Thursday, March 25, 2021

What If the Curious Story Really Is True? 

Finally, Easter Sunday is just about here. And we celebrate with eggs, the symbol of new life. And with bunnies, the symbol of fertility. And with lilies and other flowers, the symbol of springtime renewal. And with 30 pounds of chocolate per person and fancy new clothes (which won’t fit anymore after wolfing down the 30 pounds of chocolate), the symbols of a consumer society obsessed with spending money we don’t even have. 
Oh yes, and some folks continue to include in their Easter celebration the curious story about the God-man who died but then came back to life three days later. This also is a symbol of new life and springtime renewal. 

It’s actually a rather grizzly story, if you bother to read some of the details. But I guess those ancient story-tellers were obsessed with gore and violence, not sophisticated and civilized like our modern day story-tellers, such as Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. 

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

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

But what if it’s really true? 

What if there really is a personal God who created the universe? What if He really designed and created us with a specific purpose in mind? Wow, that would actually give some long-term meaning to our lives, rather than the short-term, superficial meaning we try to create for ourselves with our consumer spending and our frantic scratching and clawing to achieve some recognition in the world. 
And what if this personal God loved us so much that He grieved over the fact that we ignored Him and decided to worship ourselves instead? What if He loved us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to bridge that huge gulf between us, which sin had created? And what if that Son offered His own life as a sacrifice to pay the price for our sins? And most of all, what if He actually rose from the dead three days later, conquering death once and for all? 

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

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

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

But how can you possibly repay such a sacrifice? At the end of the award-winning movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s 50 years after World War II and Ryan is at the Normandy cemetery. He’s talking to the gravestones of the men who a half-century earlier gave their lives so that he could live. He says, “I lived my life the best I could. I hope in your eyes I’ve earned what you’ve done for me.” 

Then he turns to his wife and pleads, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” But the answer is obvious: it doesn’t matter whether he’s led the most noble and productive life of any person on earth, it’s impossible to repay such a debt. 
We can’t repay Jesus for what He did. What He did was His precious gift to us. All we can do is accept the gift Jesus gave us with profound gratitude and humility. If we do this, the good deeds will come, not because we HAVE to do them, but because we WANT to do them.

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

Crush Your Goals!

The other day I drove by a local University, and there was a large sign on a prominent building that said “CRUSH YOUR CAREER GOALS.”

Now, why would the school encourage students to destroy their career goals? Besides, I always thought the most effective way to crush your career goals was to take the SAT test in high school while hung over. After all, why go through all the stress of trying to get into Harvard, when Finstermacher Junior College has yet to reject a single applicant in its storied 2-1/2 year history? (I hear they’re about to break ground for their first ever academic building, which will be a nice step up compared to renting space at the local VFW hall on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Plus, they’ll be able to brag that they’re the only institution in America conducting college classes in a shiny new Quonset Hut.)
Anyway, I was really puzzled by the big sign I saw. Then a young coworker told me that nowadays the word “crush” is a good thing. 

A good thing? Really? Well, I suppose crushed gravel is a good thing to drive your car on, rather than the pre-crushed boulders, which are often the size of office furniture. My Chevy Equinox definitely would have some issues trying to navigate over rocks that large.

Also, I haven’t had Orange Crush soda pop in years, but I vaguely remember that it tasted pretty good, even though it was kind of like watered down Kool Aid with bubbles.

If you have a crush on someone, that’s a positive thing. Or maybe not, if the crushee has absolutely no interest in the crusher. Then it might be more like a stalker situation, which is definitely a bad thing. Speaking of crushes, I had a crush on a pretty girl during my sophomore year in high school, and now, almost a half-century later, my feelings for her are still as strong as ever. (Good thing she agreed to marry me some years later, or my crush at this point would be kind of creepy.)
I looked on, and it very clearly says the definition of the word crush is: “To press or squeeze with a force that destroys or deforms. To squeeze or pound into small fragments or particles, as ore, stone, etc. To become crushed.”

