Thursday, April 1, 2021

Jesus Has a Sense of Humor

A few weeks ago, one of my Merry Catholic essays discussed the time Jesus rebuked two of His disciples. James and John wanted to call down fire from Heaven on some Samaritans, and Jesus was not pleased. I suggested that Jesus may have been even more angry than Luke described in his gospel. When I posted that essay on my blog (merrycatholic.com), I included a meme I found online that showed an image of Jesus from an old movie. In the still shot, Jesus appears to be shouting at someone, and there’s a fairly intense expression on His face. The caption reads: “You just wait till I tell my Dad about this!”

Obviously, that meme was supposed to be humorous. As you may have detected, at least once or twice a year, I attempt a little humor. As you also may have detected, the operative word here is “attempt.”

When I saw that “Wait till I tell my Dad” meme, my first thought was, “Oh, that’s funny. It’s perfect for this essay.” My second thought was, “And I bet someone will be offended by it.”

Sometimes there is a fine line between innocent fun and sacrilege. For example, when you do a search on the Google Image site for “Jesus angry meme,” besides the “Wait till I tell my Dad” image, there are many others that are plainly gross and blasphemous.
 
The key, in my mind, is to ask a variation of a popular expression. When I’m trying to decide if something has crossed the line from playfully funny to sarcastically offensive, I ask, “What would Jesus say?”
 
With many of the nasty images online, I know Jesus would shake his head sadly and say, “Wow, some people are just consumed with hate.” With those images, it’s clear the person who created it either hates Jesus, hates Jesus’ followers, or simply gets a kick out of shocking people. There’s no real attempt at humor, no real desire to share a pleasant laugh with another person.

When Jesus saw the “Wait till I tell my Dad” image, I’m pretty sure He smiled, rolled His eyes a bit, and said, “Yeah, that’s kind of cute. I like the way it uses a comment a child might say and applies it to me and my Father in Heaven.” When I decided to post that meme on my blog, my only goal was to share a laugh with others, along with sharing my love and devotion for the Lord.
 
I think when the topic is Jesus, a lot of people are afraid to laugh. That’s understandable. All the popular movies about the life of Christ usually depict the Lord solemnly intoning “thee and thou” verses from the King James Bible. There might be a couple of brief smiles during the movie, but nothing resembling a laugh. And in parochial school decades ago, if you even suggested to the nuns that Jesus either cracked jokes or laughed at someone else’s jokes, you went home that day with throbbing knuckles.

But think about it: Jesus is fully God and fully man; that’s a core doctrine of our faith. When He walked the earth, He was like us in every way except sin. If He was a well-adjusted human being, then He certainly had a sense of humor. After all, God created us with a sense of humor for two important reasons, to help us joyfully bond with other people and as a mechanism to relieve stress.

Now, obviously, Jesus’ mission on earth was quite serious. I mean, paying the price for the sins of all mankind—and in a rather gruesome manner—is a pretty heavy task. However, there surely were plenty of joyful times during Jesus’ three years of ministry when He was relaxing with His disciples or greeting a bunch of boisterous children. I am convinced that plenty of laughter was present.
Whenever I attempt a little humor in these essays—with or without success—my goal is to share a joyful laugh with the readers. If it’s not very humorous, well, that’s no surprise. (If it is offensive, though, please let me know.) The thing to keep in mind is that Jesus has a sense of humor. And the more we laugh and enjoy the love and forgiveness of God, the more others will be attracted to the faith.
 
So, in conclusion, a priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar … and the bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”

Learning Lessons from the Ol’ Man

Recently I was explaining something to a co-worker, and when we were done, he said, “Thanks. You would’ve made a good teacher.”

It’s funny he said that, because when I was in high school, I wanted to become a teacher. The idea of going into education was partly because I liked explaining things to people, and partly because my dad was a teacher.
 
One day, when I was a junior in high school and starting to think about college, my dad pulled me aside and quietly said, “Son, you can be anything you want to be when you grow up, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer. But keep this in mind: if you decide to become a teacher, I will wait until you’re sound asleep, tip-toe into your bedroom, and then hit you repeatedly in the head with a ball-peen hammer.” Then he gave me a Jack Nicholsonesque smile, which clearly said, “And I ain’t kidding.”

