Friday, March 28, 2014

New pope inspires us all to be Catholic

I love the new pope.
Before I really get into this, let me start by saying that I’m not Catholic. I’ve never practiced Catholicism and I have no interest in doing so. I’m a perfectly content Methodist. But the Catholic Church intrigues me.
I hold some traditions that I’m told are “Catholic,” such as giving up something for Lent, or holding the pope in high regard. Maybe this is a carry-over from my parents’ upbringing. Or maybe it’s just me being me. I don’t know.
I used to joke with my now-ex-wife that she had to do whatever I told her to do because “the pope said so.” She reminded me at least once a week that we weren’t Catholic. Worth noting, she never did what I told her to do. And in case you’re wondering, that has nothing whatsoever to do with her standing as my ex-wife.
Long story short (too late), there is a hint of Catholicism in me. Which is why I’m so happy to report that I love the new pope.
President Obama met with Pope Francis on Thursday, giving the head of the church a custom-made seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds, in hopes that they’ll bloom into something substantial, much like he hopes their relationship does.
Wednesday, the pope removed a German bishop from his diocese after reports of the bishop’s $43 million residence upset the faithful. Francis had temporarily expelled Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst — the “bling bishop” — from Limburg in October.
What the pope was conveying is that the church will not tolerate excess. Which is closely in line with many of his other teachings and doings.
In December, it was revealed that the pope occasionally slips away from the Vatican in order to minister to and help the homeless.
He also shared his 77th birthday with three homeless men. The men live on the street in the Rome neighborhood just outside the Vatican’s walls and were invited by the Holy See official in charge of alms-giving to attend the Mass, which Francis celebrates daily at the hotel where he lives on Vatican City grounds.
To me this is all new. The pope is loving. And charitable. Nice, even. Heck, you could almost say that he is a good Christian.
Now, this isn’t to disrespect the popes prior to Francis. But they certainly never gave me any warm fuzzies. In my life there has never been a pope who I would want to have a beer with. Nor, I’m pretty sure, has there has been a pope who would want to have a beer with me. But that’s all changed now with Francis.
I can only hope that the church’s newfound sense of compassion rubs off on humanity as a whole. Because I kind of feel like we’re all a little Catholic — even if we’re not.
Scott Leffler is a Protestant who eats fish on Fridays during Lent. Follow him on Twitter @scottleffler.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Take no joy in Fred Phelps passing

I’ve written about schadenfreude before. It is the joy one takes in the misery of others. We all do it from time to time. But I take no joy in death. Ever.

Fred Phelps died on Thursday. You may not have recognized the name before watching the world news last night but you no doubt knew who he was and what he did. Or at least most of it.

What Phelps was famous for was his church’s work in “opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth,” according to the Westboro Baptist Church’s very own Web site. He was proud of his work in picketing funerals for military men and women and Hollywood stars, saying their deaths were proof positive that God is mad at America over our acceptance of homosexuals.

You’ve likely seen the group’s signs in chain emails or on Facebook posts: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and the ever-popular “God Hates Fags.”

Fred Phelps was a confused man. From my point of view, he had a horrible misunderstanding of Christianity. It wasn’t just Fred, either. He got his son Fred Phelps Jr.  involved in the anti-gay movement and even roped his daughter into it. I hope you got the pun, as her name is Shirley Phelps-Roper.

I had the — let’s go with privilege — of talking one-on-one with Shirley on a couple of occasions, first in 2007 following the death of Heath Ledger. The Westboro church protested his funeral. I interviewed her again in 2008.

Her definition of Christianity — much like her father’s — is far askew from what I learned in church. Hers is a vengeful god, as though the New Testament had never been written. As though Jesus has never been born.

Yes, I realize I didn’t capitalize “God” in the preceding paragraph. It’s how strongly I believe that the Westboro types believe in a completely different religion — and therefore a different god — than I do.

I learned to treat others as I want to be treated. I learned to forgive others for their trespasses. I learned that the only one with the right to judge us for our sins is God himself.

Some people are going to celebrate the passing of Fred Phelps. But that would be just as wrong as what Phelps had done in the later years of his life. It would be a very “Old-Testament reaction” to Phelps’ death. More eye-for-an-eye than love-thy-neighbor.

I’m saddened by Phelps’ death in the same way I would be saddened by the death of anyone I don’t know. The loss of life at any age and in any situation is the loss of opportunity. For Fred Phelps, it is the loss of his opportunity to turn his life around and be the man he once was, having been a civil rights attorney who helped to end Jim Crow laws in Kansas. Yes, Phelps was a good guy before he turned bad. He could have turned good again.

