Ping Pong with the Priest

The outer door of my office building opened, then slammed shut, followed by the sound of boots clomping down the hall, until they stopped at my door. I looked up to see Father Wlad dressed in camouflaged cargo-pocket shorts that reached below his knees, a faded pink-and-green floral buttoned shirt, greenish-brown combat boots that had seen better days, and thick, dark green, used-to-be-knee-high socks that had lost all elasticity so that they drooped down to the tops of his boots. His left hand held a table tennis racket. I burst out laughing at the apparition that filled the doorway.

“Want to play ping pong?” the priest asked.

“I’d love to,” I managed to say, mentally rescheduling the tasks on my to-do list. I had been praying about Father Wlad the past few days, hoping for an opportunity to spend some time with him. He was faithful in his ministry as a Roman Catholic priest, conducting daily mass and confession, yet I sensed he needed a friend, just like I did.

We chatted as we walked over to the MWR, which was a combination gym and entertainment facility. The bottom level had weight machines and free weights. There were treadmills, stair climbers, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. The floor was concrete, and one side had a large, bright blue mat for floor exercises. Upstairs were pool tables, a stereo, books and magazines, card tables, sofas, and a humongous internal-projection big screen TV. In the center of the large, open, linoleum-covered area was a brand new, heavy-duty ping pong table. Father Wlad had planned this ambush, and had asked the MWR staff to reserve the table for our use.

“You never told me you play table tennis,” I scolded.

“Table tennis is big in Europe. Everybody plays.”

“Do you have a table in your parish hall in Poland?” I asked.

“Of course.” It was like he was saying, “Silly American. Don’t you know anything?”

Had I known there was to be a table tennis match today, I would have dressed for the occasion. I would love to have changed into my PT clothes. Instead, I was wearing my Army Combat Uniform with boots. What I wanted most was to be wearing athletic shoes.

Not having the right clothing wasn’t my only worry, though. Europeans don’t consider table tennis to be a casual game; it’s a serious sport. Father Wlad had brought his personal racket when he came to Iraq. I had to use whatever the MWR happened to have on hand, which wasn’t as good as the equipment I used at home. Not only that, Wlad was left-handed, which presented a different set of dynamics to the game. This could get ugly.

We took about ten minutes to warm up, batting the ball back and forth to get a feel for each other’s style of play. News spread quickly that the two chaplains were playing ping pong: Catholic versus Protestant, Polish versus American, Lefty versus Righty. By the time we began the first game, an audience of about twenty-five people had gathered to witness this international, interdenominational slugfest. They shouted, egged us on, and groaned or cheered with every shot and every miss.

The first player to 21 wins, but he has to win by at least two points. Father Wlad won the first game with a score of 21–10. It took me that long to figure him out—and to remember the coaching I had received as an 18-year-old freshman at San Diego State. An encounter with my cousin, Elmer, flashed into my mind.

Elmer, who was eight years older than I, invited me to have dinner with him and his wife, and while we were eating, he asked, “Do you play ping pong?”

“Sure.”

“Are you any good?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty good. Why?”

“Well, I just bought a new ping pong table, but I’ve never played. S’pose you could teach me? Maybe show me a few things after dinner?”

“Sure. I’d be glad to.”

After eating, we went out to the garage. I should have known as soon as we walked in that I was being set up. Brand new table, prominently placed in the center of the room. A rack on the wall held ping pong balls and paddles. Chairs for spectators along each side.

“Pick any paddle you want,” Elmer graciously offered. Then he pulled a case from the shelf and took out his personal racket that nobody else was allowed to use . . . or touch . . . ever!

“So, how do you play this game?’ he asked.

After I gave a few of the basics, we got started. We played ten games, and I never scored a point. He skunked me ten times in a row, right after I told him I was pretty good.

“OK, cousin. I know two things about you. You’re a great ping pong player and a good liar.”

After he stopped laughing, he said, “Don’t ever call it ping pong, Son. It’s table tennis. And this is not a paddle, it’s a racket.”

“OK. Where did you learn to play . . . table tennis?”

“I played in the Army, competed in the Servicemen’s Table Tennis Tournament in Germany several years, and even won the thing once.”

