Thursday, January 29, 2015

Chemistry, Rainbows, and Duct Tape

I’ve had a career teaching chemistry at a community college spanning nearly thirty-eight years.  For the final 1.5 years, it was a part-time assignment as I eased into retirement.  I ended that assignment last month and now am completely retired.  Teaching at a public college has its challenges for a man of faith.  During most of my tenure, teachers were advised to never express their personal religious beliefs in any way and we always were given a renewed warning about this at Christmastime.  No one knew, however, that I had a small picture of the Blessed Mother on my desk.  For the last twenty-five years or so, religious invocations at our graduation ceremonies were banned, as society became increasingly more secular.  Fortunately, on one occasion prior to that, I had the privilege of inviting a priest that I knew, to give the invocation.  But his was among the last.

I taught chemistry.  Many chemistry principles are so “out of this world” that on many occasions over the course of the thirty-eight years, I wanted to shout out my belief during class that a Creator had his hand in a particular principle we were studying.  For example, just one additional electron and one additional proton turns gold into mercury. 

One topic for which I almost had to be gagged with duct tape was the concept of the wave theory of light.  This may seem to you like a physics topic, but it does relate to certain chemistry principles.  Wavelengths of light are as short as atomic diameters (ie., very, very, VERY short) and as long as the distance between two parallel country roads (ie., very,very long) and everything in between.  So we have (from the shortest wavelengths to the longest): gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared light, microwaves, and radio/TV waves.  Visible light, the light that our eyes and brains are sensitive to, constitutes a very, very, VERY narrow part of the entire spectrum of light and the wavelengths are unimaginably short, though not the shortest that exist.  Our eye/brain combo translates wavelengths within the visible range as colors, red on the longer wavelength end, violet on the shorter end, and orange, yellow, green, and blue in between.  That is why there is such a thing as a rainbow and why material substances have a color.  This topic is just one example of the awesomeness of creation that is on display when we study science.

In the materialist's view, the eye and the brain (and their sensitivity to visible light) evolved over time due to natural causes, ie., because they could.  But why only the very narrow range of the visible wavelengths?  Why not ultraviolet light, or infrared light?  I have to think it was God's plan, a supernatural plan. 

I think I may have been better suited to teach at a seminary college.  But then maybe my students got the point anyway.  I believe very often in my classes I came extremely close to declaring the existence of God.  It’s just that the duct tape prevented it. 

The photo was taken at the Mormon Lakes SRA in central Nebraska on one particularly awesome day in August, 2013.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Compassion vs Human Dignity in the Abortion Debate

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and so my thoughts today turn to this momentous decision.  During last fall’s election season, I heard a political candidate say that she supports the pro-choice stance because she has compassion for the mother and father who are facing an unplanned pregnancy.  The Catholic Church’s pro-life position is based on the support we should all have for the dignity of the human person.  On the surface, both sound like logical arguments … having compassion for someone who is struggling with this “interruption” to their lifestyle vs respecting the God-given dignity of human beings.  If you scoff at the concept of dignity for the human person, then I suggest that you have allowed the popular modern day secular and atheistic society to enter into your thinking.  We are taught from our faith-based training that men and women are on a higher plain than animals and birds.   Pro-lifers believe that we are made in God’s image and likeness with an intellect and free will.  We have been given dominion over the beasts of the field and birds of the air.  We are not ordinary animals whose habits can be artificially manipulated for what might be construed to be a better deal.  That is the “dignity” aspect as I understand it.

Of course, compassion is also something inherently good based on our faith-based training.  In the case of abortion, there are two conflicting compassion scenarios:  compassion for the parents and compassion for the unborn baby.  In one case, a human being loses his/her life while the life of the parents goes on, while in the other case, the life of both go on.  I don’t know about you, but this latter scenario makes the most sense to me … the lives of all parties continues while respect for human dignity prevails. 

My prayer today is this:  “Lord, please, in your mercy, instill the respect for human dignity into the minds of all so that all human beings that you have willed to enter into this life will be able to do so without harm while, at the same time, we may have our acts of compassion directed according to your will.  Amen.”  

