Things People Say to Hospice Chaplains

April 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Chaplaincy, Hospice, Religion, Work 

So, I’ve been working as a home hospice chaplain for about 6 months.  I visit the homes of hospice patients and provide pastoral care to patients and families.  I find the work very rewarding and a fulfillment of the call from God that I perceive.

When I talk to people (friends, family, acquaintances, people from church, etc) I often get one of a small number of responses.  Here they are in no particular order, with my answer for each.

(A post for another day is “Things Patients and Families Say to Hospice Chaplains”)

It Must be So Hard

It is sometimes.  Let’s face it – I have a near 100% death rate for my patients.  By definition my hospice patients are not expected to get better.  And I’m working with people who are emotional about the death of their loved one (or patient, for caregivers and our staff) whether they express it or not.  It is certainly an emotional charged environment.

On the other hand, one of my important roles is to help the patient and family and staff make meaning from the illness and death of their loved one (or self).  Finding the personal meaning of the event is one key to integrating the event into your continuing life (yes, even for the patient).  I have to do that every time, with every patient.  And I have to do it for myself too.  I have to be able to find the meaning for me, for my place in the system that includes the patient, their family, their caregivers, their own clergy, our staff.  I have to have a sense of why I’m there and what it means for me.

Beyond the individual patient, I have to find a meaning for doing the work in the first place.  Why do I choose to visit a dying patient or four every day?  Why do I walk into a room with strong emotions, varying dramatically from person to person?  Why do I endure anger and grief and individual baggage that causes people to mistrust clergy?  What keeps me going?  Often the answer to this meta-question is the answer to the question for each patient for me.

The answer is that this is what God has called me to and equipped me for.  I’ve been working hard for the past 8-10 years to listen for God’s call on my life.  Over and over and over I have received affirmation that chaplaincy is my call, and that hospice work and end-of-life work is my particular specialty.  And God has given me what I need to do that work – personal emotional make-up, life history, skills and gifts, training and education.

I believe that God has called me to stand in the place of shepherd for the journey to death for some of God’s sheep, and for their fellow flock members.  It’s my place to listen to them, to hear the words they say and the words they do not say and the emotions that they feel, to let them know that what they are going through is real and usually a normal reaction to the final stage of life, to pray and read scripture sometimes to help people feel the presence of God.  It’s my place to care for these people, and for them to feel that care.  Sometimes it’s my place to serve as a stand-in for God or for others so that people can release the thoughts and feelings that have been stuck in their heart and soul.

The meaning that I take from this is that they are being cared for (if not by me by someone, and always by God).  They are being guided through a time that we will all experience – not directed but guided, in the hospice time and the death and the time after death and the grief that comes in each of those times.

In my core I feel a strong need and call to help people.  The primary reward that I get from this work is feeling that they are helped, by me or by someone else.

Don’t You Get Sad?

Yes.  I do.  Not with every patient, and sometimes there’s no obvious explanation for why I get sad with one patient and not with others.

With those patients who do not cause sadness for me, it’s usually because I feel a sense of joy.  Joy that they are grieving as expected.  Joy that they are not experiencing some of the dysfunctions that death can cause, or that they are receiving the help that they need.  Joy that the patient is NOT experiencing a painful, neglectful, or premature/delayed death.  In essence, I am sometimes not sad because the death is going well.

We as chaplains (and this is also true of clergy) are expected to feel some detachment from their flock.  We are expected to suppress our emotions about a situation in order to help others with theirs.  Our own questions about death and why it comes and why God permits certain things to happen to people – we are expected to deal with our stuff on our own time so that the patients, family, etc. can deal with their experience of these same issues.  My therapist once said to me that I have a strong ability to put my emotions on the shelf (we actually talked of Tupperware in a virtual refrigerator) and get through a situation and then deal with my emotions later.  That is true, and helpful.  It works that way for my theodicy too.

