Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Cathedral of Notre Dame Built by Faith

I’m sure you saw the heart-breaking images last month of the massive fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Before the fire was even extinguished, hundreds of millions of dollars in pledges were already pouring in to pay for the rebuilding effort.

I heard one media commentator say, “Faith built the cathedral, and faith will rebuild it.”

There is no doubt it was faith that built this massive, spectacular cathedral beginning in the year 1163 A.D. One of my favorite authors, Dr. Peter Kreeft, discusses the majestic Gothic cathedrals in Europe in his brilliant little book, Jesus Shock.

Kreeft explains that the cathedrals built in the Middle Ages are genuine miracles, since their architectural majesty was far beyond the construction capabilities available at that time in history. “What in the world explains these miracles?” Kreeft asks. “Nothing in the world. That’s what makes them miracles. Christ alone explains those cathedrals. Stonemasons did not build them; faith built them. His Real Presence built them, and His real presence was worshipped in them. They were built not to house man worshipping, but Christ worshipped. They were His houses; that’s why they had to be better than man could possibly do.”

I don’t know much about architecture (except that as a HVAC guy, we’re always complaining that the architects don’t give us enough space to install the heating and cooling systems properly). But I fully accept the claim that the European cathedrals are a miracle of construction. After all, back then there were no electric motors, no hydraulics, no modern cranes, no rail cars or trucks to transport construction materials, and no computers to aid the design process.

There is a story I love about the cathedrals. During construction, artists crafted intricate stone carvings at the very upper edges of the structures. These beautiful works of art could not be seen by any human being. They were way up out of sight, and in those days, there were no hot air balloons, no helicopters, no drones with cameras, and no Google Earth satellite images.

So, these guys labored month after month, year after year, to create beautiful sculptures—sculptures that no man would ever see. Why did they do it? Because they knew God would see it, and their desire was to please Him. Talk about faith! That is the kind of passionate faith that built those magnificent cathedrals.

The media commentator I heard said that faith built the Cathedral of Notre Dame almost 900 years ago, and that is quite true. But then he said that faith will rebuild the cathedral. I’m not so sure about that. Certainly, hundreds of millions of dollars goes a long way getting construction work done. And the government of France seems very determined to do whatever it takes to restore Notre Dame. But don’t forget, France, along with most of Europe, is a post-Christian culture. The percentage of citizens who still go to church and believe in God is shockingly small. It has become a thoroughly secular part of the world in just a couple of generations. (And in case you haven’t noticed, the U.S. is following in Europe’s footsteps at a rapid pace.)

A lot of cash can erect impressive buildings. The skyline of Manhattan is a prime example. But faith, true faith in God, is needed to create a structure so sublime it stirs up spiritual longings in the depth of your soul. The stone workers who created Notre Dame 900 years ago had that faith. It’s yet to be seen what a team of secular construction crews can do in the early 21st century.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this tragic fire, besides destroying the roof of Notre Dame, also rekindles the faith of secular France? Let’s pray for that nation, which was once called “the eldest daughter of the Church.”

Friday, May 17, 2019

Woodstock at 50? No Thanks

The golden anniversary of the Woodstock music festival is still three months away, but I’m already starting to get sick of hearing about it. And by mid-August, I bet that’s all the media will be talking about. Ugh, wake me when it’s over.
Many people are exclaiming, “Can you believe it’s been 50 years since Woodstock?!”

Yes, I can believe it. After all, 1969 was a long time ago. What I can’t believe is that a bunch of narcissistic Baby Boomers, now in their 60s and 70s, still think Woodstock was one of the most, if not THE most, important event in human history.

Sorry to burst your bubble, guys, but Woodstock wasn’t even the most important event of 1969. I’d put Joe Namath, Neil Armstrong, Golda Meir, Stonewall, and the Mets higher up on the list.
Over 400,000 teens and young adults descended on a town in rural upstate New York and spent three days living like farm animals in the mud. Really? That’s the most important event in human history?

