Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Jesus Says: ‘Do Not Worry’

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not worry.” He then asked a rhetorical question: “How many of you by worrying can add a single moment to your life-span?” The words Jesus used were somewhat ambiguous, so some Bible scholars translate His question as: “How many of you by worrying can add a single cubit to your height?”
Either way, we do not extend our life-span or get any taller by worrying. Medical science now understands that constant worrying can make people physically ill, and therefore can reduce their life-span. (I’m not sure if worrying reduces our height, but I know a few chronic worrywarts who always seem to be hunched over wringing their hands in fear, so maybe worrying at least causes us to have bad posture.)

Jesus clearly said to His followers, “Do not worry.” The theme of avoiding worry and fear is prevalent throughout Scripture. In fact, scholars note that the Bible contains phrases such as, “Do not fear,” “Fear not,” or, “Be not afraid” exactly 365 times. Gee, what a coincidence. God has given us a different Bible admonishment to avoid fear for each day of the entire calendar year. (However, every four years on Leap Day, February 29th, you’re on your own.)

Since Jesus said we should not worry, along with the Bible’s relentless message to be not afraid, why is it then that people who follow Christ are often the most pessimistic worrywarts around?
Some of the most fearful doom-and-gloomers I’ve ever met were folks involved in church activities. To be fair, I spend most of my spare time involved in church activities. So maybe if I spent my spare time differently, such as getting drunk at bars or blowing my paycheck at a casino, I’d meet a whole new group of people who are even more fearful and depressed. (On second thought, if that’s how I spent my spare time, I would be the most fearful one of all—fearful of what my darling wife will do when she finds out.)

It’s one thing to say to someone, “Do not worry.” And even if you explain that worrying does no good and can make you sick and can give you bad posture, the person will not automatically stop worrying if he or she is truly fearful about something.
Usually we worry because we are fearful of the unknown future. We don’t know what will happen, but we’re afraid it might be something bad, so our bodies instinctively go into that uncomfortable worrying mode, which makes us skittish and anxious and downright miserable.

The only way to stop worrying is to have confidence that the unknown future will work out OK. That’s where Jesus comes in. His telling us, “Do not worry” is not merely a hollow exhortation like, “Hey pal, lighten up.” It is instead a divine promise that the future will be OK.

God is the only person who knows the future, and since Jesus is God, He too knows the future. He knows that no matter what temporary heartache and pain we endure, the final chapter of the story will be glorious: we can be with Him in the paradise of Heaven for all eternity!
Faith, hope, and love are the keys. If we have faith that Jesus truly is the Son God, hope that His promise for the future is true, and love for Him and for all the other struggling folks around us, worry will disappear. That sense of gloom and doom and fear and anxiety will be gone.

Faith in Christ can drive away worry. And those of us who know and follow Him should be joyful examples for everyone else. Pessimistic worrywart behavior is never acceptable. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Italian Customs We Should NOT Adopt

Last week I listed customs I observed in Italy that we should adopt here in the United States. Some of these items include the metric system, 24-hour military time, and seven-course meals. But there are other European habits and traditions we definitely should NOT adopt.

First and foremost on the list is the “shot glass” coffee cup. In Italy, if you order a coffee (caffè) they give you a tiny coffee cup with about one ounce of liquid in it. (Granted, that one ounce contains enough caffeine to keep you awake for three days, but that’s beside the point.) The first time I was handed one of these cups, I said, “No, I didn’t order a souvenir trinket that can be used with a 6-year-old girl’s tea party play set. I ordered a coffee, you know, a big Styrofoam cup with least 20 ounces of steaming hot mud.” (Many people in Italy speak excellent English, but their language classes never covered the phrase “steaming hot mud”.)
Italians now grudgingly offer what they call “Caffè Americano,” which is the same one ounce of super strong coffee with an additional two ounces of hot water, served in a slightly larger cup. When I was handed this, I said, “Really? That’s it? You’re still about 17 ounces short.”

