Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tonight’s Episode: The Wild Jungle

Good evening, and welcome to another episode of the award-winning public television series, “The Wild Jungle.” I’m your host, Sir Nigel Pifflepants.

Our film crew recently traveled to a deep, dark jungle region known as the I-84 corridor in Connecticut, a well-traveled migration route where herds of native species make the perilous morning trek from their lairs and dens to various food sources and then back again each evening.

As dawn breaks, we see the well-worn path is already bustling with activity. As the hungry herds race to their feeding grounds, a great predator lies in wait, the dreaded and powerful statetrooperis speedtrapicus, the king of the jungle, commonly known as the Ford Police Interceptor.

On this particular morning, we observe the typical hustle and bustle of the I-84 route. But just beyond a slight rise in the terrain, our telephoto lens spies an Interceptor quietly crouching along the edge of the path. As animals streak over the crest and catch their first glimpse of the waiting predator, they suddenly decelerate in fear, and try their best to blend in with the herd while avoiding eye contact.

The trembling creatures repeatedly glance backward to see if the Interceptor has targeted them. But this hunter can be very patient. He will wait for long periods of time, his laser-like vision monitoring the passing review until the perfect victim comes along.

Suddenly the predator leaps into action. Look at him go! He bounds onto the pathway with a surge of V-8, four-barreled acceleration. A high-pitched wail and flashes of red and blue tell the world that this hungry carnivore has selected a target.

On this particular morning, the Interceptor has set his sights on a frisky Camaro who strayed from the herd and foolishly frolicked ahead of the pack. Other creatures veer to the side as hunted and hunter race by. Just look at that power and speed!

The relentless pursuer eventually closes the gap and triumphantly forces his victim to the side of the path in a swirl of dust. And so, the chase comes to an end as abruptly as it began.
Upon seizing his prey, the undisputed king of the jungle oftentimes pauses, gathering himself for the final kill — while also running a computerized license plate check. During this interminable wait, the helpless victim is indeed a pitiful sight, morosely pondering his unfortunate fate, and sitting in full view as the rest of the herd passes by.

Other herd members look at the sad scene, sorrowful that a fellow creature has met such an untimely demise, while at the same time flooded with relief that, at least this time, it was not them.

But empathy and compassion have no place in the violent jungle. The teeming herd must quickly forget the unfortunate spectacle and concentrate on the task at hand: continuing the journey and the relentless quest for sustenance. And lest we forget, other Interceptors are out there, stalking the thoroughfare, waiting to pounce.

It is a story as old as life itself. The continuous struggle for survival. Kill or be killed. Fight or flee. Eat or be eaten. Paper or plastic. Boxers or briefs. Ginger or Mary Ann.
Thank you for tuning in to our stark and graphic presentation of ruthless predators in the wild. And speaking of ruthless predators, stay tuned for yet another pledge break.

Next week we will study a different violent, survival-of-the-fittest environment: the suburban shopping mall. Until then, I’m your host, Sir Nigel Pifflepants, saying good night.

* * * 

Reminder: This Sunday, May 1st, I’ll be speaking at St. Thomas the Apostle church in Oxford, CT. Potluck supper begins at 5 pm. See you there!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Noisy Children at Mass

At Sunday Mass, young children will act up once in a while and make a lot of noise. I am, of course, using the definition of the phrase “once in a while” that means: “every single Sunday like clockwork right in the middle of the homily.”

When toddlers in church get fidgety and make noise, I smile and think to myself, “Well, I’m just glad they’re here at Mass.” Many parents choose to leave their young children at home instead of bringing them to Mass. Come to think of it, many parents nowadays choose to leave themselves at home, too, rather than go to Mass.
I’m grateful these young families are in church, regardless of how noisy the youngsters are. However, when I think back to the time when my kids were young, I wasn’t always so serene and forgiving. In fact, if I remember correctly, I often spent the entire Mass glaring at my kids and whispering through clenched teeth, “If you don’t stop it RIGHT NOW, you’re in big trouble!!” (And let me tell you, it is not easy to whisper capitalized words and double exclamation points. It’s takes a lot of talent to convey anger while making hardly any sound.)

At the time I thought I was subtle enough so only my kids could tell I was angry, but now I realize everyone within a 50-foot radius also could tell my blood pressure was in the red zone. If the folks nearby could not actually hear my whispered threats, they knew something was going on because of the steam spewing from my ears.

