My Experience as a Second-Career Student at Princeton Seminary, part 2

May 26, 2013 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

This post is a continuation of post 1 from yesterday.  I recommend that you read that post first.

2.  I feel like I don’t know as much as others.   If your first degree wasn’t in Religion or Theology or something along those lines, then you will enter seminary knowing less than some of your classmates.  Some of them will take the option to test out of classes like Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, or Systematic Theology based on their undergraduate work.  Others will in essence take those classes over again.  In your first year, it will be common for you to hear terms in class that you have never heard, but that others around you understand completely.

DON’T panic.  You can catch up.  Google is your friend – most of the names and terms that you will hear are easily defined online.  I remember the first time in Old Testament class that I was taking notes, and an unfamiliar name came up.  I looked puzzled, and a young friend leaned over and wrote the correct spelling of the name on my notes.  It was a great help.  One staff member who was herself a second-career student at PTS told me the story of how she heard the term “hermeneutics” and wrote in a paper about the theologian “Herman Neutics”.

DO get help from others.  The professors and teaching assistants understand and are usually willing to help you catch up.  Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament class is not intended as a “weed out” class – the professors truly want you to get through and do your best.  The same goes for the language classes.  Your fellow classmates will also be willing to help – both the young and the old.

DO know that the situation will reverse itself later.  In your second and third years, the classes shift from those with a flood of information in huge lectures to classes that require more thinking and discussion in smaller settings.  Your life experience and work experience will be of benefit to you.  You may be taking preaching and have to write a funeral sermon, and some of your classmates may have never attended a single funeral.  You may take a speech class where you learn to say the Words of Institution for Communion, and your years of hearing them said over and over will greatly help you memorize.  In a pastoral care class you may be called upon to role play a situation that you’ve experienced, while your younger classmates have not.  At this point, your willingness to share your life and experience will help them.

Also, you have undoubtedly worked in the world, and the same practical work skills (organization, time management, self-direction) will be of great benefit as you learn how to study again.  The seminary degree is one where doing all of the assigned work is impossible – you have to figure out what readings must be read, and how to skim them, and how to write.  It’s likely that you’ve done that in your career.

3. I feel like I’m missing out on things.  This is particularly true if you live off campus.  A lot of the community building that happens takes place in the evenings, in the dorms, and between the apartments.  If you come on campus for classes, bring your lunch and eat alone, and then go home you will miss out on community.  This can also happen if you live in the dorms or apartments.

There are a few ways to fix this.

DO eat lunch at the dining hall every day that you can, even if you bring your own lunch.  A lot of the social structure of the campus gets built in the dining hall.  DO join groups of people that you don’t know periodically.  DO meet friends of friends – some of my strongest friendships can come from those connections.

DO come back to the main campus at night for events and organizations and special worship services.  Some of the neatest things that happen at seminary happen outside of the classroom.  I participate in the handbell choir that meets every Wednesday for rehearsal, and that time of the week feeds me.  Others attend worship services with groups or participate in other organizations.

DO socialize with classmates of every age outside of class.  Outside of lunch, too.

Now, this may sound like you have to be a social butterfly, maximum participation extrovert.  That’s not true at all.  You know when you need to study, and you know when you need to take time for yourself.  I’m a fairly strong introvert, and I manage this.  One thing that I learned the hard way (by almost burning out) is that seminary forms all sides of you – the academic, the spiritual, the social, the practical.  You won’t make it if you concentrate on homework and reading.  Sometimes you have to make the decision that right now, this minute, it’s more important for me to connect with other people than to keep up in a specific class.  And you have to listen for the working of the Holy Spirit in those moments.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is to sit in the dining hall hoping that someone will sit and distract you from work.  Because those conversations turn out more often than you’d think to be important moments in your formation.

4. A few last thoughts.

Attend chapel.  It’s worth it.  And the preacher is often a senior.  Someday you will be that senior, and want others to attend your service.

The schedule isn’t set up for those who work.  It’s just not – that’s not their priority.  Even if you construct the perfect schedule that balances your classes and work and whatever outside life needs there are, it’s not going to work every week.  Shoot, the schedule isn’t even set up for those who have Field Ed (except for Wednesday afternoon), and that’s a requirement.  Here’s the thing – ministry isn’t on a perfect schedule either.  You have to learn to be flexible, and to build resources into your life to compensate for those unexpected emergencies.

Ask for help when you need it – with schoolwork, with mental health, in spiritual crisis, when your car breaks down.  There’s an aura at Princeton that seems to require us to act as though we have our stuff together all of the time.  The truth is the total opposite – nobody has their stuff together all of the time, and it’s rare that any person has all of their stuff together at the same time.  The school is starting to work on breaking down this need for apparent perfection.  What that means for us is that we need to work on it from the other side.  Let your dirty laundry show some, let people know that you need help, and offer help to others.  I hear from others that this is an issue unique to Princeton.  Let’s fix it.

Have fun.  It’s not possible to study and work and pray and such all of the time.  Be sure to take time out to enjoy yourself and recharge your batteries.  A 20-minute power nap helps many people to work for several more hours.  It’s the same with fun – a fun afternoon helps you to work all weekend to finish a paper.  All work and no play makes you a terrible minister.

 

Last – if you are planning to attend Princeton or considering it, please feel free to contact me with questions.  If you will be there for the 2013-14 year (my senior year), please find me and we’ll chat.  I live in the area and expect to do so after graduation, so I’ll be around.

