Thursday, May 27, 2021

Should We ‘Fear’ the Lord?

 Last week we discussed Pope Saint John Paul the Great’s favorite expression: “Be not afraid.” At first glance, the pope’s statement seems unrealistic. There’s a lot of scary stuff going on in our world, and being fearful is a logical reaction. But the pope was viewing life from a Heavenly perspective (and now that his early life is over, he is REALLY viewing things from a Heavenly perspective!). If we know that God is all powerful and all good, and if we trust that He will always be there for us, then we really can avoid, or at least minimize, fear.

So, the greatest person of the 20th century was right in proclaiming to the world that we should not be afraid. Fear is not a good thing, and since faith drives out fear, we should rely on our faith in God to keep us away from fear.

Terrific. But then we open the Bible and read this in Proverbs: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Umm, so which is it? Is fear bad and something to be avoided? Or is fear something the Bible commands us to embrace?

To be honest, that statement from the Book of Proverbs has bothered me for a long time. It sure seems to be saying that we should have fear, which was the opposite of what the nuns taught me in catechism class. They said, “Jesus is your dear friend.” (“But should we be terrified of Him, Sister?”)

They said, “God loves you.” (“But should we cower in fright in His presence?”) I’m paraphrasing, since I’m pretty sure in the 6th grade I didn’t know the meaning of the word cower. Now I know it’s a person who works with cows.

By the way, if you’re a bit confused, I went through catechism classes after Vatican II, from the mid-1960s to the early ‘70s. So, the nuns really did teach that God loves us. I understand the main message during catechism classes in the pre-V2 era was more along these lines: “God is SO angry at you, young man, you’d better pray that Mary lets you in the side door of Heaven, ‘cause that’s your only chance!”
Anyway, one day I finally noticed the footnote in my New American Bible for Proverbs 1:7. It says, “Fear of the Lord: primarily a disposition rather than the emotion of fear; reverential awe and respect toward God combined with obedience to God’s will.”

Well, that’s much different, isn’t it? In my mind, “reverential awe and respect” is a whole lot different than fear.
Now, of course, a supernatural Being with the power to create the entire Universe can be rather frightening. The difference between God and human beings is astronomical. If you said it’s like comparing men to bed bugs, you wouldn’t even be close. Men and bed bugs are made of the same substance, except one is a little more complex than the other. (I’ll let you decide which is more complex.)

With God, we’re talking about something completely different in substance compared to human beings. So, if a person stands before the living God, with such a massive difference in power and majesty, it’s logical for the human to cower in fear. Logical, that is, if we know nothing about God other than His omnipresence and omnipotence. Maybe this overwhelmingly powerful Being is angry and vindictive. Maybe He gets His kicks out of squashing people like bed bugs. That certainly would be a God to fear.

However, the Christian faith is based on Revelation. I don’t mean the last book of the Bible, but rather the fact that the Almighty Creator of the Universe took the time to reveal Himself to us, to communicate with us. And just like those nuns taught me a half-century ago, God does love us, and His only begotten Son, Jesus, can be our dear friend if we put our faith in Him.
We don’t have to be fearful, because love conquers fear. And God loves us more than we can comprehend. The only reason He created us is to be in a loving relationship with Him.

I wish Bible translators would update the wording of Proverbs. I prefer, “Awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Awe is a great word for how we should view God. He is awesome.

And besides, we’ve got enough things to fear in this crazy world. We don’t need the Bible accidentally adding to it. So, Pope John Paul was right. We should “be not afraid.”

This Left-Hander Is Out of Control

 This is my official annual baseball essay. Well, I don’t really have an “official” annual baseball essay, any more than I have an official annual “Playing golf is too frustrating” essay or an official annual “Why are there so many crazy drivers on the highway?” essay. It’s just that those topics are on my mind quite often.

You may have noticed over the years that I like baseball. (I am using the word “like” in the same sense that one might say Senator Richard Blumenthal likes to hold press conferences. In other words, total obsession.) To give you an idea, whenever I see my daughters, they know I will give them grief if they don’t answer quickly and correctly when I blurt out, “What’s a pitcher’s best friend?!”
As I write this, my beloved Red Sox are hovering near first place in the American League East. However, by the time you read this a week or two from now, they could be in ninth place. (Which is hard to do, since there are only five teams in the division. But the way the Sox have played the past couple of years, I only have one word to say: “Ya never know.”)

