A Sad Story

September 27, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Life, Religion, Youth 

Last night I was watching an anime (You’re Under Arrest season 3 – the story of a traffic patrol shift in a Tokyo district) episode that featured the story of a high school girl who died while crossing the street against the light, hurrying to tell the guy that she had admired from afar of her interest.  One of the traffic police who stars in the series found her diary near the accident scene, and later learned that the boy also liked her.

This brought to mind a story from my own past, which I don’t think I’ve ever told here.  My memory of events 26 years ago is fuzzy, so some dates or events may be wrong.

In December of 1984, my youth pastor asked me to consider attending an overnight retreat for youth from the presbytery (at the time I was in Tenafly, so this was Palisades Presbytery).  At this retreat the youth were led through a program about leadership development with the purpose of meeting and evaluating each other and then in the morning – choosing the Youth Advisory Delegates to the General Assembly, Synod, and Presbytery Council.  One youth was allowed from each church; there were about 15 or 20 of us at the retreat.  At the time I was a high school junior, and recently elected to be ordained as a Deacon in late January.

At the retreat I met many wonderful people.  One of the earlier activities was taking and evaluating and understanding the Myers-Briggs Temperament Test.  This was the first of many times that I took this test, and I ended up being an INFP.  Later in the evening, some of us spent time chatting and bonding and discovered that we were all INFP’s – and I’ve since found that INFP’s tend to find each other at events like this, drawn together.

One of these INFP’s was Jessica Berg.  Jessica was a year older than me, a senior from Ridgewood, NJ.  She was an Elder serving on their session at the time.  She and I just clicked – that kind of natural friendship where you feel like you’ve been friends all of your lives.  We bonded that evening over laughter and late night discussions with others.

In the morning we had elections for the positions.  First we elected a YAD and Alternate to the General Assembly (national) meeting.  A girl from another church was chosen as the YAD, and Jessica came in second.  I remember her being devastated.  She was given the option to step aside from the Alternate position to stand for Synod YAD, but chose to stay as Alternate.  The second election was for the Synod (regional) YAD, who ended up being me.   In some ways, these months were the start of my journey that has me at Princeton Seminary today.

In January, my youth pastor arranged an overnight retreat for our youth group and the Ridgewood youth group at our church.  (I suspect some match-making here, but I could be wrong.)  We had a great evening, and I found myself being very interested in Jessica.  I had her phone number.  It took me a long time to get up the courage to call her and ask her out.  For a while it was “I’ll call tomorrow”.

Finally I decided early in the week to call and ask her out on a Wednesday evening.  Earlier in the week was out because I was busy with one thing or another (probably Stage Crew, music, or church).

Wednesday evening rolled around.  It was around 5:30pm in the evening (I think).  I was in the basement playing with the computer, when my father called me upstairs.  My youth pastor was in the kitchen, still dressed up in a suit (he lived at the Associate Pastor’s manse around the corner from our house).  He told me that Jessica had died on Tuesday, January 22, 1985.  I had read the newspaper that Wednesday, but completely missed the story at the top of the Local section with her picture.  Jessica had been driving to choir practice and was killed when her car was struck by a train at at railroad crossing.

I was numb.  I don’t think I reacted correctly to this news.  According to my memory I was not sad, not in a crying heap.  I was just quiet.

On the following Sunday, I was ordained as a Deacon.  That evening Jessica’s memorial service was held at her church.  At that age, I was not ready to handle death well (indeed, I chose to skip my grandmother’s out-of-state funeral later), and I didn’t attend – choosing to go to my own youth group instead (volleyball with the local Catholic church group).  I still regret this decision.

Ultimately I went on to attend the Synod meeting, which continued my heavy involvement in the church.  In June, the presbytery meeting was held at my church and I attended in order to see the report of the YAD who went to General Assembly, and to prepare for my attendance at Synod in June.  (Ironically, during that meeting I ended up having dinner at the table of the General Assembly Moderator.)  Also during the meeting there was a report from the presbytery folks about youth programs.  Pictures of the retreat to choose YADs were shown, including some of me and some of Jessica.  And one of me and Jessica, with her wearing a silly hat that I brought to the retreat that looked like a bear’s head.  I still have that hat.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d called sooner.  Jessica was pretty clearly on a seminary/ministry trajectory.  She planned to attend Rutgers that fall; at the time I did not know that I would start at Rutgers a year later.

About a year later when I was at Rutgers I met another member of the Ridgewood High School class of 1985.  She showed me her yearbook, and the page tribute to Jessica.  This friend from my floor at Rutgers ultimately introduced me to my wife Carolyn, right about the time that I saw the yearbook.

For a long time, every January 22nd I would remember and say a prayer for Jessica.  As the years have gone by I have forgotten a time or two.  But I’ve never forgotten her.  And to a tiny degree, she is a part of my faith journey that has led me to seminary.

Be at peace, Jessica.  You are not forgotten.

Deacon Sunday Sermon – Nudges and Shoves – 5/22/2011

Below is the sermon that I preached yesterday for Deacon Sunday at my church.  At my church, the Deacon President preaches for this service.

First Old Testament Reading:  Psalm 139:1-18
Second Old Testament Reading:  Jonah 1:1-4,7,11-12,15-2:1,2:10-3:3a

Audio:  Here

Have you ever wondered what you should be when you grow up?  Whenever you might grow up?

