Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Are the Founding Fathers Appalled?

As you may have heard, the Federal Government has ordered the Apple Corporation to “unlock” the iPhone of the terrorist who killed 14 people in San Bernadino last December, in the hopes of discovering who else may have planned the attack. The government says they only want information from a single phone, while Apple insists the government really wants access to all phones, in violation of everyone’s privacy rights.

Defending their position during a recent court hearing, lawyers for Apple claimed, “According to the government, the courts can order private parties to do virtually anything the Justice Department and FBI can dream up. The Founders would be appalled.”

That last sentence got me wondering. Would America’s Founding Fathers really be “appalled” by this case? Imagine that we’re able to gather the following people in a room: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and James Madison. Then a lawyer for Apple begins to plead his case: “Gentlemen, the Federal Government demands that the Apple Corporation unlock the iPhone of the man who committed a terrorist act. You are APPALLED by this, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me, young man,” George Washington says. “This Apple Corporation of which you speak, is that a fruit orchard in the Catskill region of New York state?”

“No no,” the lawyer replies. “It’s a technology company in California. They make computers and iPhones and iPads.”

The four men glance at each other, silently mouth the question “California?” and shrug their shoulders. Finally, Ben Franklin speaks. “I invented bifocals, but I am ignorant of eye-foams and eye-packs. Do these items improve one’s vision?”

The lawyer pauses, then reaches into his briefcase. “Here’s the best way to explain it.” He turns on his iPad and hands the device to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s an iPad,” the lawyer says. “You can surf the Internet, check email, watch YouTube. It’s awesome.”

The meeting is interrupted as the four Founding Fathers leap to their feet and scream like school girls. Jefferson drops the device to the floor, causing the screen to crack. “I owe the people of Salem, Massachusetts, a sincere apology!” our nation’s third president yells. “There is indeed witchcraft present in the world after all!”

An hour later, after order is restored (and after Mr. Franklin has drained an entire bottle of brandy by himself, for medicinal purposes only, of course), the lawyer resumes his argument and says, “Here’s the bottom line: the government wants us to turn over private communication between citizens. You are appalled, right?”

James Madison asks, “Is the communication with quill and ink on parchment?”

“No,” the lawyer says. “It’s mostly text messages. Here, let me show you.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his iPhone. “Um, I’ll hold onto it, if you don’t mind,” he says. “Text messaging is a lot like quill and ink and parchment, except there isn’t any quill or ink or parchment. Instead, there’s lots of zeros and ones flying through Cyberspace. But it’s private communication, so you are appalled, correct?”

George Washington takes a deep breath and says, “Young man, I cannot honestly say the word ‘appalled’ applies here. A better word might be ‘baffled,’ ‘bewildered,’ or ‘befuddled.’”

Thomas Jefferson, who has been quietly tapping his fingers on the cracked iPad, looks up and says, “What is this I’m reading here about ‘Trump vs. Hillary’ for U.S. president?” He shows the iPad to the other three men, who study the images intently.

Finally, the four men stare sternly at the lawyer. Ben Franklin points toward the iPad and says, “This current election of yours is a situation where the word ‘appalled’ truly applies. We sacrificed everything to leave you a vibrant nation. What the hell happened to it?!”

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Language of God is Math

Back when my kids were still in school, they often complained about their math homework. I always reminded them, “Math is life.”

My goal was to make them realize that math is not a tedious exercise designed by sadistic school teachers to torture students, but rather it’s the foundation of all of life’s endeavors.

Technically speaking, math IS life. If you break down living organisms to their most basic elements, you’ll have quite a puddle on the floor. You’ll also have biology, chemistry, and physics, all of which are specialized fields of mathematics, which means math is life and life is math.

This is why theologians say the language of God is mathematics. OK, maybe theologians don’t say that, but mathematicians say it since they’re desperate to convince kids that math is not a tedious exercise designed by sadistic school teachers to torture students, but rather was invented by God, so go blame Him.

By the way, God’s native language is ancient Hebrew, and math is His second language, but He speaks it so fluently you can’t even detect an accent.

When I told my kids that math is life and they should be grateful for the opportunity to acquire such useful knowledge, they replied, “Yeah, well what about algebra? No one uses algebra in the real world.”

“All right,” I conceded, “algebra is, in fact, a tedious exercise designed by sadistic school teachers to torture students, but all the other types of math are very important. You can’t
survive in the modern world without good math skills.”