Recently, I’ve noticed that while watching baseball games on TV, I’m very critical of pitchers with lousy control. Actually, it was my friend Mickey Blarney who noticed. He pointed out that in a 20-minute span, I yelled the exact same thing at the television three different times, which was, “Dude! Hit your spots! Fastballs on the inside corner, then change-ups low and away. It’s a formula that’s worked since Abner Doubleday was in Little League!”

First, let’s be clear: my pitching strategy is correct. Hard stuff inside then off-speed stuff away is a tried and true formula. Good pitchers don’t just rear back and throw as hard as they can. Major league batters can catch up to even the fastest fastball. Instead, the art of pitching is to mess up the hitter’s timing.
An interesting aspect of my pitching criticism today is the fact my personal pitching career years ago lasted exactly one varsity game. I was a sophomore in high school. During pre-season practice, the head coach took one look at me and said, “You’re tall and skinny and left-handed. You must be a pitcher.”
I replied, “No, I must be a first baseman because saying that I ‘throw like a girl’ is a major insult to girls.” Actually, I didn’t say anything. Age 15 wasn’t a high self-esteem era in my life. I went through most days tongue-tied and terrified.

Because the coach figured height and handedness were more important to pitching than any discernible throwing skills, a few weeks into the season, he named me as the starting pitcher for our next game. I wish he had told me this two minutes before the game rather than two days before. High school sophomores should never go 48 straight hours without any sleep.

Anyway, I muddled through the first two innings. Then in the third, the wheels fell off. I set a school record that I’m quite sure has never been broken. I walked eight guys in one inning. Yeow! Eight! When the coach finally removed me, I heard him mutter, “But you’re tall, you’re left-handed. How can you NOT be a pitcher?”

I guess there’s a Freudian explanation for why I now criticize pitchers so much when they struggle with control. Although I hear Freud was short, stocky, and right-handed, and his high school coach forced him to be a catcher, which he resented the rest of his life.
So, that’s my annual baseball essay. And by the way, the correct answer is: “The double play!”

Friday, May 21, 2021

Be Not Afraid

 During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I guess that’s called phobophobia, the fear of fear, right? FDR should’ve said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ... and spiders.”
There are plenty of things we have to fear these days, such as: 
  • Clowns
  • Algebra
  • Finding out too late there’s no toilet paper
  • Hitting “reply all” by mistake on a work email
  • Phone calls from someone we haven’t spoken to in ages, which prompt us to think, “Oh no! Who died?!” 
  • Assuming the Zoom meeting is over, and then realizing all your coworkers just watched you do some, um, indelicate scratching and grooming
  • Public speaking
  • Public speaking and then discovering halfway through that you’re naked. (Oh wait, that was a recent bad dream. Never mind.) 
Well, anyway, there are a lot of fearful things and situations we encounter in our lives. And unlike my list, some are quite serious, like illness and injury, violence and death.

Historians explain that FDR was trying to calm a worried and anxious nation, even though his “fear itself” statement was somewhat nonsensical. After all, people’s fears are directed toward specific things — illness, poverty, hunger, loneliness, rejection, humiliation, physical danger, etc. — not the vague concept of fear itself. People rarely fear fear. Instead, they fear homelessness. They fear getting punched in the face. They fear cancer. It was FDR’s confident and optimistic attitude as he spoke those words that encouraged folks, rather than the words themselves.

The greatest man of the 20th century, Pope Saint John Paul the Great, constantly offered another proclamation about fear. Quoting Scripture, the pope frequently said, “Be not afraid.”
The pope’s statement also seems to be a bit nonsensical at first glance. As we all know, life is hard, and the world is filled with danger and uncertainty. Telling people to “be not afraid,” when there are so many risks and tragedies in life, seems like a pollyannish platitude.
However, when we understand the pope’s perspective, we realize that his statement makes perfect sense. You see, the pope was looking at life from a heavenly point of view. If our brief lifetime here on earth is all we have, which means the only logical goal of life is to maximize our comfort and longevity, then yes, there are plenty of things to fear. But if God is real and if the possibility of eternal life in Heaven is true, then there really is nothing to fear in this life — as long as we accept God’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life.

