Friday, June 11, 2021

Faith and Fear on the High Seas

I’m an excellent “Monday morning quarterback.” I can second-guess people all day long. I suspect it’s a skill developed from being a sports fan.

Oftentimes I apply this same talent for criticism toward the Twelve Apostles. As I sit back in my comfortable reclining chair with my Bible in my lap, I’ll shake my head and exclaim, “Oh Peter! How could you deny Jesus three times? If you had only stood firm that night, you would’ve gone down in history as the Apostle of Courage!” (The implication, of course, is that if I had been in Peter’s place that night, despite dozens of armed Roman soldiers, I would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jesus during His time of need. Yeah, sure.) 

There is one event in the gospels, however, where I am not at all tempted to be a “Monday morning quarterback.” Unlike all the other episodes where I easily criticize and second-guess the disciples, deluding myself into thinking that I would have acted wisely and courageously if I were in their place, the event described in this week’s gospel reading is different. When a sudden storm came up and threatened to sink the disciples’ boat, they were perfectly justified in my view to squeal like a bunch of frightened 9-year-olds. I know that’s what I would have done. 

After Jesus awakened and then calmed the raging storm, He asked the disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” 

Um, not to be disrespectful, Jesus, but on this one I have to side with the apostles. No matter how much faith a guy has, when his boat is about to go under in the middle of a powerful squall, I think being terrified is a very appropriate reaction. 

I admit it, I’m not a big “boat guy.” Even though I grew up along the shoreline and have been on boats a lot, as soon as the water gets choppy, in the back of my mind I start hearing Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The point Jesus made to His disciples is quite valid: faith drives out fear. Whenever I find myself anxious and frightened (not counting boat-related situations), it’s usually a time when my faith life is weak. If my trust and hope in the Lord is shaky, many of the everyday occurrences of life can make me nervous and worried. 

But when my relationship with the Lord is strong — when I KNOW that He loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life and promised that He will never leave me nor forsake me — then even the more frightening situations of life aren’t so bad. When financial difficulties or serious health issues arise, as they have at times in the past (and surely will again in the future), as long as my faith is strong, I find that I can honestly face these problems with a reasonable amount of serenity and peace. 

The other point Jesus made to His disciples was demonstrated by His actions. Jesus is, as it says in Romans 10:12, the “Lord of all.” And that includes the Lord of nature, too. When the disciples asked each other, “Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?” the answer was clear: He is the Word made flesh, the One through whom the entire Universe was created. Since this is the case, Jesus certainly has the power to control a small storm on a small lake. 
So, this week’s gospel reading reminds us of who exactly Jesus is. And this week’s gospel reminds us that when our faith is strong, then there is nothing on earth that can terrify us.
Notice I said on EARTH. Out on the sea, that’s a whole different ball game.

No Doubt About It: Boomers Are Cool

The other day I saw an online article titled, “Things Baby Boomers Think Are Cool.” Not surprisingly, the article was written by a Millennial, and the unsaid but implied ending of that title was, “...But Definitely Are Not.”

Baby Boomers, my generation, are the people born during the post-war years of 1946 through 1964. Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, and most Millennials are the offspring of Boomers. A Google search for the phrase, “Things Boomers think are cool,” yields more than 17 million matches. This means a lot of Millennials are using blogs and online media to make fun of their parents.
Here are some of the items Baby Boomers such as myself allegedly think are cool: golf, shopping at the mall, landline telephones, writing checks, newspapers, cursive handwriting, the US Postal Service, paper bills in the mail, cable TV, meatloaf, detective shows on network TV, talk radio, and using email for personal communication.

Millennials prefer these alternate choices, in the same order: video games, online shopping, smart phones, the Venmo app, news websites, typing on touchscreens, digital communication, online banking, streaming video services, avocado toast, binge-watching Netflix, podcasts, and text messaging.

If you are perceptive, you’ll notice that every item on the Millennial list requires the Internet, except for avocado toast. On the other hand, there has never been a single order of avocado toast that wasn’t paid for with some kind of digital service or debit card.

I get that the article was playfully sarcastic, even though that’s a style of writing with which I am completely unfamiliar (except on days that end in “Y”).
It’s not that my fellow Baby Boomers and I are ignorant of digital technology. In fact, all my friends have smartphones, make purchases online, send text messages, and read internet news sites. Most of them do online banking and watch Netflix (with a few actually paying for the service rather than “borrowing” someone else’s password).

