Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Hard to Find Jesus in Holiday Clutter

This week is the first Sunday of Advent. It seems like we just packed away the Christmas stuff and now we have to bring it all out again. (I realize this doesn’t apply to everyone. Some folks start celebrating the Christmas season right around Halloween. But in my family, we’re traditionalists. We don’t go bonkers for Christmas until the proper time: thirty seconds after the conclusion of Thanksgiving dinner.)

The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is a very short passage from Mark. Jesus gave a warning about the end times when He would return to judge the world. He said, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come….What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Advent is a time of watching and waiting. It is a four-week period of preparation for the coming of the Lord.

Nowadays, it takes an especially keen eye to see the Lord anywhere among the avalanche of secular Christmas glitz. We can easily find ourselves overwhelmed by trees and lights and holly and mistletoe and parties and presents and shopping and over-eating and on and on and on. We can hop aboard the non-stop, six-week, Ho-ho-ho express and never once give a fleeting thought to the One for whom the Christmas season was originally intended. (I’ll give you a hint: His name is not Santa.)

You can watch hundreds of hours of Christmas specials on TV and never once hear even an oblique reference to Jesus. Virtually all of the “holiday programming” steers quite clear of the religious origin of Christmas.

Let’s face it, Jesus Christ is persona non grata in our present culture. Despite the fact three out of four American citizens describe themselves as Christian, there is a small but powerful segment of society passionately working overtime to rid the public square of any religious influence.

The level of animosity reaches its zenith during the Christmas season—“Christmas season,” by the way, being a phrase that is banned by many schools and municipal operations. I’m still at a loss to figure out how the First Amendment clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” can be invoked when a sixth grade chorus sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Is a sixth grade chorus the same as the U.S. Congress? (No, of course not. The sixth graders are more mature.) Is singing a Christmas carol the same as passing federal legislation? I really don’t get it.

On the other hand, I can find nowhere in the Constitution the clause, “All citizens have the right never to be offended.” If someone is truly offended by a rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” why doesn’t he or she just skip this year’s Christmas concert? (Oops, I mean, “Winter Concert.”)

Anyway, Advent is a time when we should be “watching” for the coming of the Lord, waiting in anticipation for His arrival. But if you spend this December watching for Jesus is all the usual places—shopping malls, office parties, in front of the TV—you are not very likely to spot Him. 

I’m afraid you’re going to have to work at it if you want to see Jesus this season. Skip a Sunday shopping excursion and instead go to church. Turn off the TV and read the Nativity verses in the Bible. Spend a little less time (not to mention effort and money) decorating your house to look like a Las Vegas casino and instead sit down with your kids and pray for God’s peace and love to fill your family and friends. Try to remember, for a change, that Jesus is truly the reason for the season.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Painful Experience at the Dentist Office

For the first time in many years the dentist found a cavity in one of my teeth. And so, for the first time in many years I had to go through the ol’ drilling and filling procedure. Although I have done a pretty good job of getting over many of my childhood phobias — dentist visits, Confession at church, public speaking, stage fright at the urinal if there’s someone else in the men’s room — I still was not looking forward to getting my tooth drilled.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a very painful and uncomfortable experience. But it wasn’t the drilling and filling that hurt. Right after the dentist gave me Novocain, he handed me a magazine to pass the time while the anesthetic took effect. The magazine was titled “This Old House,” and flipping through its pages was one of the most painful experiences in my entire adult life.

The magazine was filled with articles and photos of home renovation projects that made me feel completely inadequate as a homeowner. It was like a “Martha Stewart for men” manual, something that clearly communicates the message, “Ha ha, look what we can do without even breaking a sweat that you could never do in your entire lifetime. Ha ha.”

The magazine had many “before” and “after” photos of the various projects. For example, a fairly regular looking guy named Dave, an accountant by profession, bought a rundown cottage for a song, and in his spare time on the weekends transformed the cottage into a mini Taj Mahal (complete, I think, with an elephant sanctuary in the back yard). Not until the end of the article did I learn that Dave actually owns a large accounting firm, and what he did mostly in his spare time on the weekends was phone the best architects and contractors in his state and write humongous checks which totaled by the time the project was finished to more than $1.2 million.

Some of the shorter articles were brief how-to pieces, such as “How to install crown molding in your bathroom.” Well, I don’t want to install crown molding (whatever that is) in my bathroom. The only things I want in my bathroom are privacy, a functioning toilet, a generous supply of toilet paper, a powerful exhaust fan, and some good magazines to read. (Good magazines being defined as anything but “This Old House.”)

