Just One Big Score

It hadn’t been easy for Vinnie Patterson since the plant closed. He lost his job as supervisor, which had earned him good money. The family had tightened their collective belts about as tightly as possible, trying to make ends meet. They sold the place at the Jersey shore, the second car and the 21–foot motorboat.

Vinnie went to The Salvation Army along with many of the guys from the second shift at the General Motors assembly plant in Tarrytown, New York. There he and the other laid off workers got help once a week in a food assistance program arranged by the Army and the union. At first it was a big joke.

“Hey, keep this oatmeal stuff. My kids won’t eat that. They don’t eat anything but junk food,” he would kid. By the end of the 12–week program, no one was laughing—and no one was refusing food.

Soon the unemployment ran out, as did the union insurance. Vinnie took out a second mortgage on his home, but that just bought him a little time as he slid deeper into debt. It didn’t solve his problem though, for he was without a job in a depressed market, with few skills and a wife and three kids to take care of. Despairing of ever seeing prosperity or even solvency, he contemplated jumping off the Tappan Zee Bridge into the Hudson River just across from his closed plant. That idea almost seemed possible until he remembered that he had cashed in all his insurance policies to pay the outstanding mortgage and utility bills.

Lack of work was not Vinnie’s only problem—he was a compulsive gambler. He didn’t start out that way—just a few bucks in an office football pool, cards with the guys, a couple of lottery tickets on payday or even an occasional trip to Atlantic City. He wasn’t a high roller or a big winner.

Over time he had a few good days and made some serious money, but lost it and lots of other dead presidents by trying to get that one big score. Just one big one score and he could get all his creditors off his back. He just needed that one big score and played anything and everything—horses, craps, roulette, slots—anything, just to hit it big.

But that big score never came. He was out of money, out of time and out of hope. In desperation he went to a loan shark—a dangerous idea even in a best-case scenario. Loan sharks charge exorbitant interest, and when payments are late, they take payment in broken kneecaps, fingers, arms and other body parts. Some might even get a one-way ride to the swamps of the Meadowlands in North Jersey.

So Vinnie borrowed money from an “investment counselor,” as the man called himself, since loan shark has such a negative connotation. Everyone else called him the Boss. Vinnie borrowed $100,000, putting up his house for collateral, an unwise decision since he already had two mortgages on the property that were close to default.

Armed with his big stake, Vinnie went to Atlantic City with the hope of winning enough to clear his debts and repay the loan within the 30-day time limit. After 30 days the interest rate compounded at 50 percent per day.

At first, Vinnie won and did well. He should have banked the money and gone home. But, like every other gambler, Vinnie had a system, and he was going to make a bundle— once that system started to work. He forgot that the only absolutely foolproof system is that “you can’t beat the house.” When you set out on a path to beat the odds, you might as well write a check to the casino and save yourself some time.

Vinnie lost the entire amount.

What could he do? He thought about running, but there would be goons looking for him, once the word got out that he lost the money. The Federal Witness Protection program took too much time—time Vinnie didn’t have—and Vinnie wasn’t tough enough to fight it out either. All he could do was beg and plead for time. Maybe they would only break one arm or leg instead of every bone in his body.

God’s Accounting
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (— Matthew 18:23–29).

Vinnie was escorted into the dimly lit, deeply textured, mahogany paneled office of his chief creditor, the Boss. The room had an aura of power about it, with a subtle hint of violence.

“I hear you dropped a bundle at the tables, and that your wife and kids are going out on the street. This is most disturbing news to a businessman such as myself,” the Boss said in his soft, gravelly voice as he turned to sniff at a perfect white gardenia in the buttonhole of his expensive suit. “But what is even more disturbing is your cavalier attitude concerning your outstanding obligations. I see you have no intention of repaying me. You came to me, and I gave you the money you asked for in good faith. You sought me out. I didn’t put an ad in the Yellow Pages to get your business. So what are we to do with this unfortunate situation?”

Vinnie, already sweating profusely, poured out explanations and entreaties, as well as information about his family.

“Stop, please,” the Boss interrupted. “Do not insult my intelligence. I already know you could care less what happens to your family. I would be well within my rights to take the house and toss your wife and kids out on the sidewalk. But, unlike my feelings for you, I rather like your family. They have honor and respect where you have none. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to forgive the debt. Now, get out of here before I change my mind.”

Vinnie could hardly believe his ears—forgive the debt. “Now I have more time. I can still do this and come out ahead,” he thought, as he ran for the exit past several large security people who were obviously packing firearms.

