Friday, June 28, 2019

We Need Humble Heroes

Let me tell you about my personal hero, Harold Roloff. I know you’ve never heard of Harold, because I couldn’t even find a single speck of information about him on the internet. I was trying to find a listing for his obituary, so I could mention the year in which he died, but I came up empty.

To the best of my recollection, Harold died around 12 to 15 years ago. Here is how he became my hero:

The company where I work had just acquired a new line, that is, we made a deal with a manufacturer of HVAC equipment to become the local representative in Connecticut. Whenever this happens, it’s my job to take a crash course in the manufacturer’s entire product line, so that when a consulting engineer asks me a technical question about the equipment, I can confidently reply, “Um, yeah. Good question. I’ll call the factory and see if I can get you an answer.”

I was making arrangements to fly to Wisconsin for a few days of training at the factory, when someone said, “Hey, no one knows more about these products than Harold Roloff. And he lives right here in Connecticut.”

Harold had recently retired, but there was a problem: Harold had cancer and he wasn’t expected to live much longer. We contacted Harold to find out if he might be interested in meeting with me to discuss the technical aspect of the products, fulling realizing that under the circumstances he may not have been able or willing to do so.

Well, he was delighted to hear from us, but warned that he was feeling pretty weak and sometimes had to stop and rest if he talked for too long. We set up a meeting, and I drove to his home in eastern Connecticut, not sure what to expect.

Our four-hour meeting was, in a word, amazing. Harold laid out all his technical literature on the kitchen table. He went through the products and their features, along with the selection software program.

Harold would talk for about 15 minutes, then he would apologize and say he needed to catch his breath for a moment. He would close his eyes and just sit, waiting for some strength to come back into his body. I could tell he was very weak and in a lot of pain.

Multiple times I said, almost pleading, “Harold, we don’t have to go on. You’ve already been so helpful. Why don’t you go lay down?”

His wife peeked into the kitchen a couple of times, with a very concerned look on her face. But Harold just smiled and said, “No no, we have to keep going.” Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Bill, you don’t understand. I NEED to do this. I have so much information and experience stored in my head, and I just HAVE to pass it on to someone before I’m gone.”

After that, it was rather difficult to see the wiring diagrams clearly because of the tears welling up in my eyes.

Harold died about a month after our one and only meeting. Over a decade later, I still remember that day vividly.

Someday in the future, if I’m in a similar situation (later than sooner, I hope), I pray that I will be as selfless and caring as Harold was, so I can pass along whatever knowledge I’ve acquired over the years. I might have to sift through all the juvenile wise cracks and booger jokes stored in my head, but hopefully there is something worth sharing.

The most important thing Harold Roloff taught me that day is this: not all heroes wear capes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Many Reasons Not to DO Church

Last week I discussed people who claim to believe in God, but, as they put it, don’t “do church.”

There are many important reasons why people who believe in God ought to do church, that is, become a member of a local Christian community and attend the services or Masses on a regular basis. I mentioned some of these reasons last week.

However, I fully understand there are many arguments against going to church. Here are just a few:

·       Church is boring. They say and do the same things over and over again.
·       They’re always asking for money.
·       The parking lot is too crowded, and some people practically run you over trying to leave in a hurry.
·       Many people at church aren’t very friendly.
·       The music is poor, and the singing even worse.
·       They’re all a bunch of hypocrites, pretending they’re so holy in church but mean and nasty once they go home.
·       The people at church are really judgmental.

And then there is the biggest complaint of all about going to church: “I don’t get anything out of it.”

I’m tempted to rebut each of these arguments, but instead let me say this: they are all true. Each and every one of these statements is correct at certain times and in certain places. I hate to say it, but it’s a fact. Church can be boring. They do ask for money a lot. The parking lot is a mess. Many people are not friendly. The music ministry often sounds like the River City Elementary School Beginners Band. People are hypocritical. And they are judgmental.

Do you know why I can acknowledge that these things are true? It’s simple. Our churches are full of sinners. One of the core doctrines of Christianity come right from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

It says ALL have sinned, not just some. (Or if you live down south, it says: “All y’all have sinned…”)

The main problem with church is churchgoers. But that’s true for every human institution, organization, and family group throughout the history of the world. As soon as you add human beings to the mix, you are certain to have trouble. That’s what we humans do best: cause trouble. It’s because of our sinful nature.

So, you’re not going to hear me try to rebut those arguments about church. They’re all true. But I will comment on that final complaint listed earlier about going to church, the one where people often claim that they don’t get anything out of church.

