Friday, July 21, 2017

Camping Nightmare: ‘Leave the Light On’

A friend recently asked me if I have a tent he can borrow. I shuddered for a moment — horrifying memories flashing through my mind — then I replied with a quivering voice, “Uhh, no. Our family doesn’t camp.”

My wife and I actually tried camping a few times when we were first married. However, after one particularly gruesome experience over three decades ago, we vowed to spend every night for the rest of our lives sleeping in well-constructed buildings. And if a well-constructed building is not available, we will settle for a Motel 6. (Nothing personal, Tom. I kind of like it that you “leave the light on” for us.)

There are, I admit, some positive aspects to camping: the camaraderie, enjoying the great outdoors, barbequing, and seeing nature up close and personal rather than through the windshield of a car while cruising down the Interstate at 70 mph. The only downside to camping is, well, the camping.

After an enjoyable day outdoors, when the sun finally sets, instead of going inside a well-constructed building (or a Motel 6) to get a good night’s sleep on a real mattress with clean sheets, campers crawl into a nylon or canvas tent and lie on the lumpy ground inside a musty sleeping bag. Even if the ground is smooth and level (which is rare), and even if that little air mattress doesn’t spring a leak in the middle of the night (rarer still), it is impossible to sleep well inside a tent.

In addition to a noticeable absence of Sealy Posturepedic mattresses, there are three other minor reasons why you can’t get a good night’s sleep while camping — plus one major reason.

First, the minor reasons: (1) No air conditioning. Hey, I admit it, I’m a wimp. But once you get used to a climate-controlled bedroom with crisp, dry air, a stuffy and sweaty tent just doesn’t cut it.

(2) No bathrooms. This is not a matter of wimpiness; it’s a matter of having a middle-aged bladder. It’s hard enough at home to stumble out of bed at 3 a.m. and stagger down the hall, but in a tent, you have to wiggle out of your sleeping bag, put on your shoes, figure out how to unzip the tent flap, and then wander around in pitch darkness trying to remember where that particular campsite’s communal latrines are located. Unfortunately, long before you can find the latrines, you wet your pants. But it doesn’t matter because of —

(3) Dampness. Let’s face it, the great outdoors is a very wet place at 3 a.m. Everything is covered in dew — a major reason mankind invented well-constructed buildings (or, when sturdy construction materials were not available, Motel 6’s). Even if you avoid wetting your pants during the night, by daybreak all your clothing, your sleeping bag, your hair, and your will-to-live are very soggy.

This brings us to the MAJOR reason why you can’t get a good night’s sleep while camping: insects. On that gruesome night inside a tent many years ago, my wife and I made a horrifying discovery: entomologists very easily could have named earwigs “nosewigs.”

I have no idea why those creepy little buggers were so fascinated with my nasal passages, but suffice to say my wife and I sat up the rest of that night in the tent hugging each other tightly, whimpering, and counting down the seconds until sunrise. Not a very pleasant experience. 

If my friend finds a tent to borrow, instead of sitting up all night whimpering about the insects, he can always drive back to my house and sleep inside my well-constructed home. I’ll “leave the light on” for him. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Give Jesus 90 Seconds, He’ll Give You the Full Story

The Gospel reading at Mass this weekend offers a long version and a short version. The priest or deacon has the option of reading the full passage from Matthew’s gospel, which takes about two-and-a-half minutes to recite, or the abbreviated passage, which takes about one minute.

If the priest or deacon chooses the shorter version, what will the people in the pews gain? Well, they will gain 90 whole seconds. This means Mass will end sooner and the folks will have a full one-and-a-half minute head start on the weekly tire-squealing, curb-jumping contest to get out of the parking lot as quickly as possible, even if it means occasionally side-swiping Grandma McGillicuddy, who really should’ve known better than to challenge a Chevy Suburban with her rickety walker.

