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Monday, May 30, 2011

Suffering, God and an Atheist Lawyer...

Joplin victims gather in prayer
Last week, a friend posted a comment on his Facebook page thanking God for something good that happened in his life. A few minutes later, a very high profile local lawyer, who is considered one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the country, commented on my friend’s post, suggesting something to the effect that that the deadly and devastating tornadoes in Missouri, and the subsequent suffering they caused, were proof enough there is no God.

The most often used argument of atheists against God is that evil exists in the world.  However, the same logic doesn't apply for them when good in the world happens.

Regardless, the argument goes beyond the existence of good and evil.  If there is no God, what is evil? What is good for that matter? What is morality?  Is there a right and wrong?  Who determines it?  Further more, what would it even matter if people are dying or suffering? (I'm just trying to make a point)  Aren't we all just advanced animals and therefore should adhere to survival of the fittest?  In other words, an argument against God because evil exists in the world has an underlined admission of the existence of an Omnipotent God that would allow good and evil to happen. Is this too philosophical?

Suffice to say, the nationally renowned lawyer, who is outspoken about his atheism, my friend and I got into a little exchange of ideas on Facebook. This is my brain and the fried eggs in the frying pan are my brains after a philosophical debate on the existence of God and how it relates to good and evil with one of the premier brilliant legal minds in the country.  Then again, if I do say so myself, I held my own.  Most atheists don't like to think about the consequences of their world views.  He has yet to respond to my last inquiry although he may have just grown weary from the exchange.  Maybe, he had to go work on a case (either that or he's preparing a thorough dissertation to use against me!).

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I once had with a psychology teacher my senior year in high school (a lot happened that year!). He was talking privately to a girl in my class and me after some lecture on Sigmund Freud, I’m OK, You’re OK, or some other psychological concept we were learning. He turned to us and said, “Do you want to know what I think? I think this is all there is. When we die, we are buried and that’s it.”

This is a teacher I looked up to (I was an impressionable young student). The exchange shook me up so much that almost 30 years later, I still remember it. Still, to believe there is no God? I tell you what; I may not have been practicing my faith very well and may have even been avoiding God for moral and self serving reasons in my life at the time but, no God? I couldn’t digest the thought. I still can’t.

The quandary of God, evil and suffering…

A good friend, who is in his early 40’s, suffers from a debilitating form of Lupus. Every day is a struggle for him. He wakes up in the wee hours of the morning in excruciating pain, which requires dozens of pills just for "normal" functioning. Often, by the end of the day, he is exhausted to the point of wanting to collapse, another effect of the illness. He is married and has two rambunctious young boys. To add to his hardship, before his near-crippling disease, his livelihood and passion was coaching baseball.  His faith carries him through the everyday struggle. 

Another friend goes in for a medical exam one day several weeks ago and the doctor discover a stage 4 cancerous brain tumor. A few days later, she was in for an emergency surgery to remove the tumor, which was too large to take out completely, and suffers a stroke. Now, before she can start full chemotherapy, she needs to go through rehabilitation for the stroke.  Her faith is carrying her, her family and friends, through.  She is an inspiration to all who know her.

We are constantly inundated with stories of children being brutally beaten by their parents, husbands killing their wives and/or kids, crowds being slaughtered by dictators for protesting, entire villages starving to death in remote areas, soldiers and civilians indiscriminately dying in war ravaged regions of the world, or as my new attorney friend points out, natural disasters that claim innocent lives.

Non-believers often ask; why, if there is a merciful and all-powerful God, is there so much pain, suffering, cruelty and hardship in the world? And, why do bad things happen to good people?

These are not easy questions to answer but, for Christians, we can only take solace by looking at a crucifix.  Christ didn’t promise a life free of suffering and despair. He promised a life full of hope.

For some, suffering is the only way, they get close to God. As is often said, when there is no one left to turn to, we turn to God, or put another way, there is no such thing as an atheist in a fox hole or in a plane plummeting down to earth.

For others, like Pope John Paul II, who suffered the pain and grief of losing of his mother at nine years of age, his older brother at twelve and his father and lifelong mentor at twenty-one, not to mention, witnessing firsthand the wrath, brutality and scourges of war in his homeland and, in his later years, a debilitating disease, it’s a matter of endurance.

