Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Mom’s Request Saves the Party

Last weekend at Mass we heard from St. John’s gospel. It’s the story of the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus performed His first miracle, changing water into wine. 

John wrote his gospel for one simple reason: so people would believe in Jesus, and as a result, receive eternal life. To convince his readers to put their faith in Jesus, John emphasized what he called “signs,” or miracles, performed by Jesus. Only someone with the supernatural power of God is capable of giving eternal life, and John wanted people to know without a doubt that Jesus has that kind of power.
The wedding feast at Cana started innocently enough. Jesus, His mother Mary, and some of His disciples were guests at the wedding. Everyone was having a good time. But then, while the wedding was still in progress (and these parties often lasted a full week!), they ran out of wine. How embarrassing for the bride’s father, or the caterer, or the guy with the concession stand license, or whoever was responsible for providing the food and drink.

Jesus’ mother — probably uncertain about His exact mission, but quite certain about the miraculous nature of His conception and birth — said to her son, “They have no wine.”
Jesus replied, “My hour has not yet come.”

Now, it’s important to understand that John uses the words “hour” and “time” repeatedly in his gospel (7:30, 8:20, 12:23, 13:1, and 17:1). Each time the reference is to the culmination of Jesus’ mission: the cross at Calvary.

Jesus said to His mother, in essence, that there is a specific timetable for His mission, and now is not the time to begin doing miracles.

Mary did not badger and plead with her son — but nor did she back down. Although it doesn’t say specifically in Scripture, I’ve got a hunch at this point she smiled sweetly, raised her eyebrows, and looked Jesus straight in the eyes with that special mothers-only look, the one that silently communicates the message, “You don’t wanna disappoint your momma, now do ya?”

Demonstrating complete trust in her son, Mary then said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Well, as we all know, Jesus miraculously transformed upwards of 150 gallons of water into the best wine anyone had ever tasted. The party was saved, and no one was embarrassed.

John concludes this episode by explaining, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs…and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

Again, John’s purpose is clear: to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity by describing the miracles He performed so people will put their faith in Him.

There’s one other aspect of this event which I find fascinating. It seems pretty clear that Jesus did not intend to do a miracle at the wedding feast. Doing His first “sign” was not on that day’s divine to-do list. But when Mary made the request, Jesus changed His plans.

The lesson here is that our sincere requests (our prayers) can cause God to alter His plans and timing. This is a startling idea, until we remember that Jesus gave us many instructions about prayer: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9); “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father” (John 14:13). 
Many people think every event in history is already pre-ordained, carved in stone and unalterable. But if that were so, why bother praying? Since Jesus would never command us to do something useless, our prayers must be powerful. They can change the course of history. They can even change the plans of God! Wow, that’s a pretty remarkable concept.

So, last weekend’s gospel is much more than a simple little story of embarrassment averted. It teaches us the identity of Jesus, the mission of Jesus, and the power of prayer. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Not So Fond of Change

The company where I work recently merged with another firm to form a brand new organization. As the engineering marketing manager, it was my job to announce the merger and promote it among our clients and other business associates. As part of this effort, I put a post on the LinkedIn website, and concluded the message by saying that we’re all “looking forward to this new adventure!”

A guy I’ve known for years in the industry saw that post online, and gave me a call. First, he said, “Congratulations.” Then he said, “You really can’t be looking forward to this, not at your age, right?”

I immediately replied, “Of course I’m looking forward to it. This is going to be really good for us.”

Then I paused for a moment and said, “Hey, wait a minute. What do you mean, ‘Not at my age’?”

He replied, “Well, you know. You’re not a spring chicken anymore — and neither am I — and people our age just don’t like change.”

I indignantly said, “Hey, I’ll have you know that I am a big fan of change. I love change. I embrace change! This merger is a wonderful change, and I am looking forward to it!”

He waited a bit, then asked, “But how do you REALLY feel about it?”

I said, “I’m nervous. I don’t know what to expect.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said.

OK, so maybe I don’t exactly embrace change. Maybe I occasionally resist change. (I am, of course, using the definition of “occasionally” that means: “every single time.”)
As I often do whenever I’m facing a momentous situation, I turned to the one true source of wisdom: Google. (No, I’m kidding. My pastor would not appreciate that smart-aleck comment. The one true source of wisdom is, of course, the Bible. But for the purposes of this alleged humor column, I’m going to cite Google for now.)

