The Bottle Caps Man

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A parable of sorts

Growing up there was an old man who used to ask us kids the same question every day. We had no idea what he was talking about. More than four decades have passed, but when the crowd from the old neighborhood gets together someone will always ask, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?”

Central Phoenix was a very different place in the early 1970’s. The “busy streets” were still lined with trees that shaded the open irrigation canals. The ranch style neighborhoods built in the 50’s and 60’s were here, of course, but they were interspersed between what was left of family farms – old homesteads surrounded by the remnants of citrus orchards and horse, cotton, and dairy operations. An enormous farmhouse stood where the school bus turned off of 7th Avenue into our neighborhood. It had nine chimneys. We counted them when the bus went past.

The most coveted thing in our kid world was Bottle Caps – the brand new candy that looked like the metal top on a bottle of pop and tasted like the soda inside. Back then Bottle Caps came in flat foil pouches. They were larger, harder, and with nifty ridges that allowed them to hang on the end of your tongue when you stuck it at the other kids on the bus.

Bottle Caps were an early lesson in the economics of supply and demand – the only place you could get them was from the ice cream truck, a large white panel van with giant decals of frozen product on the sides. The truck would drive through the streets playing music over a loudspeaker mounted to the roof, a Pavlovian cue for kids to grab their nickels and dimes to buy Popsicles and ice cream cones and most everything else moms claimed would “spoil supper.”

The first time I heard the notes of the ice cream truck’s carnival music in the distance I didn’t know what it was. I was playing Kick the Can with the big kids when suddenly the shrubbery began to rustle. All over the street kids emerged from hiding shouting, “Run! We have to get there first!” I ran as hard as I could to keep up with the bigger kids.

We weren’t first though. An old man was already in line. Kids were positively downcast as they watched the man buy every single pack of Bottle Caps in the ice cream truck and stuff them into his bulging pockets. Kids began to shout, “No fair!” “You can’t buy them all!”

And I wonder, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

He wore an old cardigan sweater and corduroy pants and had the most piercing blue eyes. He turned those piercing eyes on us and in a faint Southern accent asked, “So you are upset that I have all the Bottle Caps?”

“Yeah!” Kids shouted in outrage.

“I suppose you want some of these?” He questioned, patting his bulging pockets.

“Yes!” I shouted, reaching over Mark Hickens in front of me.

He bent his head around Mark and looked down upon me. “You are very young. Do you even know what Bottle Caps are?”

“Not really.” I admitted.

He smiled and I couldn’t help but like the way his eyes lit up. “Bottle Caps,” He began, “are the tastiest candy ever invented. Eating them is like being able to chew on soda pop. Bottle Caps make you smile a smile that starts deep inside your tummy and goes from the inside out. How would you like to eat a candy like that?”

My eyes became wide. “Would I? You bet I would!”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The man pressed, “What would you say, young man, if I gave you a pack?”

Johnny Dodson said, “Aww, he doesn’t have any money. He’s too little.”  My head dropped in shame. The man lifted my chin and his piercing eyes held my mine. “I didn’t say anything about money. I said, ‘gave,’” he continued.

“FREE? Nobody gives away BOTTLE CAPS!” yelled Johnny’s indignant older brother.

“Well now, I didn’t say ‘free’ exactly either.” The old man moved his gaze to the group.

Now 10 kids were indignant, “What are you talking about Mister?”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

“Suppose I gave you two packs of Bottle Caps,” the man said turning back to me. “Would you promise to only eat one and give the other away to someone else?”

I was very confused.

He repeated the offer, “If I give you two packs of Bottle Caps, will you promise me that you will eat one and share one with someone else?”

I nodded seriously, “Yes.”

The man held up two green envelopes full of Bottle Caps, one in each hand. I grabbed them and wheeled to leave before he could catch me. “Remember,” he yelled after me. “One for you. One for someone else.”

He then turned to the crowd of kids, reached into his pockets fat with Bottle Caps and said, “Who else will promise to share a pack for a pack of their own?”

I probably don’t have to tell you that every hand shot up. By the time we left, the man’s pockets were empty.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The very next day we heard music and jumped on our bikes. When we got to the truck, that old man was at the front of the line again stuffing his pockets with all of the Bottle Caps. He saw me and said, “Hello son. Tell me who did you give your other pack too?”

