Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Temptation of Jesus

This week is the beginning of Lent. On Sunday at Mass we will hear the gospel reading about Jesus’ ordeal in the desert where the devil came and tempted Him. Many people wonder why Jesus bothered to put Himself in this painful situation. After all, He is God; He knows everything. He didn’t need first-hand experience about human temptation to understand what it’s like.

The epistle to the Hebrews gives us a clue. It explains, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses...[He] was tempted in every way that we are.” 
The temptation of Jesus was not so much a learning process for Him as it was an ASSURANCE FOR US. Now we can be certain that Jesus understands what we go through. Now we can be free of doubt whether Jesus is fully aware of the trials and tribulations of being human.

This week’s reading also gives us the key for successfully resisting temptation. In the very first sentence we read that Jesus was “Filled with the Holy Spirit.” If we don’t have the Holy Spirit alive and active inside of us, we’re sunk.

We all face temptations every day. If we are controlled by our physical nature rather than our spiritual nature, we’re destined for big trouble. The Holy Spirit, working through our conscience, is the only moral compass which will always point us in the right direction. 

However, we need to make sure that we listen to His voice. It’s very easy to block out the Spirit’s messages and delude ourselves into thinking that we, and we alone, can make the right decisions. Human history is teeming with tragic examples of people who thought they could make all the right choices without the help of God’s Spirit.
Besides learning some key concepts about temptation from this week’s gospel, we can also learn some very interesting things about the devil.

Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offered Him all the power and glory of those kingdoms if only Jesus would bow down to him. Satan claimed that he could make such an offer because all the power of the world’s kingdoms “has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.”

If we observe the various people and institutions that wield the most power in the world today, it’s easy to make the case that, for once, Satan was telling the truth. His evil influence can be plainly seen, as that famous theologian Mick Jagger chronicled in the song “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Another thing we can learn about Satan this week is that he is well-versed in Scripture. As he debated with Jesus and tried to get Him to take the bait, Satan quoted the Bible. Those of us who often quote Scripture to bolster our point of view should keep this in mind. Citing chapter and verse does not automatically make an argument true.

This is along the same lines as James 2:19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that.” Believing that God exists is certainly better than believing that He is just a figment of mankind’s imagination. But unless we worship Him as God and submit to His will for our lives, we’re little better than the demons.

Think about it: Satan believes that God exists and he can quote Scripture very skillfully. How many people nowadays would say that this is all a person needs to get to Heaven?

Unless we make God Number One in our lives — unless we put our faith and trust in Him — we’re committing the same sin that got Satan kicked out of heaven in the first place: worshipping ourselves rather than the awesome One who created us. Don’t be tempted to do something as foolish as that.

Looking Forward to Dinnertime and Bedtime

I can remember when I was about 9 years old. I was too young to have a full-time job, since I didn’t live in China, and I was also too young to be on an organized sports team with games or practice sessions after school. This was back in the olden days, when you had to be at least 11 years old to join a Little League team. Nowadays, they have T-ball leagues for 6 year olds, and soccer leagues for 3 year olds, and I recently heard they’re planning a new fetus football league.

However, back when I was 9, my only obligation when I came home from school was to go outside and play until dinnertime. There were plenty of other kids in the neighborhood, and we would play baseball, wiffle ball, football, and a bunch of other games we just made up on the spot. “OK, if you throw a rock and hit the trunk of that tree, you get one point. If you hit the skinny branch on the left, you get three points. And if you hit Johnny McGillicuddy, you get five points.” (For some reason, Johnny never liked this game.) Other times we would go hiking through the woods looking for frogs and snakes and buried treasure. 
It was a wonderful, carefree time. But each day our fun would come to an end when my dad whistled that it was time for dinner. My father could whistle so loud that no matter whose backyard we were in or how far out in the woods we wandered or how much noise we were making, the sound was unmistakable. That whistle meant fun time was over.

