Monday, July 25, 2016

Should St. Joseph Get a ‘Dirt Nap’?

There’s an old tradition that claims if you bury a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your yard, you will sell your house quickly. It seems this tradition dates back to the 15th century, and originally it was an overt threat to the earthly father of Our Lord. The thinking went something like this: If you wanted to sell some real estate, you buried a statue of St. Joseph and told him, “OK, pal, I’m gonna leave you with your head in the dirt until you sell my house!”
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t strike me as a very effective way to conduct a real estate transaction. Nor does it strike me as a very nice way to treat the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I don’t recall any verses in the Bible telling us that we should blackmail God. “OK, God, listen up! Gimme what I want, or you stepfather will never see the light of day again!”

The tradition has evolved over the years. Now, people no longer blackmail God by threatening St. Joseph with a “dirt nap” until the house is sold. These days a statue of St. Joseph is buried, but it’s done with love and reverence, and the sincere request for Jesus’ stepfather to help sell the piece of property.

Um, all right, I’m still not quite following the logic here. Sometimes we Catholics are accused of going overboard with superstition. I’m reminded of the periodic news stories of someone who claims to see the face of Jesus on, for example, a grilled cheese sandwich, which immediately prompts a throng of people to show up and pay homage. But if you notice, there are never any Presbyterians or Lutherans in the crowd. This St. Joseph statue thing has always struck me as a similar, and somewhat embarrassing, aspect of Catholic devotion.
My wife and I decided to sell our home a few months ago, and I was rather surprised by the number of people who said to us, “You buried a statue of St. Joseph, right?” When we replied, “Uh, no,” most of them were genuinely shocked and exclaimed, “Don’t you WANT to sell your house?!” I should point out that these friends and relatives have never struck me as overly superstitious, so I was stunned by their passion about this subject. Many of these folks began to rattle off a list of people who sold their houses as soon as they buried a St. Joseph statue. The tone of their voices was so urgent, I sort of expected them to conclude by saying, “Afterward, come and worship my divinely inspired grilled cheese sandwich!”
After our home was on the market for many months, with hardly any activity and no firm offers, my wife and I started to wonder. Here are some of the questions we discussed: “Should we do the statue thing?” “What’s there to lose?” “But if we do it, will God be angry because we gave in to silly superstition?” “Or will God be pleased because we trusted in the power of the Communion of Saints?” “Hey, what exactly is the Communion of Saints anyway?” (Answer: How should we know? We’re American Catholics who attended catechism classes after Vatican II, which means we were not taught any Catholic doctrines, but at least we can sing a rousing version of Cumbaya.”) 

So at this point, I’m not sure what we should do. We really want to sell our house, and we’d rather not do it by dropping the price down to what we paid for the place 29 years ago. Should we give in, and bury a statue of St. Joseph? I need to give it some more thought. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I have to worship a grilled cheese sandwich. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fund-Raising Funnies

Sometimes comedy can be found in the most unexpected places. We all know if you’re looking for laughs nowadays, network TV sitcoms are the least likely source of humor. On the other hand, tuning into cable news shows to watch various pundits pontificate about how great either The Unlikeable Liar or The Nasty Narcissist will be as president is downright hilarious. (I am, of course, employing the “laugh to keep from crying” technique regarding this year’s election.)

I recently discovered some roll-on-the-floor comedy in a very surprising place: my junk mail. The other day I received my semi-monthly appeal for donations from Bucknell University, the college I graduated from. (Where I learned not to end a sentence with a preposition.)
Using conservative estimates, my alma mater (Latin, meaning “all-night keg party”) has spent at least $30,000 over the last three-and-a-half decades asking me to donate $500. Sometimes the fund-raising letter is from the university at large: “We urgently need your financial support to mail out another round of fund-raising letters! Won’t you please help?” Yes, I’ll help, if you first assure me the money will be used to hire a math professor who can explain to the fund-raising office that 30,000 is a slightly larger number than 500.

