Friday, February 24, 2017

A Little Help from My Friends

I recently attended a business seminar. After lunch was served, I had about 30 minutes to talk with, and be introduced to, a few potential new clients. It was an excellent opportunity to do a little networking and glad-handing.

Just before the afternoon seminar session was scheduled to begin, I visited the men’s room, and quietly congratulated myself for being so polished and suave while schmoozing with those new acquaintances. As I walked into the men’s room, I glanced over at the mirror and noticed a piece of dark green spinach completely covering a front tooth. I looked like Alfred E. Newman with glasses.

“Rats!” I exclaimed. (I may have used a slightly different word than “rats.”) “Has that stupid thing been on my stupid tooth the whole stupid time?!” (I may have used a slightly different word than “stupid.”) No wonder the people I had just met were smiling at everything I said: they were on the verge of busting out laughing.

When I returned to the conference room, I went over to one of my clients, who is a good friend, and sternly whispered, “Hey buddy, why the heck didn’t you tell me I had some stuff on my teeth?!” (I may have used slightly different words than “buddy,” “heck” and “stuff.”)

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I dunno. I wasn’t sure how to tell you. Besides, it looked pretty funny.”

“Well, from now on,” I said, “just be blunt. If something like that happens again, just say so right to my face.”

“You mean like if your fly is unzipped?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I replied.

“OK. Your fly is unzipped.”
I glanced down and again exclaimed something that wasn’t quite “Rats.” I had been so flustered in the men’s room at the sight of the Tooth from the Black Lagoon, I had neglected to zip up before leaving. Not surprisingly, I spent the rest of the seminar wondering why asteroids never come smashing through the roof and hit you in the head at 2,000 mph when you really need them.


After this exercise in abject embarrassment, I started wondering why people are so reluctant to offer a bit of hygiene assistance in these situations. After all, when we gather together in social settings, there’s always a lot of talking, and often some eating, which can lead to certain undesirable conditions. Some of the more common, in technical terms, are: spinachia bicuspidus (Tooth from the Black Lagoon), nasal secretus elasticus (dangling booger), and halitosis canis profundo (wicked doggie breath).

At a recent family gathering, I asked my relatives why people are so reluctant to offer hygiene assistance to their fellow man. It turns out the operative word here is “man.” All the women surveyed said if they were in a similar situation, they’d immediately pull the other person aside and remedy the spinach-tooth problem. Some even displayed special dental tools, carefully stored among 4,000 other essential items carried at all times in their purses.

All the men, however, said they would do exactly what my friend did at that business seminar: nothing. My brother-in-law explained, “You’d be angry at me if I told you.”

“I’d be angry if you DIDN’T tell me,” I replied.

“But you’d be MORE angry at me if I were the one to say something.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” I admitted. “But eventually I’d get over it.”

“I have a better idea,” he said. “Keep stuff off your teeth.” (He may have used a slightly different word than “stuff.”)

Exasperated, I got up and began to walk out of the room.

“Hey Bill,” my brother-in-law said. “Your fly is unzipped.” 

He was right. But I punched him anyway.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Do You Serve God or Mammon?

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus talked about money. He said, “And now we’ll go to Frank in Jersey City. You’re on ‘Money Talk with Jesus.’ What’s your question Frank?” “Hi Jesus. First-time caller, long-time listener. Love your show. Anyway, I’m thinking of rolling my 401k into municipal bonds. Is this a good long-term strategy?”

Oh wait, I’m sorry. Jesus was not a syndicated radio host who discussed financial matters. What He did say about money is this: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

The word mammon, by the way, is interesting. It is often described as being synonymous with the word money. Jesus’ quote is often translated, “You cannot serve both God and money.”

But mammon means a little bit more than just money. It is the Greek transliteration of the Jewish word that means roughly, “that in which one trusts.” So, the word mammon really means wealth in which someone puts his faith; the assets a person relies on to take care of all his needs.

Jesus said if a person becomes devoted to wealth and puts his faith in that wealth, then there’s no faith left for God. This is idolatry, the worst of all sins.

In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul wrote: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” This verse is often shortened to: “Money is the root of all evil.” But that’s not what Paul said. It’s the LOVE of money that’s bad, not money itself.