Have you ever wondered if you are doing today what you are supposed to be doing?

Yeah, me too.

Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak quotes a poem from May Sarton:

Now I become myself
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces ….

The journey of discovering who we are is often a long one, a winding journey, and one that has almost as many steps back as forward.  In the church, we call the destination “vocation”.

We often associate vocation with a job in the church, but vocation is so much more than that.  God gives each of us gifts, and calls each of us to a job or a role in life – a vocation – that will use those gifts in the best way.  In essence, we are called to discover who we are – who God has made us to be – and once we find it to be that person as best as we can.  You may be called to a role in the church, or perhaps another career in medicine, law, advertising, sports, or science just to name a few.

The good news is that God already knows who we are meant to be.  In the Psalm we heard this morning it says:  “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”  Some people call this God’s Plan for Us, but I believe it’s simpler than that – it’s God’s revelation of who we are.

And we’re not alone in finding out who we are.  God is present in the journey, and nudges us along the way.  Those nudges take a lot of different forms.  Most are subtle – an internal tug within ourselves to something that interests us, a thought that seems to have come from outside of our self, or the words of encouragement of a trusted friend or mentor, or an insight after reading something.  Some are more like shoves, not as subtle, taking the form of dreams or visions or hearing an actual voice – and many of the stories in the Bible take that form.  However we hear the message, God is with us, and will not let us go until we understand.  It just takes time.

Jonah heard God’s voice at the beginning of today’s scripture.  It was a little more than a nudge, but less than a shove.  The shoves came later.

Jonah was a prophet, and as such likely accustomed to transmitting the word of God to others.  In this story, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and cry out against it for God had seen the wickedness of that city.  At the time, Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, and this was a dangerous message, to be delivered to the enemy.

Jonah heard the message of God very clearly, but decided not to follow it.  And the nudge didn’t quite work in this case.  Albert Schweitzer was also nudged by God into his first career, through much subtler means.

Albert Schweitzer heard his early call through a still, small voice.  The son and grandson of preachers, Dr. Schweitzer himself chose theology and philosophy as his areas of study at the University of Strasbourg, ultimately earning a PhD at the age of 22.  One of his professors advised him to consider a teaching position in philosophy, but he chose theology as his primary focus.  In his autobiography he says, “to me preaching was an inner necessity. The opportunity to speak every Sunday to a congregation about the essential questions of life seemed to me wonderful.”  From his earliest years his call to ministry was expressed through his internal spirit – through his gifts and interests given to him at his creation.  And so he went on to succeed in his field, serving a church, leading a theological seminary, and publishing a famous work of theology.

Sometimes God speaks to us through ourselves, by giving us interest in a particular subject, or through us hearing someone else tell us what they see as our gifts.  Schweitzer heard that quiet call to ministry in his early career.

My own story of becoming my true self starts with a bit of nudging as well.

I was a lot like some of the youth in this church when I was in high school.  I was quite involved in the church, serving as a Deacon and going to Triennium, working at Camp Johnsonburg and serving in the higher levels of the Presbyterian church system.  I was also a bit of a geek, taking every computer course my high school had, playing in the band and serving on the stage crew.

I started at Rutgers feeling that I was headed one of two ways – either to a future in the ministry, or to a future working in the computer field – and I started by taking courses in both.  Then I had a bad experience on campus, and a few months later I saw a few odd things happen in my work in the greater church.  And I came to the conclusion that the church was about a small group of people trying to control the actions and beliefs of a larger group of people. As a result I quit my church roles and walked away.  I was done with the church, though not done with God.

More than 15 years later, I reconnected with the church through the camp.  One summer Sunday while volunteering, I began to form an inner question – whether or not I should be attending a church again every Sunday.  Talking with others I discovered that this was a common question, and I worked with the camp staff to develop a weekend retreat to help adults figure out whether or not to return, and if so how to find the right church for them.

Guided by what I learned at the retreat, my search process led me to Lawrenceville (with a few well-placed nudges from Alicia Pasko Morrison and Jill van den Heuvel).  That was in 2006.  Shortly after that, invitations from individuals and the congregation brought me to my work with the Deacons and with the youth.

All throughout this time I began to periodically wonder if I was in the right job.  I’d been working in Information Technology for 20 years at this point, and I began to wonder if the world of machines and concentrating on the bottom-line and career advancement was where I belonged.  My co-workers tell me that I would light up when I talked about my church work, particularly with the youth.  I starting thinking about and researching seminary.  I bought the Parker Palmer book that is referenced earlier and in the bulletin, and spent lunchtime at work reading it to try to figure out what I was feeling and hearing around vocation.  Something was beginning to change.

There are three questions that I have for you to consider today about your own journey.  The first question is this – when have you heard a nudge from God in your life?  When have you made a choice without really knowing why you did?  When has someone else said to you “You really should consider” this or that, often without knowing why they were asking the question?  Has God nudged you?  Is God nudging you today?

Sometimes God gives us a shove, because we need it.

Jonah decided to turn from God’s direction.  He hot-footed it out of town and boarded a ship to Tarshish as a passenger, directly in the opposite direction of Nineveh.