The fact is, we’re not supposed to get something out of church; we’re suppose to put something into church. If a person approaches church attendance with the attitude, “What am I going to get out of this?” he or she always will be disappointed.

But if a person approaches church with the attitude, “What can I bring to this service/Mass? What praise and worship can I offer to the Lord God who created me?” then he or she will discover that church attendance is invigorating and uplifting—despite all the sinful people there.

It is a remarkable Christian paradox: only when we stop focusing on getting something out of church and instead focus on putting something in, will we actually get something out of it.

So, despite all those arguments about church being boring, unfriendly, hypocritical, judgmental, etc.—which are all true—the bottom line is: we still should do church anyway, because it’s our only opportunity to worship God as a community of believers.

Nothing is perfect in this fallen world—even and especially church. But despite that, we still need to do church. It’s what our Creator God wants for us.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Is Ignorance Really Bliss? Let’s Find Out

Do you remember that old adage “Ignorance is bliss”? I don't know if that saying is true, but I would like to put it to the test. You see, I’ve been following mass media news stories pretty much every day for a long time, and it’s really cranking up the ol’ anxiety meter. Frankly, I’d rather not add ulcers and insomnia to an already growing list of annoying health complaints. 

I figure if I stop watching, listening to, and reading the relentless stream of hysterical news and commentary, maybe I will achieve a little bliss. Of course, this means I won’t be up to speed on the latest sound bites uttered by the Bad Orange Man, Comrade Bernie, Creepy Joe, or any of the other 900 famous and powerful people who scream for attention on a daily basis. And it’s true I will miss out on the indignant outrage on Twitter and Facebook that always occurs in response to these sound bites.

I’ve been keeping up with this never-ending flood of information on a daily basis for many years now, and what has it gotten me? Mostly anxiety and frustration.

For example, I recently learned about Kamala Harris’s outraged opinion about Ben Shapiro’s snarky observation about Bette Midler’s angry comment about the president’s latest insulting tweet.

That’s a lot of information for my brain to absorb. And similar events occur dozens of times every day, with each instance being THE most important news story of the year — for about a quarter of an hour. Then something else comes along for its 15 minutes of frenetic fame. 

I think the Bible puts it this way: What does it profit a man to gain the whole Twitterverse and lose his mind? (Or something like that.) 

I cannot honestly say any of the gigabytes of political and cultural data I’ve been shoving into my head in recent years has done me a darn bit of good. Unless having one’s central nervous system in a constant state of aggravation is considered a good thing.

Here is a list of people who I know way too much about, for no apparent useful reason: Adam Schiff, Mayor Pete, Alyssa Milano, Ann Coulter, Lena Dunham, Michael Avenatti, “Che” O.C., Alec Baldwin, Dana Loesch, Shannon Watts, Bill Nye the Pretend Science Guy, Joe Scarborough, Jonah Goldberg, Joy Behar, Jim Acosta, Michelle Malkin, and Rachel Maddow. (If you don’t recognize these people, oh, I envy you!)

I’ve absorbed volumes of data, but I’m certain it has not produced a scintilla of wisdom. And it definitely has not produced any serenity.

They say the Dali Lama meditates in an attempt to achieve total consciousness. Well, I want to find a technique that will help me achieve total ignorance. I suspect if I can do this, it will put me in a much better frame of mind. I also suspect it may involve smashing my iPad with a hammer and pouring an entire quart of maple syrup onto my laptop computer.

So, I’m going to try the dumbbell route for a while. Let’s go back to the blissful days of yore, circa 1990, when we didn’t worry too much about politics and current events. No more breathless news reports, and no more surfing the Internet for the latest outraged response to the indignant reply to the angry invective produced by some original comment that no one even remembers anymore.

I’m pretty sure I can live without all that information, and I bet I won’t be nearly as stressed out. And in November of 2020, if someone like Creepy or Orangy wins the presidential election, please don’t tell me about it. That’s a nugget of knowledge I can live without.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

We Need to DO Church

Do you know people who say something like, “Yeah, I believe in God, but I just don’t do church”?

This is a variation on the popular claim, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

When I hear this, my first thought is, Well, at least they believe in God. That’s a whole lot better than embracing atheism, which has become very trendy nowadays.

But in the long run, believing in God but not doing church is very problematic. You see, being confident God exists is a great first step, but church is where we learn who God is, what He has done for us, and what He wants from us.

