Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Shave November 2014

I have heard of No Shave November for a handful of years, but I never had the nerve to try it.  First of all, I hate going more than two days without shaving; I think I look like a bum, but my wife likes it.  Second, I have gone about a week without shaving once; it was for a Vacation Bible School in which I was supposed to be a common man in Jerusalem in 33 A.D.  It didn't really work, but it was only for a few days.   Finally, I don't usually have the self-discipline to accomplish this.

So I mentioned it in passing to my wife, my daughter, and a teenage girl in my church.  All three vigorously persuaded me to try it.

Then I checked with Scripture.  Doing this is a form of a Nazirite vow.  Check it out in Numbers 6: 1-21.  I haven't touched my beard since October 31st (although I did have a hair cut after about 11 days).

It has been an itchy experience.  My two-year old grandson thinks it's hilarious.  He keeps patting my face.  My wife told me to shave it off after day 5 declaring, "I don't like it anymore."  But I keep going.

The reason for doing this is to raise awareness of men's health issues, especially prostate cancer.  If men would get themselves checked out at least once each year - gee, guys, that means getting an annual physical! - then this cancer would not kill as many guys as it does.

So I don't shave for November 2014.  Here is the proof!







"Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard."  Leviticus 19:27

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Power of Individual Prayer

During a recent worship service, I remarked to a somewhat smaller crowd than we usually have, “Remember that Jesus told us, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’  I think we have that covered today!”  Obviously, I was emphasizing that even though we had a small crowd of 40, the Lord was with us anyway.  It was a good point for a pastor to make in those circumstances.

However, when the service ended, an old friend asked me, “But if the Lord is present when two or three of us gather, what happens when I am by myself?  Am I on my own?”  I was momentarily caught off-guard and clumsily tried to explain myself; it didn’t work and he shook his head and grinned at me.

Since that day, I have been thinking about his question.  I have struggled to come up with “the answer” to his question.

The first thing I did was to find the exact quote from Scripture and examine its context.  The words I used are from Matthew 18:20.  In this verse, Jesus has just given the parable of the lost sheep; here, the Lord is explaining how each and every one of us is important, so if even one of us is lost, the Shepherd leaves his flock and goes in search of that lost sheep and brings that lone sheep back into the flock.  Jesus goes on to give other evidence and other examples of holding people together in community and praying and working together.  That was the context in which that quote arrived in Scripture.

So perhaps I took it out of its proper context and used it for another setting.  Completely possible!  

But that doesn’t get around the basic question: what about when we pray alone?

So I checked the various commentaries that I have in my office.  Surprisingly, each and every one of them emphasized corporate prayer, community prayer, regular gathering of believers who should pray together, etc.  The overwhelming message is that prayer is IMPORTANT and POWERFUL in the hands of a group of believers.

But again…what about when we pray alone?  I found almost nothing…except what was scraping around in my little brain.

I remembered that even Jesus himself went off and prayed alone.  He asked his Apostles to stay awake and to pray with him in the Garden of Gesthemane, but he ended up alone in prayer.  Often, he also went off alone to pray.

Are we not to follow the Lord’s example?

Perhaps the answer lies in the intent.  When we pray together as a group of believers, we lift our prayers to the Lord together.  Are we more powerful?  Does the Lord hear us “extra well”?  Or do we just make each other feel better as we each pray individually?  Not sure.  But I do know that if we only pray alone and never pray with other believers, we are depriving ourselves of corporate prayer and corporate worship and a loving community of the Lord – the same community that Jesus calls us into over and over again.

So in the end, I say to pray alone.  Have conversations with the Lord and have them daily.  Pray and ask him for blessings and strength to face the times of trial.  Remember to pray for others too.

But each chance you get to pray with others, especially two or three or more, do it.  It’s good for you.

And in both cases, the Lord is there.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Five Weeks, 12 Pounds, and the Grace of God

I have been sick with some sort of stomach/intestinal ailment since Labor Day; today is October 6th.  In all, I have lost 12 pounds and at least two suit sizes.

I am SO TIRED OF CRACKERS, SOUP, AND DIET SPRITE.  I am also tired of going to the doctor's office (four times so far and counting!).  I am tired of medical tests, blood tests, pharmacies, extra pills, and quick visits to the nearest bathrooms.

I won't go into any details.  You get the picture.

Through it all, I have attempted - often in vain - to do my job as the pastor for the church.  You just can't do this job in 20 hours per week.  I have often failed miserably during the week, sometimes going bravely and hopefully to the office before 9AM - only to head home by 1:00 where I spend the rest of the day in bed hoping the next day will be better.

My old cat is delighted!  But I am not.

My grandson - who is not quite two years old - cannot figure out what is up with me. One minute I am playing with him, chasing him around the yard or around the house, reading to him or watching movies of him on my phone, and the next minute I am in bed calling for anyone to come and get him so I can be in misery alone.

It is a rotten time, and I am tired of it.

