The Mark of Cain

February 8th, 2023

“You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me! The LORD replied, ‘No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him.” – Genesis 4:14-15

Back in the spring of 1992, I went on a weekend religious retreat at a Jesuit guest house on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. It was a time for getting some peace and quiet, and for sorting out my thoughts and feelings. I was struggling with some major personal problems at the time, and I needed to talk with somebody who would listen and not judge. I had a long conversation with a Catholic priest at the retreat center. At one point, after hearing my story, he told me,

“You will always be a soldier.”

That remark stunned me. Honestly, it was probably the one thing I didn’t want to hear at that moment. I was trying to put my military experience behind me, and here was this spiritual advisor telling me in no uncertain terms that I would always be a soldier. I guess that, as a Jesuit, the priest knew what he was talking about. After all, the Jesuit order was founded by a soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Now, many years later, I have to admit that he was right. I finished my time on active duty back in 1986, but I’m still a soldier, at least in some ways. My years in the Army have left an indelible mark on me. I think time spent in the military marks every service member permanently. The mark may not be physically visible, like a scar or a tattoo, but that mark is there.

Anyone who has served in the armed forces is fundamentally changed by that adventure. I don’t think it matters which country’s armed forces. I have met people who were at one time in the German Bundeswehr, or the Israeli Defense Forces, or the old Soviet Army, and all their stories are somewhat similar to mine. Whatever they did (or had done to them) in their respective military organizations made them different from their civilian counterparts. It doesn’t matter if they were in combat or served in peacetime. Their experiences as soldiers set them apart from everyone else in their society. When I use the word “different”, I don’t mean in terms of good and bad, or of right and wrong. I am not making a value judgement here. I am just stating an obvious fact.

When I was on active duty, I did not blend in well with the civilian population that surrounded me. Even after more than three decades, I still don’t blend in that well.

Just today, a salesman came to my house to talk with me. He barely got in the door when he asked,

“So, were you in the service?”

I replied, “Yeah”, as I was thinking to myself, “How the fuck does he know that?”

Then I remembered that my old Army footlocker sits near the front door. All he had to do is look at my name and rank stenciled on the top of the chest. It was a dead giveaway.

When I go to the supermarket, I see some of the men my age wearing caps that say, “Army Veteran”, or something like that. Those guys advertise the fact that they served. They are loud and proud. It just shows me how deeply affected they were by their time in the military. Their service is an essential part of their identity. My service is essential to my identity too, but I try to be a bit more subtle.

I think that every vet shows in some way that they served. Our physical appearance may not give it away, but our habits do. Our virtues and vices are all on display. The signs are all there for anyone who has eyes to see them. A non-military person may not know specifically that we are veterans, but they will sense that we are different from other people.

If a lifelong civilian finds out that one of us is a veteran, they may react in a number of ways. Some people might look at us with admiration, perhaps tinged with envy. The salesman who spoke to me was like that. I asked him if he had served, and he smiled and said,

“No, I have family members who served, but I didn’t. I just think it’s great that people do that.”

When my oldest son, Hans, got out of the Army, he went to work in the Texas oil fields. His supervisor in the fracking outfit, who had never been in the military, knew that Hans had been deployed to Iraq. He asked Hans,

“So, do you think you’re a hero?”

Hans shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I was just doing my job.”

I have met other people who despise soldiers. My encounters with these folks have been very rare, but they stick out in my memory because of that fact. I met one young woman, a passionate pacifist, who upon learning that I was a vet, glared at me and said,

“I feel sorry for you.”

We did not discuss the matter any further, but my impression was that she mentally used the equation “soldier = killer” to judge veterans. She was simultaneously committed to non-violence and filled with moral outrage. That’s a bad combination.

Years ago, when Hans was fighting in Iraq, I listened to a priest speak at Marquette University about war and the military. Father McCarthy was there partly because Marquette is a Jesuit (i.e., Christian) school, and yet it hosts ROTC on campus. He was and is deeply opposed to war and all those who participate in it. I don’t remember all of what the priest said, but I remember his eyes. They blazed with the fire of fanaticism. No sympathy for the devil.

Recently I wrote to him to ask him if he thought that ROTC students were mercenaries. This was his reply:

“The cultural name that is put on a person who goes forth to intentionally kill another human being is irrelevant. He may be called a soldier, a mercenary or a Mafia enforcer.  Those are just temporal designations.  What is of eternal significance if he or she is a Christian is that they are not following the will of God as revealed by Jesus, God Incarnate. So Jesus teaching of the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels, “It is not those who say Lord, Lord, who enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in Heaven,” as well as His teachings, “Put up your sword,” and “I give you a new Commandment: Love one another as I have loved you,” are what is of controlling and ultimate significance, not whether a person is hired and paid by the state or the Mafia or by private enterprise to intentional destroy a deeply loved son or daughter of God, or 10,000 of them.”

