Friday, October 18, 2013

Sailboat or Rowboat?

Ever since my Grandmother taught me how to work hard mowing and caring for her yard, I have been a secretly lazy person.  I used to tell my students that I was the hardest-working lazy person they would ever meet, that I had a hundred short-cuts for learning, and that I would teach them all.  Then I would sit back and wonder if they actually believed me.

Years later, I am still that person...except now I have the hardest job I have ever had: ministry!

Don't misunderstand me...I LOVE it, but it is very hard.

What makes it even harder - and what makes me crazy - is that I just learned one little detail that I was missing: the difference between a sailboat church and a rowboat church.

In a rowboat church, everyone (especially the pastor) is working as hard as they can.  They work together, sometimes they even chant or sing as they work.  They "pull" together and get things done.  It is satisfying and wonderful...but those rowers sure get tired.  And everyone knows that rowers can't row forever.  And what happens when they stop rowing?  THEY DRIFT AIMLESSLY!

In a sailboat church, everyone CAN row from time to time to make small adjustments or to help out.  But the primary force that moves the boat is the wind.

One of the very few Hebrew vocabulary words that actually stuck in my memory is "ru-ach" - the word for breath, or spirit, or wind.  It is the wind that moves a sailboat church - or the breath of God - or His spirit.  But we do not move it...we just go along for the ride.

Is the Father calling us to work?  Certainly!  Is he also showing us the way?  Sure!  Is the work sometimes very hard and even exhausting?  Absolutely!

But are we trying to determine the course ourselves?  Or are we smart enough and faithful enough to trust his "ru-ach" to get us there?

Don't know about you...but this lazy preacher thinks we just might quit rowing and let the wind blow us for a while!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Dad's Best Friend

Joe Conley was my dad's best friend for the past 67 years.  They met in basic training for the Army in 1946.  Both of them were sent as part of the occupying force to Tokyo in 1947.  Joe was instrumental in getting my father to become Catholic; in fact, he helped to arrange my dad's baptism, first confession, first communion, and confirmation all within about two weeks!   For as long as I can remember, a gold cross hung above my dad's dresser in our home - a gift from his godfather, Joe Conley.

All through my childhood and beyond, I heard stories about Joe and what a great friend he was to my dad.  Not many people know it, but Joe was also a war hero; he also served in Korea where he was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.  He spent at least a year in a military hospital in San Francisco recovering from it.

As my father's career took many twists and turns, I noticed that Joe's did too.  He bounced around in movies and TV getting small, regular roles here and there but never getting the big break that all actors look for.  Just as he was about to give up on acting completely, he landed the regular role as Ike Godsey, the store keeper on the 70's TV show "The Waltons."  The funny thing was that Joe also had a very successful real estate business that kept him busy too.  When he finally retired, he did it in style.

I was lucky enough to meet Joe just one time.  Dad and I went to see his sister for Christmas and we made a special side trip to see Joe.  When he came in the room, he hugged and hugged my dad until I thought they were both going to burst.  It was a special moment, and I was proud to witness it.

Yesterday, when Dad called to say that his oldest and dearest friend had passed away, part of me died too.  I could hear the pain in my father's voice - haven't heard anything like that since his sainted mother died years ago.

Thanks, Joe, for being my dad's friend and for always being there.  All of us Plunketts love you - especially the one you called your best friend.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Weddings, Marriage, and Pastor Mark's Thoughts On Them

I just love officiating weddings!  I also love participating in weddings as a groomsman, best man, usher, or whatever.  I believe in love, and I am old-fashioned in that type of thinking.  Still...there is something happily goofy about weddings that make me smile.

The first time I was ever in a wedding was in college; I was a groomsman for a friend named John.  I could not attend the rehearsal the night before, but I was assured it would be no big deal.  But when I arrived only 5 minutes before the wedding started (a little problem at the tuxedo rental store!), I found that everyone was a little upset.  The guy next to me coached me through the wedding.  I am pretty sure they can all laugh about it after more than 30 least, I hope so.

In my own wedding, it took place in the little town in New Jersey where my wife's parents lived.  My whole family made the trip there, and it was actually a lot of fun.  Jeanne's two-year old niece, Catie, got loose during the service, so my favorite photographs are of her running around and trying to get someone to pick her up.  Also, after that service, my favorite memory was of my wife's grandmother meeting my grandmother: Bayonne, New Jersey meets Fentress, Texas.  We almost needed an interpreter!

When I was in seminary, I had two friends from my home church approach me about marrying them.  I could not do it - I was not ordained yet.  But the interim pastor, Jim, was an incredibly gracious man and a truly good sport.  This couple had a theme wedding in which we all dressed up in costume.  The groom and his groomsmen came as French musketeers.  The bride wore a middle-ages peasant dress and arrived in an open horse-drawn carriage with flowers in her hair.   Jim and I wore kilts complete with knives in leather holders attached to our leg socks (I still LOVE that photo!).  It was great fun!