Then, there's a third group; those of us who are called to do our part to help those that are suffering.  It's an opportunity to show our love for God by loving the poor, hungry, destitute and in anguish.  This is the kind  of selflessness and benevolence that many saints are made of.  Mother Theresa of Calcutta comes to mind.

Although hard to understand, suffering sharpens us like metal through fire. It reduces and pushes us to the brink of destruction. It unites us to the suffering of Christ on the Cross. But, those that overcome are blessed beyond their human imagination.

You hear and feel it in the voices of those who survived the earthquake in Haiti, and the hurricane in New Orleans and Mississippi, and the World Trade Center attack, and even the tornadoes in Missouri. 

Then again, to most of us, suffering is never welcomed and only through faith can it even remotely make sense, albeit, never entirely.  

Although I don't know my new debate friend well enough to make a judgement on the reason for his point of view, which could be as simple as rubbing elbows with the world of academia, like my own deviation from God in high school, many atheists, materialists and secularists are so for moral reasons.  They know the Truth in their heart of hearts, but reject it because, as world renown 19th century Russian psychologist, Feodor Dostoevsky, once wrote, "If there is no God, everything is permissible."

Of course, the implications of Dostoevsky's comment are too frightening for most people, even atheists, to realistically consider...

[pic credit: CBS News]

Papal Authority and Infallibility 101...

Few matters of faith generate more controversy, misunderstandings and criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, then the teaching on papal authority and infallibility, especially considering the handful or so of popes that didn't exactly exemplify righteous and holy lives. This even includes the teachings on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the honoring of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, as part of a living and Mystical Body of Christ, of which we (the Church) are incorporated into through Baptism.

In his blog, Fallible Blogma, Matthew Warner introduces an excerpt of Fr. Robert Barron’s upcoming mega-production documentary on Catholicism, which gives a basic explanation.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day; Sun, Sand and... Aggravation?...

Now, this is a beach I enjoyed; The Moorings circa 2006
The day our country celebrates the lives of those soldiers who gave them up to protect our freedoms in combat, for most Americans is synonymous with a three-day weekend, family get-togethers, sun, beach, a favorite libation (or two) and barbecues. Life just doesn’t get any better (except, of course, for people in the news business that have to work, like me!).

Regardless of my having to work, this year, since my mother-in-law is out of town visiting my sister-in-law in London, where the latter lives, my wife is planning for us to spend the weekend at her mom’s Key Biscayne condo, so we can enjoy the beach with the kids.

I’ll be honest, I enjoy the beach more in that Corona commercial, where the couple is sitting on a beautiful beach and the only sounds are the waves and sea gulls, than I do in person. 

Maybe, it's a childhood trauma of the time in my senior year in high school where I wore a speedo to the beach and sweated profusely in all the wrong places, forcing me to stay lying on a towel on the sand all day but, I hate sand. I hate sun block on my hands and body. I hate sand on my sun blocked hands and body, or the burning sensation of sun-block-laced sweat in my eyes, prompting me to rub them with my sun block sandy hands. I hate the struggle of having to lug around beach chairs, bags, toys and a cooler while walking in sandals on the sand. And, I hate the scorching and unforgiving sun.

It’s funny because we live in South Florida, and hardly go to the beach. However, if we lived anywhere else, I would be craving and missing the beach. In fact, what makes the beach tolerable during our yearly week-long family vacation to Sanibel is a large tent that my wife’s uncle puts up every morning, which provides relief from the sun (and the fact that we are enjoying family, eating and drinking a rum concoction that my wife’s uncle calls Miami Wamis, all day long. After a few Miami Wamis, it’s all good).

The only time I remember truly appreciating the beach was a weekend that my wife and I spent with two other couples in The Moorings in Key Largo.  Of course, the beach was covered with palm trees and since there were no kids around, we could lounge around in the shade, read, drink and smoke cigars.

Don't get me wrong, despite my distaste for sun and sand, I may be willing to put up with some mild inconveniences for an opportunity to read quietly, have an ice cold beer (or two) and smoke a cigar. So, I’m game for the weekend in Key Biscayne.

Of course, I’m sure my wife would say, there I go again, only thinking of myself and ignoring the family, which would be quickly followed by the suggestion that I can read, drink beer and smoke a cigar in my backyard alone, while she and the kids hang out at the beach! One of the many benefits of marriage is the reality check that my wife continuously slaps me in the face with.