Hmm, I don’t see anything in that definition that seems like a good thing, especially regarding a person’s career goals. Then my coworker explained to me, “No, you don’t understand, Bill. Crush is now a slang word for winning. Kids will say something like, ‘Oh man, he crushed it!’ meaning he succeeded, such as hitting a home run or getting an A on an exam.”

Well, that’s interesting. The last time I heard someone say, “He crushed it,” he was referring to another guy’s vertebrae after a fall.

I went back online and found this explanation: “‘Crushing it’ is a common expression used when someone is doing their job particularly well, or exceeding all of their goals. Unlike the literal definition of the word, ‘crushing it’ has an extremely positive connotation.” 
The sign on the University building, in my view, ought to say, “Achieve your career goals.” But obviously the school is not trying to convince me to enroll, as I already “crushed” my academic career four decades ago. (I am using the traditional definition of the word, by the way. If good grades were like big boulders, my test scores were a load of gravel.)

Hopefully the school will attract a lot of smart kids who want to crush their career goals. In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on “crushing” my vertebrae — by which I mean NOT crushing them. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Great Time to Be Catholic

 As Catholics, we are so lucky to be living right now. Just think about everything that’s going on with our Church these days: people are leaving the faith in droves; there are endless Church scandals; we have a severe priest shortage; many parishes are on the verge of financial collapse; and the Catholic Church is now mocked and scorned by the elites who shape our American culture. Yes, this is a great time to be Catholic!

Hey, I heard what you just said. I am not in fact losing my mind. Let me explain:

Back in the so-called “good ol’ days,” for example, during the 1950s, the Catholic Church in America was well-respected. The Church was an influential part of society. The vast majority of Catholics went to Mass each Sunday, and millions of kids attended Catholic schools. The seminaries were overflowing, and every parish had at least two or three priests living in the rectory.
So, the Church back in those days was big and powerful and, well, kind of comfortable. Being Catholic was fairly easy. It was mainstream and respectable.

Nowadays, being Catholic is counter-cultural. If you want to be Catholic today, you have to make a conscious decision to defy the popular sentiments of our society. You know there’s a good chance you’ll be labeled as a superstitious simpleton, at best, or as a hateful bigot, at worst.

As a self-professing Catholic, you’ll have to defend the sanctity of life, from conception to natural death. You’ll have to oppose the death penalty, the mindless stockpiling of weapons of war, and the inhumane treatment of immigrants, whether they have legal status or not. You’ll have to bow out of the consumerist rat race and NOT base a person’s worth on how much money they have. You’ll have to believe that humility and modesty and sacrifice are good character traits, rather than arrogance and self-promotion and greed. As a result, you are sure to be attacked by both sides of the political spectrum and laughed at by the folks in the news media and entertainment industry.
To put it in modern terms, the Church is no longer a “player” in our culture. And you know what? Throughout history, these have been the exact circumstances in which the Church thrives. During times when the Church was wealthy and influential, it became fat and lazy and ineffective. It focused so much on amassing assets and prestige, it stopped preaching the Gospel and saving souls. On the other hand, during times when the Church was driven underground and labeled by authorities as a subversive organization, it became a powerful witness to the Gospel message — often with the blood of many martyrs being spilled.

So, we are living in the perfect moment in history to be Catholic. We don’t have to waste time currying favor and sucking up to the powerful people in our culture, since they won’t give us the time of day, anyway. Instead, we can focus on preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ and bringing comfort to a hurting world.

Another thing to consider are war stories in Heaven. Just imagine the poor fellows who lived during fat, dumb, and happy Catholic times, such as the 1950s in the United States. What kind of war stories are they able to share with the other saints in Heaven? Maybe something like, “Well, it was pretty rough being Catholic in my day. We had to eat fish sticks every Friday.” After a long awkward pause, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was listening in on the conversation, quietly says, “Um, it was a little different in my country.”
Think of all the war stories Catholics of the present generation will be able to share in Heaven. If we make sure we’re not seduced by the secular zeitgeist, but instead stand strong for the Gospel, we surely will find ourselves in a spiritual battle. It may get rather rough, but at least when the time comes, our reminiscing won’t be limited to fish sticks.