Sometimes I am sad.  It comes in two flavors.  One flavor is easy to understand – I come to feel some affection for my patients and their families.  They have a big loss and I have a smaller loss that goes with it.  I will mourn their death and their grief in my own time.  The second flavor is more complicated.  Sometimes a death just comes across as wrong.  Perhaps the patient is too young (someone under 60 is a good rule of thumb, and it increases in intensity as the patient is younger.  In my hospital residency, it happened with violent deaths.  It also happens with deaths where the family is unable to reconcile their conflicts long enough to get through the patient’s death, and to make that death as peaceful and painless as possible.  I remember one hospital patient who was estranged from his children for decades because of his abuse of them as children.  His family ultimately chose not to provide comfort care, leaving him as a “Full Code” with full resuscitation required, and then left the building not to return.  That certainly looked like an intentional infliction of pain.  And the one that shook me soundly after the fact was a hospital Emergency Room death of a two-month old child.  Nobody was to blame; it was a crib death.  But it’s hard to understand why that would happen.  In all of these cases, there was something wrong with the situation, something that could be fixed but wasn’t.

So yes, it does make me sad sometimes.  And please don’t take any lack of sorrow or even signs of being pleased as a lack of care for the patient.  In hospice circles there is a sometimes-spoken concept of a “good death”.  Those I celebrate rather than mourn.

I Don’t Think I Could Do It

You might be right.  There is a very unusual set of skills and attributes necessary to do this and do it well.  (Short version: chaplains are weird, hospice chaplains exceptionally so.)  Or maybe you could do it.  If you want to talk about chaplaincy careers or training let me know.  (And if it’s still early April 2016, and you want to do this in Ocean County NJ, my company has an opening.)

You might also be in that role in your own life.  We often hear stories of people who have capabilities that they did not know about until they were called on to use them.  You may be the person who reconciles people in your family or job, or you might be that middle-kid glue that holds the family together.

Chaplains aren’t hatched.  We aren’t born with special chaplain powers.  We develop them over time.  Our birth and formation do need to include and foster certain traits and attributes.  Chaplains do need some religious connection.  But beyond that we train.  Certification as a clinical chaplain in my organization (CPSP) requires at least two units of CPE and many go for the certification that requires four units.  Some certifications require a Masters degree in something relevant (the MDiv is used as the template).  That CPE training includes experience.  So no – we aren’t born doing this.

There is a real need to be able to keep your feet and your wits and your focus in the face of strong emotions – theirs or yours.  That can be learned too.  But beyond that, maybe you could do it.  Maybe you don’t want to, and that’s fine too.  We don’t need a world full of chaplains.  We just need enough of us.

I’m Glad That Someone Is Doing This

Thank you.

No, really.  This is one of those jobs where compliments come less often.  Where we often are unable to see the effects of our work in people because it only shows after we’re gone.  Where an angry family member or patient is actually expressing emotions rather than suppressing them and that’s a victory, but we’ll never hear a thank you.  Rejection is a constant.  Some people feel funny about their lack of church attendance, or never grew up with religion, or had a bad experience in the church or with clergy – those people tell us to go away, politely or not so politely.

I’m glad that someone is doing this too.  I’m going to need it someday.  Either for myself, or for my parents, or for someone else in my life.  And I will have to resist the temptation to fix my own family and myself.  Just as a lawyer should never represent themself, and a doctor should never self-diagnose, we should not self-chaplain.  We have to be able to feel what we are experiencing when the situation comes home, and we need other chaplains for that.

There are many guides in life.  Teachers, pastors, police officers, therapists, mentors.  Hospice chaplains are a specific kind of guide in a specific situation.  All are needed.

Open Letter regarding PCUSA 2015 One Great Hour of Sharing materials

Dear Linda Valentine,

I am very concerned about the posters for the 2015 One Great Hour of Sharing campaign that were highlighted in the December 3 PNS story:  I find that these posters are quite offensive towards two groups that I minister to – those with addiction issues and people of color.

I am a Candidate for ordination and I am currently serving as the Resident Chaplain for the Capital Health hospital in Trenton, NJ.  Our hospital is an urban trauma center and is also the designated mental health in-patient crisis center for the county.  My particular floors include the trauma ICU and the in-patient mental health unit.

On both floors I work with patients suffering from addiction.  Some are victims of violence as a result of their addiction and are in the ICU.  Others are suffering from mental health issues including and related to their addiction.  Other patients are in the ICU because they have literally drunk or drugged themselves to death.

