Sunday, August 14, 2022

Martha, Martha, Gimme the News

A few weeks ago, the gospel reading at Mass was the memorable “Martha, Martha” incident. Jesus visited a town, and went to the home of Martha, who had a sister named Mary. When Jesus came into the house and started teaching, Mary sat on the floor right by Jesus' feet and listened with rapt attention.

Meanwhile, Martha was working hard in the kitchen preparing food for the visitors. Exasperated, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
Way back in the 1980s, when I stopped being an atheist and became a Christian, I started paying attention to the readings at Mass for the first time. Even though my parents took me to Mass every Sunday while I was growing up, I worked very hard each week to force myself not to listen to whatever was being said in church. So, in my late 20s, after realizing that God is real and the Bible is indeed His inspired Word, I started listening to the readings at Mass a lot like Mary did: with rapt attention.

I vividly remember the first time I was really paying attention to this “Martha, Martha” story. Right at the moment when Martha said to Jesus, “Tell her to help me,” I fully expected Jesus to say something like, “That’s a good point, Martha. Hey Mary, please give your sister a hand. Then after we’ve eaten, you can come back here and I’ll teach some more, OK?”

I mean, that seemed to me to be the Christian thing to do, right? Instead of having one person do all the work while everyone else sat around doing nothing, giving Martha a little help with the chores was the obvious course of action.

So, imagine my surprise when the reading continued, and Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

(By the way, whenever I think, hear, or say, “Martha, Martha,” in the back of my brain I can hear that old Robert Palmer song “Bad Case of Loving You.” The lyrics of the chorus are: “Doctor Doctor, gimme the news / I got a bad case of lovin' you / No pill's gonna cure my ill / I got a bad case of lovin' you.” Except when I hear it in my head, it goes like this: “Martha, Martha, gimme the news / You got a bad case of servin’ blues.” I’m not sure why that is, or more importantly, why I shared that with you. But that’s what I hear.)
Anyway, the very first time I heard this gospel reading at Mass, I was stunned. My mouth hung open, and I silently said to myself, “Wait. Did I hear that right?!”

I was really shocked that Jesus told Martha, in effect, to stop whining and leave Mary alone. In my mind then (and now, too, to be honest), I thought Martha had a really good point and that Mary was being somewhat of a slacker.

After thinking about it some more, and reading some Bible commentaries, I now understand that listening to life-changing proclamations from the incarnate Son of God is much more important than making some baloney sandwiches for a Thursday lunch.

But still, couldn’t Jesus have told Martha to sit down next to Mary and listen, and order Peter and the other apostles to go into the kitchen and finish making lunch?
Or couldn’t Jesus have announced that He’ll resume the lecture after lunch, and then go into the kitchen Himself and help Martha with the serving?

There are a lot of different ways this story could’ve played out that are better, at least in my mind, than what actually happened. Please understand, I’m not usually in the habit of telling Jesus that He should’ve done things differently. But in this case…well, just sayin’.

I’m glad Martha did not say what I would’ve said if I was in her place, which is: “OK, fine. I’ll sit here and listen, too. All y’all can feed yourselves! The phone’s over there, and Pizza Hut delivers!”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Green Light for Booze and Betting?

Years ago, an Evangelical Christian friend said to me, “You Catholics are so lucky. You get to drink alcohol and gamble.” 

I asked him to explain, and he told me in his church they teach that drinking alcohol is always a sin, even the tiniest amount. They even insist that at the wedding feast at Cana, described in the Bible, Jesus turned water into grape juice. He also said that any form of gambling is a sin — such as lottery tickets or the Friday night bingo games that used to be so popular at Catholic parishes.
The odd thing was, my friend didn’t say this to criticize Catholics for being sinful. He said it with a touch of envy. I asked him why he didn’t just have a beer once in a while. He said it would cause too much trouble with his family and fellow church members.

That reminds me of an old joke: “Jews don’t recognize Jesus, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.”