Yes, my family should be my priority and not the book, beer or cigar. As a matter of fact, I don’t usually smoke cigars around my kids, unless they are totally distracted like they are while playing with their cousins in Sanibel, so I may have to scrap that idea, leaving me with reading and a cold beer (or two).

Of course, as I think about it, with three young kids vying for attention, not to mention a wife expecting me to pay attention to them, it will be difficult to focus on the book I’m currently reading, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri Nouwen, so I will probably have to scrap that idea as well, leaving me with just the cold beer (or two).

Then again, without the book or cigar, it gives me more free time to play with the kids (and drink).  I actually may need more than two beers to keep my body cool from the hot sun, and keep me from sweating sun block into my eye and rubbing them with my sandy hands. In fact, after more than two beers, I really may not care whether I am sweating or getting sun block and sand on myself.  Come to think of it, after more than two beers, I love the beach.

Have a Happy, Blessed and very cool Memorial Day Weekend!…

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rodney Atkins, Fatherhood and Life Learned by Watching...

Rodney Atkins
Knowing that I can be a bit sentimental when it comes to faith and family (yes, I’m in touch), last weekend, a friend emails me a link to an old video of a song by Country Music singer/songwriter, Rodney Atkins, called Watching You (see below), that apparently choked him up (and he thought of me!).

I figure that maybe, whenever a friend feels a bit sensitive about something, they run it by me to see how I respond in hopes of validating their emotions. Sort of like a tear barometer.

Anyway, in the video, Atkins sings about his 4-year-old son, who follows him everywhere and, even without his father realizing, mimics everything he does, including using foul language, praying, and playing guitar.

Having a 3-year-old son myself, who tags along with me almost everywhere, including Mass in the morning, I was very touched by the words, which I completely agree with.

As dense as I can be (and believe me…), if there is anything I have learned over the past ten years of fatherhood, it is that kids learn, not so much by what their parents say, but by what their parents do. If I want my kids to behave a certain way, I need to behave that way, or else it’s just like spitting in the wind (and hoping not to get hit).

I remember when my older daughter was about four years old, her favorite pastime was watching TV. She would get mesmerized, to the point that we would be talking to her, and she wasn’t listening to anything we said. Even now, we still have to constantly battle her about her TV viewing habits, although we now restrict TV for our kids (you live and learn).

However, I realize where my older daughter learned the habit. Up until a few years ago, as soon as I got home from work, the first thing I did was take the remote away from my daughter, usually prompting her to cry, and plopping down in front of the television set, while my wife prepared dinner. I tuned in to whatever was on the boob tube (considering the programming today, it’s an appropriate name) and tuned out my family (not exactly endearing myself as a candidate for husband or father of the year).

At this point, I have to make a confession, my name is Carlos Espinosa and I am addicted to television. There I said it. I love TV. Let the healing begin! Ever since I was a kid, I loved watching Batman, Superman, Bonanza, Gilligan’s Island, I Love Lucy, The Three Stooges, F Troop (I'm dating myself), I Dream of Jeannie (I never got over my crush on Barbara Eden), etc., etc.

In fact, I still struggle with my addiction to television, especially sports, movies and religious programs, although I have been known to watch American Idol and American Pickers, among other shows. I'm a patriot, what can I say? The good news is that I have learned to control, aka conceal, it better. I now record my favorite shows and watch them after putting my kids to bed.

It also doesn’t hurt that after thirteen years of marriage, when I get home now, my wife is usually jumping around in our living room doing some sort of funky lunge maneuver while watching an exercise video and the kids are either playing in their room or my son is playing and the girls are in ballet. It gives me ample time to do more family oriented things, like writing blogs, snacking before dinner, or reading in my private reading office (the bathroom).

So, obviously, how I behave, fail to behave, or have behaved in the past, has and continues to have a huge impact on my children.

To be sure, according to many studies, fathers play a crucial and invaluable role in shaping their children's character, including influencing their judgment, sense of responsibility, respect for authority, mental toughness, and self-control.

I can see it in my own life. One of the greatest life lessons my father taught me, by his example, was commitment to family and dependability.

