Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Clash of Cultures: Trash or Treasure?

In last week’s column I mentioned that I am “neatness impaired,” and I’m most comfortable when my office has stacks of old newspapers, magazines, and books scattered around the room.

Despite my proclivity for accumulating reading material, I recently discovered I am part of the modern “throwaway culture.” I’m quick to throw away anything, as long as it does not have printed words on it. Eventually I toss the reading material, too — usually right after the Fire Marshall finishes his inspection of my basement office and orders me to dispose of a ton or two of old newspapers.

Earlier this summer my siblings and I rented a couple of Dumpsters to help our parents de-clutter their home. They’ve been in the same house for over 50 years, and being patriotic American consumers, quite a bit of stuff had accumulated during that time.
My dad was born during the Great Depression and was in high school when World War II ended. So his formative years were during an era of severe deprivation and sacrifice. Back then people often were forced to feed a family of six for an entire week with a single potato and one chicken leg. And if at least three siblings did not wear the same pair of hand-me-down shoes, then you just were not trying hard enough to win the war. Back in those days, people rarely threw anything away.
On the other hand, I was born during the 1950s, the era of peace and prosperity and rampant consumerism. There’s an old expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, my motto was, “If it ain’t broke, you’re probably bored with it by now, so go buy a new one anyway.”

Starting in the 1950s and ‘60s, the concept of “planned obsolescence” was incorporated into the design of consumer goods, so most likely it was indeed broken, and you had to go out and buy a new one. Taking the time to repair something was simply not an option. Instead, you hopped into the Plymouth station wagon with wood paneling, drove down to Sears or Bradlees, and bought a new thing. Nowadays, you don’t have to look for the keys to the Plymouth or even put on pants. You just order the item online and wait for the UPS guy to deliver it.

While de-cluttering our parents’ home, my dad would see me dragging something to the Dumpster, and he’d say, “What are you doing?” And I’d reply, “Throwing away this piece of junk.” And he’d say, “That’s not junk. That’s valuable.” Then I’d say, “You don’t even know what it is.” And he’d reply, “That doesn’t matter. It’s still valuable.”
During the cleaning process there were multiple skirmishes in this clash of generational cultures. The throwaway culture Baby Boomer (me) wanted to drag anything not moving to the Dumpster, while the Depression/World War II survivor (Dad) cringed at the idea of tossing out anything that might be useful one of these days.

I repeatedly made the same statement: “If it turns out you need this thing someday, we’ll just buy a new one.” That made perfectly good sense to me, but to my dad that statement was about as insane as someone saying, “Who cares if the Red Sox win or lose?”

Convinced that I was right, I ignored my dad’s pleas and continued to throw item after item into the Dumpster. But maybe he was right and I was getting a little carried away. After a couple of hours, I heard muffled sounds coming from the Dumpster. I looked in, and quite surprised, I said, “Mom! What are you doing in there? Let me help you out.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

Jesus Teaches About Pride, Vanity, and Facebook

In Luke’s gospel, chapter 14, Jesus offered an important teaching about pride and vanity. Jesus said: “There once was a man who set up a Facebook account. At first, the man connected with many long-lost friends from high school. Soon after, he began to type witty replies to the various postings he saw. Then he began to post his own updates, letting everyone know what was new and important in his life. Whenever someone else commented on one of his postings, the man had a surge of delight. ‘People are noticing me!’ he thought. ‘People think I’m important!’
“As time went on, the man spent more and more time on his computer. He would post updates about everything that happened in his life, including what he had for breakfast, the current weather conditions in his town, and pretty much any random thought that popped into his head, especially regarding the presidential election campaign. He then would stare at the computer screen anxiously waiting for someone to reply. One day the man posted a photo of the baloney sandwich he prepared for lunch. Someone quickly replied with this comment: ‘Hey pal! Who cares?! Get a life!’
“The man was devastated, and walked away from his computer sadly, because he had much pride and vanity.” Then Jesus concluded His teaching by saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

OK, so maybe this isn’t exactly how Jesus told the story in Luke, chapter 14. But I bet that’s how He’d tell the story if He were here in the flesh today.
 
