Category Archives: Religion & Ethics

Advent Reflection: John the Baptist & The Big Picture

Advent Reflection: Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent: John the Baptist and Preparing for Christmas.

I have two data points:

Back in the 1950’s, I was a young second lieutenant at the US Army Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was given an important assignment: I had to plan all the logistics for moving a tank platoon from the company motor pool to the tank firing range, some ten miles away. This involved moving five fifty-ton tanks, gasoline trucks and trailers, ammunition requisitions and transport vans, arranging appropriate range clearances, engaging range officers, safety officers, security, first aid and EMT services, and – oh yes – food and shelter and everything else needed by 50 young men who would be living out in the wild for some 18 hours.

I was overwhelmed by the assignment. I started figuring out how much gasoline we’d need to get there and back. Each tank got one-half mile to the gallon; it took two gallons to go one mile. I figured out how much fuel each tank could carry and then how many extra tanker trucks I’d need to support them while in transit, while there, and on the return.

And then there was oil, and tools and spare parts, and mechanics. There was no end to it.

Four hours later, I was still at it when the Instructor came by to check my progress. He said to me: “Are you still figuring out fuel consumption?” I said I was. He said: “Let the experts do that. Call the motor sergeant and tell him what you’re trying to do. He’s done it a hundred times before, and he’ll solve that problem in five minutes. The way you’re approaching this task, there won’t be enough time between now and the event for you to plan it!”

Second data point: I once worked for an executive; his name was John. He asked my advice on candidates for a promotion to an important corporate job. I had a colleague, a friend, whom I thought could do that job very well. He was excellent at developing plans to address a particular problem, but he had a little trouble with implementing those plans once they were approved. I thought that with a little coaching, he could become as good at implementing as he was at planning. I put forward his name.

John thought for a minute, and then said: “Yes, he’s a good man, but (John struggled for words) he never actually accomplishes anything. He’s always getting ready to get ready.”

“Getting ready to get ready.” Those words have stuck with me all these years. How many of us are guilty of just exactly that: Not getting something done, because we’re always “Getting ready to get ready?”

Advent is all about preparation. It’s about “Getting ready.”

In today’s Gospel (9 December 2013), John the Baptist repeats many early prophecies in a call for urgent preparation for a hopeful fulfillment of God’s promise to send us a Redeemer.

John says: “Prepare the way of the Lord….Make straight his paths….the winding roads shall be made straight…and the rough ways made smooth…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John’s orders to us were to focus on the Big Picture, the coming of the Redeemer. Like my Army instructor, and my boss John, he didn’t want us to get bogged down in detail (that we probably wouldn’t be very good at anyway), nor did he want us wasting time “getting ready to get ready.”

He was saying, in effect, “You know what to do. You know what winding roads and rough ways in your heart, and in your life, need to be made straight and smooth. Now, get out there and do it. Don’t get hung up on the detail.

To conclude my military analogy, John the Baptist was even echoed millenniums later, in a century still yet to come, by Star Trek’s own, Captain Jean Luc Picard, commander of the Starship Enterprise. Captain Picard rarely issued long and detailed orders to people who knew their jobs. He simply said: “Make it so.”

And that, I think, is the message of Advent. To simply prepare so that we can echo the words of Revelations and say: 

Come Lord Jesus. In all your Glory, I await your coming not tomorrow, but today, at this very moment. Fill me with your Spirit, breathe on me. Come Lord Jesus.” 

And we get there by remembering the four messages of John the Baptist (“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”).

My Army instructor (“Don’t get bogged down in the details”).

My former boss (“Don’t waste time getting ready to get ready”).

And Captain Jean Luc Picard (“Make it so”).

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Ed McManus 12/7/12

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A Cafeteria Catholic at 75

I turn 75 this year. I am a Cradle Catholic, educated for 12 years by the nuns, a regular church attendee, and a person in conflict not with God, nor even with the Church itself, but occasionally with the hierarchy. I fear that due to the clergy abuse scandal and the subsequent cover-up by the bishops, they have lost the moral high ground they once occupied so firmly. I do not trust them as I once did. Let me tell you why, and share a few key points from a lifetime  of observation and personal experiences:

1. I learned that we all are “Cafeteria Catholics.” We select the beliefs we can understand and accept, that make sense to us, and rationalize rejecting the others. The bishops seem scandalized by this behavior and yet, I think they set the pace. The psalmist wrote: “Put not your faith in princes.” Jesus himself said, “Sell what thou hast, give to the poor, and follow me.” And let’s  not forget Jesus’ observations that, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.”

How do the bishops receive this instruction? They don’t. The exempt themselves from it. They call themselves “princes,” use regal titles to address each other, wear elaborate and royal robes, and  live in comfort if not splendor.

Another example: In all the New Testament, I can’t find a single sin that so enraged Jesus as child abuse. Jesus said of the abuser who brought scandal to a child: “It is better that he have a millstone attached to his neck and be cast into the deepest part of the sea.”

How did the bishops receive this instruction. Not well. They covered up for the abusive priests, transferred them multiple times, and, in effect, empowered these rapists to continue their reign of terror among the Church’s most vulnerable members: Our children.

Jesus wept.

2. I learned that the bishops have a different priority than I do, and that me and mine can get crushed in the crunch. The bishops’ #1 priority is to protect the reputation of the institutional church, and themselves from “scandal” (which, in other areas of  human endeavor, is known as “whistle blowing”).