But I have discovered something unusual...for some reason, Sunday mornings work pretty well for me.  I have led worship each and every Sunday during this time, and I have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  My sermons have been well-received and the prayers are well-done by any and all who participate in them.  During the services, I am not thinking of how I feel; instead, I am thinking of what is next, or I am worshiping Him, or I am praying for someone, or I am singing.  But I am not thinking of myself.

When the Apostle Paul asked God to take a "thorn from his side" and he asked God to do so three times, the Lord replied, "My grace is sufficient."

Perhaps I am have been praying for the wrong thing.  Perhaps asking for the Lord's grace is what I have needed to do.  Because it is sufficient...I know that.

But my grandson doesn't know it yet.

And neither does the cat.

Friday, April 25, 2014

WD-40 and Duct Tape

A man dies and goes to heaven.  St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and says, "Here's how it works.  You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done and I’ll give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."   

"Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years 
and never cheated on her, and loved her deep in my heart."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth two points!"  
 "Only two points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithes and service."  

"Terrific!" says St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point." 
"One point!?!!  I started a soup kitchen in my city and also worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."  

"Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says. 
"Two points!?!!"  Exasperated, the man cries, "At this rate, the only way I'll get into heaven is by the grace of God."  

"Bingo! 100 points!   Come on in!' 

We often try to fix problems with WD-40 or duct tape.
God did it with three nails.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

No Escape!

When I officially retired from teaching in May 2011, I truly thought I was done with that portion of my life.  I knew I would retain many wonderful memories, and that I would try to keep in touch with lots of people that I met along the way.  But I always thought that I was "done" with my former students.

I didn't WANT to be done...I just thought that I was.  I knew I would occasionally run into a few of them at restaurants, movies, and even on the street - as I had for 30 years.  My family is used to this happening, but they always laugh when it does.  I admit it gives me a kick to think those kids I taught will still come anywhere near me.

But I really did think I was done.  WRONG!

Since I began working in ministry, here is what has happened:

  • I have done two funerals for the two maternal grandparents of a former student.
  • I did another funeral for the grandmother of a different former student.
  • When I was ordained and installed as the pastor for Heritage Presbyterian Church, two of my former students were there: one from a class I taught in 1986, and one from my last class in 2011.
  • I counseled a family friend of a former student.  The former student thought I could help.  I wonder if I did...
  • I invited a former student to preach to our church on "Youth Sunday" in October 2013.  (By the way, he was fantastic!)
  • I wrote college letters of recommendation to several former students who then got into college.  No, I don't think I had much to do with that.
  • I grieved at the senseless death of one fine young man who died in a shoot-out in a Houston night club.  He was shot in the back by a young man who was angry at him for some stupid reason.  My former student never saw it coming.
  • I grieved at the senseless death of another fine young man who was riding in a car with some friends, and someone took a random shot at their car.  The bullet pierced the back windshield, the front seat, and hit my former student in the back, killing him.
  • I officiated at the wedding of a former student.  LOVED doing that!

And the list will probably go on and on.

All of these things remind me of a few things:

1.  With me, teaching was always personal.  Although my students went on from my class to other classes and other teachers each and every year, I always considered them to be "mine" forever.  Selfish, foolish, but true.
2.  Their tragedies hurt me deeply.  Their triumphs brought a lump of pride to my throat.
3.  Triumph or tragedy, I am with them in spirit, if not in person.
4.  I guess this will go on for many years, possibly forever.

I think I will always be "Mr. Plunkett" to lots of people.  I am currently "Pastor Mark" to lots of other people.  I wonder how much overlap there will be between the two groups.

PS - On a weekly basis, I still get to work with two of my favorite former students: my son and my daughter.  I was their computer lab teacher for 5 years each.  To them, I'm just "Dad."

"Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family." Proverbs 27:10a

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What Did Ozzie Mean?

One of the most valuable resources I found when I first arrived at Heritage Presbyterian Church was a complete set of "The Interpreter's Bible" commentaries that were in the church library.  When we packed and moved, that set was the first thing I packed for my office library.  Now I rarely begin working on any sermon without reading through the Scriptures and the commentary that is in this wonderful set of books.

They were first published in 1957, and despite all the gains in Biblical research and all the new resources that are available and all the various web pages - I have never found anything that beats it for providing me with sermon "hooks" that truly add to the messages I try to bring with the Holy Spirit's help.  Each time I open one of the volumes, I can easily see why the founding pastor, Rev. Ozzie Lutz, used this set of books.  (His signature is on the map of the Holy Land, which is located on the first page of each volume.  See the picture above.)

But that's not the only reason it's so valuable to me!

As old Ozzie worked with these books, he often underlined various words, phrases, and passages that really emphasized a particular point.  I do the same thing, but Ozzie did this for YEARS as he worked through his sermons and the Scripture passages.  And each volume of the 12-volume set has Ozzie's hints scattered throughout the pages.  It's almost as if he is still sharing his thoughts with me.