 

My Experience as a Second-Career Student at Princeton Seminary, part 1

May 25, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

I’m a senior at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I’m also a second-career student – my first career was in the Information Technology field for 20 years.  I live off campus at my home near the seminary.  This makes me unusual at PTS.  I’m an odd duck, but this duck has learned to swim.  Hopefully other ducks can learn from my experiences.

This seminary is really set up to provide a residential experience.  The dormitories are surrounding the quad and are near the classroom and other buildings.  The apartment housing is separated from the main campus by several miles, but forms a community of its own.  PTS has intentionally created a residential community where people will interact outside of class as well as inside.  Living off campus I miss some of that.  A duck in another pond, as it were, visiting occasionally.

The student population is overwhelmingly in their twenties.  There is a small but significant percentage of people who are older – anywhere from thirties through sixties – but for the most part the students either came straight from college or had a couple of years between college and seminary.  In my mid-40’s, that makes me unusual.  An older duck.

Last, the seminary does not allow part-time study for the M.Div. degree.  There is limited part-time study for the M.A. degrees.  There are very few evening classes and I have yet to see one designed for Masters’ students.  The expectation is that school is your first priority.

It’s important to know that the seminary knows that it has set things up a certain way, catering to the needs of mostly-younger students who live on campus.  It’s not designed to make things harder for second-career students or to turn them away but we need to realize that we are a small population.  There are beginning to be signs that they recognize the need for part-time studies, and that the percentage of students who are older is increasing.  But so far, it’s a twentysomething full-time on-campus world.

I think that I have found my way through that.  It’s easier for me because my wife works and has a well-paying job, so I am able to attend school full-time without needing a lot of outside work.  It’s also nice to come home to a single-family house rather than a dorm room or apartment on campus.  But I miss things that happen on campus and it’s a different experience.

Here are some thoughts on what you should know and what I recommend that you do if you’re a duck like me, in order to get the fullest experience on campus.  The first thought today, another three in the next post.

One note – there is a lot of “us and them” language below.  It really doesn’t work that way most of the time at school.  It’s more like each of us is at a different place along different spectra – maturity, age, spiritual growth, academic achievement, etc.

1. They’re so YOUNG.  Yeah, they are.  It’s a bit jarring the first time that you have a conversation with someone and realize that they were born after you graduated from high school.  Some of your classmates are about the right age to be your children.  For some older students, their children are older than their classmates.  It takes some getting used to.  You will make references to things from your youth that get blank stares.  You will remember events that were just history book entries for your classmates.

You have something to learn from them.  They speak the language of younger generations, and you will someday minister to those generations.  Many of your younger peers come from college with a Religion degree, while your degree may be in something else entirely (in my case, Computer Science).  They will know things that are really useful in class that you have to catch up on.  They may have greater technological savvy than you do (though maybe not – at seminary we joke that there is no math requirement).

Even more important than that is the fact that we all grow and mature at different rates.  You will be more mature than some of your younger peers.  Some of them may be more mature than you.  All of us are on a journey of growth and discernment of vocation and theology and becoming who God calls us to be.  We are developing our pastoral identities.  We have something to learn from the younger folks, and they have something to learn from us.

So a few things to do.  DO make friends with younger folks.  Try to experience life through their eyes as well as through your own.  You will be helpful with life experience.  They will be helpful with perhaps more energy than you have, and their differing life experiences.  Spend time with them doing what they enjoy.  Introduce them to what you enjoy.  Share common enjoyment.  You’ll find that you learn as much from them as they do from you, and that this a gift to both parties.

DO make friends with the other second-career people on campus.  PTS runs a second-career group (up to 40) and a third-career group (40 and older) through the chapel office.  Take advantage of those lunches.  Find the people that you can talk to when you need to have a conversation without explaining Reagan’s presidency or the Saturday-morning cartoons that you watched when you were a kid.  Find the people who learned to learn the same way that you did so many years ago.  Find the people who share the life stage that you are in, and know what you are dealing with.

This list continues tomorrow with part 2.

Sermon – Outside the Bubble. April 28, 2013

May 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons, Work 

This sermon was preached on April 28, 2013 by Ann Elyse Hicks and Mark Smith (seminary interns) at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ.

Audio:  Sermon 2013-04-28 Acts 11 Ann Elyse Hicks and Mark Smith

New Testament Reading:  Acts 11:1-18

Ann Elyse:

Look, I understand why you would be upset. I understand why many of you are angry over what happened.  That’s why I’m here before you now. I do not want to preach or argue with you, but I do want you to hear my story; I want you to hear what happened to me in Joppa.

My story could have happened to any of us, really. It all started while I was praying. I had a vision, you see…

Mark:

Peter was one of the most important apostles.  He was the one Jesus called the rock on which the church would be built.  He was later named the first Pope.

He’d been going around, meeting with other early Christians.  He’d been performing his own miracles, healing and raising from the dead, right before this happened to him.  Now, those might have seemed fairly unusual to the average person, but to Peter they were his work – the same work that he’d seen Jesus do.

And now he’d had a vision, one that seemed strange even to him …

Ann Elyse:

I know! It sounds crazy; I know it sounds impossible. I know that you have doubts about the reality of my dream. Please, trust me a little longer. Keep listening to my story for a few more minutes. In this vision, there was a giant blanket lowered down from the sky until it rested right in front of me and on it rested every single type of animal … that I have never touched in my life. They were there, all the animals that I, that we avoided — there was pigs, lobsters, shrimp, a cobra.

