On Golf and God. A Meditation on the One Thing Necessary

I have lamented with you before on this blog that few speak much of heaven today but focus more on earthly creature comforts as the goal and measure of their happiness. Further, even when heaven is discussed, the description contains everything but the “one thing necessary.” Often when describing heaven one will hear of happiness that that never ends, mansions, gold streets, “purly” gates, and being able to “play all the golf I want.” Others will describe being reunited with loved ones or of being free of suffering. All this is fine and largely true. But what is striking, is the omission of any mention of God. God after all is the “one thing necessary” to make heaven be heaven.

Martha, Martha: This expression, “the one thing necessary” comes from Luke 10:42 where Jesus gently rebukes Martha for missing the main point of life: which is union with God. Martha busies herself with many things, even things that will serve the Lord, but in the end she misses the Lord! To put it in the terms of a modern euphemism: “Fail!”

The “obedient son” in the Prodigal Son story also got it wrong when he angrily tells his father, “You never even gave me a kid goat to celebrate with my friends!” (Lk 15:29).  But of course the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. It is to celebrate with the Father, God the Father. Hence the Father stands outside and pleads for him to enter the feast and celebrate with him.

The people at the lakeside also missed the one thing necessary. In John 6, Jesus had multiplied the loaves. And later, when they came looking for more free bread, Jesus warned them that getting their bellies filled with worldly food was not the point. They should seek the food the which the Son of Man would given them. When Jesus went on to describe that he himself was that bread, they left him. Thus they would no longer follow in his company and forfeited the one thing necessary.

Well you get the point, namely that God is the point. To consider heaven without including God is a remarkable oversight. It is like describing the ocean without mentioning water. An old song says, God and God alone, will be the joy of our eternal home. He will be our one desire, Our hearts will never tire, of God and God alone!

This leads me to a remarkable description of Hell that I recently rediscovered when reading Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Book: Three to Get Married. We often think of the sufferings of Hell as terrible things like fire, where the worm dies not, wrath, and wailing and grinding of teeth. None of these are per se wrong, they are mentioned in Scripture! But Hell’s deepest suffering is the lack of “the one thing necessary.” Sheen repeats the following joke in his Book:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry….we have no balls. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).

Wow! Ouch!  That IS the hell of it! To have all that, and lack the one thing necessary! Nothing else really works, or matters much, without the one thing necessary. In the joke everything is in place and wonderfully set forth on the golf course, except the one thing necessary, the ball!  The golf course becomes a golf curse.

In my last parish I lived in a rectory with a long hall. I used to putt a golf ball up and down the hall. I had an executive putt-putt set with obstacles, and golf goals with automatic returns, etc. But in the end, all I really needed was a ball to have fun. I didn’t even need a club, I could use a long umbrella if I had to, or even just kick the ball. My cat would also love to chase the ball up the hall and pounce. But all the other gizmos and gadgets I had meant nothing without the ball, they were useless.  Without the ball even the cat wouldn’t show up.

The heart of Heaven is to be with God. Scripture says, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. The heart of Hell is to have rejected God permanently, and to discover that the absolute and final rejection of Him is to experience the withdrawal of every other pleasure. Only in God will my soul be at rest! (Ps 62:5)

In fact, like the golf course in Hell, those pleasures look back at the denizens of  Hell and mock them, make the suffering more intense. Because, though the pleasures are near at hand, they may as well be ten thousand miles away. They are useless and their nearness only intensifies the pain and the frustration. This is possibly worse than any hell-fire and may well explain the wailing and grinding of teeth by the hell-bound described in Scripture.

In life, don’t miss the one thing necessary, which is not a thing at all, but is God himself. The Father, in the prodigal son parable came out and begged his second son to enter the feast and celebrate with him. The Heavenly Father does the same now….What is your answer?

What Do We REALLY Value?

If we ask someone what is most important to them they will often times answer the question the way it should be answered rather than the actual and truthful answer. Ask a believer who is most important in their life and they will usually answer, “God.” But is that the truest answer? Others who are unbelievers will often say, “My spouse” or “My children” and so forth. That is the expected answer but is it really the truest answer?

One way of measuring what we value most is to honestly assess what we spend our money and time on. Where is most of our time spent? Where do we spend most of our money? For us who believe where does God REALLY rank when we use this measure?

Now clearly a disclaimer is needed right from the start. It is a true fact that most of us have to work at least 8 hours a day. We have little choice in this. It is not reasonable to expect that we could also spend 8 hours a day in soulful meditation. Further, we have mortgages and health care cost etc that we have to pay. We have little choice but to pay rather high amounts in these areas and we not be free to give as much to the Church or to religious pursuits. So our reflection should limit itself to what we might call disposable income and leisure or free time. But again, with this disclaimer in mind, where does God rank in how we spend our time and money? And also where does God really rank insofar as our manifest interest and passions lie?