Now, on the other hand, what will the people in the pews gain if the priest or deacon chooses to read the full two-and-a-half minute version of the Gospel? Oh, nothing much—except the COMPLETE EXPLANATION of what the gospel reading actually means. Gee, who would want to waste a valuable 90 seconds for something like that?

This week, Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds. A man sowed good seed in his field, but at night an enemy snuck in and sowed weeds throughout the field.

When the wheat began to grow, weeds also appeared. The servants went to the man and asked if they should pull out the weeds. He replied no, as they might accidentally uproot the wheat in the process. Wait till the harvest, then at that time, the harvesters will separate the wheat from the weeds, putting the wheat into the barn and bundling up the weeds to be burned.

And right at that point, the shorter version of the gospel reading comes to an end. So, with the shorter version, the average American Catholic, who has little knowledge of farming, will think Jesus just gave a lesson in basic agriculture.

If the additional one-and-a-half minutes are presented, the people in the pews will hear Jesus’ detailed explanation of what the parable means. Possibly this is worth 90 seconds of a person’s valuable time?

Jesus described each symbolic point in the parable:

  • the man who sowed good seed is the Son of Man, that is, Jesus Himself
  • the field is the world
  • the good seed represents the children of the Kingdom
  • the weeds are the children of the evil one
  • the enemy is the devil
  • the harvest is the end of the age
  • the harvesters are angels
Jesus then went on to say, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

In this explanation, Jesus acknowledged the existence of the following: (1) the devil, (2) the devil’s evil followers, (3) a future final judgment, and (4) a place where evildoers will be sent which is, shall we say, not very pleasant.

OK, it seems this parable is slightly different than just a lesson in basic agriculture.

Each of the four realities acknowledged by Jesus—the devil, his evil followers, final judgment, and Hell—are not exactly popular concepts these days. Maybe many people indeed would prefer a lesson in basic agriculture and a 90-second head start toward the parking lot. 

But if Jesus says something is real, then whether we like it or not, it is real. We ignore it at our own risk. And speaking of risk, maybe it’s time we relaxed and took our time while leaving the church parking lot. I hear Grandma McGillicuddy has a mean lawyer.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fun and Relaxation on the Links

When I was young, I used to pass the time by sticking needles in my eyes. Later on, I enjoyed shoving sharpened Number 2 pencils into my ears. Now that I’m middle-aged, I get my kicks by playing golf.

OK, I’ve never actually stabbed myself with sharp objects (on purpose, anyway), but the fact that I play golf is strong evidence that I have some serious masochistic tendencies.

Golf is, to be charitable, a psychotic sport. It takes up too much time; it’s way too expensive; and it’s so maddeningly frustrating that my blood pressure reading often shoots off the charts and my facial expressions routinely resemble President Trump after Mika Brzezinski says something nasty about him.

And yet, if someone says to me, “Hey Bill, do you want to sneak out of work early and play some golf?” my immediate reply is, “Yeah! Let’s do it!”

For some bizarre reason, the more pain golf inflicts on me, the more I want to play. I think this calls for some professional counseling. Even at $200 per hour, a therapist would save me some money compared to golf.

One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By this definition, when it comes to golf, I am certifiable. Every single time I’ve ever played golf, about one-third of my shots were well-struck. But every single time I go out golfing, I think to myself, “OK, today’s the day I get into a groove and hit ONLY good shots.”

I might as well be thinking to myself, “OK, today’s the day space monkeys from Mars land a flying saucer on my front lawn and give me a large box filled with hundred-dollar bills.” (If that happens, I’ll use the money to buy a new set of irons.)

Golf, in theory, is supposed to be fun and relaxing. Let me describe a round of golf last week, and you decide if the words “fun” or “relaxing” can be found anywhere.

It was a miserably hot and humid day, and halfway through the round I felt like a washed-out dish rag. By the time we were finished, I was so sunburned people thought someone had splashed red paint onto my neck. I had a blister on my hand, and my back was aching. I missed so many three-foot putts, it made my head hurt. (Well, I’m not sure the bad shots made my head hurt. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that after every missed shot I would whack myself in the forehead with the shaft of my putter.) And finally, when the day was done, I had spent over 150 bucks.