The main reason this is a great time to be Catholic is because we have the Truth on our side. That’s Truth with a capital “T,” in the person of Jesus Christ. So, even if it seems like the Church is being squashed by the dominant culture, fear not. We are on the verge of something great. Now, be of good cheer and go forth and accumulate some war stories! 

Our Understanding of Age

Have you ever noticed our understanding of age changes drastically as we age? (Whoa, I used the same word twice in one sentence, first as a noun and then as a verb. My 6th grade English teacher would be so proud — and surprised.)

Regarding our understanding of age, I clearly remember the amazing summer when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I was 12 years old at the time, and when I heard on TV that Armstrong was 38 years old, I thought, “Wow, why did they send a guy up there who is so OLD?”

The way I perceived age back then was based on two things: sports and my dad. Just a couple of summers earlier, Carl Yastrzemski led the Red Sox to the pennant, and in the process won the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. During that season, a sportswriter noted that Yaz was at the perfect age to excel: 28. He was still in his prime physically, and after playing for six years he had enough major league at-bats to anticipate what the pitchers were going to throw.
Additionally, I remember hearing an announcer talk about a journeyman pitcher. He said, “Well, he is 35 years old now and he’s lost some zip off his fastball. As this season progresses, we’ll see if he’s got anything left in the tank.”

It couldn’t have been any clearer to my 12-year-old brain: 28 was the prime age, and 35 was over the hill. As proof, all I had to do was look at my father. He was 37 years old that summer, which meant he was two years past “over the hill.” He obviously had NOTHING left in the tank. My dad still played in the town Park and Rec softball league, but unlike previous years, when he stretched a single into a double, he didn’t even slide into second base anymore. What a geezer. Also, some gray hairs were starting to show just above his ears, a sure sign — in my mind — that he already had one foot in the grave.

Everyone used to say the scientists and engineers at NASA were the smartest people in the world. But if they were so smart, why did they decide to send a senior citizen to the moon, a guy who was even older than my over-the-hill dad? If you’re trying to get to the moon and back, don’t you need something left in the tank?
Now, more than 50 years later, my understanding of age is quite different. If NASA announces that they’re planning to send people to the moon again, and the captain of the mission is 38 years old, my first thought will be, “Wow, why are they sending a guy up there who is so YOUNG?”

After all, a moon mission doesn’t require an astronaut to slide into second base. What he really needs is a lot of major league at bats, that is, experience. NASA could send a young whippersnapper, say, someone around age 57. Or they could send someone who is the perfect age: my age. By the way, Paul McCartney once wrote a song about my current age. (No, not “Helter Skelter”!)
Anyway, I guess a person’s perception of age works on a sliding scale (as opposed to a sliding into second base scale). The definition of “old” is anyone 10 years older than me, and the definition of “young” is anyone 10 years younger.

If NASA is looking for a 64-year-old astronaut, I’ve still got something left in the tank. Just as long as they get me home before sunset. I don’t like driving in the dark anymore.  

