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.)

The Ukrainian Stranger

My first Sunday at the FOB in Iraq was Palm Sunday, one week before Easter 2007. Eight people showed up for church that morning: a civilian I called Pastor James, four American soldiers who had been meeting with him faithfully for the past year, my Chaplain Assistant, one new guy, and me. It was easy to see that the soldiers respected James. He had been there for them, and they loved him. My sermon was based on Mark chapter eleven, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” We finished worship having communion together, Pastor James and me side-by-side.

After I thanked everyone for coming and was about to dismiss the small group, a stranger in a Ukrainian army uniform walked into the chapel unannounced and proclaimed, “I have something to say.”

He had an excellent command of English vocabulary, but with a heavy accent. He was an attractive, friendly man, about 6′ 2″ with short hair, heavy eyebrows, and green eyes.

“I am not a Christian. Several months ago, I started having problems with my eyes. I went to the doctors here in our medical clinic. They told me I had an incurable eye condition. They brought in a specialist who confirmed the diagnosis. He said there was nothing they could do for me. No treatment. No medicine. No surgery. He said my eyes would gradually get worse until I was totally blind. Last Sunday I came here and asked the men if they would pray for me.” He pointed to James and said, “That man put his hands on my head and prayed. These other guys put their hands on me and prayed too.”

“The next day, last Monday, I could see better, so I went back to the clinic. The doctors did the same tests all over again. This time, they said I don’t have that disease. I have been back to the clinic to see the doctors almost every day this week. Your God healed me. I am not going to lose my eyes. I am so happy. How can I become a Christian?”

You could hear the sounds of surprise and amazement from the small congregation, especially from Pastor James and the men who had prayed with him the previous Sunday. In simple terms, I explained who Jesus was and what it meant to receive him as Lord and Savior.

I wasn’t a part of the miracle of healing that he experienced the previous week. Pastor James and the others had prayed for him. But on my first Sunday at Camp Echo, I had the privilege of praying with this man, a captain in the Ukrainian army, as he asked Jesus to come into his heart. The feeling among our little group was incredible.

The Ukrainian brother came alive. Every time I saw him, whether walking down the street, sitting in the DFAC, or attending a staff meeting, he hugged me, told me how thankful he was that Jesus healed him and saved him. And then he’d say, “We have to tell people about Jesus. They have to know him.”

The rest of the story may be read in the book Safest Place in Iraq. You may click the Books tab above or order it through any bookstore.

Snatched by Goodness

On October 31, I preached in the Naval Academy chapel. The scripture of the day was Hebrews 9:11-14, where Jesus is introduced as “High Priest of the Good Things.” The sermon title was “Snatched by Goodness,” and I told a couple of stories of my life being spared by someone who literally snatched me by the collar. Then I asked one of the men of the chapel to tell of a personal experience he had as a Naval Aviator. Ed Grunwald’s story is a powerful testimony of the goodness of God in answer to prayer in a desperate situation.

Ed called me yesterday to tell me another story. He graduated from the Naval Academy with the class of 1950, and has been a member of the USNA protestant congregation since retiring from the Navy. For the past twenty-five years, he has been praying for an opportunity to tell his story to the congregation.

I had no idea all that was going on when I felt the leading of the Lord to have him share his story. I had met him when I visited him in his home a few weeks earlier, and as I was preparing the sermon, I just had an inclination to ask him.

God is good. Jesus is the “High Priest of the Good Things.” And it’s wonderful to hear about how people’s lives have been touched by goodness.

If you click on the YouTube link, you can view and listen to the whole service. My message begins at 29:45. Ed’s story starts at 35:15 and runs about eleven minutes.

Should I Give This to a Friend?

I got this email through my website yesterday:

Hi,  Paul. A friend loaned me a copy of your book and I read it. I enjoyed it, so I bought a couple of copies. My pastors wants to read it. Here’s my question: I have a friend who served in Iraq some time ago, maybe 15 years ago or more. He did lose some friends and saw action that had casualties. Do you think this book would be appropriate to offer for him to read? Would it bring some perspective or healing? Or take him back to relive the horrors of war? I would appreciate your input.

And here’s what I wrote back to him:

Hello, friend. Great to get your email. Thank you. I think the book would be a good thing for your friend to read. While it mentions some of the painful stuff and the danger, it also shows how some of us processed the PTSD and got better. The Lord is a huge part of that, and I think it could be helpful for your friend. I’ve had a chance to talk with other veterans who went through some pretty horrible experiences, and they told me it was helpful. So go ahead and share it with him, and tell him he’s welcome to give me a call or an email if he wants to talk about his experiences over there.