Father Mcarthy may be right in what he says, however, it is clear to me that he doesn’t have any use for soldiers and/or veterans.  

It’s ironic that many of the people I know who most oppose war are veterans. Back in April of 2017, I was at a demonstration against drone warfare in front of Creech AFB in Nevada. Seven of us got busted for civil disobedience. Five of us, out of the seven arrested, were vets. At least one of the people who got arrested was an active member of Veterans for Peace. That guy, Ray, was a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. He is the one who convinced me it was worthwhile to go to jail in order to make a point.

We don’t fit in. The mark we bear maybe protects us, or maybe it puts us at risk. I don’t know. All I know is that we are different from others in our society, and we can’t change that.

I will always be a soldier. So will you.

The Musical Maze

February 2nd, 2023

I have been listening to a new CD. It’s from a band called “Soccer Mommy”, and it was recorded in 2020. I like to hear new music, but often it reminds me of old music. Soccer Mommy has a song called Bloodstream. The guitar work in there sounds a bit like that of Jefferson Airplane on the Surrealistic Pillow from back in the late 1960’s. Soccer Mommy also has a song called Royal Screw Up which has vocals that make me think of Suzanne Vega in her song from the 80’s, Gypsy. I have been listening to different kinds of music for almost all of my life, and I find that everything is connected to everything else.

As a boy, I listened entirely to classical music. That is all that my father would play at home. He was rabidly opposed to what he called “nigger music”. That category included just about everything that was on the radio. Classical music was a good foundation for me. I especially enjoyed music from Baroque composers: Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti. I still play classical pieces on the stereo, but not very often. There are too many other things that I want to hear.

I took a music class when I was in seventh grade. The sound system in the chorus room was phenomenal for that day and age (circa 1971). The teacher, Mr. Osterhaus, for reasons I will never understand, decided to play a vinyl record for the students in the class. He played Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirely.

That changed my life forever.

Then he decided, during another class, to play all of Tommy from The Who. Holy shit. It was like my head exploded.

When I went to West Point, I bought records. I was still heavy into the Beatles and other bands from the 1960’s. However, I purchased music from some bands that were more current: Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Joel. It was all pretty mainstream. That’s what was available to me. The PX did not have a big selection.

In the late 1980’s, one of my younger brothers was a bass player and a collector of new music. He would send me cassette tapes with songs from bands that he liked. I had not heard of any of these groups, and I never would have if Marc had not kept me abreast of what was out there. He introduced me to REM, Icicles Works, Aztec Camera, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and a host of other bands.

Marc dated and married a Texas girl. They played together in a band, Veil of Veronica. I still have some of their recordings. For lack of a better description, I would call their music “Christian Metal”. It was unique.

Marc and his wife introduced me to the work of southern artists. I listened to the Indigo Girls, Nancy Griffith, the Reivers, Better than Ezra. Eventually, I started to appreciate Tab Benoit, Mary Gauthier, John Hiatt, and Jason Isbell. Another world opened up to me.

In the early 80’s I was stationed with the Army in West Germany. I dated and married Karin, a girl who grew up in southern Germany. I incorporated some of her music into my inventory. Karin was into folk music, and she liked European musicians. It was through her that I discovered Zupfgeigenhansel, Georges Moustaki, Spider Murphy Gang, Konstantin Wecker, and BAP. I found out that songs by English speakers were also being recorded in other tongues. Bettina Wegner, an East German singer, did a version of the Bob Marley hit, No Woman, No Cry. German is not necessarily a soothing language, and Wegner had a voice etched with acid. She was a feminist, and her take on the reggae song was brutally honest. It made a deep impression on me.

About fifteen years ago, our youngest son, Stefan, started taking music lessons from a friend of mine who was a blues guitarist. I made a feeble attempt to learn how to play bass so that Stefan and I could play songs together. We did learn how to play Smells Like Teen Spirit from Nirvana, and we were competent with Hey Joe from Jimi Hendrix. My friend introduced us both to some of the masters of the blues: Albert King, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, B.B. King.

Musical influences do not all flow from America outward. New music comes to us too. I started to listen to everything from everywhere. I liked the old school Cuban sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. The group Dengue Fever has a Cambodian female vocalist and a guitarist from Ethiopia. The Jewish rock band, Blue Fringe, has many of its lyrics in Hebrew. Krishna Das does Hindu kirtan chanting and drumming, and his stuff rocks. Nusrat Fetah Ali Khan did Sufi chants, and he worked on songs with Pearl Jam. One of my favorite holiday CD’s is from the Klezmonauts. Oy! To the World is a Jewish folk version of standard Christmas music. There is something delightful in hearing Jingle Bells sung in Yiddish.

