Saturday, May 8, 2021

Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable

Here is the headline of a recent article on a Christian website: “God Made You for Happiness in Heaven, Not Comfort on Earth.” I was pretty sure the article was going to make me feel guilty, so I didn’t bother to read it.

In my mind, I acknowledge the truth of that headline. After all, if it’s true that our eternal souls will spend forever in either one of two situations, the joys of Heaven or the torment of Hell (which is exactly what Christianity has taught for 2,000 years), then it’s a no-brainer that we should do whatever it takes to make it to Heaven, even if it requires discomfort here on earth. (I believe Jesus’ famous “no-brainer” discourse is found in Luke’s gospel.)
Yeah, in my analytical mind that makes perfect sense. It’s like a simple financial decision. Imagine if a wealthy banker offered you this proposition: “You can have either $100 right now, but nothing more after that. Or you can wait a week and then have $1,000 per day, every day, for the rest of your life. Which do you choose?”

I don’t even need a pencil and a calculator to figure that one out. Obviously, going without any payment for seven days is well worth it, since in one week’s time you’ll be set for life.

So, in my mind the prospect of eternal happiness in Heaven is well worth missing out on some comfort right here and now. Unfortunately, most of my decision-making skills no longer take place in my head. That function pulled up stakes years ago and relocated a few feet south to my gut. What I’m saying is, I am an American living in the early 21st century, and as such, most of the decisions that should be made logically with my intellect are now being made impulsively with my gut, which symbolizes my physical desires.

If that article headline had said, “God Made You for Happiness in Heaven, Not Laziness on Earth,” I would’ve joyfully started reading right away. I know I’m not lazy. After all, I wake up every day by 5:30 and exercise for 45 minutes before showering and then leaving the house. Then I work for 8 or 10 hours at my job. Not until I arrive back home do I finally relax and unwind.

But the headline didn’t say laziness. It said comfort. That’s the primary focus of American life nowadays. Yeah, I wake up by 5:30 — and get out of a very comfortable bed, and step onto lush carpeting inside a warm and dry home. And I exercise for 45 minutes — on an expensive exercise machine, wearing expensive, comfortable workout sneakers while listening to expensive Bluetooth earbuds. Then I go to work — in a car with heated seats, air conditioning, and a fancy music sound system at my fingertips. And I work all day — in a comfortable office chair, surrounded by computers, a coffee maker, a refrigerator, etc., inside a climate-controlled building. Throughout the day I eat whatever and whenever I want — usually upwards of at least five square meals per day, not counting snacks.
 
In addition to all this physical comfort, I have gladly embraced our society’s offer of emotional comfort. It’s a simple contract: if I agree to work each day, pay taxes, and avoid breaking the law, then in return society agrees to use my taxes to isolate all the seedy aspects of life in “those” neighborhoods plus various hidden institutions. I can fulfill my Christian duty to feed the poor and comfort the afflicted by simply writing a check. I never have to see any unfortunate souls face-to-face.
 
And if the news reports on TV start to discuss the plight of these unfortunate souls, I can quickly switch to one of many sporting events being broadcast and return to my emotional comfort zone. How nice. How convenient. How utterly lacking in any Gospel grace.

So, what am I going to do about it? I haven’t the foggiest idea. This essay didn’t turn out anything like I planned when I started typing. I thought I would focus on the word “comfort” and use examples like motorized reclining chairs, heated toilet seats, and foot massagers. Ha ha, we Americans sure are addicted to comfort!

But then as I typed away, this piece veered off in a surprising and somber direction. (“Thanks a lot, Holy Spirit,” he said sarcastically.)
 
Here’s an old saying: Christianity comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. I didn’t even have to read that original article to feel guilty. My own conscience (prompted by you know Who) did that for me.
I’m really not sure what I will do now. But I hope it doesn’t turn out that the comfortable lifestyle I’ve worked so hard to create is actually the equivalent of choosing to take the $100 right now because I’m too focused on instant gratification to wait a mere seven days.

I’d better go back and read Jesus’ “no-brainer” discourse again. 

Political Media Get Rich Using ‘Confirmation Bias'

 Like many people, I have my personal political views, and I visit a number of politically oriented websites each day. About 18 months ago, I decided to try something different. I made a point of reading not only the articles on websites I always frequented, but also articles on websites that represent opposing opinions. I didn’t change any of my views, but it was a real eye-opening experience.


