Tuesday, July 17, 2018

When on Vacation, Don’t Forget Mass

We’re now in the middle of the summer vacation season, and one of the great things about being Catholic is that no matter where you go on vacation, you can attend Mass. What’s that? You don’t go to Mass on vacation? Really? Oh, that’s not good. Vacation is an opportunity to get away from work for a while, but you’re not supposed to get away from Church for a while, too. I think we need to have a little private talk afterward.

Well, for the rest of us who DO attend Mass on vacation, it’s interesting that regardless of where we are, the Mass is the same. It really reminds us that our Church is indeed Universal. The basic structure of the Mass doesn’t change from region to region, or from country to country. The Mass is the same whether you are visiting a vacation spot in the U.S., such as Miami, San Francisco, or New York; or whether you are visiting a foreign culture, such as Miami, San Francisco, or New York.

About a decade ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel to Austria. No, not the place with the kangaroos; I mean the place in Europe, with Vienna, and Mozart, and where everybody speaks German, except for the shop owners in the tourist areas who speak perfect English and can instantly covert dollars to euros in their heads, and can, for example, convince a naïve bumpkin from Connecticut that paying 50 euros for a commemorative “Sound of Music” coffee mug is a real bargain. Even though Julie Andrews’ face is kind of faded now, I still use that mug.

When we went to Mass in Vienna, we recognized all the parts of the Mass, even though everything was in German. The sound system was lousy, so even if we knew German we probably still would not have understood everything—and this made us feel even more at home.

By the way, any chance we can have a few second collections in our parishes dedicated to purchasing 21st century sound systems? Just sayin’.

There is really no excuse for not going to Mass while on vacation. Of course, there’s no excuse for not going to Mass when we’re home either, but that doesn’t stop many Catholics from coming up with very creative excuses. The most common excuse for not going to Mass while on vacation is: “I don’t know where a church is, or when the Mass times are.” Actually, the most common excuse is: “Oh, my head! How many Peña Coladas did I have last night?”

But nowadays we can’t use the ol’ excuse, “I don’t know what time Mass is!” There are websites that can instantly tell us the church locations and the Mass times. One website is called simply, Masstimes.org. You just type in the city and state, or the zip code, and it lists all the Catholic churches in the area and the Mass times. It even tells you what language will be used. Although the website does not describe the quality of the sound system.

So, during your summer vacation this year, take time to relax and get away from the stress of work for a while. But don’t get away from God. Make sure you go to Mass. You’ll have a chance to be in Communion with the Creator of the Universe. You’ll also be able to thank Him for the blessing of being able to go on vacation in the first place all. You know, a lot of people can’t afford that luxury. And going to Mass still will be worthwhile even if the sound system is lousy.

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.