Friday, January 28, 2022

Are We Commanded to Keep Silent About Jesus?

In the 9th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read about the time when Jesus healed two blind men. As soon as they regained their sight, Jesus said to the men, “See that no one knows about this.”

However, the very next verse says, “But they went out and spread word of [Jesus] through all that land.”
Now, at the very end of this same gospel, Jesus said to the 12 apostles, and by extension to all believers throughout history: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Isn’t this interesting? The two blind men were ordered not to tell anyone about Jesus, but they ignored that command and instead told everyone. On the other hand, we have been ordered to tell people about Jesus, but most of us ignore that command and tell nobody.

First, let’s consider why Jesus told the blind men to keep quiet. On the face of it, it seems odd. After all, Jesus’ message is called the “Good News,” and a major theme throughout Scripture is the fact that believers are called to share this news with others. So, why did Jesus order the blind men not to talk about how they were healed?
We find a clue in Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, when Jesus healed a leper and then ordered the man not to tell anyone about it. Just like the blind men, the leper ignored Jesus’ command and, as we read in verse 45: “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”

In this case, when word of Jesus’ miraculous healing spread all over the region, it caused such an uproar, Jesus no longer could even enter town and book a room at the local Holiday Inn. He was forced to spend the night sleeping out in the wilderness.

In John’s gospel, chapter 6, Jesus fed thousands of people with a couple of picnic baskets. When the crowd saw this miraculous sign, they got quite excited. Verse 15 says: “Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.”
Jesus had to walk a fine line. During His ministry He performed a lot of miracles to demonstrate His divine origins. Another reason He did miracles, of course, was His compassion for people who were suffering. However, if the crowds got so fired up as a result of His miracles, it could throw off Jesus’ pre-ordained timetable. You see, there was one particular Passover in all of history when the ancient prophecies would be fulfilled and God’s plan of redemption would take place. If the crowd’s exuberance accelerated the timing of when the religious authorities in Jerusalem confronted Jesus, it would mess up the divine plan.

So, Jesus had to navigate carefully during His ministry, to make sure events did not spiral out of control. This is why he frequently ordered people not to spread the word about His miracles.

But what about us, nowadays? Are we under orders to keep silent about Jesus? (Oh, I bet you we’re hoping that I’d forgotten about this.) For most of us, it sure seems like we’ve taken a vow of silence. But since we live in the Era of Grace — the period of time after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension — we are commanded to tell the world about the Good News of Jesus.
It’s kind of odd, isn’t it? Jesus gave orders to the blind men and to us. In both cases His orders were ignored. The blind men were so thrilled they couldn’t keep quiet. And we’re so timid or embarrassed to tell anyone about our faith in Jesus that we don’t say a peep.

Of these two groups of people, the blind men and us, I wonder which ones Jesus is more disappointed in? I bet it’s not the blind men. 

Come Fly Bargain Basement Airlines!

The concept is terrific. A brand new airline sets up operations in a small southern New England airport, and each day it offers five different non-stop flights to five different cities in Florida. Everybody in New England wants to head south — at least for a vacation during the bleak and cold days of winter. So, it’s a great idea.

The fares offered by this new airline are extremely low. Of course, they whack you with extra fees for checked luggage and carry-on bags. But there’s no truth to the rumor that they hit up all the passengers for gas money before they will take off.

Since I don’t want to get in trouble with the airline’s legal department (and the airline is so small, I suspect their entire legal department is an attorney named Phil who does wills and probate out of his basement), I will not mention the name of the airline nor the small southern New England airport from which it operates. Let’s just say the airport is located in a city on the Connecticut coast that may or may not have an Ivy League school with a name that rhymes with Fail. And the name of the airport itself may or may not rhyme with the word Weed.

Recently, I had to go to Florida for a two-day mercy mission (more about that in a bit). So, a friend and I booked a last-minute flight on this new airline. Our departing flight was delayed for two hours. When I asked what the problem was, an airline employee said, “The plane is late.”

I replied, “But can’t we use another plane?” and she said, “THE plane is late.” 