Friday, March 12, 2021

Human Desires Point to the Divine Creator

We human beings have a lot of desires and urges. Our lungs crave oxygen, and thankfully we are surrounded by air. We get thirsty, and there is water. We get hungry, and there is food. We get tired, and when we lie down and close our eyes there is sleep. (Or in my case, put my head down on my keyboard at work right after lunch, and zonk out for a while.)
Either our environment was created just for us, or else we were created just for our environment.
Another powerful urge we have is the desire to exist. Human beings want to live, and not just live, but live forever. Now, of course, most people do not declare, “I want to be a billion years old!” with the last 99.999% of that time being a frail bag of bones in a nursing home. However, if we are honest, the idea that our individual personalities and memories will cease to exist at the moment we die strikes most folks as awful. We instinctively understand there is something mysterious at the core of our being, often called our soul or spirit. We also instinctively cringe at the idea that our souls are just temporary and fleeting. The soul is too unique and too wonderful merely to be here today and gone tomorrow.
So, if our experience is that there are solutions to our deepest longings — thirst/water, hunger/food, tiredness/sleep — then what are the odds that another deep longing, the desire always to exist, does NOT have a solution? What are the chances it’s a completely unrealistic, unfulfillable urge?

If it’s true this natural world is all that exists, and the minute we die our minds and hearts and souls are gone forever, then why would our burning desire be the exact opposite? Why aren’t we “hardwired” to calmly accept annihilation? Why isn’t it built into our DNA to acknowledge that our individual personalities exist for a few brief decades and then disappear forever like a raindrop evaporating off a hot sidewalk?
Instead, our deepest longing is to exist, and to exist forever. And guess what? There is a solution to that deep and powerful human longing. That is exactly what the Christian Gospel is all about.

Oh, certainly there are other aspects to Christianity. For example, repentance and the forgiveness of sins; entering into loving relationships with the God who created us and with other people. But at its most basic level, the Gospel message is about eternal life. Our soul and spirit, our personality and memories, our wisdom and relationships continue on forever in the glorious kingdom of God, known as Heaven.

I know that a lot of people, especially nowadays, have rejected religious faith, including the hope for eternal life. They follow the secular worldview of our modern culture, which says that Christians embrace silly fairy tales. Well, to these folks, I’d like to quote John Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us.”

(Hey, how do you like that? I used the Atheist’s Anthem, Lennon’s song “Imagine,” as an evangelization sales pitch.)
Sorry, Johnny, but imagining there’s no Heaven is not easy, even if I try. You see, longing to have eternal life is part of being human. That desire is not simply a weird glitch in the evolutionary process. It’s an urge that was planted in us by our Creator. He did it so we’d long to be with Him for all eternity.

All of our primary urges and desires have solutions. The longing to live forever is no different than our craving for air, water, food, or sleep. It just requires an open mind, and a little faith, hope, and love. 

How Can the Price Be So Low?

 I needed a new clock for the wall in my office, so I went to Walmart recently and looked in the Home section. Among all the clocks for sale, I found one about 8 inches in diameter. It was not fancy at all, made of plastic with plain black numbers on a white background. It had a very functional and “easy to read” appearance, and it ran on a single AA battery. It was just what I wanted.

There was no price tag on the clock, and I said to myself, “Well, this is Walmart, so it can’t be more than 20 bucks. If it’s 20 or less, that’s quite reasonable.” I figured if it turned out to be much more than 20, I would just tell the cashier, “Nevermind, I don’t want it.”

When I checked out, the exact price for the clock was $3.88. Yes, you read that correctly. Three dollars and eighty-eight cents. I immediately thought, “The mechanism that makes it work must be sold separately. A real functioning clock cannot possibly cost less than four bucks.”
I took it home, inserted a AA battery, hung it on the wall, and — it worked. It worked quite well. Six weeks later now, it still is keeping perfect time.
So, my question is: How in the world can somebody sell a decent-looking, fully functioning wall clock for less than four dollars?
I mean, someone had to design it and make engineering drawings. Factory workers in China had to create all the parts on plastic injection molding machines. Then someone else had to assemble it and attach the little electronic time-keeping mechanism, and then test it to make sure it worked. Then another person, or probably a machine, stuffed the clock into cardboard packaging, which already had the description and barcode printed on it. Then, most importantly, the clock had to be transported from the factory to a container ship, loaded onboard, travel the entire Pacific Ocean, get off-loaded at a U.S. West Coast port, put on a series of trains and/or trucks, and finally arrive at the loading dock of a Walmart store in Connecticut. Then a Walmart employee had to remove the clock from a large cardboard box, put it on a dolly, wheel it to the Home section of the store, and put it on the shelf, where it could wait for me to come by.
Each individual step of the process I just described surely costs at least four bucks. And that’s not counting the ocean voyage halfway around the world, which seems to me should cost WAY more than a measly 400 pennies. (To be precise, 388 pennies.)
The brand name printed on the clock is “The Sterling & Noble Clock Company.” That’s a classy name, which evokes images of dedicated craftsmen in 19th century London, working away on the tiny gears and springs inside the pocket watches of upper crust gentlemen. Maybe Sterling & Noble was the firm that built church tower clocks that chimed every 15 minutes, like the one that alerted Ebeneezer Scrooge the next Spirit was due to visit. It turns out the brand name was created in the mid-1990s, and there’s no connection to historic English clockmakers, let alone Mr. Scrooge.

