Never Just a Number

Note: This post appeared in the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin for Sunday, October 18, 2020.

In case you haven’t notice, election season is in full swing. Pollsters, pundits and politicians are slicing and dicing the American people to predict what is likely to happening on Election Day and afterward. Republicans versus Democrats. Liberals versus conservatives. We are counted and calculated by culture, color and creed—to what end?

My son’s theology teacher recently gave me a copy of a book I’ve meant to read for years now: Society and Sanity by Frank Sheed. I started it last night, and for a book written in the 1950s, its relevance even in the first few pages is staggering. Sheed opens his book by making a simple and eloquent case: In order to create a society in which we humans can live together in peace, happiness and freedom, we must know what it means to be human.

We need a clear understanding of what we are and why we are before we can clearly conceive of our happiness and how to achieve it.

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Wednesday Witness: Who Are You Pointing To?

The Superbowl was this past Sunday. Midway through the evening, social media exploded with critiques of the halftime show, which apparently featured two high-profile female performers in various states of undress dancing provocatively while sharing a medley of their musical hits.

I am not sorry we missed it.

I won’t rehash what I’ve read on the subject. The reason we did not watch was because a year or two ago, after repeatedly venting about the content of the halftime show and even some of the commercials, we agreed as a family to stop watching. When Superbowl Sunday rolls around, we prepare the usual snacks and treats, gather around the TV…and watch a movie.* We are not big football fans, and it occurred to us that it was a waste of time and energy to watch a game we didn’t particularly care about in order to see questionable commercial content and to be subjected to yet another pop-culture skin flick. It wasn’t easy to take that first step “out of the loop,” but honestly, we haven’t regretted it.

This is not to say you can’t enjoy football or the Superbowl. But I was struck by the volume of social media posts, articles and commentary that began with some variation of, “Thanks for exposing my child to X, Y and Z during the halftime show. They shouldn’t have to see that.”

They don’t have to see it—and as consumers and parents, we have the power and the responsibility to ensure they don’t.

Providentially, the next morning, the daily gospel was Mark 5:1-20. Bishop Robert Barron’s scripture reflection focused on the age-old practice of scapegoating: projecting our anxieties and anger onto a particular person or group of persons in order to preserve unity in our community. Bishop Barron suggested that we could interpret the numerous demons possessing the man living among the tombs as all the fears and frustrations of the people in that territory. They may not have liked the demoniac, but they knew him. They had a scapegoat. When Jesus sets him free and casts the demons into a great herd of swine, the people do not rejoice that their neighbor has been restored to his right mind. Instead, they are afraid and beg Jesus to leave.

How often are we uncomfortable with seeing and claiming our part in the evils of the world? How comforting it is to see someone else as the villain—to gawk, point and howl at wickedness instead of changing something in our own lives to prevent its spread!

How many years in a row did I shake my head at the garbage on our television but resist cutting the cable?

In last Sunday’s bulletin, I referenced Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This morning I read his account of learning that war was again breaking out in Europe:

There was something else in my own mind—the recognition: “I am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too…” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my mind a little. I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the First Friday of September.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

I have to admit I was caught off guard when I read this—the vehemence with which Merton incriminates himself, and at the same time, the sense of relief he feels in coming to terms that he is in company with all of mankind, all to blame and all loved and redeemed by Christ.

There is an image often shared with children: When you point at someone else, the rest of your fingers point back at you. My wish for myself and all of you is that, as often us possible, we point to Jesus.

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* This year, appropriately enough, it was an annual favorite: Groundhog Day. I understand a Jeep ad based on the movie was one of the highlights of Sunday evening.

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Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.

A Walk on the Waves

At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.

– Matthew 14:27-29

Today is my last day as a parish employee. I have been profoundly blessed to work for the Church I love, in the church I love, with people I love, for a community I love, for the past three years. My father always preached, Leave it better than you found it. I pray I’ve done so. I know I’m better than you found me.

Today I leave the boat for a walk upon the waves.

