Monday, September 26, 2016

A Master Waiting on the Servant? Preposterous

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus told an interesting little parable. He compared being a disciple with being a servant on a big estate. At the end of a hot day, the servant came in from working in the fields, and he did not expect the master of the estate to invite him to dinner. If anything, the servant must wait on the master during dinner, and then afterward have his own meal back at the servants’ quarters.

To Jesus’ audience, during an age when servants and slaves were common, the idea of a master dining with the servants, let alone waiting on the servants, was preposterous. Jesus said a master will not be grateful when the servant did what he was required to do, nor should the servant expect the master to be grateful toward him.
Jesus told this parable to teach us the kind of attitude Christians should have toward God. The Creator of the Universe is the master and we are mere servants. We should never expect God to fawn all over us or give us some special privilege simply because we did our duty. The creature does not demand respect from the Creator. We should understand the situation and be humble.

However, here is the amazing thing about Christianity: God is really not like the master described in this parable. He is not an arrogant plantation owner who barely even notices the servants. Instead, God treats us in preposterous fashion. He invites the lowly servants to dine with Him, and then He puts on an apron and serves them! Jesus was the perfect example of this at the Last Supper: He did the most menial task a servant could do: He washed the disciples’ feet.
Finally, and most amazing of all, our Heavenly Master offers the lowly servants the opportunity to be adopted into His family. If you know anything about old fashioned plantation life, being an offspring of the master is a whole lot better than being a servant or slave. “Moving into the big house on the hill!”
To put it in more contemporary terms, if God were a corporate CEO, He would invite the loading dock worker to join Him for dinner at his fancy country club, then let the worker take his new BMW, and finally, He would adopt that worker as his own son.

We have been saved by the grace of God, not by anything we have done. We don’t deserve it. But God loves us so much He offers the priceless gift of salvation. The lesson this week focuses on the proper attitude we should have. Just because we accept this undeserved gift through faith is not a reason for us to demand that God be grateful toward us.

Here’s the reality of our situation here on earth: We are doomed because of our sin. But our Creator offers us a way out. When we accept this priceless gift, should we then expect that God will be grateful toward us for doing so? Of course not. That’s ridiculous.

Instead, if we go about our duty as humble servants, expecting no special treatment or honor, we will find in the end that our master will invite us to dine with Him. He will bring us to His heavenly country club and give us His celestial BMW. This is yet another Christian paradox: when we do not expect special treatment, we in fact ultimately get special treatment. But if we arrogantly expect it in the first place, we will not receive it.

Our master, our Lord, our spiritual CEO, is not like any human we’ve ever met. He is out of this world. And gratitude and love should be our most overwhelming responses toward Him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Orange You Glad You’re Not Sprayed?

Well, another summer season is over. Our three-month frolic with beaches and boats and sunny weather has caused many Americans to ponder a deep and philosophical question: Does anyone actually think a spray tan looks good?

This question is very relevant, especially in light of the current presidential election campaign. As we all know, America has become a nation of hyphens: African-American, Irish-American, Italian-American, Native-American, Asian-American, etc. Now it looks like we might elect as president a new type of hyphen: a Cheeto-American.
I suppose I notice tans — both the natural kind and the spray-on kind — more than the average person. You see, I grew up in a shoreline community where my father was the head life guard at the town beach, and I always wanted to have a nice tan. However, since my family can trace our ancestors back to County Albino in Ireland, a region that has been shrouded in fog for 20 centuries and where every molecule of melanin has been weeded out of our gene pool, no matter how much time I spent in the sun as a youth, my skin never tanned. It only turned various shades of bright red. Being an astute child, it took me no more than 900 painful sunburns to realize I would never get a tan. (Something about which my dermatologist today is quite happy, as I now underwrite a sizeable portion of his monthly yacht payments.)
Even though I was unable to have the tan I so desperately wanted as a youth, it has never occurred to me to get a spray tan instead. And there is one simple reason why I would never do it: even I am not that oblivious to reality. The one thing a spray tan does not resemble in any way is an actual tan. A spray tan looks exactly like what it is: the aftermath of someone using a Wagner Power Painter to apply an unnaturally orange-colored layer of chemicals on your skin. If the dermatologist says my many youthful sunburns caused damage to my skin, what do you think a coating of chemicals from the Dupont and Monsanto factories will do to a person? (I suspect we’ll be seeing trial lawyer TV ads in a few years, such as: “If you or a loved one suffered the harmful effects of being spray-painted orange — including embarrassment, humiliation, and unsightly stains on all your clothes — you may be entitled to a large cash award. Call the law offices of Shyster & Myster today!”)