At my office the other day, I mentioned to some coworkers how inexpensive the wall clock was, and one of them immediately shouted, “That’s cuz China uses slave labor! Why do you think they’re kicking our [butt] economically?!”

Um, yeah. Not really in the mood for that rant again.
Anyway, it’s a mystery how a functioning clock can cost only $3.88. But in hindsight, I’m not sure I should’ve paid $76 for the 2-year protection plan.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

How Is Lent Going So Far?

 We are now well into the season of Lent. How’s it going so far? Oh, not so good, huh?

Well, I’m not surprised. It’s been just about one year since the COVID pandemic shut down large segments of everyday life — including church life.

In many ways, it seems the last 12 months have been one long, never-ending somber season of Lent. It began in mid-March last year. After a normal start to the annual Lenten season of fasting and penance — with the usual traditions of Ash Wednesday, no meat on Fridays, Stations of the Cross services, etc. — suddenly everything just shut down, and we were ordered by the bishops not to attend Mass anymore. I fully understand why they HAD to do it, but it still boggles my mind that Catholic bishops ordered the laity not to attend Mass. That’s probably the only time it’s ever happened during the 2,000-year history of Christianity. (When I was about 12 years old, my parents asked me what I planned to give up for Lent. Being a smart-aleck, I said, “I’m giving up going to Mass!” Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that would be the case — by order of the bishops!)
So, last year we all stayed away from church for the last half of Lent, then for Holy Week and the special Triduum events, and then Easter Sunday. The church prohibition continued for the seven weeks of the Easter season, through to the feast of Pentecost. At best, we were able to watch some Masses and other services on TV or with our computers, but the most sacred and special and holy events on the entire church calendar were wiped out. OK, they weren’t exactly “wiped out.” Priests still said the Masses and conducted services. But watching a blurry image of Easter Sunday Mass on an iPad with a mediocre wifi connection is not quite the same as being there in person.

Thankfully, here in Connecticut the churches finally were opened last July, with strict guidelines, of course, to limit the number of attendees. I think the “no singing” rule was the most painful for me to endure, although the people who usually sit in front of me surely found it to be a blessed relief.

However, because the pandemic was still raging when churches opened last summer, many people, especially the elderly, did not return. And now it’s been a complete year since these people have been inside a church building. Who knows if they’ll ever come back?

Anyway, getting back to my original question, how are your Lenten observances going so far? I hope you didn’t do what I did on Ash Wednesday. Unable to get to a church in person, I decided to apply my own ashes. But I couldn’t find any, since no one in my house smokes and we haven’t used the fireplace in 30 years. So, I grabbed a black Magic Marker. Ooh, bad move. I think the big splotch on my forehead should wear off by October.
If you’re like me, Lenten practices have always revolved around activities at church. There’s Sunday Mass, with the violet vestments and altar cloths, and the weekly reminder during the homily about this somber season of prayer and fasting. Also, the Stations of the Cross service each Friday evening has always been very special.

