Leap Day Trivia (or, Is the Moon a Moon?)

February 29 does not happen every year. In fact, it happens only about once every four years. This unusual day has caused me to do some interesting research about time, which ended in a question about whether or not the moon is a moon.

  • The three units of measuring time that pertain to leap years are the day, the month, and the year. In the simplest mathematical model of the solar system, the earth turns on its axis once a day. The moon travels around the earth once a month, and the earth and moon travel around the sun once a year.
  • The passage of a day is noted by the cycle of daylight and darkness. The Roman definition marks a day as beginning at midnight, but the Hebrew definition marks a day as beginning at sunset (by tradition, when it is dark enough to see two stars in the sky).
  • The Hebrew definition is based on the repeated statement in Genesis 1, “It was evening and it was morning, the (first, second, third, etc.) day.”
  • The passage of a month is noted by the position of the moon in the sky, as well as by the phases of the moon. The phases are caused by the fact that sometimes the side of the moon facing the earth is fully lit by the sun (a full moon), sometimes partly lit by the sun, and sometimes entirely in the moon’s shadow. Technically, a new moon is not the fully darkened disc of the moon, but the first crescent of sunlight reflected by the moon visible on the earth.
  • About twice a year, the moon moves through the shadow of the earth. This is a lunar eclipse, and it can be seen from much of the earth when it happens. About twice a year, the moon’s shadow falls upon the earth. This is called a solar eclipse. Because the moon is much smaller than the earth, a solar eclipse is seen only in a small part of the earth.
  • Eclipses do not happen every month because the moon’s orbit usually keeps the sun, moon, and earth from being aligned so that shadows are seen on the earth or the moon.
  • The passage of a year is noted by the change in seasons, usually best marked by the equinoxes—when daytime and nighttime are the same length—and by the solstices—when daytime and nighttime are as much unequal as they can be. The inequality at the solstices depends upon location on the earth—the difference is negligible near the equator but highly significant near the north and south poles.
  • The inequality in daytime and nighttime are caused, not by the orbit of the earth around the sun, but by the tilting of the earth upon its axis. The change in tilt, though, goes through its cycle exactly once each year.
  • The earth is closer to the sun in January than it is in July. The warmth of summer in the northern hemisphere is not due to the distance between the earth and the sun; it is due to the amount of sunlight the hemisphere receives during the day.
  • A year is 365.2425 days, or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds.
  • A month is about 25.53 days, or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 seconds.
  • The length of a year can be changed very slightly by a major earthquake.
  • The length of a month varies slightly because of the effect of the sun’s gravity upon the moon.
  • There are about 12.3685 months in a year.
  • Most ancient calendars had twelve months in a year, with an extra month added every three or four years to keep the seasons from drifting through the year. The calendar used by Muslims has twelve months every year, resulting in a year of 355 days. Therefore, Muslim holidays move through the seasons and are roughly ten days earlier every year according to the Gregorian calendar.
  • In the Roman Republic, priests in Rome declared when an extra month should be added to the year. They sometimes misused this power for political purposes, adding an extra month to the time that they or their friends in politics could exercise power over Roman law.
  • Julius Caesar changed the Roman calendar, making each month except February have either thirty or thirty-one days. In the Julian calendar, a month does not begin with a new moon. Julius Caesar also said that February would have twenty-eight days every year and a twenty-ninth day every four years.
  • The Julian calendar went into effect in the Roman year 708, which is now called 46 BC.
  • The month of July is named for Julius Caesar. The month of August is named for Octavian Caesar, Julius’ relative, who seized power after Julius Caesar was assassinated. The Roman Senate made Octavian the first Emperor of Rome and gave him the title Augustus.
  • A monk who taught at the University of Paris, Johannes de Sacrobosco, noticed around 1235 that the seasons had drifted several days in the Julian calendar. Sacrobosco also perpetuated a myth that Caesar Augustus had stolen a day from February to make his month of August the same length as July. Archaeological evidence has disproved this myth; July and August always had thirty-one days in the Julian calendar.