“My little brother,” I said. “He was really happy.”

“And how did that make you feel?” He asked.

“It was almost as fun as eating my own, Mr. Bottle Caps Man!” I replied, giving him a name that would stick.

He seemed amused by this new moniker and said, “That’s what I thought.” And then he looked around, “So, who can tell me about the person you gave your Bottle Caps to? If you tell me a story I will give you two more packs of this deelicious candy.” He said, his drawling reminding me just how like pop, which was just short of a forbidden substance in our house, they tasted. And again, the man went home without a single package of Bottle Caps for himself.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Every morning that summer the same thing happened. When we heard the music in the distance we jumped on our bikes, and tore through the neighborhood to beat that Bottle Caps man to the ice cream truck. And every day the old man with the twinkling eyes would be standing at the front of the line stuffing his pockets with the truck’s entire stock of Bottle Caps. And each day, as we finished our melting popsicles, the Bottle Caps man would listen to our stories and place two packs of Bottle Caps in each of our hands to share with others. And most days the Bottle Caps man went home with empty pockets.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Well, as all kids do, we grew up. And the Bottle Caps Man, he aged as well. He became a little slower. His shoulders stooped. He began to use a cane. But somehow he still beat the kids to the ice cream truck. One Saturday, though, after I was far too old for ice cream trucks, the kids arrived and the Bottle Caps Man wasn’t there. It was the ice cream truck driver who told the kids that the Bottle Caps Man had died. Needless to say, you’ve never seen quite so many young people at an octogenarian’s funeral.

At the funeral, much to our surprise, the ice cream truck driver stood up and gave the eulogy. That was how we discovered the secret to the Bottle Caps Man beating us to the ice cream truck all those years – the ice cream truck driver was the Bottle Caps Man’s son. The Bottle Caps Man had an inside line on the route!

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The son told us that in his early years, Bottle Caps sales kept his ice cream truck in business. When business picked up he told his dad that he didn’t need him to keep buying a case of Bottle Caps every day.  His father told him, “I don’t just do it for you. I do it for the kids.” The ice cream truck driver said, “My dad gave away a fortune in Bottle Caps, one pocket full at a time.” And as he said it, tears filled his eyes…and ours too.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The bottle Caps Man taught us that empty pockets can bring smiles. And he didn’t just teach the kids. Parents couldn’t help but smile too when they saw us sharing with each other…and, occasionally, with them.

And as I age, I wonder what kind of old man I will be. Will I be a man, like other old men, who sit in their house counting and recounting a carefully hoarded collection of my favorite “candy”…a collection that is neither useful for others nor joy producing for myself? Or will I live generously?

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

What we did not know was that the Bottle Caps man was teaching us about grace – that we drink from cisterns we did not dig (Deut 6:11), in a land given rather than toiled for (Joshua 24:13). We have been invited to drink from the spring of the water of life without cost (Rev. 21:6), receive an inheritance we did nothing to create (Heb 9:15), and enjoy a salvation purchased at another’s expense (1 Pet 3:18). We are, in every way possible, recipients of grace. Grace is an inexhaustible supply of the goodness of our God, a spigot that can only be turned off by refusing to let it run out on others.  It is a sweet gift that makes us smile a smile that starts from deep inside our tummies. There is abundance in the hands of the great Bottle Caps Man of our souls. Will you share it?

And, since they really are connected, I must ask you, one final time, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

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Surprise Endings: Superheroes, fat ladies, and hope for humanity in dark times

 

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We all love the surprise ending. One where the hero miraculously reappears and the bad guys get their due. First it was the western. Then war movies. Next came the Sci-fi, followed by adventure movies. Then it was fantasy…Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Now we have superheroes.

When you think about it, aren’t they are all the same plot? How is it that no matter how many times we see this story, and no matter how well we know the narrative, we keep coming back for more? Why do these movies resonate so?

It seems our hearts love the plot line that, no matter how dark the night appears, help is on the way. “Look, up in the sky…” Or as Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously said, “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

Perhaps it is because no matter how far fetched they are, these movies hum a melody our hearts already know…a tune, sung by that large lady of song which says, “Yes, this is impossible…but a final scene yet remains.”