Now I babysit my toddler grandson, Asher. When we are playing with his toys, I turn on the stereo and put it on random. We never know what we will hear. It might be an intricate song from Arcade Fire. It might be Adagio for Strings from Samuel Barber. It might a rollicking Celtic melody from Flogging Molly. Maybe the dark rumbling of the Finnish cello quartet, Apocalyptica, guys who do moody covers of heavy metal tunes. Or we might hear a gypsy song come up.

The world is full of music. It’s a never-ending maze.

I’m giving Asher a head start.

Getting Named

February 8th, 2023

Thirty-odd years ago, I started working at a trucking company in Milwaukee as a supervisor. Truck drivers and dock workers were part of a rough crowd in those days. None of them were “woke” or “politically correct”. They worked hard and were plain spoken. I never had to worry about any of my drivers being shy around me.

I assigned delivery routes to the drivers, and some of them had areas where they preferred not to go. I understood that, but shipments had to be delivered, and sometimes I had to send a driver into a part of town that they hated. Some of the drivers took that in stride, while others made a big fuss about it. Those guys would argue with me, and our discussions would get rather heated.

I had a loud and angry conversation once with one of the older drivers. Dick was a big man and a former Teamster. He tried to convince me to give his load to a junior man, and I refused to do that. Dick took his paperwork and stomped down to the break room. I could hear him yelling and cursing from where I was standing in the office.

Later, another driver came up from the break room and talked with me. He said,

“Man, Dick was pissed off at you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Do you know what he said about you?”


“He called you a little Nazi cocksucker.”

It took me a moment to take that in. Then I laughed.

It was obvious that, at that moment in time, Dick meant what he said about me. But it was so over the top, it was funny. My new nickname stuck, and the guys would tease me about it from time to time. I have to admit that I was more thick-skinned after that incident.

Even years later, the story about Dick and his terms of affection for me was told in the break room. Sometimes, a new employee would come into the dispatch office and whine to me that somebody had ill-treated him. I would look at him and ask,

“Did he call you a Nazi cocksucker?”

The answer was usually, “What? Why do you ask that? Did somebody call you that?”

I would nod and gently tell him to quit his bitching unless he could top it. Nobody ever could.

I tell this story because in my life people have sometimes described me in a way that didn’t match my self-image. Maybe Dick was right about me. Apparently, there was a grain of truth in what he said.

Fast forward.

I go to a synagogue on a regular basis. I’m not Jewish, but I feel like I belong there. Most of the other members of the community know that I am Catholic, and that I will never convert. All of them recognize that I am their friend, but I am not one of them.

Except for one guy.

I am tight to one member of the synagogue who is old by any objective standard. He just turned eighty-nine a while ago. We have had similar experiences, which seems odd in a way. My friend is a Ukrainian Jew who became a political refugee after the Soviet Union imploded. He was strongly encouraged by armed members of an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia to leave Kyiv and emigrate to another country. This man has a son who is combat vet, just like I have a son who is a combat vet. His son fought for the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and was severely wounded in an IED explosion. My kid fought in Iraq and got wounded too. His boy has PTSD. So does mine.

My old friend talks to me and I listen to him. We are together partly because he knows that I understand his pain. Often, he will grasp my hand as he speaks. He wants me close.

This Ukrainian refugee had bad experiences with Christians back in the old country. As far as I can tell, he never met a Christian who wasn’t a Jew-hater. Ergo, because I am his friend and because I pray with him, I must be a Jew. Despite my efforts to explain things, he is absolutely convinced that I am Jewish.

I drove him home two weeks ago after the morning service on Shabbat. All the way to his house, he told me about his son and how he worries about him. I just listened. A couple times, the man was almost in tears. I let him speak his peace. He repeated himself a few times, but we old guys do that.

I pulled up to his home, and he grabbed hold of my right hand. He looked me in the eye and said in his thick Slavic accent,

“My friend, you are a good Jew.”

I didn’t disagree with him.

Maybe he’s right.

Just Couldn’t Do It

February 6th, 2023

I wanted to go to the meeting. I really did.

I didn’t go. I just couldn’t do it.

A committee at our church sponsored a listening session last night with a panel of speakers from the Racine Interfaith Coalition (RIC). Our parish, St. Rita, is part of that coalition, and the Human Concerns Commission invited three people to come and talk to members of the church about “Catholic Social Teaching: Call to Community and Participation”. That sort of thing is right down my alley. I used to be very involved as a volunteer with community projects (e.g., teaching a citizenship class). But that was B.C. (Before Covid) and B.A. (Before Asher).

