Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A Delightful Experience

Recently, I rediscovered a wonderful sensation: having a small child fall asleep in your arms. It’s been more than three decades, back when my kids were little, since I experienced how lovely that is.

My wife and I were babysitting our grandson, and he was over-tired and not pleased by the fact my daughter, his mom, was out running an errand. So he did what I always feel like doing whenever I am over-tired and not pleased: he had a meltdown. (By the way, I don’t actually have meltdowns when I’m over-tired and not pleased. I certainly have the strong urge to scream and cry and throw myself on the floor flailing. But I don’t actually do it — mostly because at my age I may not be able to get up off the floor.)
Picking him up off the floor was a challenge, partly because of the flailing, and partly because he’s getting heavier, at almost two years old, while my back is getting weaker, at almost two times 33 years old. I held him in my arms and started singing gentle lullabies to him. 

After a while, my wife mentioned that Springsteen’s “Rosalita” may not be the best song to calm him down. So I switched to a children’s song I remembered from the early ‘90s, Raffi’s “Baby Beluga.” The best thing about singing to a two-year-old is that it’s fine even if you don’t know the words. I sang, “Ba-by Be-lu-ga. Ba-by Be-lu-ga. La la la, la-la. Doo doo doo, doo-doo. Cha-cha, cha, cha, cha,” and it calmed him right down.

I went into his bedroom and sat on a rocking chair, cradling the child against my chest. My wife dimmed the lights and put a blanket over the both of us. I sat there rocking gently and humming quietly. Within a few minutes, I was sould asleep. 

No, wait. My grandson was sound asleep. But to be honest, I was kind of dozing off, too.
It was so delightful having that little guy sleeping in my arms. After a while, when we knew he definitely was asleep, my wife asked, “Do you want to try to put him in the crib?” I replied, “Nope. I don’t want to move. I don’t want this feeling to end.”

For the next three days, I had a big smile on my face, remembering how wonderful it was to have him fall asleep on me.

However, having someone fall asleep on you isn’t always wonderful. I’m reminded of the time I flew home from Chicago a few years ago. It was evening, and I was tired. But I’ve never, ever been able to fall asleep on a plane. At best, I’ll get close to a brief doze, but not quite. 

Well, I was sitting there on the aisle seat with my eyes closed, trying to will my brain into a state of slumber, when I felt a weird sensation on my right shoulder. I opened one eye and looked over. The guy in the middle seat, who obviously had no problem sleeping on a plane, had his head against my shoulder, and it was slowly sliding down onto my chest. Over the roar of the engines, I could hear his slow and deep breathing, on the verge of snoring.

Luckily, before we reached the point where we were officially going steady, he mumbled briefly, shifted in his seat, and leaned in the opposite direction to start a poignant bonding experience with the fellow in the window seat.

Anyway, having someone fall asleep in your arms is delightful. In my experience, small children work the best. But in a pinch, I suppose a businessman flying home from Chicago will do. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

What Is Heaven Like?

 Have you ever wondered what Heaven will be like? Of course you have. Everybody has wondered at one time or another whether there is life after death, and if there is, what it will be like. There are a lot of cultural images of what Heaven is like, such as people floating on clouds all day and playing the harp. I’m not sure where that idea came from, but it sounds kind of boring, especially if everyone is playing the same instrument. Every band needs a good rhythm section, with a bass player and drummer. A whole orchestra of just harps sounds like the worst kind of elevator music.

For those of us who believe in God and believe in His promise of life after death, the Scriptures and Church tradition offer frustratingly few details about Heaven. However, even though specific details are scarce, the Bible does tell us some important information about Heaven.

First, Scripture clearly says that Heaven is a real place and that Jesus Himself is preparing a special spot for us there. John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2-3).

There are no details of what these dwelling places are like — condo? mansion? studio apartment? Winnebago? freshman dorm room? — but it seems clear that the folks who make it to Heaven will have their own special place to call home, something a little better than “Cloud # 862-B.”

Next, the Bible explains that Heaven is so spectacularly awesome, words can’t even begin to describe it. St. Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth: “Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard…what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Heaven is so amazing, there is nothing in our earthly experience that compares. Since we know what clouds and harps are, this means those aspects of the popular and boring image are not present. Good!