My cousin was a champion–a champion who apparently delighted in taking advantage of his naïve, overconfident, younger cousin. I learned later that he enjoyed pulling this prank on many of his friends.

“So Elmer, s’pose you could teach me? Maybe show me a few things?”

“Sure. I’d be glad to.”

During the next few months, he taught me how to play the game: the rules, the etiquette, technique, how to return spin with spin, keep the ball rotating the same direction, unless, of course, you decide to override the rotation of the ball with power. Never touch the table. How to serve. The thickness of the rubber on the racket. The guy knew the game inside and out, and under his tutelage, I became a much better player.

As Father Wlad started serving game two, suddenly, his serve, his spin, and his leftiness were not insurmountable. I won the second game 21–18. I also won games three, four, and five—each game by two or three points. The final game was long, going back and forth, neither of us able to get a 2-point lead for the victory until finally I beat him 32–30. We were exhausted. The Polish Catholic priest took the first game by 11 points. The American Protestant pastor took the next four games by a combined total of 10 points. So, he had more points, but I had more games. The fans cheered for both of us.

“Let’s go back to my place for drinks,” my opponent suggested.

“Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon in Iraq,” I replied.” Then, thinking that he might only have beer, I asked, “Do you have any soft drinks?”

“Come. I will take care of you.”

The Polish soldiers had built the chapel for Catholic mass and confession, but off to one side of the wooden structure, they added a large office and Father Wlad’s living quarters. While I lived in an aluminum can, my compadre had a 600-square-foot, two-room apartment, complete with running water and a refrigerator. They knew how to take care of their priest.

Wlad went straight to the fridge, pulled out a beer for himself and a Diet Dr Pepper for me, smiling as he handed it to me. “See. I told you I take care of you.”

I was impressed. Father Wlad had taken time to plan this day. The little store at Camp Echo didn’t have my favorite drink very often. I had asked the manager if he’d order some Diet Dr Pepper once in a while, and he agreed. Whenever it was in stock, I bought a 12-pack or two. Wlad had gone over to the shop a week earlier to pick some up, knowing that’s what I liked. He lit a cigarette, put his feet up, and we spent the afternoon talking like old friends getting together for drinks at a roadside café somewhere in Europe.

(This story is excerpted from chapter 12 of my book, Safest Place in Iraq.)

He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brother

I posted this about a year ago, but it was featured on CBN.org today as their daily devotion, so I wanted to play it again on my blog.

Walking along a country road, a little girl struggles under the weight of a heavy load. A passerby stops to see if she needs help, and notices that she’s carrying a rather large baby boy, not much smaller than herself, it seems.

“Don’t you get tired carrying him?”

The little girl matter-of-factly replies, “He’s na heavy; he’s mi brither.”

The story first appeared in Scotland in 1884, in a book on the Parables of Jesus. It showed up in the September 1924 Kiwanis magazine. Then in 1941, Father Edward Flanagan discovered a similar story with a picture in Ideal Magazine, and got permission to use the motto and image at Boys Town, the home for boys he founded.

The movie Boys Town came out in 1938. A 1941 sequel, titled The Men of Boys Town, included the line, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” In 1969, Bob Russell and Bobby Scott wrote a song by the same name. It became popular and was song by dozens of pop singers in the 60s and 70s. In addition, there have been numerous paintings and sculptures on the same theme.

There’s something about the story of the little girl that captivates the imagination and begs to illustrate a key theme in the Bible. In Genesis 4:9, The Lord asks Cain about Abel, and the murderer replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer implied in the scripture is simple. “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” Leviticus 19:18 instructs the people of God to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus quotes in Matthew 22:37. The apostle Paul adds in Galatians 6:2 that we are to “Carry one another’s heavy load, and by doing so, fulfill the law of Christ.”

In Victor Hugo’s timeless novel, Les Misérable, Jean Valjean is a former criminal who changes his name and his lifestyle in order to hide his past, eventually becoming the mayor of a town. But the new chief of police is the very same officer who was a guard at the prison, and is looking to re-arrest Valjean for breaking parole. One day, one of the men in town is trapped under the heavy weight of a horse-drawn wagon, and nobody is able to get him out from underneath. Then, while Javert, the police inspector, is watching, the mayor hefts the weight of the wagon, lifting it off the ground high enough for others to pull the man to safety.

