Sunday, August 14, 2022

Martha, Martha, Gimme the News

A few weeks ago, the gospel reading at Mass was the memorable “Martha, Martha” incident. Jesus visited a town, and went to the home of Martha, who had a sister named Mary. When Jesus came into the house and started teaching, Mary sat on the floor right by Jesus' feet and listened with rapt attention.

Meanwhile, Martha was working hard in the kitchen preparing food for the visitors. Exasperated, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
Way back in the 1980s, when I stopped being an atheist and became a Christian, I started paying attention to the readings at Mass for the first time. Even though my parents took me to Mass every Sunday while I was growing up, I worked very hard each week to force myself not to listen to whatever was being said in church. So, in my late 20s, after realizing that God is real and the Bible is indeed His inspired Word, I started listening to the readings at Mass a lot like Mary did: with rapt attention.

I vividly remember the first time I was really paying attention to this “Martha, Martha” story. Right at the moment when Martha said to Jesus, “Tell her to help me,” I fully expected Jesus to say something like, “That’s a good point, Martha. Hey Mary, please give your sister a hand. Then after we’ve eaten, you can come back here and I’ll teach some more, OK?”

I mean, that seemed to me to be the Christian thing to do, right? Instead of having one person do all the work while everyone else sat around doing nothing, giving Martha a little help with the chores was the obvious course of action.

So, imagine my surprise when the reading continued, and Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

(By the way, whenever I think, hear, or say, “Martha, Martha,” in the back of my brain I can hear that old Robert Palmer song “Bad Case of Loving You.” The lyrics of the chorus are: “Doctor Doctor, gimme the news / I got a bad case of lovin' you / No pill's gonna cure my ill / I got a bad case of lovin' you.” Except when I hear it in my head, it goes like this: “Martha, Martha, gimme the news / You got a bad case of servin’ blues.” I’m not sure why that is, or more importantly, why I shared that with you. But that’s what I hear.)
Anyway, the very first time I heard this gospel reading at Mass, I was stunned. My mouth hung open, and I silently said to myself, “Wait. Did I hear that right?!”

I was really shocked that Jesus told Martha, in effect, to stop whining and leave Mary alone. In my mind then (and now, too, to be honest), I thought Martha had a really good point and that Mary was being somewhat of a slacker.

After thinking about it some more, and reading some Bible commentaries, I now understand that listening to life-changing proclamations from the incarnate Son of God is much more important than making some baloney sandwiches for a Thursday lunch.

But still, couldn’t Jesus have told Martha to sit down next to Mary and listen, and order Peter and the other apostles to go into the kitchen and finish making lunch?
Or couldn’t Jesus have announced that He’ll resume the lecture after lunch, and then go into the kitchen Himself and help Martha with the serving?

There are a lot of different ways this story could’ve played out that are better, at least in my mind, than what actually happened. Please understand, I’m not usually in the habit of telling Jesus that He should’ve done things differently. But in this case…well, just sayin’.

I’m glad Martha did not say what I would’ve said if I was in her place, which is: “OK, fine. I’ll sit here and listen, too. All y’all can feed yourselves! The phone’s over there, and Pizza Hut delivers!”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Green Light for Booze and Betting?

Years ago, an Evangelical Christian friend said to me, “You Catholics are so lucky. You get to drink alcohol and gamble.” 

I asked him to explain, and he told me in his church they teach that drinking alcohol is always a sin, even the tiniest amount. They even insist that at the wedding feast at Cana, described in the Bible, Jesus turned water into grape juice. He also said that any form of gambling is a sin — such as lottery tickets or the Friday night bingo games that used to be so popular at Catholic parishes.
The odd thing was, my friend didn’t say this to criticize Catholics for being sinful. He said it with a touch of envy. I asked him why he didn’t just have a beer once in a while. He said it would cause too much trouble with his family and fellow church members.

That reminds me of an old joke: “Jews don’t recognize Jesus, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.”

My friend also told me that it wasn’t too long ago that his church denomination finally allowed members to go dancing and watch movies. Wow.

