Friday, September 28, 2018

‘Bye-Bye, and Be Careful!’

Quite often, whenever someone is about to leave the house, someone else in the family will say, “Bye-bye. Be careful.”

If you don’t happen to hear that when you leave the house, it means either your family members don’t care about you, or you belong to the Flying Wallendas family, where the standard expression is, “Bye-bye. Be dangerous.”

It also could mean you’re home alone and no one is around to say “Be careful” to you. In those instances, when there’s no one in my house to say “Be careful” to me, I take on that duty by having a conversation with myself. As I walk out the front door, I say, “Be careful, Bill. Oh, thank you for your concern, Bill. Don’t mention it, Bill. OK, Bill, maybe you should stop talking to yourself now because the neighbors are staring at you. No, they’re staring at you. Nuh uh, they’re staring at you!”

Anyway, what exactly does “Be careful” really mean? Is it simply a way of saying, “I care about you, so have a safe journey”? Or does the expression have some deeper meaning? In some cases, saying “Be careful” as a person leaves the house also could mean:

“You’re not smart enough to realize that driving an automobile on our congested highways these days is risky, so unless I say, ‘Be careful,’ you’ll surely drive recklessly and end up plowing into a bridge abutment at 80 mph.”

Or it could mean, “I’ve said ‘Be careful’ to you every time you’ve left the house for the last 30 years and you’ve never had a car accident, so the one time I don’t say it you probably will have an accident and everyone will blame me, so I’m gonna keep saying ‘Be careful’ whenever you walk out that front door, even if you’re just going to get the mail.”

Or it could mean, “One of these days you’re going to have a fender-bender, and when that happens I’ll be able to say, ‘I told you to be careful! Why weren’t you careful? You never listen to me! I go to all the trouble of reminding you to be careful, and what do you do to show your gratitude? You smash up the car! Thanks a lot, pal!’”

For decades my wife has said “Be careful” to me each time I’ve left the house. Being the snarkaholic that I am, I would usually reply, “No! I’m NOT going to be careful! Just because you said that, I’m going to put on a blindfold and drive 100 mph and steer with my feet!”

Then she would roll her eyes and say, “Well, when you’re driving to work, at least don’t have any of those distracting conversations with yourself, OK?”

For many years I thought I was being such a carefree smart-aleck, and then something truly frightening occurred: our two daughters became teenagers and got their driver’s licenses. Now, this happened a long time ago, but I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Every time one of the girls walked out the front door, I leapt up from the couch and pleaded, “Be careful! I mean it, really. BE CAREFUL!!” And then as I returned to the couch, I could feel another patch of hair on my head turning white.

Then, a little while later, in case she had forgotten, I called her cell phone and said, “Hey, it’s me. Just be careful, OK?” My daughter would reply, “Dad, I swear I’ll be careful — as soon as you hang up so I can back out of the driveway.”

Well, I’m no longer a snarkaholic (at least on this particular issue). So, everybody, please, do me a favor: be careful!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Fruits of the Spirit or Bitter Fruits?

In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists nine “fruits of the spirit” (not to be confused with Fruit of the Loom). The fruits of the spirit are the attitudes and attributes of a person who is fully in tune with the will of God and who lives a very Christlike life. The fruits are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If we are honest, there are very few people nowadays who embody all of these nine characteristics. Actually, there are fewer and fewer people these days who embody ANY of these nine characteristics.

Some of the fruits of the spirit are the foundation of the Christian worldview: faithfulness and love. If we don’t have faith, if we don’t believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we are not going to know that love must be the essence of a Christian’s life. A quick look at our modern culture makes it very clear that many people no longer have faith in God, and as a result, true sacrificial love has been replaced by selfish lust, and the results are not pretty.

Other fruits of the spirit are the direct result of having faith and expressing that faith through love. These are: joy, peace, kindness, and generosity. These fruits are not things we can set out to achieve and then work toward them. They are the byproducts of doing other things properly, that is, of having faith in Christ and being filled with His love. If someone has true faith and demonstrates an abundance of love toward others, that person also will be filled with joy and peace, with kindness and generosity soon following. Two-thousand years of Christian history proves beyond a doubt this is true.

The three remaining fruits of the spirit are the ones we have the most control over: patience, gentleness, and self-control. Unfortunately, our modern culture practically demands that we do the exact opposite of these three fruits.

First, let’s consider patience. We live in an instant gratification society. If people do not get what they want immediately, they go bonkers. Just think of all the modern products and services available that emphasize “instant relief,” “same-day service,” or “overnight delivery.” This reminds me of my favorite prayer: “Lord, please give me patience—and I want it RIGHT NOW!”