I think this example summarizes it: the morning after the second Trump-Biden debate last fall, one conservative website had an article with this headline: “Trump Takes Charge, Biden Tells More Whoppers.” A progressive website had an article with this headline: “Joe Looks Presidential, Trump Is ‘Liar in Chief’.”

Did either of these writers even watch the debate?! What I saw on TV was a couple of guys spouting the usual campaign talking points; that is, a mixture of somewhat truthful statements seasoned with a large dose of malarkey. (I don’t regularly use the word malarkey, but the editors prefer that I avoid using the crude and common expression for bovine droppings.)

All the political websites, regardless of their core beliefs, claim they are presenting the real truth, while their opposition presents total lies. Browsing through websites from both sides of the spectrum, however, made it very clear that BOTH sides are severely biased. Both sides cling to very firm narratives, and they do not deviate from their narrative, no matter what new information is discovered. Also, both sides portray anyone with an opposing viewpoint as not just a political opponent, but as the evil enemy. (“Re-thug-licans” and “Demon-crats” are popular terms.)

Recently, a Catholic priest I respect a lot, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, wrote an article about certain Catholic websites that focus exclusively on Church scandals and corruption. What he wrote applies to political websites, too: “The doom merchants have discovered a deep well from which to draw. This is the everlastingly rich well of human fear and self righteousness.”
 
All the political websites I’ve visited, including the ones that share my views, cleverly exploit the two things Fr. Dwight mentioned: fear and self righteousness.
There’s a concept known as “confirmation bias,” defined as the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. The reason people seek to have their beliefs confirmed is a little molecule called dopamine.

Dopamine triggers happiness in our brains. When we read something that confirms our beliefs, our brains get a jolt of dopamine, kind of like a tiny hit of crack cocaine. You probably know people who are addicted to political websites and cable TV shows. Calling them “political crackheads” is not an exaggeration.

The political websites and cable shows know all this, and they purposely inflame fear and self-righteousness on a daily basis because it increases TV ratings and website traffic. They are just as bad as the social media giants, who treat us all like lab rats while their sophisticated algorithms dole out hits of dopamine to our restless brains.

Try this experiment: on one side of the spectrum you have, for example, Fox News, Townhall.com, and DailyCaller.com. On the other side there is MSNBC, Huffpost.com, and DailyKos.com. Whichever group you usually prefer, also spend time watching and reading the other. In short order, you will discover that NO ONE on either side is your friend. They’re all stoking outrage to make money, and in the process putting us at each other's throats.
You may be surprised to discover the people who don’t agree with you politically are just normal folks, not the evil enemy. It’s not the worst thing in the world to step out of the angry echo chamber for a while.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Take a Bite from Apple Inc.

 Some of my favorite electronic gizmos are made by the Apple company, such as my iPhone, iPad, AirPods Pro, and Apple Watch. The official Apple logo is the image of an apple with a bite out of it. When the logo was introduced years ago, people at the company explained the image represents the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden, the “apple” eaten by Adam and Eve. 

It was further explained that the biblical forbidden fruit came from the Tree of Knowledge, and the overall goal of Apple Inc. always has been to provide people with knowledge, in the form of innovative products that help customers make the most of information. There’s no doubt our society has been inundated with information over the past few decades, with Apple being a major part of the so-called digital revolution.

I suppose you could make the case that too much information, especially easily spread false information, does more harm than good in our society. But in general terms, the more knowledge we have, the better off we are.

Therefore, some people might wonder why the Lord God told Adam and Eve they were not allowed to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Why would God want our original ancestors to be ignorant? Why did He want to prevent them from learning more?
 
Why did the world have to wait eons for the Apple company to come along and build on the immortal words of college founder Emil Faber, who brilliantly proclaimed, “Knowledge Is Good”? Is this another case of organized religion trying to keep the masses ignorant, until progressive visionaries could break the shackles of Church oppression and provide the tools for people to grow in knowledge?

Well, if that’s the narrative you’ve heard over the years, it’s not surprising. Religious traditions, especially Christianity, are often accused of opposing science, and the Genesis story, with its domineering God who wants to keep Adam and Eve ignorant, fits right in with that viewpoint.