Back when I was a young man in my 20s, I was a proud and arrogant atheist. I was convinced that everything that exists in the Universe was the result of matter plus energy, shaped by blind random chance—exactly as I was taught in my science classes. I was certain there was no need for a supernatural Creator called God.

Recently I read a description of Atheism: “The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits, which then turned into dinosaurs.”

That’s quite snarky, no doubt, but it does capture the essence of atheism: the belief that inert matter rearranged itself, without any plan or purpose or outside guidance, into complex self-replicating living organisms.

More than anything else, what caused me to lose my faith in “nothing” and become a recovering atheist was math, specifically the mathematical discipline of probability and statistics.

Imagine you’re part of an expedition hiking through a remote part of the Amazon rain forest, and you find an iPhone on the ground. You exclaim, “Someone’s been here!”

However, one of your companions says, “No, that thing was accidently formed as minerals were pushed around by the rain and the wind and the heat of the sun.”

You say, “But it’s way too intricate and complex. How could it just form by accident?”

Your friend says, “Oh that’s easy. It had billions of years to do it.”

Well, my science teachers taught me the same basic story, except instead of an iPhone they substituted living organisms—which, by the way, are FAR more intricate and complex than any device made by the Apple Corporation.

It was the language of God, math, that helped me realize the silliness of claiming that complex, intricate, self-replicating organisms came into existence by pure chance, even if you allow billions of years for it to occur. It is mathematically impossible. The odds are zero, even if you allow a billion years TIMES a billion of years. It’s a basic truth that created beings require a Creator.

Math is indeed life. It is the language of God. It is the language that led me, a proud and arrogant atheist, to fall on my knees before Him. But to be honest, I have to agree with my kids: I don’t know why He invented algebra.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Resurrection Is the Heart of Christianity

The hope of rising from the dead is a massive stumbling block for many people. That’s understandable. The idea of a dead person coming back to life kind of flies in the face of everything we know about our natural world.

Science and biology tell us that when an organism dies, it stays dead. Medical researchers have never chronicled a single case where a dead person came back to life. The cemeteries in our communities are the quietest places in town. So, modern science, the historical record, and our own personal experience tell us the same thing: resurrections don’t happen.

Now, there are two key points to understand about the idea of rising from the dead. First, the concept of resurrection is the heart of Christianity. If rising from the dead is impossible—if resurrections have never occurred and will never occur—then the Christian faith is stripped of all its meaning and relevance.

Without a hope in resurrection and the possibility of eternal life, then Christianity is, frankly, a waste of time. St. Paul wrote, “How can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead?…For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins….If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-19).

Paul was quite clear: if resurrections cannot occur, then this whole Christian thing is a massive waste of time, and those of us who spend our time and effort following Christ should be pitied.

The second important point to understand about the idea of rising from the dead is the concept of anti-supernatural bias, the idea that the natural world is the ONLY world. The thinking goes something like this: “Since I’ve never seen a miracle occur, that proves one cannot happen.”

If we believe the natural world is the only world, in other words, if our starting point for understanding reality is the declaration that miracles are absolutely impossible, then of course a miracle such as a resurrection cannot happen.

But if we expand our understand a little bit, if we acknowledge that there just might be a supernatural dimension to reality above and beyond the natural dimension, and therefore miracles, though extremely rare, are possible, then we can rationally and reasonably believe that rising from the dead can occur.

If you would like some powerful evidence that there is a supernatural dimension to reality, then spend some time studying the genetic code. The data encoded in our DNA is more intricate and complex than the most advanced computer software ever written by the brilliant minds at Apple, Microsoft, or Google. If you think such an immense collection of information and instructions just formed itself by accident without any outside supernatural guidance at all, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell to you.

Admittedly, believing that resurrections can occur is kind of challenging. But once we come to understand that God is real, and that He can perform miracles, a hope in resurrection transforms a curious philosophy into a life-altering, joyful faith. God’s promise that He will raise our mortal bodies allows us to look death right in the eye and laugh, just as St. Paul did. “Where, O death, is your victory?” he mockingly wrote. “Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Resurrection is the heart of Christianity. And Resurrection is exactly what happened on that first Easter morning 20 centuries ago. Thank God!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

‘Attitude of Gratitude’ Not Mere Platitude

A friend was recently injured in a terrible motor vehicle accident. She broke many bones and had severe lacerations. She incurred about seven separate major injuries, any one of which would have caused me to lock myself in a dungeon of intense self-pity.