But that’s not the insane part. The really frightening aspect of this scenario occurred as I was limping toward my car in the parking lot. One of my playing partners said, “Hey Bill, I’ve got a tee time reserved for Saturday afternoon. Do you want to join us?”

Now, of course, the only rational response at that moment should have been, “Hey, pal, I can have you arrested for making threatening statements!” But instead, without hesitating, I replied, “Sure! I’d love to!”

During the ride home, I should’ve done what a normal person would do: call my friend and tell him I can’t make it after all, since I just remembered I have to rearrange my sock drawer on Saturday afternoon. But no, I was excited about how much fun it was going to be. 

So, maybe you’ll see me on the course Saturday afternoon relaxing and having fun. I’ll be the one whacking myself in the forehead after each shot.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Prayer Is a Blessed Mystery

Over the years, when people asked me to pray for them, I usually would, but within a few days I’d forget about it until the next time I saw that particular person. And then I’d feel guilty about forgetting, so last year I finally decided to start a prayer notebook. I write down the person’s name and the reason he or she needs prayer. The vast majority of people in my notebook need prayer for healing. When you get to be my age, there is no shortage of friends and loved ones with health issues. I’m soon going to need a second notebook.

Anyway, the other day as I was praying for the people listed in my notebook, I realized many of my prayers have changed from healing requests to “repose of the soul” requests, because sadly they have died. Some of the people I’ve prayed for were healed, while others were not. This got me pondering once again an age-old question: why bother to pray?

One view of prayer is portrayed in the movie “Shadowlands,” a biography of the famous Christian author C.S. Lewis. During a crisis in his life, Lewis explained to a friend why he was praying so fervently. He said (and I paraphrase because I haven’t seen the film in many years), “I don’t pray for God to do my will; I pray that I do His will.”

When you think about it, God is indeed sovereign and omniscient; He is outside of time; He already knows every single event of our lives—past, present, and future. Which means, I suppose, it would be futile for us to beg God to do one thing when He’s already ordained that something else is going to happen.

But is that the only purpose of prayer, to ask for the strength to accept our inevitable fate? In the gospels Jesus makes it clear that we SHOULD ask God for what we desire, and our prayers CAN change God’s mind.

For example, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus in desperation, begging Him to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus completely ignored her. But she would not take no for an answer. Finally, Jesus exclaimed, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And He healed her daughter.

And don’t forget the famous episode during the wedding feast at Cana. When the party ran out of wine, Jesus’ mother Mary went to Him and explained the embarrassing situation. Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”

Mary just smiled at Jesus, like only a mother can. Jesus finally relented and performed the miracle of changing water into wine. It’s very clear from the biblical account that Jesus had no intention of performing His first miracle at that wedding feast, but because of a sincere request, He changed His mind.

So, is God sovereign and omniscient? Yes. Does He already know every single event of our lives—even our future? Yes. Therefore, is it futile to try to change God’s mind with prayer? Definitely NO!

Jesus tells us we must have childlike faith. God is our father and we are His children. We should approach Him as a child approaches a loving parent, filled with trust. Maybe our prayers should have two components: we should ask for the grace to handle the trials and tribulations of life, especially when our loved ones are not healed as we prayerfully request. But even if many of our prayers for healing turn into “repose of the soul” requests, we should continue to pray for what we desire, knowing that God delights in answering our persistent, sincere, and faithful prayers. And whichever way things turn out, we should rejoice knowing it is God’s will for our lives.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Coffee Junkie Needs a Fix

Our coffee maker died the other day. I set up the machine exactly as I do each morning — first the filter, then a couple scoops of ground coffee, then water — and flipped the switch on. I learned in the past that if I’m not paying attention and do things out of sequence — for example: first a couple scoops of ground coffee, then the filter, then water — the final product has a somewhat robust and crunchy flavor. Which actually isn’t so bad except for the coffee grounds stuck in my teeth for the rest of the day.