I think the superhero saga is simply a retelling of the Christian story – the story that our hearts were made for.

Here is that story in a nutshell: Once there was One God – a glorious being who dwelt in perfect unity and love…a holy trinity. Not the self-centeredness of the human trinity of me, myself and I, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in self-existent, self-giving love. God desired to share his fullness and joy, so he/they (words fail us in the presence of such glory), created. And God, the creator of creativity, created intricately, painstakingly…lovingly. The first two pages of the Bible describes this in detail.

Then, in less than one page of script, we wreck the entire operation.

And the whole rest of this Bible, all of the other 2000 pages, tell of God’s relentless pursuit to win his wanderers back.

It’s a story of a growing hope. God starts with a single man, Adam. He moves on to a family, Abraham and Sarah’s. From there he widens his rescue to a nation, Israel. Then, finally, God throws out the lifeline to all of humanity.  This deliverance tale finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus: God becomes one of us, lives among us as a servant. He goes to a cross as the most unlikely part of his Father’s rescue plan. The climax of the story occurs in the days we commemorate as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Let me remind you of that story line: Jesus is grabbed by angry religious leaders and sentenced by a private mob under the cover of darkness. As an occupied people, his countrymen lack the ability to pronounce the death penalty. So they take him to their Roman occupiers and change the charges against him – Romans do not care about local religious rules, they re-label Jesus a traitor. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. The governor, Pontius Pilate, tries to placate the crowd by having Jesus savagely beaten. But, rather than satisfy the mob, the beating raises their blood lust. Pilate acquiesces and sentences Jesus to the death reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion. They force Jesus to carry his cross to the hill over the highway where they execute enemies of the state. They nail Jesus to his cross and erect it between two thieves. Six hours later he is dead. But before he dies he says two fascinating things: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And “It is finished.”

Let that sink in: Jesus actually asks his Father to forgive to forgive his executioners. Then he says, “IT is finished.” Not “I” but “It” – his reason for being on that cross is what Jesus “finished.”

In the end, they take his lifeless body down and place him in a tomb. They seal it with an enormous stone, stamp it with the mark of the emperor, and station a Roman guard unit to protect it.

The end.

Or so it was supposed to be.

But the cosmic filmmaker had other ideas…

But why was Jesus up there anyway? What was his “it”? The power in any story is not only in the action, but what the actions mean.

Jesus was on the cross as an innocent but, we are told, most certainly NOT as a victim. Why way he there? Because you and I really do have a problem that has trapped us. One that reaches into every recess of our existence…a problem that is environmental, relational, interpersonal and existential. It is a problem we cannot avoid and will not go away.

In our hearts we know that God is perfect and holy. …And, when we are honest, we painfully aware of just how much we are not.

It’s a dilemma: A God whom the prophet Habbakuk says, “is too pure to look upon evil,” (Hab. 1:13) has a love that will not allow him to look away.  In Jesus, God manages to right what we made wrong. To ride in and save the day. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16).  The unlikely storyline God chose involved a cross, a tomb, and a man who wouldn’t stay dead.

It is called salvation…deliverance…rescue. We were as good as dead in trespasses, and then, As Peter said, “Christ died for our sins once for all. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. (1 Pet 3:18)

Again, he was not a victim: This was in the script all along. Jesus’ death was the rescue plan.

But Jesus is a savior who, no matter how “over” the story appeared, still had a surprise ending up his sleeve. We know that plan worked by the Easter event – Jesus walking out of a tomb. We give it a fancy, religious sounding name, resurrection. But the shocking news was that a man very carefully put on ice did not stay that way. And, now that death cannot hold him, he holds out the hope of life to us as well. Paul said it like this: “Christ has been raised from the dead…the first of a great harvest of all who have died…just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

God offers his rescue to all. But God, always a gentleman, will not arm twist or manipulate us to accept his offer. In Terminator 2, the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to rescue Sarah Conner. She is terrified. After vanquishing her enemies, the Terminator reaches out to her with the words, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do you want to live? Will you come with Jesus?