My friend also told me that it wasn’t too long ago that his church denomination finally allowed members to go dancing and watch movies. Wow.

Now, obviously when we Catholics say that drinking is not sinful, it doesn’t mean we have a green light to abuse alcohol. And if it’s okay to buy lotto tickets or enjoy a night at the casino, we can’t blow the rent money at the blackjack table.

Moderation is the key. If we abuse alcohol or gambling, and cause harm to our families, then it definitely is a sin. And the sad thing is, substance abuse and gambling addictions have really inflicted horrible damage to a lot of people’s lives, especially children.
I’ve been thinking about this topic lately, because all I see on TV these days are ads for sports betting services. And as we know, Connecticut soon will be opening recreational marijuana retail stores all over the place, just like they have in Massachusetts, Colorado, and a bunch of other states.

I’m usually a “live and let live,” libertarian kind of guy. I think people should have as much freedom as possible, as long as we don’t reach the point where society devolves into chaos. (On the other hand, when I watch the news on TV at night, I often think: “Oh boy, we’ve already reached that point!)

Even though Catholicism has a reputation for being super strict regarding personal morality and behavior, when it comes to things like drinking and gambling, we’re actually kind of libertarian. People can enjoy themselves, as long as they don’t hurt others, especially their loved ones.

When I compare my old friend’s fundamentalist church’s view to our Catholic view on alcohol and gambling, I usually conclude that we are more commonsensical. We focus on important things, like Church doctrines, and don’t sweat the minor things. After all, imposing a million rules and regulations only causes people to live hypocritical lives — and to pretend they don’t recognize a fellow church member when they bump into each other at the liquor store.

However, at other times I look around at our instant-gratification culture, and read about all the problems they’re now having in states that legalized marijuana a few years ago, and I think: you know, we really need to send out an army of grumpy nuns in full habit to whack people with wooden rulers whenever they step out of line.

Well, of course, that’s not the solution. I guess we just have to rely on people’s common sense so they don’t take advantage of their freedom and abuse things like alcohol and gambling. Yeah, I just thought the same thing you did: Heaven help us! 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Are Smartphones Ruining Our Memory?

I read an interesting article the other day. The headline was, “Is your smartphone ruining your memory?” The piece discussed a new phenomenon called “digital amnesia.” 

What a bunch of nonsense. I use my smartphone all the time and there’s nothing wrong with my memory.

So, anyway, I read an interesting article the other day. The headline was, “Is your smartphone ruining your memory?”  
Um, wait a minute. OK, maybe there is something to it after all.
Researchers are studying the impact digital media has on our brains. (I think we already know the impact Facebook and Twitter have on our souls, and it ain’t good.) 

There are two main aspects of how the digital revolution is affecting our brains. First, we now are outsourcing a significant portion of our memories to smart devices. We no longer have to remember things such as appointments and phone numbers, since our devices keep track of that information and give us notifications when an event is due. Yes, in the prehistoric, pre-smartphone days (which were slightly more than a decade ago), we often wrote things down on calendars or notebooks. But the very act of writing something down with a pen or pencil would imprint that information in our brains much more effectively than hitting the “accept” button when you get an email invitation to a meeting and then trust that your digital devices will remind you.

Professor Oliver Hardt, who studies neurobiology at McGill University, is concerned about our reliance on GPS devices nowadays. “We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus,” he explains. “Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression…and certain forms of dementia.”

Apparently, when we follow GPS directions (“In a quarter mile, turn right onto Commerce Street”), we are not exercising our brains very much. “Map reading is hard,” Professor Hardt points out, “and that’s why we give it away to devices so easily. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures.” 
In other words, locating Commerce Street on a map, and envisioning in our heads where it is in relation to where we are at the moment, and then figuring out the best route to get there, is like a 60-minute aerobic workout for our brains. While following GPS instructions is like our brains sitting on the couch scarfing down Cheeze Doodles and a 2-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper. 
The other aspect of digital media that affects our memories is the fact that we are constantly being interrupted, to the point that we rarely think about one thing for an extended period of time. (“Extended period of time” being defined as “more than four seconds.”)

