Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Damascus Road Moment

My recent retirement has given me the opportunity to spend time doing projects in our town park. Having served on the local park board for some 35 years, I have always enjoyed getting my hands dirty doing voluntary maintenance on equipment and facilities. Performing actual labor is not generally the role of municipal board members, but our lone employee occasionally needs help keeping up with his duties.

When frequent summer rains kept the grass growing, I managed to get one of the older lawn tractors running sufficiently to help with the weekly mowing. On several occasions while riding on the mower, I noticed a group of young people arriving mid-morning with books in their hands, appearing to be Bibles. They would usually sit down on a park bench or under a tree and read.

After witnessing this for a few weeks, I approached a young man sitting alone and asked him if he was doing a Bible study. He said he was part of a non-denominational youth group doing a summer Bible study and this was the final week. They met daily at a local youth center for group lessons and prayer time. Then they would go off on their own to a quiet place like the park and read the Scriptures. In a time where our encounters with youth in the park so often involve vandalism or inappropriate behavior, how refreshing to see a young person reading the Bible. I commended him for setting such a fine example.

Hoping to do a little evangelization, I continued pursuing the conversation. Pointing to our Church across the street, I told him I was Catholic and that we were having a difficult time reaching our young people. He said we were not alone. Teenagers have a difficult time taking direction from well-meaning adults. Judging from the tattoos on his forearm, I suspected he had some personal experience along those lines. I asked him what drew him to Christ, and he told me quite a story!
As a child, he was abused by his father. The only time his parents paid any attention to him was when he got into trouble, which he did frequently. He got involved with drugs. When money was needed, robbing a local convenience store seemed like a good idea. Donning a camouflage jacket and rubber mask, he entered the store one evening armed with a knife. When the clerk refused to open the cash drawer, he panicked and fled on foot. He was soon apprehended and eventually sent to prison where he continued to get into trouble, fights mostly. Shortly after his release earlier this year, his best friend committed suicide. Despondent over the loss of his friend and his own hopeless situation, he decided to end his own life. On his way to hang himself, his knees literally buckled under him. At that moment, he felt the presence of God telling him there was another way. The transformation was almost instantaneous. He turned his life over to Christ.

He told me he was here in the park yesterday meditating. He said he looked at a memorial plaque in the park and saw history. He looked at the trees and saw creation. He looked at the adjacent cemetery and saw resurrection. He said, he then looked over at people around a neighboring business and realized that there was a world out there that was not getting the message. He has now dedicated his life to the church and the great commission. I thanked him for sharing his story with me. I could see the Holy Spirit was at work here, so I left him alone.

Last week, I witnessed another incident involving a boy and his mother. On the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was again in the park on a warm sunny day. School had started earlier in the week. Some boys were playing basketball on the asphalt court after classes ended. A short time later, a silver mini-van pulled up in a parking area across the field. A woman got out and began angrily shouting to one of the boys at the basketball court. He immediately left his friends and walked toward the woman who was screaming profanities at him at the top of her lungs.

I heard her say, “Why don’t you answer your (expletive deleted) phone?” He remained silent as she repeatedly screamed the question inches from his face. The other boys stood and watched from a distance. She proceeded to take his cell phone away from him, threw it on the ground and stomped on it until it was in pieces. At that point, she yelled at him to get in the van, which he did without a word, and they drove off.

Concerned for the young man’s well being, I asked one of the other boys who he was. He didn’t know the mother’s name, but the boy’s name was Ricky, and Ricky was having a bad day. He got into a fight in school, got kicked off the football time, had been smoking pot, and lying to his parents and coaches. I got the feeling even his friend thought Ricky had it coming! He added, “My brother is going to get it when he gets home too, but not in public.” I smiled and thanked him for the information.

While Ricky may have been deserving of reprimand, the manner in which his mother handled the situation was troublesome. Might this be another case where a young man instigates trouble to get attention? Losing one’s temper in a profanity-laced outburst only exacerbates an already bad situation. Handling problems in this immature way is a learned behavior that can be passed on to the child. Parental conduct modeled on guests of the Jerry Springer show is not going to mold a child into a mature responsible adult.

