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.


Monday, June 19, 2017

The Dads of God

June 18, 2017 Father’s Day
Sermon: “The Dads of God”

Scripture reading:  Genesis 18: 1-15; 21:1-7

Abraham and Isaac
Isaac and Jacob
Jacob and Joseph
Jesse and David
David and Solomon
Elijah and Elisha
Zechariah and John the Baptist
Joseph and Jesus

In each case from Scripture, you had a righteous father and his righteous son.  Is this just a pattern?  Does it just…happen?  Is it something arranged by God and then left to chance?  I think not.

It would be just as easy to share a totally different pattern, one that shows the non-righteous father and his non-righteous son.  In fact, even using Scripture as a source, it is much easier to find this type of list than the righteous one; the books of Kings are ripe trees full of the rotting fruit of the non-righteous fathers and their non-righteous sons:
Rehoboam and Jeroboam
Baasha and Elah
Zimri and Omri
Ahab and Ahaziah
The last nine kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel

And from the New Testament: King Herod and anyone in his entire family!

In our world, it is not so cut-and-dried as it is in the Bible.  We have fathers who are good, some that are bad, some that are weak, some that mean well, and all kinds of others…just like the general population.  But it would also seem that the role of fathers is being diminished in some parts of our culture.  This is obvious to any teacher; we may hear about fathers in the lives of our children, but it is the mothers who usually show up at the parent-teacher conferences.  Back in my teaching days, it became a pattern that I was surprised when I got to meet any of the fathers of my students; this was true for 29 years.

But our culture is also guilty of sending mixed messages.  On the one hand, we have any expert in family dynamics, or children’s mental health, or in education telling us the importance of the role of fathers in the lives of their children; then on the other hand, we have TV shows on virtually every channel showing us what idiots fathers are.  In the past, we had “Father Knows Best”, “Leave It to Beaver”, “Andy Griffith”, “The Nelsons”, “Make Room for Daddy”, and even “Bonanza”; now we have “The Simpsons”, “Family Guy”, “American Dad” and just about any show on My20.  

What happened to the dads?

Maybe nothing happened at all.  Maybe some are just making fun of an institution because it is secretly funny to do so.  Or maybe some are just laughing at something that is so foreign to them that we can’t recognize it.  Or maybe women have done such a magnificent job stepping up as parents and bread-winners that dads are in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Being a father of two children, a grandfather of one, an uncle to eight, and even a grand-uncle of six myself, I have a problem with this whole group of weak, dumb, clueless, useless dads.  I am not dishing out any blame at all.  But I am still asking the questions.

All I know today is that I am extremely blessed when it comes to dads.  My own dad was and is a very important figure in my life.  What I know about honesty I learned from him because the only person my father ever lied to was himself.  I also had my grandfather who taught me about not just being a Christian, but the uniquely central Texas Presbyterian form of it.

But it didn’t stop there.  I had beloved uncles, neighbors, family friends, church fathers, teachers, mentors, and my own father-in-law.  All these men served me as Dads of God.  They showed me how to live, how to accept what I can and how to fight against what I cannot.  I would not be here today except for them.  I stand on their strong shoulders, and I love and respect them all.  I’ll bet many of you feel the same way about various men in your lives.

I even know of dads who are fathers to children that are not even their own.  They are step-fathers who inherit children when they marry the mother; in many cases, these Dads of God get rid of the label “step” because those children belong to his heart unconditionally.  I have officiated weddings in which the step fathers take a much larger role than the biological fathers, but the children of those dads don’t seem to care.  They know their own dad of God.  The same can be said of adoptive fathers and foster fathers who choose children to be in their households out of love and compassion.

One of my favorite dad stories involves Senator John McCain.  His wife came home from an overseas mission trip in Bangladesh with a small orphan girl.  The little girl had such a severe cleft palate that it was feared she would starve to death because she had such difficulty eating.  When McCain met his wife at the airport, he asked her, “Where is she going?”  Mrs. McCain replied, “To our house.”  Senator McCain later reported that he knew better than to cross his wife when she had that look in her eye.  Senator McCain’s aide later reported, "I remember John's face. That day he was not the tough war hero senator. He was like every other new father, full of love and emotion."  And it didn’t take long before McCain fell in love with that little girl who is today his daughter, Bridget McCain.

Because in this case, McCain was a Dad of God.

I have two children of my own that I love more than I can put into words.  I need them…but whether they know it or not, they also need me.  I had hundreds of students who were in my various school room classes; to many of them, I was their dad because I was the only male in their lives…that was a responsibility I took very seriously.  And I know of dozens of others who serve as role models, substitute fathers, and surrogate fathers to children who would otherwise go without their love and example.

