Lent Reflection 6 – when i watch too much tv

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5

With a relatively recent lack of energy or enthusiasm for doing much, the TV has unfortunately been blaring again. The March Madness college basketball tournament also has something to do with this ; ) This means that I’m hearing a lot of ads again. They are all commercials for cars and trucks, to normalize getting or leasing a new vehicle every six months. They are ads for cell phone companies, insurance, and gambling apps, to get us locked-in and loyal for a long-term relationship. The rest are for food, which until very recently, I would often fall for if it wasn’t 7:45 and I already ate plenty.

This is simply where my head is today. The intention is not to bring the guilt or shame, although upon rereading this, it sounds like a bit like a lecture. Maybe you need to “hear it,” or maybe not. Forgive me if it’s a bit off the rails. None of these ideas are run by an editorial team. And feel free to close the window, of course.

Is the Pennsylvania Lottery mascot Gus not the most annoying creature invented? Why did they give him a shrill, nearly painful voice? Why do they make him a bit creepy with the ladies? His motto, and apparently that of the PA Lottery system, is “Keep on Scratchin.” Seriously? Scratching is one of our most compulsive and primal actions, and rarely a good thing. It usually indicates some type of unhealthy condition, medication side effect, or parasitic feeding with possible transfer of bacteria and viruses.

Consider typical patterns of behavior and addiction- compulsive, primal, unwell, feeding mostly off the compromised or unknowing. I suppose the motto makes complete sense of the Reverse Robin Hood reasoning that mostly feeds off the poor and gives to some of the rich, their middle class admins, and yeah, “older Pennsylvanians” to save face.

Then there are the fairly sudden onset “bookie apps.” Their numbers look to be proliferating and we can now conveniently lose without getting off the couch. The old adage should still apply.

“Look around the room. If you don’t see a sucker, then you ARE the sucker.”

Of course the ads are targeting a younger, tech savvy but life inexperienced audience. That’s…fine? But what’s deceptive and almost hilarious is the authoritative and matter-of-fact tone by which every one of these ads speak of not gambling for some fun and entertainment, but for profit.

“Make it rain!!” [cash]

“Now you’re winning with the King of Sportsbooks.”

Oh. I see.

I haven’t participated but very lightly in Big Gambling and not for around 20 years. Yet somehow, I know so many stories of friends, acquaintances, and clients of losing big.

I suppose we need to differentiate the above two scenarios from throwing $20 into the March Madness Tournament picks, wagering a few bucks with the kids over the Super Bowl, or hanging out at guys poker night, eating pizza, coming out up or down $20 or $50. You have to admit this is far different than doubling down to “parlay UConn with the over,” or despite the clear evidence, playing “lucky numbers” fifty or one hundred and fifty times per year.

Somewhere around thirty percent of the population simply does not gamble in lotteries, apps, and casinos. It’s altogether off their radar or they simply don’t enjoy it. This group should probably not claim the moral high ground. That would be like commending your pet hamster for not believing false doctrines.

Somewhere around forty percent of the population gambles occasionally, on average ten days per year. They may know that including every single winner great and small, they will lose close to $.40 for every dollar they spend. But they gamble for fun and can afford it to the extent they do. They mostly know when to fold ’em, walk away, or run.

The remaining ~30% who gamble the most (on average 24 days per year) are poor, largely minorities, and often addicts. They may be well aware of the math behind all of this, and do not give a rip. It goes on year in and year out, with little to nothing mentioned in these woke times. Those who were trapped in this and somehow by Gods grace pulled away from it can absolutely claim moral high ground.

I have read that rich people care and think about money far more than anyone. In my experience, that’s not the case. I don’t personally know any of the ultra rich. But the many well-off people and families who I do know are also some of the most humble and generous folks around, including one luxury car salesman. For some of them, it is literally their job to think about money. All of them have worked extremely hard and made sacrifices over many years, and I fault none of them for their position. Please hold the comments about “Rich Dicks,” as if they’re all the same. Are there not dicks of every race, creed, and socioeconomic status?