Back then, Jesus described people who had been invited to a banquet, and immediately chose “the places of honor at the table,” because they wanted to be noticed by everyone. But Jesus explained this strategy could backfire, as a more important guest might arrive, and the host would have to tell the attention-seeker to move to the least prestigious place.

Pride and vanity have always been chronic problems for mankind. It was the case back in Jesus’ day, and it’s our situation today—only a hundred times worse.

Baby boomers are known as the “Me Generation,” because those of us born between 1946 and 1964 were trained from infancy to be completely self-centered. Today people have taken that concept to the next level, and now we have the “Look-At-Me Generation.” Narcissism has been combined with exhibitionism, in the form of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and the ubiquitous “selfie.”

People are craving attention and are going to outrageous lengths to exalt themselves. Jesus clearly teaches this attitude is wrong. The narcissism combined with exhibitionism observed on social media is rather annoying. But when you look a little deeper, it’s clear the relentless postings often are just pitiful cries for attention.
Jesus taught the importance of humility because He knows when a person is self-absorbed and constantly in need of attention, that person will never be content. The situation is kind of a Catch-22. When we seek happiness by being self-centered and craving attention from others, we’ll never be happy. But when we stop focusing on ourselves and instead strive to follow the two great commandments—love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves—only then we will be happy.

So if you must dabble in Facebook to keep in touch with old friends, fine. But be aware it has the power to bring out the worst in people. Please don’t get caught up in the constant desire for attention. It will only make you miserable in the long run, and it will drive you further and further away from healthy relationships, both with the Lord and with other people.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Clutter Is In the Eye of the Beholder

Many people hate clutter. A disorganized room drives them nuts. But there’s another side to the story. One person’s clutter can be another person’s comfort.
Take, for instance, the office I’ve set up in the basement of our home. I love it when stacks of newspapers, magazines, and books are piled all around the room. Sure it can be a bit hazardous — a magazine on top of carpeting is as slippery as a banana peel — but it relaxes me to know all kinds of exciting reading material is within arm’s reach no matter where I sit down. (Or no matter where I fall down after slipping on a magazine. “Wow, here’s a TIME Magazine from 1975! I’ll read about that new music sensation Bruce Springsteen while I wait for the ambulance to arrive.”)
However, another member of the household, who shall remain nameless, constantly says to me, “You’re so messy! I don’t know why I married you!”

This unidentified person can’t stand clutter, and believes that books always should be on book shelves — even while being read. Also, any magazine or newspaper that has been in the house for more than 24 hours has overstayed its welcome and should be sent out to the blue recycle bin.

But I really don’t want to pick on this particular person, even though the chances this person will recognize him or herself in this column are zero because of the deft manner in which I’ve masked his or her identity. What I want to discuss is the issue of discrimination.

In our intolerant, prejudiced society, it is a sad fact that sloppy people are thought to be lazy and morally substandard — as if the urge to take out the trash automatically makes a person virtuous. Let’s not forget that Charles Manson liked to organize his file folders and Jeffrey Dahmer had neat handwriting. Being tidy did not exactly put those two fellows into the Character Hall of Fame.

On the other hand, St. Francis of Assisi always threw his robe on the floor instead of in the hamper and Mother Teresa often misplaced her bowling shoes. Being sloppy did not hinder their saintly lives.
Discrimination against those of us who are neatness-impaired is most prevalent in the corporate workplace. About 20 years ago I saw someone get promoted for no other reason than his office was clean. When the Big Boss wanted to see a copy of the previous year’s Sales Forecast Report, this guy immediately pulled it from an immaculate file cabinet. I could’ve found a copy of the same report in my office — if I had been given a 30 minute head start and a snow shovel. Plus, I actually wrote the report, so I could’ve explained what the report said, despite some of the pages on my copy being stained with pizza sauce.