But just as the Lord’s anger burned against those kings of Israel and Judah who turned against him and did evil in his sight, I think the Lord’s anger also burns against those dads who shirk their responsibilities and neglect or hurt their own children.  Far too often, this scenario appears in our society; often it makes the news in the form of dreadful, lurid lead stories in the headlines, or the sad, pitiful stories of children who lacked firm, loving care during the times of their lives when they truly needed firm and loving care.

What should we do about this?  What should we even think about this?

I can only imagine how disappointed our heavenly father would be if we ignored our responsibilities to be Dads of God.

I can only imagine the face of the Lord on Judgment Day if we have neglected one of our own children.

I can only imagine the need of a child who has no father to love him or her.

That’s why I praise the Lord so strongly and so loudly for those fathers who show up, step up, and act as dads of God for the children of the Heavenly Father.

They are truly blessed…and so are their children.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Day Grandaddy Cried

"...and he will live forever and forever.  Hallelujah!"
from "The Hallelujah Chorus"

It was on Easter Sunday sometime in the early 1980's.  I had gone to church with my beloved grandparents at University Presbyterian Church in Austin.  It was a GLORIOUS service, complete with lots of wonderful things to see and hear - especially the music!

At the end of the service, the choir director turned to the congregation and announced that they were about to sing "The Hallelujah Chorus" and anyone who knew it and wanted to sing with them could come up and join the choir.  I hesitated despite the fact that I knew the tenor part of this song very well, but my Great Aunt Ruthie jumped up and grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the pew.  She whispered, "I know that you know this!  Let's go sing with them!"  

Who could resist Great Aunt Ruthie?  So I quickly found the tenors and joined their section.  Someone handed me the music, the organ began to play, and we sang our hearts out.

It was a beautiful experience.  I get chills even today whenever I think of it.  When we reached the last line, we held that last "Amen!" as long as we could possibly sing it.  The thunderous applause went on and on.  It was fun!

Great Aunt Ruthie beamed at me from the soprano section as we stood there a moment before exiting the front of the church.

At this point, I managed a look at my grandparents.  To my shock, I saw Grandaddy wiping his eyes with his handkerchief.  It was not something in his eyes...he was crying!  I hurried back toward their pew as all of us began to exit the church.  I caught up with him and I asked him what was wrong.  He leaned down and murmured just loud enough for me to hear: "They played that song at Pop's funeral in 1939.  They did it again at Mom's funeral in 1966.  That song gets to me every time."

I had no idea.  But now the song has a similar effect on me.

At Grandaddy's funeral in 1994, the choir of University Presbyterian Church sang "The Hallelujah Chorus."  They did it again at Grandmother's funeral in 2005.  

So today, whenever Easter approaches and I remember that song, it gets to me too.  Because just as Grandaddy loved his parents, I loved him and Grandmother.  And all of us love Jesus!

And I praise the Lord - with loud "Hallelujahs!" in my heart - whenever I think of them.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Let's Get Off the "Coaching Carousel"

 "Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all."   Ecclesiastes 9:11

"You reap what you sow."  Galatians 6:7

Lately as I observe the college football season come to an end, I have noticed the unfairness of how coaches are hired and fired.  I think the NCAA's rules (or lack of them) in this process is shameful and needs to be changed.  Here's what I have observed and a possible solution for how it could be fixed:

1.  Coaches are fired and hired from one program to another BEFORE the season is actually completed.  When a coach is fired in the middle of the season, it is almost always covered by an assistant coach being elevated to "acting head coach" until the season is done.  This is the easiest method for this to be done; it is easiest on the players, the other coaches, and the short-term future of the program.

2.  HOWEVER, when coaches are fired and others hired before the National Championship game is done, this is wrong.  Currently, the coach for the University of Houston has moved to the University of Texas; I have no problem with this being done, but neither program was "officially" done with their seasons.  The UH coach also took most of his assistants with him to UT, but UH will still play in a bowl game before their season is officially over.  How will those players adequately prepare for that game?  And who will coach them?  Also, I just read this morning that UT might actually get a bowl invitation despite a 5-7 record; this is because of the high number of bowls that currently exists.  But the UT staff that coached that team is gone (fired!), and the new staff is not quite filled.  So those players lose the opportunity to add a little pride to an otherwise disappointing season.  This is also wrong!

3.  What about the fine assistant coaches who are currently working for really good teams that are going to major bowl games and/or playing for the National Championship?  Shouldn't those coaches be allowed the opportunity to become head coaches at another program?  And shouldn't they also have the opportunity to FOCUS on the team and the game(s) that are coming up without the distraction of trying to get another job?  Unfair to the assistant coaches and unfair to their current teams, if you ask me.

4.  And the NCAA knows all what are they doing about it?  Not much, as far as any sane human can determine.  How about this:  NO ONE may contact, recruit, interview, or negotiate with any other coach until AFTER the National Championship game is completed?  Penalty: similar to when a football program breaks any other rule - sanctions, loss of scholarships, etc.  And this goes for alums, agents, athletic directors, and coaches themselves.

