore facemasks. Every other pew was blocked off, so folks kept at least six feet from each other. Rather than incense, the smell of hand sanitizer wafted throughout the sanctuary. But just being back at church for Mass—finally!—was a terrific sensation.
The gospel reading that day, for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, was from Matthew, chapter 11. Jesus exclaimed, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
What a wonderful coincidence that particular reading just happened to be the gospel for our first public Mass in months. (Although, maybe rather than a coincidence, it was instead a mysterious God-incidence.)
What have the last four months been for most Americans? A single word best answers that question: burden.
Just think about what we’ve been through since early March: Loved ones got sick, and many died because of the horrible COVID-19 virus. Jobs were lost. Classes were cancelled. Businesses were shut down; many never to reopen. Lives were completely disrupted. Then, an act of horrible violence sparked waves of more horrible violence throughout the country. Without a doubt, life in America over the past four months has been a burden.
And for faithful Catholics, the burden was compounded when we were ordered by the bishops NOT to attend Mass. Out of an abundance of caution and the fact this virus is so contagious, the bishops regretfully closed our churches. Just imagine if last Fall someone announced, “I’ll bet a thousand bucks that next year the bishops will order all Catholics to stay home and not go to Mass.” Everybody within earshot would’ve laughed at the guy — and quickly accepted his wager. Well, if that had happened, that fella would be a rich man today.
So, on the first day we were allowed to attend weekend Mass once again, Jesus said He will give rest to everyone who is burdened. That sounds great! Where do I sign up? Does He take credit cards?
Well, it’s not exactly something we “sign up” for. There’s a spiritual concept in Christianity that teaches we must surrender to be victorious. Now, by worldly standards, that makes no sense. To be victorious in any struggle, we instinctively know that we have to fight hard and overpower our enemies. Only then will we be able to declare victory.
Much of the burden that people endure these days is self-inflicted. We assume it’s our responsibility to run the universe and make everything right. I’ve got news for you. None of us have the skill-set to pull that off. It’s not in our job descriptions. The only One who has the ability to do that job is Christ.
After all, don’t forget: Jesus was not simply a Jewish carpenter who offered a lot of nice teachings 2,000 years ago. Scripture says this about Jesus: “Through Him all things were made.” Before lowering Himself to become a man, Jesus was “one-in-being” with God Almighty, and He was instrumental in the creation of the entire universe.
We need to surrender to Christ; that is, we need to get out of the way and let Him be God. He has the power and strength and majesty to assume our burdens. If we just relax and trust that the Lord is in charge, we will be amazed at how light our burdens become.
Now that our churches have reopened, try to attend Mass on the weekend once again (only, of course, if you are not in a high-risk category). It’s been a long spiritual drought since early March, and we all are weary and troubled. Throw your burdens onto Jesus. He can handle them.