Like most immigrants that arrived from Cuba in the 60’s and 70’s, he worked hard, at times holding two jobs, to make ends meet. Nevertheless, he always had time for my brother and me. He would play catch with us, throw us batting practice, and hit us ground balls, and, up until high school, with my mom, would attended every game we had while growing up. More importantly, he is a devoted and loving husband.

I’ve often heard said that to be a good father, one must be a good husband first. I truly believe that. Kids watch and learn about love, respect, and relationships by the way mommy and daddy treat each other.

From the other influential father figure in my life, my grandfather, I learned that faith is important. My grandfather was very devout. While, I may not have appreciated or understood it for most of my life, I now realize the profound impact that seeing my grandfather attend weekly Mass without fail, praying the rosary, reading the Bible and serving as church lector, had on me.

As I reflect on my own fatherhood and my influence in my children’s lives, I can’t help but think about the Rodney Atkins’ song, because my children are watching. So, what exactly am I teaching them?  Well, if there is one thing I hope my kids learn from watching me is the importance of getting on their hands and knees to pray and worship the One True God of the universe...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Second Coming Predictions and the Barnum Factor...

The blogosphere has been in a frenzy in recent days over an end-of-the-world prediction, that has even made it on several local and national news programs (Can you tell we're in sweeps?).

So, let's get this straight, according to an 89-year-old California civil engineer, the end of the world (aka the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the second coming of Jesus, doomsday, Final Judgment, the day we meet our maker in our birthday suits, hopefully holding hands and singing Kumbayah, of course the fire and brimstone might throw a damper on that idea), will be this Saturday.

Yes, you read correctly, it’s not a typo, he says it’s tomorrow!  I'm not sure if that means 12:01am Pacific, Central, or Eastern Time Zone or sometime during the day but stay tuned.  And to think, I was planning on going to Confession in the morning, taking my son to a kiddies party and getting a haircut in the afternoon and going to a barbecue at the house of some friends at night!

Harold Camping, who heads the Christian radio network Family Stations Inc, which is heard in over 65 U.S. stations, with affiliates from Taiwan to Russia, and his organization have reportedly posted more than two thousand billboards around the nation warning of the May 21st end of the world (as REM would add, “as we know it”).

Mind you, this is the same guy, who predicted Jesus Christ would return in 1994.

As far as I can recall (or look up on the Internet), aside from an earthquake in Los Angeles (that I’m sure may have felt like Armageddon to some) and the Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman murder, probably the biggest story in the U.S. that year, was the breakup of Nirvana, after Kurt Cobain committed suicide (You don’t think he thought…? Nah...).

Even as bad as I think the mainstream media is at covering anything related to God and Christianity (unless it’s negative, and I should know, I work in the media), I don’t think they missed the Apocalypse in ‘94.

I’m going to give Camping the benefit of the doubt and think he is sincere in his belief and just wants to warn us so that we should prepare spiritually, sort of like Jonah warns the city of Nineveh in the Bible. And, because the Ninevites take Jonah’s warning seriously, they repented, fasted, and were spared from destruction by God.

But apocalyptic predictions have been going on for centuries. The Seventh-Day Adventists have predicted Armageddon since the 1840’s and the Jehovah’s Witnesses said it would be in 1914 and then again in 1975. 

Look, I’m all for getting spiritually prepared. I think we all should live our lives as if it might be our last day on earth (not that I do live every day as such, as my wife would attest, especially when I’m ignoring the family because I'm writing a blog, but I should). However, it’s not because of the fear of Armageddon. It’s because our judgment day will come one day regardless. It might be sooner than we expect!

As I have written before, a good friend went for a run on Father’s Day last year, suffered a heart attack and died in his car. Several years ago, another friend and co-worker, was getting ready for work one morning, suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in his bathroom. Both were in their 40’s.

As for the end times, Christ himself says, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk 13:32)

At the risk of sounding a bit righteous (which has never stopped me before), anyone that thinks they know, and those who believe them, or believed the world was ending in Y2K, or now in the year 2012, can fall under the category of, what I've heard referred to as, the Barnum Factor (a phrase coined after P.T. Barnum of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, who reportedly said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Trying to Make Saints on a Weekend Getaway with the Boys…

I love my weekend getaways with the boys. Don't get me wrong. Every week, I look forward to spending my weekends with my wife and kids, which are the most important part of my life.