One of the speakers is a friend of mine, Carl Fields, and he was one reason for me to go. He’s a wonderful person, and I truly admire him. Carl did prison time for shooting at a cop. When he got out, he started getting busy. He has done extensive work to aid fellow ex-prisoners. Carl runs (or ran) a meal program in Racine for homeless persons. The man has totally turned his life around, and he has helped numerous other people turn around their lives. I hadn’t seen Carl for quite a while, and I wanted to talk with him at the church meeting. Also, two people from church had asked me to be there. I didn’t want to let them down.

My wife, Karin, and I are legal guardians for our toddler grandson, Asher. We care for him 24/7/365. He has been our responsibility for two years. Asher is a blessing to us. He gives us purpose and joy. He also consumes all of our time and energy. We’re okay with that. We volunteered to watch over him, and it is what we are meant to do at this point in our lives. It might be our calling for the rest of our lives.

Attending the meeting with the speakers from RIC was always going to be an iffy proposition. Caring for Asher is often a two-person job. If I went to the meeting in the evening, Karin would have to get clean up the supper dishes and then Asher ready for bed. Asher wasn’t feeling that well yesterday. Karin was tired out. Asher had not slept well the night before yesterday, so my wife hadn’t either. I was feeling worn out too. I get up pre-dawn to get ready for the little boy.

About late-afternoon, Asher needed a diaper change. He had a diarrhea blowout. What should have been a simple diaper swap turned into a hazmat cleanup operation. It was nasty. I was frustrated and irritable, and I lost my temper. Karin told me,

“If you’re really tired, why don’t you just stay home?”

I agreed with her. As it turned out, both of us needed to be at home to watch over Asher. I was exhausted by 7:00 PM. Asher crashed at 8:30. Karin lied down with him.

The episode was a lesson for me. There may come a time when I can go back to being a social activist, but that time is not now. While Asher is in our care, I can’t plan on doing anything besides being with our little buddy. I just can’t. Other people will have to do work in the community. My work is in our home.


February 3rd, 2023

I don’t like to look at old photographs. Actually, I don’t like looking at new photographs either. Photographs remind me of people and places that no longer exist. A picture captures and freezes a split second in time, and that instant is gone. The person in the picture is no longer the same. The setting is no longer the same. It doesn’t matter if the picture is in a video or if it is a snapshot, that moment is forever lost, and there is a sadness in that.

I am generally not nostalgic. I have some pleasant memories, but many of them are scary or painful. I have been to funerals where a person will give me a weak smile and say something like, “Let’s just remember the good times.” That individual is apparently able to separate the wheat from the chaff in their mind. I don’t have that kind of filter in my memory. My recollections are all mixed up, good and bad, happy and sad. It is often easier for me to slam the door on the whole lot, rather than sift through them.

It is possible to learn from the past, but it just as easy to become captive to it. I, like many others, have on occasion gotten stuck in a memory. Either I wanted to relive that event, or I wanted desperately to erase it. Sometimes, I lingered in the past simply to nurse a grudge. It is often a waste of time to commune with ghosts.

The future has some of the same attractions as the past. There can be joy or sadness in contemplating things yet to be, just as there is in pondering things that have come and gone. In both cases, the activity is often sterile.

Last week I participated in a podcast (I still don’t know why), and the moderator asked me a question near the end of our discussion. He wanted to know what I see myself doing in a year or two. I told him: “childcare”, seeing as I am a legal guardian for my toddler grandson. I then elaborated to say that I have no idea what I will be doing in a year. Nobody knows what they will be doing in a year, and it is foolish for me even to guess.

I have practiced Zen for a number of years. It’s not really a religion since it doesn’t have a theology. It’s mostly something a person does, as opposed to something that somebody believes. There are a few basic assumptions involved with Zen. I have taken some of those to heart.

One assumption is that all things must pass. Everything is transient. That is really kind of obvious, but a person tends to cling to anything that appears to be permanent. I know that I do that. The lesson is to let things go. That is difficult at times.

Another assumption is that the only thing that matters is now, because that is the only thing that exists. The past gone and unchangeable. The future is only a dream. This moment is literally all that there is in the universe, and as I write, this moment has already passed away.

It is actually easy for me to stay in the moment because I am usually so fucking busy caring for our grandson. Nothing keeps me in the here and now like little Asher. He is growing, learning, and changing every day, so he is a living example of the transient nature of things. Each morning I meet a new boy, and his name is always Asher.

Be here now.


January 18th, 2023

One week ago, our little grandson, Asher, was baptized at our parish church during Mass. Typically, in the Catholic Church, children are baptized as infants, often held in their mother’s arms. Asher got a late start at this. He is a toddler, just over two years old. His mama held him to get doused with holy water, but otherwise, the boy was standing on his own two feet during the rite.

What is baptism? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word’.”

Okay, so what is a sacrament? The Catechism says this:

“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

What does “efficacious” mean?