The next Italian custom we never should adopt here is one of their key traffic laws. Apparently, in Italy you will get a ticket if you leave any room between your car and the car in front of you. Tailgating must be their national sport. When Italian motorists get behind the wheel, they all line up six inches away from the car in front, and then everyone careens down narrow cobblestone streets at 50 MPH. It’s like you’re filming a James Bond movie.
The first day we were in the country, while being driven from the airport to our hotel, I said to my wife matter-of-factly, “We’re gonna die. Or at least, we’re gonna witness a horrible crash where someone else dies.” I was convinced that it’s mathematically impossible for cars to drive that fast and that close to each other without a collision occurring every ten minutes or so. And since the vehicles in Italy are all about the size of a regulation golf cart, serious injuries or death were inevitable. Remarkably, however, we were there for eight full days and I did not see one single accident. I didn’t even see many scrapes or dings on the cars parked along the streets. So I think one Italian custom we should adopt here in the U.S. is having drivers actually pay attention while the car is moving.

The next Italian custom we should not adopt here in the States is tight-fitting clothing — on everybody. If you’re young and healthy, skin-tight clothes are fine. Here in America young people have popularized “skinny jeans” and “yoga pants” and other form-fitting apparel. But if you happen to be, for example, a middle-aged guy who’s been sitting behind a desk for the past 35 years, you do not want to put form-fitting pants on an unfit form. It will be uncomfortable for the wearer, and even more uncomfortable for anyone in the vicinity with decent vision. Just sayin’.
In Italy the men wore form-fitting, tailor made business suits. The young guys looked pretty good, but the middle-aged guys looked so uncomfortably squeezed by the suit, if they had to bend over or reach up for something, there was sure to be a loud ripping sound. I prefer my baggy suit, where no one can notice if I hide a toaster oven inside the jacket.

I hope these tips have been helpful. Grazie

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Judgment Not Popular, But It’s Real

This weekend we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. (Advent?! Where did the year go?! Didn’t we just celebrate the 4th of July about three weeks ago?!!)

In the gospel reading at Mass, Jesus discusses His Second Coming and the end of the age. He emphasizes that no one knows when this will occur: “You must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Besides being ready for the end-of-the-world “Judgment Day” when Jesus’ Second Coming occurs, we each need to be ready for our own individual end-of-the-world event. Just look at the daily obituaries in the newspaper. Besides the usual 98-year-old nursing home resident, there often is listed a 26-year-old car accident or a 51-year-old heart attack. We never know when our time on earth will be over.

So it’s very important for each of us to be prepared to meet our Maker, even though the actual Second Coming of Christ most likely will not occur during our lifetime. (But on the other hand, who knows? Maybe it will happen next Tuesday.)

A primary focus this week is on the swift judgment aspect of the end of the age. Jesus compares it to the great flood of Noah’s day. He said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man….They knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.”
In the days of Noah, the world was an incredibly sinful place. God sent the flood as judgment for their wickedness. However, God gave them plenty of time to repent and turn from their evil ways.

Jesus said the very same thing applies to our age. Our world is an incredibly sinful place. We, too, have been given plenty of time to repent and turn from our evil ways. But judgment is coming. We can be sure of that.

Jesus described it: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

God’s judgment will be swift. It will take everyone by surprise. That’s why Jesus warned so often to be on watch and be ready.

This week’s gospel reading highlights a concept that our present world frankly does not want to hear: JUDGMENT. Oooh, how politically incorrect can you get? Judgment? That’s not allowed these days.

We live in the age of moral relativism. There is no such thing as absolute truth anymore. Everyone now is allowed to define for him or herself what’s right and what’s wrong.
As a result, the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. The only idea which is definitely wrong is the idea that something can be definitely wrong. The only opinion which is strictly forbidden is the opinion that certain things are strictly forbidden. And the only behavior which deserves swift judgment is to say that people will be swiftly judged.

This view may make people feel enlightened and comfortable and oh so tolerant, but it is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.