By the way, this was back in the mid-90s, before everything got computerized and people still used paper copies of important documents. Nowadays, of course, everyone works in a “paperless office,” and all crucial data is stored on “servers” in the “cloud.” But whenever people can’t quite figure out how to make the data display correctly on an iPad, they send the file to the printer for a paper copy anyway, but accidentally print out 46 copies. This explains why a modern “paperless office” kills ten times more trees than an office in the olden days.

Just thinking about this unfair discrimination against sloppy people gets me upset. I need to read something relaxing. I’m sure there’s a good book or magazine article in one of the piles by my desk. Now where did I put my snow shovel?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Big Mouth Raises Disturbing Question

In this week’s gospel reading, some anonymous big mouth had to go and toss out one final question as Jesus passed by. He asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
What a can of worms this guy opened! Jesus told the man, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
We often resign ourselves to the idea that those who do not believe in God, nor care about God, will be in a lot of trouble at the final judgment. But Jesus plainly said that even some people who ATTEMPT to enter the heavenly Kingdom will be unable to do so.

He used the analogy of a master of the house locking the door while people are outside pleading to be let in. The people outside desperately try to remind the master that they’re old buddies, good friends. “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets,” they yell.

But the master replies to them, “I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!”

Jesus made it pretty clear that mere acquaintance with Him and His teachings won’t be enough. Only those who truly embrace Him and live by His words will enter.
It’s so tempting to view a serious religious commitment as something we can always do later. After all, life is hectic now. Work is stressful; the kids are whiny; there’s a new show on Netflix that we have to binge-watch, etc. There’s no time to think about religious stuff right now. Sure, we’ll make time for it one of these days, as soon as things calm down.

With that kind of approach, “one of these days” will never come. But the day when it’s too late WILL come. Some risks are simply not worth taking. If you are planning on having a serious conversation with God “one of these days,” I strongly suggest today be the day.

Go someplace quiet, turn off all the electronic devices, and take fifteen minutes to open up your heart to God. Praise Him for being so awesome and loving—don’t forget, He created you for a very specific and wonderful purpose. Repent for all the selfish and hurtful things you’ve done over the years. Thank Him for sending His Son to die on the cross for your sins. Ask Jesus to wash away your sins and come into your heart. Finally, ask Him to fill you with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that you’ll be able to grow in the faith.
If you do this, not only will your life be changed for the better right now, but most importantly, at some point in the future you won’t be caught outside a locked door, frantically pounding and shouting, “Lord! Let me in!”

One final point about this week’s gospel reading. In the final line, Jesus said, “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

He was talking about people who are smug about their status as God’s favorite ones. Far too many people think because of the family they’re born into or the specific prayers they recite, that God is much more pleased with them compared to those “other” people who don’t do it quite right.

God judges by the heart. The sincerity, honesty, and humility of a person’s faith counts for a lot more than his particular family or faith tradition. 

Heaven is going to surprise us. We’re going to be surprised by who IS there, and even more surprised by who is NOT there. It’s not very comforting and I wish that anonymous big mouth had never raised the issue, but that is what Jesus said. We need to take it to heart.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A 3-3-5 Triple Play? Been There, Done That

During the last weekend of July, there was an interesting sports story about an unprecedented 3-3-5 triple play. In a game between the Giants and the Nationals, with bases loaded and no outs, the Nationals first baseman snagged a low liner (one out), then tagged the bag to doubled off the baserunner (two outs). Meanwhile, the Giants runner on third thought the line drive had been short-hopped, so he kept running toward home plate. The first baseman tossed the ball to the third baseman, who stepped on the base (three outs).
The next day the sports media announced it was the first ever 3-3-5 triple play in baseball history. (To make scorekeeping easier, each player in the field has a number: pitcher 1, catcher 2, first baseman 3, etc.)

There have been only 707 triple plays in Major League history, which is quite rare considering there are approximately 2400 games played each year, and they’ve been playing Major League Baseball since 1869.