The only thing that looks more unnatural than a spray tan (besides Hillary attempting to be friendly), is the typical male toupee. And when a guy has both a spray tan AND a toupee, even the late, great Saint Mother Teresa was known to blurt out, “Dude! Don’t you own a mirror?!”
Now that we are heading into the Fall season, the folks who got natural tans during the summer are fading back to their normal pale complexions, which makes those who are addicted to spray tans stand out even more like a sore (orange) thumb.

There is only one day this Fall when being spray-painted orange is appropriate. But then, the day after Halloween, you must wash it off so friends and co-workers do not wonder why you insist on impersonating a pumpkin during November. 

It’s like that old public service announcement says: “Friends don’t let friends turn orange.” Maybe we need to do interventions. “Bob, we all love you, but your addiction to orange paint is out of control. Please let us help you.” And maybe we should do the first intervention with a certain Cheeto-American running for president.

Monday, September 19, 2016

We’ve Been Given More Than Enough Warning

The gospel reading at Mass this weekend is the parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus. (No, not the same guy Jesus raised from the dead. Apparently, Lazarus was the first century version of Bob or Fred, that is, a very common name.) The rich man, Jesus explained, “dined sumptuously each day,” while Lazarus was “covered with sores” and “would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”
Eventually both men died and received their just rewards in the afterlife: Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham at the heavenly banquet, and the rich man suffering in fiery torment.

The rich man cried out to Abraham, pleading for pity and some relief. But Abraham answered: Sorry, pal, “you received what was good during your lifetime, while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”

Many people nowadays say to themselves, “I’m basically a good person. I never murdered anybody. So God will be good to me.” However, we should take heed of this parable. The Golden Rule, a direct command from the Lord, is not passive. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a call to actively do something, rather than passively sit back and not hurt anyone.
Also, please be advised: those of us living in North America here in the early part of the 21st century are probably more susceptible to “rich man’s blindness” than any other generation in history. Even lower middle-class folks today have far more wealth and comfort than even the rich man in Jesus’ parable.

Here’s a suggested mental exercise: try to image the moment after your death. Your body is still lying on the hospital bed and the doctors are trying to resuscitate you, but your soul has already split from your lifeless flesh and is now standing before the Lord. At that moment, will Jesus ask you how many BMWs you purchased during your lifetime, how many flat-screen TVs you owned, or how many pairs of expensive shoes were in your closet? Or will He inquire about what you actively did “for the least of my brethren,” suffering people like Lazarus? Just askin’.
In the parable, when the rich man realized he was stuck, he accepted his fate, but requested that Lazarus be sent back to warn his five living brothers. On the surface, it appears the rich man was trying to do something nice: save his brothers from a terrible fate. But I’m not so sure. It seems he was more interested in making an excuse for his own actions. His request seems to be saying, “Hey, it’s not my fault. If someone had only explained it to me more clearly I would have acted differently.”

Abraham immediately squelched that notion. He said, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let [your brothers] listen to them.”
And don’t forget, we Christians have Moses and the prophets AND the entire New Testament, which hammers home this message even more clearly.

In a bit of irony, Jesus had Abraham say to the rich man, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

Quite prophetic. Even when Jesus Himself died and rose from the dead, people still were not convinced. Many remain unconvinced, even to this day.

But this parable makes it clear: we have been given more than enough warning. When our souls stand before the Lord, we can’t cop the same attitude the rich man did. If we say, “Hey, there wasn’t enough warning, nobody told me,” Jesus is going to shake his head and reply, “Sorry pal. Say hi to the rich man for me. And don’t forget your sun block. I’d suggest SPF 10,000.”