Will you allow his forgiveness to be yours? Will you allow his Spirit to breath new life into you? Will you allow the great author and director to give you love and acceptance…to write a new ending to your story?

John said it like this, “To all who receive him, even to those who call on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)

Tonight, what scene are you in? Are you at the height of success? If so, you might want to resist the temptation to arrogance. You have seen this story. You know the heights are an illusion.

Are you being overcome by the adversities of life? Do times look dark? You need to know, that in Christ, you have an Aslan…A hero with superpowers, unstoppable like a cyborg. A man in a white hat who has already ridden to your rescue…

He purchased your forgiveness on a cross, guaranteed your ultimate rescue when he walked from the tomb, and offers a life transformed in the in-between.

So when all looks lost, look up. For it is not until we are at the end of us that our Super Man can do his thing.

Is it just me, or is that the fat lady I hear warming up her voice in the wings?

Or as the church says, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

Real Worship: A summons to the feet of Jesus

 

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Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

Scientists tell us of the powerful ability of the sense of smell to trigger memories—that the olfactory bulb in our brain links scent to event. That is why walking into a home with cookies baking in the oven can carry you back to the security of grandma’s house decades earlier. Scent, somehow, unifies and cements all 5 senses and places us, momentarily, in the experiences of our past. One suspects the story of the anointing by the woman at Bethany provided just such a fragrant link in the disciples’ minds between burial perfume and Jesus’ looming Passion.

The story of the woman of Bethany was obviously an important one in the early church, as all four Gospel writers record it (Matthew 26:6-12, Mark 14: 3-9, Luke 7:36-49, John 12:1-8). As a whole, the Gospel writers tell us three things in this story: Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense. That is why it is so odd that in this fragrant Gospel narrative, the memory of the eyewitnesses seems fuzzy… There is a woman. There is an anointing. There is expensive, perfumed oil. There is the objection to using it on Jesus. But then the details start getting jumbled.

Are these four accounts one event? Two? Three? Scholars have wondered for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the Gospel writers here. They carefully name and give character to the Twelve, yet they blur the details of this woman and her story.

Who was this woman? Both Matthew and Mark have Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of her…but then her name conspicuously escapes them. Luke tells us she was a “a sinner.” John alone tells us that her name was “Mary.” But Mary was the most common women’s name in first Century Palestine. There were three women named Mary present at the crucifixion that we know of. Which Mary is this?

Luke places the story early in his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and John place it in Bethany, the day before the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest by the mob in the garden. Here are a few more details: Several days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples dine at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they recline at the table, a woman, whom John, the last Gospel writer by decades, identifies as Mary of Bethany approaches Jesus. We don’t know how long she had followed Jesus. What we do know is that Mary knew that worship has an object: Real worship is about Jesus.

Mary has an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth a year’s wages. These jars, we are told, were permanently sealed. To let the perfumed oil out one had to break the neck off. Once opened, like a jar of mayonnaise, it had to be used. Mary broke her jar, and emptied the perfume on Jesus. Real worship is costly.

In another fuzzy detail, John has the woman anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head.  Both actions flower with symbolism. In the ancient Near East, anointing the head signified Kingship – Kings were anointed at their coronation by the high priest or prophet. The word “Christ,” is a transliteration of the Greek word “Christos,” itself a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.”  As Rachel Held Evans says, “This anonymous woman finds herself in the very untraditional position of priest and prophet.” Only in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, does this make sense.”  Because real worship DOESN’T make sense.

Anointing feet, on the other hand, models humility, service…love. John’s account is more intimate. Awkward even.  In a culture in which a woman’s touch was forbidden, for Mary to cradle Jesus’ feet in her hands and brush oil over his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair was unthinkable. This is most likely the oil for her own burial she has poured out. Mary breaks her treasured bottle of burial perfume and empties it on Jesus. She spares no expense. She is fully committed. She is “all in” –  sacrificing her own future. The self-emptying of this action foreshadows Jesus’ washing the disciples feet to come the next day on Maundy Thursday. And just as we see the male disciples discomfort at that event, the disciple’s unease at her display of affection is palatable. Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

In the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus interprets this event for us: It is an act of worship in preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a waste of money, Jesus returns the rebuke saying, “Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a good while, but the Twelve kept missing it. The idea of a kingdom ushered in with the death of their friend rather than the death of their enemies was unthinkable. It is no wonder they complained about the “waste” of money the anointing represented – they assumed they would need to finance their ministry with Jesus for years to come. Mary alone seems to get it. She is the first of Jesus’ disciples to acknowledge his impending death… the one who anoints “the anointed one.” For this, Jesus gives her his highest praise. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What a remarkable thought—that from open air revival to cathedral, Europe to Uruguay, Israel to Africa, this woman’s story would be told.

