Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Was Jesus So Secretive?

In this week’s gospel reading at Mass, Jesus appeared to His disciples at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We read: “This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.” It was only His third appearance—and there were not going to be many others.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus was so secretive about showing Himself to the world after the Resurrection? If I had been His marketing consultant, I would have scheduled all kinds of events and appearances.

The heart of the Christian faith is the Resurrection of Jesus. As St. Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” The Resurrection is the key. If someone claims to be a Christian but does not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then he is simply fooling himself.

Since true saving faith hinges on belief in the Resurrection, why didn’t Jesus spend all His time appearing to as many people as possible? After all, every person who saw Him after the crucifixion would have been one less person who needed to be convinced by the apostle’s preaching.

After His few-and-far-between appearances, Jesus ascended back into Heaven less than six weeks after rising from the tomb. He left it all up to the disciples to convince the world that the Resurrection really happened.

Why didn’t Jesus travel the countryside for at least three years after the Resurrection as He did for three years before the Resurrection? Why didn’t He spend the next 50 years appearing in Greece and Rome and all the other major cultural centers? And now that I think about it, why didn’t He stay on earth for at least 2,000 more years so I could have seen Him in the flesh? If I had seen Jesus and believed in Him when I was in college, it would have spared a lot of heartache during my “Just say ‘Yes’ to drugs” years.

This may come as a shock to many people, but God hardly ever consults with me before making plans—even though I could have come up with dozens of ideas to get Jesus great exposure.

I suppose the answer to these questions can be found in the words Jesus spoke to Doubting Thomas: “You believe because you have seen Me; blessed are those who have not seen and believe.”

Faith is a lot like love. It’s only genuine when we are free to say yes or no. Only when we have the option NOT to believe will our faith be special when we DO believe.

The letter to the Hebrews explains that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith contains an element of trust. We have to trust that the Resurrection really occurred even though we were not eye witnesses.

Those of us who believe without seeing, according to Jesus’ words, are blessed. Our belief in the Resurrection, of course, is not blind faith; it is not an illogical leap into Fantasyland. There is a great deal of convincing evidence that the words of Scripture are true. But an element of doubt is still needed, so that when we offer our faith, trust, and love to God, it is the real thing.

It’s clear Jesus knew what He was doing at all times—including His limited, sporadic appearances after the Resurrection. The Christian faith spread throughout the known world within a few decades, and 20 centuries later it is still alive and vibrant for billions of people.

But still…if I were there, oh what excitement we could’ve generated. First, we book Jesus on “Saturday Night Live”…then a series of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden…then “Dancing With the Stars—Messiah Edition”… then … OK, maybe it’s time for me to shut up now.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Learning How to be a Senior Citizen

For the last few months I’ve been struggling with this senior citizen thing. I just don’t seem to be doing it right. For example, the other day I was at a meeting for work, and one of the younger guys said, “We’re trying to organize a softball game in May. Anyone interested in playing?”

I immediately raised my hand and said, “Sure. Sounds like fun.”

A moment later, my right leg whispered to me, “Psst, hey Bill. You sure that’s a good idea? Don’t you remember two weeks ago?”

“Umm, no,” I replied. “I don’t even remember this morning.” (Drawing a blank about what happened a few hours prior is one aspect of senior citizenship that I am doing quite correctly.)

“Well, let me refresh your memory,” my leg said. “You were limping noticeably for three straight days, including during that meeting in New Haven, where you had to park four blocks away from you client’s office. Do you remember why you were limping?”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “I pulled a hamstring muscle.”

“And do you remember HOW you pulled your hamstring?” my leg asked.

“Umm, I’m not sure. It must’ve been while I was doing something strenuous, like playing basketball or moving furniture.”

“Yeah. No,” my leg said, as it rolled its eyes. “You haven’t done those things in over three decades. You pulled your hamstring getting out of bed.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot,” I admitted.

“So maybe, just maaaaybeee,” my leg said, way too sarcastically, “playing softball is not such a good idea.”

See what I mean? I’m officially a senior citizen now, but I often forget that fact, and I make decisions as if I’m still a young pup in my 40s.

Just then, one of the other persons in the meeting cautiously said, “Bill, who are you talking to?”

I looked up and noticed everyone was staring at me. Utilizing years of experience, I nonchalantly raised my arm and pointed to my wrist. “Apple Watch,” I said. “I was just answering a phone call.”

