Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Joys of Being ‘Chronologically Gifted’ (part 1)

Recently I discovered that I am no longer a geezer-in-training, but now I am classified as a full-fledged geezer. This designation became official when I received the “senior discount” at Dunkin Donuts without asking for it — for the tenth time in a row.

However, I’m not a big fan of some of the terms used for people like me, such as elderly, mature, or senior. I prefer a different term: “chronologically gifted.” Those of us who are chronologically gifted have an abundance of years; we have an abundance of experiences and memories. I actually feel sorry for people who are “chronologically impaired.” These folks don’t have many years to their credit, nor much experience. The only things these people have are strength, stamina, and good looks. Bah! Who wants that stuff?
Now that many years have been credited to my account, I realize a lot of what occurred during the aging process took me by complete surprise. No one warned me about these things. I made a list, and since I like alliteration, each item begins with the letter “F”.

When I was a young, I could run around the yard barefoot all day long, and play basketball at the schoolyard while wearing only flip flops. My feet never bothered me.

Now, I’ve learned that chronologically gifted feet are fragile. Arches fall, heels hurt, bunions bloom, fungus flourishes, and toenails in-grow. I used to wonder why older guys went to the beach wearing socks and sneakers. Now I know: anything less is just too painful.
When I hit my 50s, half my hair turned gray, and the other half turned loose. I wasn’t surprised by that, but no one warned me that when people reach a certain age, a whole new crop of hair sprouts from the ears, nostrils, and the sides of the neck. And this goes for the men, too.

There’s a little gizmo you can buy in drug stores called the “electric nose and ear hair trimmer.” When I was young I thought it was a gag gift, something you might buy for someone just to goof around. Well, now I realize without that little device, I would look like a cactus.
Chronologically gifted people know that if the clothes we own today are out of style, all we have to do is wait a little while and they’ll be back in style in no time.

The perfect example is the “hipster hat,” a hat with a short brim, turned down in the front and up in the back. I saw an ad in a magazine with a photo of a typical young hipster. He had the big bushy beard, horned rim glasses, skinny jeans, Starbucks coffee, and he was wearing a hipster hat.

Well, I hate to break it to him, but that cool, modern hipster hat is the exact same hat Frank Sinatra wore during the entire 1950s. So the more things change the more they stay the same.
There’s an amazing part of the brain called the filter. Whenever we have a thought, the filter quickly determines whether we should speak that thought out loud. If it’s inappropriate, the filter stops the thought from reaching the mouth. When people get into their chronologically gifted years, the filter often malfunctions. Thoughts that never should see the light of day come spewing right out.

A few years ago I was in a store, and an old guy in a wheelchair looked over at another shopper and blurted out, “Look at the size of her butt!” (Except he didn’t use the word “butt,” if you get my drift.) My wife is pretty sure my filter is already faltering. 

Next week: Geezerhood Part 2.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Little Man Offers Big Lesson

This week’s gospel reading is the story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector from Jericho. One day Jesus passed through Jericho, and Zacchaeus wanted to get a look at Him. But there was one tiny problem: Zacchaeus’ tiny stature.

Zacchaeus was a very short man, and being a hated and ostracized tax collector, no one in the crowd was about to step aside and let him move up to the front for a better view. So Zacchaeus, as Scripture explains, “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.”
Because I watched the sitcom “Taxi” a few thousand times, whenever I hear this story, I immediately envision Danny DeVito scrambling up a tree, muttering profanity under his breath. The real Zacchaeus was equally as comical. Being a tax collector for the Romans, he had to be ruthless. Being a short tax collector, he had to be extra ruthless. (“Pay up, or I’ll punch you in the knee cap!”) The sight of this ruthless little man climbing a tree must have stunned the crowd.
The crowd was stunned even more when Jesus stopped, looked up into the tree, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

The Bible tells us exactly how the crowd reacted: “They began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.’”
The crowd’s reaction highlights a persistent misunderstanding about Jesus’ mission. Contrary to what the crowd thought (and what many folks think today), Jesus did not come into this world to praise righteous people and condemn the evil. He came into this world to save sinners.

There is no clearer doctrine in all of Scripture than the fact that ALL people are sinners. And if you’re still not sure whether mankind is by nature sinful, just watch the evening news for about 5 minutes.

The fact is, we are all sinners. Which means we all need a Savior. That’s why Jesus came into this world.
Now here’s the tricky part: although we can never earn our way into Heaven by our own good deeds, we are nevertheless commanded by Jesus to avoid sin and live holy and righteous lives. It’s simply the proper thing to do.

On this side of eternity, however, it is an unattainable goal. Even the most revered saints were sinners. Knowing that we cannot achieve perfection, God is much more pleased by our sincerity and our effort than by the results alone.

However, we are inclined to compare ourselves to other people rather than compare ourselves to God. When we compare ourselves to others, we become prideful and judgmental. We say things like, “I’m basically good,” or “Well, I never murdered anybody or robbed a bank,” or, as the crowd said, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner!”