And then, as if seeing all these animals was not enough to make me cringe, a voice, God’s voice, called to me, telling me to “Get up, kill, and eat.” I was revolted. I was horrified. How could God expect me to do something like this? What do you mean, what did I do? I told God no. I said that I would have nothing to do … with those unclean animals. I would keep to our traditions; they served our ancestors well, all the way back to Moses. Why should I suddenly abandon that, step outside the tradition, and try something new?

Mark:

Up until now, the apostles assumed that what had happened before Jesus died was the right thing to do.  That only Jews could be Christians.  That Christians had to keep the Jewish law, including such things as circumcision and following the rules about eating food.  It was even wrong for a Jew to associate with a Gentile in many cases.  Of course, we know that Jesus didn’t follow the rules, but then the apostles weren’t Jesus.

There were boundaries around that early Christianity.  And only Jews were able to practice it properly.  The early Christians had created a bubble around themselves, by their practices, by what they ate and how they ate it.

Sometimes we in the church can create bubbles around ourselves.  We can choose to keep things the way that they are, to keep doing things the way that we always have, because … “it’s comfortable.  It works for us.  It’s right.”  We may resist change because change is uncomfortable to us, or because we worry about what others might feel.  We might worry that a change will cause people to leave, without considering whether others stay away because of the way that we already are.

Ann Elyse:

Well, after I told God no, God responded to me. God said that all those animals on the blanket were clean, and that I must not consider them profane. This happened, this vision with the blanket from heaven happened, three times, and I can honestly say I never quite figured out what I was supposed to learn. In a way, it was God telling me that the traditions that I held dear were, in fact, harmful for the church. I could not understand it. I could not make sense of it at all.

Mark:

This was a big deal for Peter.  His dream overturned his core beliefs.  He was being told that the laws that he had learned as a child were wrong.  And not just wrong, but getting in the way of doing God’s will.  God told Peter that his creation was good, even though these parts of creation – the pigs and lobster and snakes – were things that Peter was taught were unclean and unacceptable.  God was telling Peter that he (and the rest of the Christians) needed to get out of the Jewish bubble and to talk with and eat with and spread the Word with Gentiles.

It’s hard to look at something or someone or a new idea and to fight down your fears or anxiety or assumptions.  I’d imagine that Shannan might have a hard time if she were told – by God, no less – that she needed to bless snakes on Blessing of the Pets Sunday.  It can be tough to take that risk, to make a change in the church or in the world, knowing that it could upset you, or upset someone else.  But then who are we excluding because we don’t make that change?  Are we keeping snake-lovers from the Gospel message, because we don’t like snakes?  What is the bubble here at Watchung Avenue?  Who is inside the bubble and who is outside the bubble?  Are we right about that?  And should there even be a bubble?

Ann Elyse:

While I was still praying, I was jolted back to the present by these three men shouting to me, waving their arms in greeting. They invited me to go to dinnere with them in Caesarea, and after my vision, well, I went. I felt called by the Holy Spirit to go, and not to comment on their differences. I mean, I went to dine with Gentiles, when I have never before even sat with them. I don’t know what I was thinking. I only knew that it was the right thing to do.

And the owner of the house where we went, Cornelius, he did not seem to know why I was there either. He had been convinced by the Spirit to invite me. Here we were, two strangers, united by our visions, by our call to dine together and learn together.

Mark:

Peter and the rest of the Apostles were very aware of the work of the Holy Spirit.  They had been given their gifts by the Spirit at Pentecost.  They were in turn giving the Spirit to others through the laying on of hands.  They felt the call of God through this working of the Spirit, and were quick to listen to it.

And so when Peter heard the call of the Spirit to go and visit the house of Cornelius, he went.  He went even though Cornelius was a Gentile and not a Jew.  This was against much of what he had been taught, because Jewish purity laws made interactions between Jews and Gentiles difficult – particularly the sharing of meals.

Peter would have been stressed about this.  He knows that it’s the right thing to do, and Peter tells us that he was told by the Spirit to go.  Perhaps it was something like the Spirit telling Shannan to go to the zoo, enter the snake’s cage, and eat a picnic meal.  When God tells you to do something you do it … but it can be hard.

Peter went outside of the bubble.  Cornelius went outside of his bubble, too.  It would have been very unusual for a Roman Centurion to invite a Christian to visit and eat together.

What would going outside of our bubble here mean?  What does going outside of your bubble mean to you?

Ann Elyse:

Well, after dinner, I started preaching a little bit. Y’all know how I can be.  Anyways, we were all sitting in Cornelius’s living room, and I was bringing a lovely message, when I remembered Jesus saying to us that John baptized with water but that he, Jesus, would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Do you remember that teaching?

And I realized, like a flash of lightning, that we were all baptized with the same Spirit. We had, each of us in that room, received that same gift—life in Christ. Where had my hesitation come from? How could I have ever thought that eating with Gentiles was bad, or that we could not learn from each other? How could I have ever resisted leaving my comfort zone when God called me to do exactly that? Who was I that I could hinder God?

Mark:

This was a historic moment.  Peter preached at the house, and the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his family.  Gentiles.  Non-Jews.  The faith in Jesus had been taught to someone from outside of the Jewish bubble, and they accepted it and God accepted them.

For Peter, the bubble popped.  It was gone.  There was no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female.  Jews and Gentiles together shared the uniting faith in Christ.  And remember, we are those same Gentiles.

This was the big payoff.  The chance for the apostles to do what Jesus had commanded them before ascending into Heaven – that they would be his witnesses to not just Jerusalem, not just Israel, but to all the ends of the earth.