Pope John Paul’s message was simple: the Creator of the Universe knows each of us by name and loves us with a passion we can’t even comprehend. And despite all the trials and tribulations of life, our loving God will never abandon us. No matter how terrible things are in this world, the Almighty Lord will make it right. No matter how much pain we experience now, God will bring us comfort, soon and for all eternity.

The pope did not say, “Be not afraid,” because everything is peachy keen in our lives. Don’t forget, the man lived through the horrors inflicted on his native Poland by the Nazis. He was no deluded fool. Pope John Paul said, “Be not afraid,” because he completely trusted the divine Being who is ultimately in charge.
If we truly know that the Lord has dominion over all the earth, and that He will never leave us or forsake us, then many of our usual fears can melt away, even the fear of clowns and algebra and public speaking.
We can take to heart the words of Saint Pope John Paul the Great: “Be not afraid.” Unless you see a spider.

Metric Musings, Part 2

Last week’s column discussed the Metric System. When I was in high school during the 1970s, it was announced the Metric System soon would become the standard in the United States. Our teachers began to instruct us in new units of measure: meter, liter, and speeder; gram, kilogram, and graham cracker; centigrade, renegade, and Minute Maid. My science teacher said, “No centigrade, no passing grade.”

However, the U.S. never adopted the Metric System. I mentioned last week that I’d explain this week why the conversion never took place, figuring a full week would give me time to look up the answer on Google.

Boy, was I mistaken. The story of why the U.S. never switched to Metric is not only fascinating, it’s also very complicated, spanning more than 200 years (or 4500 centipedes, in Metric). I only have room here to hit the highlights, but I encourage you to go online and search this phrase: “Why the U.S. never switched to Metric.” Just be warned, you’ll run into a lot of comments such as, “Are Americans stupid, or just stubborn?”
The Metric System was developed in France in the late 1700s to standardize weights and measures. Up until then, there were thousands of different opinions of what constituted, say, a bushel or a foot, which caused lots of disputes when engaging in commerce and especially when hiring a guy to build a deck on the back of your house. “Hey, Pierre, I said I wanted the deck to be 30 feet long!” “Oui, monsieur, it is. Thirty feet on MY tape measure. Ha ha! Pay up!”

The French decided a meter was exactly one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. Of course, no one back then had a clue what that distance might be, nor did they have any way of measuring it, but they did settle on a fairly uniform standard.
In 1971, The U.S. Congress published a report titled, “A Metric America: A decision whose time has come.” The report recommended the U.S. convert to Metric within 10 years. I suspect this is what prompted my high school teachers to throw away their yardsticks and start whacking our knuckles with meter sticks.
But by the time President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975, it had been watered down so much, it said Metric conversion is encouraged but voluntary. Well, if it was voluntary, guess who decided to stick with inches, feet, ounces, and pounds? Yup, us.

The oddest aspect of the story occurred way back in 1793. A French aristocrat, Joseph Dombey, set sail for America to meet with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, to show him a rod that was exactly one meter long and a copper cylinder that weighed exactly one kilogram. Both Jefferson and President George Washington were very interested in establishing a uniform system of weights and measures for the U.S.

However, Dombey’s ship was blown off course by a storm and then seized by Carribean-based pirates. The unlucky Frenchman died in captivity and his Metric samples never made it to America’s founding fathers. A chance to go Metric at the very beginning of our nation was lost. Can you believe it? Our country is not Metric because of pirates!
What does the future hold for the Metric System in the United States? Well, many industries here are already using it, such as automotive, food processing, and drug dealers. There’s so much more to discuss, but we’re out of space in this brief column of 600 words (or 86 decibels, in Metric).

To summarize, we can say America is slowly embracing the Metric System, one inch at a time. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Pentecost: One Body, Many Parts

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the official birthday of the Church. Fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, giving them the power and the courage to preach the Good News to all the world.