Now, obviously when we Catholics say that drinking is not sinful, it doesn’t mean we have a green light to abuse alcohol. And if it’s okay to buy lotto tickets or enjoy a night at the casino, we can’t blow the rent money at the blackjack table.

Moderation is the key. If we abuse alcohol or gambling, and cause harm to our families, then it definitely is a sin. And the sad thing is, substance abuse and gambling addictions have really inflicted horrible damage to a lot of people’s lives, especially children.
I’ve been thinking about this topic lately, because all I see on TV these days are ads for sports betting services. And as we know, Connecticut soon will be opening recreational marijuana retail stores all over the place, just like they have in Massachusetts, Colorado, and a bunch of other states.

I’m usually a “live and let live,” libertarian kind of guy. I think people should have as much freedom as possible, as long as we don’t reach the point where society devolves into chaos. (On the other hand, when I watch the news on TV at night, I often think: “Oh boy, we’ve already reached that point!)

Even though Catholicism has a reputation for being super strict regarding personal morality and behavior, when it comes to things like drinking and gambling, we’re actually kind of libertarian. People can enjoy themselves, as long as they don’t hurt others, especially their loved ones.

When I compare my old friend’s fundamentalist church’s view to our Catholic view on alcohol and gambling, I usually conclude that we are more commonsensical. We focus on important things, like Church doctrines, and don’t sweat the minor things. After all, imposing a million rules and regulations only causes people to live hypocritical lives — and to pretend they don’t recognize a fellow church member when they bump into each other at the liquor store.

However, at other times I look around at our instant-gratification culture, and read about all the problems they’re now having in states that legalized marijuana a few years ago, and I think: you know, we really need to send out an army of grumpy nuns in full habit to whack people with wooden rulers whenever they step out of line.

Well, of course, that’s not the solution. I guess we just have to rely on people’s common sense so they don’t take advantage of their freedom and abuse things like alcohol and gambling. Yeah, I just thought the same thing you did: Heaven help us! 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Are Smartphones Ruining Our Memory?

I read an interesting article the other day. The headline was, “Is your smartphone ruining your memory?” The piece discussed a new phenomenon called “digital amnesia.” 

What a bunch of nonsense. I use my smartphone all the time and there’s nothing wrong with my memory.

So, anyway, I read an interesting article the other day. The headline was, “Is your smartphone ruining your memory?”  
Um, wait a minute. OK, maybe there is something to it after all.
Researchers are studying the impact digital media has on our brains. (I think we already know the impact Facebook and Twitter have on our souls, and it ain’t good.) 

There are two main aspects of how the digital revolution is affecting our brains. First, we now are outsourcing a significant portion of our memories to smart devices. We no longer have to remember things such as appointments and phone numbers, since our devices keep track of that information and give us notifications when an event is due. Yes, in the prehistoric, pre-smartphone days (which were slightly more than a decade ago), we often wrote things down on calendars or notebooks. But the very act of writing something down with a pen or pencil would imprint that information in our brains much more effectively than hitting the “accept” button when you get an email invitation to a meeting and then trust that your digital devices will remind you.

Professor Oliver Hardt, who studies neurobiology at McGill University, is concerned about our reliance on GPS devices nowadays. “We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus,” he explains. “Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression…and certain forms of dementia.”

Apparently, when we follow GPS directions (“In a quarter mile, turn right onto Commerce Street”), we are not exercising our brains very much. “Map reading is hard,” Professor Hardt points out, “and that’s why we give it away to devices so easily. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures.” 
In other words, locating Commerce Street on a map, and envisioning in our heads where it is in relation to where we are at the moment, and then figuring out the best route to get there, is like a 60-minute aerobic workout for our brains. While following GPS instructions is like our brains sitting on the couch scarfing down Cheeze Doodles and a 2-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper. 
The other aspect of digital media that affects our memories is the fact that we are constantly being interrupted, to the point that we rarely think about one thing for an extended period of time. (“Extended period of time” being defined as “more than four seconds.”)

