Sunday, September 27, 2009


I started writing this blog on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary time, and since this is my blog, I thought I would write about today's gospel reading at Mass.

The gospel reading is drawn from Mark chapter 9. The passage begins with John telling Jesus they met someone casting out demons in Jesus's name and tried to stop him, because "he does not follow us." Jesus tells him not to prevent the man; "whoever is not against us is for us." He then tells the disciples anyone "who causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea." Shortly thereafter Jesus says "if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out."

Obviously Jesus takes sin very seriously. He uses examples that are horrifying in their directness and implications. "Does he really mean for me to start dismembering myself?"

Let's start from a few basic points we can acknowledge as true. First, he does not deceive. Second, he does not speak idly - he does not just say things for the sake of hearing himself talk. He means what he says.

So we are obligated to wrestle with what he says, because he is talking about very difficult things - plucking out your eyes, for instance.

Tell me something; does your eye actually cause you to sin? Your hand? Nope. What actually causes us to sin? Here are some helpful scriptures:

"each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death." James 1:14

"God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies." Rms 1:24

"By your stubbornness and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself..." Rms 2:5

"But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person..." Mt. 15:18-20.

What comes out of man's heart causes him to sin. So what is Christ telling us? He is saying the issue of sin is vital; it is life or death. We sin because of the evil condition of our hearts. And what is at stake is this: there are parts of our inmost being - part of our "heart" - that defile us, and must be torn away. He tells us we are better for the tearing away: better go into heaven with parts missing than into eternal torment with your precious "self" intact.

When people are addicted to something, no matter what it is, a common thread is that they cannot imagine life without their object of desire, whether it is cocaine or porn or food. "I don't know how I could live without [name your addiction]." It is a very powerful thing, being addicted, and giving up an addiction is in part an acceptance of death, if that is what is necessary. Jesus tells us that we are better off with our eye plucked out or an arm lopped off than continuing to embrace our sin.

Following Jesus means accepting the loss of "self." Our problem as fallen humans is that we have not just looked at the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; we have consumed it, taken it into our innermost beings, and it has entwined itself in and around our "self," such that getting rid of sin, from our vantage point, looks the same as getting rid of our "self." We have never seen our "self" apart from sin; we cannot "see" it; only God can. He knows what he made us to be and can still see it, disfigured as it is by our sin.

When we first come to Jesus his horrible and bizarre words cause a sense of revolt: unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you.

But God means to save you. And saving you means separating you from your sin. And the only way to separate you from your sin is to kill you, and every part of you that is intertwined with sin, then to recreate you.

Most of us think this kind of talk about sin is crazy. So ask yourself, between your judgment on the subject and God's, which do you think has a better chance of being correct?

God made it possible for Christ to intertwine his life with yours. We become intertwined with Christ - that part of us that believes in him, trusts him, loves him - and when the blinding nuclear flash of death comes, only that which is sin and death is destroyed by the fire, because Christ is God of all. His life is indestructible, and as we are in him and he in us, we live in him.

So death, instead of a horrible end, becomes instead a portal to a new life. He has not just endured death, he has converted it from the summation of all our agonies, the final great curse, to the greatest blessing we can have in all eternity. Death has become for us a birthplace into a new and perfect life. We shall be "changed," it says in Revelation, "when the trumpet shall sound."

That is why we as Christians embrace a cross, a symbol of torture and death. It is not an empty image for us, but full of meaning, because we embrace the torture and death of Christ - we accept that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, in order to have life ourselves. And we accept the torture and death of our "selves," that we may live in Christ. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives within me. And the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." Gal. 2:20.

God asks us to give up our sins - our addictions - each day. Self absorption, selfishness, anger, resentment, bitterness, cursing, fighting, slander, lust, gossip, envy. You name it; like crack, heroin, and meth. He asks us to fill the wrenching void that comes from this heavenly surgery with Christ. Christ is the one who makes it possible to tear our heart away and yet still live.

All this is why we pray today, just as St. Patrick did, 16 centuries ago,

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Christ with you, my friend.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


The correct answer to a lot of questions is "no, we can't."

For instance, say your car gets totaled. You get maybe $3,000 when the insurance is all done. You say to yourself "I'd like a new car." And you are feeling good about your own personal economic stimulus, in the form of a $3,000 check. You say to yourself


You find out new cars are way more than $3,000. You find out with $3,000, you can put a down payment on a new car, and spend $4,000 a year for 5 years paying it off.

Every American has a moral right to a new car.

The next morning your wife says "we can't afford a new car." You say


You say "I need a new car because they are so reliable and safe and environmentally friendly! I should get a new car because it is better stewardship of my money, of the lives of the people who ride with me, and of the earth itself!" You feel even better about yourself now, because not only are you going to get a new car, but you are going to be a much better person!

Maybe a moral right to a cheaper car.

On morning number three you wake up and it is raining outside. Your head hurts a little. You say to yourself, "NO WE CAN'T."

Just like that, without the comma or exclamation point.

Because you support 5 people, you have to pay a $1,900 mortgage every month, and buy food, clothes, electric, heat, telephone, water, sewer, car insurance, gasoline, health insurance,


pay social security taxes, medicare taxes, federal income taxes, state income taxes, real estate taxes, personal property taxes, city wage taxes, state sales taxes.

I work until May 10 for the government. Then I support my family.

