Humor

First World Problems...

Illustration by Ken Davis

WHEN YOU WORK for a Christian justice organization, it’s hard to complain about your petty personal problems. Dishwasher leaving spots on the glassware at home? Don’t mention it in the office or you get called out for a “First World problem.” Not happy with your cable company? “Dude, First World problem!” retorts a colleague, pouring coffee into his Amnesty International mug before a meeting on income inequality.

I work with people who have traveled the world working for peace and freedom, who have spent time in jail for their beliefs, but who show no sympathy when L.L. Bean messes up my order. (I purchased the medium winter pullover from their activewear collection, but they sent me a small. And it pinches when I lift my arms to pray during chapel.)

In short, my peers are saints working for a better world. And fortunately for them, they don’t have to look outside the office to see what’s wrong with that world, for I walk among them. I am he (or maybe him), the self-centered manchild whose personal preoccupations give a counterbalance to the righteous intentions of my colleagues. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

And that somebody needs new kitchen cabinets.

In my defense—I hurriedly explain to officemates rushing to their next strategy meeting on climate change, this time carrying coffee mugs from Greenpeace—our old cabinets are SO last century. In fact, they were made in the same century as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, a minor monarch whose death prompted the conflagration of World War I. But back to my cabinets.

See how I did that? I shifted from one of the darkest periods of the 20th century to trivial thoughts about new stuff in my house. And from new cabinets to thoughts of kitchen paint schemes is but a short step down the sordid trail to shameless self-indulgence. But such is the thrall of the First World and its petty charms that one can hardly escape.

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Like Giant Marshmallows on a String

Illustration by Ken Davis

IF YOU’RE TRAVELING by air to Washington, D.C., this winter, be sure to look out your window. You don’t want to miss the lovely patchwork of monuments that covers the city, or the scenic curves of the Potomac River, or the giant dolphin-shaped balloons within arms-reach of your seat in coach. But don’t try to pet them. Setting aside the problem of rapid decompression if you open a window, the balloons are property of the U.S. Army, and they don’t like people touching their stuff.

The balloons—I call them balloons, although they’re actually reconnaissance blimps designed to warn against hostile missiles—float about 10,000 feet above the ground, tethered by inch-wide cables, presumably not held on the other end by children at, say, the zoo. Each blimp looks like a huge white dolphin with an unfortunate—and apparently undiagnosed—abdominal growth protruding from its belly. Clearly, it’s something a qualified medical professional should look at. Of course, if it’s just a navel, there’s no problem. But it’s definitely an outie.

There are two of these blimps, each 243 feet long and weighing, well, nothing, because they’re filled with helium, the gas that would have been used in the Hindenburg had the construction crews been smokers. (Smokers may not be smart, but they’re fast learners.) The blimps float above the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, just outside D.C., in some of the busiest airspace on the East Coast, and trail about two miles of cable connected to the ground. What could possibly go wrong?

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Meet the New Boss (looks familiar)

Illustration by Ken Davis

IN MID-JANUARY, the gavel of power will change hands in the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell, in a touching act of cross-party reconciliation, will reach across the aisle and forcefully pry the symbol of legislative authority from the desperate grip of Harry Reid. Although the outgoing majority leader said after the midterms, “I have been able to strike a compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” Reid later clarified that what he meant was the compromise he would strike would be across the knuckles.

After warding off repeated blows, however, McConnell will be the new leader of the Senate, a massive change in political power that will go virtually unnoticed to the public, since he and Reid are both grim-faced, elderly white men whose rare smiles cause parents to cover their children’s eyes and bring their pets indoors.

Indistinguishable in their sour demeanors, they are like brothers separated at birth: two joyless Caucasian babies muttering in their hospital cribs, already soured by the knowledge their lives will be spent in fruitless conflict, the only bright spot being they’ll have comfortable leather seating at work.

Both men are well into their seventh decade, with most of their adulthood spent in politics, another reminder that the true power of incumbency is simply outliving everybody else.

You would think that the many benefits of longevity would include a lifetime of wisdom but, for these two men, sitting long at the feast of reason is no guarantee of peckishness. (Sorry. My router is down and I’ve been reading 19th-century English literature instead of streaming videos of cute animals. It’s the baby kangaroos I miss the most.)

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A Winter to Remember, Beforehand

Illustration by Ken Davis

AS WE BLITHELY head into what we assume will be another warm winter—given the effects of global warming denied only by the ExxonMobil wing of Congress—we would do well to heed the warning of the nation’s oldest weather forecaster. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the coming winter will be particularly cold, with deep December snows to write home about, if you can get to the mailbox.