(OK, Jesus wouldn’t phrase it exactly that way. But you know what I mean.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I ‘Kneed’ Some Cooperation

The situation has gotten so bad, we are now barely on speaking terms. I freely admit I’ve made mistakes in the past. And I’ve apologized countless times for those mistakes. But we have to stop dwelling on the past and move on. We have to start acting like mature adults. There simply must be a reconciliation between myself and my right knee.

Our relationship goes way back. I admit for many years I took my knees for granted. Regrettably, it was a very one-sided situation back then. My knees were always there for me, waiting patiently, ready to spring into action. Whenever I wanted to go somewhere, I’d simply look down and say, “OK, boys, let’s go!” and they would immediately race across the playground, or climb a hill, or steal second base.
I enjoyed the freedom and mobility my knees provided. Yes, I was oblivious to their feelings at the time. But even though they would never admit it today — especially that vindictive Rightie — I know they enjoyed those days, too.

As the years went by we worked together as a team. I’d say, “OK, let’s sprint straight ahead, fake to the inside, then cut to the corner and catch a touchdown pass.” And they would dutifully perform, just as I requested. (Now if only Mr. Hands would’ve cooperated and held onto the ball.)
But then that fateful day came. I foolishly asked the coach if I could run back kick-offs. The first few kick-offs were uneventful. But then it happened: I caught the ball and raced forward. I saw an opening to the left, and put all my weight on Rightie to make my move. But just then, an unseen linebacker dove at my legs. Poor Rightie never knew what hit him. He twisted inward and gave a loud pop-pop sound.

Needless to say, Rightie had to have surgery. It was a very painful and traumatic experience. No matter how profusely I apologized, Rightie wouldn’t even look at me. Leftie finally suggested, “Leave him alone for a while, Boss. Maybe after the cast comes off he’ll be ready to talk about it.”
We never did talk about it — you know how guys are — but for all these years I thought we had an agreement. I would never again do anything dangerous, like football, skiing, or yard work, and in return Rightie would allow me to do two simple things: walk without pain and swing a golf club.

After decades of keeping my end of the bargain — I never played football; never got on skis again; and, well, just LOOK at my yard — Rightie has in recent months been positively traitorous. Sometimes he just swells up for no reason. Other times he sends shooting pains up my leg when I’m trying to sleep. And just last week, as I was about to tee off on the first hole, Rightie simply buckled during my follow through, and I crumpled to the ground.

“What was that all about?!” I shouted. Rightie just shrugged and nonchalantly said, “I dunno. Felt like it.”

Since he won’t talk about it, I had to take drastic measures. Yesterday I picked up a medical journal with a feature story about advancements in knee replacement surgery. I put the magazine on the coffee table and opened it to the article. Then I sat on the couch and crossed my legs on the table so Rightie could see it. After a moment, he turned and stared at me. I calmly said, “You can be replaced, you know.”
“Now, now wait a minute, Boss,” he stammered. “Let’s talk.” 

“Fine. Let’s talk,” I said. “I’ve got a 9 a.m. tee time this Saturday. Therefore …”

Monday, September 12, 2016

Christianity Afflicts the Comfortable

There’s an old expression that says the purpose of Christianity is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Now, of course, the true purpose of Christianity is to make saints; to get precious souls to spend eternity in Heaven rather than in Hell. But that old expression is true regarding the way Christianity works in people’s lives. Numerous times in the gospels Jesus commands His followers to care for the poor and the sick; that is, to comfort the afflicted.

Also, the Scriptures are clear that people who spend their lives chasing after the Three P’s—possessions, power, and prestige—are in big trouble. If these folks, who we typically label as the “comfortable” of society, forsake the things of God in their pursuit of the things of earth, then their eternal fate is in serious jeopardy. Jesus was very clear when He said a person cannot serve both God and money.

Just imagine spending 60 or 80 or even 100 years striving for physical comforts here in this world, only to spend all of eternity without a single shred of comfort. Yikes! It’s been a long time since I took a math class, but I’m pretty sure Infinity is a slightly larger number than 60 or 80 or even 100.