Well, I may be embellishing some of the details of that long ago conversation, but the general idea was clear. He was advising me in no uncertain terms to avoid the education profession.
 
Unfortunately, my dad experienced a perfect storm of bad luck in his teaching career. He began teaching in a city school in the late 1950s. But by the early ‘70s, the situation had changed drastically because most of the middle class families had moved to the suburbs. For the final decade of his career, my dad was never sure if his main job was to be a teacher, a social worker, a substance abuse counselor, a corrections officer, a professional wrestler, or a M*A*S*H unit medic. It all came to a head one day when one of his fellow teachers, who was also a good friend, was shot and killed by a student.

On top of all this, my dad taught during a time when seasoned school teachers got paid slightly less than the night shift manager at McDonald’s, which was better, I suppose, than new teachers, who made slightly less than the 17-year-old kid working the drive-thru window. For every hour he worked in the classroom, my dad worked two hours at various part-time jobs on nights and weekends, scrambling to support his wife and five kids.
I’ll never forget the day I got my first real job after graduating from college. I was a 22-year-old knucklehead who didn’t know his sphincter from a saxaphone, but I was being hired as a production supervisor in a local manufacturing facility. Everyone in my family congratulated me, but my dad walked away sadly when he realized my starting salary was more than what he was making after a quarter-century of teaching, plus earning a couple of advanced degrees.
 
Anyway, when I mentioned to my co-worker that I had thought about becoming a teacher many, many years ago, he said, “Oh, if you had done that, you could be retired now with a guaranteed lifetime pension.”

Yeah, maybe. But I suspect if I had gone into teaching, they would’ve asked me to leave long before I qualified for a pension, since administrators are not too fond of teachers who blurt out sarcastic comments at annoying students. And let’s face it, 90-percent of all school-age human beings are annoying. I know I certainly was.

When I began this essay, I didn’t intend it to be an homage to the ol’ man. But as I recall how much my dad busted his butt to provide for his family, my respect for him grows. I wish he were still alive so I could tell him. And by the way, I was just kidding earlier. My dad didn’t even own a ball-peen hammer. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

What If the Curious Story Really Is True? 

Finally, Easter Sunday is just about here. And we celebrate with eggs, the symbol of new life. And with bunnies, the symbol of fertility. And with lilies and other flowers, the symbol of springtime renewal. And with 30 pounds of chocolate per person and fancy new clothes (which won’t fit anymore after wolfing down the 30 pounds of chocolate), the symbols of a consumer society obsessed with spending money we don’t even have. 
Oh yes, and some folks continue to include in their Easter celebration the curious story about the God-man who died but then came back to life three days later. This also is a symbol of new life and springtime renewal. 

It’s actually a rather grizzly story, if you bother to read some of the details. But I guess those ancient story-tellers were obsessed with gore and violence, not sophisticated and civilized like our modern day story-tellers, such as Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. 

So, this curious fable about the God-man coming back to life fits in nicely with our seasonal theme: springtime renewal. The dark, cold, and dreary season of Winter finally gives way to the sunlight and colors and new life of Spring. 

But what if that curious story were actually true? Oh, come on now. We don’t take those things literally anymore. This is the 21st century, for crying out loud. We’re a little too clever and sophisticated and scientific to fall for that kind of stuff. 

But what if it’s really true? 

What if there really is a personal God who created the universe? What if He really designed and created us with a specific purpose in mind? Wow, that would actually give some long-term meaning to our lives, rather than the short-term, superficial meaning we try to create for ourselves with our consumer spending and our frantic scratching and clawing to achieve some recognition in the world. 
And what if this personal God loved us so much that He grieved over the fact that we ignored Him and decided to worship ourselves instead? What if He loved us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to bridge that huge gulf between us, which sin had created? And what if that Son offered His own life as a sacrifice to pay the price for our sins? And most of all, what if He actually rose from the dead three days later, conquering death once and for all? 

Sounds kind of fantastic, doesn’t it? But what if it really were true? That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? That would mean that death is not the final chapter of our lives. That would mean the cruelest irony of life—the fact that everything we ever achieve in this world is destined to be swallowed up by death and forgotten—is no longer true. 

Well, I’ve got news for you. IT IS TRUE! The God who created us loves us way too much to let death have the final victory. That curious story about the God-man coming back to life is not an ancient fable, it is a fact. It is the central event in the whole history of humanity. 