Oh, excuse me. The previous paragraph is an insult to farm animals, who at least have the good sense not to take LSD or believe a guy named Todd from Scarsdale when he says, “Yeah, baby, I’ll love you in the morning!”
In 1969 I was 12 years old, so attending out-of-state music festivals was not exactly on my radar at that moment. I was more concerned during that summer with helping the Clinton Cardinals reach the Little League regional playoffs. (We didn’t make it, by the way, thanks in large part to the grand slam I gave up, the first of many instances where I pleaded with coaches, “Just because I’m left-handed does NOT mean I can pitch!”)

If I had been, say, 21 years old in 1969, I might have journeyed to Max Yasgur’s farm for three days of non-stop partying. But if I had done that, and assuming I hadn’t fried my brain on bad acid, I would not have spent the next half century telling everyone how morally superior I was because I chose “peace and love” over “war and death.”

You see, at the same time all those young Americans were slogging through the mud while being assaulted by brutal sonic attacks from Jimi Hendrix, another group of young Americans were slogging through the mud while being assaulted by brutal RPG attacks from the Viet Cong.
Far too many of the Woodstock revelers proudly proclaimed how wonderful they were because they refused to fight in an unpopular war. But taking a stand back then against the war in Vietnam did not involve any personal sacrifice, such as the risk of being arrested and imprisoned. No, in those days all you had to do was enroll in college and you were deferred from the draft.

In the meantime, all the kids who ended up in Southeast Asia, including the 58,000-plus who never made it home alive, either could not or chose not to finagle a deferment.
I’m not saying all those guys who went to Woodstock should’ve joined the Army. This is not a discussion about the rightness or wrongness of Vietnam. But those Woodstock partiers did not have to act like they were the most wonderful people in the history of the world — an attitude that regrettably still persists with far too many Baby Boomers.

So, in a few months Woodstock will dominate the news headlines. Multiple music festivals are scheduled for that region of New York. Many Baby Boomers will return to relive they youth. And I guarantee they’ll be the first ones to whine and moan if they can’t get a wifi signal or if the Chardonnay is too warm.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Two Greatest Commandments the Key to Happiness

A lot of people nowadays are desperately seeking happiness. This may seem odd, since our modern society is fabulously prosperous. I’m not minimizing, of course, the fact that there are plenty of people in our nation who are poor and struggling. But overall, the vast majority of citizens nowadays are overwhelmingly blessed, especially when compared to previous generations of Americans. These days most of us have an abundance of food and clothing and comfort and entertainment and electronic devices. People today have much more leisure time than folks did years ago. And yet, far too many of us are unhappy and unfulfilled, and the more we try to make ourselves happy by purchasing more stuff, the more miserable we feel.

Well, I’ve got the answer. I know the key to a happy life. All you have to do if follow the Two Greatest Commandments in the Bible.

Oh, come on now. I saw you. Don’t roll your eyes.

I fully understand that the Commandments in the Bible are not very popular these days. People are convinced that following the Commandments will take away all their fun and make life boring. A lot of people hear the word “commandment” and immediately think of strict rules imposed by oppressive authority figures who only want to keep us in line and obedient. In other words, many folks think biblical commandments will take away all our freedoms and make us miserable.

Well, that could not be further from the truth. The biblical commandments are not designed to take away our fun, they’re designed to keep us from hurting ourselves. The Commandments are not a cage into which we are locked, they are railings on the edge of a cliff that keep us from falling to our deaths.

The Old Testament lists the famous Ten Commandments, but in the New Testament, Jesus summarized these down to a simple and basic two. And the Two Greatest Commands will not in any way make us miserable; they will, instead, fill us with peace and happiness.

When asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus said there are two: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind…and love your neighbor as yourself.”

What do you mean, “Is that it?” And stop rolling your eyes.

Let me ask you a question. What is a person on his deathbed more likely to say, “I wish I had spent more time at the office,” or, “I wish I had spent more time with my loved ones”?