Catherine Price is a science writer and the author of the book How to Break Up With Your Phone. She is worried that people are perpetually distracted by their phones, a term called “Continual partial attention.” She says, “One of the things that impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage is distraction.” In other words, if we’re juggling five different sources of information all at the same time (such as email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix), we’re not absorbing any of it.
Before I finish, I just want to mention that I read an interesting article the other day. The headline was, “Is your smartphone ruining your memory?”

However, I, uh, I can’t remember what the article said because I was checking email and listening to music with my earbuds while reading it. But I’m sure it was interesting. Or whatever. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Sermon on the Mount Is Shocking

The epic speech given by Jesus, known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” is considered by many theologians as the blueprint for how to live the Christian life. The sermon is found in Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5, 6, and 7.

However, if the Sermon is such a good blueprint, how come hardly anyone even tries to live up to it? Let’s take a look.

The first part of the Sermon on the Mount is the famous series of statements called The Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit….Blessed are those who mourn….Blessed are the meek” etc., etc. Everyone wants to be “blessed,” which is defined as being happy and fulfilled and in a proper relationship with God. But in our modern culture, who really wants to mourn and be meek? Someone might say, “Being a sad wimp is no way to succeed in this competitive world!” 
Then there is the ninth and final beatitude: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”

“Wait a minute, pal,” our same friend might offer, “Are you saying if I get persecuted and have people lie about me, then I’ll be blessed? No thanks. I already get enough of that on Facebook and Twitter!”

If you think the Beatitudes are difficult to embrace, take a gander at some of the other teachings Jesus proclaimed in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Here are a couple of very counter-cultural statements by the Lord: “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and, “Whoever divorces his wife…causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

“Tell me you’re joking, right?” our friend says, this time through clenched teeth. “This is the modern world, for crying out loud! A little porn never hurt anyone. And have you seen Trixie in Customer Service? Whoa, she is hot! Also, who cares if someone gets divorced and remarried a couple of times? What are you supposed to do, spend your whole life with one woman after you fall in love with someone else? Sheesh!”

Here are a couple more teachings by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well,” and, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
“OK, now I know you’re living in La-la Land,” our friend exclaims. “I get it that we’re supposed to be peaceful and not harm innocent people. But you’re saying if someone hauls off and hits me in the face, I’m NOT supposed to defend myself? And then I’m supposed to love those jerks who keep posting nasty things about me on social media? No way, bud. I hate ‘em. And I hope they all get run over by a bus!”

Hmm, even if our fictitious friend here is a bit of an exaggeration, I think you can see why the Sermon on the Mount is so out of touch with modern sensibilities. One final teaching from the end of the Sermon on the Mount might be the most stunning of all. In chapter 7, verse 21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.”

Jesus is saying here that even if someone sincerely proclaims, “Jesus is Lord,” and goes to church once in a while, it may not be good enough to get to Heaven. A couple of verses later, Jesus explains, “I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

These might be the most frightening words in the whole Bible. Even if we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we still could be in big trouble if we don’t follow His blueprint for discipleship: The Sermon on the Mount. But nobody follows the Sermon on the Mount! Does this mean we’re all doomed?

Nope. We certainly deserve to be doomed, but Jesus’ love and mercy are more powerful than our sin. The key is when Jesus said, “I never knew you.” We have to KNOW the Lord, not just know ABOUT Him. 

A good first step would be to acknowledge that the Sermon on the Mount is indeed a wonderful blueprint for the Christian life, despite being so out of step with our modern world. Then we should try to incorporate a couple of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon into our lives. At least we’ll be heading in the right direction. It’s worth a shot, since there’s nothing better than Jesus telling us that we are “blessed.” 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Forgot to Remember to Take Photos

Lately I’ve noticed that I rarely pull out my smartphone and take photos. For example, my wife and I will spend the day visiting friends, and then when we return home we’ll ask each other, “Did you take any pictures?” and the answer is usually no. Sometimes I’ll look at my phone and my answer will be, “Um, I did take one blurry photo of my sneakers — but that was by accident when I was checking the weather app.”