But, my weekends with the boys are important in a different way. I get to disconnect from all the noise and stress of daily life, or the crying and fighting over who said or did what to whom first, and concentrate on prayer, reflection, spiritual growth and, hopefully, helping other men grow closer to God, not to mention, the many laughs, tears and maybe smoking a cigar or two in the process (although, let's keep the last part between us).

It's called the Emmaus Retreat, which brought me back to the faith in 2006, after almost thirty years of floundering.  Ever since, I have been involved religiously (pardon the pun) in every retreat.

On Friday, before the retreat began, we were driving back to the parish after our traditional seven-mile walk to the retreat house, where we try to follow the footsteps of the disciples that walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus three days after the Crucifixion, the friend who was driving, turns up a Rolling Stones song on the car stereo named, Saint of Me, which, to be frank, I don’t recall ever having heard before (my friend Ronald, God rest his soul, who was a huge Stones fan, is probably rolling in his grave!). 

In the tune, Mick Jagger sings, “Saint Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man, Jesus hit him with a blinding light and then his life began… Augustine knew temptation. He loved women, wine and song and all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” Then the refrain goes, “I said yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, you’ll never make a saint of me.”

It was sweet. It's the type of song that in a younger, more self-centered stage of my life, would have immediately prompted me to roll down the windows and crank up the stereo. The lyrics and music were contagious.  A couple of the guys started singing. While the song was playing, another friend that we had been trying to get in touch with but couldn’t because he was in a deposition sends us a text message, that stated something to the effect of, “I said yeah, oh yeah, you’ll never make a saint of me.” At that moment, we loosely adopted it as our anthem for the weekend.

After listening to the song several times, I started thinking (it does hurt sometimes). While, the words appear to make perfect sense, considering our image of the holiness of “saints,” i.e. St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up all his wealth to live a life of poverty and service to his fellowman, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a young stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, and Mother Theresa, who devoted her life to helping the destitute on the streets of Calcutta (OK, she hasn’t officially been recognized as a saint by the Church, but is there any doubt she’s in heaven?), they may be textually deficient.

You see, all Christians are called to holiness and sainthood and, as the song says, anyone can become a saint, even a Christian killer like Saul, who became Paul, and a pagan man of debauchery like St. Augustine. In fact, to be a saint, means to be chosen and set apart by God.

St. Paul calls the early believers saints and the Church teaches that Holy Communion is a physical and spiritual “communion” with the Body of Christ; meaning, not just Christ, but His whole being: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.  And, since the Church is Christ's Body, in receiving the Eucharist, we are receiving communion with the saints in His Heavenly and Eternal Church, including those officially recognized as such by the Church, our friends and family, who have gone before us, as well as those en route to heaven (that are being cleansed through fire). So, through faith, love and a sacramental life, God can make a saint of me.

The retreat was as powerful as ever. I would say it was the best of the twelve retreats I have participated in, but that seems to be the prevailing thought after every retreat.

Over sixty men, from all walks of life, from lawyers (and we have many in our group since, you can say, they make good sinners) to handymen and unemployed, and from different faith backgrounds, came together for an amazing and profound experience.

As the retreat was wrapping up, one of the retreatants, came up to deposition man and me, embraced us (yes there's a lot of man love on our retreats) and said, “What I experienced and felt here this weekend, I had never experienced or felt in my entire lifetime. It was like a huge burden that had been weighing me down for a good part of my life, has been lifted. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

As the retreatant turned his attention to another guy, my friend looks at me and we smile. There is little that is more gratifying for us than to hear the genuine words of appreciation from someone that has just spent their weekend with us, trying to grow closer to God.

While it is not personal pride, since most of us understand that we can only do what we do by the grace of God, it is an external sort of pride in having served God to touch another person, even if in a very minimal way.

It makes all the months of preparation, the separation from our wives and kids, sleepless nights, last-minute logistical challenges, hard work and long days, time away from our favorite leisurely activities and emotional drain worth the effort, which is why many of us continue to return; retreat after retreat.

On Sunday, during one of the exercises, we got a special visit from retired Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, who lives on the property, where the retreat house is located in Coconut Grove.

Bishop Roman is probably the holiest man I have ever met. As one of the men in our group pointed out, this is a man that is small in stature. He’s 83-years-old, extremely humble and somewhat frail. Yet, he commands reverence. He exudes holiness. I imagine it is similar to what I have read about Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II. In fact, I believe Bishop Roman is a living saint.

