Big Papa.

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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. Later the stock market. Which, come to think of it, might be the same thing.

We all have our own unique vantage point on other’s lives. Many knew my dad as “Marty the realtor”or “Marty the campaign manager ” or “Marty the original Suns season ticket holder” or “Marty the scratch golfer.” Some knew him as “Marty the card player” who, when he felt hot became, “Marty the high roller” on a comped flight to Vegas. His grandchildren knew him as “papa.” But everyone, everyone knew him as “Marty the forwarder of factually dubious spam.”

My dad was a paradox: An extroverted recluse. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold, a man who 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 both loving him or hating him.

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, the West coast’s answer to Coney Island. He rented on the promenade. Always with a second story balcony to watch girls and talk smack to the fellas. Men in their 70’s don’t talk smack with the young boardwalk Turks. But no one told my dad that. They didn’t dare.

In the mornings on the boardwalk he would greet the world with vocal renditions of Sinatra, Bennett, and Hoagie Carmichael. Picture the 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 of course he knew it.

In my 49 years I cannot recall a single incident in which my dad was not the center of attention. I’m not sure he intentionally sought attention. He was just a smidge larger than life.

Ideas were important to my dad. He had them. Articulated them. Argued them. He won every argument. Usually because his idea was persuasive. When it was not, he reverted to a technique of oratory 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 genuine New York, swarthy, swag-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 complete the wetting of the envelope glue. 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 I 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 onto his neck as he swam underwater tw0 complete lengths of our 1970s era swimming pool. I could barely hang on due to the water resistance. It must have taken tremendous strength to propel his large body and with my drag through the water. I would let go on the first leg to come up for air, dive down again, and catch him again on his way back.

My dad broke racial barriers long before it was fashionable. In the late 1960s, Phoenix was a very Anglo city. 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 summarized neatly my father as a dad and grandpa: He beat us to the hospital for our daughter’s birth. Then he entertained himself and the hospital staff by loudly and extensively hazing us up and down the maternity ward for being, “late to our own child’s delivery!”

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

Top 10 life-lessons I Learned from my dad:

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

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

3. Everyone gets to win in a deal. My dad was a very upright businessman. When some friends hatched a get-rich quick scheme that would leave a someone with a loss, he shook his head disapprovingly and barked, “The job of a salesman is to make sure NO ONE gets screwed, Matt.”

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 at a warehouse store.

5. It’s better to be kind than nice. My dad was not a nice man. But he was remarkably kind. He would come to your aid no matter how dumb a situation you had gotten yourself into. But, boy, would he ride you about 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. My father taught me not to be a victim of my 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:

-He taught me to read the Bible beginning in the Gospels. I had started the Bible twice and got bogged down in Leviticus both times. Who starts a book 2/3 of the way through? I thought. 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 beelined to my house to talk me out of it. “Why would you do that?” He asked. “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 my nephew. 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 love Jesus Christ. GDit. And 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 a most out of character apology for his word choice): You need to do something about that! You need to talk to him! (He was a master of the declarative exclamatory.)

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 protested too much. You should really 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 father 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” was 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 father 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 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 not.

As I thought about a memorial to my father I realized, “This will be the first time someone has ever gotten the last word on Marty Marino.” But as a Christian, I don’t actually believe that I have. So I will just say, see you later, dad. I love you and miss you already.

Martin Ubaldo “Marty” Marino

Nov. 11, 1934 ~ March 14, 2014

(Originally posted 4/7/14)

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Todd, adoption, and a briar patch: Glimpses of God at work

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Facebook gets a lot of grief, but I have a confession, I like Facebook.

It allows me to peek into people’s joys and struggles, rejoice and grieve with friends, and spurs me to pray more. I keep in touch with people I would never see.

One of those I would never see is Todd. We went to elementary and high school together. We were never really close. Todd and I didn’t run in the same crowd. I always appreciated Todd. He was kind to a girl with special needs once in 6th grade. Kids were not nice to people who were different back then. But Todd was. No one can remember the girl’s name even though she went to our school for two years. We just called her “Gomper,” the name of a local program for kids with disabilities. She had a neck brace and her head seemed too small. Social Darwinism was the rule of the day and we all wanted to be part of the crowd. Make no mistake, the crowd” was the one above you, not the one below. So no one talked to Gomper. Some talked at her, but only if they were getting social mileage at her expense. Not Todd. One day Todd stopped a spring loaded door from smashing Gomper. Some kids were waiting to see it happen. They were upset with Todd.

Thirty years later Todd hit me up on FB. I was having a bit of a bad week when his friend request came. I asked him why he had looked me up after all these years. His answer stunned me: “You were the only cool kid who was nice to me.” First of all, I wasn’t actually a cool kid. I was more associated with cool kids. Second, I was not aware that I had been nice to him at all – my lack of social awareness is not a new thing.

I closed my laptop and reflected on my life – my history and the events that have shaped me. It dawned on me: Although I have inadvertently been a jerk to a few on my journey, I  go out of my way to be kind to people. Looking back this seemed odd since I really didn’t have much spare social capital. As I sat wondering why I had spent the better part of a life giving status away, it dawned on me: I  know what rejection feels like. And I don’t want others to feel it.