Oh, I see. In this case the word “fleet” is singular.

Two days later, when we had to fly back home from Florida, this time the plane was not late. It was sitting right there at the gate, with the jet bridge connected to the plane’s door. (Or is it called a hatch? I don’t know.) Just before starting the boarding process, they announced there might be a problem with one of the tires. So, we had to wait for someone to inspect it. This caused a one hour delay.
Then they announced that the tire in question was determined to be unsafe and needed to be changed. OK, I have no idea how to change a tire on an airplane. I know it takes the average person about 20 minutes to change a tire on a car (and it takes me about 40 minutes — I blame it on being left-handed). I suspected a standard scissors jack could not adequately lift the plane high enough to get at the tire, but surely the airline’s mechanics have this all figured out, right?

Well, another hour and a half passed, and we could see out the window that the plane was still sitting there and no one was yet working on the tire. Finally, the guy I was traveling with went over and talked to the two pilots, who also were sitting there waiting, just like the rest of us.

My friend came back and said, “You’re never gonna believe this. The airline is so small, they don’t have their own mechanics and they don’t have any spare parts. They’re frantically calling other airlines at this airport to see if anyone has a spare tire and a couple of mechanics they can borrow.” 

After four hours of waiting, they finally cancelled our flight, and told us to come back the next day and try again. Sheesh!

I’m out of space here, so I’ll have to explain the details of our mercy mission next week. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly purrrr-fect. 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Responding to Hypocrisy in the Church

As we all know, a lot of people, especially young people, have left the Church in recent years. Surveys indicate the number one reason these people leave is the Church’s hypocrisy. 

Let’s review: During the past few decades we have discovered that a significant percentage of ordained priests and bishops have committed horrible crimes against children. We’ve learned the Vatican has been involved in some rather shady financial wheeling and dealing. And we’ve been reminded, if we didn’t already know, that far too many average parishioners act holy and reverent at Mass, but if, for example, you get in their way in the parking lot after Mass and delay their quick getaway, they won’t hesitate to run you over.
So, it’s not surprising that rank hypocrisy among Church members — from top to bottom — has caused quite a few folks to leave in disgust.

The one bright spot in this dismal situation is the fact people are leaving because of the un-Christ-like behavior of other human beings, rather than an outright rejection of God. 

Recently, I read an article on a Christian website titled, “10 Responses to Claims of Hypocrisy in the Church,” written by Dr. Robert Petterson.

Here are the 10 suggested responses offered by Dr. Petterson whenever someone accuses the Church of being hypocritical:
  • Don’t make excuses
  • Don’t be defensive
  • Don’t be dismissive
  • Agree with the charge
  • Draw parallels to Jesus
  • Ask for examples
  • Explain that’s why Jesus came
  • Emphasize forgiveness over perfection
  • Distinguish between salvation and sanctification
  • Admit some “Christians” actually aren’t
When someone makes the statement, “The Church is full of hypocrites!” Dr. Petterson wisely advises not to argue or be defensive, because, frankly, that statement is absolutely correct. The Church IS full of hypocrites.
When talking with a friend or loved one who criticizes the Church, the best thing to do is agree that the Church is indeed filled with many sinners — both ordained and laity.  But then at some point in the conversation, it’s important to shift toward this key question: Why did Jesus found His Church in the first place? 

(Hint: I learned from personal experience that it’s not a good idea to leave Jesus out of the equation and ask, “Why does the Church exist?” because the immediate response will be something like, “It exists so sleazy men can accumulate power, prestige, and wealth!” When this happens, you’re right back to square one.)

The main point is to emphasize that the Church is not perfect, nor was it ever meant to be perfect, because it has always been populated with sinful people. The Gospel message, on the other hand, is perfect, and Jesus founded the Church as the vehicle through which the Gospel message is spread from generation to generation. 