When we compare ourselves to God, who is all-holy and perfect, we become humble. We realize we fall short of the mark and more readily ask for forgiveness.

Christians today often act like the crowd in this gospel reading. We gather in our parishes and congregations. We pat each other on the back for being so good. We shake our heads over the decadent behavior in society. We grumble when a fellow parishioner associates with an ungodly sinner—just as the crowd grumbled at Jesus for associating with Zacchaeus.

Jesus summarized his mission on earth in the last verse of the reading: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” 

Our mission is to spread this wonderful Good News to all the world. We will be much more successful—not to mention much more pleasing to the Lord—when we do it with an attitude of humility and thankfulness, instead of an attitude of arrogance and condescension. And there’s no tree-climbing required.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Flying Is Great, After the Wait

Just before heading to the airport on a business trip, a coworker asked, “Don’t you hate flying?”

I replied, “Actually, the flying part is fine. But I do hate the other aspects of air travel, all of which take place on the ground.”

Sure, I’ve had my share of unpleasant experiences in the air, such as turbulence, cramped seats, tiny airplane restrooms, screaming babies, and most frustrating of all, discovering that my individually wrapped packet of four peanuts contained only three peanuts. But all in all, I’m still amazed and delighted that a hunk of aluminum can go airborne in Connecticut and then barely two hours later touch down safely in Chicago. The “traveling in the air” part of air travel is great.
But everything that happens before and after being in the air is a royal pain. For example:

  • Searching for and booking a flight — This is a very confusing, time-consuming, and expensive online exercise. Just when I think I’ve found a decent option, which takes me from Hartford to Chicago without a layover in Brazil, either there suddenly are no more seats available, or the price jumped from $325 to $925 because I waited one day too long. 
  • Packing a suitcase — also known as the futile exercise of cramming 10 pounds of you-know-what into a 5-pound carry-on bag. This inevitably leads to hastily transferring everything into a larger suitcase, because it dawned on me that my business meetings in Chicago will be more successful if I’m wearing pants. So now I’ve got to check the bag, usually for a steep fee, and wonder if my luggage will actually reach Chicago the same day I do. 
  • Waiting in line (part 1) to check the suitcase. 
  • Waiting in line (part 2) to go through the security check point. 
  • Waiting in line (part 3) to get a coffee and stale muffin for seven dollars. 
  • Waiting in line (part 4) to get my boarding pass scanned and then proceed down the jetway. 
  • Waiting in line (part 5) halfway down the jetway as dozens of people and their carry-on bags are bottlenecked at the cabin door. 
  • Waiting in line (part 6) in the middle of the airplane aisle as people in front of me try to fit 10 pounds of carry-on baggage into a 5-pound overhead bin. (It’s almost as if the luggage manufacturers had a meeting: “OK, what’s the size of the standard airline overhead bin? 22 inches deep by 14 inches high? Fine, we’ll make all our carry-on bags exactly 24 by 16. Good job, fellas, let’s break for lunch.”) 
  • Waiting in line (part 7) as the plane inches its way toward the end of the runway, while the captain says on the PA system, “We’re number 19 in line, folks, so we’ll be taking off, um, probably today.” (To be fair, this rarely happens at Bradley, where a flight takes off about once every 15 minutes, as opposed to O’Hare, where the rate is more like 15 flights per every one minute.) 
Finally, the plane is in the air and everything is fine — not counting the occasional turbulence, cramped seating, screaming babies, three peanuts, and exceedingly tiny restrooms. (Being inside the restroom when turbulence hits should be a ride at Six Flags amusement park. It’s a wild adventure, although the blue water splashing on your leg and the concussion aren’t much fun.)

Cruising at 35,000 feet, and arriving safely in Chicago in two hours is a marvel of science and technology. But then the plane touches down, and a whole new series of annoying ordeals ensue. I’d bore you with that list, too, but I’ve got to pack and get to the airport.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jesus Warns Against Pride

Ever since the September 11th terrorist attacks fifteen years ago, radio stations often play Lee Greenwood’s poignant song, “Proud to be an American.” Now, it’s a nice song, but I’m not much of a country music fan. (Just too many heart-breaking stories about unfaithful relationships and deceased dogs—or is it deceased relationships and unfaithful dogs?)
Long before 2001, the word “pride” was being bandied about by a multitude of groups: gay pride, black pride, plumber’s union pride, Notre Dame pride, nursery school pride, under-achiever pride, etc. When I was in high school, a popular bumper sticker supported our school football team: “Morgan Huskies Have Pride.”

In contemporary culture, the word “pride” has lost all its negative aspects. It is entirely a good thing. In generations past, however, people were wary of pride. They were much more Bible literate and they knew the Bible clearly taught that pride is a grievous sin—in fact, the worst of all sins.