Next, let’s look at gentleness. Our culture rewards aggressiveness and mocks anyone who is quiet, reserved, and polite. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease!” we hear constantly, as we are encouraged to “stand up for our rights” and “demand satisfaction.” Which usually means: throw a temper tantrum and badger others until you get what you want. Not very attractive, and not a likely source of peace and happiness.

The final fruit is self-control. Oh boy, where do we even begin? Our modern culture—with a big boost from the advertising industry and the sexual revolution of the 1960s—had conditioned contemporary citizens to give in to every urge that comes our way. Do you have an urge to buy something? Cha-ching! Do you have an urge to eat something? Chow down! Do you have an urge to have sex with someone? Go for it! Our national anthem during the past 50 years has been: “If it feels good, do it!”

So, is the average American happy and joyful and serene as a result of ignoring the nine fruits of the spirit? Not even close. Instead of fruits of the spirit, our culture is harvesting bitter fruits. It’s time for us to be counter-cultural. It’s time to reject the self-centered attitudes of our modern society and instead embrace the eternal truths of God. St. Paul knew what he was talking about. The nine fruits of the spirit are the key to a happy and fulfilled life. Let’s give them a try.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Five-Second Rule

Everybody knows about the “five-second rule” for food. If you drop food on the kitchen floor, as long as you pick it up within five seconds, it’s still OK to eat.

The only exception to this rule is if you live in a house with pets that shed a lot. If you pick up, say, a fallen Hostess Fruit Pie within five seconds and it resembles one of those Troll dolls with colorful hair sticking out in all directions, then maybe you shouldn’t eat it. I say “maybe” because I realize that if it is the last Hostess Fruit Pie in the house, you cannot just throw it away and be satisfied snacking instead on Saltines or a rice cake. You simply have to try and salvage some of that hairy little fruit pie.

Anyway, the five-second rule comes in very handy if you’re like me: an enthusiastic eater with occasional butter fingers. And speaking of butter fingers, try not to drop a Butterfingers candy bar on the kitchen floor because they tend to shatter. A Three Musketeer bar, on the other hand, is the best. It only dents when it thuds against the floor. You can reach down, pick it up, pop it in your mouth, and all is right with the world.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a five-second rule, not for things we want to put into our mouths, but for things that come out of our mouths, namely our words? Wouldn’t it be nice if each time we said something really stupid or hurtful, as long as we said within five seconds, “No, I didn’t mean that!” then everyone would instantly forget what was said and carry on as if nothing happened?

It’s not like we even need the full five seconds. Judging from my own experience, most of the time when I say something stupid or hurtful, before the words have even come out of my mouth, the rational part of my brain is yelling to me, “Don’t say it, pal! Please don’t say it!”

But it’s usually too late. The emotional part of my brain replies to the rational part, “Shut up, twerp!” Then the emotional part of my brain clicks the send button, causing the stupid or hurtful words to spew forth from my mouth. (Often these words also include the phrase, “Shut up, twerp!”)

The instant the words are spoken, the emotional part of my brain suddenly turns rational and remorseful — a few moments too late. This is because the emotional part of my brain hates to see someone cry. At this point, no matter how sincerely I say, “I didn’t mean that” and “I was just kidding,” the damage has been done. The other person somehow is not convinced I was just kidding, possibly because people who are “just kidding” don’t turn red and have veins bulging in their necks and spray spittle across the room while shouting the word “twerp.”

Just think how much better our lives would be if we had five seconds to take back our words. The divorce rate would be cut in half, the Saturday night barroom brawl rate would be reduced, and the dreaded H.F.F. — Hard Feelings Factor — would be practically eliminated. C’mon, you know what I mean. The H.F.F. is what keeps family members from speaking to each other for decades at a time, because of a snarky comment no one can even remember anymore.

Best of all, if we didn’t have to spend half our lives trying to make up for the stupid and hurtful things we say, we would have more time to snack on Hostess Fruit Pies and Three Musketeer bars — on or off the floor.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

What is the Source and Summit of the Christian Life?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that one particular thing is the “Source and Summit of the Christian Life.”

I conducted an informal survey among some of my closest imaginary friends, and asked them if they knew what the source and summit of the Christian life might be. One person replied, “It must be the Pope, right?”

Another answered, “I’d say the Vatican.” Still another said, “The source and summit? Well, that must be the Bible.”

One person said, “The source and summit has to be pot luck suppers. That’s the only reason I go to church.”

Another offered this answer: “I’d say that Jesus is the source and summit of the Christian life.”