I have officiated a few weddings since I've been ordained, and here are my own top ten personal rules and standards for weddings:

1.  I will go anywhere WITHIN REASON that the couple wants to go for their wedding: outdoors, in a backyard, in a field of wildflowers, on the beach in Costa Rica, etc.
2.  There are limits to #1: I won't jump out of an airplane, or do a wedding underwater wearing scuba gear (I have heard of both!).  Let's keep at least a little dignity, folks!
3.  If you want to enter dancing to music, I am game!  But let me hear the music first and see the dance moves.  Nothing is more painful to experience than inappropriate music or poor-quality disco moves at a wedding.
4.  If you are going to insist on including "obey" in the list of vows, then both parties need to be prepared to say it to each other.  That's fair.
5.  Speaking of things that are said at weddings, I won't include the line: "If anyone here knows of any reason why these two should not be wed, let them speak now or forever hold their peace."  This is awkward!  Also, when it's done, everyone kinda gives a sigh of relief.  I don't include it in the weddings.  Instead, I ask for the couple to declare their intention publicly to be married and that each of them comes to the ceremony free of any pressure or influence.  I also ask the families and the guests/witnesses to voice their support too.  That's good enough for me.
6.  At all weddings, I work for the Lord and the couple that is getting married.  I do not work for anyone else in a wedding, including anyone's mother, anyone's grandmother, or anyone's sister.  And speaking of the Lord, when I declare the couple to be married at the end, I will say, "By the authority vested in me by the Lord Jesus Christ..." I do not say the authority is from the state of Texas, or the city of Houston, or even the Presbyterian Church (USA) - although all three DO give me authority.  My true authority to wed people comes from the Lord.
7.  Something unforeseen will happen during the wedding; it adds to the day.  Laugh at it now or laugh at it later.  It's not the end of the world and it never "spoils" the wedding.
8.  I get to say "no."  If I don't think the couple should be married - for whatever reason - I have the right and the obligation to say no.  Pressure does not work on me.  I take weddings very seriously, and I think everyone else should too.  So I claim the right to say no.
9.  I also get to say "yes."  If I believe the couple should be married - and perhaps there are folks who disagree - I have the right and the obligation to say yes!  Like I said, pressure does not work on me.  Family members, and especially former loves, do not get veto power!
10.  Finally, on the day of the wedding, both bride and groom need to be sober and alert.  On the night before, when partying may the order of the day, go ahead and have a great time.  But on the wedding day, both bride and groom MUST be sober, or I will refuse to officiate the wedding.  I take weddings very seriously, and I think people who are getting married should do the same.  Show up ready to get's important and it's for life!

So that's what I think.  Check out our church web page ( and click on the WEDDINGS button for more information.  If you want me to marry you, give me a call!

Like I said, I love doing weddings!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Susie Told Me

During the summer of 2001, I began to seriously explore the call to ministry.  At the time, I couldn't believe that I was even thinking about it!  After all, I had been a teacher for more than 20 years, I enjoyed it, I was pretty good at it, I was at the highest level of earning that I could manage, and I still loved my job.

So why was I even considering that mysterious thing known as a "call to ministry?"

Because I was pretty uncertain, I did what any good Presbyterian would do: I formed a committee.

Actually, it was an unofficial committee, and it never met together.  However, I contacted each member, discussed the possibility of ministry, and asked their opinion.

One of the members of that committee is my friend, Susie Croes Barone.

Susie is like my third sister.  I have known her for more than 30 years.  She introduced me to my wife on Valentine's Day, 1981.  She was the maid of honor at our wedding.  She knows my family, and she knows me.  She is also a righteous, beloved Christian woman whose opinion I value.

She and I spoke about many things that day, and she strongly encouraged me to pursue ministry.  But I asked Susie a question that no other member of the committee heard:  "What do I do if I cry at funerals?"  Susie knew that I was pretty "tender-hearted" and that funerals were hard for me.  Yet I knew that if I went into ministry, I was very interested in being a pastor.  That means funerals - no way around it.

Susie gave me some terrific advice; she said, "If you are going to cry at funerals, then go ahead and cry.  The people will see how much you care."

Since that day, I have attended lots of funerals, I have officiated a few, and I have spoken often.  I also remember what Susie told me.  I am not embarrassed at my tears; they show how much I loved that person.

Today I am going to the funeral of a dear friend, Lisa Doran.  I am not officiating the service, but I am speaking.  My heart is very heavy, and I may cry as I speak.  But her family and friends will all know how much I loved her.

Thanks, Susie!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Avoiding the Quick-Fix

[Note: I usually post my sermons on our church's website for one week and then replace it with the next one.  However, Ash Wednesday is a special day - the beginning of the Lenten season.  That calls for something different.]

Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Scripture: Matthew 6: 1-5, 16-21
SERMON:  “Avoiding the Quick-Fix”

At first glance, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel might be seen as a lecture from Jesus.  It’s not a lesson.  It’s not a parable.  It’s not a thought-provoking story that makes sense to the simple and the wise.  It’s a lecture. 

If we heard such words from someone in our lives, it would certainly come across like a lecture.  Why…we might even roll our eyes or say, “Okay, OKAY” like we do when we have heard suggestions given to us by someone who truly cares about us but wants us to change what we are doing.