Definition – “(of something inanimate or abstract) successful in producing a desired or intended result; effective”

One more thing: what is “grace”?

“Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God.”

Enough theology for now. We’ll get back to all this later.

I read once a statement that went like this:

“Catholics, by definition, believe in magic.”

Yes, I think that is spot on. However, “magic” is probably not the best word to use. It is kind of pejorative. Rather, Catholics believe in “miracles”. We don’t expect God to do card tricks, but we assume that we live in a miraculous world, one where amazing things happen all the time. To the outside observer our participation in the sacraments smacks of magic. So be it. These actions are an integral part of our faith, and they keep us going when all seems lost.

Let’s go back to Asher’s baptism, or rather, let’s skip ahead to the opening of his many gifts. Somebody gave him a book about baptism. That’s an odd present to give a child who cannot yet read, but the intention was good. The book is titled: “Washed Clean”. It has sturdy pages and simple pictures. The writing is all poetry (a little cheesy, but theologically sound). Asher is unlikely to understand the contents of the book until he is too old to want to read it. Whatever. I have looked at it, and parts of it make me uneasy.

Baptism is in part based on the concept of Original Sin. The idea is that when our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, ate from the Tree of Good and Evil, they screwed it up for the rest of us. The consequences of their original sin have been passed down through countless generations. The point is that every human being enters the world damaged, and prone to evil. We all suck. Happy thoughts.

One of the lines from the book’s poetry says that through baptism, “you are freed from your sins”. I spend most of my waking hours caring for Asher. He is a wonderful little boy, and blessing to all that know him. What sins could this kid possibly have? What sins can a new baby have? It seems perverse to assume that an infant or a toddler is already corrupt and depraved. However, there are Christians who believe that we are all pond scum, at least until we get baptized, and then we are saved pond scum. The basic assumption is that because of Adam’s Fall, we are all lost souls. The root of this view goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul:

1 Corinthians 15:21 “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.”

St. Augustine built on this theme, and then Luther and Calvin took it further. The Puritans and Cotton Mather brought this incredibly negative belief to the New World. The notion that all people are innately sinful has caused endless trouble in our world.

The little book also has this line in it: “You receive grace and a mark on your soul”. That statement may well be true, but unprovable in any tangible way. Grace is like a spiritual neutrino. It exists, but we usually cannot detect it. It is efficacious. We can perceive it by its effects in the physical world. Likewise, the mark on the soul of the baptized is like an invisible tattoo. It’s there, but nobody but God can see it right now.

A friend of ours wrote to us concerning Asher’s baptism. She said,

“It may not show visibly, but he has been transformed.”

That I truly believe. The outward signs of the baptism indicated that something happened to Asher. The pouring of the water on his head, the anointing of his forehead with Holy Chrism (Asher’s hair still smells of aromatic balsam), the prayers spoken by the priest…all these things pointed toward something occurring that was unseen but miraculous. Asher wore a white garment symbolizing purity (it was a tuxedo in his case). That too implied there was a moment of grace. Asher came through the sacrament changed. How exactly, I don’t know. I do know that God was present in all of us.

We had a number of guests at the baptism who were not Catholic. Some were not even Christian. A young Muslim friend of ours attended the baptism. My good friend from the Orthodox synagogue was there. Several Buddhists watched Asher receive the sacrament. What did they get out of it all? I don’t know. I know that their presence brought a feeling of unity to every person in the church, regardless of their faith tradition. The baptism was a time of joy and healing for some of us. It was a time of reconciliation.

It was love.


January 17th, 2023

Definition of Christendom: “the part of the world in which Christianity prevails.”

Our deacon gave a homily (the Catholic word for sermon) at Mass a couple weeks ago. He talked about the need for evangelization. Evangelization is an essential part of Christianity. The deacon mentioned the “Great Commission” of Jesus to his followers from Matthew’s Gospel:

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19/20

The mission seems pretty clear cut. However, over the last two millennia, there has been a variety of opinions about how to make disciples. Sometimes, coercion has been used to evangelize non-Christians (e.g., the forced conversion and expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492). Often, preaching and persuasive arguments were used to convert others. Once in a while, Christians simply evangelized by setting a good example. St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.”

During his homily, the deacon mentioned that “Christendom no longer exists”. That seemed like an odd statement to me. It also seemed like he was pointing out the obvious. Christendom is a medieval word, and it sounds archaic to people of our times. He meant “Christendom” in the sense of a culture or society based on Christian values that are universally held. Europe before the Reformation might have qualified as Christendom, but that was a long time ago. Certainly now, in the United States, there is no such thing. Some people here still argue that America is a Christian nation, but the evidence points to the contrary.