During his visit, Bishop Roman says to us, “There are two types of Catholics; those that are fully awake and alive in their faith, like you are this morning, and those that are sleeping. It is up to you, to go out and wake them.”

And, thus is our charge from Christ to “make disciples of all nations” and why we keep coming back to serve on retreats.

On my way home from the retreat house, I put in the CD that was given to all the participants and heard the Rolling Stones’ song that I had heard for the first time Friday.  And, as I listened to the words, I couldn’t help but rolling down my windows and sunroof, cranking up the stereo and singing, “I said yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, you can make a saint of me!” as tears rolled down my face…

First Things, First...

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. 

After the Win and Before the Celebration Begins...

Thank you, Martin for sharing...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rainy Day Blues and a Hefty Dose of Reality...

My wife and I have been dealing with a roof leak in our closet for over three years (at least that we've been aware of since remodeling our master bedroom).

Fortunately, the leak is concentrated to the middle of the closet and, except for splashes on really rainy days, our clothes avoid getting soaked. But, it has been a constant source of aggravation and concern for both of us for several years.

We have a 1926 Old Spanish style home with a flat roof. Four different roofers have tried everything and anything (short of completely tearing off the entire roof and starting from scratch, which we may have to resort to) and nothing seems to work. Each roofer has had their own theory and while at times, the repairs appear to work, sooner or later the leak returns.

They’ve replaced gutters, placed new roof covering on practically the entire surface, poured tar and other sticky roof sealants, and nothing. The last guy even covered the walls with a sealant up to the decorative tiles, since a couple of roofers have suggested the leak could be coming through a wall.

What makes it worse, and harder to pinpoint, is that it doesn’t leak every time it rains (although by the time of our last repair, it was dripping with any summer sprinkle). It depends on the wind, the intensity and the direction the rain is coming from.

A few days ago, after six months of peace and tranquility, and after we finally felt confident enough to make the needed repairs on the ceiling just weeks ago, thinking we were finally done with the nagging problem, the leak returned. It’s back to the drawing board and so begins our headache again.

Woe is me, I think. How much longer do we have to endure this thorn at our side, Lord? I mean, sure, the Israelites had to endure forty years wondering in the desert but I don’t recall ever reading that any of them had a leak in their tent. That’s a bit much, don’t you think?

Then, there are the many concerns involved. We have poured a lot of money into that roof without a solution. I worry about mold that may be building within our walls and its effect on my family. I consider whether the support beams are rotting and the damage of the humidity seeping in may be causing. Will our roof collapse on us one day?

There have been many sleepless nights. It reminds me of the Carpenters' song which says, "Nothing ever seems to fit. Hanging around and nothing to do but frown. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down." It's my pity party, I know. And yes, I did quote the Carpenters. Is there a problem with a guy liking the Carpenters? Or, Barry Manilow for that matter? (Although, please stop me if I ever start quoting Looks Like We Made It or Can’t Smile Without You)

Take two. Last week, in the midst of feeling sorry for myself, a close friend of mine tells me that his wife will have to undergo a very serious heart surgery. She has been dealing with what appears to be a birth defect for many years, and now, in her mid-40’s, the condition has worsened to the point where she will need open heart surgery as soon as possible.

My friends have been married for 14 years and have two young kids. The children don’t understand the gravity of the condition, which requires her to be hooked up to a machine outside her body that will simulate her heart and continue to pump her blood while the doctors make the needed repairs. The recovery sounds like it will be arduous as well. My friend is distraught and, although not particularly religious, says he has been praying fervently during the past several weeks.

Take three. The next day, we hear that another good friend, the wife of a man in my men’s church group, and a member of my wife’s group, went in for a routine exam and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Within  days, she went in for emergency surgery to remove it. 

It turns out the tumor was cancerous and was too large for the doctors to remove completely. They removed most of it but will have to start an aggressive chemotherapy treatment to get the rest. Our friends are very devout and will need it to get through this difficult trial in their life.

And then, there’s our annoying roof leak. Thank you, God; not that our friends are sick and we are not, but that the worst problem we have is material.  It’s amazing how sometimes, we feel like the roof is caving over our heads (literally) and then consider the challenges other people are facing and discover that our issues are not really worth the stress.