Other times the appeal is from the athletic department: “Bucknell is on the verge of becoming a national powerhouse in football! Won’t you please help?” Yes, I’ll help, if you first assure me the entire Ohio State University football team wants to transfer to Lewisburg, PA, and the Admissions Department has dropped all academic requirements.
And occasionally, such as with the most recent letter, the request for money is from my fraternity. I opened this letter and began to read: “Dear Brother Dunn: Remember your days at Bucknell when you joined Sigma Chi — the leadership opportunities, working with others, the spirit of community service?”

A half hour later, after I got up off the floor and changed my pants, I composed myself enough to read that sentence again. “Remember your days at Bucknell when you joined Sigma Chi…” Well, actually I DON’T remember those days, since the main reason I joined that particular fraternity was because they gave me beer 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“…the leadership opportunities, working with others, the spirit of community service?” Now, I suppose there are some college fraternities somewhere which emphasize leadership and community service (like on the planet Remulak), but when I went to school, the sole reason fraternities existed was to sidestep the legal drinking age of 21.

Back when I was in college, the movie “Animal House” hit the theaters. Having read in the newspaper that it was a comical exaggeration of fraternity life, our entire membership descended upon the Lewisburg Theater to check it out. (A day the locals affectionately refer to as “The Riot of ‘78”).
We were thoroughly unimpressed. The movie wasn’t an exaggeration. It looked like one of our more tame Tuesday night parties.

The fund-raising letter concluded with yet another comical question. “P.S. Would you be who and where you are today without the affiliation of Sigma Chi?”

Hmm, the witness protection program notwithstanding, I suspect I’d still be who I am regardless of any college affiliation. But who can really say WHERE I’d be today if I had never joined that fraternity? I might have actually studied and received good grades. I might have even entered a real profession after graduation. Whoa, I’m glad things didn’t turn out THAT way. 

When I finally stopped chuckling, I grabbed my checkbook and sent a donation. I also included a small note: “Keep up the good work. The world needs more comedy/fiction writing.”

Monday, July 18, 2016

Who Wrote the Bible, God or Man?

All Christians must answer a very important question: “Is the Bible God’s word to mankind, or is it mankind’s word about God?”
Some folks think it doesn’t really matter. They say the Bible offers some good advice, and regardless of who actually wrote it, the important thing is to recognize this advice and apply it to our lives when appropriate. However, this is a very na├»ve approach. If the Bible is simply mankind’s word about God, then we are free to pick and choose the parts we like, and ignore the rest. After all, the human authors of the Bible who lived two- and three-thousand years ago didn’t know the important things we know today. For example, not a single one of them ever earned a degree in Gender Studies from an Ivy League College.
If the Bible contains the spiritual musings of certain ancient men, however smart they might have been, then it can be compared to clothing fashions. In the past, people truly thought it was stylish to wear huge powdered wigs. That was the epitome of culture and class during a certain time in history. Another example is my high school yearbook from 1975. A quick perusal of the fashions we thought were stylish can cause such spasms of laughter you likely will pull a ribcage muscle.
If the Bible is just mankind’s word about God, then there really is no transcendent AUTHORITY behind it. The word “authority,” by the way, is derived from the word “author.” If the authors of the Bible were mere men, the biblical writings may strike some people as wise or interesting or exciting or comforting, but the writings ultimately are merely human words, not super-human divine words.

A lot of folks these days, including many faithful church-going folks, are convinced the Bible is a collection of interesting human-authored writings. They do not believe God Almighty inspired the authors. You can usually tell which church denominations believe the Bible was written by mere humans: they are the groups that promote abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and all the other trendy causes that conflict with the clear pronouncements of Scripture.
However, if the Bible is indeed God’s word to mankind, that is, if God inspired the biblical authors to include in the text exactly what He wanted, then we cannot ignore the parts we don’t like. For instance, when the Bible quotes God Himself as saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” we cannot claim abortion is perfectly fine and no different than having an appendix removed.

When Jesus said, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” we cannot claim that same-sex marriage is a wonderful thing and conforms to God’s will. (Nor can we say some of the other weird things I’ve heard of late, such as: “Obviously the person who actually put those words in Jesus’ mouth decades after the fact was steeped in the hateful heteronormative patriarchy of his primitive culture, and therefore should be vigorously denounced!” My goodness. Some ideas are just so goofy only an Ivy League professor could promote them with a straight face.) 