The deacon spoke about Christendom in order to differentiate between two styles of evangelism: Christendom evangelism and apostolic evangelism. Christendom evangelism is what has traditionally been used to proselytize to the members of a society that is at least superficially Christian. Apostolic evangelism is the method used to convert members of a society that is pagan or secular. St. Paul is the classic example of an apostolic evangelist. He preached in ancient Rome, and he would feel right at home in 21st Century America.

Okay, so the deacon wants to attract more people to the Catholic Church. The pews are rather empty. He especially wants to young people to be part of the community. Most of the folks in church are old. That does not bode well for the future.

How to attract new people to Christianity, or bring back folks who have left the Church?

One method of evangelizing used by many Protestants, in particular the Evangelicals, is to depend on the Bible to attract and persuade nonbelievers. That technique works just swell in a Christendom environment where everyone has at least a passing knowledge of Holy Scripture. We don’t live in that world. Large numbers of people in America are biblically illiterate, and they have no appreciation for the Bible. They don’t think that the Bible is sacred, and they don’t even think it is relevant in modern society. To them the Bible is just another book, and not necessarily a very well-written one. The only people that will be persuaded by the contents of the Bible are those who already believe in the Bible.

Being Americans, we would probably use the methods of the corporate world to push Christianity. Maybe start a slick marketing campaign or make the liturgy more up to date. We would sell Jesus like we were selling an iPhone or a refrigerator. After all, religion in our country, especially with the advent of the Internet, is part of the free market. There are a lot of different spiritual traditions to choose from. Christianity is just another brand name.

“See how these Christians love one another”. – Tertullian, 2nd Century Roman

Tertullian, a Christian apologist in ancient Rome, struck upon the real reason that Christianity was attractive in his culture. It all boiled down to love. The pagans saw that Christians loved and cared for each other, and they longed to have that kind of community too. The early Christians did not need to sell Jesus to others. They embodied Jesus and his message. Love came first, theology second.

How does Christianity look in our culture? Do outsiders see how we love one another?


As a Catholic, I sometimes don’t see or feel the love. During my lifetime, I have often experienced more compassion and concern from Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists than I have from my fellow coreligionists. I have never seen any qualitative difference between the morality of Christians and that of non-believers. Love is the litmus test. If Christians are just like everyone else, then why would anybody want to convert?

Evangelism is not about talking about Jesus. It is about showing Jesus to others, being Jesus to others.

That is what matters.

Story Time

January 25th, 2023

Story time at the library doesn’t seem much different than it was thirty years ago when our kids were little. Granted, the technology is updated. The storyteller now uses a laptop computer to put images and words on a screen. However, the toddlers are the same as they were in the previous generation. Some of them sit and listen to the stories, while some of them have nervous energy that keeps them constantly in motion. Some of kids sing along with Miss Amanda. Some cling to their mothers for dear life. Our little grandson, Asher, mostly observes the scene from a distance. He stands quietly with his hands behind his back, taking it all in.

I can remember when our children were in the Waldorf School kindergarten. Their teacher, Mrs. Rose, had a story time for the kids each day. Things were different with Mrs. Rose. She had a way of soothing the children and getting them to settle down. She had a ritual for that. She would softly sing a song to them, and she would light a candle. By the time she was ready to tell her story, the little ones were silent and still with anticipation. It was a wonder to behold.

The Waldorf School was built on stories. Everything in the curriculum (reading, writing, art, playacting, math) was somehow based on a story. Every grade had a theme to it. For instance, third grade was all about stories from the Old Testament. The biblical narratives were not taught at a form of catechesis, but rather as myths that matched closely to the development of the child.

Let me make a comment about myths. One definition of a myth is: “Something that never happened but is true nonetheless.” A myth may or may not have a basis in historical fact. That is not really of any importance. A myth is a story that touches the deepest part of the human experience. The famous scholar, Joseph Campbell, researched myths for almost his entire life. He found that there were certain fundamental stories that were told in every culture throughout history. These stories are universal and timeless. They are part of the collective human DNA.

Campbell distinguished the difference between fairy tales and myths. He said,

“A fairy tale is the child’s myth. There are proper myths for proper times of life. As you grow older, you need a sturdier mythology.”

Campbell was convinced that people need myths to make sense of an apparently irrational world. The myths help each of us to find his or her path through life.

When our youngest son, Stefan, was in fourth grade, his class studied the Norse myths. As part of their education, they performed a play based on the story of “The Fettering of Fenris”. In Norse mythology Fenris (or Fenrir) was a fierce wolf who was always hungry. The more Fenris ate, the more he grew and the hungrier he became. Eventually, he threatened to devour the entire world. The gods needed to stop him before he destroyed all things. The gods tried twice to restrain the beast. The rest if the story goes like this:

“Being a wolf of remarkable size and strength that he was, both attempts to restrain Fenrir/Fenris were unsuccessful. Despite the high-quality materials that they were made of, the two chains (called Leyding and Dormi, respectively) proved to be good for nothing when it came to holding back Fenris. Each time he broke the chains far more easily than the gods had imagined him to.