So a big part of the Christian message is designed to make selfish and worldly-minded people feel guilty, that is, to afflict the comfortable. By the way, although our modern secular society proclaims that feeling guilty is a terrible thing, guilt actually can be a good thing. Guilt is our conscience telling us, “Hey, something’s wrong here. You shouldna done that!” (Our consciences often speak in slang, such as using the contraction “shouldna” rather than the cumbersome “should not have.”) If we do something hurtful to another person, or if we are obsessed only with ourselves, then we SHOULD feel guilty about it, because that behavior does not conform with God’s plan for our lives.
I recently heard another spin on that old expression. This one says the essence of the Christian life is to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” In other words, Christians have to get in the habit of doing things we don’t really want to do.

There is no way around it: the proper Christian life is quite uncomfortable. We are called to deny ourselves, sacrifice for others, love the unlovable, and witness for the truth of God in a culture that mocks religious faith. We are called to step out of our comfort zones on a regular basis. 

Living in a post-Christian culture that mocks religious faith makes it difficult enough, but the biggest obstacle to doing God’s will and stepping out of our comfort zones is the fact modern American society is obsessed with comfort. You thought we were obsessed with sex and violence? Nope, those things are just diversions because we’re so bored. Our real obsession is comfort. The vast majority of our consumer products are designed to give us comfort, or at least to provide us with the things we need with the least amount of effort on our part.
Personally, I hate writing about this topic, because I am totally caught up in the comfort rat race. For example, as soon as I hear it’s possible to turn off the lights via an app on your iPhone, I search for and download the app, genuinely excited about the prospects of not having to get up out of a chair and walk four feet to the wall switch. I suspect if someone ever invents a combination reclining chair/refrigerator/toilet, I’ll probably go days at a time without standing up.

So it’s not easy being a Christian in our modern world. With our high standard of living nowadays, virtually all of us fall into the category of being “comfortable.” Jesus’ message is meant to “afflict” us, if we can just turn off the video devices long enough to hear His voice.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

From the Archives: 'Nothing Is Funny Today'

[Note: This column was written on Sept. 15, 2001, four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.]

It is Saturday morning, the only time during the week when I get a chance to write. After a few days of playing with ideas, jotting down notes, and reciting snippets of silly dialog to myself in the car, I sit down at the computer on most Saturdays and write my humor column, “A Matter of Laugh or Death.”

However, this is no ordinary Saturday. It is the fourth day after Tragic Tuesday, our generation’s day of infamy with the eerie emergency response numerical date: 9-11.
Nothing is funny right now. Even the name of my column, a smart-aleck play on words which seemed clever five days ago, makes me cringe. A matter of laugh or death? This week there are no laughs, only death.

I tried to write something funny. C’mon, I said to myself, the world needs laughter. It’s therapeutic. Life goes on. The American spirit is indomitable. We will recover. We will smile again. We will laugh again. We need to laugh again.

Well, OK, that’s probably true. But not today.

My grandparents had Pearl Harbor. My parents have the Kennedy assassination. And now I have the Twin Towers attack, my indelibly etched “Where were you when you heard…?” moment.

I was in a warehouse near the Tappan Zee Bridge, about 20 miles from Manhattan, preparing for the grand opening of a new distribution branch. A co-worker came out of the office and yelled, “Two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center! It’s on the radio!”

Six of us gathered around the radio in stunned disbelief while the reporters described the horrific sequence of events. Raging fires. Billowing smoke. It’s collapsing! Plumes of dust and debris. The Pentagon has been hit. The other tower is falling! Plane crash in rural Pennsylvania.

Our building is surrounded by trees, but when we drove a half-mile toward the Hudson we could gaze down the river and clearly see grayish white smoke rising from the majestic skyline and drifting eastward. It appeared as if an imposter cloud was trying to sneak into the air and join the ranks of the real cumulus puff balls floating in the bright blue sky.
We returned to the warehouse and resumed working, shocked, numb, repeatedly looking at each other and mumbling, “Unbelievable.” All the while the radio chattered in the background with a steady stream of updates and eyewitness reports.

I tried to pray. “Oh God, dear Jesus, please…” I whispered, unable to complete the thought or finish the sentence. Finally I gave up. “You know what I should be praying, Lord. I just can’t concentrate. Please help them. Please help us all.”

As a baby boomer, I’ve been staring at television since birth. I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the tube. I love TV and can’t imagine living without it, but I also hate it because it can be such a time-waster and mind-musher. In recent years I’ve grown fond of radio, finding it more mentally stimulating, even to the point of listening to Red Sox games when I could be watching them on TV.