Then, soon after dinner, my mother would announce that it was time for bed, usually right before an important educational program was about to come on TV, such as “Green Acres” or Gilligan’s Island.” So, at the age of 9, there were two moments in my day that were very sad: dinnertime and bedtime.
Now, over a half century later, there are two moments during my day that I look forward to with a passionate longing: dinnertime and bedtime. 

I read somewhere that many people, as they get older, lose their appetite. Well, I have yet to be diagnosed with that affliction. Some foods are described as “comfort food.” To me, that is a redundant phrase. All food is comforting. The Thesaurus should add this synonym for the word food: “comfort,” right after the word “Mmmm.” I just really enjoy eating. Unfortunately, since I no longer run around the neighborhood everyday from 3 PM till 6 PM, I’m not burning the same amount of calories I did when I was 9, as my uncomfortably tight belt reminds me each morning.

Also, dinnertime means the work day finally is over, so dinner is not only physically comforting, it also is psychologically relaxing.

Then, an hour or two later (after watching some important educational programs on TV, such as reruns of “Green Acres” and “Gilligan’s Island”), it is time for bed. This moment always puts a smile on my face. Bedtime means I get to climb onto my warm and luxurious mattress. And bedtime means I can read a book — just for fun! — for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on how long I can keep my eyes open. Drifting off to sleep might be the most enjoyable part of my day.
There are other things that I disliked at age 9, but now no longer feel the same way. For example, I now know that taking a shower won’t kill you. I understand that brushing your teeth is not painful. And I’ve learned that girls, in fact, do not have cooties.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Forgive 70 Times 7? Get Out the Calculator

One day St. Peter said to the other disciples, “You know how Jesus is always talking about forgiveness? Well, I’m gonna ask him a question that will earn me some major Brownie Points!” 

So Peter approached Jesus and said, “Master, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him, up to seven times?” Peter glanced back at the other disciples and winked. Forgive someone seven times?! Surely even Jesus will say, “No no, that’s way too many. Two or three times, max.” Peter hoped Jesus also would add, “But that’s very generous of you, Peter, to offer to forgive someone seven times! Good for you.” 

However, Jesus stared at Peter for a few moments, then said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” 
Stunned, Peter walked back to the disciples. John said, “Well, what did he say? Did you get some Brownie Points?” 

Peter shook his head and replied, “Not only did Jesus say we have to forgive, but now we have to do math problems!”
 *   *   * 

People often say the most powerful three words in the universe are, “I love you.” And that’s probably correct. But three other words are a close second: “I forgive you.” 

The words “I love you” are wonderful, and they take a good situation and make it even better. But you can argue that the words “I forgive you” are even more powerful because they take a bad situation and turn it around to make it good. 

Jesus was well aware the disciples were not good at math. (Except Matthew, who was a tax collector and had passed the CPA exam, although he never let the other disciples borrow his calculator.) When Jesus said to forgive others seventy times seven, He wasn’t offering a specific number, as if we have to forgive someone exactly 490 times, but on the 491st time, oh boy, that’s it, no mercy! 

No, by giving the disciples a math problem, Jesus meant we have to forgive endlessly. No matter how many times someone sins against us, we must be ready and willing to offer forgiveness.  

Have you ever heard of “Irish Alzheimer’s”? That’s where you forget everything except the grudges. (And I hear it’s common with other ethnic groups, too.) In many families, there are people who haven’t spoken to each other in decades, and no one even remembers what caused the feud in the first place. But neither party has any interest in being the first one to say “I’m sorry” and offer forgiveness. 
Speaking of the words “I’m sorry,” there is a stunning aspect of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. He says we must forgive others always, but He doesn’t qualify His teaching with: “…as soon as they apologize and ask for forgiveness.” Whoa, you mean we’re supposed to forgive even if the other person doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Yes.   

Now, obviously, if the other person sincerely says, “I’m sorry,” and asks for forgiveness, and then we do indeed forgive him, that is pure joy. That is a complete and glorious reconciliation. 

