Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Who’s Afraid of Confession? We Are! 

 What are some things that American adults are afraid of? Well, there’s an IRS audit; that’s scary. And most people cringe at the thought of going to the dentist. But for Catholics, high on the list of frightening things is going to Confession — or as it’s called now, the sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, if given the choice between going to Confession or having a tooth drilled without any Novocain, most American Catholics would say, “Let’s get it over with, Doc,” and then open their mouths wide. 

Now, of course, most adult Catholics don’t come right out and admit they are afraid of going to Confession. Instead they often say something like, “I haven’t committed any serious sins, so I don’t need to go.” However, Confession is not just for serious sins; it’s for all sins, even the little minor venial sins most people commit on a daily basis. Here’s something interesting: both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II went to Confession at least once a week. And we say we don’t need to go because we don’t sin? Uh huh, sure.

Other people offer this explanation: “Well, I can confess my sins directly to God in prayer. I don’t need that formalized ritual the Church invented.” The thing is, the Church didn’t invent Confession. The Lord Himself gave this wonderful grace-filled sacrament to the Church as a means for people to have their sins truly forgiven — and just as important, for them to KNOW their sins are truly forgiven. 

Even modern psychology acknowledges there is something emotionally liberating about telling your failings out loud to another person. It really “gets it off your chest” when you speak it audibly to someone else. Many folks who ask God for forgiveness in prayer, without the benefit of the sacrament of Reconciliation, end up confessing the same old sin over and over again. In their hearts they really aren’t sure whether God has forgiven them. In comparison, people who take ten minutes to go to Confession walk out truly free. The grace they receive from the sacrament lets them KNOW that God has indeed forgiven their sins. What a relief! 
If most Catholic adults are honest, they will admit they don’t go to Confession because it frightens them. Let's take, for example, a friend of mine, a middle-aged businessman, who makes dozens of tough decisions each day and has to deal with other people in a firm, no-nonsense manner. At the mere thought of going to Confession, however, he suddenly turns into Jell-O. In his mind, he is transformed into the same insecure seven-year-old who made his first Confession decades ago, and who at the time was absolutely convinced the priest on the other side of the screen was eight feet tall, five-hundred pounds, with sharp fangs and laser beams for eyeballs, who was gleefully waiting to hear the nasty things a seven-year-old boy did so he could fire those laser beams and turn the quivering child into a pile of smoldering cinders. OK, well, everyone has his or her own nightmarish scenario. I suspect this scenario is not only accurate for me — um, I mean, my friend — but is also fairly accurate for many other people.
If the seven-year-old nightmare scenario is how you envision the sacrament of Reconciliation, you are in for a real surprise. Nowadays the priests are compassionate and understanding, and I have it on good authority that hardly any of them have laser beam eyeballs anymore. Because so few people go to Confession these days, the priests are delighted when someone comes to receive forgiveness. They are there to help and to be the conduit that allows God’s healing grace to flow into you. 

If you give Confession a try, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And you won’t even need any Novocain.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

I’m Begging You: Please Call a Plumber!

 In all my years of being a (semi) responsible adult, I’ve learned one important lesson that I would like to share with younger fellows. It’s a very simple maxim: “Please call a plumber.”

Every young man has a moment in his life when he declares, “I can fix that.” It’s usually some kind of drip or leak or blockage; or a wobbly toilet or not-quite-level sink; or just a really weird noise coming from the pipes in the basement. Oftentimes, the guy in question just finished watching a “how-to” video on YouTube, and he’s fairly confident it shouldn’t be a big deal to make the repair himself. “Why pay a ton of money to a plumber,” he asks rhetorically, “when I can spend 50 bucks at Home Depot and do the job in a couple hours?”

From decades of experience, let me offer this basic analysis. Option 1: Call a plumber. He makes the repair. Pay him 1,000 dollars. Ouch! That’s a lot of money.

Option 2: Watch a how-to video. Go to Home Depot multiple times and spend 200 dollars (because the materials always cost four times more than what you figured). Work for ten hours trying to make the repair (because the labor time is always five times more than what you figured). Come to the horrifying realization that you’ve made things worse. Scramble to get buckets to keep the new and invigorated leaks from damaging floors and furniture. Apply Band-Aids to your bleeding knuckles. Put an ice pack on your aching lower back. Call a plumber. He makes the repair, after first repairing your attempted repair. Pay him 2,000 dollars. Double ouch!
By the way, unless your dad was a plumber and you worked with him every summer while going through school and you actually have a good working knowledge of plumbing, there is no Option 3.