As I reflect on the cards my friends have been dealt during the past week, and pray for God to give them the strength and faith to overcome, I realize that often we may find ourselves amidst the storm, like the house in the Bible parable. And, while in my case, the rain continues to seep through the roof, like it does in less literal terms for many of us, only the house built on the rock will sustain the tempest. Without God, it all comes crumbling down.

At the risk of quoting Barry Manilow (and possibly affecting your perspective of me), one of his songs is very apropos here. The key for my friends (and to a lesser extent me) is endurance through faith and at the end of the day, we can hopefully say, “I Made It Through the Rain.”...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Steven Tyler's Hard Rock Lesson on Life...

Steven Tyler
When I was a little kid, I remember wanting to be a rock-and-roll star. I wanted to be the singer in a band (which still comes out whenever my wife and I have gone to karaoke bars with our friends) and play lead guitar. In other words, I wanted to be the center of attention, which is a characteristic of pride that even today often surfaces. Then again, I wanted to be a cowboy and a trapeze artist too! (I was a big fan of Kurt Douglas and did you ever watch the movie Trapeze with Burt Lancaster?  C'mon.  Admit it. Who wouldn't want to be a trapeze artist?).

Fortunately, as I got older, I decided to pursue a more reachable goal; Major League Baseball player! (I always believed in setting the bar high) 

Anyway, on a more serious note, when I thought of being a rock star as a kid, I was thinking of the fame, the fortune, and the fun (sort of like my daughters now want to be Cheetah Girls) but, I didn’t give much thought to the chaotic lifestyle that these individuals live.  A life of constant travel, living from a suitcase from hotel room to hotel room, the strain on relationships and the temptations of drugs, alcohol and meaningless sex, which unless one is empty inside, gets old pretty fast.  Those meaningless encounters often have consequences.

I recently read an article on about American Idol's Steven Tyler, previously known as the lead singer of the legendary rock band, Aerosmith, that brought this to mind. 

Tyler lived, or may still live, the life of a true rock star but in an autobiographical book on Aerosmith, titled, Walk This Way, Tyler opens up about one of the darkest moments in his life; when he took a friend's advice and allowed his underage girlfriend to have an abortion.
Long before he won accolades as an American Idol judge, Steven Tyler was a bona-fide rock star, with all that that implied. In 1975, when he was in his late 20s and the lead singer for the band Aerosmith, Tyler persuaded the parents of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Julia Holcomb, to make him her legal guardian so that they could live together in Boston.
When Miss Holcomb and Tyler conceived a child, his longtime friend Ray Tabano convinced Tyler that abortion was the only solution. In the Aerosmith “autobiography,” Walk This Way (in which recollections by all the band members, and their friends and lovers, were assembled by the author Stephen Davis), Tabano says: “So they had the abortion, and it really messed Steven up because it was a boy. He … saw the whole thing and it [messed] him up big time.”
Tyler also reflects on his abortion experience in the autobiography. “It was a big crisis. It’s a major thing when you’re growing something with a woman, but they convinced us that it would never work out and would ruin our lives. … You go to the doctor and they put the needle in her belly and they squeeze the stuff in and you watch. And it comes out dead. I was pretty devastated. In my mind, I’m going, Jesus, what have I done?”
Most of those who were closest to him at the time say it really tore him up inside.  The pain and emotional scars it left sent him spiraling to seek comfort in drugs and alcohol, to the point of addiction.  It was so bad that when a new girlfriend got pregnant, she left him because he was so out of control.  The daughter, Liv Tyler, was raised by another rocker, Todd Rundgren.  In the book, Tyler admits that he never got over the decision he took completely.

Years later, when Tyler married, and he and his wife were expecting their first child, he was still haunted by the abortion: “It affected me later. … I was afraid. I thought we’d give birth to a six-headed cow because of what I’d done with other women. The real-life guilt was very traumatic for me. Still hurts.”
Since then, Tyler, who is now in his 60's, has divorced, remarried and divorced again and fathered four other children in the process.

One of Aerosmith’s biggest hits in recent years, and one of my favorites, as a fan, is Amazing. It is a song Tyler wrote about his struggles in life and about finding his way.  The words say, “Had an angel of mercy to see me through all my sins. There were times in my life when I was going insane, trying to walk through the pain… I was so sick and tired of living a lie, I was wishing that I would die.”