While Jonah was on the ship to Tarshish, God turned to shoves.  God caused a great storm to come up on the sea and put the ship in danger.  This storm was bad enough that it scared even the seasoned sailors on board. The crew, realizing that Jonah was the cause of their trouble, asked him what they should do to him, so that God would end the storm.  Jonah, apparently seeing that he was putting their lives in danger as well as his own, told them to throw him overboard so that the sea would become quiet for them.  Jonah understood that he had taken a course against God, and begins to show signs of a change of heart – at least as far as putting others in danger.

Finally in desperation the crew pleaded directly to God.  They asked for God’s forgiveness for what they were about to do, and then threw Jonah overboard, expecting him to drown and at that point the sea calmed.

Jonah expected to drown, in order to save the ship and the crew.  But instead, something fantastic happened.  He was swallowed up by large fish.  And scripture tells us that he lived in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

God’s shove for Jonah was very clear.  Albert Schweitzer’s shove was a little more mysterious, but just as clear to him.

One summer day in Schweitzer’s 21st year he awoke, and lying in bed he pondered his good fortune.  Before he finally arose he had reached a decision – he would pursue his passions and scholarship until he was 30, and after that he would devote himself directly to serving humanity.  The exact nature of how he would do that wasn’t yet clear, but the direction was.

Another morning eight years later he found a copy of the magazine of the Paris Missionary Society on his writing table.  He was about to put the magazine down and take up his studies when an article caught his eye – “Les besoins de la Mission du Congo” – The needs of the Congo Mission.  The article spoke of the mission of the society in the French colony of Congo – the mission that was founded by Robert and Isabelle Nassau, who were members of this church.  The author of the article expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those “on whom the Master’s eyes already rested” to a decision to offer themselves to this work, concluding “Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s Call, ‘Lord, I am coming,’ those are the people that the Church needs.”  Schweitzer’s autobiography states the working of God in his heart very simply:  “I finished the article and quietly began my work.  My search was over.”

Albert Schweitzer expressed the shove as a clear call – through the words of a magazine writer but nonetheless directed clearly at him.

For me, the shoves started in the summer of 2008 – a summer of extremes.

The high for the summer was the youth conference trip.  Our church staff and advisors led a group of youth and young adults to the Montreat Youth Conference for what was my first time at the Montreat center. The trip connected me with my prior church life in ways as subtle as listening to Sheridan singing while Rich played guitar, to ways as extraordinary as an experience that I had during a worship service that I can only call a vision.  It was made clear to me that week that while I had been considering my past church experiences and my present church experiences two separate parts of my life’s story, they were actually one journey.  I left Montreat feeling the best I’d felt in a very long time, and at the same time wondering even more whether I still fit in the corporate world that I lived in every day.

And then 10 days later, I was laid off from my job – a job that I’d held for over 13 years.  And … in one morning I was cut off from my income, from the large part of my sense of self-worth that was wrapped up in my job, and from the friends that I saw everyday.  I was isolated, spending a much larger part of my day alone at home.  I’m an introvert, but at some point being alone that much becomes too much.

To this day I’m still not sure of God’s part in my layoff.  At the time it felt very much like I was being kicked out of the nest – that I needed to get out of my old job and consider the church as a career.  Or maybe it was a little like being thrown into the sea.

For the next 18 months I searched for another Information Technology job, with no success.

In December of 2009, I interviewed for and was nearly chosen for an IT job in a non-profit organization, indirectly supporting youth.  After a few weeks I was told that another candidate was selected – that it was “this close” – and I was devastated.  I began to wonder why God had chosen to ignore my prayers, had left me standing alone.  Through my work on the Deacons and in the church, I very clearly saw God at work in other people’s lives, but not in mine.

A few days after New Years God gave me another shove.

One particular morning, I was lying in bed and suddenly had the feeling that I was standing up next to my bed.  Next to me, on my left, was this sort of orange-colored, milky, cloud – about the size of a person.  It was completely clear to me that this was God.  At the same time I got the sense of two things happening at once.

The first thing was that I was standing looking out into the world, and God was standing next to me looking into the world.  Both of us were silent but fully present to each other.  God was there for me.

The other thing that was happening at the time was a sense that I was standing looking into the world, and God was facing me … screaming and gesturing at the top of God’s lungs, gesturing wildly … and I wasn’t getting any of it.  The idea was very clear – that God wasn’t ignoring me, but that I just wasn’t hearing the message.

Through all of this I had a sense of eerie calm that I’d only felt once before – during the vision at Montreat.  It felt like all of my troubles were lifted and that all was right with the world.

And then it ended, and I was back lying in bed.

A couple of weeks later I was having a rough morning and a friend offered to have coffee.  She is a pastor in the area, and a recent graduate from Princeton Seminary.  During the conversation I talked about what was bothering me and I inexplicably found myself asking her for information and advice on attending seminary.  That started a more earnest process of discernment about seminary and a call to ministry.

So, my second question to you is:  When have you felt a shove from God?  Has God ever reached out to you to tell you something in a way that made you just Stop and take notice?  Is God shoving you today?

Throughout all of the disruptions in life, God is still with us.  God walks beside us on the journey that God has made.

God was still with Jonah even after he was thrown overboard.  After three days in the fish, Jonah was ready to talk to God.  In a poetic prayer, Jonah speaks of his distress after being thrown into the water, and how he cried out to God.  Jonah spoke of being distant from God, never again to be in God’s sight, but that God pulled him up out of the water.  Jonah prayed that he would do what he had originally vowed to do.