Catherine Price is a science writer and the author of the book How to Break Up With Your Phone. She is worried that people are perpetually distracted by their phones, a term called “Continual partial attention.” She says, “One of the things that impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage is distraction.” In other words, if we’re juggling five different sources of information all at the same time (such as email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix), we’re not absorbing any of it.
Before I finish, I just want to mention that I read an interesting article the other day. The headline was, “Is your smartphone ruining your memory?”

However, I, uh, I can’t remember what the article said because I was checking email and listening to music with my earbuds while reading it. But I’m sure it was interesting. Or whatever. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Sermon on the Mount Is Shocking

The epic speech given by Jesus, known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” is considered by many theologians as the blueprint for how to live the Christian life. The sermon is found in Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5, 6, and 7.

However, if the Sermon is such a good blueprint, how come hardly anyone even tries to live up to it? Let’s take a look.

The first part of the Sermon on the Mount is the famous series of statements called The Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit….Blessed are those who mourn….Blessed are the meek” etc., etc. Everyone wants to be “blessed,” which is defined as being happy and fulfilled and in a proper relationship with God. But in our modern culture, who really wants to mourn and be meek? Someone might say, “Being a sad wimp is no way to succeed in this competitive world!” 
Then there is the ninth and final beatitude: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”

“Wait a minute, pal,” our same friend might offer, “Are you saying if I get persecuted and have people lie about me, then I’ll be blessed? No thanks. I already get enough of that on Facebook and Twitter!”

If you think the Beatitudes are difficult to embrace, take a gander at some of the other teachings Jesus proclaimed in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Here are a couple of very counter-cultural statements by the Lord: “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and, “Whoever divorces his wife…causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

“Tell me you’re joking, right?” our friend says, this time through clenched teeth. “This is the modern world, for crying out loud! A little porn never hurt anyone. And have you seen Trixie in Customer Service? Whoa, she is hot! Also, who cares if someone gets divorced and remarried a couple of times? What are you supposed to do, spend your whole life with one woman after you fall in love with someone else? Sheesh!”

Here are a couple more teachings by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well,” and, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
“OK, now I know you’re living in La-la Land,” our friend exclaims. “I get it that we’re supposed to be peaceful and not harm innocent people. But you’re saying if someone hauls off and hits me in the face, I’m NOT supposed to defend myself? And then I’m supposed to love those jerks who keep posting nasty things about me on social media? No way, bud. I hate ‘em. And I hope they all get run over by a bus!”

Hmm, even if our fictitious friend here is a bit of an exaggeration, I think you can see why the Sermon on the Mount is so out of touch with modern sensibilities. One final teaching from the end of the Sermon on the Mount might be the most stunning of all. In chapter 7, verse 21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.”

Jesus is saying here that even if someone sincerely proclaims, “Jesus is Lord,” and goes to church once in a while, it may not be good enough to get to Heaven. A couple of verses later, Jesus explains, “I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

These might be the most frightening words in the whole Bible. Even if we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we still could be in big trouble if we don’t follow His blueprint for discipleship: The Sermon on the Mount. But nobody follows the Sermon on the Mount! Does this mean we’re all doomed?

Nope. We certainly deserve to be doomed, but Jesus’ love and mercy are more powerful than our sin. The key is when Jesus said, “I never knew you.” We have to KNOW the Lord, not just know ABOUT Him. 

A good first step would be to acknowledge that the Sermon on the Mount is indeed a wonderful blueprint for the Christian life, despite being so out of step with our modern world. Then we should try to incorporate a couple of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon into our lives. At least we’ll be heading in the right direction. It’s worth a shot, since there’s nothing better than Jesus telling us that we are “blessed.”