Friday, July 13, 2018

Have a Ball with that Point

Imagine this scenario: manufacturing facilities around the globe mass-produce a particular consumer product, but the people who regularly buy this product never use over 80-percent of the items they purchase. And of the small number of items that are put to use, the purchaser only utilizes about ten-percent of the item’s capacity.

If we’re talking about automobiles, this would mean a person purchases five new cars, then leaves four of them sitting in the driveway, and uses only one of the cars to drive to the local convenience store once per week. Or if we’re talking about a different consumer product, say, Pop Tarts, this means a person purchases an 8-pack, opens one and takes two small nibbles before throwing it away, and then leaves the other seven Pop Tarts sitting in the kitchen cupboard indefinitely.

This is silly, right? Why would people purchase a particular product in large quantities and then eventually throw most of them away without ever being used? Surely, nothing like this happens in the real world? Well, it does happen. And don’t call me Shirley.

This scenario happens every day with a very common consumer product: the ballpoint pen.

Every person in the United States already owns enough ballpoint pens to last them their entire lives, even if every person lives to be 100. The middle drawer of every desk, plus the junk drawer of every kitchen, plus the briefcase of every businessperson, plus the backpack of every student, plus the supply cabinet of every company, plus the shirt pocket of every engineer already contain enough pens to serve our collective writing needs until the year 2525. And that’s true even if everyone suddenly stopped typing email and text messages with keyboards and started writing all communications with pen and paper. Of course, that would require a whole lot of paper, and I’m not sure we have that many trees anymore. Also, based on the sloppy handwriting of some people, especially me, the amount of clear communication taking place probably would plummet.

If you go into a Staples store, regardless of the day of the week or time of day, what is the busiest aisle? It’s always the “writing instruments” aisle. All those people perusing the ballpoint pens, gel pens, pencils (both wood and mechanical), markers, and highlighters do not actually need any of those items. They have dozens of them back at their offices and/or homes.

Whenever I visit a Staples store, no matter what I need, I always make a quick pass through the “writing instruments” aisle, just to see if something new and interesting has hit the market. And even though I have enough pens at home to last about a thousand years, at least half the time I buy something.

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about being addicted to sports? Well, my supply of ballpoint pens is almost as bad. Whenever my wife says, “Really? You bought MORE pens?” I defensively reply, “Well, at least I’m not addicted to buying automobiles or Pop Tarts, OK?”

Imagine you wake up tomorrow morning and news reports declare that the world is out of oil; no more gasoline, no more heating oil, nothing. That would drastically alter our lives and throw the world into a panic.

Now imagine you wake up tomorrow and news reports announce that companies will no longer manufacture ballpoint pens. People would shrug and say, “Huh, I guess I won’t waste as much time anymore when I visit Staples.” That news would have no impact on our lives at all (unless we were employed by Bic, Paper Mate, Pilot, Pentel, Uni-ball, Zebra, etc.)

So, what’s the point of all this? Ball, of course.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

‘Two-By-Two’ Beats Lone Ranger Ever Time

In this week’s gospel reading, from the 6th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus sent out the Twelve disciples on a mini missionary trip. Jesus instructed the Twelve to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money.”

Wow! No food? No money? I don’t know about you, but I would never even THINK about leaving home on a trip without plenty of money (or at least plenty of credit cards).

However, Jesus sent His disciples out on this missionary journey without any resources at all. They had to depend completely on the kindness of strangers for their daily food and lodging. Again, I don’t know about you, but personally, instead of depending upon the kindness of strangers, I’d much rather depend upon the credit line of my VISA card.

Well, actually, I misspoke. Jesus did NOT send them out without any resources at all. Scripture tells us that He “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” So, in reality, Jesus gave them a fantastic resource for their journey (even more valuable than a wallet full of VISA cards). He gave them the power of God. The Twelve went out on this mission completely dependent upon God for their daily needs—and that was more than enough.

Jesus also gave them another very important resource for the journey. He sent his disciples out “two by two.” Jesus gave them a precious resource that would not have been available if they had gone out alone: the resource of companionship, support, encouragement, and a shoulder to cry on when things went poorly.