Over the past several weeks, as my departure became known, I’ve heard a number of variations on the following: It’s brave of you to step out in faith like this. It’s such a powerful witness of trust: going where the Lord leads you. I’m sure you are on the right path and I can’t wait to see where it leads! Continue reading

Book Break: The Relative Un-Importance of Being Earnest

Jodi and I used to watch a lot of Seinfeld. In relatively small doses, the show struck us as amusing to flat-out hilarious, although occasionally there was an episode that made us cringe or second-guess our choice of entertainment.

When the series finale rolled around, we were there with much of the rest of the country to see how it all would end. The last joke, it turned out, was on us: using courtroom testimony as the vehicle, the final episode chronicled, back-to-back-to-back, what rotten, superficial human beings Jerry and the gang were during the run of the series, then ended with a joke about how they’d already had the final conversation before. Jodi and I looked at each other with the grim realization that we had wasted a tremendous amount of time over the previous several years, to no redeeming end.

Like Seinfeld, Oscar  Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest seems to me to be adamantly about nothing. Of course, like the TV show, the play has to be about something, but it sets the bar so low that it is essentially a three-act setup to a single joke, the punchline of which is a pun. Like a good sitcom episode, it is funny and short. (I read it in an evening.) I would like to say it’s witty, but I’m not sure it’s clever enough for that. It seems to me to be an exercise in style, primarily, with little substance beneath it.

Several years ago now, I read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. That is a great story, and proof enough  in my book that Wilde was a great writer. At the time, I wrote, “It’s a great story full of people you can’t stand, living in a world of false beauty. … Part of the genius of this book is the sinking feeling that there really are people like these, and we may even know some of them.” That line holds true for Earnest, except the word “great” and the phrase “of the genius.” While I don’t regret reading it (especially given its brevity), I sincerely wish there would have been more to it.

The Second Third, Week 25: No News Is Good News

Blogger’s Note (unnecessary): This Second Third post was supposed to come before last week’s post. Last week’s post wasn’t posted until yesterday. And both are a slow build of sorts, toward a completely different post that needs more time and stewing. In my head, it’s going to be great.

I mentioned in “Less TV Is Good TV” that I used to love to watch This Week with Sam and Cokie. I used to devour news: I worked as a journalist, then as a media relations manager; I watched Peter Jennings (and sometimes Tom Brokaw); I listened to Morning Edition and All Things Considered and supported NPR with my ears and my dollars. I daydreamed about launching a Slashdot-style web site trafficking in political news and rumors instead of tech stuff. I even had a name and a URL at one time: Rabblerooster. Get it? Like a “rabble-rouser” combined with a rooster…wake up and smell the coffee!

I used to get emotionally wrapped up in the news. Still do, in fact. I get angry, or choked up, or joyfully buoyant based on things happening half a world away, to complete strangers. And that’s beautiful…to a point. But over time I’ve come to realize that A) we’ve got plenty of news and compelling stories unfolding right next to us, and B) nobody’s got the straight scoop, so nobody’s giving it. I’d get riled about stories that were only half true, and wonder what I could really know for sure about what’s going on in the world…then realize that the only thing I can really understand and influence is what’s going on with me, right here, and to a lesser extent, with my family, neighborhood, and community. As a result, I installed tighter filters and began to tune out.

The timing was perfect, actually. TV news is entertainment now, and there are so many faster, easier sources of information. I try to track a variety of online news sources enough to keep tabs on what’s happening out there, and when something catches my eye or interest, I try to read accounts from the Right and the Left, then make sense of it myself. And I ignore a lot more “news” that I once would’ve obsessed over. And my heart is at peace.

I rarely watch TV news at all anymore. (I did flip it on the other night; I was in bed, setting my cell-phone alarm, when a friend posted something on Facebook about Bin Laden’s death. My laptop was already packed up for the morning commute, so I flipped on the tube.) I still listen to the news on the radio — I’ve always been an auditory learner (hence my regular attendance of college classes and lack of reading) and love good radio — but today I balance my NPR with Relevant Radio and Garage Logic, and keep my filters clean. And sometimes I willfully secede from the news stream. On a beautiful spring day like this one, for example, no news is good news.