However, the truth of the matter is quite different. First, if you read Genesis, the tree in question is not called the Tree of Knowledge. God did not order Adam and Eve to remain ignorant. The more knowledge and wisdom mankind accumulates, the better off we are and the closer we can draw to the all-knowing Creator of the Universe. Surely brilliant Christian minds like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Sir Isaac Newton did not shy away from acquiring knowledge.
 
The tree in the Garden is actually called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. OK, but if that’s the case, why would God forbid Adam and Eve from learning what is good and what is evil? It seems like those would be helpful things to know.

Yes, knowing good and evil is indeed very important information. How can we do the right things and avoid the wrong things if we don’t have the knowledge of good and evil?

The answer is simple: we can’t do the right things if we don’t have that knowledge, and we are commanded by God to have well-formed consciences so we can know the difference between good and evil.

In Adam and Eve’s case, they already had a basic education on good and evil: doing what God tells you to do is good, and doing what God forbids is bad. Many theologians explain that eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not the moment Adam and Eve learned the definitions of right and wrong. Instead, it’s when they made the decision to ignore God’s definitions and instead decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. They were the first to go down this self-centered, prideful path, which the Church calls “original sin.”
 
When human beings, collectively or individually, ignore God’s law and decide to define morality for themselves, the results inevitably are chaos and heartache. Thousands of years of recorded human history bear this out.
So, feel free to enjoy your Apple products. They are indeed amazing and useful high-tech devices. But when you look at the back of your iPhone and see that apple-with-the-bite logo, remember that the brilliant minds at Apple really don’t know much about the Bible.

Knowledge is and always will be good. Ignoring God’s law and deciding for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong is and always will be bad.

Some Introverts Are Not Looking Forward to ‘Normal’

 A few weeks ago there was a story in the Washington Post titled, “Meet the introverts who are dreading a return to normal.”

It seems a sizable portion of our population actually prefers social distancing and lockdowns. Now that the vaccine rollout is offering a light at the end of the tunnel, these folks are apprehensive that life will go back to the way it was before the Covid pandemic occurred. Most of the introverts quoted in the article explained that they feel uncomfortable in the typical work environment, specifically all the gossip and forced small talk, the large gatherings, and the noisy open office floor plans. Personally, my greatest fear at work is the ominous stuff growing inside the break room refrigerator.

When millions of employees were required to work from home when the pandemic struck, these introverts were delighted. Suddenly, they were free from all the invitations, the meetings, and the social outings that take up such a large portion of everyday life during normal times.
The article made the point that these people are not anti-social or emotionally impaired. They’re just the personality type that tends to be quiet and shy, and they struggle to feel comfortable in social settings, especially with a lot of strangers present. Just like most people, the introverts enjoy going to restaurants and being with their close friends. But they don’t like the relentless social events and the feeling that they always have to be “on,” which is typical in most modern work environments. Instead, they enjoy quiet time and being alone.

Introverts can be very engaging socially, the article explains. It’s just that those social occasions are very draining. Apparently, the main difference between extroverts and introverts is that extroverts enjoy social situations and draw energy from the experience. Introverts, on the other hand, usually function well socially, but the experience saps their energy.
 
I can relate to that. Even though I’ve been working in sales and marketing for the past 35+ years, I’m definitely more of an introvert than an extrovert. For example, when I’m at an industry event with a lot of unfamiliar people, and everybody is “talking shop,” I join in well enough, but after an hour or so, I’m beat. My mental energy level feels like an old cell phone with no charger cord available. The little battery symbol turns red and drops below 10% very quickly.
 
Although I land on the introvert side of the scale, I disagree with the people quoted in the Washington Post article. I most definitely want this pandemic to be over! I want to get back on the road and see my favorite clients in the flesh rather than on blurry Zoom meetings. I want to go to family picnics and ball games again. I want to get on an airplane without feeling like I’m taking a terrible risk. (I mean the risk of contracting Covid, not the risk of eating airline food.) I want to go to church and not wonder if the person right behind me is dangerous — other than having a dangerously awful singing voice. (Oh wait, that’s what the person in front of me is wondering.)

When things finally get back to normal, maybe we can slowly phase in the old face-to-face social interactions, rather than do everything all at once. This way, the introverts among us won’t be overwhelmed. After all, since so many people have been working from home during the past 14 months — most of that time wearing sweatpants and working a few steps from the fridge — before we jump into in-person social situations we first need to do a couple of things: lose 20 pounds and buy some new clothes.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Why Do Our Bodies Break Down with Age?