Those patients who survive and who will be released into the community generally express a desire to avoid the substance that they are addicted to.  They want to stay clean.  Those who come from a Christian background speak of needing God’s help to overcome their addiction.  I often recommend that these people connect with a church – either with the pastor or with the groups (AA, NA, Al-Anon, etc) that use the building.  On learning that I am Presbyterian, these people often express interest in getting help from a Presbyterian church.  In our area, there are many.

34323I would be horrified if any of these children of God that I spoke with walked into one of our churches and saw one of these posters.  Instead of the church providing a place of refuge for them, the church would reinforce the stigma that they already feel.  These ironic “jokes” aimed at addictions might be enough to send those church attenders with mental health issues back into the hospital.

Beyond the issue of addiction, these posters all include people of color, women, or the elderly.  I have also seen the presentation deck used by the ad agency back in September.  Only one of the five people presented was a white male, and he was middle-aged to elderly and his “drug addiction” was for a health issue.  The remaining figures were all people of color or women.  Are we really trying to imply that Asian girls have a drinking problem?  That Latino men get high?  At a glance, that’s exactly what these posters are implying.  If our aging Presbyterian audience suffers from presbyopia, the small print will never be read – those “ironic” messages will be all that people see.

specialofferings2_medium250I urge you to pull these posters from the campaign, and any other materials that use the drug addiction play on words.  I hope that an apology will be forthcoming for people with addictions and people of color.  And I hope that in light of this issue, and the 1001 New Worshiping Communities outside corporation debacle, that you will change procedures in Louisville to implement tighter program review.  It is my understanding that this campaign was presented to groups that highlighted these issues, and that their concerns were ignored.


Mark Smith
Hamilton, NJ

cc:       Marilyn Gamm, PMA
Sam Locke, Special Offerings
Terri Bate, Funds Development

A Holy Moment

December 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Chaplaincy, Religion, Work 

This has been a long week at work.  In the past six work days, I have had four CMO patients.  CMO = Comfort Measures Only.  Other sites call this AND (Allow Natural Death) or DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) or just removal of life support.  The comfort care part is when the doctors order medication that causes the patient to fail to experience their death, and eases their pain and breathing.  I will not give further information on the individual cases because that would violate the law and hospital policies.

In each of these cases, things went rather well.  The family was in agreement on taking this step, owing to the irreversible and deteriorating condition of their patient – or at least the family was able to come to agreement without acrimony.  The staff worked flawlessly to make the process peaceful, smooth, and as painless as possible for patient and family.  The patients who were Catholic received the Anointing of the Sick (aka “Last Rites”) before the process started.  Things went as well as they can.

This is not to say that these events were painless.  The families grieved and showed a number of emotions including sadness and sometimes anger.  These deaths weighed on the medical staff as well, and on me.  As I said above, it was a long week for me.

But at the same time, these moments were holy.  I’ve been at this chaplain thing for a while and I’ve watched people die and families mourn.  Sometimes there are angry moments and fights with each other or the staff or even God.  But still, there’s that moment when the patient passes from alive to not alive.  From a living creature made by God to a person-shaped collection of dying cells.  This week I was able to see the last breaths of most of the patients.  Some were obvious.  Others were notable only in that there was not another breath that followed.  But I feel like the families and I were given a gift.

We talk about the joyous moment when a baby is birthed – the magic of bringing a new life into the world.  A new child of God is born.  In my Reformed tradition, we believe that for those who will someday join the church, that birth is the moment that God recognizes them as God’s own – a baptism is not necessary for that to happen.  And we will later baptize the baby (if Christian) and officially welcome him or her into the church, taking vows ourselves to care for that child’s spiritual life.

Death is the other end of that vow.  Death becomes the moment when we are relieved of the responsibility for the spiritual life of a person and God takes over completely.  We don’t exactly know what happens next, because we haven’t been there and we can’t know.  But we believe and know that God is present in that other holy moment.

Of course, we are still responsible for our baptismal vow to the family who are still here, and they are the focus of a chaplain’s work at the end of life for a non-communicative patient.  Their needs vary widely from simple acts (providing tissues, helping to guide them through the process) to help making meaning of the event for them.  And we give to them what they need, as best we can, being the face of Christ to them.