Paying a plumber a thousand bucks is painful, for sure. A heartfelt “Ouch!” is in order. But compare that with the alternative. Twenty-two hundred bucks out-of-pocket. Hours of your life wasted that you’ll never get back. Bloody knuckles, aching back, and soggy floors. Most of all, you experience the acute and painful sensation of having your ego completely crushed, especially when the plumber says with a chuckle, “Oh wow, did YOU do this?”

This scenario causes a heartfelt “Ouch! Ouch!! OUCH!!” followed by a gentle whimper as the last molecule of testosterone evaporates from your body.

(A very funny comedian, Orny Adams, rails against products that are marketed to help middle-aged men with a condition known as “Low-T,” that is, testosterone levels that are lower than when the guys were younger. Adams passionately explains, “Don’t buy that stuff! Every bad decision I’ve ever made in my life happened when I was on ‘High-T!’”)
I’m not trying to discourage men from doing projects around the house. And I’m certainly not trying to drum up business for members of the Western Connecticut Plumbers Guild. All the plumbers I know have more work than they can handle, much of which involves repairing the attempted repairs of testosterone-inspired homeowners. All I’m trying to do is help guys avoid a big mistake.
For example, it’s fine to attempt a carpentry type project — as long as the nails or screws required are no more than an inch long. Anything larger than that? Call a pro.

And when it comes to electrical repairs, don’t even think about it. In fact, just to be safe, turn all the electrical switches in your home to the “off” position, and then leave them there — forever.
There. I’m glad I could offer these important words of wisdom to the young ambitious homeowners out there.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Pharisee at Sunday Mass

 Recently I went to Sunday morning Mass. I thought I was in a pretty good mood, but as I walked up the aisle I noticed some people were sitting in my usual pew. Grrr, I know we don’t officially have assigned seating in church, but well, darn it, that’s my seat!

I found another pew, and as I kneeled to say a quick prayer, I heard two ladies nearby chatting way too loudly. Gabby and Crabby, I called them. One of them, Gabby, is hearing impaired, and spoke at full volume, although she thought she was whispering. The other one, Crabby, tried to whisper, but when Gabby shouted, “Whadja say?!” Crabby repeated her comment, which was a complaint about something in the parish, at the same decibel level as a fire alarm, only slightly more shrill. I found that my quick prayer turned into something like this: “Please, Lord, strike them both mute, just for the next hour.”
When Mass began, I stood and listened to the cantor sing the opening hymn. When she began a verse a bit late and then soon after missed a note, I shook my head and muttered, “Wow, she couldn’t even take a few minutes earlier in the week to practice that song?”

Then during the readings, as the lector proclaimed holy Scripture, I thought to myself, “Boy, he sure mumbles a lot. I’m only understanding about half the words he says. I bet Gabby ain’t hearing any of this.”
During the readings, I noticed a man and woman enter the church through the side door and quickly sit in the nearest open pew. “Hey,” I thought, “We start at nine-thirty, not quarter to ten. Did you forget to set your alarm clock — again?” Now that I was focused on Mr. and Mrs. Tardy, I heard and comprehended about as much of the readings as Gabby.

As Mass progressed, I continued to see and hear things that annoyed me. The altar server was late ringing the bells, and when he did ring them, it wasn’t loud enough. “Gabby should be ringing the bells,” I concluded. “That’d wake everybody up.”
During the most sacred part of the Mass, the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament, I tried to focus on the priest, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed a couple of boys, about four or five years old, fidgeting in their pew. I think Mike and Ike were playing with a couple of small toys. Their parents kneeled right next to them and did nothing to make them stop. “No discipline these days,” I thought. “What’s this world coming to?” I kept watching the boys as they squirmed, and missed the whole consecration.

When I got back to my pew after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, I tried to offer a prayer of thanksgiving, but I was distracted by the line of parishioners still waiting for their turn. “Look at how people dress nowadays,” I thought. “Pajama pants and slippers? In church? Really? And look at the outfit on her. Whataya think this is, lady, a night club? Ever hear of modesty? Sheesh.”

While driving home, my wife asked, “How’d you like Father’s homily?”