However, even if the other person does not ask for forgiveness, Jesus says we must forgive anyway. Since that won’t end the feud, why should we bother? Because when we forgive others who sin against us, it keeps us from becoming bitter. It keeps us from sinning. 

The most perfect example of this is Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If Jesus could forgive the people who murdered Him, don’t you think we can forgive others who did far less to us? 

Jesus commands us to forgive others. We don’t need a calculator. We just have to do it — every single time. 

‘You Cannot be Serious!’

After almost 21 years of writing this weekly humor column, I’m surprised that I still receive email notes from readers who don’t understand the whole point of my essays. These notes often complain that I “made light of a serious topic,” or I was “too sarcastic and disrespectful” toward an important person, or my comments were “embarrassingly immature.” 

Now, regarding that last complaint, I really can’t disagree. I often tell people that I am living proof that youth is fleeting but immaturity can last forever. Years ago, I assumed that once I became a gray haired grandpa I would no longer find flatulence jokes funny nor dangle pencils from my nostrils while posing for family photographs. But, to many of my loved ones’ chagrin, I still find both of those things hilarious. Even at funerals.
This weekly column is simply a reflection of the fact that my sense of humor was formed during the 6th grade and never noticeably matured over the subsequent half-century. My essays were never intended to be a deep exploration of current societal issues. 

Look at it this way: if the entire newspaper is the food pyramid — with all the important components of a nutritious diet — then my column is nothing more than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. That is, it’s a Peanut Butter Cup IF you think it’s entertaining. If you think it’s foolish, then at best my column is that stale, hard candy your grandmother offered you in 1966, which she received as a Christmas gift just before the start of World War II. (Those were the only times in my life I turned down candy — candy being another thing I mistakenly thought I would outgrow by the time I became a senior citizen.)

Whether you find this column clever or stupid, whether it’s a tasty Peanut Butter Cup or an awful piece of fossilized sugar, it is still nothing more than candy. It is not, and never will be protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, or legumes. (Hmm, I’m not sure I know what legumes are.) These essays will never be somber and urgent analyses of important news topics. That’s not what they hired me to do back in the spring of 2001. 
Furthermore, if an editor assigned me to cover a school board meeting and write a serious report about it for the next day’s edition, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’d probably get kicked out of the meeting halfway through for dangling pencils from my nostrils. (Which I suppose is better than another recently popular way of being removed from school board meetings: getting dragged out by cops after punching a board member.)

Anyway, what is the point of this essay today? Well, I’m glad you asked. The whole point of this essay is that I am obligated to provide at least 600 words each and every week, and I discovered around 2004 that sending in 600 random words from the dictionary is not what the editors had in mind. (You can always tell when I’m struggling to reach that word quota when I ask a rhetorical question and then type, “Well, I’m glad you asked.”)

I do appreciate feedback from readers, and to be honest, the majority of comments are positive. Although some make me pause and mutter, “Wow, and I thought I was immature.” But for the folks who did not notice that the name of this column, “A Matter of Laugh or Death,” is supposed to send the message: “This is not serious!” I just want to say that, um, this is not serious.
And now that I’ve reached 600 words, it’s time to celebrate with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Or two. Or twelve.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Keeping Up with Jesus Was No Mean Feet

Sacred artwork from the Renaissance period is very fascinating. Some of the classic paintings and sculptures of the events in Jesus’ life are awe-inspiring. Those artists were incredibly talented.

