Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Amazing Discovery: Sin Is Real

In this week’s second reading at Mass, St. Paul discussed sin. He explained that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we “were baptized into his death.” Since Christ died to conquer sin, when we join with him we can break free from the slavery of sin and, as Paul wrote, “live in newness of life.”

The whole point is summarized in the last line of the reading: “Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”

Whether or not Paul’s readers believed his explanation about Jesus conquering sin, there was no question about his underlying assumption: sin is real and should be avoided as much as possible.

Today, however, we don’t accept the assumption that sin is real. When it comes to sin, we redefine it, we ignore it, we embrace it, or we simply deny that it exists.

We look at the long list of sins described in the Bible and say, “Whoa, wait a minute. It’s impossible to avoid all those things (and besides, some of them are fun!)”. So, we redefine sin. We say things like mass murder and starting a world war are sinful, but that’s about it.

Another effective modern option is to ignore sin. Hey, we’re too busy for that, we say. We focus all our energies on materialism, climbing the corporate ladder, and keeping up with the Jones’, and leave all those ethical considerations for some future day.

Or we embrace sin. Bygone generations knew that the Seven Deadly Sins always led to misery. Pride, lust, greed, anger, gluttony, laziness, and envy were emotions to be avoided. Today, we glorify these seven attitudes. Just think of two things: our most famous celebrities and the typical TV commercial. Our culture is being made to think that if we don’t embrace these seven emotions, then there’s something wrong with us. And then we scratch our heads and wonder why so many people are so unhappy. Duh.

Finally, we deal with sin by denying that it exists. We say that sin is an archaic concept from those old, superstitious religious traditions. Insisting that sin is real has been the cause of guilt and shame and all that unhealthy psychological baggage. The only way to be fulfilled as a person, we insist, is to remove completely all guilt and shame (even though mass murderers and fellows who start world wars—not to mention the guy who thinks nothing of date-raping your daughter—have no guilt or shame).

So, for many modern folks, Paul’s explanation about Jesus conquering sin is meaningless because we don’t accept his basic assumption about the reality of sin. If we deny sin or embrace sin, why should we be interested in a possible way to avoid sin? It’s like going to a fraternity house on Saturday afternoon and saying, “Hey, fellas, I’ve got a surefire way to make sure you don’t get drunk tonight!” I don’t imagine many of the guys will be flocking around you wanting to hear more about it.

What Paul wrote is true: when we attach ourselves to Christ we can “live in newness of life.” This new life includes an understanding that sin is real, a sincere desire to avoid it, and the spiritual power to do so—most of the time. But does this new life mean that we’re suddenly perfect? Nah, we’re still stuck with our sinful human nature and we’re still going to stumble. 

Avoiding sin is not easy, especially while living in a culture that glorifies sinful behavior. But it’s something that we must strive to do as best we can. The Spirit of Christ gives us the power to break free from the slavery of sin, and the wisdom to go to Confession whenever we fall short. But the first and most important step we must take is to acknowledge that sin is real, and it is nasty.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The (Fake News) History of Air Conditioning

Here at the start of summer, let’s discuss air conditioning. Most historians claim it was invented by Willis Carrier in 1902 in New York City. However, this is not correct. The first air conditioning system actually was invented thousands of years ago. On a hot, steamy summer day, a caveman named Gork was mopping his sweaty forehead with one hand and holding the electrical cord of his air conditioning unit with the other hand. He asked his wife, “How come there are no electrical outlets in this cave?”

Mrs. Gork, also sweaty and uncomfortable, especially since her wardrobe consisted exclusively of mastodon fur garments, replied, “Unless you figure out a way to cool down this cave, you’re sleeping on the couch tonight!” This made Gork very sad, as couches had yet to be invented, which meant he would be sleeping on a rock.

So Gork decided to invent air conditioning. He roamed the countryside looking for something cold. After many hours, he found a convenience store with an ice machine by the front door. Gork was thrilled. But then the clerk informed him that the ice machine was broken and no one knew when the repair man was supposed to arrive. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway since Gork left his wallet back at the cave.