  • Pope Gregory XIII reacted to Sacrobosco’s discovery by ruling that three times in four hundred years the leap day should be omitted. If the number of the year is divisible by one hundred but not by four hundred, it is not a leap year. Therefore, there was no February 29, 1900, and there will be no February 29, 2100. There was, however, a February 29, 2000.
  • The Gregorian calendar went into effect in October 1582.
  • Pope Gregory only had authority to change the calendar in parts of Italy; however Roman Catholic kings in Spain and Portugal made the same change in their countries and colonies, and France followed suit fairly quickly. Protestant and Orthodox countries did not change as quickly: Great Britain and its colonies did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752, and Russia did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1918.
  • Pope Gregory’s change in calendars resulted in dropping ten days from October 1582. By 1752 this required a change of eleven days, and by 1918 it required a change of thirteen days.
  • The omission of days was protested by many people, not from superstitious reasons, but for very practical reasons. Many people were paid by the day or the week, but they had bills such as rent due every month. Therefore, the omission of several days caused financial difficulties in their lives.
  • Some people adjusted their birthdays to conform to the Gregorian calendar. George Washington, for instance, was born on February 11 in the Julian calendar but celebrated his birthday on February 22 after the switch to the Gregorian calendar.
  • Until the invention of mechanical clocks less than one thousand years ago, hours varied in length depending upon the time of year. An hour was one-twelfth of a day and one-twelfth of a night. Daytime hours were longer in the summer and shorter in the winter; likewise nighttime hours were shorter in the summer and longer in the winter.
  • The counting of hours worked backward and forward from noon, which was defined as the instant when the sun reached its highest point in the sky for any location. This highest point is called the meridian, which is represented by the letter m in a.m. and p.m.
  • Rapid travel by railroads led to the adoption of time zones around the earth. Travelers did not appreciate changing their watches in every town and city to match the local time, and railroad schedules were hard to create before time zones were adopted. Because of time zones, noon on a clock can be as much as thirty minutes away from the actual meridian.
  • Because of daylight saving time, noon on a clock can be as much as ninety minutes away from the actual meridian.
  • If not for time zones and daylight saving time, a full moon would be at the moon’s meridian at midnight. The first quarter moon would rise at noon and reach meridian at sunset, and the third quarter moon would rise at midnight and reach meridian at sunrise.
  • The moon was the only object so named until Galileo aimed a telescope at the planet Jupiter and detected four of its satellites, which he called moons.
  • Jonathan Swift wrote in 1726 that Mars has two moons. Swift also described their size and the speed of their travel around Mars relatively accurately. The moons of Mars were not detected by scientists until 1877.
  • A planet is described as an object of a certain size moving around a star. Refinement of that definition resulted a few years ago with the omission of Pluto from the list of planets in our solar system. Planets have been observed circling other stars in our galaxy.
  • A moon is described as an object moving around a planet. Usually moons are much smaller than the planets they circle. If two objects circle one another while moving around a star, they are called a double planet system.
  • Astronomers disagree among themselves about the size distinction required to identify a moon-and-planet system or a double planet system. Various ratios have been proposed, but universal agreement has not yet happened.
  • One rule suggested for distinguishing a moon-and-planet system from a double planet system is locating the center of orbit of the smaller of the two bodies. If the center of orbit is within the larger body, the smaller body is a moon. If the center of orbit is outside the smaller body, the bodies are a double planet system. The moon’s center of orbit is within the Earth.
  • When Pluto was still recognized as a planet, Pluto and Chadron were a double planet system.
  • Another rule suggested for distinguishing a moon-and-planet system from a double planet system is the path of the smaller body around the star. If the smaller object’s path around the larger object causes it sometimes to change direction relative to the star (retrograde motion), the smaller object is a moon. If the smaller object’s orbit around the star has no retrograde motion, then the two objects are a double planet system.
  • The Moon has no retrograde motion relative to the Sun. By the second rule listed above (and by some proposed ratios of relative mass), the Earth’s Moon is not a moon.