People can go through life defining their own version of right and wrong, and insisting there never will be any judgment. But that’s no different than the captain of the Titanic insisting the ship is unsinkable, even as the massive vessel slips below the icy sea. And repeating it over and over to yourself does not transform fantasy into reality.

Jesus is loving and merciful, but He also is the Cosmic Judge. We must, as Jesus said, “Be prepared.” We do this by embracing Him in faith, asking for forgiveness, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we do this, we will have nothing to fear when Judgment Day finally arrives. (OK, well maybe we’ll be a little bit scared.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Italian Customs We Should Adopt

As I mentioned last week, my wife and I were blessed recently to be able to travel to Italy for our daughter’s wedding. Many things in Italy are very different than here in America. It was almost like being in a foreign county. Um, wait, forget that last comment.

I made a list of practices I observed in Europe that we should adopt here in the U.S. First, we should bite the bullet and finally switch over to the metric system. We are just about the last holdouts in the world who insist on sticking to a system of measurement based on the King of England’s foot size and other random oddities. It’s definitely time for something a bit more scientific and rational.
Next, we should adopt the 24-hour military method for telling time. Yes, I realize phrases like “fifteen o’clock” and “seventeen hundred hours” will take some getting used to, but at least the 24-hour system prevents people from doing what I did recently. I was searching for an airline flight online, and I wanted to depart late morning and arrive early evening. I saw a flight that departed at 10:30, connected through Baltimore, and then arrived at 7:15. Perfect. So I booked the flight, and only then did I see a little “plus 1 day” note in small print. It turns out I selected a trip that departed at 10:30 PM, gave me the joyous opportunity to sleep on the floor in the Baltimore airport (again!), and then arrive at my final destination at 7:15 the next morning. So let’s dump the AM and PM stuff, and go with the 22:30 method.
Another custom we should have here is the “man purse.” Yeah, I know it’s acceptable for men to have backpacks or briefcases or computer bags. But when we went sightseeing in Italy I didn’t need something that large. I just needed something the size of my wife’s purse with a strap, which I could throw over my shoulder. But of course I’m an American, and carrying a purse would make me a sissy, so instead I shoved everything I needed into my pants pockets, which did two things: it made me quite uncomfortable whenever I took a step, and it made me look like a shoplifter. All the European men who were sightseeing had small, comfortable shoulder bags, and the way their cute girlfriends were embracing them made it clear the purses did not negatively impact their masculinity in any way.
Another Italian custom we should adopt is the seven-course meal — for unimportant occasions — and the twelve-course meal for important occasions, for example, when someone says, “Hey, I feel hungry.” In my American experience, when we have pasta, that’s the meal. Maybe there’s some salad and/or bread, but the pasta is the main course. In Italy, they serve pasta to give you something to do while you’re thinking of what you want for dinner. The pasta, along with courses of soup and fish and maybe another type of pasta are just the warm-up bands. The star attraction is not going to take the stage for another hour or two. And in restaurants in Italy, they don’t hustle you out as soon as possible so they can seat new customers at that table. When you sit down to dinner, you can stay all night.
 Some additional things I liked about Italy: traffic rotaries instead of four-way stops, which really keep things moving; mid-day siestas; using “f” instead of “ph” to spell words like telefono (telephone) and farmacia (pharmacy); and small cars that are easy to park. 

But there are some things about Italy we definitely should NOT adopt over here. I’ll discuss those items next week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The ‘Floating City’ Is Slowly Sinking

About a thousand years ago, here’s what happened when a real estate developer stood up and addressed the local Planning & Zoning Committee:
“OK, this is my plan,” he began. “I want to develop those swampy islands out in the lagoon, a couple miles off the mainland. First, we go to Croatia and chop down a few billion trees. Then we bring the trees here by boat, and we pile-drive them down into the mud. Then we build a platform on top, right at sea level. No no, wait. I can see you’re a little skeptical. Hear me out. So then, we build a Gothic and Renaissance city of stone on top of the platform, with churches and basilicas, museums, opera houses, huge public squares, apartment buildings, stores, restaurants, and hundreds of foot bridges so people can cross all the canals. It’s gonna be great! Millions of tourists will visit every year and spend tons of money! I’m gonna call the place ‘Venice,’ also known as ‘The Floating City.’ So whataya think?”
One committee member says, “Excuse me, but why don’t you build your stone city on — oh, I don’t know — SOLID GROUND?! Say, in a place like Padua or Verona or Milano?”

