Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Time for a Digital Sabbath Rest

A few months ago, I mentioned my friend in Israel, Alan. He is a devout Jew and faithfully observes the Sabbath each week. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, he and his family detach themselves from the hectic, modern world: no work, no travel, no TV. They just rest and pray and enjoy each other’s company.

When I wrote that essay, I discussed the fact that Catholics used to honor the Lord’s Day, Sunday, by resting and refraining from work. Raise your hand if you can remember the “blue laws,” and the fact all the stores were closed on Sunday? (Uh oh, if you raised your hand, you’re showing your age!)

Nowadays, of course, for the average Catholic, Sundays are filled with shopping, traveling, catching up on office work, and the completely out-of-control youth sports activities. (Let me clarify: if parents have to be in Stamford at 9 a.m. for Sally’s soccer game, and then in Norwich at 2 p.m. for Tommy’s lacrosse game, and then in suburban Boston by 7 p.m. to pick up Davey from his hockey tournament, that’s is the definition of “out-of-control” youth sports. That is an insane schedule no matter what day of the week it is.)

It’s unlikely American Catholics will every return to the “good ol’ days” of honoring the Lord’s Day by staying close to home, enjoying a meal with family, and then taking a long nap. But maybe we could try something tailored for our modern age. I’m thinking of this: a digital Sabbath rest. What I mean is, we take one day of each week and shut off all the digital devices to which we have become so addicted.

Do you think that is possible? Can you go a full day without using your smart phone, your iPad, or your computer? Can you go an entire 24-hour period without the Internet, with no emails, and no text messages? Is that humanly possible? Whoa, I can hear you screaming “No!!” right now through my laptop computer. (And that would include no laptop computers, too.)

What I am proposing is this: on one day of the week, we should try living with only 1943 technology: radio, newspapers, magazines, books, note pads, pencils. And in 1943, there was gas rationing because of the war, so people did not drive far. They stayed close to home, and rested and relaxed. What a concept!

Here’s a compromise: at noon, you can turn on your smart phone and check to see if there are any urgent messages. After all, you don’t want to be completely out of touch if there is a family emergency. But no Internet surfing while you phone is on—and especially no Satan’s Book, er, I mean, Facebook. Just check to make sure there are no emergencies and then turn the phone off. You can turn the phone on briefly in the early evening to check again for urgent messages.

If the very idea of detaching from digital technology for one full day is making you feel anxious right now, then that is a clear sign you really need to do it. (And just so you know, every time I type the word “you,” I also mean “me.”)

Just think of how beneficial it will be for your body, mind, and soul to relax with a good book while the radio is playing soft music in the background. Then after a while, pray the Rosary. Then go outside and take a nice walk. After that, take a long nap.

If you feel the urge to connect with another person, try an ancient method of social media: speak to someone face-to-face. I know, I know, that is a bizarre concept nowadays. But it really works, and people used to do it all the time before the smart phone era.

I suspect there is no chance American Catholics will ever be as zealous in honoring the Sabbath as my friend Alan in Israel. But we have turned the Lord’s Day into just another hectic rat-race day, and that’s not right.

I know a digital Sabbath rest will be difficult. But we should give it a try anyway. It just might keep us from losing our minds—and our souls.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

World War II Bombers: an Emotional Experience

Back in September, I climbed through two vintage World War II bombers, a B-17 “Flying Fortress” and a B-24 “Liberator.” I would’ve signed up for the 30-minute ride on one of the aircraft if I had an extra $450 laying around, but the last time I had an extra $450 laying around was, um, never.

The planes visited Waterbury-Oxford Airport. It was a very emotional experience just being onboard these cramped flying machines, as it made me realize that an entire generation of Americans gave up their youth to defend our country.
A month later, there was another emotional experience when the very B-17 I had squeezed through crashed at Bradley Airport, killing seven of the 13 people on board. What a tragedy.

Seeing those World War II bombers prompted me to check out a book from the library, The Wild Blue, by Stephen Ambrose. The book follows the experiences of the late Senator George McGovern, who as a young man from South Dakota joined the Army Air Force. Eventually, he became a pilot and was sent to Europe to fly B-24s over Germany and Austria. Somehow, he survived 35 missions.