Jesus wanted us to remember. Yet we aren’t even sure of the woman’s name. How is it that, unlike other Gospel stories in which details drop out as we get to the later Gospels, her name does not appear until very late? I suspect it is because this good lady did not want it to appear. The beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry joined the early church after his resurrection. They shared their stories to encourage one another. Later, when it became obvious that Jesus was tarrying in his expected return, writers gathered and recorded those stories. In the early stories of blind Bartimaeus, for example, we know Bart’s name, his dad’s name, and even that a blind friend was beside him in the early Gospels. But by the time (and distance) that Luke writes, Bartimaeus is presumably gone and his name is dropped. Bart’s story had been told so often that it does not even make John’s Gospel, the last one written. So why is this woman not named by the early authors? The obvious guess is that it was specifically because she was still around. And SHE did not want it named.

We know that Mary was a worshipper. My guess, knowing a few Mary types, is that, for Mary, worship was, first and foremost not about her, but about Jesus. And she didn’t want folks to get distracted in admiring her. My guess is that Mary is named by John specifically because she is no longer around to keep a witness from recording her name.

But what of you? Where is your focus? What is your perfume? What do you guard and value above all else? Is it material possessions? Is your perfume your reputation? Friends? Career? Take a moment and name that which you value most, because you cannot pour out that which you cannot name.

The challenge of Mary this Holy Week is that we would dare break open that which we value most and pour it out as a fragrant offering upon our Lord. Perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the scent might trigger a memory… like the comfort of grandma’s house, bought through decades of difficult labor during hard times, we would be reminded that our comfort from God was bought at a high price. Because Real worship is about Jesus. It DOESN’T make sense. And it IS costly.

*This was the message from “Dinner Church,” our Wednesday Holy Week liturgy for families. The service is based on one done at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn. It has a contemplative feeling (with Taize-esque music.) It is based on 1 Corinthians and what is thought to be the earliest non-canonical Christian literature, a teaching tool called The Didache. It is essentially the biblical “love feast” (Jude 1:12, 1 Cor. 11). The candle lit room set in a circle and contemplative music work well for our rowdy urban kids. The people prepare the meal together, light the worship/dinner space, pray and sing, and eat over candle light. It also gives us a chance to give folks an overview of the upcoming Triduum of holy week and pass out devotionals for families to use at home.

Holy Week for Newbies

Matt Marino:

With Holy Week fast approaching I wanted to repost this as an invitation to my friends…

Originally posted on the gospel side:

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological…

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Goodbye, Papa.

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Martin Ubaldo “Marty” Marino

Nov. 11, 1934 ~ March 14, 2014

In a world of unique individuals my father might have been the uniquiest. He was a high roller who hit it big. Twice. He also hit rock bottom. Twice. Unfortunately that last hit was a doozy. After that, Phoenix’s highest-flying realtor mostly “worked” from home. First it was online gaming and later the stock market, which, come to think of it, is really the same thing.

We all have our own unique vantage point on other’s lives. You may have known my dad as “Marty the realtor”… or grandpa…or golfer. “Marty the political campaign manager” or “Marty the original Suns season ticket holder.”  “Marty the colleague” or “Marty the card player.” But we all knew him as “Marty the forwarder of factually questionable spam.”

To me, Marty was dad. And my dad was a paradox: An extroverted recluse. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold. He wore his vices on his sleeve, but hid his virtues under a Grumpy Cat exterior. My father was a virtuoso reaction provoker. You could not spend more than 5 minutes with my father without either loving him or hating him.

Most likely both.

Usually at the same time.