Before they received the Spirit, the disciples were timid and fearful, hiding behind locked doors, scared to death that the authorities would come and arrest them, too. Now don’t forget, at that point in time, they knew Jesus had risen from the dead. They knew something supernatural and spectacular was going on. And yet, they were still paralyzed with fright.

But at Pentecost the Spirit transformed them into fearless and powerful witnesses of the Gospel. Overnight they changed from Barney Fife into General Patton. In the blink of an eye, they went from wimps to warriors, from chickens to champions.
A lot of folks mistakenly think that only a few specially-chosen people can be filled with the Spirit and do great deeds for the Kingdom of God. However, the fact of the matter is, EVERYONE has a special gift and is called to use it to promote the Gospel. The job of promoting the Kingdom of God is not just for special people, such as Mother Teresa, St. John Paul II, or Bishop Fulton Sheen.

This important job is for everybody.

The Holy Spirit empowers believers to do God’s will. But the Spirit gives different gifts to different people. Some, like St. John Paul II, were blessed with the talent, tenacity, and tenderness to draw millions of people into a closer relationship with Jesus. Others, like my ol’ pal Mickey Blarney, are only able to offer a friendly greeting to the despairing stranger who decides to attend church for the first time in years.

One was an international celebrity, who was well on his way to sainthood ever before he died. The other is a complete unknown. In God’s eyes they are equal, since they are each using the particular gift given to them by the Spirit.
In God’s eyes, if a Mickey Blarney is only capable of making strangers feel welcome with his friendly greeting, and consistently does it each Sunday at church, then he is more successful than other people who possess great preaching or teaching talent but who only use it occasionally.

Within the body of Christ, some members are more celebrated and noticeable. You see them quite often on TV or the internet, proclaiming their message and being interviewed. They sell a ton of books and DVDs. After they’re gone, people invest countless hours lobbying for their sainthood (which probably horrifies them up in Heaven, modesty being a key component of saintliness).

Now, don’t get me wrong. If these talented and successful people focus their message on the historic truths of the Gospel, then their activities are a good thing. They are doing what God called them to do.

But the fact is, the vast majority of Jesus’ followers have to toil in anonymity. All the unknown Mickey Blarneys in our world will never sell any books or DVDs. They’ll never be the founders of prestigious religious institutes. They’ll never have future generations demand that they be canonized as saints. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. All that counts is that each member of the Body of Christ does what God has called him or her to do, while using the gifts and talents given by the Holy Spirit.

All of us who will never be noticed outside of our families and our local parishes have a mission just as critical to Christendom as that of the Pope or Mother Teresa or any of the other Catholic media superstars. After all, we’ve each been given a unique, personal gift by the Holy Spirit. Now, it’s our job to go out and use it. 

Won’t Touch Metric System With a 10-Foot Pole

 Back when I was in high school, during the paleolithic age (the 1970s), the teachers announced one day that the United States soon would join the rest of the world and switch to the Metric System. I remember one teacher put a large poster on his door with the photo of a beautiful woman in a skimpy bikini. Next to the woman were three strategically placed numbers: “91 - 61 - 91.” These were the centimeter equivalents to the classic “36 - 24 - 36” measurements. 

Thinking back, I now realize the poster was pretty much porn, and the percentage of high school boys who even noticed there were numbers on that poster was about 2%. (Or 23.9 liters in Metric, which also is the volume of hormones set ablaze by that picture amongst the sophomore class.)
Our science teachers spent a lot of time getting us familiar with Metric terminology. We learned the fundamental unit of measure was the meter. This totally conflicted with the definition of “meter” taught to us by music teachers, not to mention my friend’s uncle, who worked for the power company as a Meter Reader. So, right off the bat most of the class was confused. Those of us who rarely paid attention fared the best.

We learned a meter was exactly 39.37 inches, or to make it easier for us to understand, we could think of it as “sort of a yard.” The exact length of a meter is officially defined as “the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in one three-hundred millionth of a second.” (The time span actually is one divided by 299,792,458 of a second, but I suspect if we round it up to 300 million, few people will notice.)