If we don’t learn these important theological facts, then the “God” we claim to believe in will remain just a vague and undefined cosmic power, no more personal and specific than “The Force” in the Star Wars movies.

Regarding the need for regular church attendance, don’t take my word for it; take God’s word for it. In the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, we read, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

Apparently, even 2,000 years ago, when the New Testament letter to the Hebrews was written, they struggled with the problem of people claiming to believe in God but who couldn’t be bothered to assemble with fellow believers each week. I’m not sure if the primary excuses back then were an early tee time at the golf course or the need to watch the previous night’s highlights on JSPN (the Jerusalem Sports Programming Network). If not, I’m sure other reasons were offered why people preferred not to do church.

Here’s another good reason why we ought to do church: When Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, Jesus very clearly told them to say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

Notice, Jesus did not tell them to say, “My Father,” which seems like a perfectly fine way for a person to engage in prayer. He instead told them to say, “Our Father.” This is because faith in God is a team sport. We simply cannot do it well if we take the individualistic Lone Ranger approach. It is imperative that a significant part of our faith life is worshipping together as a community.

Here’s an analogy: People who believe in God are like burning logs in a camp fire. If you stack up the logs so they are leaning against each other, you’ll get a roaring fire. But if you separate the burning logs and lay them down on the dirt away from each other, very quickly the fire goes out and they grow cold.

If you haven’t noticed, life can be hard. It’s often filled with pain and suffering, heartache and sadness. It is very unhealthy, physically and emotionally, to attempt to go through life all by yourself, without any support from family and friends.

The same is true for our faith life. When a person claims to believe in God, but adds that he doesn’t do church, he is basically saying he is an anti-social hermit who shuns all contact with other human beings—at least regarding his spiritual life. And by the way, our spiritual life is the most important aspect of human existence. After all, our physical bodies will rot in a grave someday. Our spiritual life, that is, our soul, is eternal.

So, being an individualistic Lone Ranger regarding faith is not cool and trendy. It is instead emotionally warped, and just as dysfunctional as a recluse who hides in his cluttered apartment and avoids all contact with other people.

It’s great when folks acknowledge that God is real. But they must not do it alone. They need a faith community. They very much need to do church.

Friday, June 14, 2019

College Reunion with My Pen Pal

After many years, I finally got to meet my pen pal face-to-face. Yes, I actually used the phrase “pen pal,” a concept that is about as old-fashioned as rotary phones and gas station attendants who wear neckties.

My pen pal’s name is Avraham, and he is a devout Jew who lives in Israel, while I am a semi-devout Catholic who lives in Connecticut. “Alan,” as he’s known to his U.S. friends, grew up in New Rochelle, NY, and then moved to Israel soon after graduating from college. That is our original connection: we graduated from the same college in the same year. (To give you an idea of how “young” we are, Jimmy Carter was president when we graduated. And no, George Washington was not still alive.)

Although we spent four years on the same campus at the same time, we never actually met each other back then, probably because Alan spent much of his time in the Hillel Jewish House learning the intricacies of the Torah, while I spent much of my time in the Sigma Chi Fraternity House learning the intricacies of tapping kegs of Iron City Beer for breakfast.

Back in 2004, my class — Bucknell University, 1979 — had our 25th reunion, and at that time, all the people in my class were about 47 years old. (Whoa, that’s a lot of numbers for one sentence. I should’ve asked a math major to double-check it for me.)

Anyway, back at that reunion many of my classmates talked a lot about their high-powered careers and their daunting responsibilities. Also, it seemed to me many of us were trying hard to cling to our youthful appearances.

This time around, now that we’re in our early 60s, everyone talked a lot about retirement, either enjoying it now or looking forward to it soon. Compared to 15 years ago, we were noticeably less ambitious, and as a result, much less stressed out.

Also, there was a significant reduction in vanity. We all seemed to realize that hanging on to our youthful appearances is a silly pursuit (not to mention an impossible pursuit), so we just relaxed and didn’t worry about it. And you know what? My classmates still looked just as beautiful and sexy to me as they did on graduation day — and that goes for the women, too. (Of course, my eyes are also in their early 60s, which means my observations may be based less on nostalgia and more on blurred vision.)

However, there was one major disappointment for me at the recent reunion. I expected there would be a lot of discussion about our personal health issues. It seems people my age love to do that. But other than a brief incident, when I said to a classmate, “How ya doing?” and he replied, “Pretty good. My knees are shot, but whataya gonna do?” there were no long recitations of aches and pains, medical procedures, prescription drugs, and general whining and moaning about the physical trials of growing old.