“Um, it was OK,” I said, scrambling to remember what he had said. After a few moments I realized that I had been distracted and didn’t pay attention.

My wife continued, “He talked about the gospel reading, where the proud Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t like all the lowly sinners. Father said there might be Pharisees right in our own pews, who think they’re holy and look down their noses at everyone else. They’re in for a big surprise at the Final Judgment.”
“Um, yeah,” I said. Just then I heard a little voice in my head whisper, “Hey pal, are you enjoying being a judgmental Pharisee?”

I turned to my wife and said, “Do you want to go to the 11:30 Mass with me? I think I need a do-over.”

Readers Reply With Words of Wisdom

 A few weeks ago, this column discussed “words of wisdom.” I concluded by asking readers to send in their favorite maxims, aphorisms, axioms, proverbs, platitudes, precepts, prescripts, morals, adages, tenets, and truisms. (Thesaurus.com is a very handy website. Just sayin’.)

I received an avalanche of emails. Many readers have a lot of wisdom to share, although quite a few folks seem to have inherited the same “smart aleck gene” that I’ve been blessed (or possibly afflicted) with. Here are just a few of the replies:
Sanita wrote, “Be patient with your kids. Remember that not all the daffodils bloom on the same day.” Good point. But what if one of your kids turns out to be a cactus?

Shawnee said, “Be a doubting Thomas and question everything, even as you embrace mystery.” That’s very wise. Throughout my life, whenever I refused to accept something blindly, I was able to embrace it more wholeheartedly after proving to myself it was true.
Joe wrote, “If you want to succeed in life, look at what I’ve done — and do the exact 180-degree opposite!” Joe is a friend of mine, and he’s being way too hard on himself. I happen to know that during the past 25 years Joe has definitely done at least, um, a couple things right. Probably. Joe also offered this: “Don’t hit ‘SEND’ until you’ve sat on that angry email for a day.” Something tells me Joe learned this one the hard way.

Dick said, “Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad!” For me, the best thing to put in a fruit salad is bacon. And chocolate.
Donna offered her dad’s favorite saying: “Don’t worry, things will get worse!” Oh boy, I hope that’s not true for the year 2021.

Art wrote, “When my wife is mad at me, I tighten all the caps on the jars in the fridge so she has to talk to me.” He also said, “I don't call it getting old. I call it outliving the warranty.” You’re a smart guy, Art.

Rich had this to say: “Don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow,” and, “You can always spot a motorcyclist by the bugs on his teeth.” Gee, I hope those bikers aren’t waiting till tomorrow to brush their teeth.

Lisa wrote, “As long as God and I are okay, I’m okay.” Good point, Lisa. And last I checked, God is still okay.

Mike said, “Don’t spit into the wind.” Actually, he did not use the word “spit,” but I’m pretty sure the different bodily action he described would not make it past the Family Newspaper Good Taste Committee.

Speaking of spitting, Ed offered this one: “Never spit in a man’s face, unless his mustache is on fire.” (And yes, in this case Ed did use the word “spit”.) Ed also wrote, “Don’t exaggerate. I must have said this to my daughters 5 million times.”

Susan explained that whenever there is a hard project to tackle, she reminds herself, “Inch by inch it’s a cinch, but yard by yard it’s mighty hard.” That’s fine, but I prefer to call a contractor and then grab the checkbook when my wife’s not looking.

A different Susan said, “I can explain it to you but I can’t understand it for you.” Hmm, enough said.
Unfortunately, I’ve run out of space and cannot mention every word of wisdom sent to me. To those who I am unable to squeeze in, I apologize, beg your pardon, ask forgiveness, excuse myself, admit guilt, cop a plea, express deep sorrow, and say I am sorry. Final word of wisdom: “Use Thesaurus.com whenever possible.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Jesus Aged a Lot in One Week

At church on Sunday, January 3rd, it was the feast of the Epiphany. This is the event that features the Three Kings. (Originally, I think they were called the Four Seasons. But when Frankie Valli left to start a solo career, the other guys decided to rename the group. I could be wrong about that, though.)