Gork continued searching. Finally, in a deep thicket on the north side of a large hill, he spotted a hoof protruding from the ground. He began to dig with his hands — wishing he had remembered to bring not only his wallet, but also his shovel — and unearthed the frozen carcass of a wildebeest.

Gork dragged his icy treasure home. He placed the rapidly-thawing carcass in the middle of his cave and waved palm branches up and down to blow cool air toward Mrs. Gork in the bedroom. Although Gork did not particularly enjoy getting up every 20 minutes to wave the palm branches, it was much better than sleeping on a rock.

But the next morning, as the sun rose on another hot and steamy day, Gork’s nostrils informed him that his air conditioning invention still had a few bugs to work out — specifically, the cloud of bugs furiously buzzing around the cave. Although Mr. and Mrs. Gork were accustomed to some rather unpleasant smells —  for example, they had never taken a bath in their entire lives since Gork’s cousin Grunk had yet to invent plumbing — having a rotting wildebeest carcass in the middle of the living room produced an aroma that even the Gorks found bothersome.

Mankind’s desire to cool the air on hot, steamy summer days remained an unfulfilled dream for thousands of years until that fateful day in 1902 when Willis Carrier walked into a Brooklyn printing shop dragging behind him palm branches and a frozen wildebeest carcass.

Over the next few decades, a series of technological advancements with electric motors, pumps, and fans, combined with important innovations in the field of chemical refrigerants, made it possible, at long last, to have safe, reliable, and convenient systems for cooling indoor air which did not stink up the building and attract bugs. (That job is still best performed by thoughtless employees who leave food scraps and soda cans lying around the break room.)

We currently live in an era where the task of cooling the air on hot, steamy summer days is no longer a big deal. We now take it for granted that air conditioning equipment will turn on at the touch of a button and make our homes and offices quite comfortable. We should rejoice that we live in this particular time and place. 

Now if someone can get the ice machine repair man to show up, we can really celebrate.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

World Views in Conflict

In this week’s second reading at Mass, from the epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explained: “Through one man (Adam) sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.”

Paul’s message is that sin and death came into the world through the original sin of Adam, while forgiveness and eternal life came into the world through the obedience and sacrifice of Jesus.

Many Christians today say that Paul was using symbolic language. Either that, or he was speaking from ignorance if he literally believed what he wrote.

You see, the thinking nowadays is that modern science has proven beyond a doubt that there really was no actual Adam. It’s understood now that all the Book of Genesis stuff about Adam and Eve and original sin were simply traditional fables, curious folk legends, that someone finally wrote down.

We now know, it is argued, that mankind emerged from a long and gradual evolutionary process, and the idea that God infused one particular monkey-man with an eternal soul and spirit at a specific point in history, is vehemently rejected.

Whether you label it “sinful” or not, the thinking goes that our human nature was not shaped by some specific act of disobedience. It was shaped instead by millions of years of environmental adaptation and natural selection. The “survival of the fittest” dynamic caused us to be the way we are.

Many people attempt to mix this modern view with traditional Christian theology. They think that faith in Jesus can be just as vital, just as meaningful, even though the Genesis stories are nothing more than folk legends devoid of fact.

However, those who actively oppose Christianity are not so foggy in their thinking. They clearly understand the enormous stakes here. For example, science writer and self-proclaimed “joyous atheist,” G. Richard Bozarth, wrote: “Evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus’ earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the son of god….If Jesus was not the redeemer who died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing!”

Subtle, ain’t he? If he was any more “joyful” in his hatred toward Christians, there’d be flames shooting out of his eyeballs.

The secular humanists and “joyful atheists,” such as Bozarth, realize that there can be no compromise. They understand that this is a clash between two diametrically opposed world views. The one view holds that a supernatural Being called God designed and created mankind—regardless of the particular details of how and when it happened—while the other view holds, as the late Francis Shaeffer explained, that the entire universe is nothing more than “impersonal matter and energy shaped into its present form by impersonal chance.”