After spending many days in ICU and enduring multiple surgeries, my friend finally was transferred from the hospital to a rehab facility to begin the painful and tedious recovery process. I went to visit her in the rehab facility, thinking that maybe I could cheer her up. Well, after spending an hour with her, the one who got cheered up was me.

L. is known by just about everyone who is involved with church music in Litchfield County. She’s a choir director at a local parish and probably the most spectacular soprano voice this side of Broadway. If you’ve ever been to a Sunday Mass or a funeral or wedding during the last couple decades and found yourself whispering, “Whoa, who is that singing?!” it probably was L.

When I visited her, she could tell right away that I’m not only tone-deaf in our choir, but also tone-deaf regarding bed-side manners. My first statement was, “Um, so what’s new?” (Immediately, a sarcastic little voice in the back of my head began chirping at me. “Oh, brilliant question, Bill,” it said. “What do you THINK is new with her? How late did you stay up last night coming up with that gem?”)

L. smiled and politely replied, “Oh, a lot is new since the last time I saw you.”

As it turned out, we ended up having a lovely chat, and I only said maybe five or six additional dumb comments. (The sarcastic voice finally gave up, realizing that I’m a lost cause.) What struck me most about our conversation was her profound sense of gratitude. She was very grateful that she’s alive. From what I hear, many of the amazing medical professionals who worked feverishly after the accident to save her life were pleasantly surprised that she did indeed survive. It was that close.

She also expressed her sincere gratitude toward her husband and children and parents, and many other relatives and friends, all of whom dropped everything the moment they heard the news and offered to help out. There wasn’t a hint of self-pity or “Why me?” in her voice. She was genuinely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and concern by so many people.

During our conversation, we agreed that far too many people nowadays are not grateful for all the blessings they have. Some folks dwell obsessively on the relatively minor problems in their lives. Others are never satisfied with what they have and covet whatever they don’t have. Often, as soon as the particular item is acquired, it is promptly forgotten as a new object of desire takes its place.

So, in our one-hour conversation, we basically solved all of the world’s problems. OK, maybe not. But we did — or I should say, she did — make it clear that happiness is not based on external circumstances beyond our control. It is instead based on our internal attitude: being grateful for the numerous blessings we have and thankful for the opportunity to experience God’s amazing gift of life.

I continue to pray for a speedy recovery for my friend L. (And feel free to offer up petitions for this faithful sister in Christ.) When I visit her I’ll try to minimize the awkward comments. But I have to offer profound thanks to her for reminding me that gratitude is the key to serenity. She really cheered me up, and I am grateful for friends like her. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

What If That Curious Story Really Is True?

Easter Sunday is almost here. Our culture celebrates with eggs, the symbol of new life. And with bunnies, the symbol of fertility. And with lilies and other flowers, the symbol of springtime renewal. And with 30 pounds of chocolate per person and fancy new clothes, the symbols of a consumer society obsessed with gluttony and covetousness.

Oh yes, and some folks continue to include in their Easter celebration the curious story about the God-man who died but then came back to life three days later. This is also a symbol of new life and springtime renewal.

This curious tale about the God-man coming back to life fits in nicely with our seasonal theme: springtime renewal. The dark, cold, and dreary season of Winter finally gives way to the sunlight and colors and new life of Spring.

But what if that curious story is actually true? Oh, come on. We don’t take those things literally anymore. This is the 21th century, for cryin’ out loud. We’re a little too shrewd and scientific to fall for that kind of stuff.

But what if it IS true?

What if there really is a personal God who created the universe? What if He really designed and created us with a specific purpose in mind? Wow, that would actually give some real meaning to our lives, rather than the superficial meaning we try to create for ourselves with our consumer spending and our frantic struggle to achieve some recognition.

And what if this personal God loved us so much that He grieved over the fact that we ignored Him and decided to worship ourselves instead? What if He loved us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to bridge that huge gulf created by sin? And what if that Son offered His own life as a sacrifice to pay the price for our sins? And, most of all, what if He actually rose from the dead three days later, conquering death once and for all?

