Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Only Thing Certain Is Our Uncertainty

The Transfiguration is a famous event during the earthly ministry of Jesus. Bringing along three of His disciples — Peter, James, and John — Jesus went up on a high mountain, and suddenly His clothing and His body became dazzling white with a supernatural glow. Then heroes from the history of Israel, Elijah and Moses, appeared and conversed with Jesus.

Needless to say, the three disciples were awestruck by the three glowing people. The Bible explains that Peter “hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified” (Mark 9:6).
When it was over, as they were walking back down from the mountain, Jesus told His three disciples not to tell anyone what they had just witnessed, “except when the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mark 9:9). Then Scripture says, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant” (Mark 9:10).

This is one of many incidents in the Bible when Jesus’ disciples were confused. Now, don’t forget: these men left everything behind to be with Jesus. They put their faith in the Lord and trusted Him completely. They were destined to be the founding fathers of the Church. And yet, they were often confused. They did not understand many of the things Jesus said, and they understood even less about Jesus’ plans for the future. The fact they were baffled by Jesus’ statement about “rising from the dead” proves that Jesus’ Apostles, the chosen Twelve, did not have anything close to certainty when it came to Jesus’ mission.

This episode from Scripture, which reminds us that even the founding fathers of the Church were not sure about everything regarding religious faith, should make us pause. If famous saints like Peter, James, and John were often befuddled about Jesus’ plans and intentions, then who are we to act as if we know exactly how everything should be?

If you haven’t noticed, nowadays there are a lot of people who are convinced that they know exactly what God wants us to do. And not only are those folks absolutely certain that they’re right and everyone else is wrong, they’ve taken it to another level by insisting that those who disagree with them must be evil.
Most people have witnessed this phenomenon in the polarized political world. Countless people on both sides of the aisle are passionately certain that they’re right and their evil opponents are wrong. If the opponents are evil, then it’s perfectly acceptable to demonize them. 

Well, a similar situation exists in the religious world. It’s frightening how many people these days are absolutely certain that they, and they alone, have the real truth. For example, on one side there are folks who insist that God wants ONLY the Latin Mass. On the other side, there are people who insist God wants anything BUT the Latin Mass. Instead of this being a “different people have different preferences” kind of situation, many on both sides of this debate are taking an absolutist position: “I’m right and anyone who disagrees with me is following the devil.” 

Unfortunately, there are many other religious topics that are just as contentious.

Now, obviously there are certain doctrines that are non-negotiable. The statements listed in the Nicene Creed come to mind: God is real, He’s our Creator, Jesus is the Son of God, He really rose from the dead, etc. But most other religious issues are not as clear cut. If Peter, James, and John were alive on earth today, they just might say to us, “Whoa, chill out, guys. We’re not gonna know everything with certainty until we get to Heaven. For now, the Lord wants us to love Him and love other people. Acting like know-it-all Pharisees is not a good look.”
So, let’s learn from Biblical events like the Transfiguration. The top three Apostles were often confused and unsure what Jesus wanted. But they knew Jesus was the Lord, so they continued to put their faith in Him and they trusted that it all would eventually make sense.

That’s exactly what Jesus wants us to do: Love God; Love our neighbor; and when in doubt, err on the side of Mercy. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

God Is Not an Egomaniac

Over the years, I’ve heard some people claim that the God of the Bible is actually a nasty egomaniac. Why do they say this? Because the God of the Bible, according to their interpretation, demands that people worship Him, or else those people will be cast into Hell. These critics say that anyone who demands that others worship him is a tyrant, pure and simple.

Well, we can’t really argue with that statement, since it’s true that anyone who demands that others worship him is most definitely a tyrant. However, the claim that this is what God does is simply wrong. God does not demand that people worship Him. He does, however, strongly suggest that we should be devoted to Him, not because His ego needs it, but because it’s best for us.
Just pause and consider the reality of our situation: God is the almighty, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal Lord of the Universe. He created us — not the other way around.  If we compare ourselves to God, we quickly realize that we are just specks of dust. Everything we have was given to us by God, including our very existence. It’s only right that we acknowledge the vast differences between us, and offer our Creator thanks for what He’s done for us. That is in our best interest. God is not desperately fishing for compliments. His self-esteem is fine.

Think of loving parents and their small child. The parents don’t NEED the child’s respect and affection. But when the child does love and trust the parents, it’s a beautiful thing. Most importantly, it is what’s best for the child.

Of course, human beings are not perfect, as God is. The reality of sin clouds our existence here on earth. There are examples (far too many, sadly) of parents who are self-absorbed tyrants. This unfortunately causes a lot of emotional dysfunction in our fallen world. 