Yes, if this plan was implemented, it would affect recruiting.  So what?  How does failure to finish a season affect recruiting?  What are the parents of talented high school players thinking right now?  I don't hear too many people asking their opinions, but I think they are the most vital group right now.  After all, they represent the future of the various football programs.

Bottom line: Why should a pastor care about all this?  Is it because I am a graduate of both the University of Texas and the University of Houston?  Isn't it just money and power and all that?  I care because I am a fan, but I also care because I know when something is unfair.  And Christians are always ALWAYS called to take on anything that is unfair.

So change it, people.  Do it now and for the right reasons.  Or wait until the system becomes so rotten and unfair that changing it will be embarrassing and painful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


“…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  [Isaiah 9:6b]

Throughout my life, I always had nicknames - some goofy, some endearing, and some weird.
When I first learned to write my name, I reversed the “R” and the “A” as I wrote.  My grandfather thought this was funny and called me what I had written: “Mrak.”

My mother called me “Markie” until I was old enough to talk her out of it.  Curiously, my wife calls me “Markie Mark” now and it doesn’t really bother me at all.

When I was a teacher, my students would try to call me “Mr. P.”  I always took the time to point out how odd that sounded and how I wouldn’t answer to it.  Then a beloved teaching partner called me “Mr. P” - and it didn’t bother me at all (although it really freaked out my students for those years).  Again…curiously, my daughter-in-law, Evelin, calls me “Mr. P” and I love it.

My favorite nickname of all time is what my grandson Logan calls me: “Dah.”  None of us can figure out where he obtained that label for me, and everyone else in the family has the usual names of “Aunt” or “Grandma” or “Tia” (Spanish for ‘aunt’).  But when it calls me “Dah” he knows I will answer every single time.

Our Lord has nicknames too!

In the quote from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 9, verse 6, various names for the Lord are listed, and we have all heard them before.  During his lifetime, Jesus was called “Rabbi” which translates as “Teacher.”  He was often called “Master” and even “Son of David” when he encountered those in his ministry.  Paul referred to Jesus as “the Christ” and of course “Lord.”

But no matter what we call our Lord, He knows our names.  And no matter what names each of us are comfortable in calling ourselves, He knows them all.

And the most important of the Lord’s possible nicknames for each of us is “MINE.”

For we all want the Lord to someday say to each of us, “You are MINE.”


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Aunt Bettie's Vote

“Aunt Bettie’s Vote”

“Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” [1st Peter 3: 1-2]
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” [Ephesians 5:22]

In the 1980’s, my wife and I visited my great-great Aunt Bettie at the nursing home where she lived in rural Central Texas.  At the time, a presidential election was approaching, and my wife and disagreed on the candidates.  When we had spent some time with Aunt Bettie, we both asked her whom SHE liked in the presidential election.  She smiled and looked back and forth at us.  Then she told us a great story about voting…and obeying biblical authority.
In 1952 and again in 1956, Dwight Eisenhower ran for President against Senator Adlai Stevenson.  Aunt Bettie loved Stevenson, and her husband, my great-great Uncle Morris, loved Eisenhower.  As the election day drew closer, Uncle Morris was insistent that his wife honor his wishes and vote for Eisenhower – even though he knew that she liked Stevenson.  On the day of the election, Uncle Morris drove them both to the voting precinct, and they walked in together.  Just before Aunt Bettie entered her voting booth, Uncle Morris told her, “Now Bettie…I want you to vote for Eisenhower.”  Aunt Bettie replied, “Yes, Morris,” and then she went into the voting booth and voted for Stevenson.  As soon as she exited the voting booth, Uncle Morris was waiting for her.  He asked her pointedly, “Bettie…did you vote for Eisenhower?”  “Yes, Morris,” was her untruthful reply.  She admitted to us that she did the same thing in both elections and that she lied to Uncle Morris both times.  As she told us this story, she looked a little uncomfortable, but she also chuckled as she remembered those conversations.
Then she turned serious for a moment.  She said, “Those were the only times in our entire marriage that I lied to Morris.  I just couldn’t vote for Eisenhower…I didn’t like him.  And I just loved Senator Stevenson.  But if I had told Morris the truth, he would have been so upset.  So I lied.  Do you think I did a bad thing?”  Jeanne and I both insisted that she had done nothing wrong, that she was fully justified in her actions, and that we were certain that Uncle Morris loved her, no matter what.
Later, as Jeanne and I were going home, we talked about that odd conversation.  Aunt Bettie was a devout, righteous Christian and a Biblical scholar in her own right.  She lived her life guided by her faith in Christ and the words of the Bible.  But when it came to defying her husband, she recognized that the greater love existed in acting outside of what the Bible specifically said.
And, as far as I know, we were the only people she ever told.
When Aunt Bettie greets her Savior, I am absolutely convinced that He will not hold her accountable for these actions.  She acted with love and with gentleness.  She followed her Savior’s example, but she “strayed” from the letter of the Law.