The reason I was disappointed was because I had done my homework (first time ever on that campus), and brought along all my medical records, complete with X-rays of my gimpy knee and digital images of my latest colonoscopy. Oh well, maybe at the next reunion.

We instead chatted about two very positive topics: the joy of seeing our kids grow up and start their own families, and our retirement plans. Oh, and we also did the standard reunion thing: told wild stories about our undergraduate days, some of which were even true.

Overall, it was a great reunion. And I hope I picked up a few new pen pals in the process.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Atheism Is a Foolish Bet

Many years ago, when I was an atheist, I can remember being annoyed at Christians. All their talk about salvation and eternal life in Heaven really bugged me. This is what I thought back then: “You Christians are gonna feel so foolish after you die and find out you’ve been wrong all these years!”

Now, if you understand what atheists actually believe, you’ll know that I was the one being foolish. If my atheistic view was correct, then when a Christian dies, he is not going to feel foolish; he will feel nothing, because he will have ceased to exist.

The only one who had a chance to feel foolish after death was me, the atheist. If I was wrong about atheism, and then died and discovered there was indeed a final judgment before God, and after that either Heaven or Hell for all eternity, I would feel very foolish. Well, actually, foolishness would be the least of my worries at that moment. It would be more like despair and horror and total agony.

My thoughts back in those days were very similar to Pascal’s Wager, and I was betting on the wrong horse.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, and he offered a gambling analogy for religious faith. 
Imagine you must place a bet. If you choose option A and it turns out you are correct, you win nothing. But if you are incorrect, you lose everything. If you choose option B and it turns out you are correct, you win everything. But if you are incorrect, you lose nothing.

If those are the rules of the game, then it makes no sense ever to bet on option A, right?  You can’t win anything but you can lose everything. Option B is the only logical choice, as you might win everything but can never lose anything.

Option A is atheism. If you decide atheism is true, and you are correct, you win nothing, since at the moment of death you will cease to exist. But if you are incorrect about atheism, at the moment of death you are going to be in a very uncomfortable situation, with the aforementioned despair and horror and agony the most prominent sensations.

Option B is faith in God. If you decide God is real and put your faith in Him, and it turns out you are correct, you win everything: eternal life in the paradise of Heaven. But if you are incorrect, and it turns out God is not real, you lose nothing, since you, like all human beings, will cease to exist at the moment of death.

Now, I fully agree that deciding whether to believe in God should not be based on a gambling scenario and a “What’s in it for me?” attitude. People should put their faith in God because they sincerely believe He is real and they want to express their gratitude and love toward Him for all the blessings He has bestowed on us, especially the gift of life.

But you know what? God loves us so much that He is perfectly OK if our faith initially has less than noble motives. If we tentatively draw near to God because we conclude it’s the logical gambling choice, He doesn’t mind. Of course, over time, gratitude and love should become our main motivation, but God so desperately wants to be in a relationship with us, He is more than willing to have us begin the journey of faith for selfish reasons.

Back when I was an atheist, I never heard of Pascal’s Wager. All I knew was that I did not want to worship anyone or anything except myself. Thank God that God finally got my attention, and I realized putting my faith in Him was not only in my best interest, it was the Truth.

Now, many decades later, I can look back and see that atheism was not the logical choice, not even close. Please don’t gamble on eternity. Make the right choice.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Too Extreme to Run for President

Last fall, I was invited by the Winchester Council of the Knights of Columbus to be the guest speaker at this year’s awards banquet in May. I immediately said yes, and looked forward to joining them.

But then, after I already made the commitment, I was watching TV during the winter, and I saw Congressional hearings, where a judge had been nominated for a new post. A panel of U.S. senators were asking him questions.

Some of the senators were very concerned that this judge was a member of an extremist group. Oh no! Was this guy secretly affiliated with the Klan or some neo-Nazi militia? Nope. The senators revealed exactly which extremist group the judge belonged to: the Knights of Columbus!

The senators described the Knights as an all-male society that opposes women’s health care and is against marriage equality.  

Frankly, the only thing I ever thought was extreme about the Knights of Columbus were those feathery Captain Crunch hats they wear in parades.

Now, another way the senators could have described the Knights is like this: the K of C is a fraternal service organization that believes in the sanctity of life, and prefers the 5,000 year old traditional definition of marriage.

In my view, you could make a pretty good case that one of the most harmful extremist groups in our country right now is the U.S. Congress. And exhibit “A” would be the senators and representatives from the Nutmeg State.