Correct, his loved ones. And why is this true? Because entering into loving relationships is the whole reason we exist. It’s why God made us. Loving relationships are the true source of joy and happiness and fulfillment, not the latest iPad or a new car or a shopping spree at the mall.

Human beings were created for love. Jesus knows that better than anyone, since He is, as John’s gospel explains, the One through Whom everything in the universe was created. Jesus knows we must enter into two types of loving relationships: the first is with our Creator, and the second is with our fellow human beings.

The Two Greatest Commandments, as explained by Jesus, are the only reliable way to have lasting joy and happiness.

What’s that you say? A new car will make you happy? Well, I’m sure a new car will bring you a lot of delight and pleasure…for a while. But it’s very fleeting, and you certainly can’t take that BMW with you after your time here on earth is over.

Do you want to know what you CAN take with you when your time on earth is over? Your loving relationships. Why don’t you try to follow Jesus’ Two Greatest Commandments? Try to love God more, and love your family and friends more. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much happiness it brings.

And for goodness sake, stop rolling your eyes!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Another Desperately Needed 12-step Program

“Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m an exaggerator.”

“Hi, Bill,” everyone in the room replies in unison.

I stand awkwardly for a few moments, unsure of what to say next. Then the leader at the front of the room, a man named Joe, calmly says, “Don’t be nervous, Bill. I know this is your first Exaggerators Anonymous meeting. We’re all here to support you. And of course, we’re all in the same boat with you — we struggle with exaggeration. Not run of the mill lying, mind you, but exaggeration, you know, tall tales, stretching the truth, malarkey, and good ol’ fashioned B.S.”

All 20 or so people in the room look at me, nod their heads in agreement, and smile. Yes, we’re all in this together, I realize. That calms my nerves a bit. The leader says, “Just tell us about your struggles, what you’ve been going through lately.”

“OK,” I reply softly. Then I take a deep breath and say, “Well, where to begin? I guess I’ve always been tempted to exaggerate. It’s probably genetic. You see, I come from an Irish-American family, and with our heritage, we believe it’s more important to tell an interesting story than an accurate story. We call it ‘blarney,’ and playing fast and loose with the facts is kind of what we do. I’ve probably been to a million family parties where someone tells a funny story, and when the laughter subsides, someone else will say, ‘That was a fine story, lad. It would’ve been even better if it were true!’ And then everyone starts laughing again.”

Joe, at the front of the room, gently says, “Bill, you just said you’ve been to these family parties, umm, a MILLION times.”

I quickly close my eyes and shake my head. “Oh man, see what I mean?” I moan. “I do it without even realizing it!”

“That’s OK. That’s OK,” Joe quickly assures me. “It’s going to take a while. But recognizing our unconscious exaggerations is a key goal of this group. You’ll get the hang of it soon, I’m sure. Go on, Bill. Tell us more.”

“All right,” I say. “Well, besides my family situation, I also have another strong temptation to exaggerate. You see, I write a humor column each week for the local newspaper. And basically, they pay me to make things up. Now, it’s not completely fabricated stuff. For example, I would never write about being at a fictitious 12-step meeting. No, not dumb stuff like that. It’s more like discussing everyday events in my life — my family, my job, the sports teams I like, what shows I watch on TV — and then wildly embellishing it. And the thing is, the more ridiculous and outlandish the exaggeration, the more positive feedback I get from readers!”

“Oh, that is a real problem,” Joe says somberly. “Any other things you’d like to share, Bill?”

“Well, there is one more aspect of my life that might be a problem,” I say nervously. “For my fulltime job, I am, umm, I’m in sales.”

A collective gasp rises up from the room. Joe’s jaw hangs open. Murmuring begins, and someone whispers, “That’s the exaggeration hat trick. His case is hopeless!”

Joe finally quiets the room down. Then he says, “Bill, thank you so much for sharing. Please take your seat, and you and I can talk privately afterwards. Now, it’s time to hear from our other new member.”