No sooner had Vinnie reached the street but he ran into Todd, a small time gambler and recreational player, who happened to owe Vinnie $50 from a lost bet on a football game.

“Hey, you rat; you lousy cheapskate— where is the money you owe me. Pay it or so help me, I’ll bust your face,” demanded Vinnie.

“I haven’t got it,” Todd stammered, “but I’m good for it and will get it to you on payday.”

“Not good enough, creep,” Vinnie shouted as he drove his heavy fi st into the smaller man’s face, breaking his nose. “Let that be a lesson to you—you stinking deadbeat!”

Unknown to Vinnie, the Boss’ men heard the altercation and dragged Vinnie back inside to see the man himself.

“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in you, treating your friend with such anger. He owed you so little. I thought you would be happy that the debt was forgiven,” said the Boss. “So concerning our prior arrangement, fuhgetaboudit. You will completely repay the loan, one way or another— and payments begin now.”

Several days later Vinnie’s wife Angela received two packages. The official looking parcel with the certified receipt contained a copy of the deed to their house, paid in full, with her name on it—along with a cashier’s check for $100,000—the full amount Vinnie had borrowed.

When she opened the other package, it held Vinnie’s car keys, wallet and lucky sneakers rolled up in newspaper—with a dead fish, for tonight Vinnie Patterson sleeps with the fishes.

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By Major A. Kenneth Wilson

Songs of the Soul: Our Refuge and Strength

The Protestant Reformation was fueled by the dynamic Scriptural truth found in Habakkuk 2:24 and restated in Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” It was not a message welcomed by the Church at the time. Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation, in 1521 was called to appear before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Worms, Germany. Threatened with excommunication if he did not renounce this teaching, Luther boldly said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” With the might of the Roman Catholic Church against him, Luther had to go into hiding to preserve his life. The words of Psalm 46 became particularly dear, ultimately leading him to write his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

The psalm begins with words of strong reassurance: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (vs. 1). The people of Israel would have thought immediately of the cities of refuge, set apart when they conquered the Promised Land. The cities were strategically placed to offer a safe haven from those seeking vengeance when one man accidentally killed another. As long as he remained in the city, he had sanctuary from those who sought to do him harm. The stronghold was a fortified position, anything from a tower to a full fortress. Here was a place where the one fleeing his attackers was safe. In saying that the Lord is ever-present, the psalm reaffirms that, as evidenced by the cities of refuge, in our distress He is easily found.

Verses 2-3 tell of a topsy turvy world. The earth gives way, the mountains drop into the sea, the waters roar and foam. The world, which seems locked steadfastly in place, suddenly vaults and twists. The sea, often menacing with its restless waves, turns aggressive as tsunami waves mount an attack on the land. Even when these events unfold, God is sovereign. When our personal world spirals out of control, God continues to rule over all and, because of that, we can proclaim with the psalmist, “we will not fear” (vs. 2).

In verses 4-7 there is a complete change of tone, like the second movement in a symphony after the tumultuous strains in the opening music. The psalmist speaks of a river that cheers the city of God. That city stands firm, though the world below is in tatters. We are told “God is within her, she will not fall” (vs. 5). Despite that, the nations continue to rage as if they could muster the forces to bring down the city of God. But no matter. “He lifts His voice, the earth melts” (vs. 6). Those who oppose God will marshal their troops, plan their strategies and boast of their ability to conquer, but they melt away like ice in the bonfire.

The rallying refrain sounds forth. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (vs. 7). It is as if, in thinking about the enemy, the psalmist could feel his pulse race and his breathing grow more labored as tension stiffened his body. But the release comes in remembering that he was not facing his enemies alone.

The reader is invited to “come and see what the Lord has done” (vs. 9). It is not only an invitation to view with the eye, but to consider and reflect from the heart. And the view is one of an apocalyptic landscape. Unredeemed humanity’s reign has come to an end. By the force of His will, God will bring peace to the Earth. “He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; The War Cry | MAY 2013 23 He burns the shields with fire” (vs. 10). The weapons of war that God’s enemies would turn against Him and which they, too, often turned on each other will be destroyed. In that day of total victory, the weapons of war will not only be useless but not worth remembering. There will be no cannons sitting in the courtyard square, no gun racks displayed on the wall. The arsenals will stand empty. Battleships will not sail the oceans nor will bombers streak across the sky.

This is not a ceasefire but a total victory. The command of the Lord goes out to friend and foe alike, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The proof has come because He has come to reclaim a rebel world. That old squatter, the devil, has been driven forever from the field. No one can stir up opposition anymore. It is a time of stillness, not the silence of a graveyard but the sweet calm of a placid lake on a summer’s day. In the stillness, in the quiet, in the utter beauty of nothing stirring, the heart confesses, “He is God.”