And at that point, God caused the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land, and Jonah again heard the voice of God telling him to go to Nineveh.  And this time, he did, proclaiming God’s word there.

And the people there responded, and in turn were spared.

Albert Schweitzer had a happy ending as well, with God’s help.

Over the next eight years Dr. Schweitzer concluded his work at the seminary and began his medical studies to become a doctor.  At the age of 38, he reached the mission at Lambarene and began his work.  In his two trips to Africa before and after World War One he re-established a clinic from the ground up that had a capacity of 200 patients.

I concentrated for the rest of last year on discerning whether or not God is calling me to seminary and the ministry.  I met with a number of people and audited a class at the seminary.  The Session of this church and the presbytery have taken me under care in the official “becoming a Presbyterian minister” process.  My wife and I have worked hard at discernment of what the changes to our life will be, and have planned for school and the future.  I will be starting my Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Seminary this summer.

And God has been with me, though at times I didn’t quite see it.  This church, particularly Jill Cifelli, Rich, some youth and some friends, supported me, as well as my friends from Facebook and Twitter.  The church and the Deacons in particular gave me a place to use my time and talents for good and I found myself choosing to work for the church to fill my time.  I also had the support of my loving wife who rode the rollercoaster with me, going through her own journey that my situation caused as I went through mine.  God was there to support me through the long dark time.

So here’s the third question – when have you felt God with you on your journey?  How have you felt God’s support during the hard times?  Who has been the face of God to you?

God is with us.  God has known each of us from the moment that we existed, and knows who we are meant to be.  God helps us along the way in ways both quiet and still, and loud and unusual.  With God’s help, each of us can find the way in God’s time to becoming the best person that we can be.

And that is good.

Amen.

Job Opening – Assoc. Pastor for Youth and Worship – Lawrenceville, NJ

March 3, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Job Search, Religion, Work, Young Adult, Youth 

My congregation has an opening for an Associate Pastor.  The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)) and is part of the Presbytery of New Brunswick.  Information on our congregation can be found at the church website and the PC(USA) statistics page for the congregation.

DISCLAIMER – my role.  I am a Deacon among my roles at the church, and I served as the Chair of the Mission Study team which completed its work prior to the creation of the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee.  I do not serve on the APNC, but have been asked by them to help advertise the position.  I will be happy to answer what questions that I can via any communications method including in person.  The APNC requests that specific questions about the position be directed to them – specifically to Thomas as listed below.

Position Description

Associate Pastor for Youth, Young Adult and Worship Ministries

The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ

CIF ID #04928.AEO

Contact: Thomas Emerick, APNC Chair: thomas744@mac.com

Fulltime Position, intended to begin September 2011
Reports to: Pastor, Head of Staff

Responsibilities include:

Youth and Young Adult:

  • Overseeing the administration and execution of programs offered to 6th to 12th graders, College students, other “college” age youth and young adults at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, aimed at spiritual and faith development.
  • Supervising the Seminary Intern for Youth Ministry (10-15 hours per week/School Year)
  • Training, equipping, coordinating and encouraging lay leaders and parents is a primary means for providing ministry to and with youth
    • Conducting regular (up to bi-monthly) leadership meetings
    • Providing staff support for Youth Ministry Council
    • Facilitating youth participation in the leadership of the program
    • Providing programs that include parents in youth ministry
    • Teaching and equipping lay teachers to provide educational experiences for youth.
    • Working closely with a Session member liaison to youth ministry
  • Planning for, and coordinating the Confirmation experience for confirmation-age youth (currently 9th grade) and Mentors.
  • In coordination with Assistant Youth Ministry Director and Seminary Intern, coordinate and provide leadership for weekend retreats, outings and events
  • In coordination with Assistant Youth Ministry Director, plan and provide opportunities for mission experiences locally, regionally, nationally and internationally for all youth, which includes Summer Mission experiences.
  • Participating in the Presbytery Youth Connection
  • Providing consistent and clear communication and publicity about all activities.
  • Developing and utilizing computer technology (e.g. website, email, etc.) in the publicity and promotion of the youth program.

Worship – Worship in a New Key:

  • Work with Head of Staff and other staff on developing and planning for all aspects of WINK, including scheduling worship leaders, preachers, planning liturgy, etc.
  • Provide primary preaching and sacramental leadership for WINK, by preaching/presiding once per month (minimum), and coordinating a rotation of other clergy to fulfill these roles.
  • Work with WINK Music Coordinator, and WINK Planning Team, on weekly planning, as well as long-term, strategic planning for WINK service.
  • Preach monthly at WINK service, and at least twice per year at traditional service.

Young Adult:

  • Maintaining significant contact with young adult members of the church who are in college, the military, in the workplace or have just graduated from college.
  • Providing programming, such as Bible Study and fellowship gatherings, for Young Adult members and non-members of the church.