But what about those who are not Christian?  Aside from common decency, we do these services because everyone is a part of God’s creation.  We are responsible to care for God’s creation regardless of whether or not we agree with the beliefs of the person who is a part of it.  Also, as a Reformed chaplain, I believe that those who are chosen by God are not exclusively in the church or even believers at a given moment.  Calvin teaches us that some outside of the church are chosen, while some inside are not.  We need to assume that all are chosen, and treat them appropriately.

This job is a privilege sometimes (ok, oftentimes really) even though it’s tiring and emotionally stressful.  I believe that nothing is more holy and a greater privilege than to witness to the death of someone, and to support their family through that death.  I’m so glad that I have the chance to do this work for God.

RIP Isaac the Cat (1996-2014)

October 4, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Life 


In November of 1995, we moved into our new home.  This was our first house, having lived in apartments up until this point.  We knew that the house needed more life.  So in February of 1996 we were referred to a woman whose cat had had kittens.  We were given a good reference by someone who had previously adopted from this woman.  We went to her house, and met Isaac and his litter-mate Albert.  We lost Albert in 2010.

Isaac was clearly the extrovert of the two cats.  When people would come to visit, Albert would hide and Isaac would cautiously investigate.  Later in life Isaac took to walking to the front door, sitting on the floor directly in front of a visitor, and meowing sharply.  This always resulted in the pet he clearly deserved.  He was also an instant celebrity when he greeted children on Halloween at the door or sitting in the window.  (“That cat MOVED!”)  Isaac was also the most willing to play.  We remember Isaac’s ability to jump 4-5 feet in the air after the laser pointer on a wall, the ability to bat paper balls out of the air with deadly accuracy, and the ability to hold a single meow longer than any opera singer.  He was also a good and loyal snuggler, and would make it clear when he required you to provide his personal favorite spot next to you.Both cats were gentle, never using claws on people’s skin.  They didn’t often claw at the furniture much once they were trained.  They NEVER bit a person, instead hissing or very rarely growling when mishandled.

Isaac lived to 18 years and 10 months.  That’s about the equivalent of a 90-year-old human.  He purred for us almost every day of that long life, including this morning.  A few years ago he developed arthritis in his hips, and kidney trouble.  Recently, all of that deteriorated quickly – he had pain in all joints and could only walk a few feet, couldn’t use the litter box, and had stopped eating.  He had dropped from an all-time high of 18 pounds (a little chubby, but he was sleek at 15 pounds much of his life) to 10.

Isaac is survived by his owners Mark and Carolyn, and predeceased by his brother Albert.  He will be greatly missed.


Capital Health Systems Pastoral Care Newsletter, October 2014

September 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Chaplaincy, Religion, Uncategorized, Work 

Here is the October 2014 edition of the Capital Health Systems Pastoral Care Newsletter.  It mentions my arrival, and includes a reflection that I wrote.



For Everyone Born – a problematic hymn

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.  I went to the first new PC(USA) hymnal launch event in Pennsylvania last fall, and I’ve heard this hymn sung MANY times – at Field Ed, at General Assembly, at Princeton Seminary many times in chapel, at the Worship and Music conference.  This hymn is quickly becoming a favorite of churches and seminaries.

It’s catchy.  It’s easy to sing.  It has a central message of unity, though it stumbles with some equality concepts.  The refrain is really pretty and mentions all sorts of good things.

But it has a problem.  Several problems really, but I’m going to concentrate on one.  This problem has been pointed out to me by several friends.

Recently I’ve been noticing a pattern among my friends – primarily my female friends and close relatives.  I’m becoming increasingly alarmed at how many have been abused – usually physically or sexually.  It’s not that far from the truth to say that all adult women that I know well enough to have heard such stories have experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse.  Or controlling behavior.  ALL of them.  Some more than once.  I’m alarmed, and trying to figure out what to do with the anger.

For these friends (and certainly others), verse 4 of For Everyone Born is a problem.  Here’s the verse:

For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live,
(Copyright 1998, Hope Publishing)

At a first glance it seems pretty benign – that abuser and abused should be able to participate in the church and Eucharist equally.  We truly believe that.  It’s not really a problem.

But then you read it again.  And you notice that the injunctions are all against the abused.  The abused has a need to forgive.  (What does the abuser have to forgive?)  The abused is called to have a mindset of mercy.