Think of these two scenarios: First, a solitary individual is sent by Jesus to preach in the countryside. When the people in a particular village mock him and tell him to get lost, this person heads off to the next village. As he walks alone, he starts second-guessing himself. “Boy, that was terrible,” he mutters. “I couldn’t get a single person to listen to me. I don’t know why Jesus sent me on this mission. I can’t do this. I’m such a loser.” By the time he shuffles into the next village, he’s so discouraged and depressed, all he wants to do is sit under a tree and have a pity party for himself.

How different it is when two people are sent together. After the villagers mock them and tell them to get lost, they head off to the next village. As they walk, one of them says, “Boy, that was terrible. No one listened to us.”

The other replies, “Yeah, those folks were cranky, all right. Nothing like the people we met three days ago. Remember how kind they were to us?”

“Good point,” the first one says, “Maybe the people in the next village will be kind, too. But even if they’re not, what’s the worst that can happen? They laugh at us? They tell us to get lost? No big deal. Hey, you know what? I’ve got a good feeling about this next village. C’mon, let’s hurry up so we get there before dinner time!”

Well, you get the idea. When two people work together, they can commiserate together, encourage each other, and help each other to get over disappointments more quickly and be able to laugh about it.

This event in the gospels should be an important lesson for us all. The Christian life is not meant for a bunch of Lone Rangers. We need the support of each other to keep from getting discouraged. That’s why we’re called to gather each week as a community of believers and worship the Lord together.

It’s practically impossible to live a vibrant, joyful Christian life in solitude. If we try to do it alone, it’s just not going to work. We need the fellowship and support of other believers.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Volunteering for the ‘Shhhhhh Patrol’

Last month I volunteered to work at the Travelers Championship golf tournament in Cromwell, CT. My grueling duties included standing right next to the best golfers in the world and watching them make amazing shots. I also had to hold up a skinny sign that read “Quiet please,” and say, “Shhhhhh,” to the fans. In return for this back-breaking labor, I received a new golf shirt, a nice hat, an insulated tumbler, two passes to attend the tournament all week, free parking, $17 per day meal money, and the opportunity to meet a bunch of really nice people who also volunteered.

So, yeah, it was the most arduous and demanding job of my life — as long as you don’t count all the other jobs I’ve ever had.

Over the years I’ve become more and more fascinated by the game of golf. During the summer months I play approximately two or three times per month — and I play quite poorly, I might add. But no matter how lousy I play, no matter how often a potentially decent round is ruined by a quadruple bogey on the last hole, I still enjoy the experience and look forward to playing again soon. (Hmm, this also could be a sign of a psychological disorder, but let’s not go there.)

At the Travelers, being able to stand literally ten feet away from the most talented golfers on the planet as they hit balls farther and straighter than I’ve ever even dreamed of, is a mind-boggling experience. Now, I realize there are many people who find golf extremely boring. For example, my wife joined me one day at the tournament and after a few hours she said, “Wow, golf is even slower than baseball.” (See last week’s column for my thoughts on the tedious pace nowadays of my favorite sport, the National Pastime.)

Being a volunteer at the tournament was fun, but it was a bit constricting, as I had to do a five-hour shift in the same location. The course is so vast and beautiful, I was getting antsy, wishing to wander around and see the sights.

Also, after thirty or more groups of golfers went through my area — each group requiring me to employ my “Quiet please, Shhhhhh” skills — I realized I had raised my arms in the air more often than an entire Pentecostal church. Good thing that skinny sign wasn’t heavy.

There was one somewhat awkward episode. One afternoon I was assigned to Shhhhhh Patrol in one to the corporate skyboxes overlooking the 17th green. This was great for me, as I was in the shade the whole time. By then, even with gallons of sunblock, my fair Irish hide was starting to get a bit too pink.

However, as we all know, one side effect of alcohol is that it disables a person’s volume control dial. As the afternoon wore on, one particular group of corporate pals were no longer grasping the concept of “Quiet please.”