However, when the parent/child relationship is filled with love and respect, that relationship is a good example for us of how the God/human relationship ought to be.

If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of people in our culture who no longer believe in or worship God. But if you don’t worship God, that does not mean that you worship nothing. Everybody worships something. It’s built into our DNA. Blaise Pascal, who wasn’t around to learn about chromosomes and the genetic code, put it this way: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every [person] which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator.”
A lot of people nowadays are desperately trying to fill this “God-shaped hole” in their hearts, but they end up worshiping the wrong things: money, power, sex, popularity, entertainment, education, and pleasure. Quite often people worship themselves. All we have to do is watch the evening news to see how well that’s working out.

So, the bottom line is this: God doesn’t need us to worship Him. And He doesn’t DEMAND that we do so. Throughout salvation history God has communicated to humankind that it’s in our best interest to give thanks and praise to our Creator.
God is neither an egomaniac nor a tyrant. He is a loving father who longs to share His love with His oftentimes wayward children. When we worship our Creator — when we enter into a loving relationship with the Lord who cares so much for us — the benefits are twofold. First, our level of contentment and peace is maximized during our time here on earth. Second, and more importantly, we will experience eternal joy in Heaven once our time on earth is over.

It doesn’t get any better than that! 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Digital Tickets Work Great — Until They Don’t

Have you ever tried to get on an airplane, with your boarding pass showing on your smartphone, and then just as you reach the front of the line, your phone shuts off, the screen goes blank, and you end up spending the evening in Connecticut while your luggage flies to Atlanta? 

No? That’s never happened to you? OK, it hasn’t happened to me either — yet. But it’s a scenario that keeps me awake at night. I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before my phone dies at the worst possible moment and my boarding pass or my ticket to a sporting event just disappears into, um, wherever digital images go when your phone stops working. I suspect those digital images end up in a file cabinet on the 4th floor of a nondescript office building in Poughkeepsie. (Just kidding. I know digital images don’t go to Poughkeepsie. That would be too easy. I could just drive over there and retrieve them. Where those images really go is probably somewhere far beyond the planet Mars.)
I have used digital tickets on my phone many times during the past few years. And every single time things worked out fine. I got on the plane, or I got into the arena to watch the ballgame. But I would much rather go old school and use a paper boarding pass or ticket. When I have a paper ticket in my hand, I know it’s not going to go blank. I know it does not need a battery (that I haven’t recharged in a while) to operate properly. I know a paper ticket is not going to suddenly require me to enter my password again just as I reach the front of the line, which causes everyone directly behind me to groan when it becomes clear that the anxiety of the situation has caused my brain to go blank regarding the 6-digit password I usually type 20 times a day without a hitch. 

I understand that it’s possible to lose a paper boarding pass or paper ticket. But it’s also possible to lose your smartphone. Which of those options is worse? Losing a paper boarding pass so you miss a flight? Or losing everything stored on your phone so you miss the rest of your life? Most people have the following items stored on their smartphones: emails, text messages, everybody’s contact info, appointment calendar, photographs, videos, credit card numbers, passwords, books, and movies. Oh, and boarding passes, too.
Personally, I’d rather lose a paper boarding pass and ruin a trip, than lose my smartphone and ruin the next seven years of my life. 

Even though I have never had a problem to date with a digital boarding pass or event ticket on my phone, I have experienced that horrifying moment when a smartphone just drops dead. One minute it was working fine, and the next minute it could do nothing. I’m not sure of the exact cause of death. I brought it to a phone repair shop and the young technician mumbled something about the battery or the software or the main processor chip. Or maybe he said it was termites. I really don’t know.

I had to get a new phone and everything stored on the old phone was lost forever. That traumatic experience prompted me to start paying a mere 3 bucks per month to have all the data on my phone backed up to Apple’s servers. The best money I’ve ever spent.

I know you can’t turn back the clock on progress. Smartphone boarding passes are here to stay. But sometimes the old ways are just more trustworthy. And by the way, what’s this I hear about airplanes not using propellers anymore? 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Disparate Juxtaposition Causes Apoplectic Reactions

In addition to this weekly newspaper column, I write a faith essay each week, which I then record for WJMJ, the Catholic radio station for the Hartford Archdiocese. Every week I also put together a group email with the two essays and send it out to a few hundred relatives, friends, and total strangers. (So, yes, I may be one of the people contributing to the glut of unsolicited messages in your email inbox. Sorry.)