Respecting the dignity of all human beings, faith-based organizations often construct monuments called the “tomb of the unborn child.”  One example is pictured below.  This one is at the Trinity Heights Center in Sioux City, Iowa.   

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why did God Make Us?

In my youth, I was introduced to the Catholic faith via the Baltimore Catechism.  It answered seemingly complex questions with simple straightforward answers.  For example, for the question “Who is God?” the simple answer was “God is the Supreme Being who made all things.”  Or to the question “What is a sacrament?” the simple answer was “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”  That was back in the late fifties and early sixties.  Nowadays, things don’t seem to be so simple.  How I would like to get my hands on my old Baltimore Catechism again.  My copy of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (copyright 1994) has almost 1000 pages and presents facts in great detail.  Maybe things are much more complicated today and maybe today’s questions demand more thoughtful and comprehensive answers.  Questions about the abuse scandal that recently rocked our beloved Church or statements from non-Catholics concerning their belief that the early Church lost its way soon after the last of the apostles passed away are two things that come to mind.

I believe that some pointed questions can still be answered with brevity.  I am currently reading a book by Pope Benedict titled “The Apostles.”  Concerning the abuse scandal and other past sins, he says “The Church, despite all the human frailties that mark her historical profile, is revealed as a marvelous creation of love, brought into being to bring Christ close to every man and every woman who truly desire to meet him, until the end of time.”  Pope Benedict also reminds us of a passage from the Acts of the Apostles about life in the newborn Church:  "And they held steadfastly to the apostles' teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and to the prayers."  I believe that Christ, as promised, sent us the Holy Spirit to keep his Church on the straight and narrow.  The Holy Spirit came to the apostles at Pentecost and, if Christ's promise was truly a divine promise, the Holy Spirit remains with us to the end of time.  

And so I'm thinking today that it is important to stay focused on why we are here on this earth.  The question in the Baltimore Catechism was “Why did God make us?”  The concise, but profound answer was “God made us to know him, to love him, to serve him, and to be happy with him in heaven.”  

My prayer today is "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.  Amen."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

It was 900+ years from King David’s reign to the time of Jesus.  In that span of time, the Jewish people faced unbelievable challenges, including the Babylonian exile and the rule of Alexander the Great.  They also were not ruled by kings in the line of David for much of that time, which was a problem as far as the hope in the Messiah was concerned because this Messiah, who was expected to be a new king, was to be a descendant of David.  It is shocking to me that through 900+ years of these and other challenges, the Jewish people did not grow weary and forget what was supposed to be their destiny.  It is interesting to consider the events that finally did come to pass and what the people may have come to know and when.
First, they were touched by the supernatural when a priest by the name of Zechariah apparently experienced a visit from an angel (in the temple in Jerusalem) and was struck dumb due to his disbelief.  What might the people have thought of this?  Some may have thought that the time of prophecy had finally arrived.  Then Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph (both of whom were in David’s lineage) was also visited by an angel (in her home in Nazareth) and became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The people and Joseph did not know of her pregnancy until she returned from her visit to Elizabeth three months later.  Joseph took her into his home despite her apparent illegitimate pregnancy.  What might the people have thought now?  If they didn’t know previously about Mary’s pregnancy, they did now.  And then came the announcement of the census and the fact that Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem.  It may have seemed to the people in Nazareth that this may be the fulfillment of the prophecy, even though the child would be illegitimate.  The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, but was also, later in life, to be referred to as a Nazarene. 
Indeed the baby was born in Bethlehem.  The birth was announced by a legion of angels to a band of shepherds. The shepherds were told that the baby was the Savior, the Christ.  The shepherds then went to the site of the birth and met the Joseph, Mary and the baby and subsequently blabbed the news far and wide.  Besides that, there was an elderly priest, Simeon, in the temple who claimed that he had received a revelation that he would not see death until after he had seen the Messiah.  Mary and Joseph brought the Babe to the temple for his Presentation and Simeon announced that Jesus was the Promised One.  Then came the wise men, who told Herod that a Savior had been born somewhere nearby and they had come to worship Him.  Herod came to know from the prophecy that Bethlehem was the city.  So he had his soldiers kill all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2.  What extreme sadness and disappointment must have descended on this city, not just because all these children were killed, but also because one of them was the supposed Messiah!  Meanwhile, no one in Bethlehem or Nazareth knew (until several years later) that the Messiah had survived and that he and his parents were safe in Egypt.  Of course, eventually they did return to Nazareth and at least the people there realized that the Messiah was indeed among them again because they knew that he was the son of Mary and Joseph and was born when they traveled to Bethlehem.  Perhaps word also reached Bethlehem and Jerusalem too. 
The scholars in Jerusalem, when Jesus was twelve years old, might have put two and two together when they saw that he was the son of Jesus and Mary and how learned this young boy was on the prophecies in Scripture.  But it seems certain that most people came to the realization when Jesus was 30, because he was introduced by John the Baptist (and God the Father) at the site of the baptisms John was performing in the Jorden River.  It was, after all, a very public introduction.  So I’m thinking that by the time Jesus began his public ministry and came to choose his apostles, it was easy for Peter, Andrew, James, and John, for example, to say “yes” so readily, since they would already have known that he was the Messiah.  Zebedee might not have liked it when his sons abandoned him on the fishing boat, but most everyone else probably understood.