General:

  • Participation in weekly staff meetings
  • At least monthly supervision with Head-of-Staff

 

Part-Time Youth Mission Trip Coordinator Wanted (Central NJ, contract)

December 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Work, Youth 

The Evangelism and Church Development Committee (ECD) of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, with the concurrence of the Educational Ministries Committee, wishes to explore the concept of supporting youth ministry programs and services for churches that are too small to afford their own youth ministry staff or to hold a mission trip on their own.  As a part of that exploration ECD would like to hold a presbytery-based mission trip for Senior High (rising 9th graders through recently graduated seniors) youth in the Summer of 2011, or to assemble such a group from small churches to join an existing trip being planned by a larger congregation.  This trip is expected to be one week long and located at a site somewhere within the US.  We are hiring a paid part-time Youth Mission Trip Coordinator to work with ECD and youth leaders in the presbytery to determine the best way to pursue such a trip and to plan, coordinate, and lead the trip and all preparatory activities.  Those interested in this position should send a resume and cover letter to Mark Smith (markrsmith@gmail.com, 609-585-1849) by December 17, 2010.  The detailed job description is attached: Presbytery of New Brunswick Youth Mission Trip Coordinator position.

Montreat Youth Conference 2009, part 2

August 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Travel, Young Adult, Youth 

Last week I attended the Montreat Youth Conference 2009 Week 5.  I served both as a Small Group Leader and as a Back-Home Leader for my church’s group.  This is the second post about the trip, and will consist of “what did I feel” and “what did or did not happen to me” during the week.  The first post consists of the “what did I do”.

First – let me get one thing out of the way.  Unlike last year, God did not choose to speak directly to me (ironic, considering that we covered the Burning Bush story).  If God talked to me this time, it was through smaller things and other people.  (And that does seem likely.)

This was a very stretchy week.

The first stretch was a little one.  This was the longest car trip that I’ve ever taken alone.  Oddly enough, all other trips of more than half of this one have been by air, or with someone.  It wasn’t a big stretch, but it’s an interesting anecdote.

The biggest stretch was leading the small group.  My small group consisted of 33 people besides myself.  In my 20 years of business and church and life, I’ve never actually led a group that big.  It went very well, and I was repeatedly affirmed during the week by both the youth and adults in the group.  I also benefited greatly from the confidence that my back-home group had in me.  There IS a lot of work involved in being a small group leader – mainly due to the prep work required.  It’s also a little hard for an introvert as you have to be “on stage” for several hours each day.  You have a badge and wristbands that identify you as conference leadership all day long, so you’re not really “off stage” unless you’re alone or in a group of other leaders (or in my case, with the back-home group).  At any rate, this went really well.  Put a check in the stretch and succeed column.

Another big stretch was Monday night’s worship service.  I agreed to serve as a prayer station during the Prayers of the People.  There were about 12 of us stationed around Anderson Auditorium.  We stood there while music played and people came up to us with personal prayer requests.  The easiest one that I got had to do with generic prayers for the broken people in the world.  The hardest were a recent personal cancer diagnosis, and a person struggling with addiction.  The Holy Spirit was clearly in my corner on this one – I was able to serve as a conduit for hurt and healing and just had to concentrate on saying the right thing.  This was a huge stretch for me.  Those who have been following my call/career/transition saga know that at one point I said that I am not the right person to be working with people going through serious issues (and that I was immediately called to do just that right after saying so).  This was another one of those moments.  Put another in the stretch and succeed column (I hope – I haven’t heard from God yet).

A third stretch was performing in the Talent Show.  Now I know that my talent (shaking a bell pepper-shaped shaker) was minor, but it was fun to be part of the show rather than the guy behind the scenes for a change.  Our young ladies and men sang so sweetly and Mike played guitar so well that we were truly amazing.  I can’t wait for Rich to edit the video.

I am grateful for the friend who took the time to listen to my troubles for a few minutes out of his very busy life on Tuesday evening, even while we were making arrangements for other stuff later in the week.

I met a lot of good friends during the week – new and old.  I HAVE to find time to go see Brian and Carol and little C sometime in their native habitat.  I knew Carol a little from the radio show (and she wasn’t there), but I got to meet Brian and find out how amazing he is.  I can immediately think of 10-12 other people that I met at Montreat that I KNOW that I want to find a way to work with again.  It was such fun working and laughing with them.

I was TIRED.  I got by with about 6 hours of sleep each night (I’m usually good for 8 hours).  As Rich told me, the Holy Spirit does get behind you and push.  I’m not sure that I’d recommend being both a Small Group and Back-Home Leader in the same week, but it truly is possible.  My only regret is that it took time away from my Back-Home group.  I think that a better way is to do two weeks and have your back-home group arrive the SECOND week, when you already have the sessions figured out.

The Montreat conference family is a little tough to join for the first time, but it’s totally worth it.  For the first few days I was a little lost in the “inside” language (“innie vs. outie” for people responsible for stuff inside vs. outside the auditorium, for example) and I felt a bit like a well-loved new foster child.  By the end of the week I felt more like a family member.

The Small Group Leaders that ate together on Sunday morning all commented on the Bacon Alarm Clock that comes with sleeping above the kitchen.  Bacon quickly became the theme for our week.  We talked about recipes containing bacon.  We talked about what people make out of bacon (the AK-47 being the most mentioned).  The official photographer had every small group yell “BACON!” when taking their picture.

One youth decided that I looked like Wallace Shawn playing Fizzini in Princess Bride (“Inconceivable!”).