And if the person you’re speaking to isn’t sure what the Gospel message is, here is a quick summary: God created mankind to be in a loving relationship with Himself. But mankind instead embraced sin, which distanced us from God. So, God sent His only begotten Son to earth to bridge the gulf. Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross, and then three days later He rose from the dead, conquering death once and for all. Most importantly, Jesus promised that if we put our faith in Him, we can live forever in the glory of Heaven.

That Gospel message is perfect. The Church, called to preach that message, is far from perfect. Think of it this way: If you’re about to drown, a leaky lifeboat is better than no lifeboat at all, right? 
According to Dr. Petterson, empathizing with the person who is angry at the Church helps to diffuse the situation. Generally speaking, it’s much more difficult to argue with someone who is on your side. But once we’re in agreement that the Church is filled with hypocrites, we have to make the case that despite all the hypocrisy, the Church still is important. Why? Because it’s Jesus’ Church, and Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

We may not see our friends come back to Church right away, but if they start to realize there is something profoundly joyful and good at the heart of the Church, despite all the hypocrisy, then maybe a seed will be planted. And God can work amazing miracles with even a tiny seed. 

Hit the Delete Button on Embarrassing Memories

I would love to be able to delete files in my head the way I do on my computer. With my computer, if there is a file I don’t need anymore, I just right-click it, select “delete,” and it’s gone. 

There are a lot of old, embarrassing memories stored in my head, and whenever one of them bubbles to the surface, it can be uncomfortable. I did a lot of stupid and immature things back in the day (if you don’t mind, I’m going to talk in generalities here), and whenever the memory of one of those incidents suddenly barges into my consciousness, it bothers me. I suspect the statute of limitations has expired for certain obnoxious comments made during the 6th grade. After all, that was 53 years ago. I’m pretty sure the people to whom I directed those comments forgot all about it, probably by 5th period math class, so why can’t I?
Now, I’m not saying I want to delete the memory of stupid and immature stuff I’ve done recently. I’ve been around long enough to realize that feeling guilty and embarrassed about making a mistake reduces the chances that I’ll make that same mistake again. That’s a good thing. Can you imagine if someone never felt guilt or embarrassment about saying or doing foolish things? That person would be a menace to society. Or a politician. But I repeat myself.

However, feeling chagrin about foolish behavior that occurred in the 6th grade is not helping me make good decisions nowadays. It just interjects some unnecessary regret into what should’ve been a pleasant day. (I wish the only embarrassing memories were from 6th grade, but a lot of cringe-worthy stuff happened in high school, too. And college. Especially college. Oh, and during my first job. And now that I think about it, my second job, too. Also, the first time I ever flew to Chicago and rented a car. Sheesh, that was a fiasco. Wait a minute, I said I was not going to get specific here.)
Recently, I heard a comedian explain that his father is Irish and his mother is Jewish, so that means he is both passive AND aggressive. Plus, he says he’s inherited a jumbo portion of guilt. I can’t speak for our Jewish friends, but my Irish-Catholic heritage definitely knows how to push the ol’ guilt buttons — to the point that if any of us did not feel guilt, we were made to feel guilty about THAT. 

If the old memories that I’d like to delete from my brain were bothering me all the time, then I’d have to check to see if my health insurance pays for me to have some counseling sessions with a sympathetic bartender. No wait, talking to bartenders was the first step in many of those bad memories. Since it only happens once in a while, the only therapy I need is to whine about it in this newspaper column. (I’m pretty sure once this gets published, I’m going to shake my head and mutter, “That’s embarrassing. What was I thinking?”)
When I thought of the computer file analogy, I asked the I.T. guy at work what happens to the files I delete. He said, “They go into the computer’s Recycle Bin, but you can restore them if you want. And even if you empty the Recycle Bin, a good computer technician can recover those files.”

Oh, so even the deleted files on my computer are never really gone. Great. My computer software must’ve been created by an Irish-Catholic guy who was bothered by old, embarrassing memories.

Well, it’s really not so bad. As long as I stay away from bartenders.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Mom’s Request Saves the Party

Last weekend at Mass we heard from St. John’s gospel. It’s the story of the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus performed His first miracle, changing water into wine. 