The Lord stands over His creation when this prophecy is fulfilled. “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (vs. 10).

Why is all this going to happen? Hear those words repeated. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (vs. 11). The Almighty is with us. The battle is over. We are safe.

Be still, my soul;
  the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross
  of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order
  and provide;
In every change He faithful
  will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best,
  thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads
  to a joyful end.

—CATHARINA VON SCHLEGEL

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By Major Allen Satterlee

Mean Uncle Green

Uncle Green was slightly grey of hair, balding, wore black plastic glasses to correct his nearsightedness, had a slight pot belly and was a bit below average in height. Nothing in his appearance distinguished him. He was easy to overlook.

One night in 1957 Uncle Green, in a drunken stupor after drinking and gambling, gunned down a man he was with. He not only shot him but reloaded his revolver and fired again to ensure that the man would not play him for a fool ever again.

Thirty years later, I was a brand new officer in The Salvation Army and in charge of a corps. I was commander of all that I could see (as long as I got permission from the divisional commander, the area commander and my wife). On the first day of my new appointment, the director of the corps community center took me on a tour of the building, showing me the gym, pool, classrooms and chapel. Along the way he introduced me to the members of the staff.

That is when I first met him. The director introduced me to three men standing together. “Lieutenant, this is Larry, Gerald, and Uncle Green.” We exchanged pleasantries and walked on as the director explained they were part of a state prison work release program.

For the next five months things went like clockwork. Sometimes the prison would drop off two guys, sometimes four, but they always delivered Uncle Green. I never had more than a casual conversation with him. He quickly faded into the background of my life, there but not there.

One Thursday afternoon my secretary said to me, “Uncle Green wants to talk with you. Can you seem him now?” It was the first time Uncle Green made any kind of request at all. He came in, sat down and nervously began to tap his fi ngers on his thighs. He finally looked up and said, “Lieutenant, my parole hearing is on Tuesday and I would like you to come and be a character guy for me.” I was stunned. I knew no more about him than Adam’s old ox. Still I said yes.

When Tuesday morning came I sat at a table with Uncle Green. The room was grey in every sense of the word. Even the light bulbs were grey. One man began to read out a lot of legalese, but I quit listening after the second sentence. The second sentence was ______ Green sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of______.

What in the world was I doing there at this hearing? I had come out of a slight sense of sympathy for an old man and, truth be told, to be able to say that I had been to a parole hearing. A murderer. This man a murderer? What would my father have thought about me testifying for the release of a murderer? My father had retired years ago from the Federal Bureau of Prisons after working there for 24 years. I imagined him thundering in protest from beyond the grave.

The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) occurred to me at that moment. Jesus told the story of a man who was robbed and beaten on his way to Jericho. A priest and a Levite passed him by and did nothing for him. It took an outcast, a Samaritan, to reach out and care for him. What role had I been playing in the life of Uncle Green? Was I like the priest and the Levite, or the Samaritan? Was Jesus going to ask me the same question that He asked His listeners? “‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 25:36–37).

After the hearing something changed in the dynamics of our relationship. We began to engage in small talk and then on matters of a deeper nature. I began to see Uncle Green not as someone to pass by on the way to more important things. Rather, he was the important thing, one who had wounded and was wounded in his life’s journey. I began to learn his life story and the challenges he faced. He became someone to seek out and share a moment with.

For the next ten years in the fall, I would go to the prison and sit with Uncle Green in the same grey room to plead his case for parole. Something had also changed in my statements on his behalf. Each year, I moved farther down the continuum from disinterested observer/Levite/Priest to Samaritan. I became someone who desperately wanted Uncle Green to be set free. I knew that murder was a terrible thing, that my father would have never understood my desire for the state to forgive Uncle Green.

But in ten years time I moved from an attitude of indifference to sympathy and finally empathy for him.

He in turn had ceased viewing me as an authority figure and trusted me as friend who desired freedom and the very best for him.

The familiar words from John 3:16 are Uncle Green’s story in a nutshell: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In coming to earth in human form, Christ helps us to see that He came not as a judge of us but as an advocate for us. He has empathy for us. He knows us in a very personal way and the things that we have thought and lived. He is not an authority figure seeking to find fault or blame in us. Rather, He sits next to us, pleading our case and seeking our freedom from the imprisonment of sin.

