Friday, December 15, 2017

Sad Sight at Convenience Store

At least once a week I see a very sad sight. I’ll stop at a convenience store to grab a coffee, and as I walk into the store I frequently see a person coming out of the store with at least $40 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets. The person is already scratching the tickets frantically before even getting to his car.

Invariably, the person comes up empty. Not even a two-dollar winner on any of those tickets. The useless tickets then get thrown onto the ground in disgust, and as the person drives away, I can clearly see the most heart-wrenching look of hopelessness and despair on his face.

As I wait in line to pay for my coffee, my mind starts to wander. I think about what that guy could have purchased with his $40 instead of lotto tickets. I wonder how often he puts himself through that painful ordeal, and how many hundreds of dollars he wastes in an average month. I wonder if he has kids, and if there’s any food in his house. I wonder if he’s behind in his rent. I wonder if things would have been different if he had paid attention in math class and learned that the Lottery is a total scam, and he has a better chance of being hit by lightning on a sunny day than winning the big prize.

Then I try to think happier thoughts. I tell myself that maybe he is not as desperate as it appears. Maybe he’s an eccentric millionaire who feels comfortable wearing threadbare clothing, sees no need to visit a dentist regularly, and enjoys driving a rusty 1996 Buick Skylark with bald tires. Right. And maybe I’m the Prince of Wales.

Occasionally I have far too much time to let my mind wander because the person in front of me in line is buying $60 worth of lotto tickets, which means he is carefully dictating to the counter clerk exactly which combination of tickets he wishes to purchase, hoping to improve his odds by trying just about every possible option available. (Yeah, improving his odds from zero to five-times-zero.)

Then I start thinking about a different person. This person is not inside a convenience store. He is in a clean, well-appointed office. Since he DID pay attention in math class — and excelled at it — he very well might be a Certified Public Accountant or hold a Master’s degree in Business Marketing. He receives a handsome salary, so his clothes and his car are new, and there’s plenty of food in his suburban home. He has terrific medical and dental benefits, and his teeth and the teeth of his kids are healthy, white, and straight.

This person has a brilliant, creative mind, and he uses that brilliant creativity to think of new ways to convince all the threadbare ’96 Buick folks of the world to keep dumping their scarce $20 bills into a get-rich-quick scheme that is thoroughly stacked against them.

In a bygone era, this person would have been considered a parasitic snake oil salesman and run out of town. But nowadays he is a highly-regarded and highly-compensated state employee. He is highly-regarded and highly-compensated because his marketing skills keep a steady flood of money flowing into the state coffers. 

When I finally finish paying for my coffee and walk back to my car, I have one last thought: I wonder if the creative and successful state employee occasionally buys his coffee at a convenience store. I wonder if he ever sees the same sad sight I see. And if so, I wonder if he even gives a damn.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Identity of Jesus Is the Key

In this week’s gospel reading John the Baptist was questioned by the religious authorities about his identity. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah or one of the prophets. John told them no, and said, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”

John, of course, was referring to Jesus as the one who was far more important.

At that point in time, John had been preaching and baptizing for quite a while; Jesus had yet to begin His ministry. John already had many devoted followers, while Jesus had none. If John had wanted, he could have capitalized on his momentum and become the big cheese among religious reformers.

But those thoughts never even occurred to John. He was not motivated by pride and power, he was motivated by truth. And the truth is, Jesus was the real Messiah, the Son of God.

The identity of Jesus is the key. If He was just another in a long line of itinerant street preachers, however attractive His teachings and philosophies might be, then there is really not much to get excited about. But if He is who He claimed to be—the Son of God and the Savior of the world—and if He really did what the Bible claims He did—die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and rise from the tomb on the third day—then He is by far the most important figure in all of history.

