Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Pay Attention When The Game Is On...

"For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night." 1st Thessalonians 5:2

Back in my seminary days, there was a wonderful local tradition in the seminarians' apartment buildings.  Each month a group of folks would gather in one of the basements to play a Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament.  It cost each participant $7 to get in the game, but all the money went to the local food bank.  So this was not a game about taking anyone's money.

Also, each monthly tournament went on until one group of seven players were left.  At this point, the game continued at just one table until there was a single winner.  The higher you finished in the tournament, the more points you earned in the yearly contest.  At the end of the school year, the player with the most points was awarded a crimson jacket.

For the two years that I lived at seminary, one player had not only won the crimson jacket, but he won it two years in a row and was heading to his third!  J was a really REALLY good poker player.

I was flattered when I was invited to play in this.  I admired all the details, the fun, the tournament rules, and especially the camaraderie.   But it was clear to me that I was way out of my league with these guys...they were MUCH better at poker than I was.  Still, it was fun and I looked forward to it each month.

I began to watch J carefully as each month passed by.  He could win even as he was laughing and joking with other players all over the rooms at the different tables.  He could win when it seemed he was going to lose.  He could pull out a card that made the entire table yell with either delight or groan with realization.  He was dramatic, cocky, hilarious, and fun to watch.

But one time...just one time...I caught J not paying attention...

He came in late one night and almost missed the opening hand.  The rule was that if you were not in your seat when the game officially began, you could not join it late.  J was rushing to get there and just barely made it in his seat as the time keeper announced the beginning of the tournament.  J missed his usual warm-up time where he teased and joked with his friends in the room.  He missed getting his plate of snacks and his drink.  He even missed putting on his official crimson jacket.  So it occurred to me that J was not focused on the game.  I began to wonder if I could use that distraction to my advantage.

Sure enough, as one hand progressed, I knew I had a really good flush.  Funny thing about one ever sees them coming.  A flush is a hand in which all the cards are the same suit, but not necessarily in any order at all.  Most folks in poker are looking for a pattern, but most ignore or dismiss a flush.  You really have to pay attention to see it coming...and J wasn't really paying attention.

I decided to play the hand aggressively as if I might be bluffing (but I wasn't!).  As the individual cards were turned, I kept raising and everyone else kept folding - except J who was putting in his chips as I raised but only because someone at the table reminded him to (he was still looking around, greeting everyone, and joking with the whole room).

He wasn't paying attention to me at all...and then he looked down and saw that it was just the two of us...with a large pile of chips on the table and just one card to turn.  THEN J began to play the way he usually did, but he was too late.  He raised me but I knew he was bluffing.  I saw his raise and raised again, pretending I was bluffing and trying with all my might not to smile.  Then he raised my raise!  Ordinarily, I would have folded and given him the pile...but something told me he was bluffing because he hadn't been paying attention and now I had him.  I told myself, "Hang in there, Plunkett...he doesn't have anything!"  Sure enough, we got to the end of the raises and I said, "All in" as I pushed all my chips to the middle of the table.  He began to laugh and joked with me about how he just KNEW I was bluffing.  I allowed myself a smile and he pushed all his chips to the middle and said, "Call."

Then I turned my cards over revealing a beautiful flush that easily beat his two pair.  I removed all the chips from the table, stood up and shook his hand.  By tournament rules, J had to exit the table because he had no chips left.

I played pretty well that night and even made it to the final table before losing quickly.  (Like I said, those guys were really good poker players.)  The next month, J made sure to be seated at my table, and he was able to quickly dispatch me from the tournament.  There were no hard feelings on our part, for which I was truly grateful.

But each time I remember that evening, I am always reminded of how the Lord cautioned us to be on alert, to "pay attention" so that we would each be ready when He returned in glory.  To be caught unaware or off guard would be the worst thing any of us could do.

To be caught off guard in a harmless poker game is one thing; to be caught off guard when the Lord returns could be disastrous!