And we as their successors are called to do the same.  We are to preach the Gospel to all.  And so the question falls to us – what bubbles have we created?  Where does our hesitation come from?  Are we hindering God’s work?

Ann Elyse:

We have a chance to move beyond what we have known. When we accept new people into the faith, we are accepting their new ideas as well.  The gospel message of Jesus is eternal. But the way that we hear and experience this message changes as we grow in the Spirit, and as the church faces new challenges in each generation. We have God to guide us, always and forever, through each and every time of change.

Mark:

And so we Praise God for the gift of the Spirit

Ann Elyse:

What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

Mark:

Make disciples of all nations.

Ann Elyse:

Get outside the bubble.

Both:

Amen.

Sermon – Where is the Church? Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

Sermon preached by Mark Smith at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ

Audio: Mark Smith Sermon 2013-02-10 Luke 9 Transfiguration Sunday

Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-43

It was a really unusual experience for Peter, John and James.  It started simply enough – Jesus took them off onto a mountain to pray.  And that wasn’t all that unusual – Jesus was known for praying in isolated places and had gone to a mountain to pray before.  He had prayed with his disciples before as well.

While he was praying, things started to happen.  Jesus’s face changed.  His clothes became a glowing white – in Greek it says that his clothes were so bright that they flashed like lightning.  Maybe these disciples knew their Jewish scriptures well enough to remember that Moses’s face had shone when Moses spoke to God.  Maybe they remembered how the sky flashed with lightning when Ezekiel saw his vision of God, or when Daniel saw the figure in his vision that was clothed in fine linen and who had a face like lightning.

And then they were joined by two figures, Moses and Elijah.  I imagine that this looked a little bit like the end Star Wars, where the deceased Jedi appeared to Luke Skywalker.  Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus and told him of his departure – of his future death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  Peter and the others saw all of this even though they were sleepy – they saw Jesus’s glory, and the return of the man who received the Law from God, and the Prophet of God.  This was a holy moment.

And then Moses and Elijah left.  Peter asked Jesus if they should build three tents – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Peter recognized them as three holy figures, heavenly figures, and wanted to create a special home for them here on earth.  The word in Greek in the scripture that I read, that read as “dwelling,” can also mean “Tabernacle.”  And the famous Tabernacle was the tent that God instructed Moses to construct to hold the Ark of the Covenant – God’s home on earth among the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness.  That Tabernacle was used until God commanded Solomon to build The Temple in Jerusalem to be God’s place.  Peter wanted to create a single place to commemorate the holy moment for these three great holy men, as if holy things happened in one place.  The text says that Peter did not know what he was saying – he reacted reflexively, mirroring what had been done before.

Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, very much like the way that a cloud covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke to God.  God spoke from the cloud.  “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  And this is a lot like the words that we heard at Jesus’s baptism.  God says that Jesus is God’s son.  And this time we are told to listen to him.

In the time of the Old Testament, from Moses until Jesus, there was one place that they might have called the church back then, and that was the Tabernacle that was carried around from place to place in Moses’s time.  In the psalm that I read it talks about God sitting enthroned on the cherubim – and that’s what the top of the Ark looked like.  If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark it looks exactly like it’s described in the Bible, and there are the two winged cherubim with their wings pointing towards the center, and that’s where the priests made their sacrifices to God, to fulfill God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Later the place of this church settled in the Temple in Jerusalem.    The church was in a building, at least a temporary building.  God’s main way of interacting with God’s people was in one place.

A day after all of these things happened on the mountain Jesus and the disciples came down, and a man came to them because his son needed healing, and Jesus healed his son.  The man didn’t need to go to The Temple in Jerusalem.  He  didn’t need to go to the top of the mountain where Moses and Elijah had appeared.  He met Jesus where the man was – at the bottom of the mountain.  He met Jesus in the world, not inside of a church building.

Jesus did most of his work in the world, rather than in a building.  He did appear in the Temple, and he appeared in the synagogue a few times, but most of his work was done outside, among the people.  He worked with people as he traveled.  He worked with people as he preached outdoors, on a hillside or a lake.  He worked with people in their homes.  He talked to and ate with and healed and helped people who couldn’t come into the Temple – those who could not walk, those who were ritually unclean, and those who worked in professions that made them less acceptable in the Temple.  Jesus did more of his ministry among those who were on the edges of society, than those who were on the inside.  He did his work in the world, rather than in a building.

Here at Watchung Avenue, we do a lot of good work inside our building.  We meet every week to praise God, to hear the scripture read, and to hear a message.  We are a community that is learning and growing and building each other up.  We do a lot of good for others in this building as well.  We serve meals to those who need them.  We collect and distribute groceries.  We offer space to Headstart and WIC and the Y.  And we share our worship space with Christo mi Rey.  We invite others in to learn and grow, as we did with the Love Free or Die movie, with diversity training, and as we will in March with the upcoming Trigger documentary on gun violence.  We do a lot of good inside our building when someone is here.  The church is where we are.

We also do a lot of good outside of our building.  Together we walked in October to raise money to fight hunger.  We have been networking with others on hurricane relief and how we might best participate.  Our youth and our adults have gone to Stony Point and other places to do mission work.  Cameron has been working outside of our building on hunger and disaster relief.  We also do a lot of good outside of our building.  The church is where we are.