Yet Jesus seems to be taking it for granted that his followers would perform religious, faithful acts such as prayer and almsgiving and fasting; he just wanted to make sure they were done solely for his sake and for the sake of his kingdom.  After all, worship is simply meaningless unless it is performed solely for the right reasons.
That is an excellent place to begin our study of Lent.

So let’s do it right.  Let’s avoid the shallow, the superficial, the “sacrifices” that somehow make us feel more righteous without actually accomplishing anything!  Lent is a time for going deeper; it is not a time to settle for the bumper-sticker answers, the cheap slogan, the smiling condemnation of others who don’t fit our mold of Christian life.  Let's avoid the easy, the short-cuts, the quick-fix.  It is a time for us to have a serious conversation with ourselves and with our Lord.

Let’s start with just five suggestions.

The first suggestion I would like to offer is to not limit ourselves to the season of Lent.  If you choose to fast or to give up something for Lent, challenge yourself to do it beyond the season of Lent.  Keep in mind the reason you are doing it – to sharpen yourself for the study of the death and resurrection of our Lord.  If fasting helps your own discipline, that is a good thing; if it only gives you an excuse to whine, you might as well not do it at all.  And if you announce it loudly and dramatically to all who surround you, then you are seeking their approval rather than the approval of your Lord and Savior.

Next: “wrestle” with your own devils.  In our modern time, it seems that everyone has an opinion about everything, and if you disagree, you are opening yourself up to withering criticism.  So many of us adopt a combative stance about our opinions that leads us to hardening our views like concrete.  No chance to grow and change.  Just dig in.  I would like us to challenge that type of thing.  Read blogs, articles, or even books that you know you are going to disagree with.  Choose those materials that will directly challenge all that you believe.  In doing so, you open yourself up to new thinking and possibly new insights into what others truly believe.  No one is asking you to change your mind; just listen to others.  Choose your topic – wow…there are plenty of them.  Perhaps avoid watching them on television because the emotion is too easy to get into.  Try reading and examining what is going on.  Wonder about statements and opinions you don’t agree with.  See what happens.  Wrestle with that devil.

Third: Welcome the Samaritans.  In fact, go to Samaria and see them for yourself!  In the news, we always hear reports of “Good Samaritans” who stop and help others.  I always chuckle when I heard this term because it is supposed to represent someone you wouldn’t get near on your worst day doing the unbelievable – actually helping someone he or she should hate.  Who are the Samaritans in your life?  Welcome them in.  Invite them to church.  In fact, go and see them!  You might find that they are seeking the same Lord that you are.

Fourth: Let Jesus restore your eyesight.  Many times when Jesus healed people, especially the blind, there was some conversation about faith.  The people who saw Jesus heal the afflicted believed it – but they were also astounded when it happened because Jesus spoke of sins being forgiven and faith that makes us well.  Perhaps we are not seeing things as they truly are.  Is our eyesight failing us because we can’t see things differently?  Are we so stuck in the past – with all its failures, triumphs, sadness, joy, and influence over our current lives that we cannot see?  If so, then we need Jesus to restore our eyesight.  Because there is so much he is showing us!

Last one: Quit wiggling and let the Master wash your feet.  When Jesus did this just prior to the Last Supper, can you imagine how uncomfortable his disciples were?  Their master, washing and drying their feet?  That was work for a servant.  And that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to get across to them: they were leaders by being servants.  It is uncomfortable.  It makes us uneasy at times.  We would all rather that Jesus takes the lead and we can just follow and glorify.  But Jesus the Master calls all of us to, not only get our feet washed, but to be servants of one do some foot washing, in other words.  If we can truly do that in some form or fashion, then the lessons and mysteries of Lent will not be lost on us.

So let the season of Lent begin this evening.  Let us prepare our hearts and minds for this amazing time.

A New Christian In Town

Several years ago, a preacher from out-of-state accepted a call to a church in Houston, Texas. Some weeks after he arrived, he had an occasion to ride the bus from his home to the downtown area. When he sat down, he discovered that the driver had accidentally given him a quarter too much change.  As he considered what to do, he thought to himself, 'You'd better give the quarter back. It would be wrong to keep it.' Then he thought, 'Oh, forget it, it's only a quarter. Who would worry about this little amount? Anyway, the bus company gets too much fare; they will never miss it. Accept it as a 'gift from God' and keep quiet.'

When his stop came, he paused momentarily at the door, and then he handed the quarter to the driver and said, 'Here, you gave me too much change.'

The driver, with a smile, replied, 'Aren't you the new preacher in town?'

'Yes' he replied.

'Well, I have been thinking a lot lately about going somewhere to worship. I just wanted to see what you would do if I gave you too much change. I'll see you at church on Sunday.'

When the preacher stepped off of the bus, he literally grabbed the nearest light pole, held on, and said, 'Oh God, I almost sold your Son for a quarter.'

Our lives are the only Bible some people will ever read. This is a really scary example of how much people watch us as Christians, and will put us to the test!  Always be on guard -- and remember -- You carry the name of Christ on your shoulders when you call yourself  'Christian.'

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