The officer remembers a time when a prisoner had done something similar in the prison, and wonders if this is the same man. Knowing what’s at stake, Valjean risks his identity and his freedom in order to help the man.

Carrying one another’s burden is the essence of loving someone in the name of the Lord, loving someone enough to lighten the load, loving someone enough to risk everything in order to offer a helping hand.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10 has a similar motif. In this story, several righteous people see the injured man, but they don’t stop to help him. The one who provides the desperately needed assistance is an outsider, a despised Samaritan, someone you’d least expect to offer help. But he does stop, and he does help. In fact, he pays the innkeeper to care for the man until he returns.

After telling the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” An expert in the law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”

It is this Go and Do Likewise that Jesus asks his followers to put into practice. Are we big enough to see every human being as our neighbor, and every person out there as a brother or sister? To put it into the words of the little Scottish girl, “He’s na heavy; he’s mi brither.”

Brothers

Christmas Present

If you’re wondering what to give someone for Christmas, let me suggest the book Safest Place in Iraq. The emphasis is on the presence of Christ during tough times. And that’s the meaning of Immanuel . . . God is with us.

As one reviewer wrote, “It is very clear that even in the greatest uncertainties of life, God makes a difference for those who turn to Him. Lives touched for Jesus Christ are given the opportunity to be changed for a lifetime.”

Give the gift of faith, hope, and love this year. And if you order it from this website, it’ll get there faster than ordering it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Just click on the Books menu above.

Sharing Our Faith through Friendship

This past summer, Randy Zachary of Family Radio interviewed me on his radio show. He then edited it into three audio segments and one video. You can see the video of the interview by scrolling to the bottom right of this screen. And right under the video is the first audio clip. The focus of this segment is an easy way to share our faith with others.

Randy and I were discussing my new book titled Safest Place in Iraq, and one of the points I wrote about was my philosophy of ministry. In essence, ministry follows friendship.

The audio (mp3) is about two minutes and twelve seconds long. Feel free to contact me through the Connect page above, or by leaving a comment below, and tell me what you think.

Safest Place in Iraq

Linzey-cover-v4 PreliminaryI am thrilled to announce that the book is finally ready to order. In fact, if you buy it before April 15, I will lower the price, autograph it, cover the shipping expense, and pay the sales tax for you. Plus, if you order two or more, I’ll send you the Study Guide free.

The normal list price is $16.99 at Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Amazon, and most other outlets. But if you buy it from me before April 15, you can get it for only $15.00 with no sales tax and no shipping.

There are two ways to do this. First, you may click on https://paullinzey.com/books and order it on my website using PayPal. That should automatically give me your name and mailing address. The other way is to send me a check. The mailing address is:

Paul Linzey

2161 East CR-540A, #120

Lakeland, FL 33813

The book is perfect for class room, small group discussion, or individual use. Some pastors and Bible study leaders have used it for sermon illustrations. Feel free use the Connect page to ask questions or request additional information. Or you may contact me on Facebook.

Safest Place in Iraq is already available as an e-book at several booksellers. The typical cost for the e-book is $9.99, although I saw one online bookstore offer it for $8.99. The general release of the book takes place in September. Until then, you can get the print version only from me.

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The Power of Forgiveness

It’s crucial that you understand the power of forgiveness. When you forgive, you release yourself and the other person from the pain and wrongs of your joint past. But forgiveness doesn’t happen quickly. According to Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes, it happens slowly, with a little understanding, and sometimes with some confusion, because it has to sort out the anger and the injustice. When forgiveness has finished its work, however, both the forgiver and the offender have been renewed, transformed, and set free from the pain of the past.

Sometimes, you have to forgive the person you’re still in relationship with because there’s been unfaithfulness, a betrayal, neglect, or abuse. This is hard, but with God’s help, and sometimes the help of a good pastor, counselor, or friend, you can be successful at putting the past behind you and moving forward in a fresh start.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean there will be no scars. You carry the consequences of pain long after the hurting stops and the forgiveness is complete. The Christian singing group Point of Grace has a song that talks about the impact of the ugliness, pain, and shame of the past, which are often followed by scars that remain for a lifetime. Heal the Wound, written by Clint Lagerberg and Nicole Nordeman, focuses on the metaphor that even after an injury has healed, there’s often a scar that lasts a lifetime. But instead of seeing the scar as a negative, they reframe it as a reminder of how gracious the Lord was in bringing you through the struggle.

