Friday, June 11, 2021

Faith and Fear on the High Seas

I’m an excellent “Monday morning quarterback.” I can second-guess people all day long. I suspect it’s a skill developed from being a sports fan.

Oftentimes I apply this same talent for criticism toward the Twelve Apostles. As I sit back in my comfortable reclining chair with my Bible in my lap, I’ll shake my head and exclaim, “Oh Peter! How could you deny Jesus three times? If you had only stood firm that night, you would’ve gone down in history as the Apostle of Courage!” (The implication, of course, is that if I had been in Peter’s place that night, despite dozens of armed Roman soldiers, I would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jesus during His time of need. Yeah, sure.) 

There is one event in the gospels, however, where I am not at all tempted to be a “Monday morning quarterback.” Unlike all the other episodes where I easily criticize and second-guess the disciples, deluding myself into thinking that I would have acted wisely and courageously if I were in their place, the event described in this week’s gospel reading is different. When a sudden storm came up and threatened to sink the disciples’ boat, they were perfectly justified in my view to squeal like a bunch of frightened 9-year-olds. I know that’s what I would have done. 

After Jesus awakened and then calmed the raging storm, He asked the disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” 

Um, not to be disrespectful, Jesus, but on this one I have to side with the apostles. No matter how much faith a guy has, when his boat is about to go under in the middle of a powerful squall, I think being terrified is a very appropriate reaction. 

I admit it, I’m not a big “boat guy.” Even though I grew up along the shoreline and have been on boats a lot, as soon as the water gets choppy, in the back of my mind I start hearing Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The point Jesus made to His disciples is quite valid: faith drives out fear. Whenever I find myself anxious and frightened (not counting boat-related situations), it’s usually a time when my faith life is weak. If my trust and hope in the Lord is shaky, many of the everyday occurrences of life can make me nervous and worried. 

But when my relationship with the Lord is strong — when I KNOW that He loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life and promised that He will never leave me nor forsake me — then even the more frightening situations of life aren’t so bad. When financial difficulties or serious health issues arise, as they have at times in the past (and surely will again in the future), as long as my faith is strong, I find that I can honestly face these problems with a reasonable amount of serenity and peace. 

The other point Jesus made to His disciples was demonstrated by His actions. Jesus is, as it says in Romans 10:12, the “Lord of all.” And that includes the Lord of nature, too. When the disciples asked each other, “Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?” the answer was clear: He is the Word made flesh, the One through whom the entire Universe was created. Since this is the case, Jesus certainly has the power to control a small storm on a small lake. 
So, this week’s gospel reading reminds us of who exactly Jesus is. And this week’s gospel reminds us that when our faith is strong, then there is nothing on earth that can terrify us.
Notice I said on EARTH. Out on the sea, that’s a whole different ball game.

No Doubt About It: Boomers Are Cool

The other day I saw an online article titled, “Things Baby Boomers Think Are Cool.” Not surprisingly, the article was written by a Millennial, and the unsaid but implied ending of that title was, “...But Definitely Are Not.”

Baby Boomers, my generation, are the people born during the post-war years of 1946 through 1964. Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, and most Millennials are the offspring of Boomers. A Google search for the phrase, “Things Boomers think are cool,” yields more than 17 million matches. This means a lot of Millennials are using blogs and online media to make fun of their parents.
Here are some of the items Baby Boomers such as myself allegedly think are cool: golf, shopping at the mall, landline telephones, writing checks, newspapers, cursive handwriting, the US Postal Service, paper bills in the mail, cable TV, meatloaf, detective shows on network TV, talk radio, and using email for personal communication.

Millennials prefer these alternate choices, in the same order: video games, online shopping, smart phones, the Venmo app, news websites, typing on touchscreens, digital communication, online banking, streaming video services, avocado toast, binge-watching Netflix, podcasts, and text messaging.

If you are perceptive, you’ll notice that every item on the Millennial list requires the Internet, except for avocado toast. On the other hand, there has never been a single order of avocado toast that wasn’t paid for with some kind of digital service or debit card.