The more I think about it, the more I realize I should phone my children, now all grown up, and apologize for the way I behaved in church a quarter-century ago. And to think, back then I was convince they were the ones misbehaving, when it turns out I was the one ignoring Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come unto me.”
I think the main reason I badgered my kids to be silent during Mass was my fear of getting nasty looks from other adults in the church. Let’s be honest, people can be very quick to offer a nasty glance toward rambunctious kids and their parents. It’s frustrating enough to try and keep children from disrupting Mass, but then to have to endure angry stares from other adults doesn’t help. I wonder if some of the parents who no longer go to Mass nowadays do so because of the looks they received from other parishioners?

Here’s an episode that actually occurred in my parish many years ago, and I swear I’m not exaggerating. A young mother brought her two boisterous sons to Mass each Sunday. One day after Mass, she saw that someone had put a hand-written note under the windshield wiper of her car. The note said: “If you can’t keep your children quiet, maybe you should go to a different church.” Nice, huh? Not only was that a nasty gesture, but doing it anonymously was cowardly, too.

So, now when I’m at Mass and I hear some youngsters acting up, I not only whisper to myself, “I’m just glad they’re here at Mass,” I also make a point of looking at the parents and smiling. If I’m close enough, I’ll whisper, “They’re so cute!” I figure it’s the least I can do to counteract some of the nasty stares they’re bound to get.
Yes, I freely admit it’s difficult to engage in solemn prayer during Mass when a toddler in the pew behind you is screaming and throwing Cheerios at the back of your head. I get it. But those are the moments when we have to stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” And the answer is: Jesus would smile and laugh and be delighted that the youngster is in church, even if it’s more difficult to engage in solemn prayer. And we should do the same.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Loving One Another Is Hard To Do

     In this week's gospel reading, Jesus gave us a new commandment: "Love one another."  He went on to say, "This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another."

     Based on the behavior of many people in the church, however, it's safe to say that the outside world often has no clue that we are disciples of Jesus.  If we do have any love for each other, we're capable of hiding it rather well.
     Our church board meetings can be more like negotiating sessions between the Teamsters union and corporate management, complete with table-pounding threats and accusations.

     Our after-church coffee hours can be more like an employee lounge during morning break, filled with gossip, slander, politicking, and back-biting.

     Our pot luck suppers can be more like Beef n' Brew Night at O'Malley's Tavern, including lewd and crude outbursts and side-swiped guard rails on the way home.

     Our church parking lots can be more like the interstate highway during rush hour, teeming with clenched jaws, rude invectives, and the world-famous "We're number one," hand gesture.

     The people who belong to Christ were given one important job and one helpful suggestion by the Lord.  The job is called the Great Commission, where Jesus said: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe what I have commanded you."

     And the helpful hint Jesus gave to make us more effective in doing this job was his command to love one another.  The idea is that when non-believers see Christians treating each other with the dignity and respect and love which is so rare out in the everyday world, they'll be drawn in, first out of curiosity, but then out of a desire to experience that peace and love.

     Of course, Jesus did not give us this helpful hint only to make us better salesmen for the kingdom of God.  ("And if you act now, we'll throw in a complete set of Ginsu knifes!  A $29.95 value, yours free for joining the Jesus Club!  Operators are standing by to take your order!!")

     Jesus commanded us to love one another for two major reasons.  First, it is the true source of peace and serenity in this less than peaceful and less than serene world of ours. Everybody knows someone so consumed by the world's definition of success, as a result it has made him or her downright miserable. (Maybe this person stares at you from the mirror each morning?)

     The materialistic, power-hungry, self-centered rat race is a grueling marathon.  Because the rewards are so fleeting, even the winners of this race wind up losers in the end.  Only by denying our selfish impulses and showing true love for others will we ever find real peace and happiness.

     The other reason Jesus gave us this command is because it is the exact way he acted toward us.  He said, "Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other."  He modeled perfect love when he gave his life as a ransom for our sins.  His love is the ideal expression toward which we must strive.

     Now, obviously, not everyone in the church is a self-centered immoral weasel, indistinguishable from, say, Charles Manson or, even worse, the people currently running for president.

     Don't get me wrong.  I'm convinced that one of the last things keeping our chaotic society from completely unraveling is the fact that many nameless saints all over this country still base their lives on God's unchanging definition of right and wrong.

     But in the eyes of many people outside the Christian family, we often appear no different than unbelievers.  When folks read in the paper about all the lawsuits, sex crimes, and financial shenanigans; when they hear bigoted profanity spewing from a person wearing a crucifix; when they get the "fish and fowl" treatment on the highway (having someone flip you the bird from a car adorned with the Christian fish symbol); there is no way that they are going to be drawn toward Jesus.

