Monday, September 21, 2015

Memorial service for my father-in-law

[This is the message that I shared in a military chapel in central New Jersey on Thursday, September 16, 2015.  That was the day of my father-in-law's memorial service.]

As we gather together to mourn the loss of Eugene Michael Piga, each of us seeks to pay our respects.  We are here to support one another and to love one another.

But we are also seeking comfort...some form of comfort....for ourselves and for Gene's family.

Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn; they will be comforted."  And we seek that today.

As I prepared for today, there were two things that gave me comfort, and I want to share them with you.

The first one is a description of something that happened on the very first time I met Gene.  It was in the summer of 1981.  Gene and his family were packing to move for the very last time; they were going from Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to their new home in Lakehurst, New Jersey.  My girl friend (later my wife) was moving with them, so we loaded her things into my truck and drove to San Antonio.  When we arrived, I remember her mother being extremely friendly and welcoming.  Her little brother was five or six, and he was bouncing off the walls.  Her younger sister, Donna, was indifferent.  And then there was the man...sitting in his easy chair and watching sports on television.  I politely shook his hand and joined him in the living room.

I remembered that he didn't talk much; I also remembered that after only a few minutes, the two of us were alone.  He pointed to an upcoming boxing match on television and asked me if I followed boxing.  I told him that I did, and then he set me up by asking who I thought would win.  I told him, "Lupe Pintor is the toughest fighter in that division; he will knock this guy out."  Gene pretended to be surprised and praised the other fighter.  I stuck to my choice.
Eight rounds later, Pintor knocked Jovito Rengifo to retain his bantamweight boxing championship.  Gene's entire commentary on that fight was, "Huh...let's go get some lunch."

As we walked over to the dining hall, I noticed how many people were calling out to him.  The dining hall wasn't that far away, but he sure did get a lot of shout-outs.

Then we entered the dining hall...and the place went NUTS!  It was already loud in there, but when we walked in, the air was filled with shouts of, "CHIEF!  CHIEF!"  [Gene was a chief master sergeant in the Air Force.]  Even the folks behind the counter in the kitchen called out to him.  He looked a little embarrassed, and he muttered, "Oh geez..." but he was grinning too.

As this chaotic scene unfolded, I remembered thinking, "Who is this guy?"  It was like walking in with Eisenhower!  I also remember thinking, "I'm dating this guy's daughter!!!"

The second comforting thing I have been thinking of is a quote from John's Gospel.  Jesus tells his disciples, "In my Father's house are many rooms.  I go ahead of you to prepare a place for you.  Would I tell you this if it were not true?"

I believe that the Lord has prepared a wonderful place for each of us.  I think when we get there, it will be like it was when I walked into the dining hall with Gene on that day.   There will be shouts of joy and LOUD shouts of our names.  I also think there will be One standing there and waiting for us.  He will not politely shake our hands; he will grin and hug our necks!  I also think that those we love will be waiting for us and calling out to us with joy.

So I am comforted by remembering Jesus' promise to each of us.  I am comforted by remembering how much Gene was loved and respected on this earth.  And I am comforted in knowing that when Gene reached his Savior, there were shouts of "CHIEF!" and "GENE!"

Because Gene has reached his home.  And someday he will be there waiting to greet each of us too.

That's what I believe.   And I hope you believe it too.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

I Really Should Play Poker Professionally...

The list of things they should have taught me in seminary is a seriously LONG list.  Today's topic refers to a skill that I acquired since I began in ministry about four years ago.  At the time, I didn't realize I would need this skill.  I knew what it was, and I had seen excellent examples of it over time, especially on television.  But I knew I wasn't cool enough or controlled enough to pull it off.  So I just settled for being myself and letting things happen as they did.

But when I got into ministry, I discovered just how much I would need to have a good "poker face."  Now let me be clear:  I am NOT saying that I need to know how to gamble in order to be a minister.  That would be a pretty absurd comment to make, especially to my Christian sisters and brothers who know of the danger and the lure of gambling.  I'm not saying that at all.

I am referring to that cool look that gamblers get, especially during a game of high-stakes poker, in which the gambler's face is cool, unreadable, and calm.  I never had that in my life - I am too emotional and too temperamental - but it is a necessary skill for ministry.

Let me explain.

When someone comes to see the pastor, and that person is VERY upset, the pastor cannot let emotion rule the day.  The pastor needs to be the calmest voice in the conversation.

When things go wrong in a church - and believe me, it's always SOMETHING! - the last face that needs to show panic or concern or worry is the pastor's face.  

When the forces of evil arrive - and most times the pastor won't see them coming - the pastor has to be as cool as those old west heroes that I love on television and the movies.  Because the pastor just might need to make a stand, and everyone needs to see that the pastor is cool.

So that's why a good poker face is a requirement for ministry.

Since I've been in this job, I have discovered that my poker face has gotten a LOT better.  I am still miles from being cool, but I can keep a blank face (or at least an un-angry face) pretty easily.  I have had folks tell me they couldn't believe I didn't react to this situation or that situation without losing it.  Often I praise God that only He and I seem to know how upset I am.

And of course, other times, it fails me completely.  I have been easy to read for most of my life, so why should it change quickly or easily?

Still...I think back to my younger days when I played poker with my friends.  I usually got beat by them because they knew the game much better than I did.  But I would love to sit down with those old friends and have another go at the game.

Something tells me they might be a little surprised...

[Romans 12:2] Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mark's thoughts on Israel

No funny title here.

No "catch" words to make you smile or to lead you into thinking more deeply about a subject.

Instead, let me be VERY clear with what I write.