Anyway, I occasionally get email notes that express concern about the juxtaposition of two such disparate themes in the group emails I send out. The first thing I do when I receive notes like this is look up the definition of the words juxtaposition and disparate. 
A recent note I received summarized the general sentiment of these messages: “You wrote about your colonoscopy — in detail! — and then 2 seconds later you’re talking about one of Jesus’ most important parables??? That’s sacrilegious!!!”

OK, the first thing to understand is, I don’t write the two essays two seconds apart. I write the humor column for the newspaper when I’m in a goofy mood. And then at some other time when I’m in a more spiritual mood, I write the faith essay. But if you’ve ever read or heard those faith essays, you know that goofiness is always lurking just below the surface. This is because, as it’s been pointed out to me by a loved one, I am living proof that youth is fleeting but immaturity can last forever. Guilty as charged. 

The second thing to understand is, three consecutive question marks or three consecutive exclamation points will make your English teacher quite apoplectic. (Yeah, I had to look up the definition of that word, too.) I realize no English teacher will see your email message to me, and as an Engineering major who received a C-minus in Freshman Composition, I am certainly not qualified to add or deduct points. I’m just saying the triple punctuation marks are not necessary!!! Understand???
Now that I think about it, I didn’t even discuss my colonoscopy in detail in that recent essay. I did, however, go into rather graphic detail in a newspaper column about 17 years ago, after the first time I experienced that procedure. This time around, I was much more refined and mature — except maybe for the “Kodak camera duct-taped to the end of a garden hose” comment. 

What I try to do with my writing is bring a little levity to faith topics, something, in my opinion, the religious world desperately needs. And I occasionally try to interject a little faith into my humor columns. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of this, based on the vast number of offers I’ve received from publishing companies and religious broadcasters. (Total number of offers to date: exactly one, which occurred about two decades ago when an elderly gentleman read a religious book I had written, and then begged me to relocate to Mississippi and take over as head writer and editor of his fundamentalist Baptist monthly magazine. I think he had a nervous breakdown when I finally broke the news to him that I’m Catholic. And I am not kidding. That really happened.)

By the way, if you are a glutton for punishment, er, I mean, if you are unaware of my faith essays and are interested in receiving my weekly email blast, just send me a note at MerryCatholic@gmail.com and I’ll put you on the list. And don’t worry, if you decide it’s not your cup of tea, just request that I remove your email address from my group list, and I will promptly, um, think about it. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Come to Jesus? Good Idea

Recently, the President of the United States, frustrated with the way the war in Gaza is being conducted, said that he and the Prime Minister of Israel needed to have a “come to Jesus meeting.”

I don’t want to delve into politics, since that’s never been the point of these essays. But let me at least say that since our choice for president during the election later this year boils down to either an elderly man with obvious cognitive decline, or Joe Biden, I’m not really thrilled. Is there a “none of the above” voting option?
It seems to me the term “Obvious Cognitive Decline” should be the title of an article in the AARP Magazine, not the main theme of a United States presidential election.

Anyway, sorry about the detour into politics. I promise not to do that again. What I wanted to focus on is the expression “Come to Jesus meeting.” That’s probably not the most diplomatic phrase to use when referring to the prime minister of Israel. There is a long and sad history of Christians persecuting Jews, with a prominent aspect being forced conversions. So, I think a different expression would’ve been more appropriate.

And besides, in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul clearly stated, “All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). Our friends in the Jewish community are one group whose relationship with God we Christians need not fret over. They are “God’s Chosen People,” and God does not change His mind. Now, of course, people who have Jewish heritage but profess to be atheists are in the same boat as people who claim to be Christian but don’t actually believe any of that “Supernatural miracle stuff.” And by “same boat,” I mean a vessel that’s taking on water rapidly.
The expression “Come to Jesus meeting” (or “Come to Jesus moment”) is very interesting. The phrase emerged from 19th-century Christian revivalism, which had an emphasis on personal conversion; that is, a turn away from evil and coming to Jesus for salvation. There are probably many aspects of 19th-century Christian revivalism that I would not agree with (such as their virulent anti-Catholicism), but turning from evil and coming to Jesus sounds exactly like the 2,000-year-old Gospel message.

However, in our secular culture, saying it’s time to “come to Jesus” usually means anything but “come to Jesus.” The dictionary defines this expression as, “A moment of sudden realization, comprehension, or recognition that often precipitates a major change.”