I’m pretty sure, however, that ALL my contemporaries, when given the choice of meatloaf or avocado toast, would choose meatloaf every time — while listening to an album by Meat Loaf. (Yes, there was a singer in the 1970s named “Meat Loaf.” Look it up.)
We Baby Boomers don’t think the items on that list are necessarily cool. We just remember a time when those things were the only options available, and we know they still work. I mean, if a Boomer writes out a check in cursive and sends it to a Millennial via the Post Office, is the young smart-aleck NOT going to cash it? We Boomers can operate in both worlds, digital and Stone Age. It’s like being able to speak two languages. Boomers are technologically bilingual.
There is one item on the Boomer list that is indeed very cool: newspapers. And I don’t say that just because this newspaper column has been the source of my personal fame and fortune. Newspapers are the epitome of “old school” cool. (Boomers always use the Bugs Bunny pronunciation of that word: “EPP-eh-toam”.)
Swiping your germ-infested fingers across the dirty screen of an iPad to read internet news stories is not an advancement in technology; it’s a sad regression. There is nothing like the feel of a real newspaper in your hands. If your hands are going to get dirty anyway, it might as well be with good clean newsprint. Besides, three-quarters of what you read on Internet news sites was originally written by a newspaper employee. Also, try swatting a fly with your iPad. Oops, there’s a $600 mistake.
The article I read listed one last thing that Boomers think is cool: complaining about Millennials. OK, that one is both true and very cool. Right on, brother! Boomers rock!

Saturday, June 5, 2021

A Personal Conversion Story

 The claims of Christianity are quite amazing, and there are a lot of logical and reasonable arguments to believe that these claims are true. However, sometimes discussions that include philosophical and metaphysical analysis can be unpersuasive, often because the subject matter gets a little too abstract. Once in a while, a better way to share the Good News of Jesus Christ is to relate how belief in Christ changed your life.

I admit I often focus too much, for example, on St. Thomas Aquinas’ five philosophical proofs for the existence of God, or the scientific comparison of DNA molecules and computer code and the fact both are too complex and intricate to have come into existence by accident — therefore, an intelligent designer is the most likely explanation. It’s been a long time since I told the story of my conversion and the impact faith had on me.
From the age of 16 to 28, I was very content being an anti-supernaturalist. (That’s just a smart-aleck way of saying “atheist.”) I stopped believing what I was taught in church and at catechism classes, and I decided the natural world was all that existed. Things like gods and demons, Heaven and Hell, and life after death were, in my mind, fairy tales invented by pre-scientific cultures.
Then, moments after our first child was born, I sat down in a Yale New Haven Hospital delivery room, and thought about what had just happened. Just as I was finally beginning to relax, I was stunned by a sudden revelation. It occurred to me that what I had just witnessed was way too complex to be a mere product of random natural processes.

The intricacy and perfect timing of countless biological systems during the pregnancy and birth process floored me. I realized my anti-supernaturalist view was far too inadequate. Swirling chemicals interacting and forming various molecules, even over the course of billions of years, could not accidentally arrange themselves into the stunning complexity I had just observed. Suddenly it occurred to me that biological life must have been designed and shaped by an outside creative force. But what was that force? Could it be what those superstitious people called God?

So, on that day my world was rocked. I started to ponder whether there was something outside of nature (by definition, super-natural) that had designed and created life. I concluded that my anti-supernatural viewpoint was way too narrow.
For the next few months, I started reading about this issue. Included on my reading list were items I would’ve laughed at a year earlier, specifically books about Christianity. Many of my childhood catechism lessons — which I had dismissed as nonsense — now started to make sense to me.

One quiet evening during the holiday season, while my wife and baby daughter were asleep, I noticed the creche near our Christmas tree. I looked at the little plastic figure of the baby Jesus, and whispered, “Are you really who people say you are? If so, I want to know you. I want you to guide my life, like these books say you can.”

Yeah, that was not exactly the most profound prayer ever uttered. But it was sincere. I was genuinely seeking the truth and willing to follow the evidence wherever it led.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention. During my high school years I started drinking beer with my buddies, and boy, did I take to alcohol like a duck to water. A decade later I had become a full-blown alcoholic, although I didn’t know it yet.