After about ten minutes, the dentist came back into the room. The first thing he said was, “Bill, you look very pale. Are you all right?”

“No, I’m not all right!” I replied. “I like my house a lot, you know. But according to this stupid magazine, I’d have to spend about $90,000 just to get it in shape to be one of the ‘before’ photos!”

The dentist smiled, thinking I was trying to make a joke. “I’m not kidding!” I said. Then I pointed my finger at him, and said as firmly and seriously as possible, considering the left side of my mouth was numb, “Listen Doc, if you let my wife see this magazine when she comes in for her routine cleaning next month, I swear I will hunt you down and install crown molding (whatever that is) right onto your forehead!”

After that, the drilling and filling procedure went smoothly and did not hurt a bit. (I think dentists work more carefully when they’ve just been threatened with bodily harm.) But as I left the office, I still vowed to be much more diligent with my flossing and brushing because I do not want to go through an ordeal that painful ever again.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Christ the King Is All Powerful

This week is the feast of Christ the King, which always occurs on the last Sunday of the Church calendar year. (And if this is the last Sunday of the Church year, then that means next week is the first Sunday of Advent, which means the Christmas season is upon us. Wow, didn’t we just celebrate Christmas, like, a couple months ago?!)

One of my favorite Catholic authors is Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College. Each year Kreeft gives a simple, one-question quiz to the incoming freshmen. Here’s the question: “How do you get to Heaven?”

This is what Kreeft writes about this exercise: “Over three-quarters of all the ‘educated’ Catholic college students I have taught do not know, after twelve years of catechism classes, how to get to heaven! Their answer to that question is usually something like ‘be sincere’ or ‘try your best’ or ‘don’t hurt people’ or ‘work for peace’ or ‘have a nice day’ or some such trumpet blast. They rarely even mention Jesus when asked that question. Why should they? Warm fuzzies are not stronger than death.”

Kreeft explains that despite all the catechism training, most of his students have never been introduced to Jesus, the Word made flesh; Jesus, the One through whom everything was made; Jesus, the Way and the Truth and the Life, and the only path to Heaven (according to His own words). Instead, they have been introduced to Jesus, the kind and friendly 1st century version of Mr. Rogers; the warm and fuzzy nice guy who can give you a hug if your self esteem is low, but cannot conquer death. Kreeft notes, “Jesus the Warm Fuzzy just doesn’t have the appeal of Jesus the Eternal Logos (Eternal Word).”

I wonder if those college kids will be paying attention this week at Mass, when the gospel reading will be from the 25th chapter of Matthew. This gospel passage was selected for the feast of Christ the King because it clearly portrays Jesus in all of His regal power and majesty at the Final Judgment. Describing what will happen at that time, Jesus said to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.”

Wow, that is a very powerful scene. All the nations from the entire earth assembled before one throne. All of the angels in Heaven gathered around Christ the King, the one supreme ruler on His throne. Not exactly Mr. Rogers putting on his sweater and sneakers.

After setting this awesome scene of the Almighty King on His glorious throne, the rest of the passage describes exactly what King Jesus will be doing: passing judgment on every single person. 

Judgment?! Now, that’s an unpopular concept these days. The main point this week is that Jesus is not merely a kindly, peaceful, timid soul who wants to be our friend and say nice things to us and make us feel better about ourselves. He also is the powerful King of kings and Lord of lords, and the final Judge of every single person who has ever lived.

Thankfully Jesus is indeed a God of compassion and mercy. If He were not, He would not have freely sacrificed His own life for our sake. I suspect most of Peter Kreeft’s students understand this aspect of Jesus’ nature. 

But we must never forget that Jesus is also almighty and powerful. Powerful enough to conquer death once and for all on the cross, and powerful enough to determine our eternal fate at the Final Judgment. This may make Jesus a little less warm and fuzzy, but it certainly makes Him capable of saving our souls. It makes Jesus the one and only answer to the question: “How to you get to Heaven?” 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Car License Plates Are Too Artsy

Since I drive a lot for my job, I see plenty of license plates on other cars. Let me just say, they don’t make license plates like they used to.

Years ago, the function of a license plate was rather simple: it was an easy-to-read device to identify a particular motor vehicle. Every state had its own color scheme. In Connecticut it was a blue background with white numbers and letters. I remember a few other states: California was yellow on a black background, New Hampshire was white on green, and New York was black on orange.