That method of determining the exact length of one meter certainly is precise. However, we realized back then it would be difficult to verify with the tools on the workbench in a typical dad’s garage, so we decided to take our teacher’s word for it.
In that class we also learned that in most of the world the word meter is spelled “metre.” Being well-behaved students, we immediately started calling it a METT-tree, and refused to change no matter how often the teachers corrected us. (Remember a few weeks ago when I stated that 90% of all school-age human beings are annoying? Well, there ya go.)

The good thing about the meter, we were told, is that it’s length is constant; it will never change. “What if the speed of light decides to slow down?” an annoying student, who may or may not have been me, asked. At that point, our teacher reached into his back pocket and took a swig from a silver container. “Um, medicine,” he explained.

The meter’s constancy, it turns out, is a good thing compared to the original length of a foot, which in olden days was determined by the size of the feet of whoever happened to be the reigning monarch in England. Yeah, that could be confusing. “Hey Bob, I’m having a new pool installed!” “Yeah, how big?” “It’s 50 feet long!” “Oh, is that Arthurian feet or Edwardian feet?” “Uh, actually, Victorian.” “Oh, so it’s a kiddie pool?”
Anyway, we spent a lot of time learning about meters, liters, and Derek Jeters. (No, wait. That wasn’t until the ‘90s if you followed baseball.) But then a weird thing happened. The U.S. ended up not adopting the Metric System after all. The reason why is fascinating, but we’re out of space now, so I’ll explain it next week. (Which is a good thing, because I need to go online and look up the answer.)

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable

Here is the headline of a recent article on a Christian website: “God Made You for Happiness in Heaven, Not Comfort on Earth.” I was pretty sure the article was going to make me feel guilty, so I didn’t bother to read it.

In my mind, I acknowledge the truth of that headline. After all, if it’s true that our eternal souls will spend forever in either one of two situations, the joys of Heaven or the torment of Hell (which is exactly what Christianity has taught for 2,000 years), then it’s a no-brainer that we should do whatever it takes to make it to Heaven, even if it requires discomfort here on earth. (I believe Jesus’ famous “no-brainer” discourse is found in Luke’s gospel.)
Yeah, in my analytical mind that makes perfect sense. It’s like a simple financial decision. Imagine if a wealthy banker offered you this proposition: “You can have either $100 right now, but nothing more after that. Or you can wait a week and then have $1,000 per day, every day, for the rest of your life. Which do you choose?”

I don’t even need a pencil and a calculator to figure that one out. Obviously, going without any payment for seven days is well worth it, since in one week’s time you’ll be set for life.

So, in my mind the prospect of eternal happiness in Heaven is well worth missing out on some comfort right here and now. Unfortunately, most of my decision-making skills no longer take place in my head. That function pulled up stakes years ago and relocated a few feet south to my gut. What I’m saying is, I am an American living in the early 21st century, and as such, most of the decisions that should be made logically with my intellect are now being made impulsively with my gut, which symbolizes my physical desires.

If that article headline had said, “God Made You for Happiness in Heaven, Not Laziness on Earth,” I would’ve joyfully started reading right away. I know I’m not lazy. After all, I wake up every day by 5:30 and exercise for 45 minutes before showering and then leaving the house. Then I work for 8 or 10 hours at my job. Not until I arrive back home do I finally relax and unwind.

But the headline didn’t say laziness. It said comfort. That’s the primary focus of American life nowadays. Yeah, I wake up by 5:30 — and get out of a very comfortable bed, and step onto lush carpeting inside a warm and dry home. And I exercise for 45 minutes — on an expensive exercise machine, wearing expensive, comfortable workout sneakers while listening to expensive Bluetooth earbuds. Then I go to work — in a car with heated seats, air conditioning, and a fancy music sound system at my fingertips. And I work all day — in a comfortable office chair, surrounded by computers, a coffee maker, a refrigerator, etc., inside a climate-controlled building. Throughout the day I eat whatever and whenever I want — usually upwards of at least five square meals per day, not counting snacks.
In addition to all this physical comfort, I have gladly embraced our society’s offer of emotional comfort. It’s a simple contract: if I agree to work each day, pay taxes, and avoid breaking the law, then in return society agrees to use my taxes to isolate all the seedy aspects of life in “those” neighborhoods plus various hidden institutions. I can fulfill my Christian duty to feed the poor and comfort the afflicted by simply writing a check. I never have to see any unfortunate souls face-to-face.
And if the news reports on TV start to discuss the plight of these unfortunate souls, I can quickly switch to one of many sporting events being broadcast and return to my emotional comfort zone. How nice. How convenient. How utterly lacking in any Gospel grace.