I’m not going to jump into privileged backgrounds that allowed for opportunities. Though I believe this is undeniably real for many of us, it’s not relevant to this discussion.

And that’s where this is going. Having great wealth or means without having accumulated the life- and various other skills that lead to wealth is unsustainable on many levels. In that case, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” is absolutely true. In the same way that The State taking advantage of the most susceptible is wrong and the opposite of Christ-like (or unnatural, if you prefer), hitting it big is the same, much less the great, irresistible allure of hitting it big that the more powerful often use for leverage.

“Big Gambling” is a lose-lose-…lose, very much unmeek proposition. It’s like cigarettes’ or asbestos or other ideas from decades ago that seemed like a good idea at the time, but have long been proven to not really be good for anyone.

So according to my argument, there may be some kind of narrow ground between “well off and generous” and “ultra rich and powerful.” In the grand scheme of all times and people, the far majority of those reading this will fall into one of these groups.

“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished…Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

– Matthew 19

I don’t really know, but I doubt Jesus wants all of us to give everything away. I suppose he may be using hyperbole, or obvious and exaggerated overstatement, to intentionally shock those listening and drive home a point. Or who knows, maybe Gods people will pass through only after witnessing the miracle of a shrunk-to-scale camel or greatly expanded needle.

Have I become poor by trying to live gently, peacefully, and generously rather than boisterous, greedy, or contentious? What am I doing with my time and resources?

My resources are unfortunately quite limited at the moment. But over the years I have posed the question to some of the teen- and twentysomethings who I worked with, as well as my own kids. I often don’t know the answer, other than the fact that being a Professional Videogamer or Cellphone User/Consumer is probably not in their calling. Bickering online over subject matter that is best left to more intimate, in-person conversation over some tea, coffee, or a drink is probably not the best use of an adults time.

With this entry, I may be running the risk of exactly that!

According to the state lottery, 27 cents of every dollar spent on tickets goes into the state lottery fund. This is allegedly helping older Pennsylvanians. And some does. But the lottery contributes a significant amount to funding Medicaid, which only .035% of elderly Pennsylvanians have. The other 73 cents goes to “prizes and lottery administration costs.” 

During 2019, the PA Lottery reported sales of more than $4.2 billion. It paid out prizes of $2.7 billion, and it reported paying out more than $1 billion in benefits. That leaves somewhere around 500 million dollars for admin costs.

The study concludes that “increased levels of lottery play are linked with certain subgroups in the U.S. population — males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

Lent Reflection 5 -an ounce of faith & green

It’s almost St. Patrick’s day, the day we are to remember and celebrate the Patron Saint of Ireland. Most years, March 17th is a day where I call my parents and subtly harass my father.

“Are you wearing something green today? Well then, what are you doing to celebrate St. Patrick?”

This inevitably causes him to recognize the ruse, prompting him to ramble on with feigned (?) grumblings about the overstated fame of St. Patrick and do we really need a national holiday and why doesn’t everyone go to the bars at nine in the morning to celebrate a St. Stanislaus Day?

This year I come armed. I’ve been learning some Irish history for my “seasonal” reading, taking in an entire two books on the topic.

In the past, I did learn the basics on Stanislaus, patron saint of Poland. He was murdered around 1080, literally at the hands of the king of Poland, for repeatedly calling him out on unjust wars, negligence, and immoral acts against his own people. Stanislaus life and death may be good to remember and dwell on, especially in these times. Who knows exactly how far his influence reached and continues to effect the course of history?

But while the life of Stanislaus was largely isolated to eastern Europe, we have the life and times of Patrick, who lived in the year ~400. Born into wealth and an identity both Roman and British, he would later sacrifice these to live in poverty for thirty or more years while traveling through a harsh third world country full of Celtic barbarians.

You could say these were relatively isolated western European events until you learn that this work was critical, and barely in time, for the people of Ireland to form their own identity, become somewhat literate and Catholic and highly value the Scriptures. When the rest of Europe was burning and reshuffling after the fall of Rome, western Christianity and much of the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans only survived the middle ages by (sometimes literally) clinging to the hidden away rocks and caves of the Irish countryside. From what I understand, Patrick’s founding work, leading to the Irish Monastic Scribes who were determined to make copies of all they could get their hands on, would nearly single-handedly “save” western civilization.