When we finally realize what Jesus did for our sake, often our first reaction is to ask what we should do to repay Him for such a great sacrifice. Many religious organizations have created vast and elaborate systems for doing good deeds in an attempt to repay Him for what He did for us. 

But how can you possibly repay such a sacrifice? At the end of the award-winning movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s 50 years after World War II and Ryan is at the Normandy cemetery. He’s talking to the gravestones of the men who a half-century earlier gave their lives so that he could live. He says, “I lived my life the best I could. I hope in your eyes I’ve earned what you’ve done for me.” 

Then he turns to his wife and pleads, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” But the answer is obvious: it doesn’t matter whether he’s led the most noble and productive life of any person on earth, it’s impossible to repay such a debt. 
We can’t repay Jesus for what He did. What He did was His precious gift to us. All we can do is accept the gift Jesus gave us with profound gratitude and humility. If we do this, the good deeds will come, not because we HAVE to do them, but because we WANT to do them.

That curious Easter story is not just one little facet of a springtime holiday. It is the most important event ever. It is our path to eternal life. He is risen! Hallelujah! 

Crush Your Goals!

The other day I drove by a local University, and there was a large sign on a prominent building that said “CRUSH YOUR CAREER GOALS.”

Now, why would the school encourage students to destroy their career goals? Besides, I always thought the most effective way to crush your career goals was to take the SAT test in high school while hung over. After all, why go through all the stress of trying to get into Harvard, when Finstermacher Junior College has yet to reject a single applicant in its storied 2-1/2 year history? (I hear they’re about to break ground for their first ever academic building, which will be a nice step up compared to renting space at the local VFW hall on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Plus, they’ll be able to brag that they’re the only institution in America conducting college classes in a shiny new Quonset Hut.)
Anyway, I was really puzzled by the big sign I saw. Then a young coworker told me that nowadays the word “crush” is a good thing. 

A good thing? Really? Well, I suppose crushed gravel is a good thing to drive your car on, rather than the pre-crushed boulders, which are often the size of office furniture. My Chevy Equinox definitely would have some issues trying to navigate over rocks that large.

Also, I haven’t had Orange Crush soda pop in years, but I vaguely remember that it tasted pretty good, even though it was kind of like watered down Kool Aid with bubbles.

If you have a crush on someone, that’s a positive thing. Or maybe not, if the crushee has absolutely no interest in the crusher. Then it might be more like a stalker situation, which is definitely a bad thing. Speaking of crushes, I had a crush on a pretty girl during my sophomore year in high school, and now, almost a half-century later, my feelings for her are still as strong as ever. (Good thing she agreed to marry me some years later, or my crush at this point would be kind of creepy.)
I looked on Dictionary.com, and it very clearly says the definition of the word crush is: “To press or squeeze with a force that destroys or deforms. To squeeze or pound into small fragments or particles, as ore, stone, etc. To become crushed.”

Hmm, I don’t see anything in that definition that seems like a good thing, especially regarding a person’s career goals. Then my coworker explained to me, “No, you don’t understand, Bill. Crush is now a slang word for winning. Kids will say something like, ‘Oh man, he crushed it!’ meaning he succeeded, such as hitting a home run or getting an A on an exam.”

Well, that’s interesting. The last time I heard someone say, “He crushed it,” he was referring to another guy’s vertebrae after a fall.

I went back online and found this explanation: “‘Crushing it’ is a common expression used when someone is doing their job particularly well, or exceeding all of their goals. Unlike the literal definition of the word, ‘crushing it’ has an extremely positive connotation.” 
The sign on the University building, in my view, ought to say, “Achieve your career goals.” But obviously the school is not trying to convince me to enroll, as I already “crushed” my academic career four decades ago. (I am using the traditional definition of the word, by the way. If good grades were like big boulders, my test scores were a load of gravel.)

Hopefully the school will attract a lot of smart kids who want to crush their career goals. In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on “crushing” my vertebrae — by which I mean NOT crushing them. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Great Time to Be Catholic

 As Catholics, we are so lucky to be living right now. Just think about everything that’s going on with our Church these days: people are leaving the faith in droves; there are endless Church scandals; we have a severe priest shortage; many parishes are on the verge of financial collapse; and the Catholic Church is now mocked and scorned by the elites who shape our American culture. Yes, this is a great time to be Catholic!