I’m pretty sure volunteers are not supposed to conk people on the head with the “Quiet please” sign, but drastic situations call for drastic measures, I always say.

No, I’m just kidding! I didn’t conk anyone with the sign. I don’t want tournament officials to prohibit me from volunteering again next year just because of a goofy joke in the newspaper. But to be honest, after the 50th time of pleading, “Quiet please, I’m begging you, sir!” the thought did occur to me that a whack on the noggin might be appropriate.

Volunteering at the Travelers Championship was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. But I wish they had let me keep the “Quiet please” sign. I know a few people I’d like to wave it at.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Faith Needed for Miracles

This week’s gospel reading contains one of the most startling statements in all of Scripture. Jesus returned to His hometown and, frankly, it did not go very well. The people were skeptical and suspicious of Him, and the Bible explains, “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people.”

Whoa, what gives? He was not ABLE to perform any mighty deed?! It doesn’t say Jesus decided not to perform miracles; it says He was not able. How can this be? What’d He do, forget to take his Mighty Deed Multi-Vitamins that morning?

How can Jesus not be ABLE to work a miracle? I mean, He’s the Son of God, one-in-being with the Almighty Creator of the universe. And yet, after returning to His hometown, He couldn’t even do a simple card trick? Amazing.

When Jesus came back home to Nazareth, He went into the local synagogue on the Sabbath and taught with incredible wisdom. Did the townsfolk say, “Wow, this is great. Local boy makes good! We’re so proud of him.” Nope. Instead they sneered, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” The Bible tells us “they took offense at him.”

I’m not surprised the locals mocked and ridiculed Jesus. Sinful human nature can make people awfully shallow and stupid at times. (Hence our need for a Savior.) What bothered me for a long time, though, was the fact that Jesus was not ABLE to perform any miracles. It sure seemed like his supernatural powers must be limited.

Is it possible that the power of the Almighty is not all that mighty? Nope, it turns out my concerns were unfounded. There was nothing wrong with Jesus’ supernatural powers. The key is to understand the nature of God. God is all powerful and all-mighty, yes, but He also is all-loving. And love never forces itself on someone.

Love is a two-way street. For love to be genuine, both parties must freely enter into the relationship. Anything less would not be love; it would be coercion. It’s the same with God. He created us for one purpose: to enter into a loving relationship with Him. But in order for that love to be genuine, we must be free to say no. This is why God created us with free will. (C.S. Lewis observed that history demonstrates God’s decision to give us free will was a very risky thing to do. But apparently, God thought it worth the risk.)

God could have created us without free will. He could have made us into obedient little robots who always do the right thing and worship Him. That would’ve spared the world a lot of heartache and misery, but it would not be true love. It would be coercion.

The people in Jesus’ hometown had free will. They were free to accept Him or reject Him—just as we are free, two thousand years later, to accept Him or reject Him. Unfortunately, they chose to reject Him. The last line of the reading says, “[Jesus] was amazed at their lack of faith.”

No miracles occurred that day, not because Jesus’ power was limited, but rather because of the lack of faith of the people. Jesus is a gentleman. He never forces Himself on us. He needs our permission—our faith—before He will use his supernatural powers to change our lives.

Jesus could have done hundreds of spectacular miracles in His hometown. His power was ready and raring to go. But the people did not believe He could do it, so nothing happened. It’s the same today. If we have faith, if we use our free will to embrace the love of Jesus, He has the power to work miracles in our lives.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Is Baseball Too Tedious?

Last week I discussed my addiction to sports, and focused primarily on my favorite sport, baseball, and my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. What I didn’t mention — and it makes me very sad even to bring this up — is the fact that baseball is getting really tedious these days.

At first, I tried to ignore this problem. But then I had a conversation with a guy I know through work, who is a lifelong Red Sox fan. When I asked him what he thought of the previous night’s game, I was stunned when he replied, “I haven’t watched a single game this year. Baseball has gotten so slow-paced, so boring, that I just can’t watch anymore. It’s like watching paint dry.”