It would be great to have a new car, and maybe there are superb justifications for it. But see, you don't have the money right now. So you say "no we can't."

And your wife just looks at you and says "d'uh." Silently, to herself, because she loves you.

I'm sorry, but right now we are going to have to pass on the vast new government run universal health care system. We just can't afford it, what with the recession and all. The existing government health care system (Medicare/Medicaid) has had a four decade history of mammoth cost overruns, and is teetering on the edge of not only bankrupting itself, but our entire economy. It would be good to fix it, but that means stopping the bleeding, not slitting new arteries.

So I say tripling or quintupling or googleplexing this system is a bad idea. And the explanations for how the new system is going to control and reduce expenses while simultaneously covering 47 million more people are unconvincing.

Every time Obama or Nancy Pelosi get around to the nettlesome detail of cost control - which is not very often - it gives me cold sweats. It reminds me that this part of the grand equation is pure afterthought, something for the accountants, not for the "big picture people."

Any time you subsidize something, you increase demand for it. If I give you a $200 gift certificate for a cell phone, you will go spend $200 on a cell phone. The $200 is found money, and what else can you spend the gift card on, anyway? Doesn't matter if a cell phone is a good idea, or if it is worth it. Put out enough cell phone gift certificates and the price of cell phones goes up, because the supply of money for cell phones has ballooned.

If I give a one trillion dollar gift certificate to America to buy health care, the price of health care is going way up.

Medicare and Medicaid have been pumping huge tax subsidies into health care "gift cards" for 40 years. During those 40 years, the price of health care has been spiraling up faster than the rate of inflation. This is not a coincidence.

We have not coped with this hyper-inflationary aspect of Medicare/Medicaid in 40 years. The system will be insolvent in just a few years if we don't change it. Insolvent means upside down - we are paying more money in claims than we are receiving in taxes.

Bankruptcy leaves us all with an empty feeling.

This insolvency problem, by the way, is not something newly discovered by Obama or Bill Clinton. Before Clinton-care, in the early 1990s, conservatives were routinely demonized as selfish, cynical pigs for saying things like "Medicare/Medicaid will bankrupt us." The Democratic party line was that Medicare/Medicaid was fine, all it needed was the occasional tweak. Now, the insolvency thought has become stylish, and the rhetoric apocalyptic on the left. That is progress, of a sort.

To say that you can push a trillion more in health care subsidies through the system and also bring down costs is magical thinking. If the levees are cracking under the current storm surge, what happens if you triple the load? Right.

If the chosen instrument for bringing down costs - government control - has not brought them down these last 40 years, why is it selfish and unpatriotic to disbelieve that it will suddenly acquire the fiscal discipline and political pain threshold to do it now?

Some liberals frankly acknowledge that this legislation will not control, but will worsen, health care inflation. The hope is that by bankrupting the system, "fundamental change," i.e., a government controlled health care system a la the UK, will simply have to emerge. There will be no other choice. This is viewed as a good thing. Interesting perspective. At least this argument is honest. At least it does not lie and say the system as proposed will control costs.

I am not ready to say it is impossible to construct a system that takes care of very basic health care needs for the entire society without bankrupting us. I am, after all, Eternally Optimistic.

But I have complete faith, of a very special kind, in the present health care thingie wending its way through Washington. I am sure that it will not work and it will bankrupt the government.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Dear Readers,

My wife mentioned casually last night it has been two months since I posted a blog entry. So sorry for my slovenly attitude. When the wife makes mention of things like that, casual like, without explanation, it is usually a sign from God that means I had better shape up and fly right. So here I am at the keyboard.

By way of excuse - actually, more by way of explanation than excuse - we just moved to a new, far more southern and far more conservative state. It is also a much hotter state. Many of my liberal friends say that it is hotter than hell because it is in fact worse than hell. I say they are distorting the facts, much as they do with health care statistics, but I am not here to quibble about the weather or the health care debate. In any event, the combination of heat and respite from reading the papers, plus landing in a new job, generally knocked the idea of a blog right out of my head.

It is in fact very hot here. But, I like hot, so me and the weather are getting along famously. Nevertheless, I am only here for a year, on detail by my employer to help train new employees in the intricate realities of what it is we do here at the Department of Ginormousness (DOG). Soon I will return to the more liberal, more arrogant and much colder region I have inhabited for a decade. I am sure to miss the heat and the general politeness here in Hotville like nobody's business, so there is nothing to do but enjoy it while it lasts. And speaking of enjoying things, one of the benefits of being in a lower-stress job in Hotville is that I get to read more for pleasure and less for work.

In consequence of this new found liberty, during the move I picked up and read, while sweating like a pig and taking lots of extra Advil to deal with my aching back, a terrific book, titled "What's So Great About Christianity?" by Dinesh D'Souza. I've read a number of public policy articles by D'Souza, who is an excellent writer, but never a book. I was not disappointed. He writes crisp and facile prose, stays away from ad hominem attacks, and thinks clearly. He has taken on a wonderfully interesting subject. The result is an intensely readable book, and sorely needed: an energetic, intelligent and entertaining defense of Christianity. Since there are right now probably a dozen virulent anti-Christian rants floating about in the stagnant pond we call the New York Times best seller list, D'Souza's book is a welcome counter-weight.

So, come visit us in Hotville, but before you do, please read D'Souza's book so we can talk about it.

Eternal Optimist