Here’s the key moment: when I whispered to Jesus the phrase, “I want you to guide my life,” the craving for alcohol disappeared. From that moment on, I did not want to be drunk anymore. A new sense of purpose filled me. I can’t emphasize enough how stunning this was. Up until that time, getting intoxicated was the most important thing in my life, even more important, I’m ashamed to say, than my new baby and my darling wife.
Jesus instantly took away my craving for booze. It was an absolute miracle.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many logical and reasonable arguments for the truth of the Christian Gospel. However, a really strong argument is personal experience. I experienced an amazing transformation by uttering a simple prayer to a God I hoped existed but wasn’t quite sure.
Superstitions and fairy tales don’t transform people’s lives. Only the living God, Creator of Heaven and earth, could have instantly removed my craving to be drunk. I know Jesus is real because He worked a real miracle in my life. It may not be a St. Thomas Aquinas philosophical proof, but it’s proof enough for me.

The Tragic Loss of a Loved One

Recently, a loved one went in for a minor procedure, and unfortunately did not make it out alive. It was so tragic. I never even had a chance to say goodbye. When I heard the terrible news, I sadly exclaimed, “How am I going to manage without my iPhone?!”
It was supposed to be so simple. Just drop off my beloved phone at the electronics store, and then an hour later, come pick it up after a technician installed a new battery. I knew the phone was almost four years old, which is like a lifetime-and-a-half in the cell phone world. But I really liked that device. It worked great, except the battery no longer held a charge very long. So, the plan was easy-peasy: drop it off, pay 80 bucks, and an hour later pick up the phone with its new, revitalized battery.

When I came back an hour later, I suspected something was amiss when the technician said, “Um, it’s a little trickier than I thought. Give me another 20 minutes, OK?”

I said sure, and went back out to my car to wait, knowing I could pass the time by checking emails or watching baseball highlight videos on my phone. Oops, I didn’t have the phone. I had to pass the time with only my thoughts. It was a painfully long 20 minutes.

Then I went back inside and the technician looked like he was about to cry. “I hate to say this,” he blurted out, “but your phone is, um, it’s dead. I’m so sorry! I accidently cut a wire when removing the old battery, and it just, well, it just won’t work anymore.”
He was so sincerely upset, it occurred to me that he possessed more compassion than many surgeons. “That’s all right. You did everything you could,” I said, while patting him gently on the shoulder.
Then he asked, “By the way, did you back up all your photos and documents before you brought your phone here?”
I immediately grabbed him by the throat and screamed, “You idiot! Why didn’t you remind me to do that BEFORE you murdered my loved one?!”

To his credit, the electronic store technician replaced the dead phone the next day with a new one, the exact same make and model. And it was free.

So, I have three observations about this ordeal. First, I depend on my smartphone way more than I thought; probably a lot more than is healthy. Besides work-related phone calls, emails, and text messages, I use my phone to watch videos and listen to music. It also functions as my GPS, address book, camera, photo album, alarm clock, book library, flashlight, calculator, weather forecaster, and sports scoreboard. Being without it for more than a day (32 hours and 12 minutes, but who’s counting?) caused severe withdrawal symptoms.
Second, it turns out the measly three dollars I pay each month for 200 gigabytes of extra storage with Apple’s iCloud is WELL worth it. All my photos and documents were restored onto the new phone. If you haven’t purchased this, do so now!

Finally, it turns out the replacement phone, although “brand new” in the sense that it had never been used before, was manufactured the same time as my old phone, about four years ago. It’s been sitting in a warehouse somewhere all this time. It does everything my old phone did, but just like the old one, it has a weak battery! Isn’t that ironic? I’m right back where I started.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be asking that same technician to install a new battery. At this point, we’ve both been through enough trauma. Also, I probably shouldn’t violate the restraining order. 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Should We ‘Fear’ the Lord?

 Last week we discussed Pope Saint John Paul the Great’s favorite expression: “Be not afraid.” At first glance, the pope’s statement seems unrealistic. There’s a lot of scary stuff going on in our world, and being fearful is a logical reaction. But the pope was viewing life from a Heavenly perspective (and now that his early life is over, he is REALLY viewing things from a Heavenly perspective!). If we know that God is all powerful and all good, and if we trust that He will always be there for us, then we really can avoid, or at least minimize, fear.

So, the greatest person of the 20th century was right in proclaiming to the world that we should not be afraid. Fear is not a good thing, and since faith drives out fear, we should rely on our faith in God to keep us away from fear.