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."  
Fannie Lou Hamer, addressing the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ

"Whatsoever you do to the least of my friends, you do to me." Matthew 25:40

No, I don't know how Fannie Lou Hamer felt on that long-ago day in Atlantic City.  I have never been in her position or in her circumstances.  However, I can agree with her words - and perhaps I can even "borrow" them for what I am writing today.

To begin, I am a walking, talking cliche.

I am a white, middle-aged, Southern, Protestant man.  I cannot help any of those things.  But I CAN help what I am going to do about what I think, how I feel, and especially what I am going to do when others express to me - with actions or with words - how life is treating them unfairly.

I can be a friend to everyone, anyone, who needs a friend.

I can champion the causes that matter to me, and I can (hopefully) remain open to learning about new ones that I am unaware of.

Growing up, all I knew was the neighborhoods and the schools and the churches where I lived.  Those were my friends, my mentors, my playmates, my classmates.  If I judged any of them, it was done by how they acted toward me or toward others.  I don't remember judging anyone by any other standard.

When I got older, I am uncomfortably certain that I began judging more and more based on other things.  I am ashamed to admit that, but I am not ashamed to admit that it has caused me to open my heart, my mind, and myself to what others think, feel, and believe.  I am also old enough to admit that many of the stories I have heard over the 60 years I have lived have changed me.  I don't necessarily believe everything I am told or everything I read, but all of it causes me to stop and think about how I really feel.

So for today, here it is: like Fannie Lou Hamer, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.
  • I am SICK AND TIRED of the cowardice that our elected officials show when it comes to guns.  I have read the entire Second Amendment, and I often wonder if they have.
  • I am SICK AND TIRED of teachers and public education being the punching bag for everything that is wrong with society.
  • I am SICK AND TIRED of the double-standard that exists in politics; if the left hates a specific politician for a person reason, the right defends him/her - and vice versa.  I think if you are going to condemn one politician for a specific act, you should condemn all politicians for the same specific act.  No fair only defending those you like and agree with.  Wrong is wrong!
  • I am SICK AND TIRED of women not being treated fairly.  They do the same work as men?  Then they should get the same pay as men.  How difficult is that to understand?  Also, men rarely get sexually harassed, but virtually every single woman I have spoken with about this has admitted to me that she has been sexually harassed at some point - some have told me heart-breaking stories.  As my son asked me, "How hard is it for guys not to act like jerks?"
  • Speaking of women, I am SICK AND TIRED of my sister ministers and pastors being treated disrespectfully in their church jobs.  I have never had anyone criticize me for what I wear in the pulpit - especially not my shoes or my hair - but every female minister I know has heard nonsense about the skirt she wore, the shoes she chose, the way she wore her hair.  Seriously?  This is nonsense!  I have also never had people tell me they can't get used to me because I'm a man.  But my sisters in faith have all heard this, sometimes said to them after they have been in the pulpit for a long time!
  • I am SICK AND TIRED of all Muslims being condemned because of terrorists.  In our own country, the Ku Klux Klan is a terrorist organization, and they also claim to be Christians.  Do we automatically accept this?  Certainly not!  So why do we judge all Muslims because of the violent actions of a few crazies?  This makes no sense, especially when I think of all the Muslim people I have been blessed enough to call my friends.  They are gentle, wonderful, faithful people who make me think.  They also pray five times each day (which makes me ask myself how often I have prayed each day!).
  • I am SICK AND TIRED of feeling this way, so I am going to begin speaking out and writing much more.  It does no good to keep it to myself because I am hate conflict.  But my Savior is beginning to whisper in my soul about things being wrong and I am wondering what I can do about it.  I have a voice, I have a pulpit, I have a social media platform or two...and I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I think I'll try this.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Worst Of All Time

"I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Philippians 4:13

(The following article may be my opinion...but there are certainly a LOT of presidential historians who agree with me!)