I recently heard a priest say the amount of money spent each year in Connecticut’s two gambling casinos—by just Catholic residents of the state—is well into the hundreds of millions of dollars range. If just HALF of that money were instead donated to faith-related projects, then our Catholic parishes and schools would be expanding rather than closing.

Do you think God is impressed when someone goes to Mass on Sunday morning and tosses five dollars into the collection basket, and later that same day takes a bus to the casino and pumps hundreds of dollars into slot machines, while absolutely LUSTING for a jackpot? I don’t think so.

Jesus is asking us some tough questions this week: Are money and material goods the main focus of our life? Are we possessed by our possessions? If we lost all of our assets, could we still be happy?

That last question is really the key. No matter how much money we have, if we ever lost it all but still could manage to be at peace and have trust in God, then we are not “serving mammon.” We are not putting our faith in fleeting riches and ignoring the eternal, spiritual aspects of life. We are not committing the worst sin of all, idolatry.

More than anything else, God wants our souls. He wants us to be in Heaven with Him for all eternity. No matter how much wealth a person piles up now, it will be rusting and rotting one hundred years from now. But the human soul is eternal. A hundred years from now will be merely the first fraction of a second of eternity.


God wants us to have an eternal perspective on life. When we see the big picture, it is obvious that God Himself is our only hope. Money and material goods can bring comfort and a short-term sense of security, but wealth cannot save our souls for all eternity. That’s why we should never serve mammon. That’s why we should never put our faith and trust in mere money.

Friday, February 17, 2017

What’s Your Name, Nick?

An old college buddy called the other night. I hadn’t heard from him in at least 25 years, and when he identified himself by his real name, at first I didn’t make the connection. But then it clicked, and I blurted out, “Hey Stinky!”

“Hey Dumpster!” he exclaimed, “You remembered.”

“Well, of course!” I said. “Whattaya been up to?”

“Not much,” he replied. “I’m a neurosurgeon now. Living in Baltimore.”

“Whoa. DOCTOR Stinky. Not bad.”

That nostalgic phone call made me realize that very few adults use nicknames.
Back in college, EVERYONE had a nickname, sometimes multiple nicknames, depending on how many personal flaws could be exploited. Way back then, my circle of friends included Booger, Buzzard Beak, Squeaky, Pinhead, Bubble Butt, Fur Ball (she never did like that name), Puke, Zit, and Dave. (Dave’s real name was something like Mujauhamminan, but he told us that in his native tongue, “dave” meant “bubble butt.”)

My nickname “Dumpster” was partly derived from my surname, and partly a description of my uncanny ability to imitate a garbage disposal during meals. Stinky’s nickname — excuse me, Dr. Stinky’s nickname — actually involved a dumpster, specifically the one he fell into while frantically trying to locate valuable property he feared had been accidentally tossed out with the trash. He never did find it (and we never did tell him we smoked it all while he was at class), but when he scrambled out of that slimy metal box, he had acquired a new nickname. I’m sure he explained this story in detail to the Maryland Board of Surgeons.

Since leaving college, the use of nicknames has been quite rare. For example, the actual names of the guys in my office are: Ken, Joe, Mike, Tom, Scott, Steve, and Bill. However, the informal and friendly terms we use to address each other are: Ken, Joe, Mike, Tom, Scott, Steve, and Bill.

Not only is there a complete absence of nicknames, we don’t even have a single multi-syllabic moniker in the whole firm. That’s pitiful. Without even thinking hard, I can come up with appropriate nicknames for everyone: Gap-Wedge, Big Red, Gabby, Home-Brew, Lithuaniac, Limey, and, well, Bill. (It’s gauche to give one’s self a nickname. But I’m sure if the other guys thought about it, they’d give me a suitable handle, such as Mr. Wonderful.)

And these nicknames aren’t even offensive or vulgar. Again, without even thinking hard, I can come up with appropriate tasteless nicknames for my co-workers. But I shall refrain from doing so for two reasons: (1) it would be rude and unprofessional, and (2) I need my job.

The best thing about nicknames is that they keep people humble. No matter how successful a person becomes, it’s hard to be pompous and arrogant when folks routinely refer to him or her as Fungus Face.

Since our society is currently experiencing an epidemic of pomposity and arrogance — even among people who are NOT successful — it might be a good idea if everyone used college-type nicknames. Imagine a presidential press conference. The first reporter stands and asks a question: “Mr. Cheeto Skin, why are you cutting taxes when the deficit is rising?”