I do not yet know what if any impact that this conference will have on my future.  I did get an inkling that some friends may be trying to find a way to pay me to do something for them – and if it is truly the right thing to do for them I hope that it works out.  I have learned that I can do some things that I didn’t know I could do before.  It was good to have so many positive affirmations from so many people during the week.  Here are two of my favorites from my small group:

(From the Blessings page in the booklet) “Thanks for keeping it awesome and if all else fails you can always take up the Bell Pepper professionally. -X”

I ran into one of my small group kids walking the other way in front of Anderson:
Me:  Hi, Faith!
Faith: Oh good!  You’re excited to see me!

I don’t know what the next year will bring, but next summer Montreat (and probably being a small group leader) will be on the short list of possibilities.

Montreat Youth Conference 2009 Part 1

August 4, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Travel, Young Adult, Youth 

Montreat Front GateLast week I attended the Montreat Youth Conference 2009 Week 5.  I served both as a Small Group Leader and as a Back-Home Leader for my church’s group.  This is the first post about the trip, and will consist of the “what did I do”.  The second post will consist of “what did I feel” and “what did or did not happen to me” during the week.

I started out a day ahead of my Back-Home group on Friday the 24th.  I drove 8 hours to Salem, VA and spent the night at a motel.  During the evening I did some work finishing up the choice of music for use in my small group.

The next morning I headed out and arrived at Montreat.  Upon arrival I ventured into Assembly Inn.  A staff meeting was going on so there was nobody to check me in.  Tully found me and guided me to meet Russ, one of the Small Group Leader leaders.  After some travail finding out that the Assembly dining room was closed, we headed over to the Huckleberry for lunch.

In the first hour, I met at least 5 people that I had only previously known from the Internet, including Kathryn, Anna, and Tara.  This continued for several days, with people looking at me and saying “you’re Mark, right?  From the blog?”  A social networker I am, apparently.

Montreat bracelets, cross, badgeSaturday afternoon and evening and Sunday morning consisted of Small Group Leader training.  The Omega (weeks 5 and 6) leadership came and gave us the rundown on what they’d be talking about and doing during the week.  We learned some of the games (a few by playing), and were properly trained in Sexual Misconduct policies.  We signed up for our slots assisting with the various recreation, worship and other activities during the week.  We also did a “run-through” of Monday’s small group stuff – something that was repeated for the rest of the week almost daily.  Those run-throughs gave us some idea of what to expect and what had worked and not worked during the week.

I stayed on the 3rd floor of Assembly Inn.  My Back-Home leader and I had agreed that he already had enough other leaders that I wasn’t necessary overnight, and that I’d get more sleep at Assembly.  The room was very comfortable.  At night the windows let in the cool mountain air and I had no trouble sleeping because of heat.  Our room (I shared it with a college student SGL) was above the kitchen and for the first few days I was awoken by the “Bacon Alarm Clock” at 5:30am – when the odors of breakfast wafted into the room.  (Later in the week I was so tired that I slept through this alarm.)

My back-home group arrived on Sunday afternoon and I greeted them and shared dinner with them.  For the rest of the week I had lunches and dinners with my back-home group and breakfast with the Assembly Inn crew of SGL’s, other youth groups, and other leadership.  Each night I joined devotions with my back-home group until 11:30 or midnight, then walked back to Assembly.

Then the days began.  The night before (if I was lucky, the afternoon before) I prepared the small group activities for the next day – making notes and preparing paper game pieces, newsprint sheets, or whatever was required.  I was usually able to finalize the morning Small Group session before the Keynote started at 9am, and then joined my back-home group for Keynote.   Then morning Small Group, lunch, afternoon Small Group, and then different things each day.  Monday afternoon was the special recreation event in Small Groups.  Tuesday was a little free and I made it to the run-through for Wednesday/Thursday.  Wednesday was the free afternoon and my back-home group went to Asheville for the afternoon (more later).  Thursday afternoon I was involved in recording for the God Complex Radio show AND the sound check for the Talent Show and missed the Friday run-through.  Friday afternoon was quiet, so I packed to get ready to leave Saturday.

In the evenings there was a different event each night.  Sunday evening was orientation and a recreation event.  During the Sunday rec event I prepped for Monday.  Monday’s evening event was the Disco Inferno dance party with glow-in-the-dark everything, and I was prepping for Tuesday.  On Tuesday evening I missed the “concert” by Glenis Redmond because I was chatting with a friend who was also at Montreat.  Wednesday night’s rec event was a showing of Wall-E, which was rained out and held indoors – I helped out inside for a while and then was sent to “walk around” outside as many youth were out and about.  Thursday night’s event was the “Montreat’s Got Talent” show and my back-home group participated (more later).  Friday evening’s rec event was early and was the “Hot in Here” karaoke inside and games outside – I “supervised” the bocce ball set.

Each day had a different theme.  Monday’s theme was all about how the World is on Fire – how things are broken.  It also included a discussion of safe spaces – using the “tree outside the house that we go to in case of fire” as the metaphor.  Tuesday’s theme was Baptism, and how we are called to help fix the world.  Wednesday’s theme was Communion, and we talked and identified our communion of saints as our cloud of witnesses.  Thursday was Offering, and we talked about offering ourselves as a way to fix the world.  We’d also been taking a collection of loose change in a drink bottle during small group, and on Thursday I processed with that at the beginning of worship and placed it with the offering baskets.  Friday’s theme was being sent out into the world to fight the fires, and ended with the traditional candlelight circle around Lake Susan.