When I was a child we would vacation at Pajaro Dunes, a lovely semi-private beach. But as my dad aged, he reverted to the NY kid who longed for the hubbub of the boardwalk. He began to holiday on Mission Beach, San Diego’s answer to Coney Island. He rented on the promenade. Always with a second story balcony to watch the girls and talk smack to the fellas. My dad was still talking smack in his 70’s.

In the mornings he would greet the world with vocal renditions of Sinatra, Bennett and Hoagie Carmichael. Picture the Mission Beach boardwalk at 8 am on a midweek July morning: A few fit joggers & bikers power by. Locals kibitz over coffee. Hung over college kids stumble home. But mostly families that stayed up too late are trying to grab a few more moments of shut-eye. And there, on the balcony above it all, is my retirement-aged, 260 pound, shirtless, chain-smoking Italian father belting out “Fly me to the moon” overpowering Sinatra on his massive boom box.

No, it wasn’t good.

And, yes, he knew it.

But for a month each summer people would walk past our rental either snickering or grimacing.

In my 49 years I cannot recall a single incident in which my dad was not the center of attention. And it wasn’t that he was intentionally seeking attention or a reaction. He was just a smidge larger than life.

Ideas were important to my dad. He had them. Articulated them. Argued them. And he always won the argument. Usually because his idea was persuasive. When it was not, he had perfected a technique I call “vocal Darwinism”: Survival of the loudest.

Words were important to my dad as well. He used them often – either in the declarative or the exclamatory. If you used a word wrongly you would receive a lesson on its Latin etymology, delivered in the declarative exclamatory.

Inside of my father’s home, where the lion spent the lion’s share of the last 25 years, the most common words addressed to him began, “O Papa.” The “O” could be pronounced with shock, joy, fear, dismay, gratitude, or exasperation. As in “O, Papa!” when he went out of his way to help one of us, or when you caught him, a man in end stage congestive heart failure, sneaking an entire box of sodium enhanced prepackaged spareribs for breakfast. Most of my father’s favorite words cannot be said in church.

My dad was an Italian. A New York raised, swarthy, chain wearing, chain smoking, looked like a mafia Don and sounded like one too, Italian. In case you would like to be an Italian, there are 3 essential words you need to know. My dad made sure we knew them: Capish (understand), Stai Zitto (shut up), and Luie Monjagovol, an untranslatable expression useful for all occasions…mostly for those rare times when you could not use any of the words my dad really preferred using…the ones you cannot use in church.

My father was extremely funny. And sarcastic. Unfortunately, sarcasm often goes over one’s children’s heads…and when it does it often carries decades long consequences. For example, when I was seven and writing the obligatory post-Christmas “Thank you” notes, I made the mistake of telling my dad that envelopes “taste bad.” He said, “That’s because the glue is carcinogenic.” I was always learning important things from my father, like how to pronounce “carcinogenic” and that envelope glue was a dangerous yet unregulated substance. I didn’t lick envelopes until I was a high school junior. I was working as a Suns’ ballboy when one night Ron Lee, a highly personable Suns guard, half licked a ticket envelope and handed it to me to finish. I licked my finger and used that to finish the envelope. I looked up and the entire team was staring at me. I had no idea that they were wondering if I was a racist for not licking an envelope after a Black man. With full conviction informed them, “Licking envelopes is stupid. Y’all are going to die of tongue cancer!”

My dad’s name was Martin Ubaldo Marino. I once asked him why he always wrote “Marty.” He told me “Martin Ubaldo” was long and WOPy sounding so he had it legally changed. I saw him write “Martin U. Marino” on something last year and asked him when he changed his name back. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I live in fear of what other great fictions await my discovery.

My dad was the strongest man I knew. As a kid I would hold on around his neck as he swam underwater 2 complete lengths of our long swimming pool. I could barely hang on due to the water resistance. It must have taken tremendous strength to propel his enormous body and mine through that water. I would have to let go on the first leg to get air and catch him again on his way back.

My dad broke racial barriers long before it was fashionable. In the late 1960’s, Phoenix was a very Anglo town. The first time I laid eyes on an African American was in my house. Asleep. Connie Hawkins had flown into town to look at homes and was tired. So my dad, who sold the early Suns players their homes, brought him over for a nap. Back then professional sports were divided not by management and labor (they all made about the same money), but by color. My dad and trainer Joe Proski socialized with White and Black alike. It took me years to realize that they were the only ones doing that. He never mentioned “justice” or “reconciliation.” He just lived it.