The president replies, “Well, you see, Lizard Breath, tax cuts spur economic activity and actually increase tax revenues. Next question.”

Or imagine you’re in need of emergency brain surgery while visiting, oh let’s pick a place, Baltimore. Many worrisome thoughts are racing through your mind, not the least of which is: “Will I ever come out of this flat-line coma?” 

But then you realize you’re in good hands, and the medical staff is relaxed and confident, when you hear a nurse say, “We’re ready to begin surgery, Dr. Stinky.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love Our Enemies? Jesus Must Be Kidding

In this week’s gospel reading, we hear a portion of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. He declares, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

In our Politically Correct culture these days, many people say we should never use the word “enemy.” It’s too harsh and inflammatory and it may hurt someone’s feelings. Also, it might even provoke someone to do something violent.

Well, Jesus didn’t shy away from using the word “enemy.” There was no doubt in His mind that people who follow the Gospel would have enemies. For example, in many countries, the murder of Christians has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news anymore.

Here in the U.S., Christians are not being systematically murdered, but in recent years an unbridled hatred toward Christians has bubbled to the surface in amazing and ugly forms. One prominent Christian-hater is the alleged comedian Denis Leary, who apparently is trying to beat out Bill Maher for the title of “Most Venomous Ex-Catholic Celebrity.”
 

A few years ago, a Denis Leary special aired on the Comedy Central network. Early in the program Leary appears on stage with a large illuminated cross in the background. He pranced around and repeatedly thrust his middle finger at the cross. Three women in nun’s habits, but wearing very short skirts, helped Leary sing crude and profane lyrics bashing the pope in particular and Catholicism in general. Suffice to say it was a disgustingly hateful performance, which should have prompted mental health professionals to worry whether Leary owns any firearms.

Anyway, the point is, Jesus did not say we MIGHT have enemies once in a while. He made it clear we WOULD have enemies. And today we surely do. There are people in certain parts of the world who are hell-bent on murdering Christians. There are people, like Leary and other celebrities, who regularly spew hatred toward Christians.

Jesus flat-out said we will have enemies. But what He told us to do about it is absolutely remarkable. Jesus said we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Wow.

That got me thinking. Have I ever prayed for faith-hating celebrities like Leary? Have I ever prayed for pro-abortion, “Culture of Death” politicians, like my U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy? Have I ever prayed for Islamic extremists who are systematically murdering Christians? Nope, I can’t say that I have.

But how can we love people who are so nasty and hateful toward us, people who even Jesus says are our enemy? Well, it’s not easy. First, we should remind ourselves that God loves them. After all, He created them in His image. He surely is not pleased that they do not believe in Him, nor that they constantly bash those who do believe in Him, nor that they promote destructive godless values. Nonetheless, He still loves them.

Next, we need to remember that loving someone is not the same as liking him. Christian love means we sincerely desire the best for someone; we passionately hope and pray that the other person is abundantly blessed through a close relationship with God. Oftentimes that mean the other person needs to have a profound conversion experience, including repentance and a desire to make amends for past wrongs.

So, is it possible to love Denis Leary or pro-abortion politicians or ISIS murderers? Yes, it is. I don’t have to be fond of them, but I do sincerely have to wish the best for them. And the best for them includes throwing themselves at the foot of the cross and putting their faith in Jesus. 

That’s something that even I can pray for. That’s something that Jesus commands all His followers to do. It’s not easy, but then again, the Lord never said being His disciple would be a picnic. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

‘Hey Bill, Wanna Go Skiing?’

During the winter months, people often ask me, “Bill, do you ski?”

I always answer this simple yes-or-no question with a simple yes-or-no answer. I reply, “No.”

For some reason, most people never leave it at that. They look at me as if I just said I don’t think puppies are cute, and then they ask a bunch of follow-up questions, such as: “Really? Why not? Have you ever skied before? Don’t you know it’s really fun?”

Sheesh. How did this simple small-talk inquiry turn into a full-blown interrogation? I try to respond as truthfully as possible. “Yes,” I say, “I have skied before, which is why I do NOT ski now. And I’m pretty sure the word ‘fun’ is not a part of the experience, unless you define ‘fun’ as that moment when you stop hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer because it feels good.”