Although it was the first ever 3-3-5 triple play in Major League history, I know for a fact it was not the first one ever executed in the game of baseball. That’s because I hit into a 3-3-5 triple play in the spring of 1979. (By the way, unlike most of my columns, I’m not exaggerating here.)

It was a blustery afternoon in Lewisburg, PA, and the Bucknell team needed a win. (We always needed a win. We led the league in five-game losing streaks.) Anyway, it was my turn to bat, and the bases were loaded with no outs. I jumped all over an inside sinker and pulled a line shot down the first base line. As soon as I hit the ball, I instantly thought, “That’s a bases-clearing double into the right field corner!” (Well, to be honest, my first instantaneous thought was, “Holy cow, I actually hit it!” You see, in the previous few weeks I was more familiar with 0-for-4 box scores than with line drives into the right field corner.)
However, before I could take a step out of the batter’s box, the opposing first baseman leaped and snagged my line drive (one out). Our runner on first was already halfway to second, so the first baseman jogged over and stepped on the bag (two outs). Still in the batter’s box, I groaned, “Oh no, first time I hit one hard in a week, and it’s a double play!” But I was wrong; it was not going to be a mere double play. As I stood there, staring off into right field, where a line drive extra base hit should’ve been bouncing around in the corner, I heard footsteps to my left. I looked over and saw our runner from third, now only about 20 feet away from home plate. Apparently I was not the only one who had a vision of a line drive deep in the right field corner. He has not seen the first baseman catch the ball, and before I could yell, “Go back!” the third baseman was catching the cross-diamond throw and stepping on the bag (three outs). Ugh, 3-3-5 triple play! Scoring opportunity squelched. Losing streak intact.
The only other thing I remember about that game was our head coach, who actually yelled at me for hitting into a triple play. As if I purposely aimed my only solid hit in a week at the first baseman. If someone had told me at the time it would take another 37 years for a 3-3-5 triple play to occur in a Major League game, I would’ve been surprised. We made screwball plays like that seem fairly routine. 

Baseball is a funny game, ain’t it?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is it OK to Clap at Mass?

Sunday Mass was coming to a close, and the children’s choir belted out the Recessional Hymn in fine style. When the last note concluded, most of the folks still left in the pews offered up heartfelt applause for the musical tykes. 
As the clapping subsided, a woman in the pew behind me muttered, “There should NEVER be clapping at Mass! It’s offensive to God.”

Wait. What? Did she really say that? Letting the children’s choir know that we appreciate their hard work is offensive to God?
Later that day, out of curiosity, I did a Google search and typed in the phrase, “Is it OK to clap at Mass?” Wow, I didn’t realize this was such a volatile topic. There were over 600,000 search results. Many of the links brought me to website articles with titles such as, “Flawed Applause,” “Wrap the Clap!” and, “Confessions of a Conflicted Catholic Clapper.”

Is it possible that God is offended when parishioners express thanks to a group of youngsters who worked hard to prepare the music for Mass? After all, the Bible clearly says, “All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with joyful cries” (Psalm 41:7). It doesn’t seem that there’s anything wrong with clapping.

However, there is a strong sentiment in the Church that frowns on clapping during Mass. And the person cited most often by these folks is Pope Benedict the 16th. Before he became pope, back when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said, “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”
Hmm, it seems it all depends on why we’re clapping. The verse from Psalm 41 clearly indicated the clapping is directed toward God. Clapping and shouting to God is rarely done in suburban U.S. parishes, but in many Catholic communities—for example, Hispanic parishes and Charismatic groups—clapping and shouting are quite common expressions of praise and worship to the Lord. But the clapping is not “applause,” in the sense of offering approval to other people.

“Catholic Answers” is a terrific website with information about all things Catholic (www.catholic.com). The following question was sent in: “When is it appropriate to applaud at Mass? To do so appears to reduce the Mass to the level of entertainment, but so many people do it nowadays that I’d like to know if the Church has any teaching about it.”