In this post I am not going to try and give endless statistics and mathematically demonstrate where God is on our priority list. I just want to give a few brief reflections to start a conversation if you will. I hope you might add to the list of reflections I offer here and make what you think are necessary distinctions. So to begin the conversation here are some short reflection points of my own.

1. Most football games last about 4 hours if you count the usual pre-game and post game interviews etc. Many people gladly watch these games in their homes. Some will even go to a cold and rainy stadium sit in uncomfortable seats, endure crowded conditions,  traffic coming going there and they will pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege. Some of these same people get angry if Holy Mass lasts for more than 45 minutes. Often they will come late and leave early. And, God forbid, if the Mass extends past one hour they are visibly angry. If the football game goes into overtime they are excited. If Mass runs long they are upset. Football is all about a bag full of air being carried up and down a field. The Mass is about the once-for-all perfect Sacrifice of Jesus Christ who gave his life for us. Now let’s see, what is more important? Well, clearly what goes on at Mass is more important. But what do many people really value more? Well let’s see….45 minutes (mostly just endured)….vs…..4 hours (gladly received). Hmm….What is most valuable?

2. Catholics give between 1% and 2% of their income as a Church offering. In 2002  the average Household income was just over $45,000 (Source Forbes.com) and that same year the average Catholic household contribution was $455. In other words, 1% of income was given to the Church. Add in other contributions and donations such as second collections building funds etc and the number is closer to 2% given to the Church. The average American household spends 5.46 % of income dining out, 4.7% on entertainment, 7.8% on cars, and 1.1% on alcohol alone (Source Forbes.com). Hmm….What do we value more? Going to Mass or a restaurant? What we get at the Church or what we get at the movies? Now let’s see, the average Catholic looks to be putting about $8 or 9$ in the collection basket. The average NFL ticket is $67, the average live theater ticket up in the tier is $30, the average baseball ticket is about $25, the average movie ticket is about $8. The cost of these things is usually much higher in large cities. Now let’s see what do we value most?

3. The average American spends about 4 hours watching TV per day and about 4 1/2 hours in cumulative leisure activities (source Bureau of Labor Statistics). Mass is about 1 hour per week. It is hard to track the length of time people spend in prayer, study of the faith or spiritual reading each day. Many do not pray at all, some pray for a few minutes, a few pray as much as hour each day which is commendable. But really what do you think most people value most? TV and other leisure or prayer and other spiritual pursuits. It is true that recreation is important as is relaxation. But so is prayer and knowledge of the faith. What do you think most people value more?

4. The American Dream is a great pursuit that consumes an enormous amount of time and money to achieve. Years in schooling including expensive colleges. Years of study to pass tests, meet standards and receive a diploma. This then yields a career which consumes most of our future time. All for the house with cathedral ceilings in the great room, a three car garage, wide screen TVs etc. But all of this is temporary and it is uncertain if we will attain it all or not even after all the work. Heaven or hell on the other hand is eternal and our death and judgment are certain. We spend all our time working for things that pass and little time working on what is eternal and what will last. Heaven is our hope but hell is possible if we fail to be serious about our final destiny. But really, what is most on our mind? What is most important? What do we spend more time, money, energy and focus on? Is it the American Dream or is it heaven?

5. Yesterday I saw a line for a phone store  that went around the block. They were standing there for hours to get a new phone that has come out. It was 98 degrees here in DC yesterday. Would they stand in line even five minutes to get into a Church? What if the Air Conditioning was out at the Church? Would we be willing to stay for the Mass for any length of time in those conditions?

6. People get passionate about sports and politics. Have you noticed how worked up people can get at a football game or political rally? People are clearly alive and very animated and alert for such things. But go into the average Mass and look at people. Many look like they’ve just sucked a lemon; bored believers, distracted disciples, sleepy saints, the frozen chosen. You may say, well the Mass is boring. Well, I think a soccer game is boring. Baseball too. But fans (short for fanatic) tell me, “Oh you just don’t know what is going on. If you did you’d find it exciting.”  It is a true fact that modern liturgy suffers from a flat-souled quality to some extent and we need to work at doing better with preaching and celebrating the Mass. But really, the deeper problem is that people “just don’t know what is going on.” But do we try to understand? And if not why not? People don’t wake up understanding the intricacies of of football, baseball etc. They aren’t infused with a knowledge of all the terminology, strategies of the game ad it’s subtleties. Like anything they work at learning all this. But when it comes to faith…..well that ‘s all too much work. So again, I ask, what is more important? What do we value most?  What do we get most excited about? Is it the faith? Really? Or are we more passionate and dedicated, studious and interested when it comes to sport or politics? Truth is most people are more passionate about their politics than their faith. The teachings of the faith  are tucked under politics and subservient to it. Sports too commands far greater passion for many than anything God is offering. What does this say? What do we value most?

Well, just some reflections. Please comment, add to the list. I know you will want to make distinctions and I’m also ready for some rebuttals. In the end the question is not what we say we value it is what we REALLY value. Help us Lord!