At this point, they usually look at me as if I not only insulted cute puppies but actually kicked one across the room. But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. There are certain things in life I don’t particularly enjoy, among them are frostbite, torn knee ligaments, and throwing fistfuls of 100-dollar bills into a blazing fireplace. (OK, that last item isn’t exactly what happens while skiing, although when you receive your credit card statement a couple of weeks after vacationing at a ski resort, you realize throwing fistfuls of 100-dollar bills into a blazing fireplace would’ve been the wiser financial move.)

I went skiing for the first (and last) time in my early 20s. Some co-workers invited me to join them for a weekend at Killington in Vermont. They said it would be fun and not too expensive. They lied. Twice.

Before we left, I asked one of my co-workers, “Isn’t it really cold in Vermont in February, especially on top of a mountain?”

He replied, “Not as long as you have the right clothing.”

I said, “You mean like a hat and a pair of gloves?” He nodded yes, or so I thought.

When it was too late, I discovered the phrase “the right clothing” really meant a specially-engineered, insulated outfit that costs more money than what the astronauts wore while walking on the moon. Since I was in my early 20s and the credit limit on my VISA card often forced me to purchase only HALF a tank of gas for my car, it was a moot point anyway. I na├»vely journeyed northward thinking my $2 wool cap and $3 pair of gloves from Caldor would be fine.

We were supposed to be there for two full days, but after the first hour on the bunny slope I could no longer feel my fingers, toes, and face. I started to wonder when the word “fun” was going to occur.

The clincher for me came when I was snowplowing along at about 5 mph, and the tip of one of my skis dug into the snow for about half a second. I didn’t get hurt because I was going so slow, but in that fraction of a second before the ski tip popped out of the snow, I could feel about 9,000 pounds of leveraged force start to twist my knee joint. Having endured knee ligament surgery as a result of playing football in school, I asked myself, “Self, do you want to go through that medical nightmare again?”

The answer was obvious. When I finally arrived at the bottom of the hill (and at 5 mph, that took a while), I headed for the lodge and sat by the fireplace for the next 36 hours. 

And that’s why my simple yes-or-no answer is, “No. Oh my God, NOOOOO!!”

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

To Fear or Not To Fear? That Is the Question

The Bible clearly says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). The Bible also says, “Fear not…I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

Um, wait a minute. The Bible says we are supposed to have fear, and it also says we are NOT supposed to have fear? Well, which is it? Should fear be a part of a believer’s life or not?

To understand this apparent contradiction, we need to look at some nuanced definitions of the word “fear.” First, in our modern culture, fear is almost always considered to be a bad thing. It usually refers to terrifying, often paralyzing dread. We say things like, “He was fearful for his life,” or, “She lived in a perpetual state of fear.” In these instances, the word fear definitely is negative.

But the word “fear” does not always indicate something horrifying and terrible. According to biblical scholars, the Hebrew verb yare can mean “to fear, to respect, to reverence.” The closely related Hebrew noun yirah is the word used in Psalm 111, and in this context the fear of God is a good thing. It’s based on the understanding that God is all-powerful, but we can trust Him because He is all-good. English words that convey this meaning are awe and reverence. This type of “fear” helps a person to be more open to true wisdom, so it definitely is positive.

Nelson’s Study Bible (1997 edition) offers this summary: “The fear of God is an attitude of respect, a response of reverence and wonder. It is the only appropriate response to our Creator and Redeemer.”

To better understand how God really feels toward us, we are often told to look to the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father in the story represents God the Father. He anxiously waits for us to repent and turn to Him. As soon as we do this, He completely forgives and forgets all the sinful things we’ve done, and then He throws a big party in our honor. Wonderful! How can you be fearful of such a loving God?

In contrast, consider Jonathan Edwards’ rip-roaring sermon titled, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Edwards’ famous exhortation, which some consider to be a catalyst for America’s “Great Awakening” religious revival in the mid-1700s, literally put “the fear of Hell” in his listeners. To summarize Edwards’ message: People are sinners; God is livid about that; and God at any moment might cast wicked people into Hell. (I bet Jonny was a ray of sunshine at cocktail parties.)