I countered by reminding him how exciting it is when the Red Sox and Yankees both have good seasons and fight it out for first place, which is happening this year. He said, “Are you kidding?! Red Sox-Yankee games are the worst. They never finish in less than four hours!”

His words really shocked me. I’ve always said that I personally prefer a crisp 3 to 2 ballgame that takes a little over two hours, rather than a long, drawn out 12 to 9 game with a dozen walks that takes four-plus hours to conclude. But the powers-that-be in the Major League offices have determined that fans want a lot of scoring, especially home runs, so the game has been modified in recent decades. The most notable changes have been smaller playing fields with “short porch” outfield walls, significantly livelier baseballs, and tighter strike zones. I just accepted it as part of the evolution of the game. Everything now is geared for home runs, but the byproducts are more walks, more strikeouts, more 12-pitch at bats, and more pitchers getting pulled in the 5th inning because the pitch count topped a hundred.

After my Sox fan friend revealed that he doesn’t even watch anymore, I said to myself, “You know, he’s right. Baseball has gotten WAY too tedious. It takes forever to complete a game nowadays.”

The very next day a story appeared in many news outlets. Here was the headline: “MLB attendance drops to lowest in 15 years.” So far this season, attendance is down 6.6 percent compared to last year, continuing a downward trend.

Hmm, it seems my friend and I are not the only ones noticing. Fans are expressing their frustration by not showing up. (The $76 average ticket price — twice that at Fenway — might be a contributing factor, too.)

If it were up to me, I’d institute some changes to speed up the game, such as a 20-second pitch clock, tell the umps to call the real strike zone, and get rid of the DH. I think folks will realize a crisp 3 to 2 game that ends by 9:30 p.m. is more fun than staying up way past 11 watching your closer walk the bases loaded.

But, of course, it’s not up to me. So, in the meantime, let’s have James Earl Jones do a reading from the Gospel according to Saint Doubleday (from the climactic scene in the movie “Field of Dreams”):

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

I’m sure baseball will survive. I just wish they’d pick up the pace a bit.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Don’t Worry, Be Faithful

In this week’s gospel reading, a synagogue official named Jairus approached Jesus and begged Him to heal his 12-year-old daughter who was at the point of death. As they traveled to Jairus’ house, news arrived that the young girl had died. Scripture says, “Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus said to the synagogue official, ‘Do not be afraid; just have faith.’”

What a great sentence: Do not be afraid; just have faith.

Jairus’ friends encouraged him to let Jesus leave. “Why trouble the teacher any longer?” they reasoned, convinced it was too late for a healing to occur. But Jairus ignored their advice and pressed on toward his home, most likely clutching Jesus by the elbow and walking as fast as possible.

Jairus did what Jesus commanded. He had faith. (Although I can’t imagine he successfully followed the first half of Jesus’ command, “Do not be afraid.” He was probably terrified and on the verge of hysteria. At least I would be, in the same situation.)

Jesus’ key sentence, “Do not be afraid; just have faith,” was not merely for Jairus. It applies to all believers throughout all of history—including, and maybe especially, those of us living today.

To some observers, Jesus’ statement is no different than that goofy song, “Don’t worry, be happy,” by Bobby McFerrin. Many people think the heart of Christian living is to ignore our problems and pretend that everything is fine. As Karl Marx cynically sneered, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” (Or maybe it was Groucho Marx. Seriously, I wonder how ol’ Karl’s soul is faring right about now, 135 years after his surprising discovery that atheism is not true.)

Christians are accused of mindlessly and irrationally ignoring the hardships of life and using religion as an emotional crutch. Although I’m not sure about McFerrin’s motivation for writing the song, “Don’t worry, be happy” (I suspect it may have been a few bong hits), the attitude expressed by the song is in fact rather mindless and irrational.

The difference between the song and the Scriptures is the foundation of each. “Don’t worry, be happy” is based on…nothing. Ignore your problems. Why? Well, just because. Be happy. Why? Well, just because. As experience teaches us, ignoring problems usually makes them worse, and trying to force ourselves to be happy is the surest way of becoming miserable. Jesus’ words do work, however, because of the foundation on which they are based: the eternal power and glory and love of God Almighty.