But as I do, let me also make a warning or two very VERY clear:

  • What I write is my own opinion.  You may judge it as crazy, silly, uninformed, too liberal, too conservative, or whatever label you wish to give.  But the postings in this blog are my ideas and mine alone.  So if you don't like what I have to say, then don't read it anymore.
  • I am alarmed by the escalation of rhetoric, angry speech, and everyone who seems to believe that they are required to comment on everything.  That includes myself, which is why I am restricting my comments on this very controversial subject to my very own blog.  So if you don't like what I have to say, then like I said in #1 - don't read it anymore.

Here we go:

I think the nation of Israel deserves to exist.  I think there are many places throughout the world and throughout history that have been formed in the aftermath of war, that were created to accommodate a certain group of  people, and some that were awarded to people who had seemingly "earned" either the favor or the sympathy of stronger nations.  Israel fits that bill in many ways.

However, I also think that the Palestinians also deserve a homeland of their own too.  They had one at one time, but for some pretty unusual reasons, they "lost" it...or were they actually a part of (Trans) Jordan?  I think they deserve the world's attention for this reason alone (if not for some others too).

But we don't live in the past...we live today...and today the Israelis and the Palestinians live very close to one another, they hate each other, and they don't trust each other.  Who could blame them?

The world continues to watch this situation and occasionally tries to help.  I have seen few outside countries other than the United States who have even tried to realistically help the situation, and yet we are seen as "meddlers" and "misinformed" and "colonialists" in our efforts.  Our people look at this situation and wonder, "Why can't they just settle their problems and live in peace?"

Good question.  No easy answer, especially when hate and mistrust rule the day.  There is no trust and certainly no compromise.

And now the denomination to which I belong, the PCUSA, has decided that it will get involved.  They tried twice to divest from companies that were doing business with Israel in an effort to put pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians fairly (2012 and 2014 General Assembly meetings).  They also seem to be taking the Palestinians' side in the whole argument over who is right and who is wrong.  I am POSITIVE that there are things in this that I am missing, but in the big picture that is what I see.  (I am not alone in that opinion.)  Evidence of this can be found in the denomination's web site ( where their store offers a product called "Zionism Unsettled" (see for more information.).  If our denomination doesn't agree with the conclusions from this product, then why is it available from our store?

Everyone seems to have strong opinions on Israel.  So here are my current thoughts:

1.  I once heard a Middle East expert state that if you removed religion from the debate, all of the problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be solved in about 30 minutes.  I agree, but how do you remove religion from the debate?

2.  Speaking of religion, I do NOT believe that Islam is a religion of violence.  It has been used by radicals who twist the words in the Koran to explain and to justify their violent actions.  Our own Bible has been used for similar purposes throughout history, and yet Matthew 7:5 seems to be forgotten by many Christians.

3.  If Jerusalem is so important to everyone, then NO ONE should have it.  Let the Israelis set up their capital city in Tel Aviv, which they have done for many years, and let the Palestinians set their capital in Ramallah, which is where their government is currently housed.  Jerusalem covers a lot of ground, but the "symbolic concept" of Jerusalem is still important to everyone.  I wonder how it would work if Jerusalem was divided into the four quarters that are currently in place (Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian).  Problem there is that the four quarters of the Old City are not even close to including all of the current city of Jerusalem.  And for a little perspective:
  • When America's own national capital was proposed, both Virginia and Maryland sold the nation some swamp land that no one wanted.  That is the site of Washington D.C. today, so don't tell me that "settling" for something other than the ideal capital city location is possible.
  • When World War II was completed, the city of Berlin was divided into four occupation zones.  Each was governed by different Allied nations, and each was as free as that nation decided it should be.  East Berlin was not free because the Soviets would not allow that.  But the other three were, so again - don't tell me that separate zones won't work.  It is already in place now!
4.  Why should Israel negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians?  Israel is not dedicated to the destruction of Palestine; can the Palestinians say the same thing about Israel?  Not even close!  In fact, they state quite clearly that the destruction of the state of Israel is their goal.  Other Arab countries also say the same thing.

5.  Where is the true support for the Palestinians from the other Arab countries?  By "true support" I don't mean weapons!  I mean food, building supplies, shelter, schools, housing, etc.

6.  I am against the separation of people.  However, sometimes it is necessary for the peace and survival of some.  Look no further than Cyprus, Korea, Northern Ireland, and Sudan for examples of this.  It is sad.  It is tragic.  It is sinful.  It is apartheid!  But if there is no other solution, then separate and build communities.  Let some time pass.  Keep talking.  See what the future generations can accomplish.

7.  Are there any Israelis and any Palestinians who believe they can live in peace?  Are there any who would be willing to compromise in order to achieve peace?  If so, then they should make themselves heard boldly.  If not, then they should learn to accept constant war and murder and tension levels that will escalate at the drop of a hat (and there are plenty of people who are willing to drop that hat!).

8.  Are the other neighboring Arab countries in the area willing to adopt a "hands-off" policy?  All of them seem to have their hands full with their own problems (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iran)...perhaps they should butt out!  Or is it too easy and too tempting to blame Israel and the West for everything that is wrong with their own countries instead of facing their problems and trying to solve them?

9.  Is the Lord present in any of this?  Or have we already decided that only a horrifying "final war" will ever bring an end to the problems in the Middle East?  Does anyone truly believe that the Lord can no longer produce miracles?  I have no idea how the Lord would solve these problems, but I truly believe that He can!

"In the days to come, Jacob will take root.  Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit."  Isaiah 27:6

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 ...