When I see young people getting into trouble in our community, I am often quick to blame lack of parental involvement. After my encounters in the park, I am led to wonder whether misapplication of parental involvement may be more accurate. Raising a child is not easy. Most training is done on the job. Children will not respect a parent who screams obscenities at them, and they will likely repeat such behavior with their own children someday. Not every one will experience that life-changing instantaneous knee-buckling encounter with God. That is why it is important for all of us to be good role models, not only for our own children, but for others who may not find one at home.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nuts and Bolts

For years I made widgets
And I made them up right
With a nut and a bolt
And bound them up tight

To be strong and be fast
To stay straight and true
To be best and to last
To do what they do

A widget must be bound
With a nut and a bolt
To hold it together
Long after it’s sold

Til one day I was told
As if matter of fact
You don’t need nut and bolt
To keep them intact

You see, it’s not fair
So how dare you say
A widget must be bound
In a particular way

A bolt with a bolt
Will work just as fine
Or a nut with a nut
Could keep them in line

But how can that work
With such a radical change
A bolt with a bolt
That seems a bit strange

Nor can two nuts be tied
In a natural connection
The widget will be flawed
By such imperfection

Two fasteners alike
Can’t mechanically connect
But to say so out loud
Is not politically correct

They can’t form a bond
Don’t you understand?
“Do it!” said the judge
“It’s the new law of the land”

But how can you say
The way it should be
Changing the course
Of all history

Assembled that way
With design so amended
The widgets won’t work
As designer intended

You can’t call it a widget
Constructed that way
It’s not the same thing
At the end of the day

Design can’t be changed
By a simple decree
That’s not how it works
Not the way it should be

You see where I stand
My objection recorded
They aren’t really widgets
Once so disordered

And so I proclaim
As designer designed
Only one natural way
To keep them aligned

Safeguard the widget
In the Great Commission
With both nut and bolt
To hold firm the position

Just stating the fact
Despite the revolt
In the end all depends
On the nut and the bolt

Monday, June 23, 2014

In the Mind’s “I”

Most puzzling to me is how so many delusional lunatics in this crazy world think they can rally their cause by killing innocent people and then themselves. Obviously I am no psychiatrist, but a finding rational explanation is unlikely even if I were. It simply makes no sense.

On May 23, a young man in Isla Vista, California, murdered six people and then killed himself in what he called retribution to punish women for rejecting him, or “starving him of sex” as he put it. Thirteen others were injured in random attacks. The perpetrator apparently thought women had an obligation to service him sexually, and when he found none willing to do so, he decided the appropriate action was to kill anyone he happened to come across. Entitlement mentality so extreme, it includes taking other people’s lives.

The killer’s parents had connections to the film industry. Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday wrote a column placing some of the responsibility on the “toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA.” She went on to say, “For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny).” The perpetrator’s “rampage may be a function of his own profound distress, but it also shows how a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.” Her column drew an angry reaction from those in Hollywood she targeted.

Ann Hornaday has a point, but “Hollywood’s DNA” may be traced to a culture shift that began at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 when the Anglicans became the first Protestant denomination to allow artificial birth control in some circumstances. Soon the dominos began to fall and most Protestant faiths followed suit. The sexual revolution really took off with the development of the pill. Once the procreational component was removed, sex became primarily recreational in the eyes of many. While Hollywood may not have caused this distortion, the media certainly accelerated its spread. The Internet also contributed by making pornography readily accessible to the masses, furthering the image of women as objects of pleasure.

In his 1968 Encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI warned “that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” How prophetic! Today the movies and media in general reflect and promote this lowering of moral standards. The Iska Vista shooter certainly bought into this twisted culture.

Secular society tends to pooh-pooh these notions that its problems are rooted in violations of the natural law as created by God. The proliferation of artificial contraception, same-sex marriage and gender manipulation, have ramifications never anticipated by their promoters. Even the current movement to legalize marijuana flourishes on a perceived entitlement to self-gratification. Failing to acknowledge any spiritual or moral consequences removes the rein that holds us to certain standards. Circumventing the stability provided by God’s firm hand allows mores and mind-sets to sway in the wind. Makes one wonder where our society is headed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sharing Treasures

My Sunday morning routine includes listening to the local radio broadcast of a Protestant preacher while I get ready to go to Eucharistic adoration and eleven o’clock Mass. Heath Hyatt is the lead pastor at the Church of the Heartland located a few miles from here. He is very engaging and I enjoy his message very much. At times, I have wondered if he isn’t really a Catholic in disguise. Rarely would his sermon conflict with anything preached in a typical Catholic homily. People like him make great Catholics and we need them to bolster our own faith communities.