     In this week's gospel reading, Jesus makes it clear that he expects us to be different.  In fact, he wants our behavior to be so radical and bizarre that other people will actually stop and stare.  Jesus insists that we love the unlovable, pray for our enemies, give our precious "stuff" away to strangers, and most difficult of all, love one another. 

     And just maybe, some of the people who stop and stare--and wonder how we can be so peaceful and loving--will be introduced to him who is perfect love.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Public Speaking Adventures

Human beings were created with a built-in, water-cooled temperature control system, in the form of approximately 2.6 million sweat glands located all over our skin. This is a remarkable mechanism. Whenever we become a little too hot or nervous, the sweat glands secrete a bit of moisture, which evaporates and cools us down. This sophisticated temperature control system is an amazing feat of design and engineering — except when it is not.
For example, sometimes a person — who shall remain nameless — is about to give a one-hour presentation to a group of 20 business professionals assembled in a conference room designed to hold 12 people, which makes the room a little on the stuffy side. When this person’s laptop computer at first does not work properly, he becomes a bit panicky.

Finally, the technical problems are resolved, and the person begins the presentation by saying, “Hi, my name is Bill Dunn.” At that moment, a tiny droplet of sweat trickles down the left side of his forehead. This unnamed person nonchalantly brushes away the sweat droplet and continues talking. Then another drop of sweat — a bit larger than a droplet this time — trickles down the right side of his face. Then the person notices that his entire forehead has become as dewy as a lawn at sunrise in April.
Even though the slight amount of sweat is caused mostly by the warm room temperature rather than nervousness, the unnamed person suddenly becomes very nervous, fearful he is beginning to look like Marco Rubio trying to answer a difficult question during a televised debate.

This nervousness prompts the person’s adrenal gland to send an urgent hormonal message to every square inch of skin, and on cue 2.6 million sweat glands simultaneously produce a barely perceptible squirt.
Well, the squirt of an individual sweat gland is barely perceptible. But when that action is multiplied by 2.6 million, the overall effect on the unnamed person is nothing short of remarkable. In an instant, he is transformed from a man calmly explaining Slide #3 (of his 55-slide presentation), into a man who has just climbed, fully clothed, out of a swimming pool.

The man offers a forced chuckle and says, “Is it me, or is it warm in here?” In reply, 20 stony faces (dry faces, by the way) stare at the man, silently communicating the message, “I feel fine. What’s your problem?”

This causes the man’s adrenal gland to send out another urgent hormonal message, and this time all 2.6 million sweat glands conclude that another squirt is not sufficient, and therefore “full-flow mode” is required.

At this point, with 52 more slides to go, the unnamed person strolls to the side of the room and reaches up and pulls the fire alarm lever. As the entire building empties, he calmly walks to his car, drives to the airport, and catches the first flight to Mongolia where he lives out the rest of his life in anonymity.

Well, I have it on good authority that he at least WANTED to do that.

* * * 

Speaking of public speaking, on Sunday, May 1st, I will be speaking at St. Thomas the Apostle church, Rte. 67 in Oxford, CT. A potluck supper begins at 5 pm, and afterward I’ll be reading excerpts from my book, “The Gospel According to Morty,” which is a (hopefully) humorous look at whether Jesus ever laughed. Feel free to join us, and with any luck my 2.6 million sweat glands will not go into full “Marco Rubio mode.” But if that does happen, watching a person perform a self-baptism is always a rather interesting sight, so it will be a good show either way. See you there!

Monday, April 18, 2016

This World Is Not Our Home

Do you ever have the feeling that something is missing? Oh, you may be fairly successful, and other people think your life is going pretty well. But deep inside, down in the depths of your soul, you simply do not have true peace and serenity. And the more time passes by without experiencing peace and serenity, the more you crave it.

Maybe you’re hoping that someday in the near future you will experience perfect peace—as soon as you resolve all the stressful aspects of your life. But the years are ticking by faster and faster, and that elusive peace is still way out there in the future, and you’re starting to think that maybe you’ll never reach a point where you’re filled with true peace and serenity.

Well, there’s a good reason why perfect peace is so elusive: we’re really not meant to have it—at least not in this world. In the first reading at Mass this weekend, Paul and Barnabas said this about living the Christian life: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Many hardships? Whoa!
The main reason we often feel that something is missing—that true peace and serenity are so elusive—is the fact this world is really not our home. Oh sure, our natural bodies were born here, and we’ll spend the better part of a century living on this earth, but when it comes to the real us, our soul and spirit, this world is not home. Our true home is with our Creator in Heaven.