I often smile when I see a Renaissance painting of, say, the Wedding Feast at Cana or the Transfiguration of the Lord, and note that the clothing styles and architecture are right out of 15th-century Florence or Venice. Those artists were talented, but they could only paint what they knew. And since none of them had ever traveled to Israel — and obviously none of them lived in the 1st century — they had no idea what biblical era buildings and fashions looked like. So, we get a festive scene of Jesus surrounded by classic Italian structures and foppish dudes in feathered hats, cloaks, and stockings.
If someone did a painting today of Jesus, and portrayed Him wearing Levi jeans, Nike sneakers, and sunglasses, I bet many people would be outraged and call it blasphemous. But that’s basically what the Renaissance artists did, simply because they didn’t know any better. (By the way, are there any artists today who do nice, life-like paintings anymore? Or is the trendy “modern art” style, which looks kind of like a bomb went off in a paint store, the only thing being done these days? Oops, my complete lack of sophistication and class about art is showing.)

Anyway, I recently noticed something about sacred art that is more out of place than even the incorrect clothing styles and architecture. Quite a few paintings of Jesus and His Apostles depict the Lord as a young, vibrant man, but then portray about half of the disciples as older men with white beards. This cannot possibly be the way it really was back then, and I can explain why with one word: feet.
This idea never would’ve dawned on me back when I was a young man. In those days, I could run around the yard barefoot and play basketball in the driveway wearing only flip-flops. My feet never bothered me. But then I became a middle-aged guy on the verge of official geezerhood. And now my feet and toes get sore at the drop of a hat. (And especially if I drop a hat on my foot.)

When you read the gospels, you discover that Jesus and His disciples walked. They walked everywhere. There were no cars, buses, subways, or trains. And they didn’t have enough money to afford horses, let alone call for an Uber ride. So they walked. And don’t forget: the terrain of Israel is rocky and hilly. My feet are starting to ache just thinking about it. Also, we know the odds are slim that any of the apostles owned a pair of New Balance cushioned-insole, custom-fitted walking shoes (which are NOT cheap!). 

I strongly suspect all of Jesus’ apostles were no more than 30 or 35 years old, hardly the gray-bearded old men often shown in Renaissance artwork. Middle-aged guys like me never would’ve been able to handle all the walking. I’m pretty sure Jesus would not have been impressed if Peter or Matthew said, “Hey Lord, I’ll just wait here while you go on your next journey. Send some text messages each day with updates. I’ll see you next Tuesday.”
For that reason, I’m pretty confident all the apostles were young whipper-snappers, in the prime of physical health, especially prime foot health. (OK, I’ll grant that since we’re talking about Jesus here, He easily could’ve done a miracle and given each 65-year-old graybeard a set of 25-year-old feet. But that just doesn’t seem likely. Jesus’ miracles were done for more important theological purposes. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if Jesus performed that miracle on my feet right now — along with about 12 other body parts.)

In conclusion, sacred artwork from the Renaissance period is magnificent and spiritually uplifting. It’s just that sometimes it’s not quite accurate. But that’s OK, since most of us nowadays aren’t so accurate either in our daily endeavors — especially if we’re distracted because our feet are sore.

The Imprecise One-Handed Watch

Back in December I purchased a Christmas gift for myself: a watch with only the hour hand. By the way, for those who are not familiar with analog watches, instead of having a modern digital readout, such as: “10:42”, an analog watch has numbers arranged in a circle, going clockwise from 1 to 12. (Oh wait, whoever is unfamiliar with an analog watch will have no idea what the terms “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” mean.) 
The key parts of an analog watch are the two hands, the hour hand and the minute hand. (Sometimes there is a third hand known as the second hand. Um, the term “second hand” does not mean it’s the hand after the first hand, nor that it was purchased at a thrift shop. Instead, it's the hand that marks the passage of seconds, 60 of which tick by each minute.) The hands rotate around the face of the watch, and you know what time it is based on which numbers the hands are pointing toward.

I apologize for explaining analog watches in such detail, but I recently read that young people have no idea how to tell time with a watch or clock that has hands instead of a digital readout. For example, when the hour hand of a clock was pointing at the 5, and the minute hand was pointing at the 12, many high school students guessed that it meant the time was either “5:12” or “12:05”. Old fogeys like me know that it really means, “Quittin’ time!”