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Treasure #2: Fulfillment

There are three areas of fulfillment that will help a couple deepen their love for each other while establishing an internal foundation of joy and happiness that will carry them through life’s struggles and disappointments.

First, it’s important for couples to pursue faith and spirituality together. Research demonstrates that couples who are spiritual together have a higher marital success rate. According to Proverbs 3:5-6, the Lord will straighten the path and smooth the road for those who trust in Him. This is the same thought expressed in Isaiah 40:3-4, where the prophet talks about preparing the way for the Messiah. The crooked path shall be made straight. The lowlands shall be filled in, the mountains leveled, and the rough and bumpy ways made smooth. That’s what the Lord wants to do in your marriage, and that’s what husband and wife can do for each other.

Second, Hebrews 13:4 teaches you to honor marriage in general, and to honor your marriage in particular, especially concerning sexuality. First Peter 3:7 adds that your prayers will be hindered if you don’t honor each other.

And third, Song of Songs 5:16 says, “This is my love, and this is my friend.” Maintaining friendship in marriage is too easily ignored by many couples.

These three areas of fulfillment (Spirituality, Sexuality, Friendship) combine to bring an inner strength for you as an individual as well as for you as a couple. Your life can be pleasant, prosperous, and deeply satisfying when you get the wisdom contained in these principles. According to the scriptures, your prayers will be answered and your dreams will come true.

In other words, maybe you really can live happily ever after. Now that’s a treasure worth adding to the décor of your home!

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Having Fun Together as a Couple

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs 17:22

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Courtauld CafeThey liked each other as soon as they met, so they started dating. They did all kinds of fun things. They saw movies and went to concerts. They both liked to ski, loved the same music, and enjoyed talking about the Bible. They had fun together. They laughed often. They made life feel good for anyone who was around. It was obvious to them and their friends that they were meant to be together, so they got married. They were best friends.

After the wedding, they settled into their new life together, and the dating gradually stopped. Life got serious, and they forgot the importance of having fun together.

Almost every time I ask an engaged couple what drew them together and what they like about each other, invariably their answer is that they are best friends. They have fun together, they laugh together, and they want to be together all the time.

People are wired for fun, to enjoy life. We love to laugh, experience new things, and have adventures. We tend to gravitate toward people who are fun to be with, who want to do things we like to do. When a couple keeps on having fun together, their marriage tends to stay fresh, they continue to like each other, and they don’t have to look elsewhere for satisfaction. But when a couple stops having fun together, their marriage is headed for trouble.

Why is this the case? Simply because having fun is one of the top three major areas of fulfillment in human experience. People everywhere need spiritual fulfillment. There is a strong, almost universal desire for sexual fulfillment. And everyone needs to have fun in order to enjoy life. When you combine spirituality, sexuality, and fun, you create a life that is deeply satisfying and meaningful. When you do that in your marriage, the result is an amazing marriage and home life.

popcorn-1433326_1920Think back to the time just before you got married. Can you remember the things you did together? Who planned the dates? Where did you go? Did you have fun together?

While My wife and I were dating, we would go to a movie, spend an afternoon at a park, or go to the beach. We played miniature golf, hung out with friends, and played tennis. We played cards with her family, spent a lot of time talking, and went to church. One time, we had a midnight picnic with another couple. The event was planned by the ladies, and was a lot of fun.

After marriage, things begin to change. You finish school, look for jobs, have a few kids, get into debt, and life gets serious and heavy. It seems there’s no time or energy or interest in having fun anymore. Some couples just don’t have enough money.

It’s important, however, that you build fun into your lifestyle. You have to balance the seriousness and responsibility with lightheartedness and fun. You have to make time to play, and you need to do it together, not just with other people.