“No no,” the developer replies, “other people are already building Gothic and Renaissance stuff in those towns, just like they are all over Europe. We need something special to set us apart. We need a ‘hook’ to bring in the tourists. We need an entire city rising up out of the water. We need to do this Venice project. And I might add, if you approve my plan, each of you will have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the lucrative gondola business. Eighty euros for a 20 minute ride in a fancy canoe. Do the math, my friends.”
OK, so maybe that’s not exactly how the P&Z meeting went back then. I’m pretty sure they didn’t even have Planning and Zoning Committees, because if they did, the Venice project never would have been approved.

My wife and I were blessed with the opportunity to visit Venice recently, when we were in Italy for our daughter’s wedding. We were in Venice two days, and I spent the entire time wandering around with my jaw hanging opening, gazing at the fabulous sights and repeatedly asking no one in particular, “How do you say ‘un-freakin-believable’ in Italian?”

Venice is breath-taking, remarkable, and miraculous. It’s also quite insane. Do a Google search for the phrase “Is Venice sinking?” and you’ll find countless articles, written by a host of respectable scientists, who are certain that Venice will be underwater one day, and sooner than later. All those wooden posts, with that massive stone city on top, are slowly and steadily sinking down into the mud. And combined with the fact sea levels are on the rise, Venice is toast — quite soggy toast.
The demise of Venice likely won’t happen in our lifetime, but it will happen. And that is so sad, because the city is simply fascinating, albeit a fascinatingly terrible idea. I’m not a structural engineer, but I’m pretty sure the first thing they teach in structural engineering class is: never build a massive stone basilica on a swamp. 

Well, the average Venitian is not blind. (Get it? Venitian? Blind? Oh, never mind.) When the city finally sinks below the sea, an enterprising developer surely will go before the P&Z Committee and say, “OK, hear me out. We bring tourists out into the lagoon in boats. Then we rent SCUBA gear. Two-hundred euros for a 20 minute dive down to see the sights. It’s gonna be great! We’ll call it ‘Atlantis’.”

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Gospel Causes Division

In Luke’s gospel, chapter 12, Jesus made some startling statements: “I have come to set the earth on fire….Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division….a father will be divided against his son…a mother against her daughter.”

Then a couple of chapters later, Jesus said this: “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…he cannot be my disciple.”
Whoa, what’s up with that? I thought Jesus was all about love and mercy. I thought families that love and care for each other are the foundation of a strong and healthy society. Does Jesus really mean that people should hate their family members, and that if they’re not sure whether they dislike their loved ones or not, Jesus Himself will jump in and cause painful divisions within a household?

How does that make any sense at all?

Well, we have to interpret Jesus’ words in light of the entirety of Scripture, plus 2,000 years of Church teachings and tradition. There’s no doubt that Jesus is all about love and mercy. The basic Gospel message is indeed the “good news.” To summarize: God created us to be in a loving relationship with Him, but we rebelled and decided we could handle things on our own (this is called sin). However, instead of leaving us to wallow in sin and death and eternal separation from God (this is called Hell), the Father sent His only Son to offer us a way out of our predicament. Jesus paid the price for our sins when He sacrificed His life on the cross, and then He conquered death once and for all when He rose from the tomb. Best of all, He promised that if we simply put our faith and trust in Him, we too can rise from the dead and enter into a glorious loving relationship with God for all eternity. It doesn’t get any better than that.