Joe looks to the back of the room and points. A large man with curious orange hair stands up. “This is ridiculous,” he exclaims. “But Melania insisted that I come here. So, here goes. My name is Donald….”

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

New Men’s Group: ‘Jerks for Jesus’

Recently, I attended a men’s weekend retreat, and during one of the presentations the speaker said, “Before his conversion, St. Paul, known then as Saul of Tarsus, persecuted Christians relentlessly, even to the point of having some believers sentenced to death. He was a real jerk.”

Then the speaker said, “But after his conversion, St. Paul became sweet and kind and lovable, and never said a harsh word to anyone ever again, right? Right?!”

No one in the room said anything. We weren’t quite sure where he was going with this. Some of us thought, “Well, umm, I guess that’s true, since saints are supposed to be kind and loving and holy.” Others thought, “Hmm, when I read the Acts of the Apostles, it doesn’t seem like Paul was all that sweet and kind.”

However, before anyone could say anything, the speaker answered his own question. “No! He was not sweet and kind,” he declared. “St. Paul was the same loud and brash and zealous guy he was before his conversion. During his entire Christian ministry, during all of his missionary journeys, St. Paul was still a jerk! But he was a ‘Jerk for Jesus,’ and that made all the difference.”

Now, before you misunderstand—as most of the guys in the room did—and think the speaker was bad-mouthing St. Paul and minimizing his effectiveness as a saint, the whole point was not that Paul was an irredeemable jerk. The point was: God can use people to do His will despite their flaws. He sometimes even uses people’s so-called flaws to make them more effective ministers of the Gospel.

St. Paul is a perfect example. If you read the Acts of the Apostles, and then read between the lines in Paul’s many New Testament epistles, a portrait emerges of a man who was intense and driven and blunt. The average person who observed Paul in action might conclude that he was one of the most obnoxious and annoying persons ever; in other words, a real jerk.

But think about the situation at that moment in time. It had only been a handful of years since the Resurrection occurred. The entire Christian church consisted of a bunch of uneducated fishermen in Jerusalem and the folks who followed their teaching. In order for the faith to spread, God needed someone who was intelligent and well-spoken, as well as brash and relentless and completely immune to criticism from others. (How many of us can make that claim? Come on, be honest. In the face of criticism, most of us quickly change our behavior because we’re afraid other people won’t like us.)

Saul of Tarsus was the perfect man for the job. When he was relentlessly persecuting Christians, he didn’t care what other people thought about him. His only desire was to do God’s will. When Jesus appeared to him on the Road to Damascus—and informed him that he was in fact NOT doing God’s will—the mission completely changed, but the person did not. Now known by the Greek version of his name, Paul was just as relentless and unconcerned about what others thought of him. That is, he had the perfect personality to spread the Christian Gospel all over the known world, even if many considered him to be a jerk.

The message the retreat speaker was tying to get across is this: if we submit ourselves to the Lord, He can use our strengths and weaknesses and personality traits to do His will.

If God has called you to preach the message of Christ in a place that’s never heard the Gospel, then maybe you need to be relentless and zealous and completely immune to criticism. If God instead has called you to be a witness for Jesus to your family and friends and coworkers, then maybe the most effective technique is to dial back the jerkiness.

We should start a new Christian Men’s Group, called “Jerks for Jesus.” I know someone who would make a good member. He’s the guy typing this sentence.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Being a Senior is a Pain in the Aspirin

Last week I discussed the difficulties I’m having trying to adapt to being a senior citizen. I’m very new at this, having joined the ranks of the Geezer Brigade just a few short years ago. There are no training classes or instruction manuals to offer guidance on the proper behaviors and protocols for those of us in our 60s and beyond, so I’m just kind of muddling my way through it.

Here is a perfect example of how difficult this can be. A couple of years ago, my doctor suggested I start taking a baby aspirin each day to lower the risk of heart troubles. Apparently, good ol’ aspirin helps reduce the chances that goop (the official technical medical term) will stick to the inside walls of a person’s arteries and cause a blockage.