“Scandal,” which I call the “manufactured sin,” has an interesting etymology. Originally, it referred to a sin, committed by the hierarchy, that brought shame upon the Church. Over the years it evolved into a sin committed by the laity, when they revealed a sin committed by the hierarchy, that brought shame upon the Church.

I was taught in religious education: “Touch not God’s Anointed  (which, in the Old Testament, referred to the King), and “If you reveal the sin of a priest, even if true, your sin is greater than his.”

Some of the clergy confused Respect and Reverence with Licence.

3. I learned about the Primacy of Conscience long ago from my own religious education in Catholic schools. The nuns taught us that God gave us intelligence, education, experience, and (hopefully) a well formed conscience to test ideas and instructions before we accept them. Jesus didn’t accept all the pronouncements of the temple high priests and Pharisees.  He thought for Himself, called a thief a thief, and encouraged us to do the same. He suffered and died for His honesty.

So, here I am at 75, still a believer, still a Catholic, and not about to be driven off by anyone. I am a “Tip O’Neil/Ronald Reagan/ Madeline Albright Catholic:” Specifically:

1. A Tip O’Neil Catholic, because Tip said, “All politics is local.” I think that “All religion is local.” As long as I’m with a pastor I trust, and a faith community that I respect, I don’t need princes, oversight, and overhead.

2. A Ronald Reagan Catholic, because Ron said,”Trust and verify.” I listen, receive the message in good faith, and then run it against my intellect, education, experience, and conscience as I was taught. Then I decide.

3. A Madeline Albright Catholic,  because she said, “Be sure but not certain.”  I believe in the Golden Rule, Jesus’ own “Love thy God…Love thy neighbor..” and the Ten Commandments. The rest, as they say, is commentary. These are the universal, timeless truths. Some of the others, as the kids say, “Not so much.”

In summary, I am hanging in there despite the disappointments, the indults, the “mental reservations,” the secrecy, and the threats, spoken and implied. I’ve been a Catholic as long, or longer, than many of the people cracking the whip. I’m not always right, but I’ll always give it my best shot, and I’ll try to admit it  whenever I’m proven wrong.

If the Inquisition asks you where to find me, just say I’m in a cave, somewhere in Tora Bora. No further contact information is available. I don’t think the Holy Inquisition, as yet, has drones.

God bless…..

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A Thin Line: Faith vs. Gullibility

Let us consider Faith vs. Gullibility.

Faith is the:

  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. Strong belief in doctrine based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

Gullibility is another angle of pretty much the same thing:

1. Credulousness: tendency to believe too readily and therefore to be easily deceived.

        2. Easily deceived or duped, innocent, trusting, naive,

Imagine the fortunes lost by con men from Ponzi to Madoff on the basis of our misplaced trust in such charitismatic people, their particular knowledge, or their integrity. Imagine the innocent lives similarly lost in the suicides in Jonestown, the Holy Inquisition, and the Crusades.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where Faith ends and Gullibility begins.

Years ago, my older brother Leo presented me with an explanation of such thinking. It’s called : “Circular Logic.” It’s used to prove an assertion from an assumption.

Two servants are talking:

Servant #1: “My Master talks to God.”

Servant #2: “How do you know?”

Servant #1: “He told me so.”

Servant #2: “How do you know he didn’t lie?”

Servant #1: “What? A man who talks to God lie?”

Good show, Servant #2.

Over time, I have developed a set of guidelines which I use in evaluating the truth of any matter someone asks me to accept and believe. Here they are:

1. No statement that advises you to hurt yourself, or hurt others, in any name, any way, or under any circumstance, can be true.

2. Beware of any statement that promises to put you in a special position, with valuable information or privileges available only to the Chosen Few, in return for your obedience, total compliance, and (often) money. As they say in finance: “Any deal that sounds too good to be true, probably is.”

3. Apply the “Ronald Reagan Realism Directive:” “Trust and Verify.” You can always respectfully suspend acceptance of anything until you have time to check it out. If  they pressure you, or there’s no way to check it out, start to worry.

4. Remember that the best con men in the world keep their stories simple, and don’t over promise in the short term. It’s always in the longer term that their plan works flawlessly and you come out ahead. I read a financial analyst talking about the Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-type scandal. He said that Bernie’s genius was that he didn’t promise huge returns. He promised good, consistent returns over the longer term. And there was no way to check out what he was doing.  He also said: “If I ever see a con man’s pitch that promises too much, too soon, I think ‘these guys are amateurs.'”

5. Think. You have a degree of intelligence, experience, education, and a well developed sense of right and wrong. Use these gifts to evaluate what you’re being told, and decide accordingly. Remember what they tell fledgling weather forecasters: “Before you go on TV with your detailed analysis, look out the window  and see what’s really happening.”

If it doesn’t make sense, given what you know, it may not be sensible.

A wise man once told me this: “It’s not always easy to know what’s right, but we always seem to know what’s wrong. Don’t do the wrong thing.”

Finally, my closing thoughts are summed up in this doggerel couplet I wrote a few years back. It’s called, “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”

If you meet an angel or saint,

With some sort of Holy Complaint,

Who says he’s selected,

To lead The Elected,

Please exercise care and restraint.

For most of the horrors yet made,

Stem from somebody’s Holy Crusade,

And folks with such itches,

End up hunting witches,

And burn whom they cannot persuade.

The best piece of Wisdom I’ve known,

Is “Leave Everybody Alone!”

And your Vision will pass,

It might even be gas,

And we all can lead lives of our own.

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