These two opposing views of ultimate reality are at the heart of the cultural war raging in our society today. The atheists and humanists know this is a fierce battle, which is why they have worked so hard to capture strategic targets, such as the entertainment industry, the news media, and public education, to name a few.

On the other hand, far too many Christians don’t even know there’s a battle going on. They think it’s possible to accept every faith-destroying atheistic principle, but as long as we all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” then everything will be fine.

St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” He knew that if you strip Christianity of its supernatural components, it’s all meaningless. Church becomes nothing more than an ACLU meeting with stained glass windows. It’s time for Christians to wake up and understand this important situation.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Readers Reply About Connecticut

Recently I asked readers to respond to these two questions: “What is Connecticut famous for?” and, “Why do you like (or dislike) living here?”

An avalanche of passionate emails poured in, a handful of which were pleasant and optimistic, while the majority had the same tone as Bill O’Reilly after drinking seven Red Bulls, only a bit more agitated.
I suspect the angry responses were influenced by an unfortunate coincidence. The week my column appeared asking readers to reply, was the very week state officials announced the budget deficit for the current fiscal year was not approximately $45 million, as had been projected for many months, but instead was more like $450 million. Oops. What’s a misplaced decimal point among friends?

Also, the deficit for the next fiscal year is projected to be around $2.3 Billion —  or maybe $900 Trillion, given the accuracy lately of state budget deficit prognosticators.
Anyway, many folks offered their opinions on the good things about our state, along with universal disdain for our elected leaders, who, according to one correspondent, “couldn’t have done a worse job running our state if they had been a gaggle of crack-snorting, brain-damaged geese. But at least goose poop fertilizes the soil. The foul droppings from our politicians cause hard-working people to flee the state.” (OK, now don’t sugarcoat it; what do you REALLY think about our elected officials?)

Let’s look at some positive things about Connecticut. By far the most frequently mentioned item was the UConn Women’s basketball team. Led by that coaching genius from Philadelphia, this dynasty of talented athletes from all over the U.S. (hardly ever from Connecticut) has for many decades now been a major point of Nutmeg State pride.
Many people also mentioned New Haven style pizza, with fans of Pepe’s and Sally’s expressing the same kind of passionate loyalty one might witness during a debate (or brawl?) between Red Sox and Yankees fans. Everyone agreed, however, that deep-dish Chicago-style pizza is horrible.

Citizens of the Nutmeg State love the fact we are a short drive away from two of the world’s most vibrant cities, Worcester and Poughkeepsie. No wait, I mean Boston and New York City. One reader explained we are “close enough to New York to be convenient without being close enough to be obnoxious.” Good point.

Connecticut’s wonderful natural resources were mentioned quite often: fall foliage, Long Island Sound, the Connecticut River, and Lyme Disease. Many people love our four seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Orange Cone season (also known as the season of highways clogged with New Yorkers on their way to Cape Cod).
Although it can get rather cold in the winter here, and hot and muggy in the summer, one email writer pointed out: “If you want brutal weather, try winter in Wisconsin or summer in Savannah.” Another good point.

Of all the features about Connecticut listed in the email notes, one was mentioned by far more than any other. This feature is the main reason people love this state, the main reason people are proud of this state, and the main reason they have no intentions of ever leaving this state. This feature is: Bob’s Discount Furniture commercials.
Sorry, my mistake. Bob was mentioned quite often, but not exactly as a major bragging point. A desire to shoot the TV was a recurring theme. 

The real best feature of our state, above all others, is simple and to the point: CONNECTICUT IS HOME. And that’s good enough for me. (At least for the time being, when I’m too young to retire and too old to get a new job in South Carolina. But in a few more years, if things remain unchanged at the Captiol? See ya!)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Body and Blood of Christ a Hard Teaching

A few years ago, a friend of mine was attending an inter-faith religious service in a nearby town. When it was time for Communion, the minister leading the service explained how his denomination usually conducted the ceremony. At the end of his explanation, he threw in a snide comment: “And of course, we’re not into cannibalism like the Catholics.”