If you ask any American in any setting to name the greatest President, he or she might have a hard time identifying just one.  Our country is very fortunate; we have had many great Presidents, and many of the others have done great things - while not always getting the credit they deserved.

But if you ask that same American to name the worst President of all time, he or she might not even hesitate to answer.  

Any conversation about the worst American President is bound to anger or frustrate someone.  In modern times, just about every President was loved or hated; there wasn't much middle ground.  If this conversation involves someone with a calm demeanor, he or she might admit that even a hated President might have some good qualities;  for instance:
  • President Bill Clinton was a master politician who worked with Congress to pass a lot of legislation that helped our country.
  • President Ronald Reagan was a master at communicating with the America people.
  • President Barack Obama never had a personal scandal during his 8 years in office.
  • President George W. Bush responded forcefully following the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and calmed the American people.
  • One political "enemy" of President Theodore Roosevelt remarked when he died, "You had to hate him an awful lot not to love him."
So it's even possible to call up something good about a President that many might hate.

But for my money, the worst President of our country was the 15th President: James Buchanan.

If you do just a little research, you will find that Buchanan should have been a very good President.  He had a sterling political background serving in the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as serving two different Presidents as ambassadors to Great Britain and Russia.  But for whatever reason, Buchanan is known today by many Presidential experts as the worst President of all time.

When Buchanan was elected President, the country was on the brink of the Civil War.  Everyone knew it and many had tried to stop the war from coming.  Buchanan stood in the perfect position to try to do something to stop the war...but he did virtually nothing.

When he declared that he would not seek the Presidency in 1860, no one was upset.

He eventually supported Lincoln during the war, and he died in 1868.

It is an incredible thing: he knew the war was coming, he was the President and he had some power and influence to stop it...but he did nothing.

It should serve as a lesson to every single President that followed him:  DO SOMETHING.

It should also serve as a lesson to every single Christian: DO SOMETHING.

The Lord has put each of us in the place we are with the skills we possess.  He calls every single one of us to serve, to try, to do our best.

He never calls anyone to just sit and do nothing.

Because if we do that, we run the risk of being judged as the worst of all time...and possibly not just by our fellow humans.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Who Was That Masked Man?

"The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground." Genesis 18:1-2

The older I get and the more experiences that occur in my life, the more I am convinced that often the Lord sends people into our lives at specific times for very specific reasons.  Sometimes the people He sends only appear for a moment or two and then leave - never to return.  But while they were there, they did something wonderful and possibly even "saved the day" - to use the cliche.

It was in the fall of my junior year of college.  I woke up late that morning and so I was in a hurry.  I stopped to pick up my friend, Denise, and we headed out to South Austin to the elementary school where we were working at our first field experience in education.  But we were very late!

The roads were wet that morning due to a light rain overnight, and I didn't slow down like I should have.  As we neared the highway, I looked in the rear view mirror to see how awful I looked (remember I woke up late!).  For that instant, I really should have been looking in front of me...because I didn't see the big shuttle bus that had stopped abruptly just a few yards away.  Too late!  Denise yelled at me to look out, I hit the brakes, but we skidded into the back of the shuttle bus.  The seat belts worked by keeping us both from going into the dashboard or the windshield, but they didn't prevent me from going vertical about six inches in my seat and hitting my head hard on the roof.  

Denise and I staggered from the heavily damaged car, but I suddenly felt something running down my head.  I didn't know it at the time, but I had a huge gash on the top of my head and was bleeding profusely.  Denise ran around the car and helped me to the sidewalk.  I could barely talk as she asked me if I was okay and told me to give her my grandparents' phone number.  I don't remember much after that...

Except for one very big detail: a stranger picked me up, put me in his truck, and drove me a few blocks to the UT Student Health Center.  This man - whoever he was - helped me into the emergency room, made sure I was in good hands, and then he left.  I never saw him again.

