Tuesday, February 28, 2023

A Missing Peace

Back in January I went on a weekend retreat at Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford. I try to go once each year, and boy oh boy, whenever I do, it is such a needed mental health break. From early evening on Friday until Sunday afternoon, it’s an opportunity to disconnect from the frantic everyday world. During the retreat, there are a lot of prayer sessions, music, discussion groups, Confession, and two separate Masses. My main goal on retreat is to take at least two naps per day and avoid looking at my smartphone as much as possible. 

In January, I almost reached my goal. I napped twice on Saturday but only once on Sunday. Still, that’s way better than my average weekend, and of course, it’s a zillion times better than the average Monday through Friday work week, when finding time to take a nap is about as likely as winning the PowerBall lottery. (And I never buy tickets, so that reduces my odds from, um, zero down to zero.)
Every year they have a different theme at the Men’s retreat. This year the theme is “A Missing Peace.” (Get it? It’s peace, not piece.) During the seminars, they discussed the many obstacles to achieving inner peace, including: pride, greed, the need to exert power over others, always having to be right, fear, etc. 

In the discussion groups, many Catholic saints were quoted, offering wise counsel on how to have peace in a tumultuous world. One quote kind of jumped out at me. St. Francis de Sales said, “Never be in a hurry. Do everything quietly and in a calm spirit.”

When I heard that quote, I thought to myself, “Really? Never hurry? I guess Saint F.D.S. never tried to merge onto I-84 during rush hour. If you don’t hurry, you’ll never get home.”

During all the terrific seminars and discussions on retreat, I was surprised they never mentioned the most profound quote about inner peace ever uttered. It’s not from the Bible, nor was it spoken by a Catholic saint, but it’s still awesome.

Remember the movie, “Field of Dreams”? In the climactic scene toward the end of the film, the character played by James Earl Jones explains to the character played by Kevin Costner why people will come to their magical baseball field. Jones intones (as only he can), “For it is money they have and peace they lack.”
Every time I watch that movie – which has to be at least 20 times since it came out in 1989 – I let out an audible gasp when James Earl Jones says that line. It really hits home. Yes, we have money. Sure, not everyone is rich. But in our current American culture even people who are considered poor have cell phones, flatscreen TVs, unlimited information, and multiple entertainment options. And those of us who are middle class have all those things times ten. 

Anyway, we have so much stuff nowadays: money and credit cards and closets full of clothing and 190 channels on the cable TV and wifi access to the Internet with dozens of streaming options and realistic video games and multiple services that will deliver food to our front door via a smartphone app. But does our culture have peace, true inner peace of the soul? Ha, not ever close.

So, what we need, as James Earl Jones explained, is the nostalgia of baseball. No wait. I’m sorry. That was the focus of the movie, and it might be true for some people, such as me. But the theme of the retreat weekend emphasized that the source of true inner peace in our hectic world is Jesus. The Lord offers us the peace that passes all understanding. Like the meme says: “Know Jesus, know peace. No Jesus, no peace.”
I highly recommend going on a weekend retreat. It’s good for the soul. And I highly recommend the nostalgia of baseball, especially now that Spring Training has begun. Jesús y béisbol are a wonderful combination. (After all, Jesus was an all-star pitcher for the Nazareth Nine. That’s when He gave His famous Sermon on the Mound.)

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Problem of Evil

One of my favorite authors is Dr. Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College and a prolific writer. In one of his essays, titled “The Problem of Evil,” he says, “More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief….The problem can be stated very simply: If God is so good, why is his world so bad?.…Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I’m sure we all know of people who had some degree of faith — at least it never dawned on them to become hardcore atheists — and after experiencing a terrible tragedy they did indeed lose their faith completely.

Years ago a friend told me about one of his coworkers, a faithful man who went to church every Sunday. Then the man’s teenage son was killed in a car accident. From that moment on, the man never stepped inside a church again, and he regularly would look up, shake his fist at the sky, and yell to God, “I hate you!”

When my friend tried to talk to his distraught coworker, he discovered this heart-broken man no longer believed that God existed, and at the same time he was extremely angry at God for not existing.