The man’s pastor wants to read the book, which leads me to say this: Anyone looking for a book to use for a book group, a Bible study, or a home group discussion might consider using Safest Place in Iraq. There are discussion questions in the back. Plus, there’s a separate study guide. Consider using it in your group or at your church.

Recommendation for Safest Place in Iraq

I pray that all of you are doing well after a week of glorifying God during Holy Week.  As I compose this email, I have a lingering awe over the profound power of Jesus’ resurrection . . . how that day changed everything for everybody for all of history and all of eternity . . . how it changes you and me every time we bow our heads in prayer!  God is so good!

Here is a recently released book by a chaplain:

“Safest Place in Iraq: Experiencing God During War” by Chaplain Paul Linzey, is an excellent resource for chaplains, as they consider how they might handle combat ministry.  Great vignettes throughout.  Honest and inspiring.  It’s widely available and costs about $20 in paperback.  It is published by Morgan James Faith.

From Rev. Jim Denley, Retired Navy Captain, now the military chaplain endorser of the Assemblies of God. The book may be purchased on this website, from the publisher, or ordered from any bookstore.

Mandatory Reading

I just finished reading your book and wanted to thank you for taking the time to write it. It brought back many similar memories of my time as a chaplain. When I retired from the Army, I became the endorser for the National Association of Evangelicals. If I was still in that position, I would make your book mandatory reading for any chaplain candidate and junior chaplain. It was excellent. Thanks for being transparent and honest about your own struggles and for showing your willingness to work with and encourage other faith traditions. Job well done! Keep writing and ministering. I wish I had something like it when I was a young chaplain.

Chaplain (Colonel) Paul Vicalvi, was the Commandant of the Army Chaplain Center and School, and then the Chaplain Endorser for the National Association of Evangelicals. After reading my book, Safest Place in Iraq, he sent me this note and gave me permission to share it.

Leadership Podcast Interview

Dr. Richard Blackaby, of Blackaby Ministries International, recently interviewed me for his Leadership Podcast. The conversation is about 35 minutes long, and covers diverse topics such as what it’s like to be at war, responding to temptation, the power of prayer, the importance of unity in marriage, being an effective witness for Christ, why some people consider suicide, and effective leadership and influence. You can listen to the interview by scrolling to the bottom right of this screen.

Richard and I were discussing my new book, Safest Place in Iraq, where, I mention the impact that Dr. Blackaby’s devotional book Experiencing God Day By Day had on me while I was in Iraq, specifically how the Lord used one particular reading on May 8 to prepare me for an amazing encounter with one of our Iraqi interpreters.

You can hear this story by listening to the recorded podcast. And you can read many more stories in the book, Safest Place in Iraq, which is available on this website or at any bookstore.

Safest Place in Iraq is a collection of inspiring stories showing what God was doing in some people’s lives during the war in Iraq. It’s perfect for individual reading, small group, discussion, or even in a classroom setting.

Feel free to contact me through the Connect page above, or by leaving a comment below, and tell me what you think.

Fourth Man in the Fire

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. The third audio clip is the shortest, and is titled the Fourth Man in the Fire. The focus of this segment is on being true to your faith and to the Lord, because wherever you are and whatever is going on, the Lord will be there with you .

Randy and I were discussing my new book titled Safest Place in Iraq. Towards the end of the book, I mention that Camp Echo was about 73 miles from the old city of Babylon where Daniel was thrown into the pit of lions, and where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were tossed into the flames.

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

Counting the Cost

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 second audio clip. The focus of this segment is on counting the cost of being a follower of Jesus.

Randy and I were discussing my new book titled Safest Place in Iraq, and one of the stories I wrote about was an encounter I had with an Iraqi gentlemen who served as an interpreter with our Army. When he became a Christian, he knew his life was in danger.

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

Chapter One Excerpt: Safest Place in Iraq

Heat, danger, dust, and death formed the context for the job I was sent to do. Operating from the philosophy that “ministry follows friendship,” I built relationships among the men and women at Camp Echo: military, civilian, American, and Coalition. This allowed me to be there when they were at their best and when they were at their worst, in their strongest moments and in their weakest.

In the heat of the battle and the heat of the desert, hours turn into days, which transition to nights, and add up to weeks and then months. The conditions wear you down, leaving an imprint on your mind and your soul: images that will be seen in dreams for months or years, sounds that reverberate long after you’re home, people you befriended and cared about and stared at death with, but will probably never hear from again. For many of us, it’s only memory now. But for others, the war continues … on the inside. (From chapter one of the new book, Safest Place in Iraq).

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