My head was sewn up, my grandparents arrived, Denise made her way to the Health Center too, and I was taken home.  I spent the weekend in bed at my grandparents' home recovering from the concussion that I also received in the wreck.

By Monday morning, I was back at class, albeit feeling a little shaky.  I ran into Denise on the way to class, and I almost started crying when I saw her limping badly.  Denise had sprained both of her ankles in the wreck, and she didn't even know it until her roommate came to get her from the Health Center.  It took us both several days before we felt normal again, and my headaches finally faded away.

As life returned to normal, I realized that I never knew who that man was who took me to the emergency room in his very nice truck.  No one knew his name, no one spoke to him.  He just saved the day and then disappeared.

With no social media in 1978, I did the only thing I could do: I put an ad in the student newspaper asking for information about that man and thanking him for his help.  No response was ever heard.

He was one of the Lord's people or one of the Lord's messengers or one of the Lord's angels.

In the end, it doesn't really matter.  I am still grateful to this day.

But I wonder who he was...

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Day I Dropped the Communion

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."  John 6:35

From the time I was born until I turned 23, I was Catholic.  In the 1960's, I went to St. Louis Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.  I was an altar boy too.  This meant that I had some interesting training that served me well then - and continues today in my own ministry as a Presbyterian minister.

In order to become an altar boy at St. Louis, I had to be properly trained.  I remember my best friend, Gary, and I were trained by his uncle who was the senior priest of that church.  Monsignor Matocha was pretty firm, but we all respected and loved him.  He was very careful and very thorough with us when we were trained.  He showed us the robes we wore, he went through the service and taught us what to do and when to do it.  He impressed upon us the importance of doing our jobs correctly, properly, and reverently.  

As an altar boy, one of our tasks was to help with Communion.  This mainly involved standing next to the priest when the Communion wafer was given and moving a long-handled plate under the person's chin in case the wafer was accidentally dropped.  During our training, Monsignor Matocha told us that if a wafer ever hit the floor, we were to stand over it for the rest of the service, and he would take care of it after church was done.  At the time, I remember thinking, "How can it hit the floor?  That plate will catch anything."

Sure day, the wafer dropped, I missed it, and the Communion wafer hit the floor.  Immediately, Monsignor motioned me to stand over it and not move.  He finished Communion and went back behind the altar to finish the service.  I just stood there not knowing what to do and feeling foolish for missing that wafer with my plate.  I wanted to just pick it up and disappear, but I remembered how seriously Monsignor explained what we needed to do in case it happened.

A few minutes later, mass was over, and everyone was gone.  Monsignor came over to me and thanked me for standing there.  I apologized for missing it, but he just waved it off.  Then as I watched, he performed a short ceremony with prayers and very careful retrieving of that dropped wafer.  I didn't understand it all, but I DID understand that Communion was something to take VERY seriously.

And wouldn't you know it...last Sunday during our own Communion service, I dropped a piece of Communion bread.  Fortunately, it was a piece of gluten-free bread that we carefully put in plastic cups.  I immediately thought of my old Monsignor as I bent over to pick it up.  I also thought of him later when I put that piece of bread and the other left-over bread on our church property for the animals of the earth to eat; that's how I dispose of leftover Communion bread, which is probably much different than whatever Monsignor did with that piece I missed.

Monsignor might not approve of what I did last Sunday, but he would be pleased to know this particular former-Catholic-turned-Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament takes Communion very seriously.


Monday, October 30, 2017

The Gift of Jacinto's Coffee

When my daughter was a baby, she didn't sleep well at all!  Our other child, Dan, was a GREAT baby who slept through the night beginning when he was three weeks old.  But Megan was not an easy baby, and so my wife and I spent the first three or four years of her life zombie-walking through our lives.

We had a plan that worked sort of well.  We would take turns staying up with Megan, so that each of us got a good night's sleep every other day.  On the weekends, whoever stayed up late with Megan got to sleep in and take a nap later on.  This enabled us to survive Megan's baby years without selling her to the gypsies for a handful of magic beans...