When I came back into the kitchen ten minutes later, I was startled to see that there was nothing in the coffee pot. I shrieked as if I were Homer Simpson noticing the donut box was empty. (On second thought, I shrieked as if I were Bill Dunn noticing the donut box was empty.) How could I possibly start the day — how could I possibly go on living?! — without coffee in the morning?

Then I saw a sizable puddle of liquid emanating from the base of the coffee maker and spreading out over the kitchen counter. I touched it with my finger; it was warm. In the early morning darkness I couldn’t tell if it was clear warm water, or brown warm water which had passed through the ground coffee. There was only one way to find out.

Wait a minute, I know what you’re thinking. I did NOT start lapping at the liquid like a dehydrated dog. As I was bending over with my tongue extended, I remembered I also could identify the liquid by turning on the kitchen light, which I did. (Have you ever noticed that as far as your eyes are concerned, turning on the kitchen light at 5:30 a.m. is a lot like staring at a nuclear detonation?)

Anyway, it turned out to be just warm water. So, I quickly got dressed, jumped into my car, and began a frantic search for something, anything, hot and black and liquidy. I would’ve drained the oil from my car’s engine, but it hadn’t heated up enough at that point.

My first stop was a nearby convenience store. To my horror, it was closed. A sign on the front door read, “Hours of operation: 6 AM to Midnight, 7 days per week.” I pounded the steering wheel in frustration. “Slackers!” I yelled. “Doesn’t anyone have a decent work ethic anymore?!”

My next stop was a Dunkin Donuts, where thankfully, mercifully, I was able to satiate my caffeine craving. After some reflection, I’d like to offer a couple of belated apologies: to the young lady behind the counter, I didn’t mean to splash hot coffee on your arm when I reached across the counter and yanked the cup out of your hand as you attempted to secure the travel lid. That type of burn should heal fairly quickly. And to the elderly woman who was standing to my left as I approached the counter, I didn’t mean to hip-check you to the floor, but I WAS next in line. That type of fracture should heal fairly quickly.

On the way home from work that evening, I stopped by Walmart and was pleased to find coffee makers on sale for $40. When I arrived home, my wife was kind of upset that I had charged $200 on our credit card. I’m not sure why she was angry. Based on what I went through that morning, it didn’t strike me as unreasonable to have four emergency back-up coffee makers in the house. 

I wonder what she’ll say when I tell her I just mortgaged the house to buy a Dunkin Donuts franchise?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Being a Slave to Sin Is Hard Work

At Mass this weekend, the second reading is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. He explains how the Spirit of God can transform us. “You are not in the flesh,” he writes, “on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

In many of Paul’s other epistles, he discusses the difference between living by the Spirit vs. living by the flesh. For example, in his letter to the Colossians, he writes: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust… greed…anger… slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (Uh, oh. I hope Paul didn’t hear me recently when the Red Sox blew a lead late in the game.)

Paul’s list of no-no’s seems downright impossible to avoid, especially nowadays, when our secular culture encourages that behavior. Many of us are convinced it’s so difficult to avoid sin, we really don’t try very hard.

But here’s something most people don’t realize: living a life of sin requires much more effort than living a life of virtue. I once read about a young woman in New York City who was into the wild nightlife scene. Each evening she would find herself involved in drinking, drugs, and casual sexual encounters. It was wearing her out, both physically and mentally. Finally, she sought help from a therapist, who said to her, “You know, you don’t have to keep doing that stuff.” The young woman was stunned. “You mean I don’t have to do what I WANT to do?” she asked. It was a surprising revelation and a major relief for her. Just because she had the opportunity to live a wild life, she didn’t have to do it.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” When Jesus calls us to follow Him and live a life of virtue, He doesn’t call us to DO a lot of painful, difficult churchy-type things. He simply calls us to break free from our slavery to sin.