That definition surely describes a genuine religious “come to Jesus” moment. I know it describes me to a “T” when I lost my faith in atheism, put my faith in Christ, and instantly had my craving for alcohol cease. But in our culture the phrase is used in business, sports, family matters, etc. For example: “Our son needs a ‘come to Jesus’ moment about getting better grades at school,” or, “People need a ‘come to Jesus’ moment about their smartphone addiction,” or a supervisor at work saying he needs to “have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with the employees who are performing poorly.”
In 2013, “Come to Jesus moment” won Forbes’ magazine’s annual Jargon Madness competition. They matched-up overused corporate buzzwords against each other, kind of like a March Madness basketball bracket. “Come to Jesus” won the national championship that year. (I had “At the end of the day” and “It is what it is” in my bracket, but I didn’t even get to the Final Four.) 

The phrase “Come to Jesus” is used a lot these days, and in most cases the real Jesus has nothing to do with it. From now on, if I hear someone use the expression “Come to Jesus” as a snarky substitute for a term such as “wake up call,” I’m going to add, “Literally.”

For example, if someone at work yells, “Bob screwed up another order! He really needs a ‘come to Jesus’ moment!” I will say, “Literally.” 

No one may even notice that I said anything. But it will be my little impromptu prayer for Bob. This is because really “coming to Jesus” is the best thing anyone can ever do, even those of us who have obviously cognitive decline. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

‘He Gets Us’ Gets Us Riled Up

During the Super Bowl in February, there were two “He Gets Us” commercials. By the way, the going rate for a 30-second spot during the big football game this year was $7 million. Wow.

If you’re not familiar with the “He Gets Us” campaign, here is a summary from Wikipedia: “‘He Gets Us’ is an American religious advertising campaign…. First launched in 2022, the campaign’s stated goal is to ‘reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible’. Its campaigns are designed to cater to younger demographics and religious skeptics via allusions to present-day social movements, with an emphasis on values such as inclusion, compassion, and ‘radical forgiveness’. At least $100 million was initially spent on the campaign, which has included billboards, sponsor placements, and television commercials.”
The first ad broadcast during the Super Bowl this year was titled “Foot Washing.” It showed various images of people having their feet washed, with the foot washers and foot washees representing different groups that generally don’t have much in common. The spot ended with the slogan: “Jesus didn’t teach hate. He washed feet.”

The second ad was titled, “Who Is My Neighbor?” The spot began with that question printed on the screen. Then a series of photos appeared of people who could be described as living on the margins of society. Finally, words appeared, answering the original question, with these three statements: “The one you don’t notice. The one you don’t value. The one you don’t welcome.” 

After those ads ran during the Super Bowl, the Internet lit up with passionate commentary, as people from all sides of the religious and political spectrums weighed in. The “He Gets Us” campaign has been quite controversial since its inception two years ago, and this year’s Super Bowl was no different. 

On the one hand, many traditional and conservative Christians criticized the ads for ignoring a key aspect of the Christian life: repentance and personal transformation. Since the brief ads did not discuss the need for repentance, it was claimed the ads justified certain sins. 

One commentator said the foot-washing ad “seems to imply that Jesus was cool with all kinds of sinful behavior. He wasn’t. He didn't go hangout with prostitutes or any other sinner because he accepted the choices they made, he did it to inspire them to change.”

Others claimed the ads were trying to “sell Jesus to leftists” and to use Jesus to “promote a political movement.” 
On the other hand, secular progressives have criticized the “He Gets Us” campaign ever since it began in 2022, mostly because they dislike religion in general and Christianity in particular. Any mention of Jesus in public sets these folks’ teeth on edge. 

Also, many people have criticized some of the donors who have been funding the “He Gets Us” program because those financial backers also support groups that promote traditional marriage and the idea that there are only two genders and neither is “changeable.”

So, the bottom line is this: the “He Gets Us” ads during the Super Bowl offended a lot of people. But were the ads really offensive, or do we live in a particular time and place where everybody gets offended by everything? 

When you are trying to target your message to people who are young, unchurched, and skeptical about organized religion, is hitting them over the head with a Bible and calling them sinners an effective strategy? Is it possible these people have no interest in religious faith precisely because church-going folks have been relentlessly judgmental toward them all their lives?

Just asking.

I’m no theologian, but it seems to me anytime the “name above all names” — that is, Jesus — is mentioned in a positive light in the public arena, that’s a good thing. 
If some young, disillusioned person becomes curious about Jesus after watching the Super Bowl ads, then later on there can be time for repentance and personal transformation. After all, it’s impossible to go from complete ignorance of Christ to vibrant faith in 30 seconds. 

The first step of evangelization is to plant seeds of faith. Maybe a potentially fruitful seed is the simple message that “Jesus gets us.”