Terrific. But then we open the Bible and read this in Proverbs: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Umm, so which is it? Is fear bad and something to be avoided? Or is fear something the Bible commands us to embrace?

To be honest, that statement from the Book of Proverbs has bothered me for a long time. It sure seems to be saying that we should have fear, which was the opposite of what the nuns taught me in catechism class. They said, “Jesus is your dear friend.” (“But should we be terrified of Him, Sister?”)

They said, “God loves you.” (“But should we cower in fright in His presence?”) I’m paraphrasing, since I’m pretty sure in the 6th grade I didn’t know the meaning of the word cower. Now I know it’s a person who works with cows.

By the way, if you’re a bit confused, I went through catechism classes after Vatican II, from the mid-1960s to the early ‘70s. So, the nuns really did teach that God loves us. I understand the main message during catechism classes in the pre-V2 era was more along these lines: “God is SO angry at you, young man, you’d better pray that Mary lets you in the side door of Heaven, ‘cause that’s your only chance!”
Anyway, one day I finally noticed the footnote in my New American Bible for Proverbs 1:7. It says, “Fear of the Lord: primarily a disposition rather than the emotion of fear; reverential awe and respect toward God combined with obedience to God’s will.”

Well, that’s much different, isn’t it? In my mind, “reverential awe and respect” is a whole lot different than fear.
Now, of course, a supernatural Being with the power to create the entire Universe can be rather frightening. The difference between God and human beings is astronomical. If you said it’s like comparing men to bed bugs, you wouldn’t even be close. Men and bed bugs are made of the same substance, except one is a little more complex than the other. (I’ll let you decide which is more complex.)

With God, we’re talking about something completely different in substance compared to human beings. So, if a person stands before the living God, with such a massive difference in power and majesty, it’s logical for the human to cower in fear. Logical, that is, if we know nothing about God other than His omnipresence and omnipotence. Maybe this overwhelmingly powerful Being is angry and vindictive. Maybe He gets His kicks out of squashing people like bed bugs. That certainly would be a God to fear.

However, the Christian faith is based on Revelation. I don’t mean the last book of the Bible, but rather the fact that the Almighty Creator of the Universe took the time to reveal Himself to us, to communicate with us. And just like those nuns taught me a half-century ago, God does love us, and His only begotten Son, Jesus, can be our dear friend if we put our faith in Him.
We don’t have to be fearful, because love conquers fear. And God loves us more than we can comprehend. The only reason He created us is to be in a loving relationship with Him.

I wish Bible translators would update the wording of Proverbs. I prefer, “Awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Awe is a great word for how we should view God. He is awesome.

And besides, we’ve got enough things to fear in this crazy world. We don’t need the Bible accidentally adding to it. So, Pope John Paul was right. We should “be not afraid.”

This Left-Hander Is Out of Control

 This is my official annual baseball essay. Well, I don’t really have an “official” annual baseball essay, any more than I have an official annual “Playing golf is too frustrating” essay or an official annual “Why are there so many crazy drivers on the highway?” essay. It’s just that those topics are on my mind quite often.

You may have noticed over the years that I like baseball. (I am using the word “like” in the same sense that one might say Senator Richard Blumenthal likes to hold press conferences. In other words, total obsession.) To give you an idea, whenever I see my daughters, they know I will give them grief if they don’t answer quickly and correctly when I blurt out, “What’s a pitcher’s best friend?!”
As I write this, my beloved Red Sox are hovering near first place in the American League East. However, by the time you read this a week or two from now, they could be in ninth place. (Which is hard to do, since there are only five teams in the division. But the way the Sox have played the past couple of years, I only have one word to say: “Ya never know.”)

Recently, I’ve noticed that while watching baseball games on TV, I’m very critical of pitchers with lousy control. Actually, it was my friend Mickey Blarney who noticed. He pointed out that in a 20-minute span, I yelled the exact same thing at the television three different times, which was, “Dude! Hit your spots! Fastballs on the inside corner, then change-ups low and away. It’s a formula that’s worked since Abner Doubleday was in Little League!”