But this whole thing has turned into a big problem for me. You see, it isn’t official yet — so don’t tell anybody — but I was planning to announce soon that I am running for President of the United States.

Yes, I admit there a few obstacles, such as: No one has ever heard of me. I have no money. I have no political experience. I spend too much time watching baseball on TV. And currently there are approximately 340 other people who have already announced that they are running for president.

However, I figured I could get past those problems with a clever campaign strategy. You see, my plan is that I will be the only candidate running for president who doesn’t really want to be president.

When you think about it, all the people who usually run for president desperately want the job. But if a person really wants to be President of the United States, that is a strong indication that person has some serious emotional problems. All of the candidates these days have massive egos, and they are power hungry.

It reminds me of that old Groucho Marx quote. When he resigned from an exclusive club, he explained his decision by saying, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me for a member.”

That’s how I feel about politics. I don’t want to vote for anyone who really wants to hold political office.

So, my strategy is brilliant. I will be the only candidate running on the platform that I’m way too normal to be a politician, and I’d rather not win. With that plan, victory is assured.

But now, my plans are in big trouble. When I declare that I’m running, you just know they’re going to do opposition research, and they’ll uncover the fact that I was the guest speaker at an event run by an extremist group. My campaign is going to be sunk before it even gets started.

So, it looks like I might have to go with Plan B instead, which is: keep going to work every day, pay my bills, go to church on Sunday, love my wife and kids, love my country, don’t break the law — you know, extremist behavior.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Pontius Pilate Sneers in the Face of Truth

Back during Holy Week in April, I hope you went to church on Good Friday, where you would’ve heard the Passion of Jesus from John’s gospel. Only John’s gospel gives us additional details of the conversation Jesus had with Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman governor of Judea during those years.

Jesus said to Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate replied with a question: “What is truth?”

I’ve often wondered exactly how Pilate said these words. Did he ask the question with sincere longing, kind of like, “Yeah, what is truth anyway? I really want to know.”

If so, this means Pilate believed that truth existed, that there is a final and accurate description of our situation here on earth, but it’s just very difficult to discover and understand.

Or maybe Pilate asked the question with sarcastic laughter. “Truth? You’re kidding, right?” He may have meant, “It’s impossible to know the real truth, at least in this life, so why waste your time trying to figure it out?”

If this is how Pilate viewed the idea of truth, at least he believed that truth existed, even though in his opinion mere mortals have no way of really discovering it.

Or maybe Pilate asked the question with a cynical sneer. “Truth? You actually said the word TRUTH?! Bah, what a fool. There’s no such thing as truth!”

This last option, I suspect, was the way Pilate actually asked his famous question. From the information we know about Pontius Pilate, it seems quite likely he was a typical pragmatic politician. His greatest concern was to increase his personal power and influence, while at the same time avoid getting blamed when things went wrong. And as so many politicians do nowadays, this means changing opinions on various topics to fit whatever is in your best interest at that particular moment.

Many people in our modern world, not just politicians, claim that there is no such thing as truth. Truth, in their view, is nothing more than personal opinion. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Well, if you believe that’s true, then it’s true for you. But I believe the exact opposite, which is true for me.”

This attitude is quite illogical. Just imagine if the subject being discussed is this: Is God real? If a skeptic says to a Christian, “If you believe in God, then it’s true for you. I don’t believe, so atheism is true for me.”

It is impossible for both beliefs to be correct. We’re talking about external objective reality, not internal subjective feelings. God either is real or He’s not. His existence does not depend on our opinions about it. Now, maybe it’s impossible for mere mortals to know for sure if God is real, but human ignorance doesn’t change reality. There is an absolute truth about this question. It’s either yes or no. “Both” or “neither” are not valid answers.

Claiming that truth is nothing more than personal opinion is known as moral relativism. Many folks think this is a recent phenomenon. But as the Passion account in John’s gospel indicates, Pontius Pilate may have been one of the earliest moral relativists in history.

Just think of the irony: this Roman governor sneered at the concept of truth. And yet, he was standing face to face with Truth itself. Jesus Christ referred to Himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” If He was who He claimed to be, the Divine Son of God, then He was and is the true Truth—for all people and for all time.

Pilate was completely blind to that.

If you did not hear the Passion account from John’s gospel on Good Friday, look it up in your Bible or online. Read the fascinating interaction between Jesus and Pilate. And whatever you do, don’t fall for the foolish claim that truth is just personal opinion. Truth is real, and Truth has a name: Jesus.