Lessons from this story:
1.     Live with love and gentleness in all that you do.  That was Jesus’ example in all that He did.
2.     Be at peace whenever you face the “letter-of-the-Law vs. Spirit-of-the-Law” situations.  Jesus preached often against the letter of the Law when it ignored the love we should have for one another in all that we do.
3.     Vote your conscience, and don’t let ANYONE tell you how to think.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Lost Tribes...of Heritage?

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful Presbyterian church called Heritage.  It came into existence in 1980, and the people who created it were wonderful people.  Over the years, the church grew and grew.  New buildings were added to the original land that was purchased.  Various pastors came, led, and left - and at least two of them were Godly, righteous, beloved leaders.  The church had many programs, but none better than the children's nursery school that began as a mother's day out program.

The people who attended Heritage also invited their friends and family to their church.  By the time 25 years had passed, the church property consisted of a 100+ year old chapel, an education wing that housed the nursery school during the week, a fellowship hall, a big sanctuary that could seat over 500 people, and an administration building for the various church employees and the pastors to work.

All in all, Heritage was thriving, happy, healthy, and successful by anyone's definition.

Then, just like the thriving nation of Israel, something terrible happened.

The original members of the Heritage tribe often considered that what happened to their church came on very quickly.  However, a thorough search of the records of the church - many of them deleted from the church's computer server (which cannot ever be completely deleted) - revealed that the leaders of the church at that time were planning something much earlier than they let on.

Earlier that year, a report came from the denomination's General Assembly that, for the very first time, discussed the possibility of including gay people as fully-included members of the Presbyterian Church.  The pastor of the church recognized that if this happened, then gay people could also be elected as church officers; and if gay people could be elected as church officers, then they could also call gay pastors (or at least gay-friendly pastors).  To the pastor of that time, this was unacceptable.

Rather than do the honorable thing and resign as a matter of conscience, the pastor was determined to remove Heritage from the denomination.  He contacted outside groups and individuals and requested counsel and guidance to achieve this end.  One of these groups - the New Wineskins - advised him to "run up the bills."  If the church was heavily in debt, it would make it extremely difficult for the local presbytery to take control of the church; at that time, the country's economy was experiencing the worst conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930's.  So the "balloon payment" on the mortgage was not renegotiated, the contract with the copier company was set to an unbelievable amount each month, the phone system was rented by long-term contract, the entire staff was given generous raises, and "suddenly" several staff members attended expensive, out-of-town conferences.  All in the name of "running up the bills."  

Then the announcement of church meetings was given.

At those meetings, the leadership of the church voiced their concerns about the direction of the denomination.  As they did so, they also turned most of the membership against "those gay people."  What most of them failed to realize was that there were already gay members of their church sitting in the pews with them!  In fact, at least two members of the church had been raised in that same church, and they were not going to go quietly or without a fight.  So they got it.  Everyone listened to the hateful comments raised against "those people" - parents and friends of "those people" got to listen to the hate spewed against their loved ones.  It had little to do with the Kingdom of had a lot more to do with conveniently forgetting that the tribe of Heritage was supposed to be one big tribe.

The next steps were pretty predictable...sort of.

The larger group renounced their membership and the jurisdiction of the denomination.  The vote was taken and the congregation overwhelmingly voted to leave and to take the church campus with them.  What they didn't count on was the stubborn faith of the local presbytery officials and supporters.  Only 60 members of the tribe were dubbed the "viable remnant," but they were legally awarded the property and all the assets.  The larger portion of the tribe  - about 200-250 - left the campus and set up somewhere else.  Two churches were formed.

But the numbers don't add up:
60 people in the viable remnant that remained as Heritage.
200-250 that left with the leadership.
What about the other 200?  Where did they go?  What did they do?  Did they begin attending other churches?

Or did they completely quit attending church at all?

This is the question that haunts me almost 9 years later.

I came to Heritage as their pastor after all this happened.  I found the documents on the server after it was repaired and all "old" documents were recovered (no one meant to find them, including me).  I have met and spoken with a few of those who left with the former leadership.  I have heard, with pain in my heart and tears in my eyes, the stories told by members of the viable remnant who lost their former church, their long-term friends, and maybe even a portion of their own faith when all this happened.  Time has passed, and most people won't speak about this terrible time without effort...which is why it needs to stay in the ancient past.

But the missing tribes of Heritage - the missing 200 - haunt me.  I hope they are still worshipping somewhere.  I hope they are still believers.  I hope that they hold onto the good memories of their good old church and not the disastrous ones.

More than anything else, I hope that the members of the lost tribes of Heritage are NOT lost at all.

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 an...