The other day, I was reading Micah 6 in the commentary.  I saw that Ozzie had underlined the words "blood sacrifice."  I read the passage and the commentary to try to find why he did this.  Then in the margin, in Ozzie's handwriting, I found a mysterious message: "no sacrifice---at all?"  When I preached 'What God Required' people said, "See, you don't have to sacrifice."

Obviously, this troubled Ozzie.  Because I never met him (he passed away years before I arrived here), I can only imagine why he wrote it.

But as I pondered this, I looked ahead and found another sentence underlined across the page.  Here, the commentator had written, "It is basically not so much wrong as irrelevant, argues Micah."  The point of the commentator's message is that all the ceremonial stuff that the ancient Israelites did (and probably some Christians do today) does not really matter; it is what is in the heart - and more importantly...what it moves us to do - that counts.

I wonder if that's what Ozzie meant!  I guess we'll never really know.

But I praise God for that good man, his notes to me, and the base that he helped to establish that is our church today.

Thanks, Ozzie!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What They Didn't Teach Me In Seminary

When I became a classroom teacher, it took me about three weeks to realize that I was not totally prepared for my first teaching job.  At the time, I foolishly thought I had not been adequately trained, and I spent years blaming my college.  What I failed to realize was that there is NO WAY to be adequately prepared to teach public school.  You can be trained.  You can be taught.  You can be given educational theory (giggle!).  You can be given opportunities to actually work with living, breathing children.  But none of it is enough.  You have to just jump in and give it a shot.  [I hope things have changed at our colleges of education since I graduated in 1980, but I suspect they have not.]

As I begin the third year of my first job as the pastor of a church, I find that the pattern has repeated itself.  I was not prepared to be the pastor of a church.  Again, I found myself seeking to blame both the seminaries I attended, but it didn't take long to realize that the training could never be good enough to really and truly prepare me for this job.  It took some really good people working with me.  It took some really stubborn faith by them and by me.  It took trying several things, setting pride aside when they didn't work, and trying something else - while not becoming discouraged.  Finally, it took an incredible amount of blessings and grace from the Lord.

But still...if I could just have a conversation with all deans of seminaries everywhere...what would I say?

I would begin in my best Southern drawl: "Y'all left some things out!  Listen up and I'll tell you a few little items that would have been very helpful."  And then I would give them my list:

1.  All seminarians who have plans to become parish ministers should be REQUIRED to take a basic course in accounting.  Perhaps they could "soften" it a bit and call it "Church Finance: Survive or Die" just to make it sound more appealing.  But I spent an inordinate amount of time my first two years working on our church budget, and I suspect that any pastor who ignores this does so at his/her own peril.  I might also require a course in writing grants, but now I'm dreaming.

2.  Go a little softer on the theory and go a little deeper on the practical experience.  I met living, breathing seminarians who went through three years of school, did two field education experiences, graduated with honors, and preached a grand total of 4 times!  That would be twice in preaching classes (and give me a break!  Those are in front of 6 of your fellow students!) and twice in field education jobs.  And these folks are now pastors of churches?  Is that a Christian thing to do?  I believe in trusting the Spirit - big time! - but I also believe in working on your craft.  Make the pastoral folks preach more!  When the PNC's go to meet a pastor, what's the "gold standard" of that meeting?  Do they want to see their candidate run a session meeting?  Do they want to read their candidate's blog?  No...they want to hear a sermon.  So let the pastoral folks learn to preach and then give them PRACTICE!

3.  Notice how hard it is to be a seminarian.  Oh sure...there are those who dress in designer clothing for class - both men and women!  There are those who clearly do not worry about money.  But the ones you really want in your churches, the ones who sweat and grind and claw their way through every year while living on food stamps and hand-me-down clothes and garage sale furniture, are the ones I want preaching the Word and serving the people.  Their home churches can't always give them a total financial package.  So seminaries!  Notice your students and love them a little more!

4.  Seminary deans and presbytery officials should be locked in unheated rooms at least once each year, and they should NOT be allowed to come out until they have aligned their requirements.  Seminary is hard.  Ordination is hard too.  But what is REALLY hard is trying to line up the two.  Would it kill both entities to work together?  Or is it fun to watch the duplication of effort?  I think the wisest seminarian I met was a guy who finished seminary and THEN he began the process for ordination.  When I asked him why he was doing it that way, he grinned and said he didn't need that much stress in his life.  It will take him a total of 6 years to accomplish his dream - to become an ordained pastor.  I admire him, but I couldn't do it that way.  Instead, I kept both parts going.  It was hard.

That's my list so far.  I will probably amend it at some point in the future.  But since I've begun working with a seminary intern, this has roared back into my mind.

It could be better.  It could always be better.

"...But I Don't Want to Ask St. Anthony To Help Me!"

"Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."  Psalm 1:15 "We do not adore, wo...