Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Prayer for More Faith

My new favorite Bible verse is Mark 9:24. A desperate man cried out to Jesus, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

At first glance, this statement seems a bit contradictory. The guy says that he believes, but immediately adds that he is unbelieving. Well, which is it, pal? Do you believe or do you not believe?
When it comes to matters of faith, it’s not a simple yes-or-no, black-or-white situation. Belief in God can fall on a wide spectrum, from zero-percent faith, such as a militant atheist, all the way to 100-percent, 24/7, passionate faith. The zealous and relentless St. Paul comes to mind.

If I had written on this topic a couple of decades ago, I probably would have mentioned Mother Teresa as my example of 100-percent passionate faith. Her entire life was a shining example of sacrificing everything to serve others, the epitome of answering the Gospel call.

However, after Mother Teresa’s death, it was revealed that she struggled through times of wavering faith. For long stretches she did not sense the presence of God in her life. I don’t know if she ever was tempted to renounce her faith entirely. But she certainly experienced some bleak times, what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.”

The fact that even Mother Teresa struggled at times with faith is actually very comforting to me. When I first became a Christian over three decades ago, I was fired up for the faith. I was certain that I landed on the 100-percent end of the faith spectrum and would always stay there.
It was just a matter of time, I was convinced, until I distinguished myself as my generation’s version of either Billy Graham or Archbishop Sheen or C.S. Lewis; or maybe a combination of all three. I was going to spread the Good News of the Gospel to all the world, using my brilliant writing and communication skills, my charismatic personality, and my inexhaustible supply of energy.

Then, as time went on, I finally realized my writing and communication skills were mediocre, my personality was kind of meh, and my energy supply was running on empty.

Back in those early days, I expected to become a Christian writer and speaker known throughout the world. Now, I’m just praying that I don’t screw things up too much in my little corner of the world.

It turns out I don’t in fact land on the 100-percent end of the faith spectrum. Not even close. On good days, I hope I’m a little bit past the 50-percent mark. And on bad days, well, sometimes it seems I can hear Jesus’ frustrated voice saying to me, “Oh ye of little faith!”

This is why the desperate man in Mark’s gospel is so comforting to me. He came to Jesus in a panic; his young son was possessed by a demon. The fact that he came to Jesus showed that at least he had a little faith. Maybe his desperation was much greater than his faith at that moment, but he would not have bothered to seek Jesus if he had zero faith.

The man’s seemingly contradictory statement expressed a simple fact: he had some faith, but he admitted it was weak. He acknowledged that his faith needed to increase.
His plea is a terrific prayer for those times when it seems we are drifting into the dark night of the soul. Looking heavenward and exclaiming, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” is a great way to admit to God that we’re struggling and we need help. Whenever I offer this prayer, I can feel my faith getting a little boost.

The unnamed man in Mark 9:24 is a biblical hero in my book. (You know, the book I never got around to writing because I have no energy.) When we honestly admit our faith is weak and sincerely ask the Lord to increase our faith, He will do it. 

The Old Days of Kitchen Wall Communicating

There are people in society who refuse to join the modern world. These odd folks cling to an ancient lifestyle and shun many conveniences of the 21st century. Even Amish people look at these quirky citizens and say, “Dude, you’re taking this live-in-the-past thing WAY too far!”

I am speaking, of course, about the old-fashioned people among us who insist on keeping their landline telephones.
A recent television documentary, broadcast either on the History Channel or the Cartoon Network, I forget which one, explored conditions in those prehistoric days. If you can imagine it, back then telephones were actually attached to a wall, often in the kitchen of the house.
The telephone had a wire, referred to as a cord, and you could use the phone only by remaining within the maximum radius of the cord, usually no more than six or eight feet. No, I’m not kidding! You could not have a phone conversation while walking down the street or while driving in your car, as Nature intended. If you wanted to call someone, you had to stay in the kitchen, tethered to a plastic box screwed onto the wall.