So, what am I going to do about it? I haven’t the foggiest idea. This essay didn’t turn out anything like I planned when I started typing. I thought I would focus on the word “comfort” and use examples like motorized reclining chairs, heated toilet seats, and foot massagers. Ha ha, we Americans sure are addicted to comfort!

But then as I typed away, this piece veered off in a surprising and somber direction. (“Thanks a lot, Holy Spirit,” he said sarcastically.)
Here’s an old saying: Christianity comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. I didn’t even have to read that original article to feel guilty. My own conscience (prompted by you know Who) did that for me.
I’m really not sure what I will do now. But I hope it doesn’t turn out that the comfortable lifestyle I’ve worked so hard to create is actually the equivalent of choosing to take the $100 right now because I’m too focused on instant gratification to wait a mere seven days.

I’d better go back and read Jesus’ “no-brainer” discourse again. 

Political Media Get Rich Using ‘Confirmation Bias'

 Like many people, I have my personal political views, and I visit a number of politically oriented websites each day. About 18 months ago, I decided to try something different. I made a point of reading not only the articles on websites I always frequented, but also articles on websites that represent opposing opinions. I didn’t change any of my views, but it was a real eye-opening experience.

I think this example summarizes it: the morning after the second Trump-Biden debate last fall, one conservative website had an article with this headline: “Trump Takes Charge, Biden Tells More Whoppers.” A progressive website had an article with this headline: “Joe Looks Presidential, Trump Is ‘Liar in Chief’.”

Did either of these writers even watch the debate?! What I saw on TV was a couple of guys spouting the usual campaign talking points; that is, a mixture of somewhat truthful statements seasoned with a large dose of malarkey. (I don’t regularly use the word malarkey, but the editors prefer that I avoid using the crude and common expression for bovine droppings.)

All the political websites, regardless of their core beliefs, claim they are presenting the real truth, while their opposition presents total lies. Browsing through websites from both sides of the spectrum, however, made it very clear that BOTH sides are severely biased. Both sides cling to very firm narratives, and they do not deviate from their narrative, no matter what new information is discovered. Also, both sides portray anyone with an opposing viewpoint as not just a political opponent, but as the evil enemy. (“Re-thug-licans” and “Demon-crats” are popular terms.)

Recently, a Catholic priest I respect a lot, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, wrote an article about certain Catholic websites that focus exclusively on Church scandals and corruption. What he wrote applies to political websites, too: “The doom merchants have discovered a deep well from which to draw. This is the everlastingly rich well of human fear and self righteousness.”
All the political websites I’ve visited, including the ones that share my views, cleverly exploit the two things Fr. Dwight mentioned: fear and self righteousness.
There’s a concept known as “confirmation bias,” defined as the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. The reason people seek to have their beliefs confirmed is a little molecule called dopamine.

Dopamine triggers happiness in our brains. When we read something that confirms our beliefs, our brains get a jolt of dopamine, kind of like a tiny hit of crack cocaine. You probably know people who are addicted to political websites and cable TV shows. Calling them “political crackheads” is not an exaggeration.

The political websites and cable shows know all this, and they purposely inflame fear and self-righteousness on a daily basis because it increases TV ratings and website traffic. They are just as bad as the social media giants, who treat us all like lab rats while their sophisticated algorithms dole out hits of dopamine to our restless brains.

Try this experiment: on one side of the spectrum you have, for example, Fox News,, and On the other side there is MSNBC,, and Whichever group you usually prefer, also spend time watching and reading the other. In short order, you will discover that NO ONE on either side is your friend. They’re all stoking outrage to make money, and in the process putting us at each other's throats.
You may be surprised to discover the people who don’t agree with you politically are just normal folks, not the evil enemy. It’s not the worst thing in the world to step out of the angry echo chamber for a while.