I first heard this forecast on the radio, driving home from another of the many craft festivals we attended this fall. We enjoy the talented local musicians and artisans, the copious amounts of free samples, and the chance I get at every handmade soap tent to complain that their cheese tastes funny. (I love doing that. It never gets old.)

The only drawback to fall festivals is the unavoidable encounter with dulcimer players. I listen politely for as long as I can stand it, then cry out, “Can you play ‘Free Bird’ on that thing?!” I do this to restore my sanity, if only for a moment. With its gentle, bell-like tones, dulcimer music is like a droning mosquito that you can’t kill. (The main problem with a hammer dulcimer is the hammer is too small and not made of metal. And they don’t hit it hard enough. I would hit it much harder.)

The dulcimer makers are proud of their craft, and offer them for sale, stacked together like so much firewood, dried and waiting for some conscientious humanitarian with a match to put an end to the madness.

But I digress.

GRANTED, IF BIG snows bring Washington to a standstill this winter, nobody would notice on Capitol Hill. But I wanted to be ready at home, with lots of supplies and plenty of rock salt for the sidewalks. (Winter tip: The best way to get a car out of deep snow is to place a dulcimer under each tire.)

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How Would Jesus Vote?

Illustration by Ken Davis

WITH THE CRUCIAL midterm elections less than a fortnight past, many Americans are wondering what “fortnight” means, because it sounds really cool on Downton Abbey. Well, it means two weeks, and that’s hardly enough time to develop the regret appropriate to the choices you made at the polls.

But why wait for that inevitable sinking feeling about your latest destructive act against democracy? Let’s get a jump start on your anxiety by reading through a recent poll asking Americans how Jesus would weigh in on issues of the day.

Let the disappointment begin.

As a devout Christian—you can put down your American flag, we know who you are—you regularly ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” And who better to advise you than Jesus himself, or the best representation of God’s son that modern technology can provide: the telephone survey.

You know, that thing that happens when you’ve just sat down to eat dinner after already getting up twice, once for the cracked pepper you forgot and again to replace the bent fork that you always seem to end up with. Then you finally start to say grace AND THE DARN PHONE RINGS!! (Jesus calls us to follow him. The survey guy calls us at dinner time.)

This particular survey was conducted by YouGov, one of those preposterous internet names that are slowly eroding the English language and corrupting the speech of our young people. Kids these days can’t seem to use regular words when communicating, much less registering emotion. Instead of expressing the tried and true “criminitly!” when frustrated, they default to “omg,” which I won’t translate. This is a religious magazine, after all, and using lower case letters when you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t let you off the hook. Another of their favorites is “wtf,” but that one’s okay since it means “why the frown.” Right? But I digress.

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The Year in Review. (Too Soon?)

Illustration by Ken Davis

IT’S A LITTLE early to be looking back at the past year, but I have to say I’m very disappointed in 2014. It was supposed to be the Year of the Cicada, a time when millions of fat little bugs would emerge from the ground and loudly buzz around the nation’s capital, possibly joining the chorus to impeach the president. (The cries for impeachment haddeveloped a definite bug-like drone.)

Every 17 years or so, the cicadas are supposed to emerge from the ground where they have been gestating and, for the first week of their debut, bring a welcome distraction to life’s problems. By week two, however, they’ve become life’s problems, striking your head and other body parts as you walk outside, or even inside if you leave the screen door open too long for a cat who just ... can’t ... decide.

Fortunately, they all die after a couple weeks, but then venturing out into your backyard sounds like walking on corn flakes, if corn flakes were green and disgusting, and dead.

But none of that happened this year. Instead of the fun and natural wonder of watching bugs freeing themselves from their dark captivity and flying forth into the glorious light of day, we got nada.

No sitting on the front porch watching cicadas celebrating their new world or becoming lunch to passing birds, whichever comes first; no entomological moment of awe; no opportunity to provide learned commentary on nature’s brutal cycle of life to a wide-eyed grandchild. (“So that’s why you should stay in school and not take drugs.”)

Some town across the river got a few hundred of the bugs, but in my block in Washington, D.C., we found only one, lying on its back in a flower bed, and—like a dead corn flake—not moving.

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The Party of Pink

Illustration by Ken Davis

WHEN MARK TWAIN supposedly said “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he didn’t know he was establishing a tweet for the ages. (He didn’t use Twitter. He was more of an Instagram guy.) It still stands as the best rejoinder to those who insist on seeing things for what they aren’t.