On Saturday I moved out and joined my back-home group for the 12 hour drive home.  I switched off driving with Mike, one of the college students in my back-home group, and we used my vehicle as a baggage car.  Mike and I had lots of long talks and got to know each other much better, and I really enjoyed the trip.  It went by much faster than I expected and I was awake enough to finish out the drive.

The God Complex Radio show made an appearance.  A solid 2/3 of the team was all at Montreat this week – Bruce Reyes-Chow (serving as the conference Co-Director’s husband, not to mention Moderator), Brian Merritt (serving as the leader of the Work Crew), and Heather Scott (working on either Aud or A/V crew – I’m not sure which) were there along with me.  Thursday afternoon Brian and I along with Jason Meyers (a college student from my back-home group) set up inside the lobby of Anderson Auditorium and recorded some youth for use in a future God Complex program.  On Friday at lunch we set up again at Bruce’s “GA Moderator Town Hall” on the porch of the Galax House and recorded some adults.  Those recordings will now be edited and turned into a segment for a future broadcast.

I absolutely LOVED my back-home group, and they loved me.  I felt bad that my small group duties kept me away from them, but they showed a lot of care for me in making sure that I was feeling good about my experience.  I was nervous about being a small group leader, and I totally felt the support of my PCOL peeps.  The group proved to be a fairly easy group to lead and take on a trip – with the biggest problems being things like keeping the house clean.

I also LOVED my small group, and they loved me back.  They, too, were very easy to lead.  We had a great mix of personalities and ages (including the adults) and that made for a truly great group.  Everyone participated and I could clearly see many stepping out of their comfort zones.  We had two VERY deep theological discussions early in the week – moving in one discussion from a game that showed that all were part of the same team all the way to a discussion of pluralism vs. the idea that all should be Christian … in 10 minutes!  We also discovered a lot of thespian talent in the room in the skits that we did.

On Thursday, the Lawrenceville back-home group performed Jack Johnson’s “Rainbow” with Rich on rhythm guitar, Mike on solo lead guitar, me on bell pepper-shaped shaker, and several of the youth singing.  Performing before the 1200 or so Montreat folks was the largest crowd that I’ve EVER perfomed in front of, unless you count playing in the pep band or marching band at college games.  Our group was INCREDIBLE.  Even more incredible than our group was the overall talent level of the entire set of performers – EVERYBODY was good (and the acts were randomly drawn, so that’s amazing).

There were really only two downsides to the week.  First – our group may or may not have brought a cold with us, but over the course of the week many of us had a cold (me towards the end).  Second – relatives of one of the year-round residents of Montreat (NOT connected with the conference) were going around all week throwing water balloons and tennis balls at people.  Our group was hit with balloons early, and with tennis balls DURING the candlelight service around the lake.  The grandparents of the offenders (a mid-20’s man and his nephew) denied everything.  I hope that the conference center works with the town to prevent this during other conference weeks.

All in all it was a good week and a tiring week.  I almost wish that I’d stayed a second week, but I fear that I’d be all the way out of energy if I had.

Getting Ready for Montreat

July 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Young Adult, Youth 

As I’ve written previously, I’m going to the 2009 Montreat Youth Conference week 5 (or week V for other search strings).  I’m doing this on the insanity ticket by being both a Small Group Leader and Back-Home Leader.  Sleep?  What’s that?

Last night the adult leaders of the trip from my church had dinner at my house and did some planning.  We are so incredibly organized this year – mainly due to the increased organization of our Youth Director, but with an assist from leaders who after last year now have Montreat experience.  The number of youth going this year has increased almost 50%, and the enthusiasm of last year’s attendees has even produced a last minute addition.

I’m getting ready for my Small Group Leader role in my usual fashion – I’m probably over-preparing.  I’ve read the manual cover to cover several times and I’m going back and re-reading it now with an eye to logistics.  I’ve started packing, and will finish tomorrow.  I’ve gone to the church and borrowed a bunch of props for one activity, and I’m finishing my preparation (with a HUGE amount of help from my Youth Director) of music for journaling/meditative time and such.

Because I’m a Small Group Leader I have to be there a day early, which means that I start out alone Friday morning.  My group leaves Saturday morning and is spending Saturday night in Greensboro, NC.  We’ll all be together when they arrive at Montreat on Sunday and we’ll travel home together.

While I’m there the God Complex radio show will likely make a brief appearance as we record the thoughts of some youth on a question for use in a future program.  Four out of the six God Complex team members will be at Montreat at the same time next week, and hopefully we’ll all meet up at some point.

I’m a little nervous about the time commitment required for doing both the SGL and BHL jobs.  I’m hoping that I can work that out.  I know that my church’s trip leaders are being very helpful in allowing me to determine the degree to which I can participate with them.  I’m usually an 8-hour per night sleeper.  Last year (with help from the Spirit) I managed to pull it off with only 6 hours of sleep most nights – less one night.  The only problem was that I was wiped out for the drive home on Saturday, and was only able to take a 3 hour shift driving (on a 12 hour trip).  This year it’s a bit tougher in that we’ll add my vehicle to the group.  We’re working on a solution to that.  I do feel very comfortable that I can do the rest of the SGL job – it’s the same as leading my home group or serving as a leader at Camp Johnsonburg, albeit with a larger group.  The Small Group Manual lays things out in a manner that make it easy to see how leading the group will work.  I think I’m ready.