It was a quick and clever explanation, and it would’ve been even more effective if I had remembered to put on my watch that morning.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I know what the problem is: I’ve only been a senior citizen for a few years. So, I’m really just a toddler when it comes to being old. This makes me a “Toddler Senior.” And just like real toddlers, who often have no clue what is going on around them, I have no clue what I’m supposed to do as a senior. It’s not like there is an official geezer training manual or a class we can take to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. We just enter into this stage of life completely oblivious to the proper rules and protocols.

In a few more years I’ll be an “Adolescent Senior,” and maybe I’ll understand things a little better at that time and make better decisions.

But then, after I’ve been a senior for about 15 years, I’ll be a “Teenage Senior” (Teen Seen for short). If that stage of my life is anything like the days when I was a real teen almost half a century ago, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. I’m just hoping it’s not once again dominated by hormones and zits.

During my recent annual physical exam, I asked the doctor how I could learn to be a proper senior citizen. He said, “Just listen to your body.”

My right leg immediately giggled. Oh great, just what I need, advice from sarcastic limbs. In the meantime, I’ve got to do some stretching exercises. The big softball game is coming up soon.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Memories of First Confession

Let’s be honest. Receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is often uncomfortable. No one likes to admit their deepest, darkest failings to another person. Going to Confession can be embarrassing and awkward. I’ve been going to Confession on and off for 55 years (mostly off). Even now, when I enter the confessional, I am often transformed into that bewildered seven-year-old who made his First Confession in 1964.

I can remember getting prepared for my First Confession. The nuns who ran our parish catechism class tried get us to examine our consciences. They asked us a series of questions: “Were you mean to your brothers and sisters?” Yes, but they deserved it.

“Did you ever steal anything?” Yes, but I deserved it.

“Did you ever lie to anyone?” Nope. Oh wait, that’s a lie.

Early on the morning of my First Confession, I came up with a short list of sins. But as soon as I finished saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” the stress of being in that confessional with a nine-foot tall priest (well, he seemed that imposing to me) caused my mind to go blank. I stammered and stumbled for a few moments, then finally squeaked out a couple of bad behaviors the nuns had mentioned during catechism class. The only problem was, I hadn’t done any of those things. As the priest absolved me of someone else’s sins, I finally remembered my list of sins. At that point, however, I was not about to interrupt him. So, to my unused list of sins I added a new one: lying to a priest during First Confession. My Second Confession was sure to be a doozy.

I left the confessional and one of the nuns smiled at me and whispered, “Don’t you feel better now that your sins are forgiven?” I nodded yes, but inside I was thinking, “Not really, since I just lied to a priest.”

Making my way to the altar rail, I knelt down and promptly forgot what prayers the priest told to me to say as penance. I silently recited the only two prayers that came to mind: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts…” and, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”

For many people, emotional baggage from childhood still haunts us when it comes to Confession. That is so unfortunate because it makes us avoid one of the most joyful and wonderful gifts the Lord ever gave to us: the Sacrament of forgiveness.

The purpose of sacraments is to infuse us with supernatural grace. The Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us the grace of divine forgiveness in a way we cannot experience outside of the sacrament.

Many people say, “Well, I can confess my sins to God in prayer without a priest, and God will forgive me.”

This may be true, but when we confess our sins to God privately in prayer outside the confessional, the problem is not that God won’t forgive us, the problem is that we won’t forgive ourselves.

You see, there is something unique about confessing our failings out loud to another human being. We really “get it off our chest” and “out of our system” in a way that rarely happens in private prayer. When you hear the words of absolution spoken by an ordained priest—at that moment a human conduit for the power of Christ—you know in the depths of your soul that you have truly been washed clean. Asking for God’s forgiveness in private prayer is not nearly as convincing.

Despite many scandals over the centuries—especially in recent years—the Catholic Church is still the only institution in the history of the world that offers answers to the two deepest longings of the human heart: true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven once our time on earth is over. Both of these awesome gifts are available because of the power and love of Jesus, but the Church established by the Lord is the vehicle He chose to make these gifts available to us.

Confession (or Reconciliation) is one of the most joyful and liberating things a person can do. Don’t be afraid of this wonderful sacrament. Please force yourself to go and receive God’s forgiveness and grace. And take it from me, it works much better if you don’t lie to the priest.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Ancient Era Before Cell Phones

This will sound crazy, but I actually remember the prehistoric age, the time before cell phones existed. No, really, it’s true. I lived during a dark and somber era when every type of communication required wires.

I can see your head shaking in bewilderment. And you are correct, the world was indeed a brutal place before the 1990s.

By the way, there was one type of ancient communication that did not use wires, but it did require paper, envelopes, stamps, and Postal Service employees. I won’t bother to discuss this type of communication now, since no one alive today has ever experienced it.