And worst of all – the abused is expected to be at the same table as the abuser.  THIS is psychologically damaging for everybody that has talked to me about this.  The idea of sitting at a table, a Holy Table, with one’s abuser is painful.  It causes panic attacks.  It causes anger.  One friend felt a call to walk out of a service in the middle of the hymn (though she didn’t).  This verse of this hymn turns our sanctuaries from places of safety to places of danger.  Danger in the triggering of abuse victims, and danger in the very real implication of sharing space with their abuser.

This becomes even more insidious when the abuser is a family member or significant other.  People who have suffered abuse have it repeated again through family pressures.  Family members urge or even demand that they reconcile with their abuser (often without knowledge of the abuse) “for the good of the family.”  The abused person becomes the problem in that they split the family, rather than having the responsibility for the split properly lodged with the abuser.  Some people continue years later to have nightmares about the abuser and the abuse, and this demand in this hymn can bring up all of that again.

The refrain calls on us to create justice, compassion and peace:

and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!

I question whether any of these are possible when calling for abuser and abused to be in the same place.  The abused will not feel justice.  They will not feel compassion – they will feel the opposite.  They clearly will not feel peace, or joy.

I doubt that the hymn’s author intended to make this statement.  Still, the verse remains imbalanced.  Some call for repentance and reparation might balance it.  But perhaps it would be better just to leave it out.  When this hymn was sung as the Class Hymn at my Princeton Seminary graduation last May I chose not to sing this verse.  I almost sat down for the verse, but I was in a place where that would have been difficult and nobody would have understood what I was doing anyway.

So if you want to use this hymn, please consider skipping verse 4.  Or consider skipping the hymn entirely – there are other hymns that say the same thing without triggering the many (many more than you realize) victims of abuse.  Or at least know that you may have some work to do after it is sung.

General Assembly, Border Patrol, and Me

June 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Miscellaneous, Religion, Travel 

This week I’m attending the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit.  At this meeting, many big and important things are being worked on and voted on and I’ll probably write about that later.  This is a story of something that happened to me during this week, unrelated to the GA meeting.

Because Detroit is only one river away from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I brought my passport with me in case I had a chance to go to Canada for the first time.  Yesterday, I had that chance.  So two friends and I got into my car to go to Windsor for dinner.

Leaving the US through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel we were briefly stopped by CBP (Customs and Border Protection) folks, probably because there is a little unrepaired body damage to my car.  They looked at our passports and asked why we were crossing and let us go.  Note that these guys looked like they were in army uniforms, with flak vests.

On the Canadian side we drove up to the booth and spoke to a man in a regular linen uniform shirt.  We explained who we are and why we were there.  And 15 feet later we were there.  We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, walked around a bit, and headed back.  Total time in Canada – about 2 hours.

Entering the US we pulled up to a booth.  We handed our passports to the man in the booth, and answered the same questions (are you US citizens?  Where do you live?  Why are you in Detroit?  Why did you go to Canada?  How do you know each other?  What kind of conference?).  Our first sign of trouble was when he closed the booth door and picked up the phone.  After a conversation and a lot of looking at his computer screen, he opened the door.  He said something like, “I’m going to have to send you inside this time.  Mr. Smith – you have a mismatch and we’ll fix it so that you don’t have to do this again.  Please pull around the curve and into the parking lot – there will be someone there to direct you.”

This was not unexpected.  On several background checks (seminary, Red Cross) I was initially declined because there is a criminal in another state who shares my first name, middle initial, last name, AND exact date of birth including year.  I’m sure that was the problem here.

We pulled around the corner, and more guys in military-style uniforms and flak vests.  One told me where to park and asked me to turn the engine off and put the keys on the dashboard.  We were told to leave our cell phones in the car, and to take our passports and go into the building.  We entered and another officer looked at our paperwork and signed us in on a clipboard.  We were instructed to have a seat and wait.  After a while, we were called to a counter where we gave another officer our passports and answered all of the same questions again.  We were told to sit again.  During all of the sitting time (on surprisingly comfortable stainless steel benches) we chatted about the General Assembly and church stories.  Finally, the officer asked us to come up and take our passports and we were free to go.  I asked if he’d done what he needed to do, and he said, yes – that’s what I’ve been doing.