But he died too soon, as everyone who dies does.

Scott Leffler thinks that even misguided and hateful people need love, too. Feel the love on Twitter @scottleffler.

Friday, March 14, 2014

On fake blizzards, disappearing airplanes and ruining the Internet

When I was young, I walked to school. Uphill. We only had 20 channels and none of them were MTV. Wikipedia was called “the library.” And we had winter.

I still walk a lot, but something happened to winter. Or something happened to us. Wednesday we got a “blizzard” throughout Western New York. It snowed a little. And there was some wind. But a blizzard? Okay, to be fair, it snowed a lot. But still … as blizzards go, it was pretty lame.

Maybe my memory of childhood is wrong. But I remember it snowing all day every day from Thanksgiving until Easter. Now we get a few flakes and it’s a blizzard. They close down government offices and schools, advise you against driving. Heck, I couldn’t even go bowling.

I don’t mean for a second that the street crews around town didn’t do a great job, at least in my neck of the proverbial woods. Maybe the clear streets and my not walking uphill to school are why I feel like winter’s diminished. I don’t know.

Another thing I don’t know: How did a plane just disappear? It’s 2014, right? But nearly a week after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 made its last transmission, they don’t know where the plane is. Or where it was. Or when it went missing. How is that possible? There’s radar and doppler weather and the NSA.

One thing officials have somehow concluded is that no matter how or when the plane went missing, its disappearance wasn’t the act of terrorism. Although the CIA hasn’t ruled it out, Malaysian authorities have called it unlikely. Why? Of course, the CIA thinks anything can be terrorism. Even Wednesday’s blizzard.

In addition to the snowblizzardpocalypse we we had on Wednesday, it was the 25th anniversary of what we have come to know as the Internet — the World Wide Web. And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg celebrated by telling President Barack Obama that he’s ruining it.

“When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we're protecting you against criminals, not our own government,” Zuckerberg said on his public Facebook page. “The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they're doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst.”

If the government really wants to improve the Internet, they can start a website to follow airplanes and predict blizzards … or something.

Scott Leffler remembers winter and life before the Internet. He’s been on airplanes. But never disappearing ones. Follow him on Twitter @scottleffler.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Another month brings more reasons to hope

Some might call me happy-go-lucky. Maybe I’m just easily amused. Or I have an uncanny ability to find silver linings and minor miracles. But it seems like every season — no, every month — has something to excite me.

Welcome to March, or “Heritage Month” as I like to call it. As I said, each month has it’s benefits. But March is so aptly named because it begins the march towards awesome. Take a dip in the lake, beware the Ides, be a bit Irish, head towards Easter. Whatever. It’s awesome.

I’ve already had my pancakes for the month, an annual tradition I’ve upheld for the past several years. Every Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday — whatever you want to call it — I go to my church and partake in the festivities. Usually I go with family but this year they were all off doing other things so I made it a work outing.

Today it’s time for fish. I like fish. Fish fry in particular. Beer battered fish fry to be even more specific. I like fish all year round. Kind of like I like Christmas music all year round. But much like I compartmentalize my Christmas music, I also mostly restrict my beer battered haddock to Fridays during Lent. I’m relishing the thought of tonight’s dinner.

I often give up something for Lent. It’s usually beer or chicken wings. This year, I’m slacking and giving up neither. You’re supposed to give up the thing that’s most important to you. For me, that’s hope. I considered it. But quickly dashed the thought.

How could one give up hope with Buffalo’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade a mere nine days away. It’s another annual tradition for me and mine. And then St. Patrick’s Day itself. Two events to be oh so hopeful about.

And the second St. Patrick’s Day is over, it’s on to spring. And then Easter. What’s more hopeful than Easter? The resurrection. A new beginning. Really, what’s more hopeful than a new beginning?

I’m sure not everyone has my optimistic view of March. Or anything, for that matter. It’s cold. It’s dreary. It’s blah. Or as I like to say, “meh.” But it leads to such wonderful things.

Next thing you know, we’ll be planning picnics and the Independence Day Parade. Next thing you know, we’ll be off hiking. Or vacationing in wonderful places with wonderful friends and family. Next thing you know the days will be long and the nights will be filled with backyard barbeques and bonfires.

Come April, I’ll surely have new things to be excited about. My girls’ birthdays are in April. My daughters are growing up awesome. Their mother and I are so very proud of them. As well we should be.

But it’s not April yet. It’s still March. And there’s plenty to celebrate right now.

Scott Leffler is an eternal optimist who couldn’t give up hope if he tried. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter @scottleffler