Just like the second half of Lent and Easter last year, it appears we have to do our Lenten observances on our own again this year. Fortunately, there are terrific resources online. Do a Google search for “Lenten Reflections 2021.” One that struck me as somewhat interesting can be found at the website: . (Be careful. It’s a tricky web address with no .com or .org.)

If you haven’t done anything special for Lent so far, it’s not too late. Find a website with daily reflections and prayers, and set aside 10 or 15 minutes each day, preferably in the morning. I think you’ll find it spiritually uplifting. 

Let’s face it, in these crazy times, we’re sort of on our own for a while. Although we’re never really on our own since Jesus is, as He promised, with us always.

This can be a prayerful and productive Lenten season, even if many of our traditional parish-based devotions are not available. To coin a phrase from a few months ago: Don’t forget the “reason for the season.” As always, the Lord Jesus is the focus of our spiritual attention. If we stay close to Him, everything will be fine. And even though this Lent is very different than usual, one traditional aspect of Lent is still in force: on Fridays, please steer clear of those cheeseburgers.

A Beatles Song for the Aged

Whenever there is a popular song with a number in the title that matches my age, I am compelled to write song parody lyrics. Back when I turned 55, the Eagles’ song “Ol’ 55” was the perfect opportunity. Here’s a sample of the parody from back then:
“Well, the time went so quickly / and I never felt sickly, till I turned ol’ 55 / As I limped away slowly, feeling so lowly / God knows how I’m staying alive / And now my blood pressure’s up / And bifocals are a must / Knee brace and a truss / Health beginning to fade, Lipitor every day / Just a wishing I’d slept a little longer / Lord, don’t you know, fatigue is getting stronger.”
I suppose there are silly lyrics I can write to the tune of “76 Trombones,” but I’m not going to hit that age for a while yet.
However, coming up in a couple of days is the big one: the age that Paul McCartney famously wrote about. No, I’m not referring to: “Well, she was just 17 / You know what I mean.”

By the way, when Paul sang that song in concert when he was, say, in his 40s or 50s, it must’ve been a little creepy, huh? Or how about when Ringo belted out his hit song, “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine”? There are certain songs, originally written from a teenager’s point of view, that really need to be avoided by middle-aged singers. Just sayin’.

Anyway, I’m referring, of course, to the hit song that appeared on the ground-breaking “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album: “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

McCartney actually wrote that song when he was a teenager, but the Beatles didn’t use it until they were working on the Sgt. Pepper album many years later. When he wrote the song, McCartney surely could not imagine himself being age 64. I know I couldn’t imagine being 64 as recently as, um, last month.
Sir Paul is now age 78, so in his mind these days, being 64 is probably considered the good ol’ days of his youth. When Paul wrote the song, he was looking many decades into the future, trying to envision what life would be like for a man and his wife. In my case, I don’t have to look into the future, unless you consider Saturday the future. So, my parody lyrics focus on the here and now, no speculation needed.

Now that I’m older, losing more hair / Couple days from now / Will you still be giving me some Geritol / Birthday greetings, careful don’t fall

If I wake up at quarter to three / Where’s the bathroom door? / Will you still love me, are you sick of me? / Now I’m sixty-four

You’re a senior too / And if you say the word / I’ll grow old with you

I can get cranky, blowing a fuse / When my hat gets lost / You can sit there patient by the fireside / Waiting as my anger subsides / Point to my head, the hat’s sitting there / Why’d I get so sore? / Will you still love me, are you sick of me? / Now I’m sixty-four

Every summer we can rent a cottage / In the Island of Rhode, near the Charlestown beach / Sunsets make us glad / Grandchildren on your knee / Muffy, Biff, and Tad

Send me a message, email is fine / Say what’s on your mind / Indicate precisely what I need to do / I’m sincerely nuts about you

Give me your answer, send me a text / Mine for evermore / Will you still love me, are you sick of me? / Now I’m sixty-four