And our lives are God’s work as well.  Each of us brings our Christian faith with us … to home, to work, to volunteer.  The way that we live is a reflection of Christ within us.  I worked in the corporate world for a while before starting seminary, and many times I found myself asking is this thing that I’m doing … this decision or this action … a good idea?  Is this software that I’m writing to support an advertising campaign helping people to buy things that they want, or is it just finding new ways to take money from people?  Is this report that I’m writing being used to support integrity in the business, or is it just being written to make somebody else in the company look bad?  There was simply no way to act in the world without my faith coloring my thoughts and decisions.  Sometimes I was able to push back when my faith told me that an action was not the right thing to do.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to push back, and then it hurt.  So I wonder if you’ve ever faced that – a situation at work where your values conflicted with what you’ve asked to do?  How did you handle it?  I brought my faith to my work every day.  But it’s not just me.  We create common everyday miracles of faith when we act with God in mind.  When Bob helps someone plan their financial life, Bob is reflecting his Christian faith.  His actions and decisions are colored by his faith and he brings the church with him to work.  When Pat works with residents in senior housing, she brings her faith with her, and the image of God within her shines through in the help that she gives.  She brings the church with her as well.  When Virginia goes to the Senior club, she brings her faith along, and brings the church with her in all that she does.  When Cori cares for her niece, when Andrew cares for his grandson, they bring their faith into their families and the church comes with them.  When Ryan participates in the Boy Scouts, he brings his faith and the church.  When Shelby and Chris create their art and music, they use their God-given talents to create beauty in God’s creation.  They are inspired in part by their relationship with Christ, and the church comes with them.  There are so many other examples in this congregation and everywhere, and if I tried to include all of them we’d be here for a while.  What’s important is that the church is where we are, in this building or someplace else.

So what is common to all of this?  Is it the building?  No, it’s the people.  We bring our talents, our time and our energy to the work that all of us do.  We bring the image of God that is within each of us to our service to others and our faith and our values ride along with us in everything that we do.  Is the church a building?  The church is people.  Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”  When we are in the world interacting with others, there are at least two gathered and wherever we are, Christ is.  And we bring our community with us as well.  We can draw on the resources of the church, on our fellow churchgoers, in everything that we do to help others.  We can talk through issues with our church friends – whether that’s a question about what to do at work or where to go to get people the help that they need.  And we can always show our faith to others, in the hope that our faith may help them, and perhaps may become their faith.  The church exists where we are, doing our common everyday miracles.

I’m going to ask you all a question.  This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m actually looking for an answer.

Where is the church?

“Where we are! … Where we are…we are… where we are!”

OK, not bad.  That was a little ragged.  (laughter)  Let’s try it one more time.  Where is the church?

“Where we are!”

OK, and one more time …. Where is the church?

“Where we are!”

And that is a wonderful thing.

Amen.

 

Sermon – Upside Down

October 16, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached as a part of my seminary internship at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ on Sunday, October 14, 2012.  This particular Sunday was Blessing of the Pets Sunday, and a number of dogs and a few cats attended the worship service – this will explain the bark and leash rattling and clicking nails that you hear in the background.  This was also my first sermon preached in a church other than my home church.

———————–

Audio: Mark Smith Sermon 2012-10-14

Text:  Mark 10:17-31

Jesus was getting ready to head out on a trip when something unusual happened.  A man ran up to him, and knelt at Jesus’ feet.  This man was different than most of the people who sought Jesus’ attention.  His clothes were nicer than most … he probably spoke in a way that marked him as a wealthy man.

Certainly this man had many things on his mind.  He “had many possessions” – likely this means that he owned a lot of land.  And he had the usual thoughts that go with wealth – how do I use what I have to make more for myself, to give myself security and comfort?  How much do I pay my workers?  What is the market price today?  He didn’t have to worry about paying the rent or the mortgage, or putting food on the table.

But none of these things were on his mind this day.  He asked a question – “Good Teacher – what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This man wasn’t worried about making and keeping his fortune, or paying his workers – any short-term worries.  No, he was concerned about his own personal spiritual life and living for eternity.  He was thinking for the LOOOONG term, and only about himself.

And Jesus gave him the “Christian 101” answer – obey the Commandments.  Jesus listed several of them:  do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother – all of these are commandments that speak of how we are to interact with each other.  All of them are ways to do right by each other, and therefore be pleasing to God.

The man had studied his Scripture.  “Teacher, I have kept these commandments from my youth.”  In this the man revealed that he was not the average petitioner – that he was educated in the Jewish Law and had kept that Law while growing up.

At this point, Jesus realizes that the man needs the “Advanced Christian” course – possibly even graduate level study.  It’s time for the harder part of being one of his followers.  He looked at the man, seeing him as only Jesus could. He loves the man – yes, it says that in the text – and gave him the hard words “You lack one thing.  Go and sell everything that you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then, come, follow me.”

These words were hard indeed.  This man had worked his whole life to accumulate this wealth.  And he believed that he was doing what God wanted him to do.  Several places in the Hebrew Scriptures it says that those who obey God’s commandments will be rewarded with prosperity and material wealth.  The Hebrew Scriptures also remind us many times and command us to take care of those in need and to transform unjust economic systems.  Before speaking to Jesus, he thought he was doing the right thing – that he had found things in Scripture that supported his choice to gather wealth.  Jesus saw him and knew differently – that he wasn’t following all of the scriptures, and so Jesus offered a challenge, one that was about more than the man’s own personal question.