Additionally, there were wires inside the walls, which exited the house and connected to a larger set of wires on the utility poles running parallel to the street. From here, all the wires from all the other homes continued on until reaching the ugliest building in town, a windowless square monolith known as the Phone Company building. What the Phone Company did with the wires at this point, no one really knows. Being a legal monopoly, the organization was not required to, nor had any interest in, disclosing details of how it operated. However, wires crisscrossed the nation and connected each home, such that a view from outer space made it appear North America was tangled in a gigantic black spider’s web. But if you wanted to have a conversation with someone in, say, Missouri via the box on their kitchen wall, you could.
With this old-style communication system, there were no cell phone towers involved, nor were there radio signals, satellites, wifi, bluetooth or any other technology that would be classified today as “wireless.” But on the other hand, the old systems did not require charger cords. The mysterious boxes screwed to the kitchen wall somehow furnished their own electrical power, even when a thunderstorm killed power to every other item in the house. One expert quoted in the TV documentary referred to this unending source of telephone power by its scientific term: “magic.”
OK, I may be exaggerating a little about the old and mysterious landline telephones. I realize they are still around and are still being used. In fact, up until six months ago, we had one in our house, even though we hardly ever used it anymore after getting cell phones. We sold the house and moved, and the new place was not wired for a landline phone. We have not missed the ol’ wall phone at all. (Except one time, when I needed to make a call and couldn’t locate my cell phone. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I never once misplaced the kitchen wall.)

Although more and more people are going “wireless” these days, we still have a wire problem. Most homes now have at least one kitchen drawer that has become a rat’s nest of charger cords. And no matter how many cords are shoved in that drawer, we can never find the one we need.
I was reminded of this the other day when my Amish friend, Jedidiah, said to me, “Dude, can I borrow your iPhone charger? My battery’s almost dead!”

Friday, June 18, 2021

Jesus Reverses the Curse

In our culture, we are often told that “death is just a part of life,” and that “death is perfectly natural.” 

These statements are told to us by many wise modern philosophers, including animated cartoon characters in the classic Disney movie, “The Lion King.” (I love that film, by the way. When our daughters were young a couple of decades ago, we popped that tape in the ol’ VCR machine all the time, along with other great Disney children’s movies such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and Beast,” and “Platoon.”)
In “The Lion King,” it’s explained that all living things, including we humans, are part of the great “circle of life,” where each generation has to move on and make room for the next generation — often by becoming food for the next generation. 

So, the idea is that death is just a natural part of life. Well, tell that to Jairus, the man in this week’s gospel reading at Mass, as his friends come and tell him, “Your daughter has died; why trouble [Jesus] any longer?” Sure, just tell Jairus that death is perfectly natural. Sing Elton John’s “The Circle of Life” song for him. “Oh, you got a dead kid there, Jairus? Hey, you’ll get over it. C’mon pal, let’s go have some lunch.” 

I suspect we are constantly told this “death is natural” view to keep us from becoming despondent at the death of loved ones, and to keep us from being terrified by the thought of our own death. However, the idea that “death is just a part of life” is the farthest thing from God’s view. God did not create life just so it ultimately could die and wither away.  

Death was not part of God’s original plan. For example, when Jesus stood before His friend Lazarus’ grave — even though He knew He was about to raise him from the dead — the Bible tells us that Jesus wept. That’s how repugnant the whole idea of death was to Jesus.
Just think of it: Jesus was the only person present at that moment who KNEW Lazarus would be walking and talking and hugging his family in a few moments. And yet Jesus wept at death, at the way death had corrupted the perfect creation He had spoken into existence before the beginning of time (John 1:3). Death was not, and has never been, a part of God’s plan for mankind. Death is an abomination; it is an obscenity; it is a curse. 