People still were able to get “vanity plates” back then, with their initials, nickname, or some other personal message. It was always interesting to see a plate such as “MY VETT” on a station wagon, so you knew the arrival of children finally forced somebody to trade in his beloved Corvette for a more practical vehicle.

But the point is, license plates back then may not have been very flashy, but they were very functional. You could tell right away which state a car was from by the color scheme, and you could read the big, block numbers and letters easily.

Nowadays license plates have become far too flashy and artsy, and as a result have lost their primary function because they are often quite difficult to read. For example, many states now have multiple color schemes. You can no longer instantly tell which state a car is from based on the colors.

And all the different pictures and images on license plates these days are out of control. On just Connecticut plates alone I’ve seen the following images: dogs, cats, children, greenways, sailing ships, eagles, American flags, bobcats, and lighthouses. On the license plates of other states, I’ve seen images of the space shuttle, tigers, lobsters, sunsets, flowers, Mount Rushmore, peaches, oranges, an egret — or maybe it was a duck — airplanes, and, I think, Oprah. (She owns her own state now, doesn’t she?)

Many license plates have an image of a famous state landmark or product. The picture of a lobster lets you know a car is from Utah; the image of oranges can be found on North Dakota plates; and Mount Rushmore appears on license plates from Vermont. (Hey, state history and geography were not my best subjects.) I’m surprise Connecticut plates do not have an image of our most famous state activity: loading a moving van and fleeing to a business-friendly region.

The worst problem of all with license plates is the fact that most car dealerships put plastic frames around the plates. These frames clearly display the dealer’s name, but often cover up important information on the plates themselves (which is why I had to guess the location of the lobster, the oranges, and Mount Rushmore).

Imagine that you witness a crime and you get a glimpse of the getaway car. Later, a policeman asks you, “Did you see the license plate?”

“Yes,” you reply. The cop says, “What state?”

You answer, “Tommy’s Toyota World.”

“Well, what was the license plate number?” the cop asks.

“I dunno,” you say, “but I think there was a picture of a salt marsh and a bird. It might have been an egret — or maybe a duck.”

“Thank you very little,” the cop mutters, as he radios in to headquarters to have all units be on the lookout for an egret — or maybe a duck.

I wish they would go back to good ol’ functional license plates and outlaw those dopey plastic frames. I don’t really care where a person bought his car. And I don’t really care that his state bird is an egret — or maybe a duck.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Church Restructuring Brings Out Angry Letter-Writers

In recent months, the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford implemented its Pastoral Planning process, which resulted in many parishes being closed or merged. This unprecedented restructuring has produced a lot of upheaval in the lives of area Catholics. It also has produced a slew of letters-to-the-editor in local newspapers.

Many people, upset that their lifelong parishes were closed, have not been shy about expressing their anger in print. Some of the letters accuse the Archbishop and various clergy of being deceptive and dishonest. Other letters accuse individual pastors by name of being self-centered and unsympathetic toward the plight of the faithful, who must endure these drastic changes.

But it seems many of the angry letter-writers are being rather self-centered, too. A lot of the published complaints focus on matters of personal convenience, such as changes to the Mass times or being required to drive farther to get to Mass. By far the most common lament goes something like this: My parents and grandparents helped build this church! How dare you close it?!

However, I have yet to see a letter-to-the-editor mention the root cause of the parish reorganization process, which also happens to be the most serious and heart-breaking issue facing the Catholic Church in New England: the fact that hundreds of thousands of precious souls have drifted away from the faith.

The statistics are undeniable — and frightening. Since the mid-1960s, weekly Mass attendance in the Hartford Archdiocese has dropped 69-percent. In other words, compared to a generation or two ago, less than one-third the number of people go to Mass nowadays.

The dramatic decrease in Mass attendance has produced a short-term, “here and now” impact: the closing and merging of parishes, and the inevitable angry letters to the editor. But the long-term, “there and then” impact is far more serious. When hundreds of thousands of people refuse to go to Mass anymore, they are clearly rejecting the teachings of the Church, which means they are rejecting the mercy and grace offered by the Lord, especially the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

To put it plainly: these people are literally putting the eternal fate of their souls in jeopardy. How can the closing of a few dozen parishes compare to thousands and thousands of souls lost for all eternity? If the letter-to-the-editor writers want to complain about the Pastoral Planning process, why don’t they mention this tragic situation?