If we did something hard-working or noble my dad said, “You’re a good man, Gunga Din.” I lived to hear those words.

Here is an event which summarizes neatly my father as a dad and grandpa: He beat us to the hospital for our daughter’s birth…and then entertained himself and the hospital staff by loudly and extensively hazing us all over the hospital for being “late to our own child’s delivery!”

Boys always learn the important things in life from their fathers. Here are…

10 life-lessons I learned from my dad:

1. Tools are something you buy…but for someone else to actually use.

2. Do stuff you don’t like simply because you love your kids: Bouncing a Lincoln Continental all over Northern Arizona forest roads to take two teenagers fishing comes to mind. Can you imagine anyone more out of place in a forest than my father?

3. Everyone gets to win in a deal. My dad was a very moral businessman: “Never let anyone get screwed, Matt.” He once told me when some friends hatched a get rich quick scheme.

4. Care for people. One Christmas he was ordered to “tone it down” by the Salvation Army: When he drove up to the house and saw how poor the family was, he loaded the whole tribe into his Fleetwood Brougham and took them on a shopping spree to a warehouse store.

5. It’s better to be kind than nice. My dad was not a nice man. But he was a remarkably kind one. He would come to your aid no matter how ridiculous a situation you had gotten yourself into. But he would ride you on it the whole time.

6. Your gifts can be a stepping-stone or a tombstone. The same pride that made my dad a legendary real estate agent also made him too proud to return to it. Don’t be a victim of your gifts.

7. You can save a lot of money by making your own cigarettes…but money is all you are saving.

8. For a man for whom religion was a regular target of his sarcasm, I learned a great deal about faith from my dad:

-He taught me to read the Bible beginning in the Gospels. I had started the Bible twice and got bogged down in 2 Chronicles both times. Who starts a book 2/3 of the way through? My dad taught me that it is really a collection of books, and that the New interprets the Old.

-I learned to stick with it. On three occasions I thought about quitting the ministry for something that would pay better. Each time my dad was the one who beelined it to my house to talk me out of it. “Why would you do that?” He said. “You were made for this.”

-I learned that what we say and what we mean aren’t always the same thing. Last month, my father, the vocal atheist, called me concerned about a lack of faith by a close family member. The conversation was both funny and profound…

Dad: What are you doing?

Me: At 6:30 A.M. on my day off?

Dad: You aren’t sleeping are you?

Me: Not any more.

Dad: Do you know that  ____ doesn’t believe a GD thing about Jesus Christ. Can you believe that? I mean… JC. Who doesn’t love Jesus, GDit. What the H. Everyone loves Jesus Christ. Even I love Jesus Christ! And I do, dammit. I do love Jesus Christ. GDit. Who doesn’t believe anything? C. I mean really NOT believe anything. What the H?”

Me: Dad, Have you considered contacting Guinness? You might have set a new record for blasphemies in a conversation for Jesus.

Dad (after an out of character apology for his word choice): You need to do something about that! You need to talk to him!

Me: Dad, you have spent 30 years mocking faith. And you are surprised that he took you at your word? I have always known you had a secret thing for Jesus, you just protested too much. But I really think you should have that talk. Be honest. Let him know that, although you have big issues with the church, that you actually think quite highly of Jesus and it bothers you that he doesn’t.

I don’t know if that conversation ever happened.

9. Number nine takes a little setup: My dad went to great lengths to avoid exercise. If he had a religion, it might have been named Exercise-avoidance-ism. This religion had at its theological core the doctrine that “every human is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth and that if you want to waste yours exercising, that is your business.”

So, #9, I learned that His theory on “the conservation of heartbeats” is probably flawed.