In this Video Fr. Robert Barron tells a story that also makes this point. He shows how we can be very sophisticated and demanding when it comes to learning the things of the world and yet when it comes to teaching the faith we ask almost nothing of our children. And again the question arises, what do we consider most important? And also, what do our children perceive our priorities to be based on this?

The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things

One of the great challenges in life is to learn what is really most important. I remember as a child being told at Christmas that Jesus was the real reason for the season and that toys were secondary. But I was a child and although I heard what should be most important in actual fact what really was most important to me was what was under the tree. “Thanks Jesus for gettin’ born, now what did Santa leave!?”

This little childhood scenario recasts itself differently as we get older but the basic challenge is the same: learning to really accept and experience that the most important things in life aren’t things. St. Paul states well what is really most important:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Phil 3:7-9)

The psalms too express what is most valuable:

The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.  The ordinances of the LORD are sure  and altogether righteous.  They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:9-11).

The Lord also goes on to teach us that we should value the people in our lives above the things in our lives. Consider this example.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  (Lk 12:13-15)

Among the teachings contained here is that the brothers should be more important to each other than the wealth that divides them. But too often our desire for passing things takes precedence over the people in our lives. Both brothers sin against eachother over money, one through greed the other through injustice.

So  I want to ask you (and me) a few questions and I want you t be careful how you answer them. Often when we are asked questions of a moral nature we answer the question the way we should answer the question instead of responding with the actual truth. So as I ask these questions let’s consider supplying the truest answer rather than the “required” answer.

  1. Do you really love God above all things and above all people?
  2. Do you really love the people in your life more than the things in your life?
  3. Do you really believe that you life does not consist in an abundance of possessions?

And as you and I answer these questions consider what the evidence states. The best evidence in a question like this is not merely our feelings but even more what we spend our money and time on. Truth be told a lot of us struggle to love God most. We are told to worship God, love people and use things but too often worship things, use people and forget about God. The fact is a lot of us can still be stuck on that old childhood scene where we knew Jesus is the reason for the season but in the end we also knew he really had very little to do with the season, either in the culture or in our hearts.

The steps to making progress in this difficult are fourfold:

  1. Honesty – Honestly answering questions like the ones the Lord asks us above has go to be the starting point. Perhaps some of you who read this are way ahead of the rest and God really is first. But for the rest of us,  the first step is to honestly realize that we’re messed up and that we prefer passing things to God.
  2. Pray – The second step is to get on our knees and say, “Lord have mercy! I am messed up. My priorities are wrong. I love things more than people and people more than you. I’m surrounded by idols and I ascribe greater worth to the dust of this earth than to you or to my loved ones. Help me Lord!”
  3. Regular confession and Holy Communion –  Part of regular confession is to learn to focus on the deeper issues of our life. Too often we only look at our behaviors but not to the deeper drives of sins that lead to this bad behavior. Some of the deeper drives of sin that affect this particular matter are: greed, lust, idolatry, ego-centric attitudes, pettiness, worldliness, sloth, and ingratitude. Preparing for confession looks not only to symptoms such as outer behaviors but to causes which are the deeper drives of sin. In a future blog I will write more on the “deeper drives” of sin.
  4. Cultivate gratitude – Gratitude is a way that we discipline our mind to count our blessings and then thank the Lord for them. In particular we ought to discipline our minds to thank God for the gift that He is to us. Also the gift that others are to us. Granted some folks are gifts to us “in strange packages.” But even the difficult people in  our lives teach us things like being patient, kind and more  forgiving,  These are blessings, even though in strange packages.

Only with God’s help can we begin to realize that “The Most important things in life aren’t things” is more than a slogan. Only with God’s help and a lifetime of grace can we ever hope to really appreciate this insight and aboslutely true.

Now a little humor and laughing at ourselves doesn’t hurt either. In this very funny video some priests send out a brother priest for beer. Upon his return there is a mishap and both beer and priest are in jeopardy. Guess which gets rescued!

By Their Buldings You Will Know Them

In the Middle Ages the Cathedral was the true skyscraper of most ancient cities. It could be seen for miles and dominated not only the skyline but occupied the central square of the town. As the Renaissance set in, Palaces and government buildings began to dominate the central square and even the skyline  as the Churches shrunk in stature and moved to the side streets. Today, our great cities such as New York and Chicago have skylines dominated by great buildings of commerce and industry. The Cathedrals of these great cities would be hard to find by most visitors. What does all this say about our culture? How are we known by our buildings? What are the priorities and central focus of our time?

Fr. Barron, in this video makes an interesting observation in the recent renaming of the Sears Tower to the Willis Building. It now appears that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are all named for and owned by Insurance companies! What does this say? It seems to say that the more affluent we become the more anxious we become. With all our stuff we have much to protect, much to insure, much to be anxious about. And in whom do we trust to bring us this protection? Surely God, you will say! But look again, by our buildings you will know the answer! Jesus saves, but man insures. There is nothing evil about insurance but our buildings tell us we are quite anxious about many things and that we must insure to ensure looms large in our culture.