The best analysis of pride I’ve ever read is in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece Mere Christianity. In the chapter titled “The Great Sin,” Lewis explains, “It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind….Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”
Lewis, no doubt, learned this important lesson from this week’s gospel reading, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both men went into the temple, Jesus explained, to offer up prayers. The Pharisee prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, stood off at a distance and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Jesus concluded, “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It is critical that we are humble rather than prideful in the presence of God. The reason is simple, as Lewis points out: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all.”

When I hear people proclaim, as Greenwood’s song says, that they’re proud to be an American, it sort of sounds like they’re saying, “We’re the best! We’re better than every other country!”

As Lewis warned, when we compare ourselves to others and think we are wonderful just because of who or what we are, we are filled with the type of pride that “comes direct from Hell.”

How many of us achieved our American citizenship? How many of us earned our way into this country? I ask myself a simple question: What caused me to be born in New Haven, Connecticut, rather than Kabul or Somalia or Bogotá? The obvious answer: Certainly nothing I did.

American citizenship should be humbling rather than prideful. We’ve been given an incredible gift. For those of us who are convinced that God has blessed this nation (although I’m worried that He’s getting rather fed up with us right about now), the one emotion we should avoid is pride. It’s the exact same attitude the pompous Pharisee displayed in this week’s gospel reading.

As I said, I’m not a big country music fan. But I think I would like Lee Greenwood’s song a little better if he altered the words of the chorus to be: “I’m BLESSED to be an American.” (Well, at least he didn’t sing about his favorite hunting dog getting run over by a pickup truck—driven by his third ex-wife. I guess that counts for something.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

You might want to re-think your position

Here is precise, intricate data:
It has a purpose, there is a plan. Computer code exists because of a great deal of hard work and intelligence.

Here is another type of precise, intricate data:
There is no plan, there is no purpose. DNA exists because of purely random and accidental natural processes. No intelligence was involved.

Wait. What?!

Um, you might want to re-think your position, my atheist friends. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hotel Room Adventures

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed staying in hotels. In a hotel room, everything you need to relax and have fun is right there in one place: a big TV, a comfortable bed, a bathroom, clean towels, an ice machine, room service, a newspaper outside your door each morning, and best of all, someone else to clean up after you. OK, I admit, the exact same features are available in my own home, but the big difference is the hotel cleaning staff does not make me feel guilty for never lifting a finger to help.

And, of course, in my home there is never a strip of paper across the toilet seat with the message, “Sanitized for your protection.” This feature alone is worth the exorbitant room rate.
As a child, staying in a hotel was a rare and exciting adventure. It’s not like we did it very often. In fact, now that I think about it, my family stayed in a hotel exactly once: a four-day trip to Cape Cod when it rained every day. As we drove home, I remember my father muttering, “Tell me again why we thought cramming seven people into two small hotel rooms was a good idea?”
I don’t know why my dad was grumbling. My brother and I had plenty of fun on that vacation, especially our exciting bed-to-bed long jump competition. (I won; he broke his wrist. It was terrific.)

A good friend of mine travels out of town on business at least three weeks per month. This guy spends more time in hotel rooms than he does in his own house. To give you an idea, a couple years ago he came home from a business trip and said to his wife, “Hi honey. Hey, where’d that baby come from? It’s ours? Really? Did I know about it?”
I’m sure my friend hates hotel rooms. On the other hand, I travel out of town infrequently, so staying in a hotel is still kind of exciting. I went on a three-day business trip to out of state recently, and when I checked into my hotel room, I immediately threw open the bathroom door and gazed downward. “Yes!” I shouted, “Sanitized for my protection! This is great!”

I turned on the cable TV, took off my shoes, and did a few bed-to-bed long jumps. I’ve lost a little elevation since age 12, but now that I’m in my late 50s, I can really make those bed springs groan with my cannonball landing.
It turned out to be a very frustrating trip. I was so busy with meetings and other business related activities, I only spent about six hours each day in the hotel room — not even enough time to get a decent night’s sleep, let alone have fun hanging out in the room.

When I arrived home I was genuinely depressed. Three days with a nice hotel room all to myself, and I didn’t get to enjoy it one bit.

My wife noticed I was mopey, and when I explained why, she said, “How about if I make you a soggy sandwich? And I’ll knock on the door just as you’re getting out of the shower and yell, ‘Room service!’”
“Really? You’d do that for me?” I replied. “And will you stand around looking impatient until I hand you a five-dollar tip?”

“Sure,” she said. “And if you’d like, I’ll put a strip of paper across the toilet seat.”

“You mean, you mean,” I said hopefully, “sanitized for my protection?” 

“That’s right, dear,” she said with a smile. My blue funk suddenly lifted and I was happy once again. Is she a great wife, or what?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Forgive 70 Times 7? Get Out the Calculator

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

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

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

Peter shook his head and replied, “Not only did Jesus say we have to forgive, but now we have to do math problems!”
People often say the most powerful three words in the universe are, “I love you.” And that’s probably correct. But three other words are a close second: “I forgive you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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