So think deeply about this question: Who authored the Bible, God or mankind? If the answer is God, then Scripture is a rock solid guide for our lives. But if the answer is mankind, then Scripture has no real authority and instead we are free to embrace the latest trendy causes — causes that future generations will consider to be just as dumb as powdered wigs and my 1975 bell-bottoms.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fat Was Once Fashionable

I’m living in the wrong century. Back in the 1800s it was fashionable for men to be chubby and fair skinned. Back then guys flaunted their affluence by carrying around an extra 50 pounds of fat. The message to the envious masses was clear: “Ha ha, I can eat as much as I want whenever I want — while you’re not even sure if you’ll have supper tonight! Ha ha.”
It was also fashionable to have milky white skin which had never been exposed to so much as a single ultraviolet ray from the sun. The message again was clear: “Ha ha, I can sit on the veranda, under an umbrella, wearing this wide-brimmed hat — while you must labor in the hot sun all day long! Ha ha.”

(OK, well maybe they didn’t exactly sneer “Ha ha” or taunt people to their faces in the 19th century, but that’s only because they had yet to discover that professional sports stars and late-night comedians make such wholesome role models.)

In the 1800s it was the ultimate embarrassment for a man to have strong rippling muscles, a firm washboard-like stomach, a golden brown tan, and sun bleached locks of hair. This was a sign that you worked outdoors and could not afford to stuff your face with food. What shame!
 
Nowadays, of course, only the ultra-rich can afford the personal trainers, health clubs, tanning salons, hair treatments, and lipo-suction surgeries needed to achieve this exact same look.

Today it is lean, firm, and bronzed bodies which attract the opposite sex, while a hundred-plus years ago it was jiggling white flab which got the babes hot. “Oh Jedidiah, your quivering belly sets my heart aflutter!”

(OK, well, maybe they didn’t exactly have “babes” in the 19th century, and no one ever “got hot” back then, because, as my mother once explained to me, sex wasn’t invented until the 1960s when everyone stopped going to church and began to disobey their parents.)

So, as I mentioned, I’m living in the wrong century. My pale, Pillsbury Dough Boy-like physique would have fit in perfectly with the gentry class of the late 1800s, but here in the 21st century, I’m just another over-fed, under-exercised, middle-class schlep.
However, unlike many of my fellow over-fed, under-exercised, middle-class schleps, I at least know when to leave my shirt on! Have you been to the beach lately? Have you been anywhere lately? America is experiencing an epidemic of extra-large exhibitionists who think nothing of hanging out by, well, literally hanging out.

A quick rule of thumb: if the spare tire around your midsection makes it impossible for anyone to tell whether or not you’re wearing a belt, then taking your shirt off in public is rude. And if your spare tire makes it impossible for anyone to tell whether or not you’re wearing a bathing suit, then taking your shirt off in public is a crime against humanity. Also, if you find that birds, woodland creatures, and small children are frequently getting stuck in your belly button, then you probably should leave your shirt on.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining that people are chubby. I’m certainly not one of those Nutrition Nannies who fret that a six-foot tall man over 160 pounds is obese, and therefore government bureaucrats must regulate everything we eat. 

My concern is more aesthetic. In this day and age, jiggling jelly bellies are simply not very attractive (nor do they make the babes hot, Jedidiah). So, fellas, feel free to load up your cooler with Budweiser and glazed crullers, and head off to the beach. Just do it with your shirt on.

Monday, July 11, 2016

St. James Says ‘Don’t Complain’

A few weeks ago I attended daily Mass, and the first reading was from the epistle of St. James. The very first sentence was: “Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another, that you may not be judged.”

“Do not complain?” Is that what St. James actually wrote? He obviously doesn’t realize complaining is now America’s National Pastime, having eclipsed the game of baseball decades ago. We love to complain. Nine out of ten Americans are convinced the right to complain is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, listed right after the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of religion, and the right to have free wifi service wherever we go.
After the lector read that first sentence from St. James, I didn’t hear anything else. I was too busy thinking instead about how much I complain all the time, and how I do it with such self-righteous gusto. The things I complain about are wide-ranging: the weather, taxes, politicians, distracted drivers on the highway, and all the customers I have to deal with at work. I also complain quite a bit about other people who complain too much.