I’d like to relate the most poignant episode of the book: On a particular mission, one of the 500-pound bombs got hung up and did not drop from the aircraft. Whenever that occurred, it was very dangerous, since a hard landing when returning to base could detonate the bomb and kill everyone on board.

So, Lieutenant McGovern flew the plane at a relatively low altitude near the Austrian Alps as crew members desperately tried to dislodge the bomb. Finally, it was freed and fell from the plane. Then the crew watched in horror as the bomb made a direct hit on an isolated farmhouse, destroying everything in sight. McGovern looked at his watch. It was exactly noon. Being from South Dakota, he knew farmers always gather at the house at noon for lunch. He and the rest of the crew were devastated, and were haunted for years knowing the bomb most likely wiped out an innocent family.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s. Political statesman George McGovern was in Austria, and while there did an interview with an Austrian TV station. After explaining to the reporter that although he had been a strong critic of the war in Vietnam, especially the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, he believed Hitler had to be stopped, so his B-24 bombing missions were justified. Then McGovern added, “There was one bomb I’ve regretted all these years.”

Curious, the Austrian reporter said, “Tell us about it.” So, McGovern told the story of the stuck bomb and the isolated farmhouse and the guilt and sadness he carried for so many years.

After the show aired, an old Austrian farmer called the TV station and said it was his farmhouse that had been destroyed. But he explained that when he heard the airplane approaching, he took his wife and children out of the house and they all hid in a ditch. When the bomb destroyed the house, no one was hurt. When the TV station called and relayed the story to McGovern, he was overwhelmed. He just collapsed in tears and relief. Four decades of guilt and sadness disappeared. He joyfully explained, “It seemed to just wipe clean a slate.”
In light of the tragic crash at Bradley, I suppose these vintage planes should not sell rides to the public anymore. But I hope these aircraft still visit airports around the country, so spoiled, pampered Americans — like me — can better understand the sacrifices an entire generation made in the 1940s.

In honor of Veteran’s Day next week, check out the book about McGovern from the library. And if you don’t know what a library is, Google it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Which Worldview Makes Sense – Part 2

Our topic today is fairly simple: how did human beings come into existence, and what is our purpose in life? (Fairly simple? Yeah, right!)

In part 1 last week, I discussed the reason why there must be some kind of supernatural Being which designed and created biological life on earth. This week I want to explore which of the many religious worldviews offers the most plausible explanation about these important questions. In other words, of all the unlikely creation stories, which one is most likely?

First, we need to examine whether the Creator is an impersonal force or a personal being. Logic tell us that the created beings (humans) cannot be greater than their Creator. If we are personal beings, with the ability to communicate and enter into loving relationships, then it is impossible for our Creator not to have these same abilities.

So, the only conclusion is that the Creator of mankind is personal, and he/she/it possesses the ability to communicate and enter into loving relationships with other personal beings.

Now, the next step is to examine our situation as humans here on earth. I hate to say this, but the two most prominent traits of human beings are selfishness and cruelty. How do historians mark mankind’s milestones? By listing all the various wars and conquests. It’s in our very natural to be lustful, covetous, dishonest, and violent.

But at the same time, mankind instinctively knows that certain things are right and other things are wrong. We have a moral code built into our very souls. And yet, we regularly fall short of living up to this moral code.

So, here is our dilemma: some sort of supernatural Deity created us and instilled in us a moral code. But we regularly ignore this moral code and instead follow our selfish and destructive urges. This is called sin. There’s a huge gap between how we live and how we ought to live.

OK, let me now skip past years of personal study and cut to the chase. What I’ve just described about mankind’s situation can be summarized this way: human beings need a Divine Savior.

We were created by a holy Deity, but something about our very nature causes us to fall far short of holiness. One faith tradition claims that the holy Deity selected a small tribe of people and revealed Himself to them. A key component of this interaction was the transmission of the divine law, a set of rules and regulations that said, in effect, here are instructions on how to behave, and if you follow these laws perfectly you will be in perfect communion with Me.