Sounds kind of fantastic, doesn’t it? But what if it really is true? That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? That would mean death is not the final chapter of our lives. That would mean the cruelest irony of life—the fact that everything we ever achieve in this world is destined to be swallowed up by death—is no longer true.

Well, I’ve got some good news for you. It IS true! The God who created us loves us way too much to let death have the final victory. That curious story about the God-man coming back to life is not an ancient fable; it is a fact. It is the central event in the whole history of humanity.

When we finally realize what Jesus did for our sake, often our first reaction is to ask what we should do to repay Him for such a great sacrifice. Many religious organizations have created vast and elaborate systems for doing good deeds in an attempt to repay Him for what He did for us.

But how can you possibly repay such a sacrifice? We can’t repay Jesus for what He did. What He did was His gift to us. (Imagine if you gave someone a birthday present and he immediately whipped out his checkbook and said, “OK, how much do I owe you?” How rude!)

All we can do is accept the gift Jesus gave us with profound gratitude and humility. When we do this, the good deeds will follow, not because we have to do them, but because we want to do them.

That curious Easter story is not just one little facet of a springtime holiday. It is the most important event ever. It is our path to eternal life. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Awful Friday Becomes Good On Sunday

This weekend we celebrate Palm Sunday and the gospel reading at Mass is the Passion of our Lord, where all the events of the Last Supper and Good Friday are read.

As a child, the Passion gospel had a profound effect on me. I can remember standing in church, a 12-year-old budding theologian, listening as the central drama in all of human history was described, and prayerfully and reverently thinking to myself: “Is this thing ever gonna end?! Fer cryin’ out loud, that guy’s been talking for 25 minutes!”

Alas, when you’re 12 years old and used to three minute Scripture readings, a 25 minute gospel seems like 25 hours.

But at least after going to Palm Sunday Masses year after year as a kid, I knew the story. I knew what happened at the Last Supper, and in the garden of Gethsemane, and before the Sanhedrin, and in Pilate’s courtyard, and at Calvary. I may not have been paying close attention all those years—and I certainly wasn’t happy to be there—but the story sank in.

Later, as an adult, when my atheistic belief system was proving itself to be thoroughly bankrupt—intellectually, emotionally, morally, physically, and spiritually—I was ready to take another look at the claims of Christ. Thankfully, I didn’t have to learn it from scratch. I already knew many of the details. I could concentrate on why it happened, not on what happened.

Which brings me to my second childhood memory of the Palm Sunday Passion gospel (besides its unusual length). I could never for the life of me figure out why they called the day Christ died “Good” Friday.

You take an innocent man who’s been preaching about love and forgiveness. You arrest Him in the middle of the night and drag Him before a vengeful assembly, which ignores all the evidence and sentences Him to death. You beat the snot out of Him and rip open His back with a metal-studded whip. You strip Him naked, impale Him on a pole with spikes, and hang Him up in the air so a crowd can jeer and insult Him as His life slowly and painfully ebbs away.

Yeah, sounds like the perfect description of “good” to me. What could we do to make it “great”?  Maybe some bamboo shoots under the fingernails, or some red ants and molasses? Sheesh.

Using the word “good” to label the day an innocent man was tortured and killed always seemed to me to be the most inappropriate use of language in history—even worse than the countless bald-faced lies we’re hearing from presidential candidates.

The key to Good Friday is understanding that it was not good on that day. It was bad, real bad. It did not become Good Friday until after the fact. Good Friday was Awful Friday for two days…and then Sunday came.

On Sunday morning we got, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. God’s full plan was finally revealed. Jesus’ death was not an unfortunate and tragic accident. It was part of the plan. His death was the atoning sacrifice for all of mankind’s sins.

And on Sunday morning the second half of the plan was completed. Jesus conquered death once and for all—and He promised us that if we put our faith in Him we can do the same. The Resurrection transformed Awful Friday from a defeat into a victory.

Now if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, as many “sophisticated” people claim today (“Why do you insist on taking metaphor and symbolism so literally?” progressive Christians ask with exasperation), then Jesus’ death on Friday was not a victory. It was a dreadful defeat; it was evil triumphing over good.

St. Paul said as much in is first epistle to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins….If only for this life do we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:17,19).

Without the Resurrection, the term Good Friday is the ultimate oxymoron. The Sunday morning rising from the dead is absolutely necessary for anything useful to come out of the events of Friday.