It is important to see what he was being offered.  The language used here – “follow me” – is the same language that Jesus used earlier in calling his disciples.  The man was being offered a chance to become a disciple!  But first he must do what the other disciples have done – turn his world upside down.  He must give up his personal ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and take up the new way that Jesus offers.  He’s quite far along that path – he has already mastered the basic requirements of the Commandments.  But to be one of the first Christians, he needs to go further, and take the hard steps of personal sacrifice and re-learning the way that his faith asks him to live. (*bark from pews* – That’s one.)[1]

But he can’t.  We don’t know exactly why, but the instruction and invitation cause this man to go away, with sorrow and a fallen face.  The text says that he went away because “he had many possessions.”  We can only assume that he was unable to accept the changes that are caused by following Christ – the turning of his world upside down that comes with the belief in Jesus.

Belief in Jesus brings a lot of upside-down to our lives, and to the lives of those who knew him.  Jesus lived in a way that crossed the rules of Jewish society.  He lived according to values that were not necessarily held by the culture that he was a part of.  Jesus regularly associated with people who were not acceptable to most – tax collectors, lepers, even prostitutes.  Jesus regularly broke the rules about what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, and helped people to eat and to heal.  Taking care of those in need and showing them respect were important parts of Jesus’ teaching.

Lately I’ve been reading the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom.  This is the true story of a young man, established in his career, who goes back to Boston to visit his professor, a professor who is dying.  They meet once a week for fourteen weeks, and just talk.  One day they talked about the culture that we live in.  Morrie, who is the professor, said “People are only mean when they are threatened.  And that’s what our culture does.  That’s what our economy does.  Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them.  And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself.  You start making money a god.  It is all part of this culture.”  This is just as true today as it was in 1995 when Morrie said it, and it was true in Jesus’ time as well.  The rich man was a part of a culture like that – where most people valued wealth and power rather than doing right by each other.

Following Jesus calls us to believe and think and do things that cross the values of our own society.  While parts of society tell us that building up wealth and personal security are the most important values, our faith calls us to help those in need – those who are not doing as well – financially, physically, or spiritually.  Society tells us to imitate each other, particularly in consumption – getting the latest smart phone or television or car – while our faith calls us to love each other as we love ourselves.  Society today pushes us to think first of ourselves, then of the community, while Jesus saw everything as a communal.  What would it look like if those of us who have enough money … and maybe a little more … gave some of that to others?  What would it look like if we increased our priorities in this congregation on mission giving and mission service in our community?  What would it look like if those who have skills and free time found a way to help others with their needs?  These actions show our upside down values – values that don’t match the world around us, but do match our faith, values that show that we are committed to the community.  Consider what following those upside-down values might look like.

Millard Fuller was a self-made millionaire from Alabama, who at the age of 29 was facing physical, relational and spiritual challenges because of his success.  He was experiencing a crisis about the kind of life that he was leading.  And after doing some soul-searching, he – along with his wife – decided to recommit himself to his Christian background.  He and his wife decided to sell everything that they own, gave the money to the poor, and looked for a way to live their faith.  They went to live at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia and searched for a way to apply themselves to the problems of the world in a Christian way.  Ultimately, they focused on housing for the poor.  They felt that what the poor needed was help getting started, rather than charity, in order to build a new life for themselves.  They began working to build modest houses with no-profit, no-interest loans, and they asked the new homeowners to build “sweat equity” in their home and the homes of others in the program by working on the buildings.  In doing so, they reduced the cost of each house to something that the homeowners could afford, and also allowed the homeowners to build pride in their work, as well as strong relationships.  In 1976, this organization became Habitat for Humanity, which has now built over 500,000 homes.  Fuller is quoted as saying, “I see life as both a gift and a responsibility. My responsibility is to use what God has given me to help people[2] in need.”  Fuller heard Jesus’ call to turn his life upside down and follow him.

This example is very much like the choice that the rich man in our passage faced, and in Mr. Fuller we have a man who chose to take that other option.  While the changes that he made in his life, after a decision to align that life with the call of Jesus, helped to heal his broken soul they did so much more than that.  These changes allowed for something new to begin and grow, helping to bring about the mission of God in our world.

So this leaves us with a few questions to ponder –

What is Christ calling you to do that is at odds with the messages of the world, in a big way or in a small way?  Are you being called to leave something behind that doesn’t match your Christian values?  Are you being called to use free time or resources that you have today to do something to help others?  Can you pray for the needs of others?

How are you asked to act in a way that is upside down, and yet right?

How are you asked to act in a way that is upside down, and yet right?

May we all find a way to follow the call of Jesus in our lives, so that the community can reap the rewards that God has in store for all of us.  Amen.

– Copyright © 2012, Mark R. Smith


[1] Before the service, during Announcements, the pastor quoted something I’d said before the service in her office:  “My rule is that if you bark three times, you come up and preach the sermon.”

[2] The original quote says “his people”.

Seminarian Mark Smith Preaching

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.

10A – Relief, Joy and Fear

May 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

Last summer, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a change to the Book of Order, section G-6.0106b (or G-2.0104 in the New Form of Government).  It was sent to the presbyteries for their concurrence, requiring 87 presbyteries to approve before it would take effect.  That was labeled amendment “10A”.  This amendment changes the standards for ordination, reversing the addition in 1996 of a specific “sin” (I reject that definition) that became an absolute bar to ordination.  This change returns the Book of Order to the historic standard that ordaining bodies (Session for [Ruling] Elders and Deacons, Presbytery for Ministers [Teaching Elders]) would look at the whole character of the ordinand, judging whether or not their individual nature (which we believe to be unavoidably sinful in some manner) was good enough to lead the church.