The photo is of a scene in the display at Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lincoln.  Joseph is at work in his carpentry shop in Nazareth and Mary and the baby Jesus are seated (out of focus) behind him.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mary, Mother of God

Today, in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.  What are my thoughts?  Maybe some of my readers do not know what a “solemnity” is.  Let’s start with that.  A solemnity is the most significant category of specialized celebrations.  The others are “feast,” “memorial,” and “ferial.”  All four have to do with the readings and prayers at Mass on that day.  The opening phrase at Mass tells us what it is on a given day.  “Today we celebrate the solemnity (or feast, or memorial, etc.) of ________.   Solemnities are the most significant while the others are less significant.  Examples of feasts are the Transfiguration (August 6) and the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux (October 1).  Memorials are days designated to honor certain saints, such as St. Dominic (August 8) and St. Mary Magdalene (July 22).  The ferials are the other days, sometimes to honor a saint, while sometimes to honor nothing in particular.

What I am really thinking about today, though, are all the ways we honor the Blessed Mother with particular days and why.  Besides today’s reference to Mary, the Mother of God, we have the Assumption (August 15), the Immaculate Conception (December 8), the Annunciation (March 25), and many others throughout the year.  No other saint receives so much attention.  She is the primary female saint (or saint of either gender) in the Catholic Church.  I fear that this fact is ignored in several ways.  First is among those who feel that there are too few women in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the fact that women are unable to be ordained priests.  They feel that this is unfair particularly in the modern world where many women hold positions of power in the secular world.  Well, next to Jesus, I maintain that there is no male who holds a position of power or honor equal to or exceeding that of the Blessed Mother!  This fact seems to be lost on those who would argue for greater roles for women in the Church.  Secondly, some Christians object to honoring Mary at all, evidenced by the fact that she receives almost no attention (let alone honor) in other Christian denominations.  These denominations often claim that Catholics worship her, and worship should be reserved for God alone.  The Catholic Church responds saying that we do not worship her, but simply honor her (in many ways) for the role she has played in salvation history.  Any Catholic that worships her is doing so in error.  I feel that it is not right to ignore her while giving more attention to male saints by, for example, naming church structures after St. Paul, St. Mark, or St. Luke, and other biblical saints.

I don’t usually voice my opinion on politically sensitive matters, but today is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, and I just thought what my thoughts are on the matter should be expressed.  Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.  Amen.

The picture is of a statue of the Blessed Mother found on the grounds of the Trinity Heights Center in Sioux City, Iowa.