OK, now we’re getting close. The source and summit of the Christian life, according to the Catechism, is not the Pope, not the Vatican, not the Bible, and definitely not pot luck suppers—although I must say that church pot luck suppers are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

The source and summit of the Christian life is the Eucharist. That’s right, the bread and wine at Mass are the pinnacle of what it means to be Christian. Now, if you think the bread and wine are just bread and wine, then you probably think declaring it the most important aspect of Christian life is quite misguided. But the fact is, the Church has always taught that it is not mere bread and wine. After the prayers of consecration by an ordained priest, God works a miracle and transforms the ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

And Church leaders did not decide to teach this just because it seemed like a cool and mysterious thing to declare. Bread and wind becoming the body and blood of Jesus is exactly what Jesus Himself declared, both at the Last Supper and during His famous “Bread of Life” discourse, found in John’s gospel, chapter 6.

Many anti-Catholic groups these days claim that Church leaders “invented” this doctrine during the Middle Ages as part of a sinister plan to consolidate power among the clergy. However, if you read St. Paul’s epistles, especially his first letter to the Corinthians, along with the writings of the early Church fathers from the first, second, and third centuries, it is very clear that Christians embraced the doctrine of the Eucharist from the very beginning.

For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch, in the year 110 A.D. (which was just a couple decades after the last apostles died), wrote this: “[Heretics] abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

And a few decades later, St. Justin Martyr had this to say: “We call this food Eucharist…not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these.…the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him…is both the Flesh and the Blood of that incarnated Jesus.”

So, the person who responded to my informal survey by saying Jesus is the source and summit of the Christian life, gets half-credit for his answer. (Yeah, I would’ve been a tough teacher when it comes to grading papers.)

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life only because it IS Jesus, truly present for us. This is a breath-taking miracle that occurs at every Mass. Those of us who get more excited about pot luck suppers than the fact our Lord and Savior is really present in the bread and wine, might need to re-think our priorities.

Jesus is there for us, flesh and blood, in the Eucharist. Although prayer and Bible study and helping those in need are great ways to draw closer to the Lord, there is nothing that brings us in direct contact with Him more than the Eucharist. The Eucharist, the real body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus is indeed the source and summit of the Christian life.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tender Tootsies in the Holy Land

Recently, I was looking at some Renaissance artwork online, and many of the paintings depicted scenes from the Bible. After a while I noticed that almost every person in the paintings was barefoot. Since the terrain of the Holy Land seems to be fairly rocky and harsh, not to mention the likelihood of countless lizards, snakes, and scorpions crawling all over the place, I said to myself, “Man, if I lived in biblical times, I would’ve worn army boots every day.”

But then it dawned on me: oh yeah, they didn’t have army boots back then. In fact, one of the paintings showed Roman soldiers, who were wearing what seemed to be flip-flops with a thin strap around their ankles. How did the Roman army conquer so many nations wearing flip-flops? Can you imagine how many additional countries they would’ve invaded if the soldiers had real army boots? Or even a decent pair of Air Jordan sneakers? (Or, since we’re letting our imaginations run wild at the moment, a couple of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers?)

Anyway, I never would have survived back then, let alone been an effective soldier in the army, because my feet are too tender. This reminds me of a backyard picnic my wife and I attended earlier in the summer. After a while, I took off my sneakers and started walking on the lawn with my bare feet. Within five minutes I was doing the famous “Ah-ooh-ee” dance, where a person tries to walk without putting any weight on his feet and by having each foot touch the ground for no more than a nanosecond. This is impossible, of course, because gravity, being the unreasonable force of nature that it is, doesn’t care whether your feet are in pain. It insists that weight be applied to the ground with each step. And after scarfing down four hot dogs and a quantity of potato salad that could’ve ended the Irish famine of 1845, the amount of weight I applied to the ground with each step was rather significant. Also, I’ve discovered it’s impossible to limit each foot’s contact with the ground to a nanosecond or less, mostly because I have no idea what a nanosecond is.

So, I was doing the “Ah-ooh-ee” dance, and looking about as comfortable as someone trying to walk barefoot across a parking lot strewn with broken glass. But it wasn’t a parking lot; it was a fairly lush, nicely-maintained lawn. Unlike the lawn at my house, this one consisted of real grass, with hardly any weeds or twigs or pebbles. This lawn looked a lot like center field at Fenway Park, and yet my bare feet were in major distress.