My friend, who is Catholic, kept quiet for the rest of the service, but when it was over, he attempted to talk to the minister, hoping to ask him for an explanation of his comment. The moment my friend mentioned that he is Catholic, the minister abruptly turned and walked away.

Certainly, the man’s behavior toward my friend was rude. But ignorance also played a role. He probably was so certain for so long that Catholic doctrines are simply wrong, that he was rusty on explaining exactly why. That minister probably would have a hard time explaining this week’s gospel reading.

This weekend we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the gospel reading is from John, chapter 6. Jesus declared to the crowds, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Not surprisingly, those in the crowd were stunned at Jesus’ words. They obviously thought, like our rude minister friend, that cannibalism is not such a good thing.

Jesus, however, did not correct their literal interpretation of His statement. He instead reinforced His message by saying FOUR MORE TIMES that people must eat His flesh and drink His blood.

Many in the crowd were horrified. Jesus’ startling words seemed to promote cannibalism. Our rude minister friend has a lot of company, as a sizeable portion of that crowd 2,000 years ago walked away in disgust at the idea of eating the flesh of another person.

But here’s the thing: the last time I looked, the 6th chapter of John’s gospel is still contained in all Christian Bibles, even the Bibles from which rude ministers do their preaching. I’m curious how these folks explain that Jesus was speaking figuratively when it is so abundantly clear that He was speaking literally.

Isn’t it interesting that people who interpret the entire Bible literally, suddenly get all figurative when it comes to John, chapter 6?

Add to that the words of St. Paul, who wrote, “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….For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

How can you sin against something that’s just a symbol? And why would he say, “…recogniz[e] the body of the Lord” if it’s just plain old bread?

The burden of proof is not on Catholics to justify our belief in the Real Presence: Jesus’ body and blood, soul and divinity, truly present in the Eucharist. The burden of proof is on those who don’t believe in the Real Presence to explain what in the world Jesus was talking about when He said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” 

I’m not trying to be rude. (I really don’t have to try, most of the time it just comes naturally.) 
I’m just trying to point out that snide comments about cannibalism are no substitute for an honest and open discussion. On this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we really ought to have a civil conversation. Jesus made it clear that this topic is too important to gloss over or ignore.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Heart-broken At Loss of Friend

May 31st. It’s approaching midnight. I’m trying to scribble in a notebook, but my heart is breaking. My dear friend, Craig Holland, lost his courageous battle with cancer this morning, and my heart is breaking. Craig was my college buddy, fraternity brother, and one of maybe five people on the planet with whom I’ve shared belly laughs so loud and so long I was certain I’d broken a rib. Even though he rooted for the wrong teams and voted for the wrong politicians, we were kindred spirits, soul mates.

And now he’s gone, and my heart is breaking.

It is very sad, of course, that he died barely a month after his 60th birthday. (Remember when 60 seemed so OLD? We had a good laugh recently talking about that subject.)

It’s very sad Craig’s illness prevented him from attending his daughter’s college graduation last month. And he won’t be around to mentor his 15-year-old son into adulthood. Saddest of all, his grieving bride Maggie has lost her best friend.

However, another reason my heart breaks is because I now realize I squandered the past quarter-century. Oh sure, Craig and I emailed and texted. But our face-to-face visits were way too infrequent. I’ve always considered him one of my closest friends, and I assured myself we would finally spend some time together — one of these days.

You know how it goes, right? Life is hectic, with work responsibilities, raising kids, and a zillion other obligations. All those years I kept saying, “We’ll get together really soon. Maybe we’ll meet in New York City for dinner and a ball game. Hey, I know, maybe I’ll take the ferry over to Long Island and spend the weekend. Or you come over here and I’ll pick you up in Bridgeport and you can spend the weekend in Connecticut. Yeah, let’s definitely do that really soon. Yeah, let’s.”

The years flew by. Then, a couple months ago, I got the call: Craig is really sick. The treatments aren’t working. It doesn’t look good.