Only through the lens of the Resurrection can we see that Good Friday was indeed good. Yeah, it was gruesome and painful and unfair. But it was necessary. Just as cancer surgery can be described as gruesome and painful and unfair—while at the same time being necessary to defeat death—so too was the crucifixion of Jesus.

If Jesus did not die on the cross, the cancer of sin would still be eating away at us unchecked. If Jesus did not die on the cross, He would not have been able to defeat death—and neither would we. 

And in the grand scheme of things, eternal life with Jesus in Heaven is as good as it gets.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Is Disney a Cult?

Today, I’d like to address a topic that likely will make people upset. If I cause you to become angry, I apologize. But here’s the question I have to ask: Is Disney a cult?

Let me explain. A couple months ago I attended a trade show in Orlando. My wife joined me on the trip, along with a business associate and his wife. Since the Disney conglomerate owns about three-quarters of central Florida, it’s possible to stay in a Disney-owned hotel without actually planning to visit one of their many theme parks. The four of us stayed in a place called “The Disney All-Start Movie Resort,” which is a sprawling complex of hotel/motel type structures, but unlike other typical touristy hotel/motels in Florida, this one has 35-foot tall fiberglass cartoon characters everywhere.

Hey, I like Disney animated movies just as much as the next guy. But when you get up early in the morning and groggily walk out of your hotel room looking for a cup of coffee and the first thing you see is a 3-story high dog character from “101 Dalmatians,” you no longer need coffee to wake up because six quarts of terror-induced adrenaline now courses through your veins.

If this whole Disney thing is indeed a cult, I suspect my business associate friend and his wife have already enrolled in the “Church of Walt” Seminary to become ordained ministers. I was vaguely aware they regularly traveled to Orlando for vacations a couple times each year, but I didn’t know they were, well, card-carrying DFs. (Disney Fanatics.)

My friend seems so normal otherwise. I mean, we can have a great two-hour lively discussion about the perfect technique for hitting a 7-iron — you know, normal stuff. (And if you think having lively discussions about the endless minutia of golf is a sign someone is a card-carrying GF [Golf Fanatic], you’re wrong! Talking about golf for hours is almost as much fun as talking about baseball for hours. My BF card is always in my wallet.)

Anyway, there’s something called the Disney Vacation Club. It’s a lot like being a member of an exclusive country club, except a whole lot more expensive. My friend and his wife are members, and I think the initiation ritual involves getting Mickey and Minnie tattoos on strategic body parts. Their membership is something they can pass on to their kids in their wills. It’s also something on which they have to pay property taxes each year. (These last two statements contain no exaggeration, which, if you know me, cannot be said about anything else here.)

When my friend and his wife begin talking about the features of Disney theme parks, hotels, restaurants, shops, etc., their eyes light up as if they had LED lights implanted in their skulls (which, I think, might be another aspect of the initiation ritual).

When I returned home, I discovered many other people also are Disney cultists, er, I mean, Disney Vacation Club members. I could tell because as soon as I mentioned where we stayed in Orlando, a large smile spread across their faces and the LED lights came on. A few unbuckled their belts and gave me a glimpse of their Mickey and Minnie tattoos.
For a while, I was uncomfortable. It all seemed too weird. But then I started thinking about it. I came to realize that Uncle Walt simply wants me to be happy. Mickey and Minnie, Pluto and Goofy, are really my friends. What could be better than “The Happiest Place on Earth”? Yes, it is indeed wonderful. And as it turned out, the LED implants didn’t even hurt that much. Would you like to see my tattoos?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pet Peeve: Leaving Mass Early

Trivia question: Who was the first person in history to leave Mass right after Communion? Answer: Judas Iscariot.

No, I’m not kidding. Think about it. Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He held up the bread and said, “This is my body,” and then he held up the cup and said, “This is my blood.”

Then, right after He distributed the bread and wine to His disciples—which now had become His actual body and blood—Judas got up and left. Judas didn’t go back to his pew and pray a little. He didn’t listen to any of the parish announcements about the upcoming potluck supper and the revised children’s choir rehearsal schedule. And he didn’t join in singing the recessional hymn. (Two verses only. I mean, let’s not go overboard and sing EVERY verse.)

Nope, by the time the solemn ceremony in the upper room was concluded, Judas was long gone. Presumably his car was not blocked in the parking lot, so he was able to make his getaway rather than sit behind the wheel seething with frustration as he waited for everyone else to come out.