Gods ordered dwarves to forge a chain that would be able to keep Fenrir captive. The dwarves’ work was a bit unexpected; a thin and soft ribbon named Gleipnir. However, it was not an ordinary ribbon but a magical one made out of various ingredients.  

Gleipnir is believed to be enchanted as it consisted of six unusual elements. These were:

  • the roots of a mountain
  • the beard of a woman
  • the sinews of a bear
  • the breath of fish
  • the sound of a cat’s footsteps
  • the spittle of a bird

When the chain was brought in front of Fenrir, he grew suspicious and refused to be tethered with it unless one of the gods or goddesses would stick their hand in his mouth as a gesture of good faith. 

Since the higher entities knew that they would get their hand ripped off by complying with Fenrir’s condition, they were hesitant to agree. None of the gods were brave enough to do that, except Tyr, the god of war, the only one that had to courage to feed the giant wolf when he was caged.

Fenrir tried to break free from Gleipnir but the magical ribbon was very strong, and the giant wolf could not manage to escape. As his revenge Fenrir bit and ripped off Tyr’s arm. 

Gods chained Fenrir to a rock named Gioll one mile beneath the surface of the earth.” – excerpt taken from the website:

The members of Stefan’s class performed the story of Fenris on stage. Stefan played the role of Fenris. He was the perfect choice for that. Stefan was surprisingly ferocious and spoke his lines with a wicked grin on his face. It was a bit unnerving to watch him. The other child actors were also quite good. They all got into their roles.

What was the point of performing this play? The Norse tale is a myth in that it is relevant to our own time. Fenris is a symbol of insatiable greed. Think of the unbridled consumerism in our culture. Think about how we humans are devouring the goods of the earth without giving a thought to the future. Fenris roams among us, and howls for more of everything. Tyr is a model for courage and self-sacrifice. In the story his is willing to give up his arm in order to save others. The story contains themes that have been important, and they always will be.

Our children need a story time. We all do.


January 20th, 2023

Definition of a mercenary: “professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army”.

I have been reading articles about the Wagner Group, the semi-private army that fights for Putin in Ukraine. The news media make the members of this organization sound rather brutal and money hungry. I suppose they are. Apparently, the Wagner Group is searching for prospective mercenaries in the Russian prisons. That indicates that this organization isn’t very fussy about who it gets. I guess a felony rap doesn’t disqualify a new recruit. It might even be a requirement to join up.

I was in the U.S. Army, as was my eldest son. We were soldiers, but not mercenaries. We both had economic reasons for joining, but those were not the only reasons why we entered the military service. I never met anyone who joined the military to get rich. I’ve met people who enlisted to escape poverty, but nobody signs up expecting to make a bunch of money.

All this has made me think about a friend of mine who worked with me years ago at a trucking company. I was a supervisor there. Scott was a senior over-the-road driver. Scott was a Marine and proud it. We had several Marines working as drivers at our facility, and they had this unique camaraderie. Scott was of Vietnam vintage, but I don’t know if he ever fought over there. When I knew him, he was heavy set and going grey. He had a home and a family. As a senior driver, he was making really good money.

After George W. Bush invaded Iraq, Scott decided to quit his job and work for Haliburton. Everybody at work was surprised by that move. He indicated that he was going to go to Iraq for a year and make a ton of money. Apparently, his pay was going to be in six figures for a year’s work. Scott was going to drive fuel tankers. To me, that sounded just insane. It still sounds insane. I am sure that Scott had armed escorts, but still…driving a tanker is like driving a Molotov cocktail on wheels. Is any amount of money worth that kind of risk?

I used to write snail mail letters to Scott once he deployed. I still have his APO address scribbled on a scrap of paper. He came back safely from Iraq, but I don’t think he never returned to work at our place. I lost contact with him, and I have no idea what he is doing now.

I remember talking with one of Scott’s Marine buddies when Scott was over in Iraq. We discussed his reasons for going there. Scott’s fellow Marine suggested that maybe Scott was fulfilling a mission he never got to do while he was on active duty. We both agreed that it wasn’t all about the money. Scott was very patriotic, and he wanted to serve his country. Maybe he wanted to experience the excitement again. Maybe he wanted to feel young. I don’t know why he deployed. Maybe Scott didn’t really know either. He just did it.

Was Scott a mercenary? No, I don’t think so. Money was involved with his decision to work for Haliburton, but it was more complicated than that. Those kinds of decisions are always complicated, and often illogical.

If I ever see Scott again, I will have to ask him for an explanation. Somehow, I think that there really isn’t one.