John wrote his gospel for one simple reason: so people would believe in Jesus, and as a result, receive eternal life. To convince his readers to put their faith in Jesus, John emphasized what he called “signs,” or miracles, performed by Jesus. Only someone with the supernatural power of God is capable of giving eternal life, and John wanted people to know without a doubt that Jesus has that kind of power.
The wedding feast at Cana started innocently enough. Jesus, His mother Mary, and some of His disciples were guests at the wedding. Everyone was having a good time. But then, while the wedding was still in progress (and these parties often lasted a full week!), they ran out of wine. How embarrassing for the bride’s father, or the caterer, or the guy with the concession stand license, or whoever was responsible for providing the food and drink.

Jesus’ mother — probably uncertain about His exact mission, but quite certain about the miraculous nature of His conception and birth — said to her son, “They have no wine.”
Jesus replied, “My hour has not yet come.”

Now, it’s important to understand that John uses the words “hour” and “time” repeatedly in his gospel (7:30, 8:20, 12:23, 13:1, and 17:1). Each time the reference is to the culmination of Jesus’ mission: the cross at Calvary.

Jesus said to His mother, in essence, that there is a specific timetable for His mission, and now is not the time to begin doing miracles.

Mary did not badger and plead with her son — but nor did she back down. Although it doesn’t say specifically in Scripture, I’ve got a hunch at this point she smiled sweetly, raised her eyebrows, and looked Jesus straight in the eyes with that special mothers-only look, the one that silently communicates the message, “You don’t wanna disappoint your momma, now do ya?”

Demonstrating complete trust in her son, Mary then said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Well, as we all know, Jesus miraculously transformed upwards of 150 gallons of water into the best wine anyone had ever tasted. The party was saved, and no one was embarrassed.

John concludes this episode by explaining, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs…and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

Again, John’s purpose is clear: to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity by describing the miracles He performed so people will put their faith in Him.

There’s one other aspect of this event which I find fascinating. It seems pretty clear that Jesus did not intend to do a miracle at the wedding feast. Doing His first “sign” was not on that day’s divine to-do list. But when Mary made the request, Jesus changed His plans.

The lesson here is that our sincere requests (our prayers) can cause God to alter His plans and timing. This is a startling idea, until we remember that Jesus gave us many instructions about prayer: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9); “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father” (John 14:13). 
Many people think every event in history is already pre-ordained, carved in stone and unalterable. But if that were so, why bother praying? Since Jesus would never command us to do something useless, our prayers must be powerful. They can change the course of history. They can even change the plans of God! Wow, that’s a pretty remarkable concept.

So, last weekend’s gospel is much more than a simple little story of embarrassment averted. It teaches us the identity of Jesus, the mission of Jesus, and the power of prayer. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Not So Fond of Change

The company where I work recently merged with another firm to form a brand new organization. As the engineering marketing manager, it was my job to announce the merger and promote it among our clients and other business associates. As part of this effort, I put a post on the LinkedIn website, and concluded the message by saying that we’re all “looking forward to this new adventure!”

A guy I’ve known for years in the industry saw that post online, and gave me a call. First, he said, “Congratulations.” Then he said, “You really can’t be looking forward to this, not at your age, right?”

I immediately replied, “Of course I’m looking forward to it. This is going to be really good for us.”

Then I paused for a moment and said, “Hey, wait a minute. What do you mean, ‘Not at my age’?”

He replied, “Well, you know. You’re not a spring chicken anymore — and neither am I — and people our age just don’t like change.”

I indignantly said, “Hey, I’ll have you know that I am a big fan of change. I love change. I embrace change! This merger is a wonderful change, and I am looking forward to it!”

He waited a bit, then asked, “But how do you REALLY feel about it?”

I said, “I’m nervous. I don’t know what to expect.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said.