Up until the year 2004, Boston Red Sox fanatics such as myself had a rallying cry: “Reverse the Curse!” This referred to the so-called “Curse of the Bambino,” the idea that the late, great Babe Ruth had cursed the Red Sox never to win the World Series as punishment for trading him to the rival New York Yankees. At times — Bucky, Buckner, Boone, etc. — it certainly seemed as though this curse was real. It took 86 years, but the Sox finally reversed the curse. 
The reason Jesus came to earth was to reverse the curse — the curse of death. His sacrificial death on the cross once and for all paid the price for the entire world’s sins. And His rising from the grave three days later conquered death. What Satan had gleefully unleashed in the Garden of Eden, Jesus reversed on Calvary. 

So, even though we still have to deal with the death of our physical bodies on this side of eternity, death no longer has the final word. The Word made flesh changed all that. The crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus made it possible for our souls and our glorified bodies to have eternal life in Heaven. 

Death is still painful and horrific, and anyone who tries to cheer us up with that “death is just a natural part of life” nonsense — whether a well-meaning but foolish friend or a philosophical cartoon character singing a catchy movie tune — should be gently but firmly hushed. 

Death is painful, but it is no longer hopeless. Jesus changed all that. The curse has been reversed. Thank God!

Has Baseball Become Unwatchable?

 This is my official annual baseball essay. Well, I don’t really have an “official” annual baseball essay, and even if I did, I already wrote about baseball three weeks ago. So, if anything, this would be my official semi-monthly baseball essay, in which case, I should be working for the Sports Department rather than the Features Department. But the Sports Department already has a team of terrific writers, so maybe I could convince the editors to let me write movie reviews, which probably wouldn’t work out so well, since my method of judging movies is a bit simplistic: if there are lots of explosions, then it’s a great movie, and if there’s lots of talking about personal relationships, then it’s a lousy movie. I guess I should be grateful I’m doing whatever it is I’ve been doing each week on this page for the past 20 years.

Anyway, even though I already discussed baseball quite recently, I’m compelled to revisit that topic again. After being shut down for most of last year due to the pandemic, major league games are being played in front of actual fans, rather than last year’s awkward cardboard cutouts. This should be a golden age for baseball. There’s one slight problem, however: the games are almost unwatchable.

Over the last decade, a concept called “analytics” has come to dominate the game. Every aspect of play is analyzed by sophisticated computer software to determine what steps should be taken to maximize the chances of success. The defensive “shifts” commonly employed nowadays are one obvious result.

Analytics has impacted hitting, too. The computers have determined the best way to win a game is to have every player try to hit a home run on every swing, regardless of the situation. So, the number of home runs has indeed risen in recent years. What’s also risen are the number of strikeouts and walks, two aspects of the game with no action.

Sportswriter Tom Verducci hit the nail on the head recently when he said every team now has a roster filled with Dave Kingmans. If you’re not familiar with Dave Kingman, he was a big, strong guy who played in the 1970s and ‘80s. He could do only one thing well as a baseball player: hit home runs. His 1982 season with the Mets epitomized his career. That season, he hit 37 home runs with 99 RBIs — very respectable. But his batting average was only .204 and he struck out a league leading 156 times. In 1982, this was extremely frustrating for Mets fans, as his one or two homers each week never seemed to offset his relentless whiffs. But in 2021, Kingman would be the MVP of analytics.
When the batter makes contact and puts the ball in play, 10 people immediately start moving (more, if there are runners on base). When the batter strikes out or walks, no one moves, except maybe some folks in the grandstands who move toward the exit because a nine inning game should never take four hours to complete.

I like to think of myself as a knowledgeable baseball fan, who knows the subtle intricacies of the game. But it’s actually more like my take on movies. If there’s a lot of action, I like it. If they stand around and talk for the whole movie, meh. Major league baseball has become a chick flick. And those of us who want to see steady action are not satisfied when one homer finally interrupts a string of 11 strikeouts.
Don’t worry. At this rate, there will not be a third official annual baseball essay later this summer. But maybe I’ll review “Wonder Woman vs. Godzilla” when it hits the theaters.

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.