Winners and Losers

January 18th, 2023

American culture is based on certain unquestioned assumptions. Some of these beliefs are so deeply imbedded in our national psyche that we don’t even notice their existence. They are like the air we breathe, invisible and always there.

America is the home of a virulent strain of individualism. We don’t often think our ourselves as members of a larger community, and if we do, we see our fellowship in that group as in contrast to outsiders (“I’m not like those people.”). To quote the title of a Beatles song, we think in terms of “I, Me, Mine”. This is obvious in our politics. Was there any thought or mention of the common good during the recent House Speakership debacle? Or was it all about ego? Think about the fact that both anti-vaxxers and abortions rights advocates use the rallying cry of “my body, my choice!”. We are taught from very early age to look out for Number One.

Another almost universal assumption is that life is a ruthless competition with clearly defined winners and losers. Competition may be a common human characteristic, but Americans take it to an extreme. Our economic system is based on competition. It drives everything in corporate America. It is a zero-sum game, and my gain is somebody else’s loss. Capitalism has made our country rich, but it has also made us judgmental and callous. We often despise the poor. We subscribe to the myth that everyone can “win” if only they are smart enough and hardworking enough. The corollary to that idea is that if a person is a “loser”, struggling economically, it is their own damn fault. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not.

The relentless competition between individual Americans bleeds over into other parts of our lives. The culture in the U.S. military is based, by necessity, on ruthless competition. It is life-or-death. I remember memorizing this quote from Douglas MacArthur when I was a cadet at West Point:

“On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

The phrase “friendly strife” strikes me as odd. Anybody who has watched a cadet boxing match, or a rugby game, would hesitate to call those competitions “friendly”.

Everything at West Point was about competition. Everything. It is true that teamwork was encouraged, but only as it served to produce more effective competition. I made good friends at West Point, and some of those friendships have lasted for more than four decades. However, the stone-cold truth is that we were always competing with each other. At the end of our time in school, the only thing that mattered was our class rank. That, and only that, determined the trajectory of our future in the Army.

I have even noticed an oversized individualism in religion in the United States. For years, my wife and I participated in a Bible study with Evangelicals. I was often struck by the language they used. It was not uncommon for one of them to talk at length about Jesus being their “personal savior”. The person would then use phrases like “my relationship with the Lord” or “I am saved”. It was all about me and my God. There seemed to be little concern with the salvation of anyone else.

This sort of thing is by no means limited to Evangelicals. For several years I taught RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) for people wanting to become Catholic (yes, there actually are folks that want to be Catholic). I was teaching the class with a friend of mine, Joe. We were discussing the hypothetical possibility that God saves everyone, that in fact hell is empty. This was not just a whim on our part. The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, wrote an entire book on the subject, “Dare We Hope?”

There was a woman in the class who took great offense to our comments. She finally burst out, saying, “If everybody goes to heaven, if everyone gets saved, what’s the point of being good!?”

There was an awkward silence in the room. Joe, who was seldom perturbed, calmly looked at the woman over the top of his spectacles and asked her,

“Do you love your husband?”

She seemed confused by that question, and stammered, “Of course, I do!”

Joe asked her, “Do you do good things for him?”

The woman didn’t understand the point of this query, and she said, “Well, yeah, of course.”

Joe continued, “And why do you do these things?”

She thought that was a remarkably stupid question, and said, “Because I love him!”

Joe stood up, smiled, and said, “Aha! And that is why we do good things for God! We are good because we love Him!”

I couldn’t read the woman’s mind, but I suspect that part of her upset was due to the notion that even in the spiritual world, there have to be winners and losers. What’s the point of going to heaven if all the losers go there too?

There are dissenters to the prevalent viewpoints in our country. For years now I have been spending time with a group of Zen Buddhists. Their beliefs are completely countercultural.

A practitioner of Zen meditation will often focus on a koan or a mantra while sitting on the cushion. It is a common practice to concentrate on breathing. The person meditating will sometimes on the inbreath silently ask,

“What am I?”

On the outbreath the person says, “Don’t know.”

There is a significance to that answer. The person does not say, “I don’t know.” They simply say, “Don’t know”, because there is no I that is not knowing. Students of Zen assume that there is no unique individual meditating. For me, there would be no “Frank” involved in the process, because my identity as Frank is only a mental construct.

So, what am I? Certainly, in a physical sense, I am a creature who is constantly changing, as transient as a wave lapping on the beach or a flickering candle flame. I am not the same person that I was ten years ago, or even five minutes ago. In a few short years, I won’t exist in this world at all. I will be at best a dim memory for those who survive me.

I cling to the idea that I have an immortal soul. Honestly, I don’t know what that even means. What remains of me after death? However, if there is no I, then there is no competition. There are no winners or losers.

Maybe that’s not so bad.