A quick Google search uncovered many comments regarding change. Here are some, plus my parenthetical thoughts:
  • “Change is never painful. Only the resistance to change is painful.” (No, change is not never painful — uh oh, a double negative. I mean, sometimes change itself is painful, but I agree that resisting change makes it worse.)

  • “I like progress, but I hate change.” (Sounds clever, but I’m not sure what it means.)
  • “I hate change more than almost anything.” (OK, that’s going a bit too far.)
  • “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” (No, I’m pretty sure we resist change, too.)
  • “Two reasons why people hate change: 1. People fear the unknown. 2. There are always people profiting from how things are.” (I guess that’s true.)
  • “People love change — when it’s about changing others. People hate change — when it’s about changing themselves.” (Since I’m not a politician, I don’t have a burning desire to change other people.)
  • “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” (Remaining the same but getting better. Now, that’s not too much to ask for, is it?)
At this point in my life, I’ve been around the block enough times (see “spring chicken” comment above) to know that the only thing that never changes is the constant rate of change. (Hey, wait a minute. That’s a good one. I should get quoted in a Google search.)
I've done a pretty good job conquering my fear of change, especially since I finally realized things are going to change anyway whether I’m on board or not. So, with the major changes happening at work, I can honestly and confidently declare: I am looking forward to this new adventure! (I think.)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The (Tedious) Moby-Dick Marathon

A while ago, I mentioned in a column that I consider myself an “avid reader.” Since then I’ve received many emails with suggestions of books I might enjoy. I appreciate the information, and I hope to read many of these books soon, but the backlog is getting kind of large, so for some of these titles I might not get a chance until the summer. (Summer of which year? Hmm, not sure.)

One of the books I read very recently was Moby-Dick. I heard it is often referred to as the most important American novel, so I figured I should read it. Well, I read it; the whole thing. And the entire time I was reading, one word kept popping into my head: “tedious.” 
As I read, I kept thinking to myself, “How can this be considered such a classic? It’s disjointed and boring, and frankly, Herman Melville’s prose is kind of, um, meh.” 

An online search found quotations from many scholars who gushed over the book, calling it the greatest thing since sliced pepperoni. (No, that’s not true. Distinguished scholars of Literature are too classy to compare anything to sliced pepperoni. Sliced provolone, on the other hand, is a quite common comparison in the ivy-covered halls of academe.) 

But finally, I found one review that said the novel is a 100-page exciting adventure stuck inside a 400-page manuscript. Thank you! I was so glad at least one person agreed with me that the book is 25% stimulating and 75% tiresome.
About two weeks after finishing Moby-Dick, I saw an online article with this headline: “Actor Sam Waterston to kick off annual Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford.”

It seems every January, the New Bedford Whaling Museum hosts a public reading of the entire book. It takes about 25 hours to complete, with 200 different people reciting approximately two pages each.
The CEO of the museum, Amanda McMullen, said, “We are thrilled to have the participation of all our readers, and know that their passion for Melville and heartfelt commitment to New Bedford will help make the 2022 marathon the most exciting and engaging yet.” 

Um, okay. I’m sure it will be the most exciting and engaging marathon to date — IF they decide to recite a different book. Anything really. Try The Godfather, or The Right Stuff, or even the New Bedford phone book.

I suspect Sam Waterston will proclaim, “Call me Ishmael,” and then head back to Logan Airport. It’s unlikely the museum has a large enough budget to pay the fee Sam’s agent would demand if he has to hang around for the entire 25 hours.

Even though I consider myself an “avid reader,” I freely admit my opinions about classic novels are worth even less than unsliced pepperoni. I’m the last person who should be offering reviews on the classics. No doubt this column will prompt many email notes lamenting my proletarian ignorance toward Melville’s brilliantly symbolic and timeless tome — or something like that.
You see, even though I like to read, and for the past 21 years I’ve been stringing together 600 semi-coherent words each week for this newspaper column, the fact is, I was an engineering major in school. I took exactly one English class in four years, the requisite Freshman Composition course. And in that class, the professor gave me a quite generous C-minus final grade. One essay I submitted was returned with this note: “Stick to numbers, son. Words are not your strong suit.”