I realized that there is something Gospel happening in me that I did not expect: God is redeeming my dysfunctions. The great act of redemption, or as the last centuries preachers called it, “the great doctrines of the cross” do involve God forgiving the penalty of sin. But God is also healing the pain of sin. Over the course of my life, with the help of good friends, God, and time, the deep wounds have healed over. The scars are fading. The stories I tell about the lack of hope under the surface of the snarky and attention seeking teenager I once was, feel like I am telling someone else’s stories.

But here is the big surprise, God has not taken away the power of sin in my life. That one God is doing something very different with: redeeming it. Through the fierce grace of the crucified and risen one, the Holy Spirit is reclaiming and transforming my dysfunctions, the sins committed upon me and by me, the ones that held sway over how I saw myself and how I behaved – those are the places my life is actually having the most impact. And that, I am learning, is “thy Kingdom come.”

Don’t misunderstand, my life hasn’t been horrible. But it hasn’t been a bed of roses either. Maybe more of a briar patch: Green yes, but some sharp stuff there too. But God is taking my brokenness and using that which caused the most pain to bless both me and others. Here are a couple for size…

-I was an unwanted child. Given up at birth. Today I instinctively look for the neglected in a room.

-My dad, whom I love dearly and have a good relationship with today, was busy. He eventually left our family for another woman. God is redeeming that too: Being a man my children can do more than love, but like and respect is a true joy. The value I place on remaining close in head and heart with Kari was birthed in the briar patch of infidelity.

-I grew up outside the faith, outside of the message of God’s relentless grace. I first heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as a fresh high school graduate at a Young Life camp in 1982.  It was all I could do to keep from standing up in the middle of 300 students and yelling, “Tell me more!” It was too good to be true, this message of God’s unearned favor. Favor purchased not by my ability to get the attention of my father, but by the Father’s attentiveness to the world to gift his son. This son offered himself on a cross, as St. Peter says, “the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.” God is redeeming even my lack of knowledge of him: To this day I cannot speak of Jesus’ passion without tears in my eyes. I am still grateful to my toes for the hope God brought me through his passion.

My deepest wounds have taught me that all is grace.

Or could be if we would allow it.

Don’t mistake me. I am not winking away pain. I’m not pretending that the hard things didn’t hurt. They did. I have seen too much pain, wept with too many who have been harmed, and sat with too many in death. But those things are being transformed by a God who stared death in the face, took everything death could dish out and handed it back saying, “not today, sir.” For the high price paid by Christ and offered freely – How could I possibly respond to God with anything but the “thank you” of my life? How could we, as  family of grace possibly do life without room for others?

So I give grace. To a fault. I get burned. I get ripped off. I have to be mindful not to expose those under my care to dangerous people. I give too much grace. How can I not, so much has been given to me? Living in the desert I only discovered a few years ago that my favorite food, blackberries, grow on briars. It seems appropriate somehow, God bringing all that tart sweetness from a bramble.

In the movie “Prince of Persia” there is a scene in the desert. The prince is marching across a wasteland into the enemies’ territory. The captured princess (and love interest) is frustrated at his foray. She mocks him. “You even walk like one, the arrogant walk of a prince of Persia.” Dastal, the prince, confesses his secret, “I wasn’t born  a prince at all. I was an urchin.” It was an era without social mobility, so amazed, the princess asks, “How?” “I don’t know,” Dastal responds, “He chose me. He found me and brought me into his home. He is all I have.”

Gratitude. Dependence. Loyal love. Those are what knowing that he was adopted gave Dastal. It is what my welcome into the Kingdom, by our adopting God, has given me. It is what God offers you. On Ash Wednesday we say, “Remember we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” This is not medieval self-abasement. It is remembering who we are and whose we are: chosen, adopted children of the King. It is about remembering so that we  live a Eucharistic (“thanksgiving”) life.

I give grace because I have received it. And the grace I give will never begin to equal the grace I have been given. Partially because when we extend grace, more grace if given. Have you experienced grace, the absolute unearned love of God showered upon your heart? Have you experienced the reality that John describes: “To all who receive him, even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.”

There is an undeniable brokenness that comes with being human. And, lest we forget, life reminds us all sooner or later. We can deny it. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. Tough it out. But why? Our pain has been purchased. Redeemed like a soda bottle bought back by the corner grocer. There has been a transaction on your behalf. You aren’t just God’s child by birth. You have been chosen and redeemed on a cross. You have been adopted as God’s own: a prince/princess of the Almighty, called into relationship with the entire Holy Trinity for all eternity. You have been given a task and a mission to accomplish. God desires to give each of us grace, and through us, to extend that grace.

For you to be someone’s Todd.

And for someone else to be yours.

So there is no such thing as the unwanted in God’s economy.

No such thing as being Fatherless.

No such thing as a life without a high and holy calling.

But we can live like there is. Some here are walking away from their adoption. Some are keeping the Father at arms length. For you I have one question: ARE YOU NUTS!

There is an expression that kids were using a few years ago. “Are you pickin’ up what I am layin’ down?” God sent his son to lay his life down for you. So that you could have life. Are you picking up what he laid down?

It is specifically through brokenness that God brings forth beauty. But God is no bully and only works when our brokenness is surrendered.

Empty briars or ripe berries? Orphaned or adopted? Sin that so easily entangles or pain fiercely redeemed? The “yes” of your life by faith makes all the difference.