I get that the article was playfully sarcastic, even though that’s a style of writing with which I am completely unfamiliar (except on days that end in “Y”).
It’s not that my fellow Baby Boomers and I are ignorant of digital technology. In fact, all my friends have smartphones, make purchases online, send text messages, and read internet news sites. Most of them do online banking and watch Netflix (with a few actually paying for the service rather than “borrowing” someone else’s password).

I’m pretty sure, however, that ALL my contemporaries, when given the choice of meatloaf or avocado toast, would choose meatloaf every time — while listening to an album by Meat Loaf. (Yes, there was a singer in the 1970s named “Meat Loaf.” Look it up.)
We Baby Boomers don’t think the items on that list are necessarily cool. We just remember a time when those things were the only options available, and we know they still work. I mean, if a Boomer writes out a check in cursive and sends it to a Millennial via the Post Office, is the young smart-aleck NOT going to cash it? We Boomers can operate in both worlds, digital and Stone Age. It’s like being able to speak two languages. Boomers are technologically bilingual.
There is one item on the Boomer list that is indeed very cool: newspapers. And I don’t say that just because this newspaper column has been the source of my personal fame and fortune. Newspapers are the epitome of “old school” cool. (Boomers always use the Bugs Bunny pronunciation of that word: “EPP-eh-toam”.)
Swiping your germ-infested fingers across the dirty screen of an iPad to read internet news stories is not an advancement in technology; it’s a sad regression. There is nothing like the feel of a real newspaper in your hands. If your hands are going to get dirty anyway, it might as well be with good clean newsprint. Besides, three-quarters of what you read on Internet news sites was originally written by a newspaper employee. Also, try swatting a fly with your iPad. Oops, there’s a $600 mistake.
The article I read listed one last thing that Boomers think is cool: complaining about Millennials. OK, that one is both true and very cool. Right on, brother! Boomers rock!

Saturday, June 5, 2021

A Personal Conversion Story

 The claims of Christianity are quite amazing, and there are a lot of logical and reasonable arguments to believe that these claims are true. However, sometimes discussions that include philosophical and metaphysical analysis can be unpersuasive, often because the subject matter gets a little too abstract. Once in a while, a better way to share the Good News of Jesus Christ is to relate how belief in Christ changed your life.

I admit I often focus too much, for example, on St. Thomas Aquinas’ five philosophical proofs for the existence of God, or the scientific comparison of DNA molecules and computer code and the fact both are too complex and intricate to have come into existence by accident — therefore, an intelligent designer is the most likely explanation. It’s been a long time since I told the story of my conversion and the impact faith had on me.
From the age of 16 to 28, I was very content being an anti-supernaturalist. (That’s just a smart-aleck way of saying “atheist.”) I stopped believing what I was taught in church and at catechism classes, and I decided the natural world was all that existed. Things like gods and demons, Heaven and Hell, and life after death were, in my mind, fairy tales invented by pre-scientific cultures.
Then, moments after our first child was born, I sat down in a Yale New Haven Hospital delivery room, and thought about what had just happened. Just as I was finally beginning to relax, I was stunned by a sudden revelation. It occurred to me that what I had just witnessed was way too complex to be a mere product of random natural processes.

The intricacy and perfect timing of countless biological systems during the pregnancy and birth process floored me. I realized my anti-supernaturalist view was far too inadequate. Swirling chemicals interacting and forming various molecules, even over the course of billions of years, could not accidentally arrange themselves into the stunning complexity I had just observed. Suddenly it occurred to me that biological life must have been designed and shaped by an outside creative force. But what was that force? Could it be what those superstitious people called God?

So, on that day my world was rocked. I started to ponder whether there was something outside of nature (by definition, super-natural) that had designed and created life. I concluded that my anti-supernatural viewpoint was way too narrow.
For the next few months, I started reading about this issue. Included on my reading list were items I would’ve laughed at a year earlier, specifically books about Christianity. Many of my childhood catechism lessons — which I had dismissed as nonsense — now started to make sense to me.

One quiet evening during the holiday season, while my wife and baby daughter were asleep, I noticed the creche near our Christmas tree. I looked at the little plastic figure of the baby Jesus, and whispered, “Are you really who people say you are? If so, I want to know you. I want you to guide my life, like these books say you can.”