 Do you ever wonder why our bodies fall apart as we get old? Personally, I wake up each morning nowadays wondering which body part has been placed on the injured reserve list during the night while I slept. Elbow? Hamstring? Ankle? Colon? Semi-colon?

In just the last year, I have thrown out my back while sneezing, pulled a muscle in my left shoulder while combing my hair, and sprained my right knee while, um, while doing nothing. One day it just swelled up for no reason and I limped for a week.
 
And that’s just the orthopedic, muscle and bone stuff. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with all my internal organs as I get older, but I know it’s not good, especially since I now have more doctors than friends.

So, it’s just a fact of life that our bodies slowly but surely break down and wither away as we get old. The question is, why? Why do our bodies relentlessly deteriorate with age?

What if things were different? What if our bodies developed normally from birth to age 30, and then at that point just leveled off. From age 30 on, our bodies just stayed exactly the same: no receding hairlines, no baggy eyes, no shrinking muscle mass, no expanding bellies, no flab, no sag, no wrinkles. For the next 50 years we looked and felt exactly the same: a spry and healthy and energetic 30-year-old. And then sometime in our 80s or 90s, we suddenly would keel over and die. At least at the wake people wouldn’t be lying when they said, “He doesn’t look a day over 30!”

There would be some interesting ramifications if our bodies stayed age 30 for five or six straight decades before we passed away. The hair coloring industry would collapse, as would the companies that manufacture dentures, Velcro sneakers, walkers, and Bermuda shorts with the waistline just below the armpits. We would hear sports announcers say something like this: “Biff Walenski is entering his 52nd season as a Red Sox starting pitcher. He’s in the 33rd year of his record-breaking 45-year contract.”
I think I know why God created us with bodies that fall apart over time. He wanted to give us an opportunity to become humble. Basic Christian philosophy tells us the worst sin — the one thing most likely to keep us separated from God — is pride. And there’s nothing that encourages us to be prideful more than a young, healthy, vigorous body. When we are in the prime of life, we really feel like WE are something special, WE are in control, WE are the masters of our fate, and WE really have no need for God since WE can take care of ourselves. 

However, when our bodies deteriorate, we have to give up some or all control and depend on others to assist us. This is very humbling. When this happens, as it inevitably will (unless something else happens first: an unexpected sudden death at a young age), we can handle the situation in one of two ways. We either can get angry and bitter about our failing health, and in the process become just a delight to be around. (Did you notice my sarcastic eye-roll as I typed the word “delight”?) Or we can gracefully accept what’s happening to us, and smile as we tell God, “You’ve got a weird sense of humor, Lord.”

The opposite of pride is humility. Being humble is the exact state of mind God wants for us — or more accurately, the exact state of heart God wants for us.
 
Our steadily deteriorating bodies can be a source of extreme frustration. But we need to understand that it’s really a blessing from God. It’s God’s way of reminding us that we are dependent on Him. It’s His way of giving us a chance to stifle our pride and learn a little humility. 

Each day when we wake up and discover yet another body part has been placed on the injured reserve list, instead of getting angry, we need to laugh and look heavenward and exclaim, “Dear Lord, you are a funny guy! Now, since you got me into this mess, please give me the grace to deal with it!”
Getting physically old and frail is inevitable. But having a humble and childlike soul can be ours forever. We just need to remind ourselves Who is in charge, and Who promised that He would never leave us or forsake us.

(Oh, and once we get to Heaven, I’m pretty sure our bodies will be 30 years old forever, except this time around without all the pride and.)

The Amazing Smart Phone Weather App

 My smart phone has a weather app that comes in handy. It tells me the current conditions: temperature, humidity, wind speed, and cloud cover. It also shows the forecast, a colorful radar map, the sunrise & sunset times, and it does my laundry. (No, I’m kidding about the laundry thing. But if a software developer could make a phone app that does laundry, I definitely would be interested.)

Not only does this app provide weather information for my location, I can type in any city or country and it instantly displays the weather for that place. Back on chilly days in January and February, I would type in Moscow, Russia, just to put things in perspective. Suddenly, the 17-degree temperature here in Connecticut didn’t seem so bad.