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Hey Bill, aren’t you being a bit dramatic with all this eternal damnation stuff?
Well, in reply, let me ask a few questions of my own: Why does the Church even exist? I mean, why did Jesus establish the Church in the first place? Is it because He wanted us to have a place to hold weddings and funerals and potluck suppers? Is it because the Lord knew that people have an instinctive need to be part of a local community where they can socialize and complain about the leadership?

No, the Church actually exists for one simple reason: to make saints. Jesus founded the Church to spread the Good News and get precious souls into Heaven for all eternity. If you still believe the Gospel message is true, when Mass attendance drops 69-percent, it’s not an unfortunate development that requires structural reorganization. It is instead a heart-breaking, life-and-death tragedy.
So, if you are unhappy about the changes going on in the Archdiocese and are compelled to write angry letters-to-the-editor, go right ahead. But don’t forget to mention the saddest thing of all: the countless number of friends, relatives, and former parishioners who no longer are in communion with the grace and mercy and salvation offered by God.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Lots of Ideas, No Time to Write

I’m often asked this question: “Hey Bill, how do you think up topics for your humor column? After all, you’ve written an essay every single week for the past 16 years, and once in a while they’re kind of interesting.”

Um, thanks. I’m pretty sure “Once in a while they’re kind of interesting” is the high praise that kept Mark Twain motivated.
Anyway, there’s no mystery about it. I just observe what’s going on in the world, and when I think something is kind of goofy, I grab a notebook and jot down ideas. In other words, what I do is pay attention and take notes — a fact that would cause most of my high school teachers to faint with shock.

Finding topics about which to write is not a problem; finding the time to sit down and do the actual writing, however, is a major challenge. Someone once told me when you reach middle-age and your kids move out of the house, you end up with a lot more free time. Well, I must be doing something wrong, because my schedule has never been more hectic.
After all these years, I have dozens of scraps of paper piled up on my desk with potential column topics. Here’s a small sample, and please let me know if any of these sound like they’d make a good column.

  • The $5 DVD bin at Walmart makes one thing very clear: Hollywood produces an amazing number of awful movies. 
  • What I want Santa to bring me for Christmas: the health insurance deductibles and co-pays we’ve paid out this year. We could use an extra 8 grand.
  • News story: a wristwatch was auctioned off for $11 million. Even I know that’s dumb, and I wasted 400 bucks on an Apple Watch. 
  • People who send greeting cards for every occasion make those of us who haven’t sent a greeting card since Jimmy Carter was president feel bad. 
  • A new study finds that membership in a college fraternity decreases a person’s academic grades but increases his life-long earnings, apparently because you get drunk way too often, but with guys who later will help you climb the corporate ladder. If that were true, I should be a millionaire by now. 
  • A Pew Research Center study finds that people get lied to approximately 200 times per day, including an average of three lies per conversation. Wow, that seems high, and I work in sales. 
  • I just found out “gluten-free” birthday cake is not the same as “dairy-free” birthday cake. (I think in my excitement about getting some cake at the office, I confused the concepts “gluten-free” and “vegan.”) Being lactose intolerant, I spent most of the afternoon in the men’s room.
  • Regarding the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” aren’t you supposed to have that answered by the time you turn 60? 
  • Have you noticed that Dunkin Donuts offers very weird donut options, especially leading up to holidays? I think their R&D people smoke some dope, go to CVS, and pick whatever junk food strikes their fancy. “Hey man, this will be perfect: a jelly donut covered in Kit Kat bars, pork rinds, and beef jerky!” 
  • What percentage of tattoo decisions were made while sober? I’m guessing about 2-percent. 
  • Is the whole concept of “comfort pets” and “service animals” getting out of hand? Especially now that doctors will approve that someone needs a service boa constrictor, a comfort hedgehog, or a therapy rodent?
Please send an email and let me know if these or other topics might make an interesting humor column. Because after all, “kind of interesting once in a while” is what I want to be when I grow up.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Be Prepared for the Most Important Day

In this week’s gospel reading at Mass, Jesus offered a parable about being prepared. He used a wedding feast to symbolize Heaven, and a bridegroom to symbolize Himself. No one knew when the bridegroom would arrive and begin the feast. Half the people were ready; the other half were not.

When the bridegroom finally came, Jesus explained, “Those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked.”

Later on, those who were unprepared came to the feast and tried to get in. They yelled, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” The bridegroom replied, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

Although we may not fully understand 1st century, middle-eastern wedding customs, we can understand Jesus’ main message. He is telling us we do not know when the most important day of our lives will come, but when it does come we had better be ready. If we’re ready, we’ll be invited in to an awesome party. If we’re not ready, the door will be locked and Jesus will say to us, “I do not know you.”