But it didn't always work...

One day I was teaching at the elementary school where I worked, and I was having a really hard day.  My students were WONDERFUL that year, and they were extremely patient with me on the days when I was really sleepy.  On this hard day, they had just about exhausted themselves trying to help me get through the morning.  It wasn't going well, to say the least!  I began to feel really guilty because I knew I wasn't doing a good job.  I knew that these kids deserved better than what I was giving them.  I knew how things were going...but I also knew that I was just about powerless to do anything about it.

Later, when I was on my way back to my room for my free period, I passed the school's custodian in the hall.  Jacinto stopped me and asked if I was okay.  (You know it's bad when the school custodian notices how bad you look...).  I stopped and told him that I was up all night with my baby daughter and I was exhausted.  He immediately brightened and said, "Can I make you a cup of my coffee?"  I remember thinking how nice he was being to me, and I also remember thinking, "Maybe a cup of coffee would help."  So I followed him to his little office where he poured a little water into some type of urn, pushed a lever or two, and produced a steaming cup of coffee in about 30 seconds.  I thanked him and took the coffee to my room.

Within ten minutes of finishing that coffee, I began to come back to fact, I felt great!  When my students returned to the classroom, they immediately noticed their old teacher had returned.  We proceeded to have a great day.

After school was out, I searched the school until I found Jacinto and thanked him over and over for that coffee.  "It's my own recipe, but you can have a cup whenever you need it."  I took him up on that offer a few more times before my daughter began sleeping through the night.

Moral of this story: PAY ATTENTION, never know when the Lord will send one of his angels to help you.  He might send one when you least expect it, or when you didn't even ask for help - but you desperately need it.  He might even send one that you didn't expect at all.

And he might even send one with a great cup of coffee.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Hiding Behind the Technology

PCUSA Book of Order F-3.0105:  “… we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which people of good characters and principles may differ.  And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

Sometime between the early and mid 1990’s, email became a widespread communication tool.  Businesses, schools, churches, and individuals all quickly embraced this wonderful technology, and email became the major method for business and personal communication.

At the same time, email users quickly learned some lessons the hard way:
  1. Once an email is sent, it is VERY difficult to get it back if you change your mind about its content, tone, or destination.
  2. Email can be extremely embarrassing if it is forwarded to recipients that you never intended to read it.
  3. Unless the email is sent from your home computer, any email sent by a church, business or school is property of that entity.  Just because you work there doesn’t mean you own the emails you send.
  4. A mistake in an email can have unintended consequences, especially with the invention of “auto-correct” additions to email software.
  5. What is written on an email can be used as grounds for legal action, personnel decisions, and even admission to colleges!

Before the advent of electronic communication – email – human beings communicated by letter, phone, or face-to-face.  Each was an efficient form of communication that usually forced a rational participant to slow down and think about what was being said or what was being heard.

Email changed all the rules!

Electronic communication is so fast that often the sender does not take the time to review the message and think about what is being said.  It is easier than ever to “hide behind the technology” and not really deal with the other person who is receiving it.  New email users were often cautioned to “be careful and thoughtful” about the emails they sent; this warning was often ignored or quickly forgotten.

Hard lessons have been learned by scores of people who had negative email experiences.  Hurt feelings have been caused which could have also been avoided – or at least softened – if the two people had met and talked face-to-face. 

Personally, I have received hateful and hurtful emails from other Christians who thought email was the perfect form to use; I have often wondered if those conversations would have been the same if they had occurred face-to-face or in a phone conversation.  Hiding behind the technology is a poor way for Christians to act!!

A good rule of thumb for email users – whether they are Christians or not – is to remember that old Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And perhaps remember that our Book of Order reminds us to practice “mutual forbearance” toward one another; in other words, be kind.

Write and send emails as if Jesus is looking over your shoulder as you type.


Pay Attention When The Game Is On...

"For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night." 1st Thessalonians 5:2 ...