Throughout history, no one has ever equated being a slave with a life of luxury and leisure. Slaves are routinely worked to death at an early age. Well, it’s the same with being a slave to sin. The workload is enormous and the cost is high—both physically and mentally—and the end result also is an early death.

In addition to the obvious, here-and-now price to be paid for being a slave to sin, there is a far costlier there-and-then, spiritual price: eternal damnation. As a wise man once said, “No matter how many years you live, you’re gonna be dead a whole lot longer.”

If, as Jesus taught, our souls are eternal and live on forever after our bodies have died, then there is nothing more important than making sure our souls end up in Heaven rather than Hell. This is the primary function of the Church: to make saints and get as many souls as possible into Heaven.

It’s important that our local parishes are in the business of making saints. We need to help and encourage each other to break free from the slavery of sin, and we need to spread the joyful news that God’s Spirit can dwell in us and transform our lives. Paul said this is what we must do, and Jesus said it’s easy and not a burden.

 So, let’s fill our parishes with hope and joy, and let people know that it’s not a burden to become a saint. (As long as a certain someone stops swearing at the TV during Red Sox games.)

Friday, June 30, 2017

More Exciting Travel Adventures

After many decades of traveling on business, I was sure I had experienced every possible surprise that could happen to a person being served by the delightful airline and hotel industries. But I was wrong. Last month I traveled to the Midwest with a group of business associates, and I got to enjoy six completely new travel-related adventures. (And I am, of course, using the definition of the word “enjoy” that means: “Arrrgggh! Why does God hate me?!!”)

First, my flight to Atlanta was diverted to Charlotte because of bad weather. Over the years, I’ve been delayed more times than I can count, and missed dozens of connecting flights, but this was the first time I was ever diverted. As thunderstorms rolled through Atlanta, we flew in circles for about an hour waiting for the weather to clear. But then the pilot came on the PA system and said, “Because we’ve been in this holding pattern so long, we’re running low on fuel. So, they’re diverting us to Charlotte.”

I didn’t really think much about Charlotte, because all my brain cells were focused on the idea that we were low on fuel. “Exactly how low?” I wondered. “Charlotte may be nearby, but it’s also 35,000 feet straight down. I don’t think MD-88’s glide very well, and I’m pretty sure Triple-A won’t send out a guy with a 2-gallon can to get us to the nearest gas station.”

Well, we made it to Charlotte okay, and while sitting there for two hours, I was informed our connecting flight just took off from Atlanta. The customer service agent re-booked us onto a flight early the next morning, and gave us a bunch of room vouchers for a hotel near the Atlanta airport.

The second new experience for me was discovering, at about midnight, that airline-issued room vouchers are not even worth the paper they’re printed on. The very pleasant woman at the front desk said, “Oh honey, those are just airline vouchers. They mean you can have a room at a discount rate — IF a room is available. But we’re completely full tonight.”

After a frantic hour of calling around to every hotel in northern Georgia, we finally found a place not too far away that had a couple rooms left. (There were six of us in my group. We were about to get to know each other much better.)

My third new experience was checking into a hotel, well after 1 a.m., and discovering my room was not empty. Rather than get to know total strangers much better, the front desk finally found another room.

My fourth new experience was staying in a hotel room overnight (well, three hours of sleep isn’t quite overnight, I guess), and not even having a chance to take a shower.

The fifth new experience for me was going through airport security twice in a 10-minute period. This was because after collecting my stuff after it went through the X-ray machine, my sleep-deprived brain said, “Um, here’s my shoes and belt and backpack, but where’s my duffle bag?” That’s when I remembered I put it down out in the main entrance area so I could hand out the boarding passes to the other guys, and I, well, I couldn’t remember actually picking the duffle bag back up again.

So, I frantically raced out of the security area, went back to the airport’s main entrance, and enjoyed the sixth and final new experience of my trip: trying to explain to a really angry cop that my unattended duffle bag was stuffed with clothing rather than explosives. He finally muttered into his radio, “Never mind. It’s just another moron.” 

All in all, it was a lovely trip.