10. Speaking of flawed, the worst day of a kid’s life might be the day he finds out his dad is flawed. And my dad was quite flawed. However, one of the best days in a man’s life is the day he finds out that his flawed dad is still quite human and, in many ways, quite holy. One day last summer he and my stepmother came over unannounced and told us that she had had beaten cancer.  They had never told us that she had cancer-it might have been the only secret my father ever kept. That day, the only time in my life that I saw my father cry, he threw his arms around my stepmom, squeezed her hard enough that we feared for her safety, and blurted through his tears how much he loved her and how lost he would be if anything happened to her. I will never forget that day. It told me my dad was growing…becoming more alive…even as his body was obviously dying.

As I thought about a memorial to my father I thought, “This will be the first time someone gets the last word on Marty Marino.” But as a Christian, I don’t actually believe that I have.

Dad I love you. And I miss you already.

See you later.

Holy Week for Newbies

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ is risen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub?

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog

 

 

Celebrity Jeopardy, Pastor’s Edition

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It is a game we find endlessly entertaining. It pays lavish cash gifts to the contestants – celebrity pastors long on speaking gifts and ego. Part of the appeal is that the game appears unscripted. In reality it is anything but: First come video-venue multi-sites…necessary because “our man” is “da man.” Then book deals complete with manipulated sales. 16,000′ homes? Of course. “An ox is worthy of its hire.” – That’s biblical. Financial transparency? Not in this game, Alex. And, as celebrity stature grows, church boards are re-filled, not with parishioners, but with the pastors of other megachurches. The final page of the script is to re-brand oneself from pastor to CEO. After all, a pastor can’t take three quarters of a million in “winnings” each year. For the IRS, however, “What is a CEO?” is the answer in the form of a question for the ambitious pastor.

Last summer, in a post entitled “When did evangelicals get popes?” I pointed out the ironic similarities between celebrity video-venue preachers and the papacy that Protestantism rose in protest against. Extending the irony has been Pope Francis’ humility this year in contrast to the growing list of celebrity pastor abuses…

This new generation of celebrity preachers do not disclose salaries. They play shady games with parishioner money. They plagiarize while exhorting others not to. They shamelessly teach even children to idolize them. They bully those who would question their bad behavior. This game turns people from parishioners to Svengali following fans and renders the faith foolishness to an increasingly unchurched culture.

Yes, any public figure draws criticism, and envy is an ever present human problem. However, when you have harmed so many through your teaching and lack of financial accountability that former staff and parishioners set up websites to warn others of you, perhaps it is time for us to change channels?

I am told that I should lay off – that celebrity turnstile church pastors are “making Jesus famous”? I say they are making themselves famous, Alex. Not to mention fabulously wealthy. And when someone viewing at home grumbles we are told by the studio audience that their success validates their ministry and that we should not dare to “raise a hand against God’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:11).

I have also been told that this is a Philippians 1 issue of “whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached…so I rejoice.” That, however, is Paul saying, “It doesn’t matter what happens to me.” This is much different. This is not a leader sacrificing his wellbeing for the extension of God’s Kingdom, it the systematic fleecing of the flock by celebrity CEOs. A more appropriate scripture would be the condemnation awaiting careless teachers (James 3:1).

I have my own answer in the form of a question: Did Jesus ask to be made famous or followed?

Like celebrity obsessed groupies, the flock willingly participates in their fleecing. They arrive at video-venues by the minivan full. Then stare like pre-teen girls waiting for a pay-per-view performance of “the Biebs” as they wait for the screen to tune in from across the continent…victims of sophisticated manipulations, emotionally steered to avoid the obvious questions.

Contestant: “I will take “idol worship” for $200, Alex?”

Host: “A big lie, a big secret, and a big bully.”

Contestant: “What are Mark Driscoll’s, Steven Furtick’s, and Perry Noble’s books, salary, and treatment of their critics?”

There are tens of thousands of humble servants of God ascending pulpits and standing behind the table of the Lord every Sunday in churches small, large, mega and super-mega. Do your soul a favor, instead of being a consumer of the “show,” join one those humble folk in their humble work. Be a part of something that exercises financially transparency. Give your time, talent and treasure to a community that is about serving and reaching the world rather than the pastor. Your faith life should contribute to more than the Nielson ratings and “winnings” of the latest celebrity “CEO.”

Cut to theme music while contestants appear to be thoughtfully crafting their latest scripted answers.

How long will we remain glued to this show? Because the kingdom of God is not a game.