Politically speaking, pundits and legislators alike were guilty of prematurely identifying the cold carcass of the tea party last spring when establishment Republicans defeated their right-wing rivals in several primaries. Then came Eric Cantor who, as a Jew, never really fit the profile of an evangelical Christian, the preferred qualification for tea party membership. But as majority leader of the House, he was powerful and occasionally clear-spoken, two other characteristics not often found in tea party favorites.

Nonetheless, Cantor went down to defeat at the hands of an underfunded college professor whose only apparent advantage was a more-evangelical hair style. But his secret weapon was his intolerance for undocumented workers, a favorite position for tea party Americans whose food is harvested almost exclusively by undocumented workers. But let’s not quibble. People are entitled to their opinions, even if the food on their plates sits in mute repudiation of those beliefs. (Luke said “the stones will cry out,” but I’d be happier if a bowl of vegetables would just stand up and say a few cryptic words before dessert.)

So now Eric Cantor’s political career is over, and he moves on to the pitiable life of a wealthy lobbyist who, through no fault of his own, must replace a deep sense of social responsibility with a couple really nice cars. Better that than the consequences for Cantor’s pollster, who predicted a 34 percent victory for his boss. (“Clean-up on aisle 12.”)

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A License to Pray

Illustration by Ken Davis

THE RECENT Supreme Court ruling permitting prayer at government functions holds many ramifications for our day-to-day life, such as getting a comfortable seat at the city council meeting before the clerk starts reading the entire book of Revelation.

In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy held that public prayer is “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” and should be permitted as a ceremonial practice. Like, maybe at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles:

Driver: I’m here to renew my driver’s license.

DMV clerk: Let us pray.

Driver: Excuse me?

DMV clerk: With every head bowed, and every eye closed, we pray to the Lord Jesus Christ that his love will pour out on this driver, and by the grace of the Living God, he will always come to a complete stop, when appropriate.

Driver: Amen, I guess. Now, will I need to take a new photo?

DMV clerk: God knows who you are and what you look like. Because, his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches you.

Driver: You’re going to sing, aren’t you?

DMV clerk: I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for his eye is ...

Driver: Got it. God is always watching me.

DMV clerk: And we have several traffic cameras throughout the city to help God in that regard.

Driver: Be that as it may, do I have to do anything else to renew my license?

DMV clerk: Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?

Driver: Um, I’m not sure. I showered this morning, but ...

DMV clerk: We’ll let it go this time. Okay, that’ll be $47.

Driver: That’s a lot higher than last year.

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They've Got Your Number...

Illustration by Ken Davis

I’VE BEEN SPENDING a lot of time with my credit card company lately. Nice people work there, of course, and I try to make every phone call a time of conviviality and respect. It’s what good people do.

Credit card guy: Sir, my name is Brian, and ...

Me: No, it’s not.

“Brian”: I beg your pardon?

Me:  Be honest. They give you anglicized names to sound more American, right? So when did you get that name?

“Brian”: When I was born.  It’s also my father’s name.

Me: And, you’re calling from, like, Mumbai or ...

Brian: Texas.

Me: [awkward moment of silent self-loathing, mercifully cut short by seeing a butterfly. Pretty.]

But you readers understand my point. American jobs should be for Americans. Honest, God-fearing Americans who embody the spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship. Like the guy in Kansas who, according to Brian, had just purchased an iPad with my credit card number. Brian was calling from Texas to make sure this was okay with me, which it wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for buying an iPad or any of the high-tech gadgets that I’ve had my eye on. And I totally get that the guy in Kansas feels the same way. In fact, I was cool with him right up to the point where he decided to keep it for himself.

Fortunately, I wasn’t charged. (Note to guy in Kansas: Next time buy two, and call me.) As a result, Brian sent me a Visa card with a different number.

It felt like a new beginning for me, a fresh start in a life that has few do-overs. It was a moment for celebration so, giddy with excitement, I took my new card and bought something from Target.

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6 Times Pastors Went On Late-Night TV

Jim Wallis on The Daily Show Sojourners founder, author and theologian Jim Wallis has been a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart multiple times since 2005 to discuss the intersections of politics, religion and activism. In this throwback clip from Jon Stewart’s early days on the Comedy Central staple (starting at 12:52 in the video below), the two discuss Wallis’ popular book God’s Politics. The discussion primarily involves the religious implications of the then current political issues, morality and activism. But in a more personal moment, Wallis tells Stewart (who is Jewish), “The Hebrew prophets used humor and truth-telling to make their point. Which I think you do very well. So maybe you’re one of the prophets.”

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