From that point on, the history of those Chosen People was one long struggle to uphold the divine law, but they always fell short. Another faith tradition, which grew out of the first one, claims that at a certain moment in history, the divine Being took on human flesh and walked among us. He came from the Hebrew people—because they knew better than anyone how impossible it is to be perfectly holy—and He came to offer an answer to mankind’s biggest problem: forgiveness of sin. This God-man, who was sinless, offered up His life as payment for mankind’s sins. Then He rose from the dead, conquering death once and for all, and promised that if we put our faith in Him, we could do the same.

This, obviously, is just scratching the surface about Christian doctrine. But if you’ve studied it for three decades, as I have, you’ll understand that no matter how implausible it seems at first glance, it is the THE most plausible of all the explanations about human life.

We were created by a holy God. But our relationship with God was damaged by our sin. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, came to bridge the gulf between holy God and sinful man. If we put our faith in Him and accept His gift of forgiveness, our relationship with God will be restored.

I beg you, please, spend some time studying the fundamental claims of Christianity. Then compare them to the claims of the many other religious traditions. I think you’ll find that the person of Jesus Christ answers our most basic longings. You’ll also experience a joy and peace you never thought possible—now, and for all eternity!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sound Bites Really Bite

Have you noticed that the broadcast news media is obsessed with sound bites? Nowadays almost every news report includes a quick comment from someone involved in the story. However, these sound bites rarely offer any insight, except the insight that the reporter had 15 seconds to fill and decided to fill that time with a useless quotation. There are three primary categories of useless sound bites:

Moronic Statements. Just because someone agrees to speak “on camera” does not automatically mean that person has anything worth saying. For example, a while back I heard a radio news report about mudslides and floods that were ravaging parts of California. After explaining that the weather forecast called for at least 6 more inches of rain during the next 24 hours, the reporter played a sound bite from an area resident.

However, it wasn’t just any area resident, for example, a person worried that his house was about to be washed away. No, the reporter chose to broadcast the thoughts — and I use that word very loosely — of a teenage boy with the IQ of broccoli. Young broccoli boy declared over an entire radio news network: “This is cool! I’ve never seen a flood before!”

Apparently if you have the IQ of broccoli you not only can be featured on a network news report, you also can get a job as a broadcast news reporter. Which leads us to the next category…

Moronic Questions by the Reporter. Here’s the scenario: something terrible has occurred — a child is missing or a home has burned to the ground. A distraught victim, possibly the mother of the kidnapped girl or the man whose house was destroyed, is accosted by a TV camera crew. The reporter shoves a microphone in the person’s face and asks the million-dollar question: “How do you feel right now?”

I don’t expect distraught people to be able to think quickly on their feet, but I’m hoping one day the person will reply, “How do I feel? I feel that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard. Here’s a question for you: how do YOU feel now that I’ve shoved your microphone completely inside your left nostril?”

A Word from Mom. Whenever someone is arrested for committing a heinous crime, a camera crew always tracks down his mother. No matter how clear it is that her son committed the crime — such as surveillance video showing him smile at the camera before methodically shooting the convenience store clerk — the mother’s sound bite is always the same: “My son didn’t do it! He’s a good boy. The cops set him up!”

Many years ago, there was a horrible event in a city near where I live. A young man who had been convicted of auto theft four times in the past (makes you wonder how many times he stole a car and didn’t get caught) was spotted by cops driving yet another stolen car. The guy took off, drove through a red light at 80 mph, and smashed broadside into another car, instantly killing a husband and wife.

The guy’s mother was quoted as saying, “He’s a good person. He has a good heart.” I guess you could say his heart is “good,” in the sense that it’s still beating, which cannot be said for the hearts of the two innocent people he killed.

We really don’t need to hear from the mothers of criminals, nor do we need to hear from most of the other people featured on news story sound bites. Hey, I have a crazy idea: why don’t the broadcast news folks just give us the facts about a story and leave the emotional nonsense to the celebrity gossip programs?

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Which Worldview Is the Least Implausible?

There is a lot of skepticism in our society about religion nowadays. And rightfully so, since organized religion in recent decades has not been very organized nor religious. But let’s take a step back and review those age-old philosophical questions: How did human beings get here? And what is our purpose in life?

Now, of course, we may not be able to know the answers to these age-old questions, but since we exist, we know there has to be a correct explanation of how we got here—even if we may not be able to know it. And since we exist, it’s perfectly rational to ponder our purpose in life, even if it turns out there is no purpose.