A few weeks ago, his sermon touched on Christian unity. He mentioned the Apostle’s Creed where it says the Church is “one”, but then added the caveat that there are many Christian churches, but we are all Christians. He told his congregation they would not say they follow Heath Hyatt. Rather, they would say they follow Jesus. That’s true. Of course they would say they follow Jesus. But is it really true when Jesus established an authoritative Church that they reject?

I thought of 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 where Paul speaks of divisions in the Church at Corinth. In that passage, some say they follow Apollos, some say Cephas, some say Paul, and some say Christ. Paul warns them that in the name of Jesus Christ, there should be no divisions among them, and they should be perfectly joined in the same mind and purpose or judgment. Despite the divisions at Corinth, I think we can assume Peter, Paul, and Apollos were likely preaching very similar messages at that time in salvation history. What would Paul say to the Christians in America today where numerous divisions exist in every community and messages often vary?

I recently came across a website gallery titled, “Things to look for when choosing a church.” Thing number 3 is, “A Doctrine You Agree With”. It reads as follows:

Whether you're aware of it or not, every Christian church follows its own specific doctrine that dictates its goings-on. Some churches believe that baptism is the only way to get to heaven, while others rule baptism out entirely. Some strictly adhere to Biblical principles concerning the banning of women and homosexuals from teaching in the church, while others allow them to do so.
Make sure to do your research and find a church with a doctrine that you agree with! Otherwise, you could find yourself at odds with the behaviors of church leaders and find yourself drawing away.

Who determines the doctrine of all of these independent Christian denominations? That depends on who is in control. Often, it is the pastor alone. If a person chooses a church based on criterion number 3, isn’t that person actually following the pastor or leadership of that particular denomination?

Doctrine is declared truth. It is not something dependent on one man’s opinion. Doctrine is absolute, not relative. If a so-called doctrine is specific to a certain church and disagrees with the so-called doctrine of another church, at least one of them is wrong. Choosing a church based upon whether you personally agree with a specific teaching is foolish. Only one church can declare truth guided by the Holy Spirit. Only one church can make a reasonable claim to being, not only one, but also holy, historically catholic and apostolic.

Pastor Hyatt mentioned that when we do have disagreements among Christians, we go to the Bible. I did not hear him say that the Bible says we take our disagreements to the Church. (Matt 18:15-18) Which Church? The only one given authority by Christ tracing back 2000 years, the pillar and foundation of truth. (1 Tim 3:15)

If this Church is out there, and contains all truth and the actual Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ as it claims, how can so many walk right past it without a thought? And how can many who do give it thought, stand in opposition and defiance? To answer those questions, we have to look within ourselves.

Joshua Bell is an amazing concert violinist. Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1967, he began taking lessons at the age of four. At seventeen, he played at Carnegie Hall with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Bell is now an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. His instrument is called the Gibson ex Huberman, handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, and valued at about 3.5 million dollars.

In January of 2007, Bell performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall before a packed house where good seats went for $100. Three days later, in a social experiment contrived by a Washington Post columnist, Bell performed in street clothes during rush hour at a D.C. metro station. Of the 1097 people who passed by him, only seven stopped to listen. He collected $32.17 during his 45-minute performance, including $20 from the only person who recognized him. Hardly anyone realized what they were missing.

Raising awareness of our surroundings requires some introspection. It is amazing what we can miss when hurriedly navigating through our daily routine. Millions of people pass by the many Catholic Churches in the world every day without realizing their God is truly present only a few feet away. If only they would stop to appreciate who awaits them inside. Even faithful Catholics struggle to appreciate the gift of Christ Himself veiled in the form of Bread in the tabernacle. Yes we believe, but our insipid dispositions often negate any noticeable impact on our lives.