Perfect peace and serenity will not be ours until we join our Lord in Heaven. In this week’s second reading, St. John describes what will happen at that time: “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”

Knowing that true peace and serenity await us in Heaven can give us hope and help us persevere when times are difficult. But let’s be honest, a correct understanding of the situation can be somewhat discouraging. Knowing that most of our days here on earth are going to be filled with, as Paul and Barnabas said, “many hardships,” is kind of depressing.
However, it’s important to remember that Jesus understands our dilemma, and He offers us a way to experience some of Heaven’s perfect peace and serenity right here on earth. In one of the greatest verses in the whole Bible, John 16:33, Jesus summarizes our problem and offers the solution: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.”

Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it. He tells us that we are certain to have trouble in this world. But despite our troubles, He insists we still can be of good cheer because He has overcome the world. The power of God is greater than the power of sin and death that infects this world. And the glimpse of true peace Jesus offers us is greater than anything the secular culture can offer.
We have to submit ourselves totally to Christ and let His spirit fill our hearts. Then and only then will we be able to experience a small portion of His peace here in this world.

This world is not our home. Our true home is Heaven, the place where we will experience perfect peace and serenity for all eternity. But while we are here, if we are “in Christ,” He will help us deal with our troubles. He makes it possible for us to “be of good cheer” in this fallen world. And that makes all the difference.  

Friday, April 15, 2016

Jewish-Christian Relations Often Strained

In the first reading at Mass this weekend, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey. In the city of Antioch, they preached the Good News of Jesus Christ and were successful in converting many people to the Christian faith. But some of the local Jewish leaders became jealous and began talking abusively against Paul, Barnabas, and the message they preached.

Paul and Barnabas finally said to the local Jewish leaders, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it…we now turn to the Gentiles.”

The Gentiles in the area were thrilled to hear this, and as the reading explains, “The word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region.”

However, the local Jewish leaders continued to bad-mouth Paul and Barnabas. A persecution was stirred up, and finally Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the territory.

This episode raises the often-delicate issue of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Although Christians and Jews worship the same God, and although we both consider the Old Testament texts to be the divinely inspired communication of God to mankind, we differ sharply about the identity of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was, and is, one-in-being with Almighty God; that His death paid the price for all of mankind’s sins; that He rose from the grave three days later; and that He alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life—our only hope for eternal life in Heaven.
Jews, on the other hand, believe Jesus was just a man. They are still waiting for the promised Messiah to come. Obviously these two views of Jesus are mutually exclusive. They both cannot be correct simultaneously. It’s one thing to have differing religious views; it’s another thing to let those differing views turn into hatred and persecution. During St. Paul’s time, Jews often persecuted Christians. During the following 19 centuries, however, it was the Christians who often persecuted Jews.

Back when Mel Gibson was about to release his controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” he was accused of being an anti-Semite who was making an anti-Semitic movie—even though his accusers had yet to see the film. When the movie finally was released, it became clear that despite the graphic blood and gore, Gibson stayed pretty faithful to the Gospel accounts (except for his fanciful and creative depiction of events not clearly described in the Gospels).

At that point, even though the movie was not anti-Semitic and even though no incidents of violence toward Jews occurred—as had been relentlessly predicted—some of Gibson’s critics were honest enough to admit they STILL considered the movie anti-Semitic. Why? Because they consider the Gospels in the Bible to be anti-Semitic.

Now, it didn’t help things a few years later, when Mel’s true feelings toward Jews spewed forth during his infamous D.U.I. arrest. Many of his critics felt vindicated, even though the movie was pretty clear that only a small group of Jewish religious leaders pressured the Romans to execute Jesus, rather than all Jews throughout all history. Unfortunately, many people over the centuries have taught that all Jews for all time are guilty of Jesus’ blood. What utter nonsense.

The Gospels in the Bible, far from being anti-Semitic, make it very clear that all of humanity killed Jesus. He died to pay the price for all of us, Jews and Gentiles, pagans and atheists. ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. ALL are in need of a divine Savior.

But, to be fair, there are some verses in the New Testament, when read out of context, which seem to support a rather harsh view of the Jewish people. For example, in John’s gospel, whenever he referred to the religious leaders in Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime—a rather small group of men who felt threatened by Jesus—he simply called them “the Jews.” Some people down through the ages have mistakenly assumed that John’s “the Jews” means “all Jews.”