How many of these things did you already know? J.

Two paths

Two paths stand before each of us, and each of us much choose which path to walk. One is the path of pleasure, and the other is the path of virtue. The path of pleasure appears pleasant, even beautiful, and it is easy to travel, but it leads to destruction. The path of virtue appears unpleasant, and it is much harder to travel, but it leads to true joy and not to destruction.

I have just read an interesting discussion of these two paths, and no, the writer does not mention Robert Frost. The poem in which Frost chooses the path less traveled, “and that has made all the difference,” is beloved by graduation speakers. Yet Frost never says that he is glad he took the path less traveled. When the poem is read with a sense of regret, it makes equal sense. Frost was born too late, though, to be quoted by Soren Kierkegaard. In his monumental Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard mentions sermons he has heard about the paths of pleasure and virtue. Specifically, Kierkegaard mentions preachers who recommend the path of virtue and discuss its charms. “Little by little,” Kierkegaard says, they alter their description of virtue and its rewards, until finally it seems like lunacy to choose the path of pleasure, not only because it leads to destruction, but because the path of virtue is equally nice in every way. Kierkegaard scornfully refers to these preachers as a committee formed to beautify the path of virtue, planting flowers along the way.

I do not quote Kierkegaard merely to correct the “prosperity gospel” preachers, those who say that God wants his people to be wealthy, healthy, peaceful, and happy in this present sinful world. Correcting their mistakes with properly applied Scripture is as easy as fishing in the hatchery pond. Instead, I am noticing how often we all try to beautify the path of virtue. We convince ourselves that we feel better after doing something kind and helpful for another person; we tell ourselves that we would feel guilty after sinning and our sense of guilt would take away all the fun. We assure ourselves that the sacrifices we make for God are improving our lives, guaranteeing us contentment in the midst of sacrifice. (What kind of sacrifice is it, then, if it makes us happy?) We promise ourselves that God is going to smooth the way before us once he knows that we have chosen to honor him by walking the path of virtue rather than the path to pleasure.

Kierkegaard rightly says that the Bible promises no such things. Easy and wide is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road to eternal life. The gate also is narrow, and few find it. In another place, Jesus says that the road to virtue is so difficult that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. The path of virtue requires nothing less than self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total faithfulness to the Lord.

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard stops at this point. He does not go on to say that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. As Paul wrote to the Romans, not one of us has faithfully traveled the path of virtue—we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Not only do we try to beautify the path of virtue; we convince ourselves that the path of virtue must be beautiful because the path we are traveling has all the surface splendor of the path of pleasure. Rather than confessing that we are on the wrong path, we honor ourselves by calling our way the path of virtue and by accusing others of being on the path of pleasure.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah says, but the Lord has laid on our Redeemer the burden of us all. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, but all are saved by his grace. We have not denied ourselves, but Jesus denied himself for us. We have forgotten to carry our crosses, but Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem to Golgotha. Like Christ’s disciples we have not followed our Shepherd when trouble arose. We have run in other directions; we have hidden from trouble; when challenged, we have denied our Lord. Yet he went alone to the cross so we could be redeemed. Alone, he paid the price for all our wandering and all our guilt. Alone, he walked the path of virtue so he could come back and take us to be with him. Our Shepherd has blazed a trail through the consequences of our guilt. Now his rod and staff comfort us, goodness and mercy accompany us every step of the way, and we will dwell in his house forever. J.

Do I hear what you hear?

Siri and I have two things in common. Both of us are fairly adept at tracking down information to answer other people’s questions. Both of us have trouble hearing in a crowded room.

Yesterday I did some Internet surfing, curious to learn if a name exists for this difficulty, and, more important, if solutions for this difficulty have been found. Some sites suggested that this difficulty is caused by hearing loss. I am sure that’s not the case with me, because I can recall having this difficulty even in childhood. For that matter, my hearing in childhood was unusual, as a classroom test indicated that I could hear much higher pitches of sound than most of my classmates. This ability evidently has a genetic connection, as most of my family also hears high pitches. Did you know that the Beatles included the sound of a dog whistle at the end of the last track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Do you know many people who can hear that whistle? My kindred can.

Hearing high-pitched noises is not always a good ability to possess. I can hear light bulbs, computers, and appliances that are silent for most people. I remember a singing refrigerator that only a few people could hear—those who couldn’t hear it thought we were inventing a story. The refrigerator alternated among three pitches, almost pleasantly musical. The fluorescent lights at work hum in a monotone that can be distracting, almost painful, when there are no other noises in the room to mask the sound.

But I digress. After skipping the web sites that suggested hearing loss, I found others that described “the cocktail party problem.” It turns out that the “problem” is not that of people like me who cannot focus on one person’s voice when several people are talking. The “problem” is finding an explanation for the fact that most people can filter background noise and hear and understand the one voice they want to hear. Machines like Siri still cannot do that, and researchers want to know why people can filter unwanted noise so they can improve machines. So far research has indicated that the difference is in the brain and not in the ears. Studies with human subjects and with mice are focusing more specifically on the brains of the listeners to determine exactly how the brain filters sounds according to the desire of the listeners.