Anyway, the passage of time in our society is extremely digitized nowadays, often down to the fraction of a second. But unless we happen to be producing a TV broadcast that must go on the air at EXACTLY 8:00.00, we really do not need that level of precision. 
Because of the pandemic, I’ve spent a great deal of time lately participating in video meetings and online seminars. Usually, I receive an invitation to the meeting via email, which, for example, is scheduled to begin at 1:00 PM on Tuesday. I get periodic reminders leading up to the meeting, then when I see on my digital watch that it is 12:59.30 PM, I log on to the meeting. Often there is a message saying the meeting will begin shortly. Then after a couple of minutes, the 1:00 meeting comes to life at 1:02, but the host always says something like, “Well, let’s wait a few more minutes for everyone else to join us.” It finally starts around 1:05.

I don’t mind that these meetings begin only five minutes later than advertised. But why do I use so many brain cells obsessing about 1:00.00? There is no good reason.

So, that’s why I bought myself a watch with only the hour hand. The watch has the same numbers, arranged in a circle, going clockwise from 1 to 12. The single hand makes its slow journey, completing one full revolution in 12 hours. 

With this watch, it is impossible to be precise. The time is “Almost seven-thirty,” or “About nine o’clock,” or “Around quarter to four.” And you know what? Those times are more than accurate enough for the way we live our lives.  
In case you’re wondering, my new watch with only one hand is not a factory reject or something a shady guy on a street corner hoodwinked me into buying. The watch was designed to have only one hand, so detail freaks like me can wean off our irrational obsession with precise time.

Well, I have to go now. I have to attend a meeting that starts at exactly, uh, soon. 

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Even Peter Thought Paul Was Confusing

One of my favorite Bible verses is 2 Peter 3:16. This is where St. Peter refers to the letters of St. Paul, and says, “In them there are some things hard to understand.”

Thank you, Peter! 

If the Rock upon whom the Church was founded, the very first pope, good ol’ St Peter, thought St. Paul’s epistles were hard to understand, then I don’t feel so bad.
Years ago, I was the leader of a Bible study class in my parish. (Don’t roll your eyes like that. I was pretty good at it. Sort of. Also, since most Catholics are quite unfamiliar with Scripture, to be a Bible study leader in a Catholic parish, you only have to stay one page ahead of the class.) Anyway, at one point, we decided to study St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “How hard can it be?” I thought. “We hear readings from Romans at Mass a lot. This should be a piece of cake.”

I bought a study guide to help me prepare lessons and answer any questions that might arise. I thought I was all set. Well, about three or four weeks into the study, a woman tentatively raised her hand and quietly asked, “What in the world is St. Paul talking about?”

After pausing for a moment, I started to recite what I remembered reading in the study guide earlier that day. I babbled on for a few minutes, and then when I stopped, the woman said, “OK. Now what in the world are YOU talking about?”

It’s funny that she said that, because while I was babbling on, trying to remember what the study guide said, as my mouth was spewing out a word salad, the back of my brain was whispering to me, “You don’t understand this stuff at all, do you, Bill?”
I took a deep breath, then said to the entire class, “Please raise your hand if you understand what we’ve been discussing.” Not a single hand went in the air.

Then I said, “Now, please raise your hand if you think we should quit Romans right now, and start studying something simple, like Quantum Physics.” Everybody raised their hand.

The realization that St. Peter also found the letters of St. Paul rather difficult to understand, certainly helped me feel a little better when major sections of the letter to the Romans baffled me. (Also, it wasn’t just Romans. Paul’s words are kind of confusing in Ephesians, Philippians, both Corinthians, Galatians, and not to mention the family update letter he included with his Christmas cards a couple of months ago.)

This is another good reason why we as Catholics depend on the Church’s teaching Magisterium to provide the correct interpretation of the Scriptures. Let’s face it, if you gave copies of the Bible to 100 different people, they would come up with 100 different interpretations of what it means. (No, actually, they would come up with 20 different interpretations, because 80 of those people would become so confused about halfway through Leviticus that they’d walk away frustrated and mutter, “Let someone else figure this thing out.”)