But, then it says, "It's Amazing.  With the blink of an eye you finally see the light.  It's Amazing... And I'm sayin' a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight."

As they say in baseball, there's only one way to go when you hit rock bottom (of course, this saying wouldn't translate well for a trapeze artist!). 

It reminds me of something that I heard once that really struck me, there is no sin greater than the love God has for us.  Repentance and the humility to ask God for forgiveness is a grace and big part of healing, no matter how far we think we have gone...

So, in retrospect, I see I don't have the singing prowess to have made a very good rock star and obviously don't have the physical talent to be a trapeze artist or a baseball player.  Would I have best been suited as a cowboy?  Oh well, I really don't think wrangling cattle or bucking horses is my thing anyway...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Turmoil Amidst the Celebration of Another Man's Death...

Watching Fox News Tuesday morning, the mother of a NYC policeman, who was killed by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, made an interesting point on the death of Osama bin Laden.

Arlene Howard, whose son George was a Port Authority Police Officer and rushed into one of the towers after it was hit by a plane, said, “Being a Christian, you’re not supposed to celebrate anybody’s death but in this one, I think we get a pardon.”

It might be so (since God is forgiving and understands the human experience) but that is the quandary for many Christians this week. I'll admit feeling a sense of satisfaction and excitement, when I heard the news that the most wanted man in the world was shot dead Sunday night.  However, catching myself I thought, is this how I should be feeling? (And thus began my internal conflict)

While my initial reaction to the news may have been elation, there is a balance in contradiction, between rejoicing the death of a self-proclaimed killer, responsible for thousands of children left orphans, parents left mourning their children, and spouses left widowed, and the regret of the violent ending of a human life (although you may question bin Laden’s humanity).  The dilemma tests our commitment to the words of our Lord, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Even unto death, Christ prayed for those who were crucifying Him, asking God the Father to forgive them.

It’s not easy to turn the other cheek, especially in the face of someone so vile and who was a menace to the world by promulgating evil and causing so much pain and hardship for so many.

I'll be honest, I have often prayed for Fidel Castro's repentance and conversion.  He grew up attending a Catholic Jesuit school for goodness sake!  Then again, Joseph Stalin once considered the priesthood before becoming the world's most cold-blooded killer, who is attributed with about 60 million deaths.

Even so, I never even considered praying for Osama bin Laden, albeit maybe the fact that he was Muslim, a faith that is very foreign to me, may have had something to do with it.  Although, Muslims do believe in the same God of Abraham that Jews and Christians believe in, and if we as Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, we know that God, while Three Person, is One and therefore cannot be separated (but that's a theological discussion for another day).    

In a written statement, after the announcement of bin Laden’s death, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lomabardi says, “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”

Bin Laden definitely spewed and spread hatred instead of peace but is his killing a cause for cheer?  Of course, that is easier for me to question since I'm not Arlene Howard or the spouse of a man beheaded on video by Al-Qaeda. (Did I mention I was conflicted?)

On Monday, the morning after the news broke and thousands of people spilled into Times Square, Ground Zero, and the White House, among other places around the nation, to demonstrate their delight and chanting "U.S.A!," the New York Daily News’ headline stated, “Rot in Hell.”

That doesn’t leave much room for last minute repentance (not that shoving his wife towards his executioners is an indication of much remorse). Moreover, was he even sane? Do insane people get condemned to hell, if they are not mentally fit to stand before God in their right mind? We won’t know until it’s our turn to face the Final Judgment.

I did find it ironic that bin Laden was killed on Divine Mercy Sunday, where the Church celebrates God’s Mercy.

Now, I’m sure many of my separated Christian brothers would argue that if bin Laden did not believe or accept Jesus Christ, then he is indeed rotting in hell.

But, for Catholics, the Final Judgment is not so clear cut. 

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord.”

We don’t determine who goes to heaven and therefore don’t determine who goes to hell.

In the end, we believe we will be judged according to faith and love (the expression of our faith).

Christ makes clear that it will come down to whether we fed or failed to feed and provide for the hungry, the thirsty, and less fortunate (see Matthew 25).  Whatever we do or fail to do for the least of God's children, we do or fail to do for Him.

While it doesn’t appear bin Laden exemplified any of these, we may never know.  But, what I do know is that God ultimately judged him and gave him his just due...

What do you think?