I made it back to the lawn chair where I had left my sneakers. Before putting the sneakers back on, I examined my feet, which by this point were pulsating with pain, expanding out four inches in all directions with each heartbeat, then contracting back to normal size, before expanding out again — just like you see in cartoons. I think there were little lightning bolt lines coming off the bottom of my feet, too, the official cartoon symbol for pain (as opposed to wavy lines, which is the official cartoon symbol for something that stinks). OK, maybe the cartoon effects were not really present, but it sure felt that way.

If I cannot even walk across a lush lawn barefoot, there is little chance that I would’ve made a decent apostle in the Bible. I can see Jesus declaring to His followers, “Come, follow me!” And then He pauses, shakes His head and says, “And we’ll wait for Bill to put on his army boots.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Key to Happiness

Ten-thousand years of accumulated human wisdom has determined that people are the happiest when they do two things: 1) humbly trust the Almighty Creator, and 2) have loving relationships with their family and friends.

Now, here’s what our modern, sophisticated culture tells us to do in order to be happy: ignore silly religious traditions; accumulate far more material possessions than we need or ever could use; and proudly and arrogantly compare ourselves to others, so we can boast about how much better we are than they.

Western civilization has never been more secular, prosperous, and self-centered than it is right now. So, if modern, sophisticated wisdom is correct, we should be the happiest we’ve ever been since the dawn of time, right?

Wrong. Nowadays people are downright miserable. Consider these undeniable facts: The suicide rate is skyrocketing. Drug abuse is rampant. Divorce is commonplace. Families are disintegrating. Anti-depressants are being prescribed in record numbers. Far too many people, especially children, live in fear and loneliness. And no one can trust anyone because rampant self-centeredness causes people lie, cheat, and steal without compunction, making them untrustworthy and unreliable.

We keep hearing how our modern society is so intelligent and brilliant, especially with our amazing technology and the countless new methods we’ve devised to maximize comfort and pleasure. But since we’ve all but abandoned the wisdom of our ancestors—which is the true source of happiness—I sometimes think our modern society is dumber than a bag of rocks.

Jesus summarized this ancient wisdom when He said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said this in answer to some Pharisees and scholars of the Law, who asked Him which commandment is the greatest.

Although Jesus was addressing a specific question about the commandments, His answer is appropriate for so many situations. First, it’s the “Cliff Notes” summary of the most important question in the whole world: How do we get to Heaven?

The Bible, Church Tradition, and 2,000 years of deep-thinking Christian theologians have given us volumes on the topics of salvation, justification, and sanctification. When boiled down to their most basic components, however, all these teachings are talking about the correct path to spend eternity in Heaven with God.

No matter how deep and detailed the writings of these great minds of the Church, everything can be distilled down to Jesus’ two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. If we do these two simple things, we’ve got it covered. (Be aware, when I say “two simple things,” I don’t mean “two easy things.” The path to Heaven is simple; it is, alas, far from easy.) But the point is, if we love God and love our neighbor as best we can, we’ve got the faith the Evangelicals focus so much on, and we’ve got the good deeds Catholics emphasize.

In addition to the most important eternal question—the destination of our souls—Jesus’ two commands provide the solution to our earthly dilemma: how to be happy here in this life?

If we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, we will be doing exactly what 10,000 years of accumulated human wisdom has determined to be the best way to be happy. So, if you find yourself a little too caught up in the hectic rat race of our modern society, and as a result it seems happiness is elusive, you just may be following the hollow and foolish wisdom of our modern culture. You just may be focusing a little too much on yourself and pridefully comparing yourself to others.

Please break the habit. Focus instead on divine wisdom, the wisdom that says the key to happiness is to forget about yourself. Try loving God and loving your neighbor. You’ll be amazed at how much joy it will bring to your life.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Readers Reply: ‘Pets Rule!’

Well, this has been a very interesting exercise.

Over the years I’ve occasionally asked for feedback from readers when I discussed emotional topics, such as politics, religion, and the most volatile issue of all (or so I thought), the Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry.

However, a couple weeks ago I asked readers to reply with their answers to the following simple question: Which pets are best, dogs or cats?

The avalanche of passionate replies I received tells me two things: 1) otherwise sane and normal people have very, very, VERY intense feelings about their pets, and 2) otherwise sane and normal people are anything but sane and normal.

First, let me quote some of the emails from passionate dog lovers. One person wrote, “Cats should not even be classified as ‘pets.’ Any animal that will hiss, scratch or otherwise exude disdain for someone who feeds and tends to it deserves the label ‘zoo animal.’ But doing so actually does disservice to the many wonderful creatures kept at zoos. Dogs rule!”

A woman wrote, “I recently bought my 4th dog, a loving black Labrador retriever. Need I say more????” (Apparently the four question marks tell us that she does not need to say more, although she did in fact continue to say more.) “The love and affection given by dogs makes them rule. For every Mother who ever had empty nest syndrome, the dog is the cure. Who ever heard of a cat replacing your grown child?”