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Bible is indeed the Word of God. As Catholics we revere the holy Scriptures. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to write down the truth about God and mankind, and about our relationships with Him and with each other. But since the various books of the Bible include the authors’ particular cultural background and writing style (and St. Paul’s writing style emphasized prodigious run-on sentences; just sayin’), the true meaning of the words are not always obvious. Therefore, we need the collective wisdom and knowledge of the bishops, in communion with the pope, to offer us the correct interpretations. 
I’m certainly not trying to discourage anyone from reading the Bible. It is an amazing gift from God, especially the four gospels and the Book of Acts. But when you are reading, if you come across a section that is hard to understand, just remember the first pope, St. Peter, also scratched his head once in a while and said, “Huh?” 

So, let’s change that old stereotype and become the generation of Catholics known for reading the Bible on a regular basis. And if you come across parts that are hard to understand, don’t worry, you’re in good company.

Cats on a Plane

Last week I concluded a column about a trip to Florida this way: “Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly purrrr-fect.”

Let me explain. My dear ol’ mom recently turned 92 years old. Since my dad died, she’s been living alone and has been pretty much taking care of herself. My sister is a retired nurse and spends the winters in Florida. Just after the holidays, my sister flew to Connecticut to visit Mom for a week.

Well, soon after, my sister explained that in her professional medical opinion, Mom no longer is strong enough to live alone anymore. Oh boy, I’ve been dreading this day. But then my sister volunteered to move in with my mother and take care of her for the foreseeable future. Whoa, somebody just moved up to the top of the polls in the Saint of the Year competition. 
However, there was one small issue. Actually, two. My sister arranged for a neighbor in Florida to come over and feed her two cats for a week. Now she couldn’t possibly impose on the neighbor to watch the cats indefinitely. So, the cats needed to travel to Connecticut and move in with Mom, too. That’s where yours truly enters the picture.

I was asked to go on a mission of mercy with my brother-in-law. The two of us needed to fly to Florida on a Friday evening, get the cats, and bring them home on Sunday. (What did we do in Florida on Saturday, you ask? Well, it was 75 degrees and sunny, while it was 10 degrees and cloudy in Conn. Also, their house is on a golf course. You do the math.)

The two cats are a beautiful breed, Devon Rex. But they’re very feisty and skittish. (In the same way that a chipmunk on amphetamines is skittish, except the cats are quicker.)
The cats traveled in separate pet carriers, which are like gym bags with a mesh side so the cats can breathe and look out to see who is inflicting all this torture. When you go through airport security, you have to take the cat out of the carrier and hold it while the carrier goes through the X-ray machine. I have no idea why they can’t scan the carrier with the cat inside, but that’s the rule.

My greatest fear, which had been weighing on me for three full days, was that the feisty cat would wriggle free from my grasp, after inflicting a few painful scratches, of course, and then sprint down an airport hallway never to be seen again.

Thankfully, I made it through security without losing the cat, although it’s unclear who experienced greater anxiety during the ordeal, the cat or me. 

So, as I mentioned last week, the small, start-up airline we used had no mechanics or spare parts of its own, and when our plane was in need of a new tire, we sat there waiting for four hours. They finally cancelled the flight and told us to come back the next day and try again. At least my brother-in-law and I had a house to go back to. Many passengers on that flight had already checked out of their hotels.

As we left the airport, it suddenly dawned on me: Oh Lord, we have to do the security thing all over again tomorrow!
I’m happy to report that things went fairly smoothly the next day, too. The cats made it to Connecticut in one piece — although everyone involved suffered significant emotional trauma.

The idea of a small airline flying non-stop each day from New Haven to Florida still strikes me as terrific. And I’ll fly with them again if they invest in some spare tires. But next time, without cats!