I remember watching a show many years ago on The Discovery Channel titled, “The Riddle of The Dead Sea Scrolls.” The program explored the theories of Dr. Barbara Thiering, an Australian historian. Dr. Thiering claimed to be on a quest to uncover the “historical Jesus,” and she systematically offered naturalistic explanations for all of the prominent miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

Dr. Thiering discussed the Virgin Birth, changing water into wine, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. In each case, she offered what she believed really happened, minus any miraculous elements. Essentially, she said the Gospels were written with supernatural fables added on to make the stories more interesting.

Although Dr. Thiering came across as someone who approaches the subject with an open mind, willing to follow wherever the evidence leads, the fact is, her research was rigged from the start. She could have drawn no other conclusions, regardless of the evidence. This is because her most basic philosophical assumption about reality is: “Miracles simply cannot occur.” Therefore, there must be some other natural explanation.

It all goes back to basic worldview questions. Is our universe a closed system of exclusively natural phenomena? Or does a supernatural realm exist somewhere outside of our natural world? Is it possible for supernatural events (miracles) to occur occasionally in our natural domain? Or is there a naturalistic explanation for everything? Do we really have a soul? Or have we been misled by an unlikely arrangement of complex electro-chemical activities in our brains? Did God create mankind? Or did mankind, out of fear and ignorance, create the concept of God?

These questions are crucial because if, as Dr. Thiering sincerely believes, miracles cannot happen, then the identity of Jesus doesn’t matter. However, the fact is, miracles CAN happen, because God is real and supernatural. 

So, please don’t make the mistake Dr. Thiering made. Jesus was not an ordinary guy who had fantastic fables added to his story years after his death. He is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us eternal life. John the Baptist embraced this truth, and we must embrace it, too.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Cuckoo for Blogging Posts

Remember the good ol’ days when people would write their innermost thoughts in a diary? And then the diary would be locked and hidden under the bed? This way, only after a person died did you find out he or she was cuckoo. But nowadays, we have Facebook and Twitter and blogs. This way, everybody on Planet Earth gets to find out right away that a person has more baggage than the cargo hold of a Boeing 737. I miss the good ol’ days.

I really shouldn’t be so snarky, since I’ve had a blog myself for a few years now. By the way, if you’re not familiar, the word blog is a contraction of the phrase “web log.” Basically, a blog is a personalize page on the Internet where you can share whatever is on your mind with 7 billion other people. Although in reality, if you’re not a famous celebrity or politician or criminal (oops, that’s redundant), you probably won’t be noticed by approximately six-billion, nine-hundred ninety-nine million, nine-hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred ninety-two of those folks.

My blog can be found at MerryCatholic.com. It’s not a typical blog, as I simply post my well thought out and carefully crafted weekly columns. (OK, fine, I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Honestly, my goal for each column is to be well thought out and carefully crafted — and even occasionally run through Spell-Check — but I’m often running short on time, so the essays end up being a little sloppy, albeit always with good intentions.)

In comparison, the typical blog is a spur-of-the-moment running commentary, as the blogger types whatever pops into his or her head in response to, well, everything and anything. Sometimes it’s political commentary. Sometimes it’s the person’s views of society and culture.

Some bloggers are convinced the world is breathlessly waiting for an update, complete with photos, of every meal the blogger consumes each day. I suspect these bloggers aren’t quite reaching the full potential 7 billion viewer level.

Many blogs focus on specific topics or interests: dog grooming, scrapbooking, flowers, needlepoint, Red Sox trivia, automotive maintenance, and simple ways to build a tactical nuclear device out of spare parts in your garage. (These bloggers usually have a few extra viewers, namely the entire Homeland Security Department.)

My baby sister is now officially a blogger. Her commentary is quite insightful and funny. (I suspect she inherited those talents from her older brother.) Like me, she apparently is too hard pressed for time to use Spell-Check. You can find her at Katesflightofideas.com. (I’m glad she didn’t use the phonetic spelling of the word ideas. Growing up in eastern Connecticut, we learned to pronounce that word more like “eye-deers.” We aren’t as bad as Bostonians or Rhode Islanders, of course, but we do occasionally find the need to insert an “R” where it doesn’t belong.)