As I did my research, I wondered if any link exists between “the cocktail party problem” which I have (which is the opposite of the “problem” being studied) and the autism spectrum. Autistic people tend to be overwhelmed by sensory input; that is one of the key signs and symptoms of autism. As far as I could determine, no researcher has explored that connection. If anyone out there is looking for a thesis topic for an advanced degree in psychology or in audiology, let me make that suggestion…

Meanwhile, I continue coping as I have always coped. I maintain eye contact with the person I want to hear, and I do my best to read his or her lips during conversation. I also nod and smile a lot, or I try to match his or her facial expression without being obvious in my mimicry. No doubt from time to time I have been guilty of an inappropriate response, but everyone makes that kind of mistake occasionally.

Now if I could just pass a city ordinance to ban leaf-blowers…. J.

Remembering the Sixties

It’s all coming back to me now: the Beatles, the space program, Woodstock, Star Trek, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, I Dream of Jeannie, the Vietnam War, the Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel), MAD magazine, hippies, protests, the Six Day War….

My youngest daughter and I watch television together. Mondays we see I Dream of Jeannie, binge-watching if you can call three episodes a week a binge. Wednesdays we see the original Star Trek, although we have only three episodes left until we have to jump to the feature movies. Weekends this new year we’ve been watching musicals. So about ten days ago we saw “The Way to Eden,” known among Trekkies and Trekkers as the “space hippy” episode. With that episode still in my head, when we chose a musical to watch last night, I suggested we see Hair. She had not seen it before, but she’s old enough to handle it, so that is what we did.

Now I am very much in a Sixties mood. I’m torn between two movies for tonight. To stay with musicals and with Sixties music and dancing and clothing, I’m leaning toward Jesus Christ, Superstar. On the other hand, to continue her education about the 1960s (which is as remote to her life as the Great Depression is to mine), I am thinking of watching Forrest Gump. Either one would be a lot of fun, and I have a few hours left before I have to make up my mind.

Of course there is also the four-hour movie version of the Woodstock music festival. That might have to wait for another weekend, though…. J.

Spring training

The Super Bowl and the hockey and basketball All-Star Games are minor sporting events meant to fill the gap before baseball’s spring training begins. Every February, professional baseball players report to their various camps in Arizona and Florida to prepare for the coming season.

This tradition began long ago, when the major leagues had no teams south or west of St. Louis, Missouri. At that time, baseball players often neglected their training during the winter and needed a few weeks of practice to restore their timing and their strength. Now major league teams play in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Now professional athletes work all twelve months of the year to keep their bodies at peak performance. Spring training remains, though, as a chance for team players to become reacquainted and to meet the newest members of the team, and as a chance for the management of the team to decide which twenty-five players will be on the team roster Opening Day.

Players with multi-million dollar contracts do not have to worry about their jobs. Barring injuries or felony convictions, they can expect to be with their major league teams from the first day of the regular season. Many other players are under pressure during spring training. A team might have three of its five starting pitchers chosen by virtue of their contracts and their past performance; more than a dozen pitchers might be competing for the last two spots. Some of those competitors are young and will return to the minor leagues for more instruction, practice, and improvement. Others might fail to make the team and then retire, or they might choose to play a season or more in Japan. A very few might miss their chance to make one team, only to be chosen by another team and added to its roster.

Spring training sometimes has some interesting competitions, not only for the pitching staff, but for a regular position or two as well. Often the known players will play only the first part of a game before being replaced by the up-and-coming youngsters and by those scrambling for one of the last open spots. Managers and coaches are doing more than selecting their rosters, though. They are detecting problems in each player’s performance so they can work with those players to get rid of their problems. They are seeing how the players work together as a team so they know what to expect during the regular season. They want to know which players are going to support the team and which are only interested in personal achievements. They want to see players communicate with each other; and they hope that, by the end of spring training, communication is less necessary because the players will know what to expect from one another.