At work, I’m supposed to take lots of photos of interesting things our company is involved in, and then post the pictures to LinkedIn. Quite often I have to visit construction sites, which is the perfect opportunity to snap some photos of the HVAC equipment we provide. When I’m on the roofs of commercial buildings, sometimes the skyline of Hartford is in the background with our equipment in the foreground — a fantastic photo-op. 
So, do I remember to, as the old Kodak commercial said, “Preserve the moment in pictures”? Of course not. When I get back to the office, someone will ask me, “Did you get any good photos?” and I’ll look at my phone and reply, “Um, I did take one blurry photo of my work boots — but that was by accident when I was checking the Red Sox score.”

I think the reason it never dawns on me to take a lot of photographs until after the fact is because I came of age during a time when every single person in the country did NOT have a high quality camera with unlimited storage capacity in his or her pocket at all times. (Well, I don’t mean EVERY single person in the country. There still are a few infants in certain rural regions who have yet to be given smartphones by their parents.)

When I was growing up, taking photos was cumbersome and expensive. Every family had one person who was known as the “camera guy,” and we all trusted that he would take photos at the various family events. Sometimes he would really splurge and take upwards of seven shots! “Whoa, whatja win the lottery and spend it all on film?!” we would ask incredulously.

However, today’s teens and young adults grew up with cell phone cameras and social media, so it’s instinctive for them to take upwards of 700 shots at important events — such as when they’re eating Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. If there actually are other people present, well, then they might click off 7,000 photos.
The only time I always remember to pull out my phone and take photos is when I’m with my grandson. To paraphrase a Jim Gaffigan joke, my 2-year-old grandson has had more photos taken of him than the entire number of times my father looked at me during his life.

Even though my smartphone has enough memory to store either 9 million photos or 100 complete Hollywood movies, I’m quickly filling up the phone with snapshots and videos of the Rhode Island Wonder Boy™. 

I need to find a better balance. Instead of holding up my smartphone and filming for 90% of the time when I’m with my grandson, and zero-percent of the time when I’m at a jobsite with a fantastic photo-op staring me in the face, I should back off a little on the Wonder Boy™ chronicles and take one or two snapshots while on the roof.
Or when I return to the office and realize I did not take any jobsite photos, I can alway do a Google Image search and post one of those pictures. And if someone thinks it looks odd, I’ll say, “Didn’t you know the Hartford skyline looks a lot like Hong Kong?”

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Go Ahead: Do What You Love!

 There’s an old saying, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

This axiom is mentioned often at graduation ceremonies, as older people try to impart some wisdom on younger people — who most of the time aren’t paying attention. When I was a young graduate decades ago, we had to work hard at not paying attention to the speaker, a technique we perfected during four years of classroom lectures. But nowadays, the graduates don’t even have to work hard because they can just watch Tik Tok videos on their smartphones and drown out the “blah blah blah” coming from the stage.

Anyway, that old expression makes the point that if your occupation is something you love doing, then going to work each day will not be a chore. Instead it will be something you look forward to and enjoy.
Well, that’s great advice, as long as you happen to love loading heavy boxes onto delivery trucks all day long, or selling life insurance to people who don’t want to talk to you, or getting yelled at by angry customers because they ordered the wrong item (and somehow it’s YOUR fault!) and therefore they have no intention of paying their invoice and you can just go pound sand, pal!

Yeah, I’m not sure there are many people who LOVE to do those things. 

Years ago, I took this advice and tried to “do what I love” and therefore “not work a day in my life.” Except what I loved to do was watch sports on TV, eat Fritos, and drink beer. I really enjoyed those activities immensely, so much so that it didn’t seem like work at all. But there was one slight problem: no one was willing to pay me to do it. 
So, when the rent and the car payments came due — which seemed to happen on a fairly regular basis — I was forced to go to a local warehouse and load boxes. And later for a brief and painful time, I tried to sell life insurance. Then finally, I found a career in the HVAC industry where a sizable part of my day, it seems, is spent getting yelled at by angry customers.  
After four decades, I can honestly say I now enjoy many aspects of my career, but when I go to work each day, it definitely feels like I’m going to a job. That “never work a day in your life” concept is nowhere in sight.

