Thursday, April 13, 2023

THE ROLE OF FEAR IN THE EASTER STORY

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb, fearful but overjoyed, and ran to announce the news to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
Matthew 28:8-15

One of the regular sentiments expressed by Jesus in the gospels, either in his words or in his deeds, was some form of these words. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first!”  Today, we see it again – in spades! It was not the male disciples of Jesus who were the first to tell the world that Jesus had risen from the dead, it was his women disciples who told the men about it! That makes women the first “evangelists” – the first to announce the good news to the world that Jesus was indeed still alive! 

The second thing that stands out in this gospel is Jesus’ words to the women, “Do not be afraid.” The text says, they were “fearful, yet overjoyed.” “Do not be afraid” appears more than one hundred times in the Bible, and various forms of the word “fear” more than six hundred times. Surely, there is a reason for this high number.

When asked about the number one issue in her 100,000 letters a year, Ann Landers replied “fear.” Doctors report that 90 percent of their chronic patients have one common symptom — fear.

We are all ruled, to some degree, by fear: fear of poverty, fear of criticism, fear of illness, fear of rejection, fear of growing old, fear of being separated from loved ones, fear of death, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of losing one’s job, fear of death and fear of feeling inadequate — one of the most common fears of all. In general, people seem to be most afraid of two things — pain or death and social rejection or isolation.

No wonder the Scriptures tell us to “not to be afraid” so often! It has been reported that 90 percent of the things we fear never happen, while another nine percent are the things that we often make happen. For instance, a person who has a deep fear of failure may get himself so anxious about failing, he will make himself fail. Even the stock market people have told us that “fear” rather than “facts” has played a major role in pushing the stock market down. That leaves one percent of the things that happen that actually deserve our fear! Jesus was right, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.”

After 53 years of ordained ministry, I can say one thing with some degree of certainty — we all grow to resemble the God we believe in. Preachers who are not convinced of the “good news,” the news that we are loved without condition, tend to project their fears into their preaching.  Because they have not yet believed in the love God has for themselves, they keep cranking out messages of fear and punishment.

I grew up listening to these people, and it took me almost 40 years to get their twisted message out of my psyche. Thankfully, I am no longer locked into a religion dominated by fear of punishment.

The response of one who has discovered the good news of God’s love is the reaction one would have to stumbling onto a buried treasure, a perfect pearl or even a long-lost Rembrandt painting at a garage sale. The women in today’s gospel were “afraid, but overjoyed.” People who live in fear, and dread have not yet been perfected in love because love drives out fear. 

Sadly, the typical Christian’s eyes are equally downcast and his heart fear-filled as his non-Christian neighbors. Only a lucky few live with the serene confidence that the triumph of goodness is as certain as the fermentation of yeast in dough. As Jesus told the women, “Do not be afraid!

 

 


Tuesday, April 11, 2023

SURVIVAL STRATEGIES FOR TIMES LIKE THESE

 


FOUR TIPS FOR HANDLING LIFE IN AN UNRAVELING, ANGRY, “COPY CAT,” EVERY-DOG-FOR-HIMSELF, POST-COVID AMERICA


According to Kylie Rymanowicz of Michigan State University Extension in a 2015 article, children learn and imitate behaviors by watching and listening to others. They seem to validate the old expression “money see, money do.”

This tendency to imitate behaviors is sometimes called “observational learning,” when children can learn things simply by observing others. The models do not have to be people that the child directly interacts with. Children learn from models all around them, on television, in the grocery store, at school and at home.

You have likely witnessed some observational learning with your child or even in your interactions with other children. Maybe your child comes home from school casting imaginary webs like Spiderman, even though they have never had any introduction to the character at home. Or perhaps they show off a new, not-so-child-friendly vocabulary word after the family reunion. Wherever they are, whomever they are around, children are observing and learning.

Watching a specific behavior does not necessarily mean a child will perform the behavior themselves; watching someone break a toy does not automatically mean your child will begin destroying things. Whether or not they demonstrate a new behavior, they are picking up new knowledge. Children are learning about the behavioral choices of others and also about the consequences of those behaviors.