I suppose dad has to admit that all Americans have the right to celebrate St. Patrick’s day. Okay, shamrocks to help explain the divine mystery of God three-in-one Holy Trinity. But the green beer and milkshakes, leprechauns and pointy hats? Of course legends will continue to flourish. I would not at all be surprised if, in a few hundred years, the legend of Jebediah Springfield driving all the snakes out of Springfield will be crossed and confused with St. Patrick’s day. For years, many hardcore Simpsons fans have celebrated May 10th as Snake Whackin’ Day.

Isaiah 55:8-9 is often quoted or partially misquoted, sometimes flippantly and often without much context, to provide some kind of answer in the midst of loss, hardship, or suffering.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

From my current perspective, sitting in at least some degree of constant discomfort and uncertainty, I do find comfort in this. Sure, I will freely admit that I accept and meditate on these ancient words based on faith. But having some basic knowledge of historical lessons, like the loss and suffering of St. Patrick for something exponentially greater, also helps (at least for me).

-The loss and suffering associated with destruction of Solomon’s temple around 600 BCE was immense. But the scattering of the Hebrews and gradual accommodation into the Greek speaking Mediterranean world would cause the Old Testament to be more valued and translated into Greek before the time of Jesus (and later the apostles) message to the gentiles (all people). “The Way” would not have been prepared without the gentiles having the Scriptures in their language.

-The life and especially martyrdom of all the apostles against terrible odds; The life and death of St. Patrick, the first human being in the history of the world known to publicly speak out against slavery; The transformation of Dietrich Bonhoeffers anti-Jewish -theology- into strong, far reaching anti-Nazism -action- that would cost him his life. And the examples of many MANY others through the ages.

-The reformation to provide the needed reform and long-term checks and balances to the numerous mishandlings of the “one Holy Catholic and apostolic church.” It would be the worst thing ever and then essential to the life of the church and original message of Jesus.

-In the founding of the United States, the process “…by which there would be no established church, but all would be equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of their conscience.” Most churchy Americans of the day knew this was the worst thing ever. The newly formed nation would quickly go to hell in a handbasket. Only, it didn’t. This “anti establishment” directly resulted in the flourishing that is now known as the First Great Awakening.

-Those who knew “Gods Word” but did not understand it in spirit used the Bible in their arguments to keep slavery. Abolition of slavery would clearly be to the destruction of both church and state. Unfortunately we’re still dealing with this 150 years later. The only real hope for understanding, reconciliation and mutual respect may be those who know Scripture in word and in spirit. At this point I’m truly doubtful that we can somehow legislate away the real mess much less the pissing wars so readily encouraged by the left and right media.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

    his love endures forever.

Let the redeemed tell their story—

-Psalm 107

These examples come to mind at the moment while thinking historically, with so much I do not know or understand. Don’t you ever wonder if redemption of all pain and suffering, misunderstandings and corruption is a real thing, or just a nice Sunday school idea? I mean, I still don’t even know if I really prefer to shave with an electric or stick razor, much less these type of weighty and often unanswerable questions. I’m definitely dealing with quite a mess of my own right now. It’s not like any of us are some kind of tortured martyrs. But the affliction does often cause me to hope and pray there is -and will be- some type of greater good coming from this life.

Of course we’re all going through some degree of pain and uncertainty, if not now, then in the past or future. Of this I’m certain. May HOPE in the love of God be our unstoppable force coming against those immovable objects. And may our life testimony be a great light given off in that collision.

“It is possible to be brave – to expect every day…to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved, whatever may come my way, and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away.”

-St. Patrick, quoted by Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization

Lent reflection 4 – hellbender graves reach skyward

And forgive us our trespasses, ..

-Matthew 5

This short story from my youth has been transported over from a simple post that I initially placed on Facebook. Here it is copied.