This next one is my favorite bit of biblical information about Heaven. In the book of Revelation, at just about the very end of the Bible, it says, “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

If you haven’t noticed, our world is up to its eyeballs these days in death, mourning, wailing, and pain. (Sounds like the name of a morbid law firm. “Call Death Mourning Wailing and Pain for your free consultation!”) And no matter how bad things are today — and they’re really bad — it’s actually been worse during previous generations. The fact is, mankind’s long journey here on earth has been a struggle, and throughout history there have been at least as many tears as there have been smiles.

The idea that all pain and heartache will cease forever once we are in Heaven is extremely attractive. And it’s not mere wishful thinking. It is a promise of Scripture, God’s holy Word.

The final thing the Bible tells us about Heaven is a bit sobering. The Scriptures affirm that life after death is indeed real, and we all will experience it (regardless of whether we believe it’s true or not). Once we pass from this world to the next, the Bible clearly teaches that Heaven is not guaranteed. Those people who refuse to trust in God and who have no interest in having a relationship with Him will get their wish. They will spend eternity separated from the love of God. 

The Bible calls this experience Hell, and again, there are many popular cultural images, some involving pitchforks and silly red tights. But the bottom line is this: it will not be fun — at all. The pains and heartaches and loneliness of this world will be like a box of cupcakes compared to Hell. 
So, please make sure you enter into the joyful love of God’s Heaven once your time on earth is over. How can a person do this? Easy. Here’s one more Bible verse that shows us how, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Thankfully, St. Paul did not say a single thing about harps.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Marketing Jesus: ‘He Gets Us’

You may have seen some television ads with the theme, “He gets us.” These 30- and 60-second spots focus on Jesus, and describe how the Lord is able to relate to the struggles people face in the modern world, especially young people in an urban environment. The production quality of these videos is top notch, and an organized campaign is flooding television, billboards, and social media right now with the ads. 

I first saw one of these spots between innings of a baseball game. I immediately said, “Whoa, someone just put an ad for Jesus on TV, instead of the usual Budweiser or Ford pick-up truck commercial. Interesting.”

The one I saw showed a series of black and white images of anxious people in run-down housing projects. Somber music played in the background. Then words flashed on the screen: “Jesus struggled to make ends meet, too. He gets us. All of us.” The ad ended with the website address:
I visited the website, where you can watch and listen to many of the videos that have been produced. The text on the homepage gives a good idea of the audience being targeted: 

"Have you ever experienced frustration? Sorrow? Temptation? So has Jesus. Jesus understood what life was like for people in his day — especially for the marginalized. He was drawn to those on the fringes because he was one too: An immigrant. Homeless. Arrested. Bullied. Through it all, Jesus welcomed outcasts, stood up for women, hung out with troublemakers, even befriended enemies."

This “He Gets Us” effort is being funded by a small group of wealthy anonymous families. Some reports claim upwards of $100 million is being spent to produce the videos and buy the advertising time. Not surprisingly, the response has been mixed. Some people claim it’s a waste of money. Others are leery and suspicious because the donors are anonymous and the website emphasizes that they’re not affiliated with any church. And many people are turned off by the gritty emphasis on poor, young, urban people. 
On the other hand, quite a few folks understand that young people have been leaving organized religion in droves in recent decades. So, trying to communicate with them in a way they can relate to is simply wise evangelism. 

In our current secular culture, millions of people are unchurched. The only thing they’ve ever heard about Jesus is that His followers are judgmental and obnoxious. So, it’s a breath of fresh air that someone is trying to introduce the Son of God in a way that people can understand. 

Yes, there is no mention of Scripture or the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, after digging through the website and watching the videos, I saw no mention of the Resurrection either. But that’s OK. Those items are steps 9, 22, and 35 in the evangelism handbook. Right now, people need step 1, an introduction to the person of Jesus Christ.

There was a time during Jesus’ earthly ministry when his disciples came to Him, quite upset, saying they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They said, “We tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him….whoever is not against us is for us.”
The mysterious people behind this expensive advertising campaign may not be doing things in the traditional, church-centered style. Those of us who attend church on a weekly basis might find it somewhat uncomfortable, kind of like going to a folk music festival and discovering that it’s actually a heavy metal concert.