I make lighthearted fun of blogs and Facebook, but — no wait, there’s nothing fun about Facebook. I’m convinced it was created by Satan. Please, I’m begging you, save your soul by deleting your account.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, I make fun of blogs, but to be serious for a minute, typing out your thoughts and dreams is a very healthy and therapeutic exercise.

There’s a quote that has always stuck with me. I forgot who said it (and if only there was a way to quickly search for information these days!), but it goes like this: “I write to find out what I think.”


Feel free to check out my sister’s and my blog. Better yet, set up your own blog. No reason to make people wait until you’re dead to find out you’re cuckoo.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What Is the Nicene Creed?

At every Sunday Mass, right after the homily, the entire congregation stands and, reading from a missalette or pew card, recites in unison the words of the Nicene Creed, which begins, “I believe in one God…” The Creed is the declaration of faith for Christians. It is a summary of the doctrines taught and believed by the Church for 2,000 years.

I wonder if many people in the pews have any idea how the Creed came into existence?

If you ask the average Catholic where the Nicene Creed came from, he might say, “Well, it must be in the Bible, right? Maybe in one of those gospels, or in an epistle written by St. Paul or St. Nicene?” (Um, St. Nicene? Well, the Church has made great strides in recent years helping Catholics become more familiar with the Bible, but I guess there’s still a long way to go.)

The Nicene Creed was developed at two different Church Councils, the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 A.D. and the Council of Constantinople in the year 381 A.D. (Don’t worry about the details, as there will not be a quiz at the end of this essay.) Like many Church documents, the Creed was created in reaction to controversy, specifically the Arian heresy, which claimed that although Jesus was divine, He was a created being. The Arians claimed there was a time in the distant past when Jesus did not exist, an idea that clashed with the emerging doctrine of the Trinity. So, Church leaders gathered to produce a clear statement of faith.

It’s good to know the history of the Nicene Creed. But more importantly, we need to think about and understand what these words actually mean. After all, each one of us stands and publicly declares, “I believe…”

I wonder if many people in the pews ever think about the meaning of the words we recite each Sunday?

If you ask the average Catholic what the Nicene Creed actually means, he might say, “Um, it means the Church is important, and it’s important for us to go to Church, and, um, um, a lot of other important Churchy stuff, right?”

Well, yeah, Churchy stuff is important, but the Nicene Creed contains the fundamental basics of our faith, and it’s structured so that each of us can declare our belief in these basic doctrines out loud. The Creed covers belief in: 1) the one God who created everything; 2) His only Son, Jesus Christ, who is “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” (this is the key phrase that countered the Arian heresy); 3) Jesus’ earthly ministry, which includes His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, all done for our sake; 4) His future Second Coming, when He will judge the living and the dead; and 5) our belief in the following: the Holy Spirit, the Church founded by Christ, forgiveness of sin through Baptism, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

I wonder how many Catholics nowadays really believe Jesus is divine? Or that He really, truly, physically rose from the dead? Or that He will come again to judge everyone? (Uh oh, we don’t like the idea of judgment nowadays, which is way too politically incorrect.) 

Okay, I lied. There IS a quiz here at the end of the essay. It’s not a quiz about the names and dates of ancient Church councils. It’s an easier but much more crucial quiz, consisting of a single question: Do you REALLY believe the words you recite each Sunday at Mass? Give your answer in complete sentences, and spelling counts.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Tobacco Nannies on the Prowl

We’ve all seen the pathetic sight on city streets. Downtrodden people, bracing against the rain and wind, huddled in doorways or back alleys, oblivious to the rest of the world and desperately indulging in their addiction.

No, I’m not talking about homeless alcoholics or crack addicts. I’m talking about office workers taking a cigarette break. It’s so sad. Otherwise normal and productive citizens are now treated like scum. Vilified and ostracized, smokers these days must grovel and humiliate themselves just to get a quick nicotine fix and temporarily relieve their insatiable cravings.