But on Tragic Tuesday I ached for a television. Hour after hour I listened as reporters did their best to describe with words a scene which could only be described with video images. It wasn’t until 6:00 p.m., nine long hours later, that I got my first glimpse of what the entire world had been watching all day long. Each time Tom Brokaw reappeared to talk, I felt guilty for wanting him to go away so I could watch the replay of the planes crashing, again and again and again.

For three days I did not cry. I was dazed and stunned and achingly sad. But I didn’t cry. At least until last night. During yet another evening session of flipping from Brokaw to Rather to Jennings and back again, I saw a report from London. At a Friday memorial service in a packed St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the Queen and other British officials in attendance, the entire congregation began singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Tears began to stream down my cheeks as I watched Britons from all walks of life wave little American flags and sing my country’s national anthem. As I cried I broke into a quivering smile. “We Americans don’t even know the words to that song,” I said. “How do they know the words?” I took it as a small sign that even in the face of so much death, humor had not quite died. 

Nothing is very funny right now. We need to mourn and recover and face a disquieting future. But someday soon we will smile. And someday soon we will laugh again. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Brady Bunch on Location, Location, Location

A recent news story reported that Eve Plumb, the actress who played Jan Brady on the iconic 1970s sitcom “The Brady Bunch,” just sold her Malibu bungalow for slightly less than 4 million dollars. She bought the house when she was 11 years old for only $55,000, using her earnings from the TV show. So in about four-and-a-half decades, the value of her real estate increased 7000-percent. Not too shabby.
As they say in the real estate business, the three most important things about a piece of property are: “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” Oops, I’m sorry. That’s Jan Brady’s famous lament about her older sister. The three most important things about real estate are: “Location! Location! Location!”
Now, let’s consider a different piece of real estate, owned by a certain humor columnist for this newspaper. It’s a lovely 3-bedroom ranch on the east side of Torrington, which was purchased 30 years ago for $127,000 (and not with earnings from starring in a TV sitcom, but instead with a pile of money from the bank and my promise to give the bank most of my income each month for the next three decades).

This lovely home in Torrington is now for sale. Am I expecting to sell it for a 7000-percent profit? Of course not. I’ve only owned it for 30 years, not 4-1/2 decades. So I’d settle for a mere 1000-percent profit. However, this house has been on the market for over 5 months now, and it’s becoming clear that in order to get someone to make a serious offer, the sale price needs to be no more than 20 to 25-percent higher than what I paid in 1986. As they say in the military: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!!

I asked the real estate agent why my house increased so little in value while Eve Plumb’s house skyrocketed in value. The agent replied, “It’s because of Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! Um, I mean, Location! Location! Location!”
Fine. Let’s review these two locations. My house is located in Connecticut, where we experience four distinct and delightful seasons, including oppressively muggy summers and bone-chilling winters. On the other hand, Malibu has to endure a monotonously similar climate all year long: sunny, 75 degrees, and dry. Who could possibly enjoy that tedious existence?

Next, let’s compare the views. Eve Plumb’s bungalow is located right on the beach and looks directly out at the Pacific Ocean. This means every evening she is forced to deal with a brilliant sunset on the water, which requires everyone to wear sunglasses, even indoors. Also, those sunsets reveal unsightly streaks if the windows are not cleaned properly. How annoying!

In contrast, the picture window in my cozy living room offers a breathtaking view of the high tension power lines running along Route 183. And speaking of Route 183, that’s the road I take to get to Walmart and Taco Bell in less than three minutes. In congested Southern California, I bet Eve has to sit in traffic for at least 45 minutes whenever she needs to purchase a pair of $7 stretch pants and a Burrito Supreme.
Finally, although Connecticut consistently rates just behind Venezuela regarding oppressive taxation and government regulations, California is even worse, beating out only North Korea in those particular categories.

So the bottom line seems pretty clear to me: the east side of Torrington is obviously a much better location than dreary ol’ Malibu. I’m the one who should be pocketing the four-mil, while Eve should be settling for the measly buck-fifty. There’s only one explanation as to why Eve’s cashing in big and I’m not: preferential treatment for Hollywood celebrities. And we know who’s behind it all: Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!