If you remember from watching any Christmas pageant during the past 2,000 years, the Three Kings were from the East and they traversed afar to bring gifts to the newborn baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On the night Jesus was born, the Three Kings arrived at the stable about ten seconds after the shepherds. Well, at least that’s the way it’s done during most Christmas pageants.
The Bible, however, tells the story a little differently. Matthew’s gospel does not call them kings. They are described as Magi, a word which can mean mystics, magicians, priests, astrologers, college professors, diplomats, wealthy adventurers, reality show contestants, or maybe a combination of all of these. Also, Matthew never says there were three mysterious visitors. Tradition assumes there were three — probably because of the three gifts mentioned — but the Bible actually is silent about that. The Bible is not silent about other details of their journey. It says this about the visitors: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother.”

Did you catch that? The Bible says Jesus and Mary were in a house, not a stable or barn or cave. When you consider the fact that evil King Herod ordered the murder of all Bethlehem boys two years old and younger — not just newborn babies — many Scripture scholars suggest the Magi visited Jesus when He was a toddler, between one and two years old.

At Mass this coming Sunday, January 10th, it is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This is the event when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the official beginning of the Lord’s earthly ministry.
Wait a minute. At Mass on the 3rd, Jesus is no more than 2 years old. Then, seven days later at Mass, Jesus is 30 years old. Wow, He aged at least 28 years in one week. What gives? Why do we skip over such a large portion of Jesus’ life?

The answer is rather simple: we skip over such a large portion of Jesus’ life because the Bible skips over it. Information about Jesus’ birth, what we call the Nativity stories, is found in the first two chapters of both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. (This means the other two gospels, Mark and John, don’t even mention Jesus’ birth.) After these four chapters, the story immediately picks up with Jesus as an adult, ready to start His ministry.

There is one small section of Luke, chapter 2, that describes the time when Jesus was 12 years old and got lost in Jerusalem for three days. But that’s it. Out of 89 chapters in the four gospels, there are four chapters about Jesus’ birth, a handful of verses about one incident when He was 12, and everything else in the remaining 85 chapters discusses His adult ministry.

Another reason we jump from Jesus’ infancy to the start of His ministry so quickly is the fact we have to squeeze the whole story of salvation history into a 12-month Liturgical timeframe.
Each Liturgical year begins with Advent. The Mass cycles cover that season and then Christmas. Then there’s a short period of Ordinary Time until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. After Lent is the Easter season, which ends on Pentecost Sunday, usually in May or June. At this point, the Church calendar moves back into Ordinary Time for many months until the next Advent and a new Liturgical year.
Even though there are 12 months, it is a daunting task to include all the important feast days and all the key episodes in Jesus’ life. If the Church had to include many events from Jesus’ childhood, it would be impossible to cover everything. So, that’s probably why, after four brief chapters about the Nativity, the Bible jumps right into Jesus’ adult ministry. 

St. John said it best at the end of his gospel, when he explained that if every single thing Jesus did was written down, “I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.”

Please don’t be concerned if it seems like Jesus aged three decades in one week. There are many, many things that had to be left out of the Scriptures. But all those mysterious gaps in the story sure give us a lot to think about! 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Too Dark and Cold this Time of Year

 It’s hard to get motivated this time of year. The holidays are over, which is always an emotional letdown. But more importantly, there is simply way too little sunlight each day. Plus, it seems like it’s getting colder and colder. The only thing I feel like doing right now is climbing into bed and hibernating until April.