Jesus tells us not to be afraid. Why? Just because? No, because God is God and because He is in control of every molecule in the universe, from the beginning of time and for all eternity; that’s why. Jesus tells us to have faith. Why? Just because? No, because faith can not only move mountains, it also is our ticket to eternal life in Heaven with God; that’s why.

Jairus had faith in Jesus’ words, however weak and tentative his faith might have been. And his faith was rewarded, as Jesus raised the little girl from the dead with the words, “Talitha koum.” (The Bible explains this expression means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” I always thought it meant, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”)

If Jesus had told Jairus, “Don’t worry, be happy,” and then walked away, do you think Jairus would have suddenly been filled with serenity and joy? I don’t think so.

If the advice to ignore our problems and put on a big smile is backed up by nothing but hot air, we’re not likely to do the happy dance anytime soon. Only when that advice comes from Christ, who backed up His words by conquering death once and for all on the first Easter morning, can we be assured that there is truly nothing to fear. The song should be called, “Don’t worry, be faithful.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

Sports Addict Needs Support Group

“Hi, my name is Bill and I’m a sports-aholic.”

I don’t know if there actually is a 12-step program for obsessive sports fans, but if so, I should probably attend the meetings. Recently I tried to figure out how many thousands of hours I have spent during the past six decades following sports. This includes the time I’ve spent glued to the progress of a ballgame, either in person or via TV, radio, or Internet; or the hand signals of a co-worker during an important business meeting, as he checks the progress of an afternoon ballgame on his smart phone. (It’s a simple code. For example, the following sequence — 3 fingers, 1 finger, thumbs up, 5 fingers — means the Red Sox are winning 3-to-1 in the 5th inning. Or this painful sequence — 5 fingers, fist, thumbs down, 1 finger — means a rookie pitcher called up from Pawtucket for an emergency start got shelled in the first inning.)

Also, I have to add in the hours I’ve spent watching or listening to pre-game shows, highlight shows, coaches shows, halftime shows, game wrap-up shows, call-in shows, and looking-ahead-to-the-next-opponent shows. Plus, the time I’ve spent reading sports books, sports magazines, the sports section of the newspaper, and sports websites. I suppose I also should add in the amount of time I’ve spent drifting off to sleep at night while envisioning myself striking out the Yankees’ cleanup hitter with the bases loaded and two outs in the 9th inning using, of course, my wicked overhand curve ball. I’m embarrassed to say this particular dream did not cease when I graduated from Little League.

Since I’ve been alive for well over 500,000 hours at this point in my life, I figure the answer must be at least 200,000 hours. And that number would’ve been higher if various major league sports hadn’t gone on strike a few times, if my home hadn’t been hit by a handful of power outages over the years, and if I thought hockey was a real sport.

Recently, I finally acknowledged that I have serious problem. The Red Sox currently are battling it out with the Yankees for first place, and I’ve been staying up way too late at night to catch the end of the games, which results in concentrating way too little at work the next day.

Back in 2004, I remember fretting and squirming and agonizing over every pitch. At one point I prayed, “Dear Lord, just let them win the World Series one time. That’s all I ask. After that, I’ll be content and never get obsessed about sports again, and no matter what the Red Sox do in the future, I’ll watch the games with detached bemusement and serenity. Amen.”

Well, as you may remember, my prayer was answered that year, as the Sox finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino” and won it all. And they won the Series two other times since then! So, what do I find myself doing this year? Fretting and squirming and agonizing over every pitch.

Another thing to consider: I don’t even gamble on sports (which puts me, from what I can gather, in a distinct minority). So, it’s not like I have a financial stake in the outcome of any game. I have NO stake in any of the games. And yet I intently follow the most meaningless athletic contests as if my life depends on it. Surely a 12-step program is in order.

As I said earlier, I’m not aware of any Sports-aholic Anonymous meetings in this area. But if they exist, I should attend. That is, of course, as long as I can get home in time for the first pitch.