Getting in the right frame of mind is not easy. One can say, “I never cared for the violin” or “I’m not into organized religion” or “I’m comfortable where I am” or “I don’t have time to read.” Excuses are plentiful. Growing in faith requires effort. It requires taking time for meditation, quiet prayer and learning. We Catholics are blessed with the Real Presence of Our Lord in our churches. How difficult the challenge to share this treasure with our non-Catholic friends when we fail to appreciate it ourselves.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Vocab Rehab

Catholic Answers Live
recently aired a program where callers were restricted to those wishing to redefine marriage. Guests Trent Horn and Sherif Girgis each spent an hour fielding questions from same-sex marriage proponents. Both adeptly defended natural marriage between a man and a woman. Callers often accused them of simply expressing the view of the Catholic Church, which the secular world holds in little regard. Girgis responded by pointing out that traditional marriage between a man and a woman predates Christianity by thousands of years. The idea that two people of the same sex can be married to each other is a recent innovation.

One thing that became readily apparent during the program was that proponents of same-sex marriage and those who believe in traditional natural marriage have very different ideas of what marriage is. Callers were often asked how they would define marriage. Most of them could not come up with a definition that could not be reasonably challenged by pointing out various implications and inconsistencies. Marriage as expressed in the natural law reflected in Church teaching has become distorted in secular society to the point where many so-called secular marriages are hardly marriages at all.

My recent retirement has allowed me to take in some daytime television while spending time on the treadmill. Doctor Phil’s hour-long parade of dysfunctional couples demonstrates what happens when God is missing from the marriage. They often show clips of home life where anger, yelling, and name-calling are regular occurrences. No one should treat another human being this way, especially one’s spouse. Couples on the program are usually offered some form of counseling or rehabilitation. When a secular relationship deteriorates to this point, counseling is probably the only hope for improvement. This is not to say couples in a sacramental marriage cannot have problems. Certainly they can, but if they are living their Catholic faith, problems are less likely, and more addressable.

This secular aberration of marriage lies at the root of many if not most dysfunctional couples. It is marriage based on self-indulgent feelings lacking any concept of what constitutes a covenant between a man and woman. Missing is the complete respect due anyone and everyone as a member of the Body of Christ. I sometimes wonder how different Doctor Phil’s counsel would be if he were able to add Catholic perspective to his clinical view.

Some of the couples presented are not legally married, yet they live together, have children together, and are treated like that part of the relationship is not an issue. Our secular society refuses to deny marriage to any couple, same sex or not, but at the same time, says marriage is not essential or necessarily important. We have a model in the marital relationship between Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride. Lacking an understanding of the marital covenant, relationships rely too much on feelings that are inherently self-centered and transitory.

When some insensitivity arouses anger in a volatile relationship, the tongue is usually the thing to run amok. Today, Doctor Phil displayed a list of names one man called his female partner. Most of the names have to be bleeped from daytime television. I propose to anyone with a brain that name-calling never helps your situation.

I challenge everyone with an R-rated vocabulary to do a purge. If you find yourself using those words, whether spoken in anger or just casual conversation, strike them from your vocabulary. They serve no useful purpose other than to lower the respect others have for you. They won’t reinforce a point that can’t stand on its own. They won’t help your spouse see it your way. They won’t help you achieve your goal. They won’t make your life better. Treat everyone with respect, even if it’s a one-sided respect at first. Never resort to name-calling, especially with a spouse or family member. Rise above the conflict. Take the high road. As Doctor Phil says, somebody has to be the hero.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Getting a Handle on Scandal

Now that we are in the penitential season of Lent, our diocese is making an effort to bring fallen-away Catholics back into communion with the Church. Confessions were scheduled simultaneously at all parishes with a resident priest in the diocese on one particular Wednesday evening. Ads were placed in local newspapers offering this opportunity for anyone longing to return to the Church. I hope that many Catholics who continue to attend Mass regularly but do not go to confession, also took this opportunity to return to the Sacrament.

I just reread a blog I wrote ten years ago about the dwindling number of Catholics going to Confession. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. In our small parish where most people know one another, it is hard not to notice certain folks who frequent Holy Communion, yet are never seen at penance services or Saturday confession. I will have more to say about my observation later.

Regular confession, like attendance at Mass, needs to be a family ritual. Children who see mom and dad going to confession are more likely to continue the pattern and later pass it on to their own children. Most adults of childbearing age today never had that experience. How do we get those who never realized the importance of the Sacrament to see the need?