So, it’s a very crucial question: If God is so good, why does He allow terrible things to happen to people? Why does He allow evil to flourish in this world?

Dr. Kreeft states that “evil is not a thing, an entity, a being. All beings are either the Creator or creatures created by the Creator….If evil is a thing, then God is the creator of evil, and he is to blame for its existence.”
Kreeft goes on to explain, “No, evil is not a thing but a wrong choice, or the damage done by a wrong choice. Evil is no more a positive thing than blindness is….the origin of evil is not the Creator but the creature’s freely choosing sin and selfishness. Take away all sin and selfishness and you would have heaven on earth.” 

Many people think that if God exists, He is very distant and uncaring. After all, He allows terrible things to happen to us, and He doesn’t really seem to do anything about it.

That’s simply not true, according to Kreeft. “We do not worship a deistic God,” he writes, “an absentee landlord who ignores his slum; we worship a garbageman God who came right down into our worst garbage to clean it up. How do we get God off the hook for allowing evil? God is not off the hook; God IS the hook. That’s the point of a crucifix. The Cross is God’s part of the practical solution to evil.”

The key to this vexing issue is that this world is not the only world we will experience. If our earthly existence was all there is — if we cease to exist at the moment of death — then our lives are indeed a tragedy, no matter how things turn out. We either die young, say, from a drug overdose or car accident; or we die in middle-age from a heart attack or cancer; or we die at very old age, frail and alone in a nursing home. Whichever way it occurs, it’s still a tragic end, IF there is no other world to experience.

As St. Paul wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:19).
If our earthly existence is all there is, then nothing is meaningful. There will be no ultimate joy or justice. None of the wrongs will ever be made right. Evil flourishes and death eventually conquers all. Life is a one-act play, and it is a tragedy.

However, this world is not all there is. Act One tells the story of how everything went wrong. But in Act Two, the Creator Himself takes on human flesh and shows us there is a way out of this mess. Finally, in Act Three, everything is resolved in the joys of Heaven.
The problem of evil is certainly a difficult one. But it doesn’t prove that God is not real. Instead, it gives God the opportunity to do something wonderful, a process that began 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, and continues to this very day. 

Don’t despair. In the end, God will triumph. And He longs for us to be with Him when it happens.

Pensions in France are Très Magnifique

Back in mid-January, approximately 2 million workers went on strike in France. The headline of an article I read said the French workers were protesting a new government proposal to increase the retirement age. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you cannot mess around with someone’s retirement date. If a person plans to retire at, say, the end of the calendar year, and then they suddenly find out they have to work a couple of more years, it’s not pleasant. That person becomes a very unhappy camper. (Not to mention a very unhappy and unproductive worker. They become “quiet quitters,” except without the quiet part.)

I know this to be true because I know a few guys who planned to retire last year, and then their 401k retirement plans shrunk in value drastically. Combined with serious inflation issues we haven’t seen in four decades, these people made the unhappy calculation that they still needed to work a little more to insure financial stability well into their retirement years.

So, messing with someone’s planned retirement date can be quite a volatile situation. I kind of empathized with the French workers. Then I read the rest of the article and discovered the government proposed to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. 

Whoa, wait a minute. As someone who's already celebrated those birthdays, with no retirement date in sight, I could only roll my eyes and offer a hearty laugh. (In a bad French accent, of course. Kind of a nasally, "Hohn, hohn, hohn!" like Lumiere in "Beauty and the Beast" or someone impersonating Maurice Chevalier.)
You mean they’re going on strike and protesting a plan that would let them retire with a full state pension at age 64? Like that’s a bad thing? Who created that pension system, anyway, the State of Connecticut? (Sorry, I know I vowed to stop squawking about state employees and their gold-plated lifetime pension plans — the ones where many workers can start collecting a full pension in their 50s, and keep receiving those hefty payments no matter how long they live. I’ll try to be less jealous and bitter in the future.)