I’m not sure which occupations/professions fall into the “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” category. Certainly, there are careers that people describe as their life-long dream: education, medicine, law enforcement, etc. But if you ask even the most professionally satisfied teacher, doctor, or police officer whether they “never work a day in their life,” they’re going to stare at you incredulously and then suggest that you steer clear of the local cannabis dispensary for a while.

And don’t forget, what people “love” changes over time. For example, I now love to watch sports on TV, eat Fritos, and drink diet Fresca. That is totally different compared to when I was young.
So, that old expression should be something like, “Do what you love — in your spare time — and you’ll never get evicted or have your car repossessed.”

In today’s economy, that’s about as good as we can hope for. And during graduation ceremonies, I bet if the commencement speaker proclaims this new and modified axiom, it will cause the young people to look up from their smartphones and ask, “Wait. What did he just say?”

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

‘National Eucharistic Revival’ Needed More Than Ever

Last month the U.S. Catholic bishops launched a 3-year campaign called the “National Eucharistic Revival.” The purpose of this new program is to re-awaken among Catholics the meaning and critical importance of the Eucharist.

You may remember news reports a few years ago about a survey of American Catholics that found a full 70-percent do not believe the historic Church teaching about the Eucharist. From the very beginning of Christianity 2,000 years ago, the Church has clearly taught that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist — body, blood, soul, and divinity.
Unlike what some groups claim, the Church did not develop the doctrine of the Real Presence many centuries after Jesus’ earthly ministry. The doctrine was proclaimed by Jesus Himself in the “Bread of Life” discourse, which is recorded in John’s gospel, chapter 6.

Jesus said: “I am the living bread that came down from Heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

Then, after the people listening to Jesus grumbled at His shocking words, Jesus double-downed on his stunning message by declaring: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:54-56).

So, of all the Church doctrines, the Real Presence should be the least controverial. It came right from the mouth of Jesus. There should be no debate, since the Lord could not have been more clear: His body and blood are really, truly, no kidding, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die PRESENT in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. 

And yet, 70-percent of American Catholics think the Eucharist is just symbolic; that is, the bread and wine only represent Jesus’ body and blood, but are not actually transformed at Mass. It’s all just a very nice and sweet and symbolic gesture. 

Nope. That’s not what Jesus said. And that’s not what the Church has taught. Not even close. Jesus made it very clear that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. He did not say we need to do a little play-acting, which will give us warm, fuzzy feelings. He clearly said we have to EAT His flesh and DRINK His blood so that we can live forever.
Well, how can this be? Easy. As Christians, we believe that miracles happen. (“Miracle” being defined as something outside the normal laws of nature.) We believe God created the heavens and the earth. That’s a miracle. We believe Jesus died but then rose from the dead. Another miracle. So, why is it such a big deal to believe that God can change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ? Just another wonderful miracle.

The modern world has become so secularized, or so jaded about Church authority, that we’ve reached the point where seven out of 10 Catholics do not believe one of the most important teachings Jesus ever offered: that mere bread and wine are transformed into His real body and blood, and that we need to partake of this miracle to be in communion with Him.

So, without a doubt, this is the perfect time for the bishops to initiate a special program that emphasizes the Church’s teaching — er, I mean, Jesus’ teaching — on the Eucharist.

And this is a good time to mention that this year’s Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference also will focus on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This year’s theme is “God Is With Us!”, which is exactly what the Eucharist is: God in the flesh truly with us, present on the altar during every Mass.

It’s not too early to mark your calendars. The Men’s Conference this year will be on Saturday, September 24th, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. There’s a new location this year: Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford. As usual, the guest speakers will be terrific, and this year an old favorite is back: Fr. Larry Richards. Fr. Larry is one of the most dynamic and entertaining speakers I’ve ever heard, and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about the Eucharist.
There will be good food, good fellowship, Eucharistic adoration, Confession, and the concluding Mass celebrated by Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair.

So, mark your calendar and go online and purchase tickets. It will be a great day. And in the meantime, get involved with your parish’s “National Eucharistic Revival” activities. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains. The Eucharist is really Jesus, in the flesh. And we need to know it, love it, and live it.