——- For much of childhood, my dad and his brothers would often take me fishing. Uncle —— (who is otherwise a good dude and now, -35 years later, is far more conservationist) caught a HUGE Helllbender in Indian Creek, Fayett county. He was not certain how aggressive it may be, and apparently didn’t want to find out or otherwise mess with it. After all, common water snakes similarly grow huge and are highly aggressive with a bite that carries bacteria and an anticoagulant that leaves you trickling blood for hours.

He realed it in until around 10 feet remained in the line, and aggressively whipped the Hellbender back and forth, trying to dislodge the hook. I was thinking, “Whoa, let me get my net. We’ll take it home to my fish tank or put it in the pond.” A boy that age does not think about the fact that he too knew nothing about these creatures, and it did appear…nasty. Nor do you think about the practicality of putting a nearly two foot long living creature into a 15 gallon aquarium, or the requirement of properly transporting an animal that probably requires clean and cold water with high oxygen levels. Oh, and there’s no way you tell uncle — something like that when he’s down to business. He simply does not suffer frogs or turtles or rare, poorly understand water hell demons, or anything other than a trout.

When the herkyjerks didn’t work, he dragged it over some rocks and roots to a nearby boulder, bashed its head off a rock, then stepped on the neck so it would die quickly. Now twenty feet or so away with net in hand, I stood frozen and jaw-dropped for what seemed like 20 minutes.

“Damn that thing is ugly. No wonder they call them Hellbenders, huh Bobby.”

Over the next few years I unsuccessfully searched for one of the mysterious creatures…or demons-? I wished to hook one on my fishing line, just like uncle. I will admit to hoping that if such good fortune would strike, it would be much smaller.

Ten years or so later, I finally did come across a much less intimidating Hellbender living in a small tributary of Slipper Rock Creek. I examined it for thirty seconds or so before tossing it back. It was harmless, with an appearance young in years yet ancient, of another era.

This sad reminder was written yesterday, a Friday during Lent. In some faith traditions, this is supposed to be a day of quiet prayer, reflection, and fasting. This is the time of year where I often did spend an hour on Fridays standing beside that same uncle during 5:00 Mass.

Some current friends who are historians by profession have often reminded me that historical figures should not be morally judged by modern standards. The events in this story are historical. They occurred (only?) 35 years ago, and my uncle and I are not exactly historical figures. But I ask that you would extend that grace to us. He held a Masters Degree in Education from the Indiana University of PA. Hellbenders and certain degrees of environmental conservation were on the radar of no one outside of Environmental Science majors and fringe specialists.

In those days, I learned some Scriptural things, a few liturgical things, and otherwise payed -some- attention during Mass. But “Church” was honestly more of a serious, highly valuable session of Forced Internal Quiet, passing time, mind wandering, and even some self reflection. And standing beside Uncle in church, surely there was a small spark of dissonance inside my small developing mind. I knew how we lived, mostly good but not all, what I thought and wished, and how pitifully short it all fell of the Glorious standard.

More on that in an upcoming post. But for now I’m thinking about the irony of the fact that Hellbender graves reach skyward. We have unrolled the tombstone on these and many other things ancient and priceless. Hellbenders need pristine water and larger rocks to thrive. Their habitat in lower elevations was destroyed long ago through various development. Now, their final retreat to deep forest under tree and rock cover are threatened, mostly through innocent messing with the rocks. Oh, I’ve done my share of that through critter searches, dam building, and other tomfoolery.

There’s also the irony of Cairns, the somewhat popular and fun stacking of big rocks under small ones to create a stalagmite-like pillar right in the creek bed. It’s like playing with big legos, or a more creative Jenga. I’ve also read of it being viewed as a type of spiritual practice, this gathering and shaping of odd shapes and sizes into a work of perfect balance and harmony. 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

The even greater irony is our own blaring unawareness, recklessness, and even ravenous ways of everyday living that lead to the loss of some of our most spectacular sources of beauty, wonder, and our very own long term well being, spiritual, physical, and otherwise. No church building can fully capture and contain this sanctuary.