We got into my car, noted that nothing had happened to my car (no search or anything – phone was still on the same screen), and drove back to the hotel.

So …. something that only happens to me.  Most recent in a long series of such things.


But …. it triggered some thoughts.

1.  I don’t know why our border patrol officers have to be dressed like they are going to war in Iraq.  The bulletproof vest doesn’t need to be on the outside – it can be under the shirt like most police officers.  Their gun, cuffs, radio, etc can go on the same belt as a police officer.  I seriously doubt that a major armed incursion is going to happen at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.  This seems to be intended to enforce (in our minds, and in the minds of the officers themselves) the idea that the officers are soldiers and not police.  This is intended to instill fear of outsiders, and fear of each other.

2.  The secondary inspection area is intended to demoralize people.  The seating is comfortable, but harsh stainless steel.  There is very little on the walls.  The bathroom is locked and must be buzzed open.  I understand that the bathroom is locked to prevent flushing of evidence, but still.  This doesn’t say “we have to sort things out,” it says instead, “you are a criminal.”

3.  I’m struck by the difference in appearance and demeanor between the Canadian personnel and the USA personnel.  The Canadians were friendly (though still wary) and welcoming.  The USA personnel were forbidding and suspicious.  They were doing the same job.  Both involved in the same wars.  And there’s no reason that our officers couldn’t be normally dressed and more friendly.

4.  This minor episode has clarified for me the plight of immigrants.  The song “Immigration Man” makes sense.  Our process is cold and unfeeling.  At all times the officers were polite and even friendly in one case.  But the process and design make it an unfriendly process.  This set up causes the fear, rather than the other way around.  And therefore fear of the other.  I will be paying more attention and trying to find a place to find action.

Charge to the Candidate

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, I was moved from Inquirer to Candidate in the ordination process.  This moves me closer to ordination, sometime starting a year from now.  I am also pleased to announce that I will be serving as a Resident Chaplain at Capital Health System hospitals in Hopewell and Trenton, NJ from September 2014 to September 2015.

My Session Liaison, Gooitzen van der Wal (pronounced HOYT-zen), delivered the Charge to me.  It was lovely, and therefore I post it here:

I am Gooitzen van der Wal, Mark’s session liaison for the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.

Mark, I have witnessed your growing sense of call to ministry starting from the time you joined our church in 2006. You quickly became active in our church, including work with our “Green Team,” with hospitality ministry, and youth ministry. When you came back from Montreat serving as a youth advisor you were so excited! You wanted to switch from your IT job to ministry in the church. Shortly after that you were laid off. You then became even more involved and served as president of the Board of Deacons, were our communion coordinator and our webmaster. But the biggest transformation we have seen in you is during your CPE Chaplaincy at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJH), bringing Gods love in serving the sick and terminally ill, and their families, and your ministry of almost two years at the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church (WAPC), where you further developed your skills in serving God by serving people in that congregation. You built strong connections in pastoral care and helping others in that church develop the skills in pastoral care in that community.

I charge you, Mark Smith, to continue your personal sense of God’s call to the ministry of His people. This coming year you will bring your ministry in Chaplaincy at Capital Health. Bringing the Love of Christ through the pastoral care of the sick, terminally ill, and their families is where you feel your call the strongest.

I charge you to continue your pastoral care in small group settings as you demonstrated in our church, and at Watchung Avenue PC, ministering to people of all ages. I highly commend your open understanding and compassion for people with different ethnic and personal backgrounds.

I charge you to seek opportunities to preach, translating your faith in Christ and your understanding of the Word of God, to real world settings, as you have done so well at Watchung Avenue Pres Church.

I trust that you will continue to be involved in the Presbyterian Church as an organization. Your great respect and detailed knowledge of the Presbyterian polity is recognized and much appreciated.

We at PCOL are eager to support you in your growth path as a servant of Christ. We will prayerfully and faithfully continue our covenant relationship with your on your path to ordination.

Lastly, I want to commend your relationship with your wife Carolyn, the faith you share, and her dedication to support you in Gods ministry to His people.


Sermon on John 20

Mark Smith and Chris Bailey, Interns
Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church
April 27, 2014 10am

Psalm 16
John 20:19-31
Sermon Audio: Click Here

MARK: It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Well, a crazy couple of years really, but the last few weeks have been crazier than most.