The phone app, however, does one thing that makes me roll my eyes. It offers a 15-day long-range forecast. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am very impressed with the technology used by weather forecasters nowadays. After all, I remember as a kid watching Charlie Bagley on Channel 3, and he would say something like, “Well, I just got off the phone with my brother-in-law in Scranton. He said it’s starting to snow there, so my forecast is that it’s going to snow here in about three hours.” Then he would shrug his shoulders and mutter, “Or just keep looking out your window.”
So, the plethora of meteorological technology available nowadays is amazing. (I just tried to speak that sentence clearly three different times, and didn’t come close even once.) With all the data from around the world, the instantaneous updates, and the interactive colorful radar maps, I’ve never been more informed regarding the weather.

But a 15-day long-range forecast? Really? That can’t possibly be accurate. I decided to test it out back in mid-March. I picked a random date near the end of the month, and then each day wrote down what the weather app predicted would happen on that date. Two weeks out, the app said it would be 55-degrees and partly cloudy. The next day the app made a revision: 58 degrees and partly sunny. (I’ve never understood the difference between partly cloudy and partly sunny. Aren’t both parts present, partly?)

Anyway, the third day I checked and the new forecast was 54-degrees and cloudy. The next day it said 51-degrees and showers. Each day the forecast for the particular date changed slightly, and over the course of two weeks it pretty much ran the gamut from nice and sunny to cold and rainy, and everything in between.

When it got to be two days away from the date I picked, the forecast settled in on upper 50s and occasional sun. When the date finally arrived, the high temperature in the afternoon was 57-degrees, and it was mostly cloudy with the sun peeking through at times. So, the forecast that was most accurate, not surprisingly, was the one a couple days in advance.
 
Despite all the fancy technology, it seems meteorologists have a good idea what will happen within a few days, but anything longer than that — especially 15 days! — is no different than closing your eyes and putting some chips on a random number at the roulette table at Foxwoods.

My phone app should show the forecast for only the next three days, and then for any days farther into the future, there should be a simple message: “How do I know? Call Scranton and ask Charlie Bagley’s brother-in-law.” 

Instead of a ridiculous 15-day forecast, the weather app should work on developing a way to do my laundry. I’m not concerned what the weather will be in 15 days, but I am concerned that I have no clean socks today.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Grace Is Offered to U2

I enjoy the music of the rock group U2. The group’s flamboyant lead singer is a guy named Bono, who doesn’t hide the fact that he is a Christian. Some years ago, Bono was interviewed by a secular writer, Michka Assayas. When Mr. Assayas mocked religious faith, Bono didn’t get angry or defensive. Instead he began to explain the Good News: “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. But the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.”
When asked to explain that statement, Bono said, “At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that…. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of [sinful] stuff. 

“I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge,” Bono continued. “It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity…. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.” 

To his credit, Mr Assayas included Bono’s explanation of the basic Christian message in his publication. Even more interesting was his reaction to Bono’s words: “The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that…. That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view.” 

God’s grace is so wonderful that it is indeed close to lunacy. Except that it is true. 
The interviewer had never even heard of the concept of grace, or of the Gospel message about the forgiveness of sin through the death and Resurrection of Jesus. The idea that we can be freely forgiven, no matter how terrible our sins, seems to be lunacy when people first hear about it. It doesn’t fit in with our ingrained belief about karmic justice: if you do the crime you gotta do the time, or what goes around comes around.

For many people, like Mr. Assayas, who have never heard the Gospel message, the answer to the problem of karmic justice oftentimes simply is to deny that sin is real. Denying that sin exists may sidestep the problem of karmic justice, and it may give people some peace and comfort—at least until the swirl of societal chaos wreaks havoc on their lives. But the plain reality, for those willing to open their eyes and look around, is that sin is all too real.

Although the penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23), the solution to the problem is not to pretend that sin doesn’t exist. The solution is found at the foot of the Cross. The solution, as Bono mentioned, is Grace. God’s love interrupts the consequences of our actions.

If more people who believe in Christ—not just famous rock stars, but also everyday goobers like us—spoke out about the wonderful Grace of God, then maybe those around us, our fellow unfamous goober friends and relatives, would hear for the first time how much God truly loves them. So much so, He does something that borders on lunacy: He forgives our sins even though we don’t deserve it. All we have to do is sincerely repent and ask for forgiveness. It is truly the “Good News.”