The chief glory of spring training, though, belongs to the fans. For three months we have relived the past season, its triumphs and its disappointments. For the last three months we have speculated about the coming season, who will do better than last year and who will not do as well. For the last three months a few players have been traded and a few have retired, and for every retirement and trade there has been speculation of a thousand other possible trades or retirements. During spring training the fans learn more about the young players who might join the team in a season or two. Best of all, during spring training the fans can re-experience the sights and sounds and smells of baseball. Once again we see the green grass and the reddish-brown dirt and the white chalk lines. Once again we hear the crack of a bat hitting a baseball, or the slap of a baseball landing in a glove, both accompanied by the patter of the players on the field and by the cheers of the crowd. It is not too soon for an overpriced beer and hot dog, or a cardboard bowl filled with corn chips covered with glow-in-the-dark orange cheese-flavored sauce. All this is part of baseball, and it has been missing from our lives for far too long.

Spring training is one of the best times of the year for a baseball fan. Opening day is fast approaching—the day that begins with every team tied for first place, every team hoping to be champions by the end of the season. As players begin to report to their various camps, the anticipation of baseball grows day by day. As every fan knows, this year will be the year, the year our team will win it all. On behalf of fans everywhere, “Play ball!” J.

About last weekend–reading and writing

Reading and writing were two goals I had for this long weekend. On Tuesday morning, I look back at the past three days, and I see a glass half-full and half-empty. I did some good reading and some acceptable writing, but a lot of other tasks went undone.

Over the weekend I composed a two-part essay on post-modernism and Christian faith. The second part is not finished, and the whole essay needs more polishing. I might not ever post or publish what I wrote this weekend, but at least it has helped me to focus a bit more on these issues.

Among the things I read this weekend were portions of a writer’s notebook I created when I was younger (so much younger than today…). Back then I kept track of my short story ideas by swirling them together in a longer work in which they occasionally became entangled with each other. Part of the inspiration for this style came from Arthur Hailey (Airport and Hotel) and Allen Drury (Advise and Consent and its sequels), but a stronger influence was Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), with his minimalist approach to description. Friends who read portions of this notebook compared it favorably to Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), whose work I had not read when I started that notebook. This weekend I’m reading through this older writing to see if anything can be culled from the various plots and characters to stand alone as a short story. If I find anything I like, I will share it.

Last month I created a new WordPress blog containing a book I wrote a few years ago for a class I was teaching. The blog is not quite complete—I’ve not had time to read every post to make sure that I didn’t drop or repeat sections when uploading it, and I’ve not selected tags and categories for it yet. If you’re interested, though, you can find it here. The class was for church workers and was called Principles of Bible Interpretation. Technically, the subject was hermeneutics, but I tried to avoid technical terms in the book. (Exegesis is reading the Bible to learn its message—the “what” of Bible reading—and hermeneutics is the rules by which we read—the “how” of Bible reading.) Of the books selected by the program directors for teaching this course, one book was meant for graduate students, and the others (though more readable) disagreed with key teachings of my denomination of Christianity. Hence I wrote and used this book, trying to make it both approachable and doctrinally correct. It has since been used by another teacher of the same course. I thought I would make it available as a free online book. At first I called it “How to Read the Bible,” but the proper title of this book is “It’s All About Jesus: A Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Bible.” I hope you will take a look. J.

Traffic sighs

For more than a year I have been taking medicine to reduce anxiety. As a result, I am a calmer driver than I used to be. When other drivers do foolish or dangerous or illegal things, I used to shout and lose my temper. I would arrive at work already out of sorts, a bad way to start the day. Now I just sigh, or roll my eyes, or grit my teeth. I might grumble something sarcastic, such as, “Nice turn signal you didn’t use there.” I might even bark out a brief complaint. For the most part, though, I’m doing better behind the wheel than I was doing a year or two ago.

I am the kind of driver who stops at red lights. Even if the light turns yellow while I am still a thousand yards or more from the intersection, I begin slowing rather than planning to drive through the red light. As a result, I am often the front car in the group waiting for a light to change green. Of course when the light turns from green to yellow, I check my mirrors; if another driver is close behind me, I might not stop at the changing light. Many a time I have gone through an intersection when I thought I should have stopped, only to have another car or two follow me past the red light. Many a time I have seen the light turn green, but two more cars from the other direction entered and cleared the intersection before it was safe for me to start. The effect is like that of watching something from a distance, seeing the action before you hear the sound. Sometimes I wonder if the synapses between my eyes and my brain are faster than average, since I seem to notice the change of traffic lights more quickly than the average driver.