So, I started taking a tiny aspirin tablet every morning. They even sell it with a little heart shape on the bottle and the words “Heart Healthy.” Senior citizens, ironically, are now the key target market for St. Joseph’s Baby Aspirin.

Anyway, this morning I received an urgent email message from A.A.R.P. The email was titled, “New Advice on Daily Aspirin.” Recent scientific studies have discovered that a daily aspirin regiment may help heart health a little, but the benefit is greatly outweighed by a 38 percent increase in gastrointestinal bleeding. So, the aspirin is doing the “anti-goop” thing in the heart arteries, but at the same time it is doing the “spring a leak in the gut blood vessels thing,” too. (“Spring a leak in the gut blood vessels thing” is, of course, also the official technical medical term.)

Here is a summary of the new guidelines: If you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke, then you should keep taking the daily aspirin. If you’ve never had a heart attack or stroke, then don’t take the baby aspirin as the intestinal bleeding risk is worse.

However, the scary email concluded with this delightful advice: “Don’t stop taking a daily aspirin cold turkey. It can create a rebound effect that can trigger a heart attack. A 2017 Swedish study found that abruptly stopping a daily aspirin raised the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 37 percent.”

Oh, great. I’ve been taking a baby aspirin every day for two years. What am I supposed to do now? I’ve never had a heart attack or stroke, so I shouldn’t be taking the aspirin. But if I stop, the heart attack and stroke odds go way up. Sheesh.

The only specific suggestion the email offered was to talk your doctor about it. Yeah, but he’s the guy who told me to take the aspirin in the first place. By the way, he also is the guy who asked me, during my annual physical a few month ago, if I wanted to start taking cholesterol medication. “Why should I do that?” I asked. “You’ve been telling me for the past ten years my cholesterol is fine.”

“Well, they recently changed the guidelines,” he explained.

Oh really? “They” changed the guidelines. Who exactly are “they”? The pharmaceutical companies that make cholesterol pills?

As my woeful story clearly indicates, it’s not easy being a senior citizen nowadays. the rules keep changing. I wish there were training classes or instruction manuals.

But now that I think about it, it was very easy and instinctive for me to start complaining about pharmaceutical companies. As everyone knows, this is a requirement for all seniors. (Along with the other requirement of discussing in graphic detail all of your recent medical procedures.)

Maybe I can get the hang of this without any training after all. Hey, let me show you my surgery scar!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Was Jesus So Secretive?

In this week’s gospel reading at Mass, Jesus appeared to His disciples at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We read: “This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.” It was only His third appearance—and there were not going to be many others.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus was so secretive about showing Himself to the world after the Resurrection? If I had been His marketing consultant, I would have scheduled all kinds of events and appearances.

The heart of the Christian faith is the Resurrection of Jesus. As St. Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” The Resurrection is the key. If someone claims to be a Christian but does not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then he is simply fooling himself.

Since true saving faith hinges on belief in the Resurrection, why didn’t Jesus spend all His time appearing to as many people as possible? After all, every person who saw Him after the crucifixion would have been one less person who needed to be convinced by the apostle’s preaching.

After His few-and-far-between appearances, Jesus ascended back into Heaven less than six weeks after rising from the tomb. He left it all up to the disciples to convince the world that the Resurrection really happened.

Why didn’t Jesus travel the countryside for at least three years after the Resurrection as He did for three years before the Resurrection? Why didn’t He spend the next 50 years appearing in Greece and Rome and all the other major cultural centers? And now that I think about it, why didn’t He stay on earth for at least 2,000 more years so I could have seen Him in the flesh? If I had seen Jesus and believed in Him when I was in college, it would have spared a lot of heartache during my “Just say ‘Yes’ to drugs” years.

This may come as a shock to many people, but God hardly ever consults with me before making plans—even though I could have come up with dozens of ideas to get Jesus great exposure.

I suppose the answer to these questions can be found in the words Jesus spoke to Doubting Thomas: “You believe because you have seen Me; blessed are those who have not seen and believe.”