I don’t know exactly how far we should go, or at this point need to go in making everyday sacrifices of convenience. There is absolutely a point where the tail wags the dog. Some kind of guilt lecture is truly not my point here. But I know that most of us have our basic necessities far more than met. May we at least carry on with awareness, humility, and a measure of restraint. There are about a million and one small and large helpful, truly sacrificial things we can do beyond cutting back on sweets or not eating meat on Fridays. May we put thought to it and find a way to make it part of our very own quiet spiritual practice.

That is why it has been written:

”Wake up, sleeper

Rise up from the dead

And Christ will shine among you!”

-Ephesians 5

lent reflection 3 – family system

I appreciate the latest Progressive Insurance commercials that portray a professional hopelessly attempting to teach a handful of middle-aged clients How To Not Become Your Parents. Here are a few examples.

“Do we really need a live, laugh, and love sign? No, we don’t.”

(At a restaurant) “We don’t need to tell the waitress our name.”

(Outside a grocery store) “We see it, we all see it. Yes, he has blue hair. We don’t have to say anything.”

My parents are not guilty of these particular crimes. But they definitely have their own twists. And I’ve seen plenty of this type of thing over the years in friends, aunts and uncles, and especially in working with 50- and now 60-something clients. I prefer not to use the term “Boomer” because it seems a bit derogatory. I’ve met far too many sharp, selfless people in that age bracket.

I do often notice becoming my dad in certain ways. It seems inevitable. I’ve talked to the TV when watching professional athletes make basic juvenile errors, calling them “clowns” and “teaching” my kids that physical errors will always be part of the game, but mental errors just shouldn’t happen at the professional level. I often catch myself watching the History Channel and reading books with titles like the Original Trails and Roads of the Ohio River Valley. I saw a few of my teenage clients smirk when I told their group, “You’re only running two of these at full speed, so don’t loaf.” There are plenty more quirks that my kids could tell you about.

Mom and dad are mostly healthy, and I usually check the “No family history” box. Somehow, it only recently sank in that both of my grandfathers had been diagnosed with cancer, though cancer itself did not directly cause their demise. This has possibly eluded me because both of their issues were absolutely due to lifestyle factors, whereas mine is not (that I know of).

It was a blessing to spend a fair amount of my childhood with my grandparents. But both granddads smoked for the majority of their lives, drank fairly heavily for a time, and over the years one of them gradually lost control of his body mass. He carried a stressful daily workload all the way to the iconic PPG building always included in pictures of the Pittsburgh skyline. One of my worst childhood memories is my parents yelling his name in a terrified voice that I never heard them use before. He completely lost consciousness, I assume due to some kind of carotid artery issue. For a minute I thought that he died right there at our dining room table.

To say that everyone loved both of my granddads is a huge understatement. And you could say that a traumatic event like that described above is unfortunate in the life of a ~7 year-old. But due to witnessing this and a handful of other experiences such as a lifetime of nonsense yo-yo dieting, nobody has ever had to lecture me on temperance in food and drink. To this day I have not smoked a single thing, sure, by the grace of God. And this undoubtedly saved me some aggravation over the years. But health-wise, it doesn’t seem to have worked out as planned. Life seems to have no such straight laced formulas.

Sometimes when I’m sleepless during the night, I sit on the ottoman leaning forward with my head down, elbows propped on knees. I stare out the window or into the floor, sometimes praying and often just thinking. Where did I see this before? It’s not like some kind of never-invented behavior. But it is the exact posture that my grandfather would assume, sitting at the picnic table on his back patio late at night, staring at nowhere, usually while slowly eating something like pistachios and smoking a cigarette. And there were a few times of witnessing my other grandfather on a bent knee beside his bed. He was alone, silent and still. This was unlike anything I had previously seen; not in the house of worship or on street corners, to be seen by others…

Progressive Insurance is right. Our families obviously influence us for the better and worse, probably far beyond our own comprehension. Science has taught us that it’s not all nature or nurture, but both. And it’s the stories of our family history, our memories, and insight given from above that help us make even a little sense from any of it.