In 1996, the Book of Order was amended to prevent ordination of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.  That version reads:

b. Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The new version that will take effect on July 10, 2011 reads:

b. Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

This returns the church to its traditional polity – having local ordaining bodies make individual decisions on individual candidates.  It should also be noted that a recent GA Permanent Judicial Commission case established a bar on the creation of lists of ordination standards to be applied to all candidates – each candidate must be considered individually.

I applaud this change.  I have felt for years and years that the discrimination and injustice and outright hostility shown by the denomination towards LGBT people has done serious harm, both to those LGBT people AND to the rest of us in the denomination.  While it wasn’t the primary trigger, this discrimination (in other forms prior to 1996) was a reason for my departure from the church in 1987.  I worked for PLGC (Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns – now knows as More Light Presbyterians) for 6 years after that as their volunteer coordinator for Presbynet, a church computer network.  The continued discrimination against LGBT people delayed my return to the church until 2006 – for a number of years I considered a return occasionally, found the discrimination still present, and set aside the impulse.  Ultimately I decided that returning was the right thing to do and that I should work as best I can to rectify the situation.  I hope that I had at least an itty-bitty tiny part in making this happen.

I have also seen the pain and anguish that the injustice has caused in the hearts of friends who turned away from their call from God, or pushed through with their call while having to hide an important part of themselves.  It’s my earnest hope that they will experience some healing.  I also hope that those who turned away from the church will come back now.

Those of us who have worked to some degree for this change experienced a number of emotions last night.  One friend tweeted that she was weeping in a room full of strangers.  Others yelled and screamed their joy.  Some were able to gather to celebrate in community.  I experienced this joy too, though I was unable to express it openly as I was in another presbytery meeting and we were considering the sad need to dissolve a dying congregation.  I am glad to hear of the joy, and I applaud the joy.  I’m glad to see it expressed – particularly by those who are most directly affected by the change.  Emotions are an important part of healing.  And I believe that this is truly a wonderful working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.

Those who fought this change – who fought for the 1996 change – are understandably upset.  Some are talking about the increased departure of members from our churches.  That’s a complex issue – some have certainly departed because they felt that the church was too progressive, but I believe that the majority of those who have left did so through apathy, disinterest, or death.  Our church is aging through the failure to retain our youngest members, and I believe that the discrimination against LGBT folks has caused our young adults to turn elsewhere.  Some of these upset folks are threatening to leave, or to carve out a corner in the denomination friendly to their beliefs alone.  Folks who are opposed to gay ordination are upset, angry and hurting.  They are children of God as much as the LGBT community that was hurt by past actions.  I believe that it’s important to remember that.  Our polity is based on communal discernment with the aid of the Spirit, and as a result will almost always have people on the “losing” side who felt quite correctly that their words and acts are guided by the Spirit.  I believe that there is power in the process of discernment itself, though it is messy and painful at times.  I am praying for those who can now be ordained as they should have been in the past, AND for those who felt that they should not be ordained.  This anger should also be expressed, but I hope that it is done in a manner that does not harm others and remembers that our “enemies” are children of God.

There is also a lot of fear.  I had a conversation with a fellow church member yesterday who calls himself “conservative”.  He expressed not a desire to leave, but the fear that others would act on their desire to leave as a result of this change.  I countered (in my reflexive style on these issues) that others had already left because of the discrimination, and others had failed to join us for that reason.  (I’m a bit sorry about that now.)  This is a very real fear.  Some will do so in a knee-jerk reaction – in many cases inflamed by those who have already said that the church has turned away from biblical standards (posted online minutes after the vote last night).

Others will leave because they believe that their presence with others who hold a different belief constitutes endorsement of that belief.  I find this to be generally true of conservatives, and generally not true for progressives.  As a friend tweeted yesterday (on a related issue):  “I think it points to the idea that conservatives see inclusion as acceptance and affirmation. libs can separate inclusion from acceptance.”  I reject the notion that inclusion implies acceptance, but then I am progressive.  Additionally, I feel very strongly called to stand between the opposing sides and communicate with both – and hopefully get them to communicate with each other.  Part of that comes from my project management training and experience (the IT vs. line-of-business divide is every bit as severe as the conservative/liberal split).  But part of that comes from a very real call that I feel to help others reconcile.  (Getting myself to reconcile with others …. let’s just say that I’m working on that.)

In the youth ministry world we are talking about a change in how people become engaged in Christian community.  The old model was “Believe -> Behave -> Belong” – that we first had to have the right beliefs, then act appropriately, and then were acceptable for full membership.  The new model is “Belong -> Behave -> Believe”.  We learn and change and grow by the process of being in community first, followed by adopting the behaviors of the community, which helps cause our belief.  It’s this process of communal shaping by rubbing against each other (stop snickering!) that is at the heart of our polity of communal, in-person discernment of God’s will for the Church.  We only see God’s will fully in community with each other.  I have said that I see God in others more often than I see God in other ways.

We will only grope our way to the Truth by staying together and working together and praying together.  And so it is my hope that we will do just that – remain together.  If it turns out that this change is wrong, God will make a correction happen.  If it turns out to be right (as I believe), then we will all see it as life unfolds.  Those who are hurting so much that they cannot remain should be allowed to depart with dignity and love.  But I truly hope that we will all stay.  It’s time for the end result of a fight during a hockey game – sharing a beer together after the game and laughing about it.

To conclude, I believe that this new day is a good day.   And I pray for all whose lives have changed in this process, for perceived good and perceived bad.  We are all part of the Church.

Life-status update

April 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

It’s been a while since I posted.  I’ll give you an update on what I’m up to.