I hope to have at least a few pictures to post after the trip.

A quick update

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion, Youth 

There’s been a lot going on lately since my last post.

The job search continues.  Yesterday marked 11 months since the layoff.  I do have one possibility pending that would be a 1/2 time consulting job.

At church we’re shifting a bit to handle the resignation of our Associate Pastor which is effectively effective immediately.  This may result in some actual responsibilities for me in my role as Vice-President of the Deacons.  We’ll see.

Last week I went up to Camp Johnsonburg to serve one day as Volunteer Chaplain.  This mainly involved leading bible studies and labyrinth walks for various age groups, but I was also involved in evening vespers.  There was a really neat session with a Senior High unit.  The chaplain (Lorelei) and I were invited to a session called “Questions and Answers” and we had no idea what questions would come up.  We did our best to answer them unprepared and several stories from my life (most written here) were able to serve as at least partial answers.  The most concrete question we got I was able to answer once I was back at home (with a major assist from my Twitter followers) and get the answer back to camp before the unit went home.  I’m going to be repeating this role again later this week.

The God Complex Internet radio program continues every Monday at noon EDT, 9am PDT.  I’m serving as webmaster for the program and during the live show I coordinate the public chat room.

I’m still busily getting ready for the Montreat Youth Conference later this month (week 5 – July 26 – August 1).  I have all of the items that I need to bring as a Small Group Leader and I’m working on going through the SGL manual now with a Bible in the other hand to prepare myself.

Carolyn was gone for about 10 days out of 14 a few weeks ago working on a problem machine at her company’s California facility.  This included one 44-hour “day” on the last trip.  I think she’s mostly caught up on sleep.

New Church Roles

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Young Adult, Youth 

Yesterday has to be something of a record for me being invited to take on a new church role.  Luckily all of them are manageable and most are one-time or short-time needs.

The role that is most visible and important is that I was asked to be the Vice-President of the Deacons next year.  This in turn makes me the President of the Deacons the following year.  Now, the Vice-President has no real responsibility other than perhaps leading the deacon meeting if the President can’t be there.  I have figured out two other responsibilities, though:

  1. If the President of the Deacons for another church dies, the Vice-President attends the funeral.
  2. In the event that the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville is attacked, the Vice-President will make coffee in an undisclosed location.

The President of the Deacons does have serious responsibilities.  Those include:

  1. Working with the Associate Pastor to create the agenda for the monthly deacon meeting.
  2. Leading the monthly deacon meeting.
  3. Producing the schedule for coffee and greeting each Sunday, including tracking the changes.  This will be easy for me – I’m already sending out the reminder e-mails each week.
  4. Preaching on Deacon Sunday.  (I asked my wife if she thought I could do that, and she said “No problem.”  Then I asked if she thought I could do a full 15 minutes and she said that cutting me off would be the problem!)
  5. Serving as the deacon member of the nominating committee.

So, barring any changes, I’ll be doing the President job in the 2010-2011 year.  Of course, each position is in addition to my regular role as a deacon, the deacon ministry team that I belong to and my little job sending out the reminder e-mails.

Another job that I was asked to perform is to serve on a small team working on a particular curriculum for our Youth and Young Adult program.  That group is only expected to meet 3 times or so, so that’s not a big addition.

I was also asked to attend a meeting to talk about planning a major regional church event.  A presbytery committee is starting the process, but the group that was invited is ecumenical.  This could be interesting.  I have a little bit of awe at being invited as most of the other names on the list that I recognized are religious professionals of one form or another.

And the last one is to help with some computer issues in the Computer Lab at our church, and potentially to substitute for someone during Vacation Bible School.  I’m likely to do that if the schedule works.

As I said – except for the deacon responsibility these are all small things today, and I will likely do all of them.

Montreat Youth Conference 2009 – week 5

June 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Travel, Youth 

Some very bright news (and only somewhat related to what I mentioned in the last post) is the fact that I’m going to get to go back to the Montreat Youth Conference this summer.

With the support of my youth director at church, I decided to apply to become a Small Group Leader this year.  I got the letter yesterday telling me that I was accepted.  This is a small step outside of my comfort zone.  I was considering it last year after the conference, but decided not to apply at the time.  Now I’m in.  I loved my time at the conference last year, and my small group was one of the best parts.  I want to give back.

Through some rather unusual situations, our church group going to the conference has found itself short of one male leader.  So I’ll also be going as a Back-Home Leader.  Because we have another male leader and 2 female leaders, I will most likely be staying at Assembly Inn with the rest of the small group leaders, and doing some meals and evening Back-Home time with my church group.  If nothing else, it should get me more sleep.

I’m really impressed with how much impact the conference has had on our youth group.  100% of the youth from last year’s trip are scheduled to go again this year, and we’re adding more youth (mostly youth who are just now old enough to go) to increase the group by 50%.  I could see the difference that last year’s trip had in each youth’s life in the way that they interacted with each other and the church in the year since.  Some changes were bigger than others, but all were changed.

I’m really excited about the trip, and already annoying my wife with disjointed thoughts about it.  I really feel like it may be a make or break experience for one of my options for the future.

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