Faith is a lot like love. It’s only genuine when we are free to say yes or no. Only when we have the option NOT to believe will our faith be special when we DO believe.

The letter to the Hebrews explains that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith contains an element of trust. We have to trust that the Resurrection really occurred even though we were not eye witnesses.

Those of us who believe without seeing, according to Jesus’ words, are blessed. Our belief in the Resurrection, of course, is not blind faith; it is not an illogical leap into Fantasyland. There is a great deal of convincing evidence that the words of Scripture are true. But an element of doubt is still needed, so that when we offer our faith, trust, and love to God, it is the real thing.

It’s clear Jesus knew what He was doing at all times—including His limited, sporadic appearances after the Resurrection. The Christian faith spread throughout the known world within a few decades, and 20 centuries later it is still alive and vibrant for billions of people.

But still…if I were there, oh what excitement we could’ve generated. First, we book Jesus on “Saturday Night Live”…then a series of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden…then “Dancing With the Stars—Messiah Edition”… then … OK, maybe it’s time for me to shut up now.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Learning How to be a Senior Citizen

For the last few months I’ve been struggling with this senior citizen thing. I just don’t seem to be doing it right. For example, the other day I was at a meeting for work, and one of the younger guys said, “We’re trying to organize a softball game in May. Anyone interested in playing?”

I immediately raised my hand and said, “Sure. Sounds like fun.”

A moment later, my right leg whispered to me, “Psst, hey Bill. You sure that’s a good idea? Don’t you remember two weeks ago?”

“Umm, no,” I replied. “I don’t even remember this morning.” (Drawing a blank about what happened a few hours prior is one aspect of senior citizenship that I am doing quite correctly.)

“Well, let me refresh your memory,” my leg said. “You were limping noticeably for three straight days, including during that meeting in New Haven, where you had to park four blocks away from you client’s office. Do you remember why you were limping?”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “I pulled a hamstring muscle.”

“And do you remember HOW you pulled your hamstring?” my leg asked.

“Umm, I’m not sure. It must’ve been while I was doing something strenuous, like playing basketball or moving furniture.”

“Yeah. No,” my leg said, as it rolled its eyes. “You haven’t done those things in over three decades. You pulled your hamstring getting out of bed.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot,” I admitted.

“So maybe, just maaaaybeee,” my leg said, way too sarcastically, “playing softball is not such a good idea.”

See what I mean? I’m officially a senior citizen now, but I often forget that fact, and I make decisions as if I’m still a young pup in my 40s.

Just then, one of the other persons in the meeting cautiously said, “Bill, who are you talking to?”

I looked up and noticed everyone was staring at me. Utilizing years of experience, I nonchalantly raised my arm and pointed to my wrist. “Apple Watch,” I said. “I was just answering a phone call.”

It was a quick and clever explanation, and it would’ve been even more effective if I had remembered to put on my watch that morning.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I know what the problem is: I’ve only been a senior citizen for a few years. So, I’m really just a toddler when it comes to being old. This makes me a “Toddler Senior.” And just like real toddlers, who often have no clue what is going on around them, I have no clue what I’m supposed to do as a senior. It’s not like there is an official geezer training manual or a class we can take to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. We just enter into this stage of life completely oblivious to the proper rules and protocols.

In a few more years I’ll be an “Adolescent Senior,” and maybe I’ll understand things a little better at that time and make better decisions.

But then, after I’ve been a senior for about 15 years, I’ll be a “Teenage Senior” (Teen Seen for short). If that stage of my life is anything like the days when I was a real teen almost half a century ago, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. I’m just hoping it’s not once again dominated by hormones and zits.

During my recent annual physical exam, I asked the doctor how I could learn to be a proper senior citizen. He said, “Just listen to your body.”

My right leg immediately giggled. Oh great, just what I need, advice from sarcastic limbs. In the meantime, I’ve got to do some stretching exercises. The big softball game is coming up soon.