I’ve been with The Boss from the early days. I was one of the twelve that he started with. And I’ll be honest – I’ve always been pretty fired up for this new thing. This whole idea about the meek inheriting God’s Kingdom, about faith in God, about faith in Jesus. It’s all good.

Just a couple weeks ago, before Passover, we heard that Lazarus had died. Lazarus had been pretty good to us in the past. But still this was a scary thing – the people tried to stone Jesus the last time we were there. We barely made it out with our skins. And now Lazarus was dead. The Boss even told us that Lazarus was dead – he always knew things that we just didn’t know. He could be pretty confusing. But when The Boss said that we were going back to wake him up, I was all for it. I told The Boss that I was ready to go back to Jerusalem and die. And I was. But then, I had him with me. And he was the Messiah, he could protect me, right? So back we went, and he really did it! Four days dead and Lazarus came out all zombie-like with the wrappings still on him! Boy did I believe in The Boss that day!

CHRIS: When dealing with the loss of a loved one, we often try to look back and remember the things we loved most about them, and the time we spent together. After my own father passed away, I found a great deal of comfort in remembering the shared love of the outdoors that he first sparked within me during the time we spent together in Boy Scouts. In the same way, I remembered when I was even younger, and we would watch reruns of Batman featuring Adam West while I sat upon his shoulders. By taking the time to look back at the time my dad and I spent together, I was able to secure into memory the things that made my dad into a person I both loved and respected.

I imagine that Thomas and the other disciples did something similar after the death of Jesus. After all, a person they both loved and respected died dramatically in front of their very eyes. In order to relieve some of the shock they must have felt, it would have only been natural to try and remember the things about Jesus Christ that had caused the disciples to follow him in the first place…

MARK: This last time, before we lost him, he started saying weird things. He started talking about going where we can’t follow, and gave us new commandments. To love God – OK, that’s alright. We were already doing that. To love one another too – this was a little strange. Did he mean just us disciples? The twelve? Or did he mean everybody? That’s kind of hard, loving everybody.

And then he washed our feet. Him, the Messiah, did for us what a common servant would usually do. We should have been doing it for him! And then he told us about a place that he was getting ready for us, but didn’t tell us where. I asked him about it, but he got all mystical again: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And knowing the Father and stuff like that.

He spoke for a while, telling us what he wanted us to know. And then we went to the garden. They came to arrest him. I thought for sure this was where the Big Battle was going to start – where our Messiah would release us from this bondage to the Romans, to the corrupt Jewish leaders. But he rebuked Peter for using his sword. And then he was led away. And it got worse after that. He was flogged, forced to carry his cross through the streets, and ultimately killed on the Cross. What kind of Messiah would lose? What kind of Messiah would die? We saw him die up there on the cross. And we were scared out of our wits. Were we next?

The Boss, the guy who had raised Lazarus from the dead was gone. Dead himself. He didn’t save himself. He didn’t stop his arrest, or even let us fight. I used to believe, but how can you believe that he’s the Son of God if he could lose like this? How can you have faith when something so bad happens?

CHRIS: For the disciples, it was the compassion that Jesus showed to the poor and marginalized that drew them toward Jesus. As the messiah, Christ had healed the blind and disabled. They had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. In doing so, Jesus turned social structures upside down, and drew those who had been pushed to the margins toward the center of the community. The disciples were drawn the Christ as an individual who pushed boundaries of what it meant, and what it looked like to be faithful toward God. Yet, it was also this overt concern for the poor and the questioning of the status quo of faith that eventually lead to Jesus’ death. Through his life and work, Jesus had pushed this Romanized Hebrew community to examine itself. AnddDisliking what it saw in itself, the community pushed back upon Jesus, and took his life. Jesus offered a drastically new worldview, and it was rejected. The very thing that had initially drawn the disciples toward Jesus ultimately became the thing that took Jesus from them.

MARK: So about a week ago, the other disciples got so excited. They said they saw Jesus again. They told me that they were meeting in the upper room with the door locked, just like we’ve had to do since The Boss was killed. They said that there were holes in his hands and feet, and a big one in his side where the soldier had speared him. They said he breathed on them, and they felt the Holy Spirit.