But if you think smokers have a desperate urge to light up, that’s nothing compared to the desperate urges of the people who forced smokers out into the streets in the first place: the Tobacco Nannies. These self-righteous, virtue-signaling do-gooders will not rest until every smoker in America is branded with a scarlet “S” on his or her forehead and shackled into stocks on the town green.

I had a meeting recently in the financial district of a New England city. On one street corner there is a cute little plaza, with benches, trees, and a fountain. As I walked past, I saw a huge plaque on the wall: “SMOKE FREE PLAZA.”

Because this particular city is near the ocean, and because this particular plaza is surrounded by high-rise buildings, the wind is constantly blowing at a minimum of 30 MPH. I’m not even sure anyone could get a cigarette lit in that wind, but if they did, every molecule of smoke would be whisked away instantly before coming anywhere near the indignant nose of a Tobacco Nanny.

However, smoking outside is not good enough anymore. The Nannies don’t even want to see smokers in their precious little open-air plaza. I finally located the smokers about half-a-block away, standing in a slimy alleyway next to a row of Dumpsters.

Let me say for the record, I’m not a smoker, and I truly believe smoking is one of the dumbest things a person ever could do. Smoking kills thousands of people each and every week, which is not surprising because cigarettes are very effective at turning healthy pink lungs into lumps of black charcoal.

Let me also say, for the record, that smoking is a legal activity — and always will be. I can make this statement with complete confidence because there is one substance in the world which is even more addictive than tobacco. That substance is tax dollars. If you think smokers are desperate when they scamper into the alleyways to light up during mid-morning break, just imagine how desperate politicians would be if billions of dollars of tax revenues suddenly disappeared because smoking was declared illegal. It will never happen.

And so, everyone will continue to play the game and do the daily dance. The smokers will brave the elements multiple times each day, puffing away in doorways and alleys, balancing the internal guilt of a self-destructive behavior with the external ridicule of sneering passersby.

The politicians will pontificate endlessly about the dangers of smoking and the sinister marketing tactics of evil tobacco companies, all the while filling their coffers with tobacco tax money. 

And the Nannies will relentlessly patrol our cities and towns, ready to pounce on any smoker who dares to light up in an unauthorized area. When break time is over, the Nannies will return to their offices, filled with the smug pride that comes with knowing exactly what’s best for everyone else. The Nannies then will joyfully wolf down another pound of cheese Danish, pop a few Valium, and think of new ways to monitor other people’s unhealthy behavior.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Hard to Find Jesus in Holiday Clutter

This week is the first Sunday of Advent. It seems like we just packed away the Christmas stuff and now we have to bring it all out again. (I realize this doesn’t apply to everyone. Some folks start celebrating the Christmas season right around Halloween. But in my family, we’re traditionalists. We don’t go bonkers for Christmas until the proper time: thirty seconds after the conclusion of Thanksgiving dinner.)

The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is a very short passage from Mark. Jesus gave a warning about the end times when He would return to judge the world. He said, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come….What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Advent is a time of watching and waiting. It is a four-week period of preparation for the coming of the Lord.

Nowadays, it takes an especially keen eye to see the Lord anywhere among the avalanche of secular Christmas glitz. We can easily find ourselves overwhelmed by trees and lights and holly and mistletoe and parties and presents and shopping and over-eating and on and on and on. We can hop aboard the non-stop, six-week, Ho-ho-ho express and never once give a fleeting thought to the One for whom the Christmas season was originally intended. (I’ll give you a hint: His name is not Santa.)

You can watch hundreds of hours of Christmas specials on TV and never once hear even an oblique reference to Jesus. Virtually all of the “holiday programming” steers quite clear of the religious origin of Christmas.

Let’s face it, Jesus Christ is persona non grata in our present culture. Despite the fact three out of four American citizens describe themselves as Christian, there is a small but powerful segment of society passionately working overtime to rid the public square of any religious influence.