Sound familiar? C’mon, be honest. Many of our fellow Catholics have this weird notion that once you receive Communion the Mass is over. But to paraphrase that great Catholic theologian, Yogi Berra, the Mass ain’t over till it’s over.

When someone leaves Mass right after Communion (the ol’ “chew and screw,” as it’s sometimes called), how much actual time is he or she saving? Six minutes? Nine minutes? Seriously? That’s it? A person offends the Lord and insults the parish priest just to gain a measly nine minutes? Wow.

And what exactly is accomplished with those extra six or nine minutes on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning? Do they get out of the parking lot first? Hurray, I guess there’s a prize for that.

Do they get a table at the Sunday brunch buffet a bit sooner than others? Congratulations, I’m sure the restaurant would’ve run out of food if they got there nine minutes later.

Do they get home quicker, which allows them to spend the rest of the day sitting around watching mindless junk on TV? God must be so pleased with their devotion to Him.

OK, I’m getting a little too snarky here. Sorry.

The point I’m trying to make is: The Mass is the most awesome event on earth: Jesus Christ becomes truly present in the Eucharist, body and blood, soul and divinity. At Mass, God’s people gather to offer praise and worship to Him, and to be spiritually nourished by Him. Is it really such a burden to remain in church until the Mass is completely concluded?

Our Sunday obligation only takes up about one hour every week. If we add on some time before and after Mass for driving, let’s call it two hours each week—out of a total of 168 hours in a week. That works out to be slightly more than one-percent of the entire week. Heck, some people spend more time than that each week combing their hair or deciding what shoes to wear.

Is that extra nine minutes saved by leaving Mass right after Communion really worth it?

Obviously people who leave Mass right after Communion are not doing it for the same reason Judas left the very first Mass right after Communion: to betray Our Lord. But leaving early certainly does not honor Our Lord. It certainly does not show Him much respect.

So if you always remain in church until the very end of the recessional hymn, that’s terrific. Please try not to be as snarky as I am toward those who leave early.

And if you are one of the folks who does leave right after Communion, please think about it for a minute. It really looks bad; it insults the priest; and it shows little respect for Jesus. 

When it’s all said and done, is that measly nine minutes really so important?

Friday, March 11, 2016

More Lessons in Forgiveness

In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, a powerful lesson about God’s overwhelming love and forgiveness. Although the young son engaged in scandalous and disrespectful behavior, when he came to his senses, his father immediately forgave him. The father explained his joyful embrace of the wayward son when he said, “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”

In this week’s Gospel reading, we have another example of God’s overwhelming love and forgiveness: the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus’ opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, brought a woman caught in adultery before Him, and demanded, “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

It’s obvious the scribes and Pharisees were tying to trap Jesus. They didn’t particularly care about the woman, or the Law of Moses, or that justice was served. Their only motivation was to force Jesus into a no-win situation so that no matter what He said, they could use it against Him.

If Jesus replied that the woman should be set free, they could accuse Him of ignoring the Law of Moses. If Jesus replied that the woman should be executed, they could accuse Him of being hypocritical about His message of forgiveness. (And speaking of being hypocritical, we know the scribes and Pharisees were full of baloney because they brought only the woman before Jesus. The Law of Moses clearly spelled out that both parties in an adulterous relationship are guilty. Where was the woman’s lover? As far as I can figure, it’s pretty hard to commit adultery by yourself. If she was “caught in the very act,” as the Pharisees claimed, why didn’t they apprehend the guy and bring him before Jesus, too? The answer is obvious: they were hypocrites.)

Anyway, at first Jesus did not reply. Instead He bent down and started writing with His finger on the ground. This is the only place in the Bible that records Jesus writing—but we’re not told what He wrote. (Another on my long list of questions to ask God when I get to Heaven. I think my list now numbers well over 8,000.)

I’ve often speculated about what Jesus wrote. Maybe He wrote down the name of the woman’s lover, who may have been standing there in the crowd clutching a stone. Jesus finally looked up and offered the famous line, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Then, as the angry throng pondered those words, Jesus bent down and started writing again. Maybe at this point He wrote the names of the leading Pharisees’ mistresses. No one knows for sure. But we do know how the crowd finally responded: “They went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”

After everyone left, Jesus said to the woman, “Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she answered.