In seeking Uncle Green’s freedom, I found freedom from being a priest/Levite, someone uninvolved in people’s lives. I had been set free to be a Samaritan on behalf of Christ and His kingdom

But I Can Do Something

Irony is not lost on me. My husband Gene and I flew to Ethiopia to be part of a ministry team that delivered badly needed clothing and supplies to refugees, outcasts and the infirm. When we disembarked the ultra-modern airplane and entered the towns, it was as though we had stepped back in time. We were surrounded by pushcarts, beggars, donkeys, women walking bent over with huge loads on their backs, dirt roads, dogs, rundown shacks and children dressed in rags. It seemed more like an alternate universe, a fantasy, a setting for an old fable, a scene from an Old Testament story.

Woman carrying jugBut it was real, and it was now. As I handed a few new pieces of clothing to the children, they responded in worship–like praise of me, as though I had been handing out pieces of gold. Maybe a sweatshirt or a pair of jeans was more valuable to them than a chunk of shiny metal.

We walked on and I caught sight of a rundown village school. Skinny, malnourished youngsters stood quietly in a line outside. They were waiting for their daily lunch of one small bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Unlike American children with their lunchboxes filled with sandwiches, cookies, bananas and juice bottles, these Ethiopian children had no thoughts of swapping goodies with a friend. They certainly would not have complained about having discovered that their peanut butter and jelly sandwich had the wrong kind of jelly on it. They had never experienced abundance, and most likely never will.

I approached these children with a smile, not knowing if they would be receptive to me or not. To my surprise, they smiled back at me, and some even gave me a welcome hug. They didn’t care where I had come from or what color my skin was. They were just grateful to find someone who wanted to be with them … pay attention to them … possibly even help them.

So Little Yet So Much
I spent time doing what seemed like very simple activities. I showed them how to blow bubbles and it made them laugh. We spent time using markers to write on a white board. We organized a few relay races. I cheered for them as they used an old tin can to play a makeshift game of soccer.

These children knew that their only hope for a brighter future was to get some kind of education. So they loved their school. They respected their teachers. They showed appreciation for the meager lunch they were given each day. Education was the only “hope ticket” they had for escaping the misery of life in rural Ethiopia.

Later, walking through the villages, I witnessed what the children witnessed each day. Women, old before their time, squatted on a concrete slab energetically weaving brightly colored baskets they hoped to sell to tourists or to local vendors. Their fingers were bony with broken fingernails, their backs were stooped, they had few teeth, their hair was dirty and uncut, yet they worked frantically, hoping to create enough baskets to eke out something to barter with for a day’s worth of food.

Girl with cartIn the streets the younger girls and women were walking in tandem, carrying opposite ends of crudely fashioned stretchers filled with rocks they were hauling to a construction site. Although they were sweating and their palms were calloused and bloody, these girls were ever so grateful to have found work. Work of any kind meant another day of survival.

Inside the dilapidated homes, women stirred pots of beans over antiquated wood burning stoves, having no idea that natural gas or electrical outlets could make their work extremely faster and easier. Time, progress, money and development had all completely bypassed this village, yea, this entire nation. They weren’t setting goals but surviving, existing one moment to the next, resolved to a fate of tedium, poverty, abuse and invisibility.

As I mentally photographed my surroundings, I found little comfort in what I had accomplished this day. Yes, I was aware that Christ had said that even a cup of cold water given in His name was a worthy act of mercy. Yet I found myself wishing for His powers to feed 5,000 with a couple of loaves and fish. But what about the next day … and all the others thereafter?

Classroom of students in EthiopiaWhile I realized I couldn’t feed these folks the bread of nutrition, I thought that maybe I actually could share the bread of life. Maybe a few new clothes, a day filled with games, some help learning to write letters and numbers, some warm hugs and smiles … maybe a day of “giving” had shown them the love of Jesus. What these people needed more than anything was a reason for hope. It was right that we had come. Saying that a situation is hopeless, too overwhelming to have any impact on, would have been rational and logical, but it also would have been wrong.

There is no such thing as insignificant progress. Jesus didn’t restore the sight of every blind person in the world. He didn’t make all lame people walk. He didn’t cleanse every leper, raise every dead child, provide wine for every wedding or feed every crowd. Yet He was able to say, “Father, I have completed the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

I took comfort in that. I might not have been able to fix all the ailments I saw in Ethiopia, but I was able to do the work God called me to do that very day. That trip helped me learn the invaluable lesson that we don’t have to be immobilized by the extent of poverty, sin and degradation in the world. Instead, we can invest in service to Him. That’s all He asks of us. If we are willing instruments, He will provide the opportunity of service.

Go ahead. Try it. It starts by investing a smile.

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By Marylou Habecker