I think sunrise is about 10:30 a.m. and sunset occurs shortly after noon. OK, I might be exaggerating, but it definitely SEEMS that way, especially since during the few hours when the sun is up, it’s usually cloudy. And on those rare occasions when the sun is shining brightly, it means the temperature has plummeted to about minus-50. (Oops, I’m exaggerating again. It’s only minus-20.) 
For years I was skeptical when I heard people say they had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition which causes mood swings and depression because of a lack of sunlight. It turns out it’s a real medical condition, although you shouldn’t waste your time asking if health insurance companies will pay to let you live in Australia for the next four months. I already tried. But you know what’s even worse than too little sunlight? Too little warmth! I swear, it gets colder and colder each year. I finally figured out why senior citizens go to Florida for the winter. It’s not because they’re retired and they want to play golf all year round. It’s because they don’t want to freeze to death. It’s a medical fact that once you reach age 67-1/2, your blood turns to solid ice on the day after Thanksgiving. (I am, of course, using the definition of the term “medical fact” that means: I just made it up, but I’m fairly confident there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere.)
At this time of year, getting out of bed in the morning is torturous. Each morning, when I first realize that I’m awake, I pull the blankets up over my face. My hair sticks out like little NASA space antennae monitoring atmospheric conditions and relaying the data back to Mission Control. Lately my hair has been able to determine: (1) although it’s twenty minutes to seven, it’s still pitch black outside; (2) although it’s 92 degrees under the covers, the air temperature in my bedroom is 61 degrees and the surface temperature of the hardwood floor, which is gleefully waiting for one of my bare feet to touch it, is approximately minus-50; and (3) every guy in the neighborhood is out scraping ice off his windshield. With that kind of precise information, no wonder my body refuses to get out of bed. The only reason I don’t stay in bed until April is because at my age if I don’t visit the porcelain throne every few hours I’ll end up doing something embarrassing that I haven’t done since I was four years old. (Or maybe I was 14.)
Once I’ve finished my business in the Tiled Library, and once I’ve treated my feet for frostbite, I figure I might as well get dressed and go to work. But since the grueling act of getting out of bed pretty much used up all of my available energy — at least until I have a chance to spend another eight or ten hours under the covers — I can’t possibly be expected to do any actual work while I’m at the office. Speaking of the office, I recently proposed a plan to my boss that would solve all these problems: let me open a branch office in Australia. He didn’t say anything, but as he turned and walked away, my hair antennae were able to detect how warmly he received that idea: minus-50.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Good Riddance, 2020!

 Well, the year 2020 is almost over. Funny thing, my head hurts this morning. It's like I went to a New Year's Eve party last night and got juiced for the first time in 35 years. Ugh, the bad ol' days.

I think this hangover-like sensation is due to the weird dreams I had last night. I mean, they were weird. I dreamed that everyone spent most of the year 2020 hiding behind closed doors. I dreamed the economy suddenly sputtered and millions of peopIe lost their jobs, and those folks who still had jobs were afraid to go to their places of work. I dreamed people were fearful of entering a grocery store, and they completely refused to go to restaurants. I dreamed everyone stopped going to church —  because church leaders told them not to come! I dreamed no one went on vacation, and traveling by airliner suddenly was considered to be as dangerous as it was back in, say, 1923. I dreamed that most sporting events got cancelled, and the games that were played did so in stadiums with no spectators. I dreamed that everybody dressed up for Halloween as a doctor, complete with a surgical mask, except that instead of only on October 31st, they wore this costume all the time. Have you ever heard of such crazy dreams?

Oh wait. Now it’s all coming back to me. It wasn’t a dream. It was 2020, the year when the abnormal became normal. 

So, here we are on the verge of the start of 2021. I think most folks will join me as we take one last look at the year 2020 and shout, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!!” 
Thank God 2020 is history. The year 2021 is sure to be much better, right? Well, I hesitate to get too giddy, because I hate to have my words come back to haunt me. I don’t want to jinx us. I’m sure there was some naïve sailor in Honolulu on December 6, 1941, who said, “I just love it here. This is gonna be the best Christmas season ever!” 

Therefore, I prefer not to be the naïve bumpkin who says, “After what we’ve just been through, 2021 is gonna be the best year ever!!”

Rather than being pollyanna-ish, Let’s just say my approach to the new year is cautious optimism. We’ve been through a lot, and with a little bit of luck and some divine intervention, circumstances could trend back in the right direction during the next 12 months. 

The thing is, just because we begin a new year, doesn’t mean all the problems of 2020 vanish. Viruses are not too smart. They can’t read calendars. All they know is how to keep multiplying as long as they’re in a favorable environment, such as somebody’s lungs. So, we have to be patient, since this pandemic is not going to end suddenly just because it’s a new year. 
There are encouraging news reports about vaccines. But that will take some time. We really need to adopt the attitude Winston Churchill expressed during World War II after the British army won an important battle. “Now, this is not the end,” he said. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Besides patience, the other thing we need to focus on is perseverance. It’s understandable that people are fed up with the quarantines, social distancing, and face masks. In order for 2021 truly to be a much better year than 2020, we have to double our efforts not to spread this nasty disease. 

If we’re lucky, sometime soon we will wake up and think, “Wow, what a bad dream. I’m glad it’s not real — anymore.”

However, regarding the New Year’s Day hangover you'll be enjoying soon, you’re on your own, pal.