In the seemingly harsh verses from Luke’s gospel, Jesus was offering a warning. He was saying, in effect, that although the Gospel message is good, not everyone is going to accept it as true, and when that happens there is going to be a lot of bitterness and division, much of which occurs within families.

Many of us know of nonreligious families where one member suddenly gets fired up about faith and begins sharing his or her religious views with everyone else. There’s an old expression: It’s not polite to talk about religion or politics. (Apparently, Facebook was invented to put this expression to the test, as it seems half of all posts are political or religious in nature, causing many people to conclude, “I didn’t know him very well in high school, but based on his daily Facebook rants, I’m sure glad we now live in different states!”)
Religion and politics have been known to stir up hard feelings within families. But here’s the thing: if you truly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, you simply HAVE to talk about it. It’s the difference between life or death; eternal joy or eternal torment. Jesus’ message is bound to set people against one another because people really can’t remain neutral about it. A person will either embrace it with joy, or reject it as foolishness.

Sadly, there have been, and continue to be, bitter divisions within families over the question of whether the Gospel is true, so much so that loved ones never speak to each other again. This is the “division” and “hatred” Jesus referred to.

When the stakes are high, such as in politics, differences of opinion can produce a lot of outrage. When the stakes are as high as they can possibly get—either eternal joy or eternal torment—differences of opinion can produce the greatest outrage of all: divisions within a family.
When Jesus made those statements in Luke’s gospel, He certainly was not gloating about it; He spoke with a heavy heart. Despite the risk of causing division, even among loved ones, we are called to follow the truth. We are called to follow Christ.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

REPRINT: "Is This Sox Fan Changing Allegiance?"

[After last night's amazing extra-inning Game 7, it's appropriate to reprint this column, which was published in early April, 2016]

As many people know, my favorite team is the Red Sox. In fact, the banner at the top of my online blog describes me as “a Recovering Atheist, Baby Boomer, Left-Handed Red Sox fan.” The accompanying photo shows me proudly wearing my Sox cap. Citizenship in Red Sox Nation is one of my primary points of identification.

In the summer of 1967, as a wide-eyed 10-year-old, I was dazzled by the exploits of Carl Yastrzemski during the “Impossible Dream” pennant-winning season. Ever since, I’ve been passionately following the fortunes of the Crimson-hosed Batsmen of the Back Bay. For many decades, it was an agonizing adventure. But then during the past dozen years, the Sox did the unthinkable: they actually won the World Series three different times. For someone who repeatedly intoned New England’s official communal prayer, “Please, Lord, let me see them win it just once before I die,” the last 12 years have been an embarrassment of riches. (And yes, I realize they came in last place three out of the last four years. But c’mon, remember how depressing it was in ’75, ’78, ’86, and ’03? Remember how we ached to see them win it just once? Don’t start acting like a Yankees fan. The fact is, even if the Sox end up in last place every year for the next half century, we have witnessed more glorious success than we ever dreamed.)

So, now that the 2016 season has begun, I have only one thing to say: this year I hope the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.
Wait. What?! The Cubs? Why the Cubs?

Let me explain. Do I love the Red Sox? Of course. But I also love the game of baseball. So I can empathize with fellow fans in other communities (except the Bronx). Remember the “Curse of the Bambino” and all those chants of, “Nine-teen, eight-teen!” and that ridiculous 86-year timespan since the last time the Red Sox had won? Don’t let the three recent championships make you forget all that frustration and humiliation. 

Well, if you think the Red Sox drought was long, the poor Cubbies have not won a World Series since 1908. Yankees fans used to mock us for the 86-year gap, but the Cubs have not won in 108 years! 

The last time the Cubs won it all, Teddy Roosevelt was president, and his ambitious fifth cousin Franklin was only 26 years old. In 1908 The Great War (later named World War I) was six years off into the future, the first commercial radio broadcast was still 12 years away, and the luxury ocean liner “Titanic” was still on the drawing board. In 1908 Henry Ford introduced his revolutionary Model T automobile, the Grand Canyon was designated a national monument, and for the first time a ball dropped at Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
In 1908 the following persons were born (now long deceased, of course): Rex Harrison, Bette Davis, Edward R. Murrow, Jimmy Stewart, Ian Fleming, Milton Berle, Carole Lombard, and Lyndon Johnson.