Hey, I heard what you just said. I am not in fact losing my mind. Let me explain:

Back in the so-called “good ol’ days,” for example, during the 1950s, the Catholic Church in America was well-respected. The Church was an influential part of society. The vast majority of Catholics went to Mass each Sunday, and millions of kids attended Catholic schools. The seminaries were overflowing, and every parish had at least two or three priests living in the rectory.
So, the Church back in those days was big and powerful and, well, kind of comfortable. Being Catholic was fairly easy. It was mainstream and respectable.

Nowadays, being Catholic is counter-cultural. If you want to be Catholic today, you have to make a conscious decision to defy the popular sentiments of our society. You know there’s a good chance you’ll be labeled as a superstitious simpleton, at best, or as a hateful bigot, at worst.

As a self-professing Catholic, you’ll have to defend the sanctity of life, from conception to natural death. You’ll have to oppose the death penalty, the mindless stockpiling of weapons of war, and the inhumane treatment of immigrants, whether they have legal status or not. You’ll have to bow out of the consumerist rat race and NOT base a person’s worth on how much money they have. You’ll have to believe that humility and modesty and sacrifice are good character traits, rather than arrogance and self-promotion and greed. As a result, you are sure to be attacked by both sides of the political spectrum and laughed at by the folks in the news media and entertainment industry.
To put it in modern terms, the Church is no longer a “player” in our culture. And you know what? Throughout history, these have been the exact circumstances in which the Church thrives. During times when the Church was wealthy and influential, it became fat and lazy and ineffective. It focused so much on amassing assets and prestige, it stopped preaching the Gospel and saving souls. On the other hand, during times when the Church was driven underground and labeled by authorities as a subversive organization, it became a powerful witness to the Gospel message — often with the blood of many martyrs being spilled.

So, we are living in the perfect moment in history to be Catholic. We don’t have to waste time currying favor and sucking up to the powerful people in our culture, since they won’t give us the time of day, anyway. Instead, we can focus on preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ and bringing comfort to a hurting world.

Another thing to consider are war stories in Heaven. Just imagine the poor fellows who lived during fat, dumb, and happy Catholic times, such as the 1950s in the United States. What kind of war stories are they able to share with the other saints in Heaven? Maybe something like, “Well, it was pretty rough being Catholic in my day. We had to eat fish sticks every Friday.” After a long awkward pause, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was listening in on the conversation, quietly says, “Um, it was a little different in my country.”
Think of all the war stories Catholics of the present generation will be able to share in Heaven. If we make sure we’re not seduced by the secular zeitgeist, but instead stand strong for the Gospel, we surely will find ourselves in a spiritual battle. It may get rather rough, but at least when the time comes, our reminiscing won’t be limited to fish sticks.

The main reason this is a great time to be Catholic is because we have the Truth on our side. That’s Truth with a capital “T,” in the person of Jesus Christ. So, even if it seems like the Church is being squashed by the dominant culture, fear not. We are on the verge of something great. Now, be of good cheer and go forth and accumulate some war stories! 

Our Understanding of Age

Have you ever noticed our understanding of age changes drastically as we age? (Whoa, I used the same word twice in one sentence, first as a noun and then as a verb. My 6th grade English teacher would be so proud — and surprised.)

Regarding our understanding of age, I clearly remember the amazing summer when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I was 12 years old at the time, and when I heard on TV that Armstrong was 38 years old, I thought, “Wow, why did they send a guy up there who is so OLD?”

The way I perceived age back then was based on two things: sports and my dad. Just a couple of summers earlier, Carl Yastrzemski led the Red Sox to the pennant, and in the process won the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. During that season, a sportswriter noted that Yaz was at the perfect age to excel: 28. He was still in his prime physically, and after playing for six years he had enough major league at-bats to anticipate what the pitchers were going to throw.
 
Additionally, I remember hearing an announcer talk about a journeyman pitcher. He said, “Well, he is 35 years old now and he’s lost some zip off his fastball. As this season progresses, we’ll see if he’s got anything left in the tank.”