Jesus then said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

As with last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus’ main lesson this week is forgiveness. But while the Prodigal Son is a stark story of pure forgiveness—the father forgave his son completely and started a joyfully celebration—the story of the adulterous woman touches on a couple of additional ideas.

The first is that we must forgive in order to be forgiven ourselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Jesus’ actions in this week’s Gospel obviously saved the woman’s life. But His actions also started the process of saving the souls of the judgmental mob of men (assuming, of course, they were interested in entering into a saving relationship with God). Only when they understood that they too were sinful—maybe the first time they ever considered that possibility—could they become capable of offering forgiveness to someone else. And only when they offered forgiveness to someone else, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, would God Almighty offer forgiveness to them.

Jesus included the other idea addressed this week, I suspect, specifically for the Law and Order folks in the world (a group in which I consider myself a member).

The first 95-percent of this story might cause some people to say something like, “Yeah, but wait a minute, Jesus. If you let her off the hook, you’re condoning sin. And if you let everyone do whatever they feel like doing, you’re not only setting the stage for anarchy and chaos in society, you’re also mocking the whole concept of right and wrong. If there are no consequences for committing sin, then you’re in effect saying there is no difference between righteous living and sinful living.”

Jesus made sure we L&O folks do not overreact—as long as we read to the very end of the episode. He said to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

This one sentence confirms that Jesus has not abandoned the concept of right and wrong. Certain things are right, and certain things are wrong. There is a YUUUGE difference between righteousness and sinfulness—such a huge difference, in fact, that Jesus came to earth specifically to bridge the gulf between holy God and sinful mankind.
If you’re ever tempted to think Jesus does not take sin seriously, just remember why He died on the cross. Jesus offered up His sinless life as a ransom for our sinful lives. He died to pay the price for our sin. His Passion and death occurred for one simple reason: Jesus takes sin seriously—deadly seriously.
Jesus also takes love seriously. So much so that He offers forgiveness to people who don’t deserve it: the Prodigal Son, the adulterous woman, me, and you. A person who can look up to Heaven while being tortured to death and say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” is a person who takes love very, very seriously.Next week is Palm Sunday, and the Gospel reading will be the lengthy account of Jesus’ Passion, the culmination of His love for humanity. As Lent draws to a close, let us focus on Jesus and His overwhelming love for us, and the overwhelming forgiveness He offers to us. Let’s make this year’s Easter celebration the most holy and joyful ever.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Spring Ahead, Fall Apart

This weekend we make the always exciting switch to Daylight Savings Time (DST). This is known as the unofficial start of spring. It’s also known as the official start of “How Dumb Are Americans Week”, since millions of citizens will spend at least seven days unsure of what time it is.

The premise of DST is fairly straightforward: we want an extra hour of sunlight during the day. Back in the early part of the 20th century (or the nineteen-hundreds, for those of us who find the “ith century” thing confusing), the United States Congress passed a law requiring the sun to stay in the sky an extra hour. When the sun blatantly ignored the new law, numerous F.B.I. agents were dispatched to place the sun under arrest. When none of them returned with the sun in handcuffs, Congress decided in 1918 it would be easier, not to mention less fatal for law enforcement personnel, to institute Daylight Savings Time instead.

So each year in the spring, late on a Saturday night, the people of America move their clocks ahead one hour. Or at least they’re supposed to move their clocks ahead one hour. However, considering the current front-runner for each party in the presidential campaign, it’s safe to say a large percentage of American citizens — umm, how can I put this gently? — have the same IQ as toenail fungus.

If many folks really think either the female reincarnation of Richard Nixon, except with even more paranoia and a longer enemies list — or the man who embodies five of the Seven Deadly Sins (six, if one of the Deadly Sins is “goofy hair”) would make a good Commander-in-Chief, then what are the chances they’ll figure out how to adjust the time settings on a multitude of electronic devices?

For those who are able to set every one of their clocks and electronic gizmos correctly, the beginning of Daylight Savings Time often brings out two ugly personality traits: “dual time droning” and “lost hour lamenting.”

Dual time droners will spend the next month reminding everyone of what time it would have been without DST. “Yeah, it’s 5:30, but it’s REALLY only 4:30. Yeah, it’s 7:15, but it’s REALLY 6:15. Yeah, it’s 9:22, but it’s REALLY — Ack! It’s. Really. Time. To. Stop. Choking. Me!”