First, let’s be clear: my pitching strategy is correct. Hard stuff inside then off-speed stuff away is a tried and true formula. Good pitchers don’t just rear back and throw as hard as they can. Major league batters can catch up to even the fastest fastball. Instead, the art of pitching is to mess up the hitter’s timing.
An interesting aspect of my pitching criticism today is the fact my personal pitching career years ago lasted exactly one varsity game. I was a sophomore in high school. During pre-season practice, the head coach took one look at me and said, “You’re tall and skinny and left-handed. You must be a pitcher.”
I replied, “No, I must be a first baseman because saying that I ‘throw like a girl’ is a major insult to girls.” Actually, I didn’t say anything. Age 15 wasn’t a high self-esteem era in my life. I went through most days tongue-tied and terrified.

Because the coach figured height and handedness were more important to pitching than any discernible throwing skills, a few weeks into the season, he named me as the starting pitcher for our next game. I wish he had told me this two minutes before the game rather than two days before. High school sophomores should never go 48 straight hours without any sleep.

Anyway, I muddled through the first two innings. Then in the third, the wheels fell off. I set a school record that I’m quite sure has never been broken. I walked eight guys in one inning. Yeow! Eight! When the coach finally removed me, I heard him mutter, “But you’re tall, you’re left-handed. How can you NOT be a pitcher?”

I guess there’s a Freudian explanation for why I now criticize pitchers so much when they struggle with control. Although I hear Freud was short, stocky, and right-handed, and his high school coach forced him to be a catcher, which he resented the rest of his life.
So, that’s my annual baseball essay. And by the way, the correct answer is: “The double play!”

Friday, May 21, 2021

Be Not Afraid

 During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I guess that’s called phobophobia, the fear of fear, right? FDR should’ve said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ... and spiders.”
There are plenty of things we have to fear these days, such as: 
  • Clowns
  • Algebra
  • Finding out too late there’s no toilet paper
  • Hitting “reply all” by mistake on a work email
  • Phone calls from someone we haven’t spoken to in ages, which prompt us to think, “Oh no! Who died?!” 
  • Assuming the Zoom meeting is over, and then realizing all your coworkers just watched you do some, um, indelicate scratching and grooming
  • Public speaking
  • Public speaking and then discovering halfway through that you’re naked. (Oh wait, that was a recent bad dream. Never mind.) 
Well, anyway, there are a lot of fearful things and situations we encounter in our lives. And unlike my list, some are quite serious, like illness and injury, violence and death.

Historians explain that FDR was trying to calm a worried and anxious nation, even though his “fear itself” statement was somewhat nonsensical. After all, people’s fears are directed toward specific things — illness, poverty, hunger, loneliness, rejection, humiliation, physical danger, etc. — not the vague concept of fear itself. People rarely fear fear. Instead, they fear homelessness. They fear getting punched in the face. They fear cancer. It was FDR’s confident and optimistic attitude as he spoke those words that encouraged folks, rather than the words themselves.

The greatest man of the 20th century, Pope Saint John Paul the Great, constantly offered another proclamation about fear. Quoting Scripture, the pope frequently said, “Be not afraid.”
The pope’s statement also seems to be a bit nonsensical at first glance. As we all know, life is hard, and the world is filled with danger and uncertainty. Telling people to “be not afraid,” when there are so many risks and tragedies in life, seems like a pollyannish platitude.
However, when we understand the pope’s perspective, we realize that his statement makes perfect sense. You see, the pope was looking at life from a heavenly point of view. If our brief lifetime here on earth is all we have, which means the only logical goal of life is to maximize our comfort and longevity, then yes, there are plenty of things to fear. But if God is real and if the possibility of eternal life in Heaven is true, then there really is nothing to fear in this life — as long as we accept God’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life.

Pope John Paul’s message was simple: the Creator of the Universe knows each of us by name and loves us with a passion we can’t even comprehend. And despite all the trials and tribulations of life, our loving God will never abandon us. No matter how terrible things are in this world, the Almighty Lord will make it right. No matter how much pain we experience now, God will bring us comfort, soon and for all eternity.

The pope did not say, “Be not afraid,” because everything is peachy keen in our lives. Don’t forget, the man lived through the horrors inflicted on his native Poland by the Nazis. He was no deluded fool. Pope John Paul said, “Be not afraid,” because he completely trusted the divine Being who is ultimately in charge.
If we truly know that the Lord has dominion over all the earth, and that He will never leave us or forsake us, then many of our usual fears can melt away, even the fear of clowns and algebra and public speaking.
We can take to heart the words of Saint Pope John Paul the Great: “Be not afraid.” Unless you see a spider.