What modeled behaviors children will imitate depends partly on what sort of reinforcement those behaviors receive. People are more likely to imitate a behavior if they get some sort of positive reinforcement for it. For example, if a child overhears another child swearing, he might learn new words, but may not necessarily use them. If, however, the child gets some sort of reward for swearing, such as acceptance or encouragement from an adult, an observing child might be more likely to copy this behavior. Don’t forget that laughter can be an unintended positive reinforcement. The same can be said if someone witnesses a negative reinforcement, such as scolding for swearing. A child may be less likely to imitate the behavior.

Through the process of modeling, children can learn aggressive behaviors by observing them. Sometimes this occurs through live models and direct experiences, but it often happens by watching television and other programming where aggressive behaviors occur. If these aggressive behaviors are reinforced, children might be likely to imitate them and execute aggressive acts themselves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, children can also acquire prosocial behaviors through observational learning. Watching someone cooperate, share, take turns and demonstrate altruistic acts can teach children to show those behaviors too.

All the above can probably be said about adults. “The power of suggestion” is the foundation of modern advertising techniques. We are constantly bombarded with messages that (a) if a movie star or famous athlete uses such and such a product, we can become like them if we also use that product (b) if politicians can be nasty, mean and hateful, then it must be OK for me to be nasty, mean and hateful too (c) if running red lights and getting away with it is common, then if I do it, I will probably get away with it too. It seems to me that we are becoming more and more a “if you can’t beat them, join them” “everybody else is doing it” culture.

Along with some reflections last week on resisting the tendency to give into “exertion aversion” as we age, I spent some time reflecting as well on this “money see, monkey do” phenomenon during my in-home personal retreat during this year’s Holy Week. Here are a few conclusions I came up with.

To rise above the entanglement infecting modern day America, it seems to me that our first step is to ditch as many parts of our “monkey see, money do” life habits as possible, get a grip on ourselves and stop being manipulated by trends, fashions, fads and any false delusions that some fairy godmother is going to show up and make things all better for us! 

We need to replace those lazy thinking patterns and develop the confidence to be our own person, take responsibility for our own happiness and set out on the road of deliberate personal spiritual growth and wise decision making. Yes, we have to learn to think for ourselves, discern what is of value and develop the discipline to carry through on the discipline that will take us to our goal. This involves not only giving up a “copycat” approach to life, but also the tendency to blame others for the results of our own bad choices. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The true joy in life is to be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

To rise above the entanglement infecting modern day America, it seems to me that our second step is to understand that reality is much bigger than what we can see, much bigger than what we have experienced, much bigger than what others have tried to sell us. We need to choose to stand in awe before “truth” and accept nothing but “truth.” To do that, we need to remember that “all that glitters is not gold.” “Truth” has to be “discerned.” The word “discern” comes from the Latin meaning to “cut apart” – to separate “the wheat from the chaff” as the gospel advises us. In this winnowing process, we need to remember that the chaff will always be a bigger pile than the wheat itself!

Artificial Intelligence has already developed well enough to fool even the professionals with “fake” photos, making it harder to distinguish the real from the fake. When truth and lies become indistinguishable, we are in serious trouble! We are being invited into that swamp and many will no doubt walk right in before they know what the consequences will be. There are three possible options for handling Artificial Intelligence. We can (a) make it illegal or (b) become less na├»ve, more alert, more discerning and (c) operate from a well-developed conscience rather than mindlessly following “what everybody else is doing.” I doubt that making it illegal will happen, so we need to plan on choosing our own realistic and informed response to it.

To rise above the entanglement infecting modern day America, it seems to me that our third step is to mold ourselves on the ancient wisdom of the "greatest commandment:” love God, love ourselves and love others. It’s simple! Acknowledge God and put God first! Respect yourself always and take charge of your own thinking! Without that, you can neither acknowledge your dependence on a “higher power” nor be a contributing part of the human community. Realize that “no man is an island, but part of the main!” We are not Lone Rangers on this earth. We are a community on the same planet. That means we are responsible to each other and for each other and we need therefore to act out of that truth!

To rise above the entanglement infecting modern day America, it seems to me that our fourth step is to stand up to the powerful pull of social media, constant advertising, self-comparison and peer pressure. We need to be our own true selves and not give a damn about what other people think about that! “This above all, to thine own self be true!” No country, nation, community, church or family can be strong when every individual in them is weak and cowardly! Get and grip, learn to be discerning and refuse to follow the herd over the cliff! 



















Sunday, April 9, 2023

EASTER 2023

 

They have taken the Lord from the tomb and

we don’t know where they put him.