OK, so maybe I don’t exactly embrace change. Maybe I occasionally resist change. (I am, of course, using the definition of “occasionally” that means: “every single time.”)
As I often do whenever I’m facing a momentous situation, I turned to the one true source of wisdom: Google. (No, I’m kidding. My pastor would not appreciate that smart-aleck comment. The one true source of wisdom is, of course, the Bible. But for the purposes of this alleged humor column, I’m going to cite Google for now.)

A quick Google search uncovered many comments regarding change. Here are some, plus my parenthetical thoughts:
  • “Change is never painful. Only the resistance to change is painful.” (No, change is not never painful — uh oh, a double negative. I mean, sometimes change itself is painful, but I agree that resisting change makes it worse.)

  • “I like progress, but I hate change.” (Sounds clever, but I’m not sure what it means.)
  • “I hate change more than almost anything.” (OK, that’s going a bit too far.)
  • “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” (No, I’m pretty sure we resist change, too.)
  • “Two reasons why people hate change: 1. People fear the unknown. 2. There are always people profiting from how things are.” (I guess that’s true.)
  • “People love change — when it’s about changing others. People hate change — when it’s about changing themselves.” (Since I’m not a politician, I don’t have a burning desire to change other people.)
  • “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” (Remaining the same but getting better. Now, that’s not too much to ask for, is it?)
At this point in my life, I’ve been around the block enough times (see “spring chicken” comment above) to know that the only thing that never changes is the constant rate of change. (Hey, wait a minute. That’s a good one. I should get quoted in a Google search.)
I've done a pretty good job conquering my fear of change, especially since I finally realized things are going to change anyway whether I’m on board or not. So, with the major changes happening at work, I can honestly and confidently declare: I am looking forward to this new adventure! (I think.)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The (Tedious) Moby-Dick Marathon

A while ago, I mentioned in a column that I consider myself an “avid reader.” Since then I’ve received many emails with suggestions of books I might enjoy. I appreciate the information, and I hope to read many of these books soon, but the backlog is getting kind of large, so for some of these titles I might not get a chance until the summer. (Summer of which year? Hmm, not sure.)

One of the books I read very recently was Moby-Dick. I heard it is often referred to as the most important American novel, so I figured I should read it. Well, I read it; the whole thing. And the entire time I was reading, one word kept popping into my head: “tedious.” 
As I read, I kept thinking to myself, “How can this be considered such a classic? It’s disjointed and boring, and frankly, Herman Melville’s prose is kind of, um, meh.” 

An online search found quotations from many scholars who gushed over the book, calling it the greatest thing since sliced pepperoni. (No, that’s not true. Distinguished scholars of Literature are too classy to compare anything to sliced pepperoni. Sliced provolone, on the other hand, is a quite common comparison in the ivy-covered halls of academe.) 

But finally, I found one review that said the novel is a 100-page exciting adventure stuck inside a 400-page manuscript. Thank you! I was so glad at least one person agreed with me that the book is 25% stimulating and 75% tiresome.
About two weeks after finishing Moby-Dick, I saw an online article with this headline: “Actor Sam Waterston to kick off annual Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford.”

It seems every January, the New Bedford Whaling Museum hosts a public reading of the entire book. It takes about 25 hours to complete, with 200 different people reciting approximately two pages each.
The CEO of the museum, Amanda McMullen, said, “We are thrilled to have the participation of all our readers, and know that their passion for Melville and heartfelt commitment to New Bedford will help make the 2022 marathon the most exciting and engaging yet.” 

Um, okay. I’m sure it will be the most exciting and engaging marathon to date — IF they decide to recite a different book. Anything really. Try The Godfather, or The Right Stuff, or even the New Bedford phone book.

I suspect Sam Waterston will proclaim, “Call me Ishmael,” and then head back to Logan Airport. It’s unlikely the museum has a large enough budget to pay the fee Sam’s agent would demand if he has to hang around for the entire 25 hours.