The French government, not surprisingly, claims the country’s pension system is going broke. I suppose any program where workers receive a paycheck for 25 years and then collect an opulent pension for 30 or more years thereafter is not going to add up. (Anyone in Hartford paying attention? Oops, there I go again. Sorry.) According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France spends nearly 14% of GDP on state pensions. That’s not 14% of the government’s budget; that’s 14% of the nation's entire economic output! Even if France successfully changes the retirement age to 64, they still will be more generous than most other developed countries, where the retirement age is between 65 and 67. Also, even if the proposed reforms are implemented, fully 40% of French workers will be able to retire before age 64 because of exceptions for people who have physically taxing jobs. I’d love to see a list of those “taxing” jobs. Croissant baker? Snotty waiter? Customs official who sneers at you while stamping your passport? 

Personally, I wasn’t one of the guys planning to retire this year. But my 401k took a pretty severe hit recently, too, and inflation is a concern, so my vague idea of “maybe in a few years” is now way on the back burner. My current view of retirement is: “75 is the new 65.”
Well, there’s no reason to fret about it. All I can do is roll my eyes and offer a hearty laugh: “Hohn, hohn, hohn!"

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Jesus Takes Away Fear of Death

In the letter to the Hebrews in the Bible, it says that Jesus came to “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Heb 2:15).

Fear of death wasn’t something that only afflicted people 2,000 years ago; it is very prevalent today, too. I read recently that Bill Maher laments that he’ll never see his friend Howard Stern again because Stern is so fearful of Covid that he doesn’t leave his house anymore. By the way, I don’t care for either gentleman’s brand of comedy, but the point is, there are a lot of people like Stern these days: so spooked by the pandemic that they’re terrified to go outside.
Now, before you get all huffy, please understand that I’m not saying people should flaunt death and take all kinds of foolish risks. I don’t like risk at all. I have way too many insurance policies; I don’t like gambling in any form; and if I need to take a left-hand turn but another car is coming toward me about a quarter-mile away, I’ll wait for it to pass before making my turn. It’s just too risky, in my mind.

I get it that Covid has been a real scourge ever since it appeared three years ago. Millions of people have died worldwide during that time, and people are still dying from it. But millions of people also die of heart disease, cancer, the flu, car crashes, drug abuse, etc. And many people die everyday from old age, because the two most hard and fast rules of the universe are these: Rule #1: People get old and die. Rule #2: You can’t change rule #1. So, it’s simply impossible to live a completely risk-free life. 

Now, certainly there are people at high risk because of their pre-existing health problems or age. If they contract Covid it could have a horrible outcome. These folks need to be extremely cautious. But there are countless others who are not in high-risk categories, who have been vaccinated multiple times, and who are living their lives in total fear of Covid. How sad. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews said, these people are in slavery. They have relinquished all their freedom because of a fear of death.
This is the exact fear Jesus came to remove from our lives. By opening up a path to eternal life in Heaven – via His death and resurrection – we no longer have to fear death. Which means we can live in freedom and truly enjoy whatever amount of time we end up having in this world.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Christians are so focused on Heaven that they don’t care about this life. History shows that those who have their sights set on the next life actually do the most to make this life better. Which group of people founded hospitals and universities, and worked so hard to abolish slavery and pass civil rights legislation? It was people of faith.

Anyway, the irony here is that those who do not have a fear of death – even though they fully understand it is inevitable – are the very people who enjoy life the most.
Our life here on earth is a wonderful gift from God. And the possibility of eternal life in the paradise of Heaven is also a gift from God. Knowing and living these two facts is a win-win situation: we can relax and enjoy this life on earth to the fullest, without being imprisoned by the fear of death; and we can be in the everlasting embrace of the Creator of the Universe forever once our time on earth is over.

So, be wise, be cautious, and don’t take foolish risks. But don’t be obsessed with the fear of death either. It’s a self-imposed prison sentence. Embrace the love and mercy of God and live your life with joy and freedom. 