Back in those primitive pre-cell phone days, people were terrified of two situations: the first was being stranded when the car broke down; and the second was not being stranded when the car didn’t break down.

I think you can understand why the first situation was so awful. Imagine you’re on your way to a particular destination to meet a friend for lunch, and you’re driving merrily along, when suddenly your car makes a weird clanking sound, then it sputters, and then the engine just shuts off. You coast to the side of the road, and when you roll to a stop, panic starts to well up within you as you realize you are stuck. There is absolutely no way of calling for help because portable phones have yet to be invented.

So, at that frightening moment, you had two choices: either you got out of the car and tried to flag down a passing vehicle, the driver of which might decide to help you or might decide to murder you; or you could start walking to the nearest house to ask for help, where the homeowner might decide to help you or might decide to murder you. (The third option was to climb into the back seat, get into the fetal position and whimper, and hope when someone ultimately discovered your body, they would contact your next-of-kin.)

If you became stranded because your car broke down, it was, as we used to say in the ancient vernacular of those times, a “total bummer, man.”

However, in those days, having your car NOT break down was almost as perilous. You see, once you got to your destination, there was no way of contacting your friend to let him know you had arrived. You would go to the scheduled rendezvous point, the Oak Tavern on Elm Street, and wait. After a half hour, you would say to yourself, “Oh no, maybe he said the Elm Tavern on Oak Street.” So, you’d drive over there and wait another half hour. Then you’d go back and forth between those two places, hoping to catch a glimpse of your friend. After three hours, you would give up and drive back home.

Once you were home, you would call your friend on the land-line phone, and he would say, “What do you mean, ‘Where was I?’ We’re supposed to meet for lunch TOMORROW.”

This is why most people back then lived their whole lives in caves and mud huts and never traveled more than 100 yards from the place where they were born.

Then, as we all know from History class, that great German scientist, Gunther von Szell, invented the mobile phone (the name later Americanized to “Cell”), and people finally could live modern lives, able to travel to neighboring towns without fear of being murdered — or at least without fear of wasting three hours.

Someday, if you think you can handle the shock, I’ll tell you the incredible story of the communication method that required envelopes and stamps. Now, that was truly a primitive era in history.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Stunning Victory: Life Conquers Death

I can vividly remember a late Wednesday night back in October of 2004. I sat in the living room and gazed at the TV. My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing. The final pitch was thrown. Ground ball. Stabbed by Foulke. He flipped the ball to first, and the Boston Red Sox, defying all the expert predictions, were the World Series champions after an 86-year drought!

I responded by jumping around the living room, clapping and shouting, “Yes! Yes!”

I had a powerful urge to high five someone. Since my family was asleep, I was tempted to run across the street to my neighbor who is a Sox fan. Surely, he was also running around his living room looking for someone to high five. Since I was wearing only a bathrobe (I mean, ONLY a bathrobe), I decided against it.

As the Red Sox players celebrated on the field, a tear of joy trickled down my cheek. According to news reports, many tears of joy trickled down many cheeks all across New England.

What a joyful moment. After years of coming oh-so-close, after ending each season with yet another frustrating and inevitable defeat, the Red Sox finally reached the pinnacle. It was a dream come true.

About six months later, I remember slouching in the pew at church and gazing out the window. My hands were folded in my lap and my heart was barely beating. I looked at my watch, wishing this thing would be over.

During his homily, our pastor explained why that day—Easter Sunday—was so special. Almost 2,000 years earlier, defying all the expert predictions, Jesus’ tomb was empty. After an 86 zillion year drought, the celestial scoreboard read: Life: 1, Death: 0.

What a joyful moment that must have been. After years of watching death have the final say, no matter how long a person lived, humanity finally had reached the pinnacle. Defying all odds, the Son of God had risen from the grave and conquered death once and for all. It was a dream come true.

I responded to this fantastic news by nodding my head forward with my eyelids fluttering. I had no urge to greet anyone—high five or otherwise. I was not tempted to run across the aisle and embrace a fellow brother in Christ.

Unfortunately, I was not the only one in church that morning suppressing yawns and peeking at his watch. There was no clapping and shouting. No joyful cries of “Yes! Yes!” And definitely no tears of joy trickling down anyone’s cheeks.

Why not?

When you think about it, which is the more joyful event: a baseball game played by a bunch of pampered millionaires, or the fact that the Creator of the Universe made it possible for us to have eternal life?

In the grand scheme of things, the choice is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Certainly, I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t get excited about sports championships once in a while (although I don’t recommend the running around in a bathrobe at midnight part).