Many decades later, I still remember my erudite and pithy comment upon reading the professor’s note. I said, “Huh?”

I may not be a literature expert, but I know what I like: exciting stories, compelling prose, and sliced pepperoni. 

Should We Pray to Mary?

Every morning I receive an email from an Evangelical Christian outfit with interesting comments about faith life. A few weeks ago, the daily message I received caught my eye. The subject line said: “Is it Okay for Christians to Pray to Mary?”

“Oh boy, here we go,” I mumbled to myself. Before even reading a single word, I knew where it was going. I started reading, and yup, I was right. After acknowledging that Mary was kind of special because she gave birth to the Messiah, and noting “Christians have always been amazed and interested in Mary,” the essay declared, “Mary is not worthy of receiving prayers from Christians.”
As I’ve mentioned before in these Merry Catholic pieces, there is a big misunderstanding in the Christian world regarding the definition of prayer. Some people insist prayer is the same as worship, which only should be directed toward God. Since Mary is not God, prayer to her is the same as worshipping her, and that is idolatry.

Let me be clear: worshipping anyone or anything other than God is indeed idolatry. (Keep that in mind when you consider your attitude toward things such as money, cars, political parties, celebrities, or the Boston Red Sox.)

Our Evangelical friends are correct when they insist it is wrong to worship Mary. Catholic doctrine agrees with this claim. And I should add, there are more than a few Catholics whose devotion to Mary is so over-the-top that it comes across as worship. I can see why some non-Catholics get a little upset.

But the fact is, the Catholic Church clearly teaches that worship is reserved for God alone. Regarding Mary, is it perfectly fine to respect and honor her. Luke’s gospel says all generations shall call Mary “blessed,” so there is no problem when we refer to her as the “Blessed Virgin Mary.”

We Catholics have an expanded definition of prayer. For us, prayer is not only worship, it also is spiritual communication. When Catholics pray to Mary, we are not worshipping her; we are, instead, asking her to intercede on our behalf with the Lord. 
Why would we want to ask Mary to intercede for us when we can pray directly to God? (Which, if you’re not clear about that, we definitely can do.) The best way to answer that question is to use Evangelical Christians as an example. In my experience over the years, no group of people is more willing to offer up sincere and heartfelt prayers for the needs of others than Evangelical Christians. 

I certainly know plenty of Catholics who are terrific prayer warriors, but as a group, Evangelicals are amazing. If you tell one that your spouse is sick or your neighbor got in a car accident, he or she will immediately begin praying earnestly. Quickly thereafter, a prayer chain will be mobilized, and within 20 minutes, dozens and dozens of folks will be praying for your spouse or neighbor. It is quite commendable.

Evangelicals take to heart the words of Scripture: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Well, when we Catholics pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary, all we are doing is asking her to pray for us. We don’t ask her to “give us this day our daily bread.” We don’t ask her to “forgive us our trespasses.” We don’t ask her to “deliver us from evil.” All those requests go straight to God in the “Our Father” prayer.

The final statement of the “Hail Mary” prayer says, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” We don’t worship Mary. We don’t ask her to do the things only God can do. We simply request that she prays for us. Just as we would ask an Evangelical friend to pray for us. (This, by the way, also goes for all the other believers who have gone before us, the mighty Communion of Saints.)
So, to answer the question in the subject line of that email I received: Yes, it is okay for Christians to pray to Mary. As long as you make sure you don’t worship her, it’s perfectly fine to ask her to pray for you — just as it’s fine to ask your friend at church to pray for you.

There, I’m glad I cleared that up. Now, go and confidently ask your Blessed Mother to pray for you. 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Faith Is A Team Sport

When Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Jesus told them to say, “My Father, who art in Heaven….Give me this day my daily bread, and forgive me my trespasses.”