Getting Teary-Eyed More Often These Days

Back in December, I attended a wonderful musical at the Bushnell in Hartford, called “Come From Away.” It’s the humorous and heartwarming story of a small town that rallied to accommodate 7,000 airline passengers who were stranded for days in Newfoundland, Canada, after their flights were diverted when U.S. airspace was closed in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. 
Yes, I realize that a show about 9/11 doesn’t sound heartwarming and humorous. Usually, I would try to explain here why the show is so terrific, but I’ve already tried to explain the show to a few people, and each time after about 10 minutes the other person just stared at me with a puzzled look. So, it’s difficult to explain why this musical is so touching. My advice is sign up for Apple TV+ and watch the performance that was recorded on Broadway. It’s well worth the seven bucks that Apple charges.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to discuss. When I attended that show in Hartford, I spent about a third of the time laughing, a third of the time crying, and a third of the time laughing and crying simultaneously. When the show was over, my handkerchief was soaking wet from wiping my eyes steadily for almost two hours. That’s when it dawned on me that I’ve been crying much more frequently of late. 

Naturally, I wept for joy when my grandson was born a couple of years ago. And I still get teary-eyed now every time I see him. (Although some of that might be because he enjoys hitting me on the kneecap with a toy truck.)

Things that never got to me before now tug at my heartstrings. For example, a tear always trickles down my cheek whenever I watch one of those sappy TV commercials, such as an “I’ll be home for Christmas” Toyota ad or a “We’ll never forget Grandma” Coke spot. And if I hear Sarah McLachlan’s voice while the image of a puppy appears on the TV screen, I have to immediately change the channel to keep from ending up as a big, blubbering puddle on the living room floor.
It didn’t used to be this way, especially since I’m part of the “Big boys don’t cry” generation. As a kid in the 1960s, crying was the worst thing you could do. Our World War II and Korean War era fathers simply would not stand for that behavior. And the schoolyard bully would never leave you alone if he saw so much as a single tear while he shoved an earthworm up your nostril. If you think having a dirt-covered worm wriggling around your sinuses was uncomfortable, that was nothing compared to having the whole school refer to you as “Cry Baby.” We had to be very stoic back in those days.

I don’t know if getting teary-eyed these days at anything poignant is because I’m now a senior citizen. (To give you an idea, just seeing the word “poignant” in a sentence causes me to get misty.) Maybe since I have so many decades of experiences stored in my memory, I can find a nostalgic angle to just about everything that occurs.

One thing I do know is that the ol’ “Big boys don’t cry” attitude is wrong. Being moved to tears is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a healthy ability to empathize with other human beings (or if it’s one of Sarah’s commercials, puppies).

However, I have to admit that tearing up at a Toyota or Coke commercial during a timeout of a UConn basketball game is kind of disconcerting, especially for the other guys with me at the sports bar. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Church Divine, People Sinful

I heard an interesting statement the other day: “The Church is a divine institution entrusted to sinful people.”

Nowadays, it’s unfortunate that few people would disagree with the claim that the Church has been entrusted to sinful people. The sex abuse scandal, which was uncovered two decades ago and seems to continue without end, plus many troubling financial scandals at the Vatican and elsewhere, make it clear that quite a few Church leaders have used their positions to gratify selfish desires. In other words, they are sinful. Which makes them similar to the rest of us.

Hey, what do you mean, “the rest of us,” Dunn? 
Well, just look around at some non-religious institutions, such as politics or business, healthcare or labor unions. There are a lot of selfish and power-hungry people in those fields, too. Look at people in your community, neighborhood, place of work, or family. I hate to say it, but take a look in the mirror. I guarantee there are plenty of sinful people no matter where you look.

The reason I can guarantee it is because St. Paul said so in the Bible: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And when Paul said “all” have sinned, he meant “all y’all” – that is, everybody.

It would be great if every leader of our Church was like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa: completely selfless and concerned only about the wellbeing of others. But that’s not the case. There are, of course, countless holy priests, and even many bishops, who are moral and decent people. They dedicate their lives to serving others and spreading the good news of the Gospel.  

But it just seems that the farther up the company ladder someone advances, the more ambitious and ruthless and hypocritical they tend to be. This is true in politics and business, and it’s often true in the ecclesiastical world.

So, we are part of a Church with people in charge who are sinful to one degree or another. What should we do, quit the Church, as so many have done since the sex abuse scandal made front page news? Should we try to find another church, or stop being involved altogether because one of America’s most powerful clerics, ex-cardinal McCarrick, was revealed to be stunningly evil? (Or on a lesser scale, because Fr. McGillicuddy was rude to me last Sunday?)
Well, if the Church was merely a man-made institution, then maybe leaving would be the right thing to do. But please be aware, if you leave the Church because it’s full of sinners, whatever other organization you join is going to have the same problem. It’s simply human nature.