The loving and forgiving father described in the parable of the Prodigal Son sure sounds a lot better than Edwards’ portrayal of a furious God. But before we leave it at that, let’s not lose sight of some important facts. First, God is indeed loving and forgiving. Jesus told that parable for a reason. However, God also is holy and righteous. He hates sin. (But not the sinner. Whew!) He is the supreme judge, and every single one of us will someday stand in judgment before Him. Radio preacher Steve Brown notes, “If you’ve stood before the living God and not trembled, then you’ve never stood before the living God.” 

God is loving and merciful. He also is all-powerful and all-just. We should not cozy up to God as if He is nothing more than a jolly ol’ grandfather who hands out candy. We instead should drop to our knees before our Creator with awe and reverence and wide-eyed wonder, and maybe a little trembling and trepidation, too. This kind of “fear” is not bad. It’s the kind of “fear” that leads to wisdom and eternal life.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Fun Facts About Groundhog Day

This week we celebrate Groundhog Day, further proof that joyous festivals and important holidays on the official calendar do not necessarily have to be based — and I’m trying to be generous here — on anything SANE.

Let’s summarize the whole concept of Groundhog Day: the world waits breathlessly for a nondescript rodent in a nondescript western Pennsylvania town to forecast the weather six weeks from now, even though PhDs in meteorology, with millions of dollars of high-tech electronic equipment, cannot accurately forecast the weather six hours from now. Sounds logical to me.

Every February 2nd the sleepy little town of Punxsutawney, PA, (population 6,800) swells with 30,000 visitors — 29,000 of whom work for TV crews and spend their entire time doing “breaking news” broadcasts, most of which focus on the massive number of media people who have descended on the sleepy little town. This is because the TV news creed, found in the Gospel of Nielson 3:16, is “For where two or three satellite trucks are gathered together, there is ‘breaking news’ in their midst.”

Being somewhat curious about the origins of Groundhog Day, I did some extensive research on the Internet. Here are some of my findings:

  • The Internet should be outlawed. Anything that allows a person to waste three hours looking up Groundhog Day trivia is simply horrible. 
  • Forecasting the end of winter is an old Scottish tradition, summed up in the following old Scottish rhyme: “If Candlemas day be dry and fair / The half o’winter to come and mair / If Candlemas day be wet and foul / The half of winter’s gone at Yule.” 
  • Candlemas is a church feast, February 2nd, a day on which candles for sacred use are blessed. 
  • “Mair” is an old Scottish word meaning “the only thing I could think of that rhymes with fair.” 
  • No matter how thick a Scottish accent you use, “foul” and “Yule” will never rhyme. (Since they were making up words anyway, one wonders why they didn’t just go with “yowl.”) 
  •  “Punxsutawney” is from the Indian words punx, meaning “sleepy little town,” and sutawney, meaning “where TV trucks can easily uplink to the satellite.” 
  • The first people in the U.S. to make predictions about the weather on February 2nd were German immigrants in Pennsylvania. 
  • A clairvoyant rodent became part of the holiday tradition after one German immigrant polished off two bottles of schnapps, and then said, “Dit you hear zat, Helga? Ze grundhock vuz talkink to me!” 
  • Punxsutawney Phil became the official Groundhog Day groundhog after his cousin, Punxsutawney Fred, was caught in an FBI sting and indicted on bribery charges. 
  • There are literally hundreds of websites devoted solely to Groundhog Day (yet more proof the Internet is horrible), including groundhog.org, Punxsutawney.com, and PunxsutawneyPhil.com. One online shopping site, groundhogstuff.com, offers this reminder: “Start your holiday shopping here!” 
  • There are people in this country who actually do their holiday shopping at a site called “groundhogstuff.com.” 
  • There are people in this country who actually think “holiday shopping” is something you do in anticipation of February 2nd rather than December 25th. (Strong evidence that schnapps is still being abused in western Pennsylvania.)
In summary, the celebration of Groundhog Day teaches us some important lessons: (1) meteorologists are no smarter than rodents; (2) no matter what Phil forecasts this week, it is guaranteed to be every media outlet’s “breaking news” lead story — unless, of course, something MORE important occurs, such as Kim Kardashian getting a zit; and (3) most American citizens, although not quite as smart as meteorologists, need to GET A LIFE! (And this goes double for anyone who wastes three hours searching Groundhog Day websites!)