The level of animosity reaches its zenith during the Christmas season—“Christmas season,” by the way, being a phrase that is banned by many schools and municipal operations. I’m still at a loss to figure out how the First Amendment clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” can be invoked when a sixth grade chorus sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Is a sixth grade chorus the same as the U.S. Congress? (No, of course not. The sixth graders are more mature.) Is singing a Christmas carol the same as passing federal legislation? I really don’t get it.

On the other hand, I can find nowhere in the Constitution the clause, “All citizens have the right never to be offended.” If someone is truly offended by a rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” why doesn’t he or she just skip this year’s Christmas concert? (Oops, I mean, “Winter Concert.”)

Anyway, Advent is a time when we should be “watching” for the coming of the Lord, waiting in anticipation for His arrival. But if you spend this December watching for Jesus is all the usual places—shopping malls, office parties, in front of the TV—you are not very likely to spot Him. 

I’m afraid you’re going to have to work at it if you want to see Jesus this season. Skip a Sunday shopping excursion and instead go to church. Turn off the TV and read the Nativity verses in the Bible. Spend a little less time (not to mention effort and money) decorating your house to look like a Las Vegas casino and instead sit down with your kids and pray for God’s peace and love to fill your family and friends. Try to remember, for a change, that Jesus is truly the reason for the season.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Painful Experience at the Dentist Office

For the first time in many years the dentist found a cavity in one of my teeth. And so, for the first time in many years I had to go through the ol’ drilling and filling procedure. Although I have done a pretty good job of getting over many of my childhood phobias — dentist visits, Confession at church, public speaking, stage fright at the urinal if there’s someone else in the men’s room — I still was not looking forward to getting my tooth drilled.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a very painful and uncomfortable experience. But it wasn’t the drilling and filling that hurt. Right after the dentist gave me Novocain, he handed me a magazine to pass the time while the anesthetic took effect. The magazine was titled “This Old House,” and flipping through its pages was one of the most painful experiences in my entire adult life.

The magazine was filled with articles and photos of home renovation projects that made me feel completely inadequate as a homeowner. It was like a “Martha Stewart for men” manual, something that clearly communicates the message, “Ha ha, look what we can do without even breaking a sweat that you could never do in your entire lifetime. Ha ha.”

The magazine had many “before” and “after” photos of the various projects. For example, a fairly regular looking guy named Dave, an accountant by profession, bought a rundown cottage for a song, and in his spare time on the weekends transformed the cottage into a mini Taj Mahal (complete, I think, with an elephant sanctuary in the back yard). Not until the end of the article did I learn that Dave actually owns a large accounting firm, and what he did mostly in his spare time on the weekends was phone the best architects and contractors in his state and write humongous checks which totaled by the time the project was finished to more than $1.2 million.

Some of the shorter articles were brief how-to pieces, such as “How to install crown molding in your bathroom.” Well, I don’t want to install crown molding (whatever that is) in my bathroom. The only things I want in my bathroom are privacy, a functioning toilet, a generous supply of toilet paper, a powerful exhaust fan, and some good magazines to read. (Good magazines being defined as anything but “This Old House.”)

After about ten minutes, the dentist came back into the room. The first thing he said was, “Bill, you look very pale. Are you all right?”

“No, I’m not all right!” I replied. “I like my house a lot, you know. But according to this stupid magazine, I’d have to spend about $90,000 just to get it in shape to be one of the ‘before’ photos!”

The dentist smiled, thinking I was trying to make a joke. “I’m not kidding!” I said. Then I pointed my finger at him, and said as firmly and seriously as possible, considering the left side of my mouth was numb, “Listen Doc, if you let my wife see this magazine when she comes in for her routine cleaning next month, I swear I will hunt you down and install crown molding (whatever that is) right onto your forehead!”


After that, the drilling and filling procedure went smoothly and did not hurt a bit. (I think dentists work more carefully when they’ve just been threatened with bodily harm.) But as I left the office, I still vowed to be much more diligent with my flossing and brushing because I do not want to go through an ordeal that painful ever again.