However, since the main focus is on Jesus, how can it be a bad thing? I suspect even Jesus would say, “Hey, they’re not against us, so they must be for us.” 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

‘Lose 20 pounds in 10 days!’

Recently, I received an unsolicited email from a writing workshop organization. By the way, it’s a good thing emails don’t actually take up any physical space, because the number of unsolicited emails I get each day would fill an Amazon warehouse. And those are just the ones that end up in my inbox. If you add in the emails that get caught by my computer’s spam filter, they would fill up a dozen Grand Canyons.

Anyway, the writing workshop email I received said: “Bill, ever wonder why people are completely ignoring your content?”

Well, I haven’t thought about that in a while, but I assume it’s because my content is boring, right?
The email continued: “It’s not the content. Blame the headline! People only click if the headline does the trick!” (Obviously they’re referring to articles published on the Internet. It’s kind of hard to “click” on a story printed in an actual newspaper.)

Then the email went on to offer some “savvy tips” to create eye-catching headlines, which are guaranteed to entice more people to read my essays. One tip said the ideal headline is no more than six words. Another tip said a good headline promises to give the reader something desirable. I stopped reading the email before finding out whether or not the remainder of the savvy tips would require me to give them my credit card number. 

Nowadays, eye-catching headlines are known as “clickbait,” that is, they persuade readers to click on the Internet article, which increases “eyeballs” — another Internet term that simply means viewers or readers — which in turn increases advertising income.
Because clicks and eyeballs are directly related to revenue, website editors are very creative with their enticing headlines. (I am using, of course, the definition of “creative” that means: “completely untrue.”)

However, clickbait-type headlines have been around long before the Internet existed. Who hasn’t made an impulse purchase in the supermarket checkout line after seeing stunning tabloid newspaper headlines? Here are some of the more memorable ones: “Dolphin grows human arms!” “Satan’s skull found in New Mexico!” “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!” “Tom Cruise is a space alien!” (OK, that one might be true), and, “Dick Cheney is a robot!” (That one is definitely true.)

So, the idea of using a sensational headline to convince people to read something is not a new Internet-era phenomenon. That technique has been around for quite a while. This is why Abraham Lincoln, who apparently was female, began his second inaugural address in 1865 by declaring, “Robert E. Lee is a space alien!” If nothing else, that certainly prompted folks to listen a little closer to the rest of Honest Amy’s speech.

And now I should comment on the headline of this essay. In keeping with the theme of using eye-catching headlines to entice people to read the story, and employing those savvy tips, I came up with a headline that is six words and promises to give the reader something desirable. 

Now really, after two years of COVID quarantine snacking, who among us would love to lose 20 pounds in 10 days? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, “All of us!”) So, the headline of this essay is scientifically proven to increase the number of people who will pause and read.
The best part is that my headline, unlike many of those supermarket tabloid headlines, is not an exaggeration. My diet plan really works. Here is all you need to do to lose 20 pounds in 10 days: eat the way you usually do, and then on the tenth day, have a doctor surgically remove one of your limbs. See? Easy-peasy. 

In conclusion, I’d like to thank you for not ignoring my content today. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Weekend Retreat Can’t Be Beat

This week, my humor column, “A Matter of Laugh or Death,” discusses my adventures on a recent weekend retreat at Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford. Because that essay gets published in a secular newspaper, I did not delve into the religious aspects of the retreat. But since these “Merry Catholic” essays are routinely used as teaching tools by Vatican theologians (yeah, sure!), I'd like to share an interesting spiritual incident that occurred during the retreat.

Over the years, I’ve attended many weekend retreats, usually with a group of guys from my parish. This year I did not go when my parish was scheduled because my calendar was too jammed up. But later on, in early April, I decided I really needed to go on retreat, so I signed up at the last minute. 
The week before the retreat, a local church hosted a Lenten mission, and at one of those gatherings I went to Confession. So, on retreat the following week, I had no plans of going to Confession again, since I had just gone. Being a “once or twice per year” kind of guy regarding Confession (except during Covid, when I got quite comfortable being a “none per year” kind of guy), I figured the priest would look at me funny if I said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 9 days since my last Confession.” He’d either think I was wasting his time, or that I was some kind of Jekyll and Hyde weirdo: penitent Catholic during the day and serial criminal at night. 