I wasn’t there. I was off taking care of business for the rest of the group. And I gotta be honest. I’m not really sure what happened. Were they drunk? Were they so tired of being afraid, so tired of being cooped up that they saw what they wanted to see?

The old Jesus, the one who raised Lazarus, the one who healed and knew things and walked on water – THAT Jesus I could see coming back. That’s the Jesus that I knew before, the Jesus that I decided to follow, that I was willing to die for.

But the Jesus who was killed on the cross? The one who decided not to fight. The one who meekly went off to be killed. How could he come back? How could he let us down like that? How could he change the way the world works, make it better, if he couldn’t even save himself?

I’m not even sure what I would need to see in order to believe this. I might have to see the holes myself. To touch them, and to know that there isn’t a trick.

CHRIS: Honestly, I don’t know that we can really blame Thomas for disbelieving the other disciples. The experience of watching Jesus upon the cross must have been traumatic, and the images of which would have been painfully seared into Thomas’ memory. For Thomas, the Jesus that he saw hung upon the cross would have been drastically different than the image of Jesus that he had built from the experiences they had shared together. Placed in the same situation, I am sure that I would have doubted just the same as Thomas. Even having seen Jesus heal Lazarus, the death that Christ suffered was exceptionally brutal. In this story, Thomas is often portrayed as a bit of a fool, but if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, I think we would find ourselves to be more like Thomas than the blessed one who believes without having seen. To a certain extent, I believe doubt is an integral part of faith. Asking questions and doubting, at the very least, suggests that we are willing to engage and examine our own faith. Through his life, Jesus pushed those around him to examine their faith. By caring about the poor and marginalized, Christ pushed the religious community to ask how their current faith allowed them to overlook those who had been pushed to the margins. In this sense, it becomes important to remember that when we approach God with our questions and doubts we are still approaching God, and God remains present with us even in our doubting. We should not feel foolish in reaching out to God with our doubt. When our doubt becomes so strong that we feel unable to approach, we should take comfort in the fact that God is still present and willing to reach out to us.

MARK: Wow! A week has gone by, and everything is different!

He really did come back! He appeared in the middle of a locked house! And though I hadn’t even told the other disciples, he knew that I had trouble believing. He reached out to me, and told me to feel his hands and his side!

He knew that I had lost my faith, and he helped me get it back! He knows, of course he knows, that believing is the only way to the Father, and so he was willing to reach out to me specifically to help my unbelief.

I get it now. I really didn’t before. But now I see. It’s like he had to die and come back, or the whole thing wouldn’t have made any sense. It’s like he knew that from the beginning. And now I know, at least as well as I can. And now the hard part comes – explaining it to people who didn’t see it. Helping them to believe too.


An Open Letter to the Mayor and Council of Tenafly NJ

December 27, 2013

Dear Mayor Rustin and Council,

I don’t usually write letters like this.  But when I discovered this story from WPIX today, I felt compelled to write.

I am a former resident of Tenafly.  I lived about five blocks away from this Joyce Road home.  I walked by this street every day on the way to or from the Middle and High Schools.  My father was the principal of TMS for a number of years, and I am a 1986 graduate of THS.

The Tenafly shown by Mayor Rustin’s actions is not the Tenafly that I remember.

When I lived there, the town was made up of a mix of Christian and Jewish residents, with some other religions represented.  For the most part we coexisted peacefully.  We went to each others’ Confirmation and Bar/Bat Mitzvah services.  We shared each others’ Hanukkah and Christmas toys.  While I was there, the high school performed both Brigadoon (loosely based on Christianity) and The Diary of Anne Frank.  I remember seeing Christmas decorations and a large menorah at Huyler Park.

I fail to see what is so offensive about candles in paper bags.  They are not overtly religious.  They do not directly pertain to any holiday.  They are simply pretty.  They were clearly not intended to offend, or even to send a religious message.

The “War on Christmas” idea is very much overblown in the media.  There is no war on Christmas in this country, where any religious holiday may be freely celebrated without fear of persecution or imprisonment.  But your actions fuel those who believe that there is such a war.  Your actions increase the divisions between religions in this country.

I urge you to apologize to the Alvator family, and to modify the relevant ordinance to allow for holiday displays.  I hope that you will work together to help create tolerance in a town divided.

Mark Smith


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