If we were to poll Catholics on why they don’t take frequent advantage of Confession, we would likely get varying answers. A more probing question might be, “how do you justify NOT going to Confession?” Most Catholics, at least those in our parish, certainly have the importance of the Sacrament preached to them on a regular basis. I suspect many would say they don’t commit mortal sins.

For a sin to be mortal, the Church tells us three things are necessary. It must be grave matter, we must know it is grave matter, and we must choose to do it willingly. That second qualification is what many feel gets them off the hook. “If I don’t think it’s a mortal sin, then it’s not a mortal sin, right?” One may think looking at pornography on the Internet is not a sin, or copying movies onto DVDs and distributing them to your friends for free is okay, or voting for the pro-abortion candidate is permitted because the other guy wants to limit entitlements, or eating meat on Friday during Lent is no big deal. We humans have a way of massaging our consciences to justify whatever behavior suits our fancy. Is ignorance truly bliss? No. We have an obligation to form our consciences properly, and as Catholics, that means in accordance with the teachings of the Church.

So much is going on around us everyday that we become numbed by evil. We are bombarded daily by a secular media that tries to normalize sinful behavior, and ostracize those with a religious view. Losing awareness of sin is almost inevitable for those who do not lead God-centered lives. Going to Mass once a week and standing in line for Communion does not automatically mean one is leading a God-centered life. Growing in faith is a life-long process. If we do not continue to nurture our faith, it becomes a routine that can lead to an apathetic attitude toward Church teaching. We can fall into venial sin without giving it much thought, and sometimes more serious sin as a consequence.

One example is the sin of scandal. We might commonly think of scandal being a concerted cover-up of a serious crime, or somebody cheating on a spouse. But some other types of scandal that may seem way less serious, might actually have even more dire consequences. What if something we did or didn’t do, caused another person to drift further from God to the point where salvation was eventually lost?

A meditation booklet I was reading at Eucharistic Adoration yesterday emphasized the importance of our conduct in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. A story attributed to Saint John Climacus told of an incident when an Abbot saw two seminarians exchange conversation during adoration. The Abbot ordered them to stand outside the church for a month to apologize to every person that entered the church for the scandal they had caused. Did the Abbot overreact?

The number one full definition of scandal in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says:
a : discredit brought upon religion by unseemly conduct in a religious person
b : conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in another

By today’s standards, we would think the seminarians punishment was a bit severe, but our conduct at adoration can affect the spiritual temperature of others around us, either positively or negatively. If we seem oblivious to the Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, our behavior can foster similar attitude in others. When we are in a Catholic Church, body language speaks louder than words.

There are many other ways our conduct can cause a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in others. Buying a wedding gift or witnessing a ceremony of a Catholic attempting an invalid marriage outside of the Church is showing approval of a mortal sin. For a Catholic to do so is committing scandal when other Catholics knowing the situation witness that approval. Distributing copyrighted movies or software among your friends to avoid paying royalties is not only stealing, but can also be scandalous when doing so leads others to believe this sin is acceptable. When other parents allow their child to miss Sunday Mass for a Pop Warner football game because you do, you have committed the sin of scandal. Receiving Holy Communion with a mortal sin on our soul is another mortal sin. If another Catholic knows we have a mortal sin and sees us in the Communion line, we have also committed a sin of scandal. When our repeated behaviors cause others to drift away from their faith, the sin of scandal becomes serious.

People often do these things without giving it much thought, not realizing they are sanctioning bad behavior in others. This lack of sin awareness stems from a lack of focus on God and our ultimate goal attaining heaven. I often refer to the analogy I first heard from Father Robert Barron who spoke of a driver going down the road at night not realizing how dirty his windshield is until the lights of an oncoming car illuminate the bugs and grime. Similarly, we do not see the dirt on our own souls until we are oriented toward the light of Christ.

Now, I realize my observation of many parishioners not taking advantage of confession may itself be a bug on my windshield. I should not assume they have grave sins on their souls, or that they do not confess at another parish, or when I am not there. Yet, I think it is safe to assume that many Catholics have avoided the confessional for a very long time, and that neglect can be scandalous when it leads others to do the same.

If you are a well-respected Catholic who is never seen in the confessional line, your conspicuous absence can be scandalous in the sense that it gives affirmation to others who look to you for an example. Conversely, seeing you going to confession regularly could inspire others to do the same. And if you are not a well-respected Catholic, you need to address that issue also!