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Look What Amazon Delivered

Jeff and Barbara posted this picture on Facebook with a note that said, “Look what Amazon delivered today! We’re looking forward to reading it together. We’ve always been grateful for the wisdom you shared with us in the past. PS How do we get this autographed?”

Jeff & Barb Hall Pic Holding WisdomBuilt

My good friends and I used to work together, once upon a time, and amazingly, they STILL decided to get the book. Since they’re in Utah and I’m in Florida, we’ll figure out how to get together, go out for dinner, and do a personalized, one-on-one book signing. I love you guys, and hope you enjoy the book.

 

 

 

 

 

Stranger in Boston

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The station wagon with the third seat facing the rear pulled into Boston. My two younger brothers and I rode that seat from California to Massachusetts, watching where we’d been, rather than where we were going.

3,177 miles backwards. For a while I was dizzy, car sick, nauseous, but after a while I got used to it.

third-seatThe ’59 Dodge was a big car. It seemed like Mom and Dad, and whoever else was sitting up front with them, were in a different county. The actual dimensions of this monstrous car? Just over eighteen feet long, six-and-a-half feet wide, weighing about 4,200 pounds. The advertised top speed was 120 MPH, but I never saw my parents drive faster than 115. Mom liked to drive fast. I remember my turn to sit up front and help her “stay awake” one night driving through the Arizona desert while Dad got some sleep. It was scary.

We got about nine miles per gallon if one or two people were in the car. Seven or eight miles a gallon when all ten of us went somewhere together, like we did on this cross-country trip. Nobody had seat belts back then.

As we pulled up to a traffic light in this strange city far from home, suddenly, my dad was yelling and talking excitedly. Someone outside was shouting and talking just as fast. From way back in the third row, I tried to see what was going on. Were my dad and the stranger mad at each other? Why were they yelling? I looked out the side window of our car and saw that the driver of the car next to us had dark skin and black curly hair. Why was he yelling at my dad? And why was my dad yelling back at him?

At first, it seemed they were angry with each other. But no, they weren’t upset. Rather they were excited and happy. They were yelling for joy. But why?

As I kept on looking at the man in the car next to us, I glanced down to see the license plate on his car. We had played the license plate game all across the country: keep track of all the license plates, and see who gets the most states. There were a lot of variations to that game; you’ve probably played something similar.

Riding backwards made it easier if the cars catching up to us had front license plates, because looking backwards I could see them before my brothers and sisters in the middle seat could see them. But if we were passing the other cars, then they got to see the license plates first. The way my parents drove, nobody ever passed us, so I never won the game.

traffic-lights-686041_1920At the red light in Boston, the license plate on the car next to us looked familiar. Was it? Yes! It was orange and black, a California license plate! We hadn’t seen one of those since we left home. Was that why Dad and the other guy were hollering? Yep, sure was.

There we were, our first day in Boston. We didn’t know a single soul in the city, or in the entire state of Massachusetts. But that first traffic light we stopped at in Boston placed us right next to another human being from California. It was his first day in Boston too.

My first memory of encountering an African-American, and the thing that stuck in my mind more than anything else was the connection that he and my dad made with each other. It wasn’t age; my dad was forty-two and the other guy seemed to be younger. It wasn’t family circumstance; my dad had a wife and eight kids in the car, while the other guy was single. It wasn’t that they had similar careers; my dad was in the Navy, and the other guy worked in a factory. And it wasn’t that they looked alike; my dad was a balding white guy, and the other guy was black with a full afro.

No, the connection they made with each other was simply that they had something in common. They were both from California, and that was enough. They were both more than 3,000 miles from home, and friendless – until that moment. They found someone from home.

I often think about that experience. Why is it that people who are different despise each other? Why do people of different skin color or different nationality or different language or different gender or different religion or different political party or different socioeconomic standing hate each other? Why can’t we do what my dad and the stranger did in Boston that day in 1962?

I was seven years old when we drove into Boston. Over the past fifty-plus years, I’ve tried to focus on what I have in common with other people, instead of our differences: marriage, kids, jobs, sports, music, food, weather, fears, dreams, movies, faith, or our human-ness. There’s so much we share, it’s a shame people choose to fight over their differences.

Something powerful and amazing happens when we connect over something we have in common.

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