However, the Church is not a man-made institution. The Church was founded by Jesus Himself, and it was given the monumental task of spreading the love of Christ to all the world. Don’t forget, the original group of Church leaders weren’t exactly perfect, either. Peter, the first pope, denied Jesus and put his foot in his mouth more often than Ralph Kramden. James and John were self-centered hot-heads who wanted to call down fire from Heaven on people they didn’t like. Thomas was a pessimistic doubter. And among the first 12 Church leaders appointed by Jesus was Judas Iscariot, and we all know how that turned out. (As Peter Kreeft observes, Judas was the first Catholic bishop to receive a government grant – 30 pieces of silver – and every time since, when the Church does the government’s bidding in return for money, the results have been similar.)

It’s very discouraging when news stories break about yet another Church leader who got caught doing sinful and illegal activities. But we have to respond the same way Peter did when Jesus asked, “Do you also want to leave?”

Peter replied, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). 
Eternal life in Heaven is available through Jesus Christ. And the best way to get in a saving relationship with Jesus is through the Church He founded. 

Yes, it’s very frustrating at times. But we should never lose sight of this one simple fact: “The Church is a divine institution entrusted to sinful people.” 

Are Air Travel Nightmares Getting Worse?

Last fall, I went on a business trip to the Midwest, and my departing flight was at 6:05 am on a Monday. This meant I had to arrive at the airport by 4:30 am to go through security, which meant I had to leave my house by 4 am, which meant I had to wake up by 3:30 am. Now, waking up at 3:30 is a fairly routine thing for me these days. But scrambling to shower, get dressed, and double-check to make sure I packed everything is a little different than shuffling from the bathroom back to the bedroom and trying to fall asleep again.

When I arrived at the airport at 4:30 am, I was stunned to see that the place was packed. There were hundreds of people lined up to go through security and there were dozens of TSA agents at work. Many of the coffee shops and kiosks were open and doing brisk business. A lot of bleary-eyed people were there — including me — but the place was really bustling. 
I looked around at everyone and thought to myself, “This is just wrong. It’s 4:30 in the morning, for heaven’s sake. All these folks, especially me, should be in bed right now!”

That particular morning, my flight departed on time, and I didn’t hear that any of the other flights had problems. But still, I had this sad feeling that somehow it was not right that so many people had to leave their homes so early just to catch a flight somewhere.

Then a couple of months later, in the wake of a powerful winter storm, thousands of people were stranded in airports for days over the Christmas holiday. Most of the airlines got back to normal quickly, but one particular airline had a complete meltdown and had to cancel over 16,000 flights during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. 
Apparently, many years ago the upper management of that airline felt computers were a passing fad, and decided to continue doing all their scheduling with a yellow pad, a #2 pencil, and an old abacus. The Christmas meltdown occurred, I suspect, when the pencil broke and no one could find a sharpener.

Suddenly, being in the airport at 4:30 am and departing on time seemed like a wonderful thing, at least compared to spending an entire Christmas vacation sleeping on a dirty carpet next to hundreds of other angry people. I wrote some song lyrics, to the tune of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

I got stuck for Christmas
Southwest lied to me
Took my dough, and then said, “No,
the planes aren’t here, you see.”

Christmas Evening found me
Weeping all night long
I got stuck for Christmas
Southwest, you done me wrong

A couple of weeks after Christmas, on a Wednesday morning, every domestic flight in the United States was grounded for hours because a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) computer system crashed. The system sends out safety messages to pilots before and after take-off. The government decided to halt all flights until the system was up and running again. I’m sure that caused some major heartburn for one or two or a million travelers.

I understand Southwest Airlines called the FAA and said, “Do you want to borrow our pencil?”
It’s not that I dislike air travel. I’ve visited some wonderful places because of modern aviation. However, things are just so crazy nowadays, I’m wondering if it’s worth the aggravation and stress. The next time I have to go on a business trip to the Midwest, I think I’ll stand on the shoulder of Interstate 84 and hitch-hike. What could go wrong?