It couldn’t have been any clearer to my 12-year-old brain: 28 was the prime age, and 35 was over the hill. As proof, all I had to do was look at my father. He was 37 years old that summer, which meant he was two years past “over the hill.” He obviously had NOTHING left in the tank. My dad still played in the town Park and Rec softball league, but unlike previous years, when he stretched a single into a double, he didn’t even slide into second base anymore. What a geezer. Also, some gray hairs were starting to show just above his ears, a sure sign — in my mind — that he already had one foot in the grave.

Everyone used to say the scientists and engineers at NASA were the smartest people in the world. But if they were so smart, why did they decide to send a senior citizen to the moon, a guy who was even older than my over-the-hill dad? If you’re trying to get to the moon and back, don’t you need something left in the tank?
Now, more than 50 years later, my understanding of age is quite different. If NASA announces that they’re planning to send people to the moon again, and the captain of the mission is 38 years old, my first thought will be, “Wow, why are they sending a guy up there who is so YOUNG?”

After all, a moon mission doesn’t require an astronaut to slide into second base. What he really needs is a lot of major league at bats, that is, experience. NASA could send a young whippersnapper, say, someone around age 57. Or they could send someone who is the perfect age: my age. By the way, Paul McCartney once wrote a song about my current age. (No, not “Helter Skelter”!)
Anyway, I guess a person’s perception of age works on a sliding scale (as opposed to a sliding into second base scale). The definition of “old” is anyone 10 years older than me, and the definition of “young” is anyone 10 years younger.

If NASA is looking for a 64-year-old astronaut, I’ve still got something left in the tank. Just as long as they get me home before sunset. I don’t like driving in the dark anymore.  

Friday, March 12, 2021

Human Desires Point to the Divine Creator

We human beings have a lot of desires and urges. Our lungs crave oxygen, and thankfully we are surrounded by air. We get thirsty, and there is water. We get hungry, and there is food. We get tired, and when we lie down and close our eyes there is sleep. (Or in my case, put my head down on my keyboard at work right after lunch, and zonk out for a while.)
Either our environment was created just for us, or else we were created just for our environment.
 
Another powerful urge we have is the desire to exist. Human beings want to live, and not just live, but live forever. Now, of course, most people do not declare, “I want to be a billion years old!” with the last 99.999% of that time being a frail bag of bones in a nursing home. However, if we are honest, the idea that our individual personalities and memories will cease to exist at the moment we die strikes most folks as awful. We instinctively understand there is something mysterious at the core of our being, often called our soul or spirit. We also instinctively cringe at the idea that our souls are just temporary and fleeting. The soul is too unique and too wonderful merely to be here today and gone tomorrow.
 
So, if our experience is that there are solutions to our deepest longings — thirst/water, hunger/food, tiredness/sleep — then what are the odds that another deep longing, the desire always to exist, does NOT have a solution? What are the chances it’s a completely unrealistic, unfulfillable urge?

If it’s true this natural world is all that exists, and the minute we die our minds and hearts and souls are gone forever, then why would our burning desire be the exact opposite? Why aren’t we “hardwired” to calmly accept annihilation? Why isn’t it built into our DNA to acknowledge that our individual personalities exist for a few brief decades and then disappear forever like a raindrop evaporating off a hot sidewalk?
Instead, our deepest longing is to exist, and to exist forever. And guess what? There is a solution to that deep and powerful human longing. That is exactly what the Christian Gospel is all about.

Oh, certainly there are other aspects to Christianity. For example, repentance and the forgiveness of sins; entering into loving relationships with the God who created us and with other people. But at its most basic level, the Gospel message is about eternal life. Our soul and spirit, our personality and memories, our wisdom and relationships continue on forever in the glorious kingdom of God, known as Heaven.

I know that a lot of people, especially nowadays, have rejected religious faith, including the hope for eternal life. They follow the secular worldview of our modern culture, which says that Christians embrace silly fairy tales. Well, to these folks, I’d like to quote John Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us.”

(Hey, how do you like that? I used the Atheist’s Anthem, Lennon’s song “Imagine,” as an evangelization sales pitch.)
Sorry, Johnny, but imagining there’s no Heaven is not easy, even if I try. You see, longing to have eternal life is part of being human. That desire is not simply a weird glitch in the evolutionary process. It’s an urge that was planted in us by our Creator. He did it so we’d long to be with Him for all eternity.

All of our primary urges and desires have solutions. The longing to live forever is no different than our craving for air, water, food, or sleep. It just requires an open mind, and a little faith, hope, and love.