In 1908, a popular new song was “Shine On Harvest Moon.” Another popular new song that year, ironically, was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Let’s face it, 1908 was a LONG time ago!

If any ball club, if any fan base, deserves to see their team win, it’s the Cubs. Therefore, I am rooting for them this year. It just seems like the right thing to do. 

However, if it turns out the Cubs square off against the Red Sox in the World Series, my revised attitude will be: Hey, Cub fans have been waiting quite a long time — and they can wait a little longer.

[Congratulation Cubs fans. Since the Bosox did not get past the first round of the playoffs, I was rootin' for ya. Enjoy this feeling. It's really special and you deserve it!]

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

If There Is No Resurrection, Then Who Cares?

In this week’s gospel reading, a group of Sadducees attempted to trap Jesus with a hypothetical question. If a person had more than one spouse on earth, who would be the one true spouse in Heaven?

After offering a fairly ridiculous scenario, the Sadducees said, “Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.”

We know their inquiry was a trap rather than sincere because the Scripture reading begins: “Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus…”
If those guys did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, then why did they bother asking the question? It’s a moot point. If there is no life after death, then—let me see if I can phrase this properly—WHO CARES?!

This passage reminds us that skepticism about life-after-death is not exclusively a modern phenomenon. People who sneer at the idea of a resurrection and deny the existence of Heaven and Hell have been around for thousands of years. It just SEEMS like it’s a modern phenomenon because a small minority of secular elites have commandeered so much power and influence in our culture these days.

People who deny a supernatural dimension to life and who believe that religious faith is a silly ancient superstition now dominate many facets of society: the news media, education, entertainment, government bureaucracies, and the legal system, just to name a few.

Once again, it’s a basic clash of worldviews. Atheistic vs. Theistic. Secular vs. Spiritual. Did God create mankind or did mankind create God? (That is, did mankind, during a primitive era marked by fear and ignorance, invent the concept we call “God”?).
The secular view is present even in many religious organizations. A Christian theologian, Professor Roy W. Hoover, states this view with stark clarity: “The idea of resurrection is embedded in an ancient worldview that is outdated in a scientific age. The belief in a general resurrection of the dead simply cannot stand as an article of faith.”

However, if belief in resurrection is removed as an article of faith, the heart of Christianity is removed. Without a hope for resurrection, the primary purpose of the faith is gone. There is nothing left, except to ask the question the Sadducees should have asked—let me see if I can phrase this properly—WHO CARES?!

After one of Professor Hoover’s public forums, where he espoused the view that life-after-death is a silly ancient superstition, one attendee, a Methodist minister, commented on the implications of teaching Christianity without any hope of Heaven: “I don’t think that helps me too much when I’m counseling a grieving family.”

No kidding, Reverend.

St. Paul understood the importance of belief in the resurrection. He wrote in 1st Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, and if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

If there is no life-after-death, then it just doesn’t matter. Years ago I was an atheist and a drunk. I’m not very proud of my actions back then, but given my worldview, my behavior was actually quite logical and consistent. If we cease to exist at the moment of death, then life is ultimately meaningless, so why NOT have a well-balanced breakfast of Cocoa Puffs and vodka? No matter what we do now, in a hundred years or less we’ll all be gone, so—let me see if I can phrase this properly—WHO CARES?!
Like St. Paul, Jesus also had no doubts about life-after-death and resurrection. After He answered the Sadducees’ silly question, He addressed their unbelief: “That the dead will rise even Moses made known….[God] is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.” 

Faith in resurrection and hope for life-after-death are the heart of Christianity. They are the answer to the skeptic’s question, “Who cares?” Jesus cares. He cares a lot! And He offered His life to ensure that we can live forever.