Sometimes, I even complain about people who complain too little. Maybe you know folks like this. They have such gentle and serene personalities, they always give other people the benefit of the doubt. Whenever a situation arises, which in my view would be the perfect opportunity to launch into a major complaint, these folks say things like, “Well, maybe he’s under a lot of stress,” or, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way,” or, “We should pray for them.”

That drives me nuts. They’ve wasted a golden opportunity to spend the next 20 minutes whining and moaning about people who (again, in my view) totally deserve it. Sometimes when these uncomplaining souls leave the room, I’m compelled to complain about them.

The words from St. James do not simply offer a general instruction to avoid complaining. He wrote his epistles to believers, and he clearly said we are not to complain “about one another.” This means we should not complain about other people in the Church, especially our fellow parishioners.
At first, someone may be tempted to think, “Since Christians are close to Jesus and His very serene and forgiving Spirit, they surely are less likely to complain than are secular people.”

Well, I hate to say it, but if my experience is typical, being a member of various parishes over the years, then believers in Christ are just as likely to complain as are non-believers, maybe even more so.

Without getting into any details or naming any names (mostly because I’d have to repeatedly name myself), some of the most mean-spirited and nasty complaints I’ve ever heard have occurred in a church setting. When you think about it, there are just so many different things a professional complainer can target: the Mass is too long; the Mass is too short; the homilies are boring; the music is awful; the flowers on the altar are ugly; the parking lot is a pain; someone sat in MY pew; the priest is always talking about money; there’s another typo in the bulletin; and when I called the rectory at 2 a.m. because my uncle was taken to the hospital, they did not call me back right away!

The final part of St. James’ sentence explains why we should not complain about our fellow believers: “….that you may not be judged.”

In the gospels, Jesus made it clear that the way we judge others will be the same way God judges us. If we’re quick to find fault with others, just think of the field day God will have uncovering our faults. Hmm, that doesn’t sound so good. 

I think it might be time for a New Year’s Resolution, even though it’s the middle of July: let’s stop complaining, especially about people in the Church. If we start giving other people the benefit of the doubt and avoid complaints, it not only will make us feel a lot better, it will cause God to give us the benefit of the doubt. And speaking personally, I really need that.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

It’s Wabbit Season

Something has been eating the flowers in my wife’s garden, and it’s making her very sad. I finally got out the Yellow Pages and made a phone call. A voice on the other end of the line said. “E.J.F. Pest Control Company, E.J. speaking. May I help you?”
“Yes, something is eating my wife’s flowers,” I said.

“Do you think it’s insects?” he asked.

“No I don’t think so,” I replied.

“How about deer?”

“Probably not,” I said. “I think it might be a rabbit.”

“Did you say a wabbit?!” he shouted.

“Um, no. I said ‘rabbit’.”

“Exactwy!” he exclaimed. “I’ll be wight over!”

Five minutes later a van pulled into my driveway, and an odd little man climbed out. He was only about four feet tall, but his head was the size of a pumpkin. A big hat was perched on his bald head, and he carried a shotgun with a barrel large enough to shoot golf balls. Oh, and one other thing: he was animated. Literally.
 
“Hi, I’m E.J.,” he said as he shook my hand. “So, where is he? Where’s the wabbit?!”

“Well, this is my wife’s flower garden,” I said, as I walked toward the stone wall by the side of the driveway. “As you can see, all the flowers and buds have been chewed right off.”

“Did you see the wabbit eat the fwowers?” he asked.

“No, I didn’t catch him in the act,” I said, “but I did see a rabbit on the lawn a couple times near the flowers.”

“Just as I suspected,” E.J. said. “He’s a wascally one.”

“He’s a what?” I asked.

“A wascal,” he said. “You know, a diwty, wotten, stinkin’ wascal. Ooooh, I hate wabbits!”

“Hey, don’t I know you?” I said. “You look familiar.”

“Not wikewy,” he replied. “I just moved here fwom Cawifownia.”