Well, during one of the workshops, the speaker quoted Martin Luther. (Yes, THAT Martin Luther! Pretty amazing for a Catholic event, huh?) Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to is really your god.”

I said to myself, “Well, my heart clings to my wife and children and grandson, but I don’t think that’s what Marty meant.” (In my mind I call the founder of the Protestant Reformation “Marty.” It might be a bit flippant, but it’s a lot nicer than what the nuns teaching my catechism classes in the 1960s called him.)

I thought some more, and started to realize that my heart clings to a lot of other things, especially my precious stuff. I’m attached to my home and car and 401k and bank accounts. But I really love my electronic gizmos, my iPhone and laptop computer and iPad and Airpods Pro (which are, if you’re not sure, amazing Bluetooth earbuds). 
First, I asked myself, “Do I love those things more than I love God?” Instead of the correct answer: “No, of course not,” I had this thought: “Well… can’t I love God and still love all my stuff, too?”

It was at that moment that I said to myself, “Self, you need to go to Confession ‘cause I think you’re dabbling with idolatry here.”

So, that’s just what I did. And when I said to the priest, “’s been 9 days since my last Confession,” he did look at me kind of funny, but when I explained how the earlier workshop had awakened my conscience, he smiled knowingly and was very helpful. Then he said to me, “You lack one thing. Go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor. Then come follow Jesus.”

No, I’m kidding! The priest did not compare me to the Rich Young Ruler in the gospel. Besides, I’m not rich, I’m not young, and I don’t rule anything except maybe the TV remote. If there was a gospel story about me, I’d be called the Middle-class, Middle-aged, Middle manager.
Anyway, the priest gave me absolution, and encouraged me to be careful that I don’t become “possessed by my possessions.” I suspect I’m not the only person these days that is a little too attached to stuff, especially electronic gizmos.

I’m very glad I made the decision to go on a weekend retreat. And going forward, I’ll be much more careful about what my heart clings to. So, thank you very much, Fr. D., and thank you, Marty!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Weekend Retreat Was a Big Treat

Last month I went on a weekend retreat for the first time since Covid, and it was a terrific experience. Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford does a great job of combining spirituality, rest and relaxation, and a dining service that rivals anything you might find on a Carnival Cruise ship. 

My main goal on retreat was to break free from internet-based devices for 48 hours. You’d think that would not be a big deal. But the withdrawal symptoms of “digital detox” were very powerful and painful. As soon as I checked in early Friday evening, I turned off my iPhone and stowed it away in my suitcase. 
OK, I know what you’re thinking, so let me clarify: I did not go completely offline for 48 straight hours. Once each day I’d turn on my phone for five minutes to check for any emergency messages and to give my wife a quick phone call. But during the other 23 hours and 55 minutes each day, I had no connection with the outside world. It was at the same time liberating and terrifying. 

I was acutely aware of being disconnected at meal time. I never realized it, but when I eat lunch at work at my desk, I always have my iPhone next to my bowl of soup, and I mindlessly surf the internet for something interesting. At home, I eat dinner most evenings with my iPad next to my plate, still seeking that elusive interesting story or video.

On retreat, I had nothing to read at the dinner table. I started perusing the fine print on an oyster cracker wrapper and a sugar packet. Did you know oyster crackers contain zero oysters? Or that “natural Turbinado cane sugar is crafted in small batches to retain the pure taste of raw sugarcane”? Wow, I never knew those things.

It turns out the words on the oyster cracker wrapper and sugar packet were more interesting than the junk I typically read on my phone, such as ridiculously biased news reports (looking at you FOX and CNN), and even more ridiculously biased political commentary. As an aside, I’m pretty sure my I.Q. is about 20 points lower than it should be because I’ve had repeated exposure to the thoughts of Sean Hannity and Joy Reid.
Here are some other observations about my retreat experience:

In one of the workshops, the two guys sitting in front of me were wearing hearing aids and the two guys on either side of me really needed hearing aids. (I’m not sure what the average age of attendees was, but to give you an idea, I joined Medicare a couple of months ago, but on the retreat the other fellas called me “Kid.”) 