The last week has produced some other traffic sighs in my car. Not once, but twice—twice!—this week the following scenario happened. My light was green and I was approaching the intersection, when a driver facing a red light decided to take advantage of the right-turn-on-red privilege. There was room enough to squeeze one car ahead of me and I did not sigh about that right-turn-on-red, but I did react when a second car followed the first car into the intersection, turning right on red without coming to a stop and coming within a few feet of mutual damage to both our cars.

An even scarier near-event happened closer to home one morning this week. Less than a mile from my house I must turn left onto a road where there is a two-way stop: the northbound and southbound traffic has to stop, but the eastbound and westbound drivers are cross and need not stop. Parked cars in driveways and on the road make it hard to see the cross traffic, especially that coming from the right when I am trying to turn left. This time of year, the rising sun aligns with the westbound traffic, requiring extra attention to my left before making a turn. A speed bump has been built to slow the eastbound traffic, coming from my right, but the speed bump only makes the decision whether or not to turn more complicated. Predicting which drivers will slow for the speed bump and which will hit it at full speed makes the decision whether to turn or to wait about as certain as a coin flip, but with a much higher risk potential.

So that morning I came to the intersection, stopped at the stop sign, and (as I always do) looked right and left and scanned the intersection. My top priority is watching for cars, trucks, and other moving vehicles, but I am also alert for joggers, bicyclists, dogs, and small children. Nothing was coming from the left, but two cars were coming from the right, so I waited. By the time the two cars crossed the speed bump and cleared the intersection, a car was coming out of the sun from the left, so I waited. When that car had passed in front of me, I saw two cars—a dark-colored car to my right, but slowing for the speed bump, and a white-colored car approaching the intersection in front of me, not yet arrived at its stop sign. The occasion seemed propitious, so I made my left turn. Afterward I checked my mirrors, expecting the dark-colored car to be behind me. Instead, the white car was behindmethisclosetome. Not only was it clear that the driver had not stopped at the stop sign; even a “rolling stop” would have had the white car farther behind me.

A year or two ago I would have been screaming my head off at that white car and its driver. Now a simple sigh and a roll of the eyes is all I produced. The proper medication can make a world of difference in one’s attitude, even behind the wheel. J.

Habit, addiction, and OCD

When I woke up this morning, I thought it was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A little later, I learned that it was actually Groundhog Day, arriving more than a week later than the calendar promised. What, you may ask, does that have to do with habit or addiction or OCD? Bear with me, and I will arrive at those topics.

My morning routine is fairly set. I wake up to the sound of music. I brush my teeth. I take a shower and dry myself. I comb my hair. I take five pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, one for allergies, and two for anxiety. I always take them in the same order. I put on my clothes in the bathroom. I leave the bathroom, grab a pair of socks and a pair of shoes, and sit down to put them on. (I put on my left sock, my left shoe, my right sock, and my right shoe, always in that order.) I unlock and open the front door to pick up the day’s newspaper. I get myself two granola bars and a glass of cranberry juice and read the paper. I drink a mug of coffee, pack my lunch, grab my badge, and drive to work. Aside from a few uninteresting details, that describes nearly every morning, except that on Sundays I drive to church instead.

When I read the newspaper, I start with the two comics hidden on the second page of the want ads section. Then I start with the front page of the paper and work my way through to the other comics. It appeared that this morning the newspaper had reprinted yesterday’s comics among the want ads, which has happened a few times before. But when I got to the front page, the first two articles seemed strangely familiar. Finally I checked the date of the newspaper, and it said February 11. Sure enough, the delivery person had left a day-old newspaper on my doorstep this morning. (Hence the Groundhog Day reference.)

Clearly I am a creature of habit, following the same routine every single morning. Some people might accuse me of being obsessive/compulsive. My therapist and I agree that I have some obsessive/compulsive tendencies, but we also agree that I do not have a disorder—I am not OCD. My reaction to having the wrong newspaper this morning was humor, not fear or dread. I don’t like it if something throws my routine out of order, but I don’t let it ruin my day. If for some reason I was to put on my right sock before my left sock, I would not expect terrible things to happen the rest of the morning.