No wait, that’s not right. Jesus told them to say, “Our Father….give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”
Did you notice the difference? Jesus wants His followers to pray together. This is because faith is a team sport. We simply cannot do this successfully on our own. We need each other. Believers are like burning logs in a campfire. If you stack up the logs so they’re leaning against each other, you get a roaring fire. But if you separate the burning logs and lay them down on the dirt away from each other, very quickly the fire goes out and they grow cold.

It’s the same when people try to practice their faith on their own. We have a lot of “Lone Rangers” in our parishes nowadays. Or I should say, NOT in our parishes nowadays, because they never bother coming to church. Maybe you know some people like this? They claim they believe in God and accept the teachings of the Gospel, but they prefer to do it by themselves. They say they can feel close to God by taking a walk through the woods or by watching a gorgeous sunset. Well sure, that’s true. There’s nothing like a quiet walk through the woods or a gorgeous sunset to remind us of God’s amazing creative powers.

But that can’t be a person’s entire faith experience. We need each other. Sometimes our Lone Ranger friends say they no longer go to Mass because “the church is full of hypocrites.” Well, yeah! The church IS full of hypocrites. Do you want to know why? Because we’re ALL sinners.
I once heard a guy say the more time he spends with other people, the more he likes his dogs. Other people can be very exasperating at times. (Although it seems the folks who complain the most about other people are actually the ones who are the most exasperating.)

The church never claimed to be a private club only for perfect people. The church is, as Pope Francis said, more like a field hospital during a war that treats the sick and wounded. Yes, we’re all sinners and yes, we’re all hypocrites, but despite that, we still need each other. We can’t hope to grow in our faith and get healed if we don’t do it together.

If you find a parish filled only with perfect people, by all means join it. But just know, the minute you join, it won’t be perfect anymore.

Our Lone Ranger friends and loved ones may think they’re living out their faith life just fine on their own, but like the campfire log lying on the dirt away from the other logs, the fire eventually goes out and it grows cold. It’s impossible to live a vibrant and meaningful faith life on our own. We need each other, warts and all.

In the letter to the Hebrews in the Bible, it says, “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but (we should) encourage one another” (Heb 10:25).

Also, if you don’t go to Mass you can’t partake of the “source and summit of the Christian life,” the Eucharist (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1324).

Jesus wants us to be in a relationship with Him, and He tells us in order to do it, we also need to be in relationships with our fellow parishioners. So let’s save all the Lone Ranger stuff for old black and white TV shows. Faith is a team sport. 

Does a Low Pitched Voice Tell Us Anything?

 Recently, I heard a report on the radio about a new research study. The announcer said something like, “People with lower-pitched voices have greater leadership skills, outgoing personalities, and sex appeal.” 

When I heard that, I said, “Ooh, that’s interesting.” Then I cleared my throat, and said in my best Barry White impersonation, “OOOOOH, BABY, THAT IS IN-TER-EST-TINNNG.”
Before we moved last year, I was in the church choir and sang the bass part, the lowest-pitched notes. To be honest, I was in the bass section mostly because I couldn’t come close to the high notes the tenors were required to sing. And come to think of it, I couldn’t hit some of the low bass notes either. But trying to hit a really low note and producing no sound was much more enjoyable for listeners compared to trying for a high note and sounding like a cat who just got his tail stuck in a blender. 

But the fact is, the pitch of my voice is much closer to Robert Goulet than Johnny Mathis — except I have a rather thin tone that kind of warbles. Other than that, though, Bobby Goulet and I are practically twins. “IF EVER I WOULD LEAVE YOOOOO, IT WOULDN’T BE IN SUMM-ERRR...”

I’m going to dismiss the fact that whenever I’m a bit nervous, like when I’m at work giving a presentation to a conference room filled with engineers, my speaking voice tends to sound a lot like Don Knotts. That’s just nerves. My regular voice is low. Really low. REALLY LOOOOOOW. Which means, according to the researchers, I am a natural leader with an outgoing personality and sex appeal. Nice. I mean, NIIIIICE, BABY.
When I got home, I looked it up online, and found that the research study was conducted at the University of Gottingen’s Biological Personality Psychology Group, in Germany. It was published in the Journal of Research in Personality. 

However, when I read the details, I was a bit surprised. I thought the radio announcer used the phrase “leadership skills,” but the article said people with lower-pitched voices have a tendency to try to dominate others, sometimes to the point of bullying. Well, that’s not so good.  