Anyway, this particular workshop was perfect for my specialty: smart-aleck parenthetical comments. But every clever comment I whispered went unheard. And let me tell you, I made some brilliantly hilarious observations. It was extremely frustrating, and similar to that old question about a tree falling in the woods. For me, the question was: if someone makes a clever comment but no one can hear it, is it still humorous? I say yes.
A final retreat observation: if approximately 40% of senior citizens have some degree of lactose intolerance, you’d think the kitchen staff would refrain from putting melted cheese on EVERYTHING, including the coffee and orange juice. Just sayin’. There were numerous items I could not eat, so I only gained five pounds over the weekend instead of the expected 10 pounds.

Overall, though, it was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend that all guys go on a weekend retreat. It’s great for your soul, if not quite so great for your waistline. 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Does the Communion of Saints Know Everything? 

We have a fascinating doctrine in the Catholic Church called the Communion of Saints. This means the people who have gone before us in faith are not hidden away in some distant heavenly zip code on the far side of the Universe. Instead, they are alive and well, and they are aware of our struggles here on earth.

The Bible describes this phenomenon and compares it to sports fans in a stadium cheering on the athletes as they compete on the field. The saints in Heaven are cheering us on as we struggle through the trials and tribulations of life. (See Hebrews 12:1.)
This is why we as Catholics don’t hesitate to ask the saints to intercede on our behalf. For example, we ask St. Anthony to help us find our missing car keys. We ask St. Joseph to help us sell our house. We ask St. Lefty McGillicuddy to help the Red Sox win the World Series.

Recently my mom passed away, and now I find that I’m a little leery of the Communion of Saints. My mother was a faithful Catholic, who put her trust in Jesus, so I’m confident she is now living in the freshman dorm on the beautiful Communion of Saints campus. But for the first time, I’ve begun to wonder how aware the saints really are. I know they are aware of our faith struggles, and they pray for us directly to God Almighty whenever we need help.

But are they aware of … everything? Has the Lord given them the supernatural ability to know our deepest thoughts and the secret emotions in our hearts? I’m not so sure I want my mom to know all that stuff about me. After all, I’m a typical guy. I started hiding things from my mother when I was, oh, about two years old. I remember one time when my mom yelled, “Billy! Who wrote on the wall with red markers?!” I turned on my innocent puppy dog eyes and shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno,” I said in an angelic voice, while slipping my hands into my pockets to hide the red stains on my fingers. In my case, I had a one-year-old younger brother. I didn’t directly implicate him, but when my mom looked at him suspiciously, I didn’t do anything to change her mind. By the way, if you are an only child, the innocent puppy dog eyes don’t work. You are always the one and only suspect.
Years later, when I was in college, it was the peak era of keeping secrets from my mom. I certainly did not want her to know which Commandments I was breaking on a regular basis, not to mention a slew of state and local narcotics laws. So, I told her what she wanted to hear, while being careful not to get arrested, and it worked out sort of okay. In our case, ignorance was bliss.

At this stage of my life, there’s not much that would embarrass me if my mom knew. (Yes, I am that boring now.) But still, I instinctively cringe at the idea of my mom being supernaturally aware of every selfish little thought that pops into my head or every nasty little comment I utter. It’s kind of odd that I’m so concerned about my mom being aware of my most intimate secrets. Ever since I became a Christian, I’ve understood that God Almighty knows every single detail of my life — every thought, word, and deed. That never bothered me because I know God is all-loving and all-forgiving. Here’s a simple question I have to ask myself: Who loves me almost as much as God? Answer: good ol’ Mom.
So, what’s there to worry about? My mother has joined the glorious Communion of Saints, and I should joyfully request that she does the wonderful job she’s been assigned in Heaven: pray for me to the Lord our God. And who knows? Maybe she can help me find my missing car keys and give the Red Sox a boost.