Lost hour lamenters act as if they’re the victim of an armed robbery. “The hour we lost the other night really hurts,” they moan. “It’s not fair. We were supposed to gain an extra hour last fall, but I didn’t feel it.”

Unfortunately, most folks were not thinking ahead last fall and didn’t deposit their extra hour in the bank. If they did they could have received it back in the spring with interest. On Saturday morning, if you look very carefully, you will see a handful of forward-thinking souls filling out withdrawal slips at the bank and collecting exactly 64 minutes and 28 seconds.

It’s interesting to watch an entire nation, normally obsessed with time-keeping accuracy, wander around in a fog for the better part of a week. You’ll see it beginning on Sunday morning: people strolling into church five minutes before the service ends. It will continue on Monday: school children standing at the end of their driveways for hours because their parents got confused and sent them out to wait for the school bus shortly after midnight.

Most of all, you’ll see chaos in the workplace: employees sauntering into the office just before lunch time and blaming their tardiness on Daylight Savings Time. (The rest of the year I have to come up with different excuses.) 

Maybe we could turn our clocks ahead an entire year and completely skip the presidential election. That would prove Americans are not so dumb, wouldn’t it?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Do You Choose Door No. 1 or Door No. 2?

Imagine there is a new game show on daytime TV. A contestant is selected at random from the studio audience. The person comes up on stage, and here is how the game is played: the person must choose either Door No. 1 or Door No. 2. Behind Door No. 1 there are two possible options: either a prize of one million dollars or nothing. Behind Door No. 2 there also are two possible options: either nothing or a large, angry man who comes through the door and punches the contestant right in the face.

As you might suspect, the ratings for this show are not very good. Even the dumbest contestant will choose Door No. 1 every time (and doesn’t it seem there must be a screening process for game show audience members, whereby anyone with an I.Q. higher than 80 is not allowed in?).

It’s really not much of a choice. The possibilities behind Door No. 1 are either something good or nothing. And the possibilities behind Door No. 2 are either something bad or nothing. Every person who ever plays the game obviously will choose Door No. 1. After watching a few people win either the million dollars or nothing, viewers at home will change the channel.

This game show scenario is a modern-day version of Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a famous 17th century French mathematician, inventor, and Christian philosopher. He was a genius child prodigy, which means he was way too smart to be selected as a game show audience member.

Pascal devised an argument in Christian apologetics, which has become known as “Pascal’s Wager.” He explained that God either exists or He doesn’t. People should choose to believe God exists because if they’re right, they “win” eternal joy in Heaven, and if they’re wrong, they lose nothing. However, if people choose to believe that God does not exist, if they’re right, they win nothing, and if they’re wrong, they lose everything in the form of eternal torment in Hell.

So this is similar to our fictitious TV game show, except without all the flashing lights and music and commercials every six minutes.

Many atheists sneer at Pascal’s Wager, acknowledging the logic behind it, but insisting they cannot “force” themselves to believe in a deity they know does not exist. Even some Christians criticize Pascal’s Wager, claiming that choosing to believe in God simply to “win” a prize and avoid torment is a selfish reason to have faith.

But here are a couple things to consider. First, if our motivation for seeking God is indeed selfish—the desire to have eternal joy rather than eternal torment—God is OK with that. He knows we’re weak and sinful and self-centered. If we at first draw near to Him with less than ideal motives, eventually we will come to understand how majestic and righteous and perfect God truly is, and our motives will change and become more noble and less selfish. We will stop thinking about ourselves and seek God for His own sake, out of pure love for Someone who is infinitely good and merciful.

Second, despite what many atheists think, there is NO scientific proof that God does not exist. Science studies only the natural world and has no authority at all to comment on supernatural phenomena. If someone honestly and openly studies the many philosophical proofs for God’s existence (for a start, search Aquinas and Kreeft), he will discover the question is not nearly as clear-cut as modern atheism insists. He just might reach a point where he can sincerely consider Pascal’s Wager and realize there is no downside to believing in God’s existence. 

So it’s a rather simple choice: do you choose Door No. 1 or Door No. 2? At the end of our earthly journey, when the door we choose is finally opened, we will discover that faith in God is so wonderful, a million dollar prize will seem like ten cents.