The “outgoing personality” I heard mentioned on the radio was actually more of an ability to convince people to trust you, and as a result, believe whatever you tell them. In other words, it’s the skill of being a B.S. artist. Ugh.

Finally, what I heard as “sex appeal” actually referred to a person’s “sociosexuality level.” This is a fancy phrase that means “greater likelihood to engage in casual sex.” OH, NOOOO. Wait, I mean, oh no.

Hmm, that’s just terrible. 

You know, to be perfectly honest now that I think about it a little more, I wasn’t in the bass section of the choir. It was the tenor section. No, wait, I was a soprano. Yeah, that’s it.

And my voice sounds like Don Knotts all the time, not just when I’m nervous. (Like right now.) 
If I had to compare myself with a famous singer, it definitely would be Johnny Mathis. “Chances aaaaare, ‘cause I wear a silly grin...”

Or maybe Celine Dion. Yeah, I sound just like her. “Near, far, where evvv-err you are….my heart will go on and onnnnn.” Yup, that’s me all right. 

In conclusion, the most important thing we can learn from that research study, especially if someone has been happily married for 39-1/2 years and wants to make it to 40, is that we should never trust silly research studies. And this goes double for research studies that are reported by radio announcers with deep voices. AND I’M NOT KIDDING, BABY.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Would Your life Story Make a Good Book?

 Recently, I saw an article with this headline: “More than half of Americans think their life is worthy of a book deal.”

Reading further, I discovered a survey was conducted earlier this year, and 55 percent of respondents said the story of their personal life would make a good novel or movie. Additionally, among those people who consider themselves to be “avid readers,” the percentage jumps to almost two-thirds.
When asked who they would cast as themselves in the Hollywood adaptation of that best-selling biography of their life, here were some of the suggestions: Al Pacino, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lopez, and Brad Pitt. 

To the rather optimistic folks who were part of that survey, I have one piece of advice: No. Just no.

I understand that we now live in an “Everyone gets a participation trophy” culture, and most people are convinced they’re super special. And I get it that throughout our long journey here on earth, we occasionally find ourselves in the midst of interesting events. Since the advent of digital photography and smartphone cameras, every single one of those interesting events — plus eight billion other painfully boring events — have been captured and preserved for all time.

However, before a particular life story is approved by book publishers, the editors ask themselves a simple question: “Will anyone besides Aunt Clara and Uncle Bud want to buy this book?” (I believe in the publishing world it’s known as “C&B Market Analysis Algorithm.” Don’t worry, if you only have an Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jimmy, the publishers are shrewd enough to modify their data analytics to the “M&J Market Analysis Algorithm.”)
I consider myself an “avid reader,” and I’ve read many biographies of famous and influential people. To be honest, in many cases their lives were pretty boring. Some found themselves in the middle of historic events, which was the primary reason an author decided to chronicle their life story. 

I’m reminded of a biography I read about Winston Churchill. Certainly, ‘ol Winnie was one of the most important persons of the 20th century. The chapters on how he led Britain during the dark days of World War II are very compelling. But all the other chapters about the rest of his life caused me to say, “Gee, this guy is a self-centered snob who thinks he’s better than everybody else, and therefore, he ought to run their lives.” (Unfortunately, that sentence describes a lot of people nowadays, most of whom appear regularly on cable TV news networks.)

There is a big reason why the most popular books and movies are works of fiction: the authors and screenwriters have the freedom to create exciting stories. Just think of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Mark Twain, Steven King, etc.
When the average schmoe, “avid reader” or not, takes a survey and genuinely thinks his or her life would make a compelling novel and/or movie, I can only ask, “What exactly have you been avidly reading? Haven’t you noticed these interesting stories have NOTHING in common with your life?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the life stories of those of us who are among the throng of everyday schmoes should not be written down. Every person’s life does tell a story. With modern computers it’s not difficult to type out your life story and family history. Then these adventures, for example, can be posted on an Internet blog site. At that point, please do not sit by the phone waiting for Denzel or Sandra or Brad to call, because they won’t. However, Aunt Clara and Uncle Bud and the rest of your kin will be delighted.