“Oh, I must be thinking of somebody else. Anyway,” I continued, “I’m late for work, so I have to get going. Is there something you can do about the wab, er, I mean, the rabbit?”

“Absowutewy!” he shouted. “You weave evweything to me.” Then he proceeded to unload items from his van, including a case of dynamite, a flame-thrower, and a small cannon.

When I came home from work that evening, I was shocked. Half of my lawn had huge craters in it, and the other half was scorched black. One maple tree had lost all its leaves, and small flames flickered on the branch tips. The other maple tree was lying on its side, the trunk splintered just above the ground. The stone wall by the driveway was crumbling, and my house was pock-marked with bullet holes. My wife’s flower garden was now just a churned up pile of dirt. Not a single plant was in sight.
“What the hell happened?!” I shrieked.

“Oh, he was wascally, all wight,” E.J. said. “But I got him!” Then I noticed his clothing was torn and singed, and black gunpowder smudged much of his face and head.

“But, but what happened?!” I asked again.

“It was aww-out war,” he said. “That was the onwy way to get him.”

“So where’s the rabbit,” I said.

“Weww, I don’t actuawy have his mangy carcass,” E.J. said as he loaded a Gatling gun and crossbow into his van. “But I’m sure he’s dead.” He climbed into the driver’s seat and said, “I’ww send you a biww. Just wemembew, the wabbit is dead!” 

As he drove away, I thought I heard a high-pitched voice in the bushes say, “He don’t know me very well, do he?”

Monday, July 4, 2016

Pagan Worship Logical Until God Revealed Himself

The brilliant 20th century author G.K. Chesterton summarized the entire history of religion in one sentence. He wrote, “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small.”

We often dismiss paganism as foolish and ignorant, and for that matter, quite blasphemous, since pagans worship the sun and the moon and other aspects of nature, rather than the Almighty God who created nature.
However, just imagine you are living in a primitive culture, say, three- or four-thousand years ago. All you and your tribe know about the origin and purpose of life is what you’ve observed: people are born, they live, and then they die. Some people are much stronger and more talented than others, and often become powerful leaders and kings, but ultimately even they die, too. On the other hand, elements of nature—the sun, moon, stars, wind, and rain—seem eternal. Or at least they’ve been around a lot longer than any mere mortal. And on many occasions, especially during storms or heat waves or forest fires, these various parts of nature are plainly much more powerful than mere mortals.
If you were living in those primitive circumstances long, long ago, the only logical course of action would be to look upon nature with awe and reverence. And since human beings have an instinctive desire to worship, it would make perfectly good sense to bow down and worship nature.

What makes Christianity, in Chesterton’s words, “bigger” than paganism, is the fact God has revealed Himself to us. If God had not yet done what He actually did at specific moments in history—make a covenant with Abraham, give the Law to Moses, come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church—then paganism would be the highest form of religion. It would be the most honest and noble response to a limited understanding about the origin and purpose of life.

Thankfully, the Lord God Almighty is not silent. He did not leave mankind to grope around in the dark forever. He did not wish to see His precious creatures bowing down to the sun and moon indefinitely, so when the right time came, He spoke to Abraham, and began the long and amazing process of salvation history, which culminated in the death and Resurrection of His only Son, Jesus.

We now live in the age of grace, and the Catholic Church has been entrusted with the fullness of the faith, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are no better than the ancient pagans, we’re just blessed to be living in an era that has so much more information about God. (But don’t think that means we have FULL knowledge of God. When it comes to knowing the mind of God, we’re a lot like chipmunks trying to figure out how a computer works.)
The knowledge of God that we possess comes at a price: the responsibility to use it properly. The ancient pagans had a good excuse for worshiping the sun and moon: God had not spoken to them. In our day and age, we cannot worship nature—let alone things such as money or pleasure or power or ourselves—and then plead ignorance when we stand before God at the final judgment. 

So, the next time you see a huge full moon on a clear night, try to imagine you’re living thousands of years ago, and you don’t know much about the origin and purpose of life. But you do know that big ol’ moon is an amazing sight. Gaze at it with awe and wonder, and then, because you have divine knowledge that’s been revealed to mankind, don’t worship that marvelous moon. Instead, worship and thank the Almighty God who made it.