All religious traditions, including decidedly non-religious belief systems, claim to answer these questions. Whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Deism, Unitarianism, Animism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shintoism, or whatever it is the Jesuits are peddling nowadays—all these different “worldviews” claim to offer an explanation of how and why human beings exist on this planet. Many views confidently offer clear and precise explanations, while others acknowledge there is an explanation but we mere mortals are unable to know it.

Taken individually, each of these widely different explanations seems kind of implausible. But they cover just about every possibility, so we know one of them must be close to the truth.

So, here is the key question we have to explore: Which of these seemingly implausible explanations about the origin and purpose of life is the most plausible? In other words, which of these unlikely stories is the most likely?

I don’t want to brag, but I’ve spent a great deal of time during the past three decades studying this very issue. (Did you ever notice when someone says, “I don’t want to brag,” he is about to start bragging?) Well, anyway, here’s a summary of what I’ve discovered:

First, we have to look at the question of supernatural vs. natural. If it’s true that we came into existence by purely natural, materialistic, biological mechanisms, then all of the spiritual, supernatural beliefs, with their claims of a creative Deity, can be dismissed. The simplest answer is usually the best, and if it can be demonstrated that non-supernatural processes are capable of producing complex biological life, then that is the most logical conclusion.

If you’ve taken a high school or college biology class in the past 50 years, you’ve probably been taught that this is, in fact, the explanation of how life came into existence on this planet. But let’s step on the brakes for a minute here. Modern science has NOT demonstrated in any way that random genetic mutations can create reams of precise information that then guide the construction of complex biological systems. It just cannot happen. The formula “Chaos + Chance + Time = Intricate Precision” has never been proven to be true.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was an atheist for many years, but once I really studied this issue, it became clear that the complex design clearly present in biological life requires a supremely intelligent designer; or I should say Designer, with a capital “D.” In other words, it’s an undeniable fact that explosions in lumber yards do not produce perfectly crafted 3-bedroom raised ranch houses. Nor do hurricanes pounding the shoreline spell out the Gettysburg Address on the beach with rocks. It just can’t happen.

Science has never “proven” that there is no supernatural realm to existence, no matter what most science teachers and professors claim these days. In fact, science, by definition, can only study natural phenomenon. Science is incapable of offering any opinion on supernatural things.

Personally, when I reached this point in my studies, I was, on the one hand, awestruck at the realization that there is indeed a supernatural Being who designed and created life. And on the other hand, I was rather angry at all the educators who blithely told me that random chaos can produce intricate precision, if just given enough time. Bull-loney.

Speaking of time, we’re out of time for today, but next week I’ll continue with Part 2. Once we accept that there must be an intelligent being outside of nature (that is, supernatural) who designed and created complex biological life, we need to investigate which of the many religious systems best explains our situation here on earth? I don’t want to brag, but it is a fascinating discussion.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Car Wash Daydream Turns to Wet Reality

Did you ever think about something that could occur, and then daydream about how you would react if it did occur, including how you would react to the fact that you were daydreaming about how you would react, until you reached the point where you concluded the particular scenario will not occur precisely because you’ve been daydreaming about it?

Nah, me neither. But I did have something happen recently that was pretty weird and kind of along those lines.

By the way, if you noticed a clean, gray Chevy Equinox a month ago driving along East Main Street with a low-pressure system causing fog and rain showers — inside the car — that was me.

One morning my car was more yellow than gray because of all the pine tree pollen blowing through the air. So, I visited one of those automatic car washes. As my car rolled into place, with the left front tire firmly settled into that thingamajig (car wash industry technical term: “doohickey”), I did what I always do just before the wash cycle begins: I checked to make sure all the windows were rolled up tightly by hitting the four power window buttons.

Then as the car wash machinery started up, I began to daydream. I thought to myself: I wonder what would happen if I was stupid enough to leave one of the windows open? I wonder how soon I would notice it? I wonder how quickly I would figure out what was wrong and hit the correct button to close the open window? I wonder how much water would get inside the car before I got the window closed?

Then I had this thought: Well, that certainly won’t happen now because I’ve just been thinking about it happening. A moment later, the back of my head and neck got soaked as a rush of water burst into the car through the back left window, which was open about three inches.