Yeah, that was not exactly the most profound prayer ever uttered. But it was sincere. I was genuinely seeking the truth and willing to follow the evidence wherever it led.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention. During my high school years I started drinking beer with my buddies, and boy, did I take to alcohol like a duck to water. A decade later I had become a full-blown alcoholic, although I didn’t know it yet.

Here’s the key moment: when I whispered to Jesus the phrase, “I want you to guide my life,” the craving for alcohol disappeared. From that moment on, I did not want to be drunk anymore. A new sense of purpose filled me. I can’t emphasize enough how stunning this was. Up until that time, getting intoxicated was the most important thing in my life, even more important, I’m ashamed to say, than my new baby and my darling wife.
Jesus instantly took away my craving for booze. It was an absolute miracle.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many logical and reasonable arguments for the truth of the Christian Gospel. However, a really strong argument is personal experience. I experienced an amazing transformation by uttering a simple prayer to a God I hoped existed but wasn’t quite sure.
Superstitions and fairy tales don’t transform people’s lives. Only the living God, Creator of Heaven and earth, could have instantly removed my craving to be drunk. I know Jesus is real because He worked a real miracle in my life. It may not be a St. Thomas Aquinas philosophical proof, but it’s proof enough for me.

The Tragic Loss of a Loved One

Recently, a loved one went in for a minor procedure, and unfortunately did not make it out alive. It was so tragic. I never even had a chance to say goodbye. When I heard the terrible news, I sadly exclaimed, “How am I going to manage without my iPhone?!”
It was supposed to be so simple. Just drop off my beloved phone at the electronics store, and then an hour later, come pick it up after a technician installed a new battery. I knew the phone was almost four years old, which is like a lifetime-and-a-half in the cell phone world. But I really liked that device. It worked great, except the battery no longer held a charge very long. So, the plan was easy-peasy: drop it off, pay 80 bucks, and an hour later pick up the phone with its new, revitalized battery.

When I came back an hour later, I suspected something was amiss when the technician said, “Um, it’s a little trickier than I thought. Give me another 20 minutes, OK?”

I said sure, and went back out to my car to wait, knowing I could pass the time by checking emails or watching baseball highlight videos on my phone. Oops, I didn’t have the phone. I had to pass the time with only my thoughts. It was a painfully long 20 minutes.

Then I went back inside and the technician looked like he was about to cry. “I hate to say this,” he blurted out, “but your phone is, um, it’s dead. I’m so sorry! I accidently cut a wire when removing the old battery, and it just, well, it just won’t work anymore.”
He was so sincerely upset, it occurred to me that he possessed more compassion than many surgeons. “That’s all right. You did everything you could,” I said, while patting him gently on the shoulder.
Then he asked, “By the way, did you back up all your photos and documents before you brought your phone here?”
I immediately grabbed him by the throat and screamed, “You idiot! Why didn’t you remind me to do that BEFORE you murdered my loved one?!”

To his credit, the electronic store technician replaced the dead phone the next day with a new one, the exact same make and model. And it was free.

So, I have three observations about this ordeal. First, I depend on my smartphone way more than I thought; probably a lot more than is healthy. Besides work-related phone calls, emails, and text messages, I use my phone to watch videos and listen to music. It also functions as my GPS, address book, camera, photo album, alarm clock, book library, flashlight, calculator, weather forecaster, and sports scoreboard. Being without it for more than a day (32 hours and 12 minutes, but who’s counting?) caused severe withdrawal symptoms.
Second, it turns out the measly three dollars I pay each month for 200 gigabytes of extra storage with Apple’s iCloud is WELL worth it. All my photos and documents were restored onto the new phone. If you haven’t purchased this, do so now!

Finally, it turns out the replacement phone, although “brand new” in the sense that it had never been used before, was manufactured the same time as my old phone, about four years ago. It’s been sitting in a warehouse somewhere all this time. It does everything my old phone did, but just like the old one, it has a weak battery! Isn’t that ironic? I’m right back where I started.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be asking that same technician to install a new battery. At this point, we’ve both been through enough trauma. Also, I probably shouldn’t violate the restraining order.