Even though I consider myself an “avid reader,” I freely admit my opinions about classic novels are worth even less than unsliced pepperoni. I’m the last person who should be offering reviews on the classics. No doubt this column will prompt many email notes lamenting my proletarian ignorance toward Melville’s brilliantly symbolic and timeless tome — or something like that.
You see, even though I like to read, and for the past 21 years I’ve been stringing together 600 semi-coherent words each week for this newspaper column, the fact is, I was an engineering major in school. I took exactly one English class in four years, the requisite Freshman Composition course. And in that class, the professor gave me a quite generous C-minus final grade. One essay I submitted was returned with this note: “Stick to numbers, son. Words are not your strong suit.”

Many decades later, I still remember my erudite and pithy comment upon reading the professor’s note. I said, “Huh?”

I may not be a literature expert, but I know what I like: exciting stories, compelling prose, and sliced pepperoni. 

Should We Pray to Mary?

Every morning I receive an email from an Evangelical Christian outfit with interesting comments about faith life. A few weeks ago, the daily message I received caught my eye. The subject line said: “Is it Okay for Christians to Pray to Mary?”

“Oh boy, here we go,” I mumbled to myself. Before even reading a single word, I knew where it was going. I started reading, and yup, I was right. After acknowledging that Mary was kind of special because she gave birth to the Messiah, and noting “Christians have always been amazed and interested in Mary,” the essay declared, “Mary is not worthy of receiving prayers from Christians.”
As I’ve mentioned before in these Merry Catholic pieces, there is a big misunderstanding in the Christian world regarding the definition of prayer. Some people insist prayer is the same as worship, which only should be directed toward God. Since Mary is not God, prayer to her is the same as worshipping her, and that is idolatry.

Let me be clear: worshipping anyone or anything other than God is indeed idolatry. (Keep that in mind when you consider your attitude toward things such as money, cars, political parties, celebrities, or the Boston Red Sox.)

Our Evangelical friends are correct when they insist it is wrong to worship Mary. Catholic doctrine agrees with this claim. And I should add, there are more than a few Catholics whose devotion to Mary is so over-the-top that it comes across as worship. I can see why some non-Catholics get a little upset.

But the fact is, the Catholic Church clearly teaches that worship is reserved for God alone. Regarding Mary, is it perfectly fine to respect and honor her. Luke’s gospel says all generations shall call Mary “blessed,” so there is no problem when we refer to her as the “Blessed Virgin Mary.”

We Catholics have an expanded definition of prayer. For us, prayer is not only worship, it also is spiritual communication. When Catholics pray to Mary, we are not worshipping her; we are, instead, asking her to intercede on our behalf with the Lord. 
Why would we want to ask Mary to intercede for us when we can pray directly to God? (Which, if you’re not clear about that, we definitely can do.) The best way to answer that question is to use Evangelical Christians as an example. In my experience over the years, no group of people is more willing to offer up sincere and heartfelt prayers for the needs of others than Evangelical Christians. 

I certainly know plenty of Catholics who are terrific prayer warriors, but as a group, Evangelicals are amazing. If you tell one that your spouse is sick or your neighbor got in a car accident, he or she will immediately begin praying earnestly. Quickly thereafter, a prayer chain will be mobilized, and within 20 minutes, dozens and dozens of folks will be praying for your spouse or neighbor. It is quite commendable.

Evangelicals take to heart the words of Scripture: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Well, when we Catholics pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary, all we are doing is asking her to pray for us. We don’t ask her to “give us this day our daily bread.” We don’t ask her to “forgive us our trespasses.” We don’t ask her to “deliver us from evil.” All those requests go straight to God in the “Our Father” prayer.

The final statement of the “Hail Mary” prayer says, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” We don’t worship Mary. We don’t ask her to do the things only God can do. We simply request that she prays for us. Just as we would ask an Evangelical friend to pray for us. (This, by the way, also goes for all the other believers who have gone before us, the mighty Communion of Saints.)
So, to answer the question in the subject line of that email I received: Yes, it is okay for Christians to pray to Mary. As long as you make sure you don’t worship her, it’s perfectly fine to ask her to pray for you — just as it’s fine to ask your friend at church to pray for you.

There, I’m glad I cleared that up. Now, go and confidently ask your Blessed Mother to pray for you.