Well, I finally made it to Long Island to visit him just weeks before he died. Embarrassingly easy journey, too. Drive to Bridgeport, get on the ferry, then grab an Uber. Exactly two hours and 30 minutes door-to-door. It took me 25 years to figure out Long Island is not a million miles away? Sheesh. Real smart, Bill. I should’ve taken that trip two or three times per year. But I always thought there’d be time in the future, when the busyness of life calmed down.

Now, he’s gone, and my heart is breaking. I was certain life would slow down and free up some precious time, and my old buddy and I would reconnect and see each other on a regular basis once again. Well, I was wrong. Life did not slow down and free up some precious time; instead, all time was snatched away.

I’m really gonna miss you, my friend. Say hi to Jesus for me, and save me a seat. When we meet again on the other side of eternity, I promise I won’t take our friendship for granted again. I promise we’ll get together often and laugh like the old days.

And I promise not to take my other friendships for granted anymore either. All you other buddies of mine out there, get ready, I’m going to start bothering you big-time, so I never make this mistake again. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Pete, Ross, Lefty, and Toto. Life is too damn short. I know that now. 

Finally, in Craig’s honor, and in violation of my Red Sox Nation oath, my battle cry for the rest of the summer will be, “Let’s go, Mets!”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Christian Violence vs. Secular Violence

Last week I discussed the passionate debates in which I engaged many years ago. The forum was the “letters to the editor” page of a now defunct local newspaper. And one of my primary debate opponents was Mr. A., a devout atheist. (I don’t call him “Mr. A” because he was an atheist; his last name actually began with the letter “A.” Also, I found out recently that Mr. A. died a few years ago, so I’ve begun praying for his soul. Maybe on his deathbed, his atheism wavered and he started to realize the amazing complexity of life on earth truly REQUIRES a divine Creator.)

Anyway, one of Mr. A.’s regular claims was that organized religion has been the source terrible violence and murder throughout history, and if the world were only atheist and enlightened (like him), then there would be peace and harmony and technological advancements, rather than ignorance, superstition, and religious-inspired death.

Like many secular people nowadays, Mr. A. loved to cite two historical events as proof that Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, is violent and evil. The two events are the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Various claims are made by opponents of the Church as to how many people were actually killed during these two periods of history—either hundreds of thousands on the low end or many million on the upper end.

In one of Mr. A.’s letters, he cited a very high death count, and here is an excerpt from my reply the following week:

I’m not sure where you got that figure, Mr. A., but a much more reliable statistic is the 100 million people who were slaughtered in the name of godless secular philosophies—in just the 20th century alone!

The real issue, however, is not playing Body Count Bingo. The real issue is this: when Christians commit atrocities in the name of Christ, they are behaving in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ. But when godless secularists commit atrocities, they are merely bringing their secular philosophies to a logical conclusion. Darwin taught the “survival of the fittest,” and said it would be perfectly natural for the “superior” races to exterminate the “inferior” races. (An idea Hitler adored.) Marx and Lenin taught that political goals must be achieved through violent and brutal means.

The great Secular Century which just ended, the most bloody century in human history, is ample evidence that a purely secular, religion-free world would not have already cured cancer, colonized the moon, and made life fuller and richer, as you theorize, Mr. A. No, I’m afraid that if mankind had been completely godless and secular during the last 2,000 years, there would be no mankind in existence today, and you and I would not be around to debate the topic.

No true follower of Christ would ever claim that Christians are sinless, since that’s the exact opposite of the basic Christian principle that all people are sinners. This is why we need a Savior.

No doubt, it is a scandal when Church leaders and/or followers of Jesus do horrible things. But as I said in my letter almost two decades ago, when those tragedies do occur, the people engaging in horrible behavior are acting in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus. On the other hand, the godless atheistic worldview always and inevitably leads first to totalitarianism, and finally to genocide. Always. It is simply that particular view of reality taken to its logical conclusion.

So, I pray for Mr. A’s immortal soul. And I pray that everyone else realizes a godless secular society would not be a scientific and enlightened utopia, but rather it would be (and has been) a brutal “culture of death” nightmare.