Now that you mention it, I’ve never heard of a cat replacing a grown child. On the other hand, I’ve never heard of a DOG replacing a grown child either. I mean, won’t your grandchildren turn out rather hairy?

Cat lovers also replied, including this person: “I know that my cats are smart even at their young age. Just this morning, one of them walked across the paper while I was reading it and promptly plopped his furry little butt right down on your column!” (The kind of affirmation most writers only dream about.) “I personally prefer cats over dogs. I have never really been a dog person. Dogs are too much like work. You need a shovel to clean up after them. They don’t bathe.”

Another person wrote: “I have a dopey medium sized dog which habitually throws up 10 minutes after eating and acts like a nut case. We also have two cats who do a good job keeping the local rodent population down — a good thing, but not too great when one finds a large intestine sitting on one’s back doormat.” (Yeah, I hate when that happens.)

Yet another person offered this view: “I find cats very affectionate, better than dogs at problem-solving. Cats are cleaner than dogs and, left alone for several days with quantities of litter boxes, water and food, will NOT consume their entire food bowl contents before the first day ends. Our cats eagerly greet visitors, and have the good manners not to check out the off-limit private parts of our company.”

I received three different emails from three different people containing the same phrase, which I assume must be either a tee-shirt slogan or part of the Cat-lick Church worship liturgy: “Cats rule! Dogs drool!”

Do you notice a pattern here? No, I don’t mean the rampant psychosis on display. I mean the fact that most of the respondents not only gave their opinion on which pet is best, but also felt compelled to insult the other pet. The dog lovers barked at cats, and the cat lovers hissed at dogs.

They say owning a pet makes people calm and relaxed. I’m not so sure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A Response to the Latest Catholic Sex Scandals

Oh, dear Lord, here we go again. The Catholic Church is being rocked by more clergy sex abuse scandals. The first time around, beginning in 2002 in Boston, it was shocking and embarrassing. This time around, it is simply infuriating.

After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, plus a lot of prayer, I have come to the conclusion that there are two things I will not do in response to this new scandal: the first thing I won’t do is shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, it was an anomaly. A few ‘bad apples’ did terrible things many years ago and the bishops will make sure it never happens again.”

The shameful behavior described in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, along with the stunning news about disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick—now revealed to be a longtime practitioner of “perversion coercion”—is enough to make you sick. It was not an anomaly. It was not a few bad apples. There were literally hundreds of priests, bishops, and seminary leaders who used and abused teenage boys and young seminarians.

Yes, it is a fact that most of the horrible abuse took place many decades ago. But rather than being motivated by truth and justice, it seems during the past 15 years Church leaders were more concerned about covering up rather that cleaning up. No, this time around I will not shrug off these scandals as rare occurrences from the past that the bishops surely will rectify. On the “hierarchy trust meter,” the needle right now is hovering near zero.

The second thing I will not do in response to these scandals is leave the Catholic Church. Don’t get me wrong: for the past couple weeks every fiber of my being has screamed, “Leave! Get the hell out! Go join a Baptist church or a Methodist church! Anything but that demon-possessed Catholic Church!”

The old expression, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” keeps running through my head. After they’ve fooled me twice, am I really going to stay? Am I that much of a sap?!

Well, I am going to stay in the Catholic Church, and this is why: at the end of His famous “Bread of Life” discourse in John’s gospel, after some very harsh and disturbing teachings, Jesus defiantly said to His disciples, “Do you also want to leave?”

In reply, St. Peter stepped forward and said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

In a nutshell, that is why I’m staying. Despite the horrible crimes committed by many clergy, the Catholic Church is the original church founded by Jesus. It is the Church that teaches the full Gospel message — the “words of eternal life” — and it is the Church where Jesus Christ is really present, body and blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist.

I will not leave Jesus because of Judas. There are many Judases in the Church, some occupying lofty positions in the hierarchy. But despite this reality, the Gospel message is perfect. Jesus chose to give His perfect message to a very imperfect institution.

This is Jesus’ Church, and I am not going to leave it. That’s exactly what Satan wants me to do. Instead, I am going to fight the creeps who are causing the Church to rot from the inside out. I am going to join with the many good and holy priests in the Church, along with the millions of devoted laypeople who love the Church, and be a faith warrior on behalf of all that is good and true and beautiful.

Jesus promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church. But He never said it would be easy. We are entering into one of the most difficult moments in Church history. Christ needs every available warrior to join in this spiritual battle.