Maybe we’ve heard the Easter message so often it’s gotten boring. Or maybe the words have entered our ears but we’ve never really HEARD the Easter message before.

Maybe we need to contemplate exactly what God has done for us. Out of love, He lowered Himself to become one of us, sacrificed His sinless life to pay the price for our sins, and burst forth from that grave on Sunday morning crushing Satan’s evil designs once and for all.

Isn’t that worth a clap or a shout? Isn’t God’s awesome love for us worth a joyful cry of, “Yes! Yes!”? Isn’t that worth at least one little tear of joy trickling down our cheek?

This Sunday is Easter. The Red Sox game starts at 2 p.m. But please go to church in the morning and put things in their proper perspective.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Key to Success: Playing Well with Others

Way back during Kindergarten days (or possibly during college — it’s been quite a while either way), there was one notation on the report cards that often went overlooked. When report cards were issued to my classmates and me, everyone, especially our parents, would focus only on the grades. “Oh good, you got an ‘A’ in Finger Painting,” a mom would say. “Hey, how come you only got a ‘C-plus’ in Beginner’s Napping?” a dad would ask. (Still could be either Kindergarten or college. Have you seen some of the frivolous classes that universities offer these days?!)

Anyway, on those Kindergarten report cards, there usually was an area for the teacher’s comments. There were two different comments that were much more important than all the academic grades combined. The two comments were: “Plays well with others,” or, “Does not play well with others.”

If you want to get an idea of how successful a child will be later in life, don’t look at his or her Kindergarten grades in Finger Painting, Beginner’s Napping, or Calculus II. Just look to see if the teacher’s comment is “Plays well with others,” or “Does not play well with others.”

In the real world — that is, the world where people have to interact with other people every day in the workplace — having intellectual skills is very useful. But having social skills is crucial.

Unfortunately, there are many people in society today who got straight A’s in all their classes, but who possess the social skills of an eggplant. (No, I’m sorry. That’s not fair to eggplants, which are admittedly not often the life of the party, but which also never blurt out to a co-worker for no apparent reason, “How can you be so stupid — and FAT?!”)

I suspect the 4.0 GPA anti-social guys, the kind of people we all have encountered in various work environments over the years, were given plenty of “Does not play well with others” comments on their Kindergarten report cards.

By the way, if you can’t think of a single social blunderbuss with whom you’ve ever worked, then chances are YOU are the one who does not play well with others.

No matter how talented and skillful a person might be, if he has such an annoying, confrontational personality that he makes his fellow co-workers daydream about various ways to dispose of the body without getting caught, it is not a good situation for the organization.

When companies need to hire a new employee, there usually is an extensive evaluation process, which includes a review of the applicant’s educational achievements, prior work experience, and even a criminal background check. This time-consuming and expensive endeavor could be streamlined greatly if the Human Resources department simply tracked down the applicant’s Kindergarten report card.

If there is the comment, “Plays well with others,” then hire the person immediately. But if there is a “Does not play well with others” comment, then call Security and have him or her escorted out of the building.

During a recent family gathering, I mentioned this theory. My mom made quick eye-contact with my siblings, and then turned to me and said, “Well, it’s probably not THAT important.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh nothing,” she said. “After all, you turned out, um, OK.”

“Hey, what are you saying?” I said. “Did I get a ‘Does not play well’ comment on my Kindergarten report card?”

“Don’t worry,” she offered. “You always got A’s in Finger Painting, and after some private tutoring, you improved your grade in Beginner’s Napping.”

Then she patted the back of my hand, and said sweetly, “Who needs friends, anyway? We’re all still proud of you.”

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Time to Get Back to Basics

Do you ever get the feeling that every aspect of your life has become fast-paced, frantic, and complicated?

You don’t? Really? Well, then you’ll have to tell me the secret of your serenity, because these days my life feels like I’m pedaling a bicycle in the middle of the Indianapolis 500. Everything is swirling around me at breakneck speed.

This sensation of being overloaded can also apply to our faith life. For example, I regularly visit eight or ten different Catholic websites for the latest news and commentary about the Church. This past year, obviously, has been especially newsworthy, with the sex abuse scandal and the McCarrick crimes taking center stage.

But it dawned on me recently that these websites hardly ever talk about Jesus. Their focus has been mostly on news stories, such as accusations, victims, settlements, cover-ups, secret files, grand juries, attorneys general, felony convictions, etc. There’s no doubt in my mind the people writing for these websites are faithful Catholics, but it seems the doctrines of the faith have taken a backseat.