Having some obsessive and compulsive tendencies actually helps me through the day. My badge has a magnetic card attached to it that opens certain doors at my workplace, including the room where I do most of my work. When I stand up from my desk to go somewhere else in the building, I always touch my badge before I leave the room. As a result, I have never left my magnetic card behind, locking me out of the room. When driving to work, I check the seat next to me once, or sometimes twice, to make sure that I have not forgotten my badge or my lunch. When I park my car and turn off the engine, I always check to make sure the headlights are off. I always lock the car door, but I always hold my keys in my hand before I close the door.

Some of my OC tendencies are not so useful. Driving to work from home or driving home from work, I observe the other cars, hoping to spot at least one car of each of the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, reddish orange, yellowish orange, yellowish green, bluish green, bluish purple, reddish purple, white, light gray, dark gray, and black. Pink and brown are bonus colors. I do not expect anything good to happen if I see cars of all sixteen colors. I do not expect anything bad to happen if I do not see all sixteen colors. I just have the habit of looking for all sixteen colors, and even when I try not to notice the colors of the other cars, sooner or later I start keeping track of what I have seen.

In my personal library I have a fascinating and useful book, Addiction & Grace, written by Gerald G. May and published in 1989. Dr. May writes about chemical addictions, but his more interesting observations describe behavioral addictions. The difference between a habit and a behavioral addiction is small but important: someone with a behavioral addiction is so attached to that behavior that he or she has symptoms of withdrawal when that behavior is prevented. One of Dr. May’s examples is reading the morning newspaper. If the newspaper is not delivered, an addicted person would be upset, possibly angry, because of the missing newspaper.

Dr. May suggests that people generally have about five addictions, most of which they do not notice. If you can “go with the flow” when your usual behavior is prevented, then you are not addicted to it; but if a change in circumstances makes you badly upset, you probably have an addiction.

Many other interesting things are in the book, but the interesting application today is for me to observe my reaction to receiving the wrong newspaper. I was amused and not angry; I call the newspaper to report the error, and they promised to send a copy of today’s paper. The deliverer was at the house fifteen minutes later with a newspaper and an apology. Meanwhile, I had eaten my breakfast and drank my coffee without a newspaper, and it didn’t bother me at all.

I will continue to follow most of my habits, both those that are useful and those that provide no benefit at all. Having a break in the routine is good for me, though, if only to confirm that I am not OCD or addicted to my morning newspaper. Just don’t try to stand between me and my morning coffee. J.

The season of Lent

This Wednesday many Christians around the world begin observing the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, a time of somber reflection about our need for a Savior, and a time to prepare for the joyful good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.

From early times, Christians used late winter for these purposes. Some had shorter seasons of Lent and some had longer seasons of Lent; eventually, they united in observing a penitential season of forty days, remembering the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as he battled Satan and his temptations. Those forty days are prefigured in the forty days and nights of rain during the time of Noah and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday actually includes forty-six days, because the Sundays during Lent are not counted. Even in Lent, Sunday marks the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Therefore, these Sundays are labeled Sundays in Lent, but not Sundays of Lent.

Even on Sundays, though, traditional Christians scale back during Lent. The Hebrew word “alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” is not said or sung during Lent. Some congregations do not decorate with flowers during Lent, and some do not use handbells or chimes during Lent. The hymns of Lent are somber and reflective, placing emphasis on our need for a Savior and on the work our Savior accomplished for us. Some of the traditional hymns of this type are: Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain, Go to Dark Gethsemane, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Many Christians use the time of Lent to fast. Fasting means going without something for a time. Sometimes a fast means no food at all—people are required to fast before some medical procedures. (Because people do not eat while they sleep, the first meal of the day breaks a fast—hence, breakfast.) Other times fasting means going without one kind of food or activity. Those who fast might give up candy, chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, alcohol, television, electronic games, or Facebook. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, Jesus clearly expects Christians to fast. He does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). The instructions that follow warn Christians not to fast to impress other people; if so, impressing other people is the only reward we receive. Instead, we are to act normally while we fast. We are, of course, free to tell others we are fasting, especially if they offer us something we have chosen to give up for Lent. But we do not fast to show off our faith. Likewise, a fast for physical benefits—giving up desserts to lose weight—is not a religious exercise. Those who lose weight during Lent have received their reward in full. When we fast, the purpose is spiritual benefits, not mere worldly benefits.