Here is the answer they offered:

There is no Church document specifying applause as an appropriate liturgical response to music, singing, homilies, or announcements of gratitude by the presider.

Although the Church does not explicitly state that applause is inappropriate at Mass, that may be because such a stricture used to be enforced by Western society. As a matter of traditional Western etiquette, it used to be severely frowned upon to applaud in church because church services are worship offered up to God and not entertainment to be critiqued by the assembly.

Now that society has generally lost the sense that applause is inappropriate in church, I suspect that the Church may soon have to speak on the matter before people take the idea to its logical conclusion and begin to boo when they are insufficiently entertained at Mass.
Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? It never dawned on me that people might boo something they don’t like at Mass. But the way our culture is going nowadays, with college students being encourage to throw hissy fits whenever they hear an idea they don’t agree with, I suppose booing at Mass could happen. 

So I’m not quite sure what to think about clapping at Mass. All I know is, those kids worked really hard and sounded so nice when they sang. And I suspect if Jesus were sitting in the pews that Sunday morning, He would’ve clapped heartily, no matter what was muttered by the lady in the pew behind Him.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

No Fun Being Seasick

There’s an old expression about seasickness: “When you first get seasick, you’re afraid you’re going to die. But after a while, you’re afraid you’re NOT going to die.”

I have never experienced a more miserable feeling than seasickness. (I hesitate to say it’s the absolute WORST feeling in the world, since I’ve yet to be audited by the I.R.S. or sit through one of those vacation time-share presentations.)
When I was about 12 years old, my father took me fishing. A half hour into our adventure, I started “chumming,” if you get my drift. I retched so forcefully over the side of the boat, my dad had to grab a net and retrieve my spleen and gall bladder before the fish got to them. (“Sit still, son, while I shove these things back inside you. And, uh, no need to mention this to your mother, OK?”)

It’s been many years since I’ve been seasick, a feat I’ve accomplish by following one simple rule: stay the heck away from boats! It took a while, but I finally discovered there is a direct correlation between seasickness and being on the water. And just in case, I composed a little ditty to help me remember this important correlation: “Stand on land and feel grand; Sail away and barf all day.”

Recently I’ve had two pleasant experiences with seasickness — pleasant because in both instances it happened to somebody else. The first situation occurred during a business conference in Virginia. After two days of meetings, it was time for some recreation. The two options were fishing or golf. Even though the weather forecast called for periodic downpours, I figured being on a golf course in the rain had to be less painful than being 20 miles offshore riding eight-foot swells.
And I was right. Although I got drenched to the bone the golfing was rather enjoyable. On the other hand, the folks who went fishing had a terrible time. There were 30 people onboard, but only a couple of fish were caught during the entire trip. Even worse, the sea was so rough, two-thirds of the people got violently ill and spent most of the trip hurling their spleens and gall bladders over the rail. (The other one-third avoided this misery by leaping into the sea and begging the sharks to eat them.)

At dinner that evening, we golfers had voracious appetites, while the fishermen just sat there so pale and weak they could barely lift their forks. Which was a good thing, because after the third time I loudly sang my little ditty, “Stand on land and feel grand; Sail away…!” they tried to throw their forks at me but didn’t have the strength to reach.

The other situation occurred soon after when a co-worker went on a fishing trip with some of his customers. My co-worker got violently ill during the trip, and even called us from the boat on his cell phone to say goodbye before leaping into the sea and looking for some sharks. His customers restrained him from jumping, mostly because they were having too much fun listening to him groan and watching him deposit his spleen and gall bladder into a bucket every five minutes.

The next day when this co-worker came into the office, the rest of us were sympathetic to his plight. The moment he walked through the door, we sang a rousing chorus of, “Stand on land and feel grand; Sail away…!” 

I heard that a friend of mine is trying to organize a fishing trip for later this month. If he calls looking for me, you know where I can be reached. I’ll be in Kansas.