Another of these difficult verses is in this week’s first reading, where, as mentioned earlier, St. Paul declared to his Jewish opponents, “Since you reject [the word of God]…we now turn to the Gentiles.” A lot of people (who, I’m certain, are already predisposed to dislike Jews) use this verse, along with the verses in John’s gospel, to conclude that God must have rejected the Jewish people, and now His favorite chosen ones are the Christians.

This idea could not be further from the truth, and proof can be found in the words of the very man who made the statement in this week’s reading, St. Paul.

Paul wrote extensively about the Jewish people and their place in God’s overall plan for mankind. Beginning in chapter 11 of his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I ask then, Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendent of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Romans 11: 1-2).

A little later on, Paul explained that although the Jews rejected the Christian description of Jesus’ identity, it is all part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the whole world. He wrote, “Again I ask, Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!” (Romans 11: 11-12).

Finally, Paul summarized this important message: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26).

I repeat, Paul clearly wrote, “And so all Israel will be saved.”

Now, it’s important to understand that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans long after the events described in this week’s first reading. Paul didn’t write nice things about the Jews and then later on suffer persecution at their hands, causing him possibly to change his mind. He first suffered the persecution and then, toward the end of his life, wrote his great summary of the Christian faith, the letter to the Romans. 

So keep this in mind if you ever hear someone say God has rejected the Jews. It just ain’t so! The Lord loves the Jews as much as He loves anyone else. I mean, think about it: Jesus and His Mother Mary weren’t exactly Presbyterians, you know? Although most Jews don’t realize it just yet, Jesus died for them, too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Learn Italian in cinque easy lessons

Later this year one of our daughters is getting married, and the wedding will take place in my future son-in-law’s hometown, which is in Italy. I’m excited about flying to Europe for the wedding (after deciding swimming to Europe might take too long), but I’m a little nervous about the language barrier. Most everyone in Italy speaks fluent Italian and pretty good English, while I speak pretty good English and nothing else. (I’m being generous with the term “pretty good.” If you ask someone from England to listen to me speak English, he might describe it as, “bloody awful Yank caterwauling!” Yeah? Well, kiss my grits, Nigel.)
It’s an interesting phenomenon that English has become the worldwide language of commerce, to the point that many people in Europe and Asia learn our language. But this allows Americans to take the easy way out and settle for knowing only English. Of course, there are Americans who can speak two languages, especially if they have relatives in a foreign country, such as Alabama. (Don’t ask an Englishman to listen to folks from Tuscaloosa speak what they insist is “prop-uh Ang-a-lish, y’all”; it will make poor Nigel’s head explode.)

Since many people in Italy can speak English, probably a lot better than I can, I assumed we simply would speak English the entire time we’re in Italy for the wedding. But my wife thinks the polite thing to do is learn some basic Italian phrases.

This could be a problem, since I’ve never demonstrated any aptitude for learning a foreign language. For example, I had to take a foreign language in school, so thinking that I might someday enjoy hockey or go on a vacation in Quebec (neither ever happened), I chose French. After four years of French classes, I can remember exactly one phrase: “sacré bleu!” which I think means “my socks are blue.”
Later, I thought that maybe I should learn some Spanish, since two institutions that I’m very fond of, baseball and Catholicism, are now dominated by Spanish-speaking people. But other than some menu items at Taco Bell, my quest to learn Spanish has been unsuccessful. I’m not sure, but the main reason might be my total lack of effort.

I have a client at work who recently came to the United States from Germany. I don’t know any German, except key phrases I picked up watching “Hogan’s Heroes” as a kid (for example, “Klink, you dummkopf!” and, “Jawohl, Major Hochstetter!”). However, the other day I had to send this young man an email, so I decided to include a German greeting. I searched online for the German translation for “How are you doing?” Well, just my luck, out of two million websites that offer translation help, I clicked on a smart-aleck site. The German phrase it gave me was not quite “How are you doing?” It instead was more like, “Why do you molest goats?” It took quite a while to convince my irate client that my email note was not malicious, but rather was due to the fact that I’m a dummkopf.
My greatest fear is that I’ll work hard to learn some basic Italian phrases, but then when I try to use them at the wedding, I’ll bungle it up. I can see myself trying to say to my daughter’s new mother-in-law, “This cheese smells wonderful,” but what I actually say is, “Your feet smell like cheese.” 

I think my best bet is to refrain completely from speaking while we’re in Italy. I just need to keep my mouth filled with food at all times. Luckily, being an American, that is a language in which I am quite fluent.