Religious people (not just Christians) have observed three spiritual benefits that come from fasting. First, fasting increases dedication. By giving up something I love for God, I prove to myself that I love God more. Second, fasting increases self-control. If I can say no to chocolate or to electronic games for nearly seven weeks, I will be strengthened to say no to temptations to sin whenever they come. Third, fasting increases compassion. When I fast voluntarily, I understand the poor around me who fast, not for spiritual reasons, but because they cannot have what they want because of their poverty.

Some Christians treat fasting lightly. When I was a child, my father gave up fresh watermelon for Lent, and my pastor gave up swimming in Lake Superior. I have found that fasting does help to focus my attention on Christ and his Word. Moreover, I have learned about myself through fasting. (I have learned, for example, that it is harder for me to live without coffee than without alcohol.) Fasting cannot be used to bargain with God. We cannot make demands upon the Lord and insist that he fulfill them because we have fasted. Like all Christian activity, fasting helps to build a relationship with the Lord. In our fast, if we are not seeking other rewards, we draw closer to Jesus and understand better both what he expects from us and what he promises us.

Fasting is not required. Every Christian may decide whether or not she or she will fast, during Lent or at any other time. Lent is not required. We are told to let no one judge us about Sabbaths, seasons, holidays, or matters of food and drink. In the history of the Church, fasting and Lent have been found to be helpful to Christians. However you spend your time between now and Easter, may the Lord bless your observances and use them to draw you closer to him. J.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Can you imagine seeing someone you know well suddenly begin to glow like a fluorescent light bulb? Jesus once provided this experience to Peter, James, and John, the inner circle within his twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the time that Jesus took the three of them up on a high hillside in Galilee to pray. Suddenly his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were brilliant white, more white than any bleach could make them. With Jesus were Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, discussing the “departure” of Jesus that he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Today Peter would have taken a selfie with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture, but he still tried to cling to the experience. He suggested putting up three tents so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah could stay on the hill. Presumably, Peter expected other people to climb the hill to visit with the three holy men. Instead, a cloud surrounded the hill, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One—Listen to him!”

Liturgical Christians have chosen to close the season of Epiphany by remembering this event. During Epiphany, Christians have remembered the ways in which Jesus revealed his identity through his teaching and his miracles. Glowing with light might be the most impressive way Jesus had to demonstrate his true nature as the Son of God. Christians today want, like Peter, to hold on to the special times when Jesus seems close to them and peace and joy appear to be within reach. Sometimes congregations try to meet this desire with uplifting hymns and praise songs and a “worship experience” that dazzles the eyes and the ears and the brain. Jesus is not near only when his people are dazzled and uplifted. Sometimes his presence is felt most clearly during the dark night of the soul. Mountaintop experiences last a short time, but the reminder to “listen to him!” continues ringing long after the light has faded away.

For liturgical Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is somewhat of a holy Mardi Gras, a last blaze of glory before the somber time of Lent arrives. The secular Mardi Gras of the world seems designed only to give people a reason to repent and to regret their sins in coming days. Holy people do not use the excuse of a coming fast to “sin boldly.” They remain focused on Jesus during feasts and during fasts; they draw upon the power of his forgiveness to “go and sin no more.” All God’s people sin every day and need forgiveness every day. Even Moses and Elijah fell short of the glory of God. God’s forgiveness is real every day, and his love and mercy are worth celebrating every day.

Because of his sins, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Before he died, he saw it from a distance, but he could not cross the river and set foot in the land. Moses first stood in the land when he stood with Jesus at his Transfiguration. His presence with Jesus in Galilee demonstrates that Jesus was completing the work of Moses. Moses delivered the Law to God’s people, but Jesus fulfilled the Law. Moses acted as a mediator for God’s people, praying for forgiveness when they sinned, but Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice as well as a mediator. Moses led his people through the wilderness but had to stop short at the border of the Promised Land; but Jesus leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death, bringing us safely to the other side where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy of Transfiguration is but an echo of the joy of Easter. The greatest glory of Jesus was not to glow with light: the greatest glory of Jesus was to defeat sin and Satan and death and to offer forgiveness and life to the people he loves. If one rejoices in the blessings God has bestowed, or if one is hoping and waiting for greater blessings, each of us can be certain that the glory of our Savior has made us his forever. To him be the glory! J.