John 20:9

 

Obviously, none of Jesus’ friends expected him to rise from the dead. In fact, they all assumed the grave had been robbed and the body had been snatched. Once the news gets out that the body was missing, everybody in today’s gospel runs around like chickens with their heads cut off! The word “ran” is used three times in this one story. It sounds like a typical Easter Sunday morning at our small house when I was growing up in a family of eight - chaos as far as the eye could see! If you are here with a bunch of kids you got ready for church today, you know what I mean! 

 

Mary Magdalen got there first, not because she expected Jesus to rise and wanted to be there when it happened, but because she wanted to do what was traditional to do after the burial of a loved one. It was customary to visit the tomb of loved ones for three days after the body had been laid to rest. It was believed that for three days the spirit of the dead person hovered around the tomb, but then it departed because the body had become unrecognizable through decay in that hot climate. 

 

Jesus had died on Friday. By religious law, Mary Magdalen would not have been allowed to travel on Saturday, the Sabbath. That meant she had to wait till Sunday morning before she could make her first visit. She couldn’t wait till the sun came up so she got there before dawn. When she arrived at the tomb, she was shocked to find that the stone had been rolled back and the body was missing! She concluded that the grave had been robbed so she ran back to town and got Peter and John out of bed. All three ran back to the tomb together. John, being younger, outran Peter and got there first, with Peter soon following out of breath.  Before Mary Magdalen could catch up with them on her way back to the empty tomb, Peter and John ran past her on their way back to town to tell the others.

 

One by one, his disciples began to believe that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead, beginning with John and ending with Thomas. From their mouths to others’ ears, from their mouths to others’ ears, from their mouths to others’ ears, this story has been passed down to us some 2,000 years later and here we are gathered today to celebrate what we have just heard in St. John's account of the resurrection!

 

Yes, this is the Easter story, but what does it mean and what does it have to do with us?

 

The point of Easter is not simply that life is sometimes troubling and difficult but that, by its very design, it needs to be troubling and difficult. This is because it is not ease but affliction that enables us to develop our very best. Those who grow the most are simply the ones who have weathered the most, endured the most, and struggled the most. Because such trials have been borne in the right spirit, they have been strengthened, enriched, and deepened the most by it. Think about any of the heroes and heroines of the faith, and one will always identify persons for whom hardship, sacrifice, and pain are no strangers. All breakthroughs are usually proceeded by a big breakdown. No pain, no gain! No cross, no crown! 

 

In short, we must view this death and resurrection not merely as just another historical event from the distant past, but as a life-giving way of living today. We are not here today to celebrate this death and resurrection as an event that just happened once in history, but death and resurrection as a way of living our lives today.

 

People in recovery programs understand death and resurrection as a way of life. People who have unilaterally forgiven their enemies understand death and resurrection as a way of life. Parents who have had to let go of their children and see them thrive, understand death and resurrection as a way of life. Anybody who has lost a job, only to find a better one understands death and resurrection as a way of life. Anyone who has lost a spouse, only to find another chance at love, understands death and resurrection as a way of life.

 

This Easter is special to me personally. Several times in the last 53 years of priesthood, I have gone from one of the worst years of priesthood to one of the best. The year I retired, I was in the pits. I knew I was in the pits, but I also knew in my guts that, if I would just hang in there, things would get better – and they did, in spades! It has happened at least three times just since I retired. For me, my breakdowns have always preceded the beginning of yet another amazing breakthrough! I am not that special! Whatever breakdown you are going through right now, with an Easter faith, could be a breakthrough for you as well! You can bet on it!

 

I always remember that engineer in Switzerland who designed a great tunnel between Switzerland and Austria. I have told the story often because it is so appropriate for today. He proposed they dig from both ends and meet in the middle, a risky method. When the day came when diggers were supposed to meet but didn’t, he killed himself thinking that he had made a great mistake. On the very day of his funeral, the workers broke through and the connection was perfect! He gave up one day too soon! An “Easter faith” means that you don’t give up, no matter how hopeless things seem to be at the moment.

  

In a nutshell, we are here to celebrate a way-of-living, not just an historical event! By embracing difficulty, we can overcome it. After a lifetime of embracing difficulties and overcoming them, we can finally embrace our own deaths knowing that there is eternal life on the other side of that!  Just as Jesus was raised, we who believe in him will also be raised - to live with him and each other forever!