The most important day of our lives is a day most people dread, and a day many people can’t even admit will occur. It is the day we end our journey here on earth and stand face-to-face with God. It is the day of our death.

The letter to the Hebrews is crystal clear: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”

More often than not, people do not know when this most important day will arrive. It sometimes comes without warning, maybe with a deafening crash on the Interstate or chest pains while shoveling snow. For others, this most important day arrives with a quiet whimper, such as a bedside vigil at a hospice facility.

Whichever way it comes, that day will arrive for every single one of us. And when it does arrive, we either will be ready or we will not be ready.

Now, here’s the most important question: What exactly does it mean to be ready?

Jesus gives us a major clue in Matthew, chapter seven. While discussing this most important day, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.”

Jesus then went on to offer the most chilling words in all of Scripture, which will be spoken to many people begging to be let in: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Yikes! Not a pretty picture for those who are not ready.

There are two clear aspects to being ready. The first is knowing Jesus. Not knowing ABOUT Him, but rather, having a personal relationship WITH Him. God created us in the first place to be in fellowship with Him, as the Baltimore Catechism said: to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.

The second aspect of being ready is putting that relationship—that trusting faith—into action. This in not to say we have to work our way into Heaven, since no one is holy enough to do it on his or her own.

It means instead that our gratitude toward God—our joyful response to His incredible love and mercy—transforms our hearts and minds, and is expressed in righteous living. We do good things because we WANT to, not because we HAVE to. 

We don’t need to be frightened of that most important day. If we have a relationship with Jesus—if we put our trust and faith in Him and let the Holy Spirit guide our lives—we can be confident the door will be opened and we will be invited in to the Heavenly banquet.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Handyman Skills Are Half-Fast

Over the years I’ve developed into an acceptable home handyman. When I do projects around the house, I work at about 50-percent the speed of most other guys, so you could say I’m a half-fast handyman. (And say it quickly for the full effect.)

I’m pretty good with wood. I can cut boards and nail them together. Of course, if you want the boards to be cut to the exact right length and the nails to hold them in an exact level position, well, why do you think there are professional builders listed in the Yellow Pages? But if you’re just looking for, say, a half-fast shelf to put in the garage, I’m your man.

I’m also pretty good with electrical things. By electrical things, I don’t mean the wires or fixtures in the house which carry 110 volts of current — that stuff can kill you!

By electrical things, I mean connecting a DVD player to the TV, or hooking up the speakers to a stereo system. I’m an old pro at wiring up stereo systems, going back to the late-1970s in college. My roommate and I decided to combine our individual stereo components into one big honking system, which made our dorm room the loudest location in central Pennsylvania. Whenever we cranked up Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” the ground shook on campus and the lights dimmed as far away as Scranton. (This probably explains why my most frequent comment to my wife nowadays is, “Huh? Whudja say?”)

If you want me to get involved with any of the more exotic electrical things — like running wiring in the walls, installing a new light fixture, or plugging in an extension cord — well, why do you think there are professional electricians listed in the Yellow Pages?

There is one area in the home handyman world that I refuse to touch: plumbing. Plumbing is even worse than high voltage electrical things. The worst that can happen when an electrical project goes awry is that it can kill you. But it’s much worse when a plumbing project goes awry. It will torture you forever.

The problem with plumbing is the water. If plumbing projects did not involve water, then I wouldn’t mind doing them. But I have some very finicky family members, who shall remain nameless, and they insist we have running water in the house. So unfortunately, that means our plumbing projects must involve water.

If a woodworking project fails and the shelf collapses in a big heap, that’s it. It’s done. You can then either pick up the pieces and start over, or throw a tarp over it and pretend it never happened.

If an electrical project fails, the TV or DVD player in question gives off a few sparks as its internal circuit boards are ruined, and that’s it. It’s done. You can then either announce to the family that we’ve been watching too much television anyway, or, if it’s a high voltage situation, throw a tarp over my charred body and pretend it never happened.

But when plumbing projects fail, you can’t just throw a tarp over it and pretend it never happened. This is because failed plumbing projects always result in gallons and gallons of water spewing all over the house. And no matter how good you are at pretending certain things never happened, wading through knee-deep water in the kitchen is really hard not to notice.

So, when it comes to plumbing projects, I always call a professional. I found a great plumber in the Yellow Pages a few years ago. And the only thing half-fast about him is the view he flashes us when he bends over to work under the kitchen sink.