So here are the answers, in order, to the questions I pondered: The inside of the car would get wet, very wet. I would notice it right away, as getting the back of one’s head and neck unexpectedly soaked is a fairly effective method for getting one’s attention. I would figure out what was wrong quite quickly and hit the correct button to close the open window in less than two seconds, although at the time it seemed like at least 45 seconds. And finally, it would be hard to determine the exact volume of water — as it was all over the seats and the carpeting and a now drenched stack of marketing literature — but it definitely would be closer to gallons than ounces.

I still don’t know how the window was left open. Maybe I checked the front window buttons twice and not the back windows at all.

As I sat there while the washing continued — all on the outside now, how nice — I was more stunned by the fact that I had just daydreamed that exact scenario before it happened than I was stunned by the fact that the backseat of my car now resembled a tropical rain forest.

I drove home carefully since fog was beginning to form on the inside of the car windows. I began to daydream again: What if this fog causes me to drive through a red light and smash up the car? What if — Oh no, don’t go there! Think of something else, pal!

So, I quickly started to think about a scenario that cannot and will not happen: What if I win the Lottery and buy a fleet of cars and hire other people, with a lot more brains than I have, to wash them?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Does God Know My Name?

Our parish had a visiting priest a couple of months ago. He’s a terrific young man, who’s native language is Spanish, but he speaks English quite well. In fact, he often tutors seminarians from Spanish-speaking countries, helping them to learn English.

During a homily, he mentioned to us that one seminarian was trying to learn the Our Father prayer in English. This is how he recited that prayer: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, how do you know my name?”

The whole congregation laughed at the cute mistake, of course. But after Mass, I was thinking about it, and I came to the conclusion that the young Spanish seminarian’s mistake is actually a fabulous prayer. We all should say to God on a regular basis, “Hey Lord, how DO you know my name?”

It’s mind boggling, when you think about it. There are almost eight billion people alive on earth right now, and since human beings first appeared on this planet, it is estimated that a total of 108 billion people have lived. Let me spell that out for you with numbers: 108,000,000,000. That’s one-zero-eight, comma, zero-zero-zero, comma, zero-zero-zero, comma, zero-zero-zero! One hundred eight billion, with a “B”! That’s a lot of people. And you thought your morning commute to work was crowded.

Our Christian faith tells us that God, the almighty Creator, breathed an eternal soul into each and every one of those people, and He knows each and every one of them by name. That includes you. That includes me.

This raises two questions. First, HOW can God do that? I mean, how can one Person, regardless of how supernatural and almighty He might be, keep track of that many souls? It makes your head spin.

The second question is more important: WHY does God do that? Why does God care enough to go to all the trouble of knowing about and caring for each and every one of the 108 billion people who have ever lived?

There’s only one answer: love. Love is why God cares. Love is why God knows our name.

When we ask God, “How do you know my name?” we’re not simply referring to our name-name, such as Bill or Bob, Sally or Sue. We mean our identity, who we are, our very soul, the essence of our very being. In ancient times, a name meant so much more than just a verbal noise that identified one person compared to others in the neighborhood. Remember that old expression, “Don’t tarnish your good name”? That kind of reflects the importance of a person’s name.

God knows our name, meaning He knows us intimately. He knows us and He loves us. So, when we offer up a prayer saying, “Our Father who art in Heaven, how do you know my name?” we are expressing wonder at the fact that out of 108 billion souls who have ever lived, the Creator of the Universe knows us personally, individually, intimately. That is a great comfort, especially nowadays in our cold, cruel, impersonal culture.

When we offer that prayer, since it’s in the form of a question, we are in a sense pleading for the Divine Being not to lose sight of us. We’re desperately asking that He continues to know us and care for us.

The Good News of the Gospel is that God does indeed know us and care for us. Our lives have meaning and purpose. We did not accidentally appear on the pale blue dot in a far corner of the Universe, spend a few decades struggling to survive, and then die and cease to exist.

We were created for a purpose, and our souls will live forever. If we accept God’s love and put our faith in Him, then forever will be in His glorious presence. If we reject Him, well, then forever will not be so pleasant.

Our Father, who art in Heaven, how do you know my name? HOW does He know all of our names? I can’t even fathom it. WHY does He know our names? Because of pure love.