Maybe it’s time once again to focus on the basics of why we call ourselves Catholic. I’m reminded of the old profession of faith we used to make during Mass: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Three simple statements, but each incredibly profound, describing the core of the Christian faith.

Christ has died. This statement reminds us of the cross. Jesus willingly gave up his life to pay the price for our sins. Without Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, our sins cannot be forgiven.

St. Paul was one of the most brilliant theologians in Church history. And yet, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

I suspect St. Paul was tempted to delve into deep theological topics during his sermons in Corinth. But he had to remind himself not to lose sight of basic beliefs, one of which is the fact Jesus was crucified and died for our sake.

Christ is risen. If Jesus simply died and stayed dead, then our faith is worthless. The
Resurrection makes everything else worthwhile. The moment Jesus walked out of that tomb, goodness conquered evil, and life conquered death. The Resurrection means that death no longer is the final chapter of our story. Physical death is now merely a transition from this earthly life to eternal life in Heaven.

Christ will come again. We often forget about this promise from the Lord. He clearly told us that He is coming back, and this time, no one will be confused about His identity. Some of us still might be alive here on earth when Jesus’ Second Coming occurs. But I suspect most of us by then will have had a second date and year carved into our tombstones.

Either way, we are going to see Jesus, the mighty and just judge. This third basic statement reminds us that our current situation in life is not going to last for long. There will come a time when our souls stand before the throne of the Most High God. It might be a good idea to start getting ready for this cosmic encounter, rather than do what most of us do: convince ourselves that we have plenty of time to think about stuff like that…later.

So, it’s probably time to dial back my Catholic website browsing. The current news is important, but not as important as focusing on the core doctrines of the faith, especially with Passion Sunday and Easter coming soon: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Hopefully, that will relieve the uncomfortable sensation of race cars swooshing past me as I frantically pedal along the Indianapolis Speedway.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Inventing Famous Quote Easier Said than Dunn

The other day I was convinced I had invented a great new quotation. I was listening to a friend reminisce about the good old days, the days when, as he put it, “Bruce Willis still had hair.”

The first thought that popped into my head was, Sheesh, that’s pretty weak. There must be more poignant and meaningful things to reminisce about than Bruce Willis’ dormant scalp follicles.

And that’s when the great new quotation just popped into my head: “They don’t make nostalgia like they used to.”

I paused for a second to let it sink in. Ooh, that’s a good one, I thought. That’s definitely a keeper. Might even get my name in one of those books of famous quotations.

Now, let me just say, I swear, I had never heard that expression before in my life. I was certain I had just created a brand new original clever quotation. But to make sure, I went on the Internet and did a Google search. I was stunned to find hundreds of matches. It seems my brand new original clever quotation was neither new nor original. Rats!

OK, well that one is already taken, I thought, but how hard can it be to come up with a genuine original clever quote? So, I had a new mission in life: create a unique quotation and get my name in one of those books.

Some of the quotes I came up with were like the nostalgia quote, someone else had already thought of it first. I soon realized creating a new quote is a lot easier said than done. (And “a lot easier said than done” is not original either!)

Every time I thought of something good, it turned out not to be original. For example, when I thought of “2B or not 2B, that is the question,” I learned that Shakespeare already said it, apparently when he was trying to remember his hotel room number.

When I came up with “I shall return,” it also was not original, having been used by Bernie Sanders every time he lost a presidential primary, dating back to his first attempt against FDR in 1940.

Other ideas turned out to be misstatements of famous quotations, such as my favorite quote back when I was in college, “Four score and seven beers ago,” and the desperate command I yell to my lawn each Spring, “Mow thyself!”

Other mangled quotes include:

  •  “Early to bed and early to rise, gets you to work on time, what a surprise!”
  • “A friend in tweed is a friend in need.”
  • “All the world’s enraged, and all the men and women merely slayers.”
  • “Tis better to have brushed and flossed than never to have brushed at all.”
  • “To err is human, to get the next guy to hit into a double-play divine.”
  • “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll drink beer all weekend.”
I was just about ready to give up. But a few weeks ago, while visiting with friends and family, I spent a lot of time listening to old people (mostly me) complain about their latest aches and pains, and reminisce about the good ol’ days of youth. (“Youth is wasted on the young” also is not original.)

While driving home, a new quote popped into my head. And this time a Google search did not produce a single match. I’m confident that NO ONE has ever used this expression before. Here goes: “The most frustrating part about being old is remembering being young.”

And if you don’t think that one is any good, to use a famous old Shakespearean quote, “Tough noogies, pal.”