The pre-seminary process is in full swing.  I’ve filled out all of the forms and got all of the vaccinations (an over-40 returning student missed a few that are now required for school).  After a long process of talking to current and former seminarians and professors and pastors, I chose and registered for summer Greek – a year’s worth of Greek language taught in 2 months.  So for me school starts on July 11.  I’ve also been up to the seminary a few times in the last few weeks – to attend Theologiggle, the play (The Merchant of Venice – excellent production!), and a BGLASS event.  Princeton Seminary still feels comfortable to me.  I continue to be amazed at how many people there I already know – most from non-seminary connections.

Next week I’ll be there again for most of the week for the Institute for Youth Ministry forums.  During that week I’ll be meeting with my mentor for the Youth Ministry Certificate.  I recently asked a number of folks at my church to complete a 360-degree review of me in my ministry and I’ll receive those results.

In the middle of May I’ll be attending a laid-back ministry conference.

At the end of May and early June, Carolyn and I have scheduled a pre-seminary vacation.  We figure that with Princeton Seminary’s schedule, there are very few breaks of over a week (the exceptions being Christmas and June).  So we figure we’d better take a vacation now while we can take the time and have the money.  Our goals for the vacation were to disconnect from the world, spend a lot of time with each other, and get out of our regular environment.  We’ve booked a cruise from NJ to Bermuda and back in a week.  I’m not sure that I’ll be able to handle the twitter and Internet withdrawal (ha!), but we persevere.

I’ve also had the opportunity to connect with my CPM liaisons and that process is started and continuing.

In conclusion – everything is pointed in the right direction and moving for my seminary time and the future.  The obstacles so far have mostly been minor and surmountable.

 

How I Saw It – my Testimony at the Worship in a New Key Service March 13, 2011

March 14, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Job Search, Religion, Work 

At my church, our alternative service is called Worship in a New Key.   One occasional element of this service is personal testimony by someone from the congregation about their own experience that is relevant to the scripture or sermon.  I was asked about a year ago to tell my wilderness journey story but the time didn’t feel right – my journey wasn’t far enough along.  I was asked again to speak this week, and it felt right. Below is the text and audio of my story.

Barren WildernessAudio: Mark_Smith_WINK_Testimony_2011-03-13

Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11

Today’s scripture talks about Jesus’ time in the wilderness.

Each of us at times ends up in the wilderness.  Sometimes we’re there for a short time, sometimes we’re there for a while.  We each have our own path into the wilderness, and we each have our own path out of the wilderness.

My wilderness time is recent.  Some of you know my story but for those who don’t, here’s a brief summary.  On August 12, 2008 – a few days after the mountaintop experience on the youth trip to Montreat – I was laid off from my job … suddenly and without any idea of what was coming.  For 18 months I searched for another Information Technology job with little luck in this difficult economy.  Throughout that time I periodically got a sense – louder every time – that I should be looking to attend seminary and go into ministry.  Ultimately that message got so loud that it was impossible to ignore and I will be starting my Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Seminary this fall.

But this story is about the wilderness.  And this particular wilderness was very hard.  Losing a job these days is like a quadruple edged sword.  In one shot you lose your income and your security, part of your circle of friends that you’ve seen every day, your 40+ hours a week purpose in life, and likely a huge chunk of your self-esteem. If you’re like I was, a lot of your sense of self is tied up in what you do and how you do it – and all at once you are told that that no longer desired.  Even when you’re told that it was an economic decision – for the good of the company, nothing personal – that sense of failure is there.

The first thing that I did was to start looking for a new job. I was offered outplacement services, and when you go to these outplacement services they teach you how to find a new job. And one of the first things they teach you is that finding a new job requires having and showing a good attitude. In other words, you have to hide the feelings that you’re feeling so intensely in order to make those feelings stop.  For some that might be possible – for me it was painful. I think the hardest part for me was the isolation and purposelessness – the change from being in a small cubicle but surrounded by neighbors and noise and conversation about work and other things, to being alone at home in a room in front of my computer for hours at a time doing what I felt was accomplishing nothing. …

I’m an Introvert, and even introverts need people contact from time to time.  The networking with strangers required by the job search was stressful for me, and on the flipside, the excessive time alone was also stressful.  One-to-one time with trusted friends was incredibly valuable to me.

Leigh [Leigh Stuckey, who gave the sermon before I spoke] spoke  about the character of the human Jesus – about faith and how God expects us to be.  With a few notable exceptions, I have most often experienced God through other people. In my wilderness time I was not alone.  There were times that I didn’t see it or didn’t believe it, but God was with me.  God was with me, often in the form of the people who surrounded me.  My wife, who was and continues to be incredibly patient and caring while I go through heavy emotional weather.  The staff of this church who took time to listen to me and encourage me – particularly Jill and Rich Richards.  My friends in the church.  The youth and advisors of the Sr. High group, who told me quietly that they were praying for me and how I inspired them throughout this journey.  Now I’m a heavy Twitter and Facebook and Internet user, and I found that my Twitter friends and Facebook friends far away and local were absolutely wonderful when they gave me advice, words of encouragement, face to face time, and occasionally something productive to do.  All of these people were the face of God to me, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes just by being themselves.  They let me be me, let me know that I was loved and valued, through a time when circumstance and rejection told me otherwise.

I’m almost out of the woods now.  I can see the path that I will take, and I can see the edge of the wilderness from here.  It’s been a difficult time and a growing time for me. I am ever so thankful that God let His presence show through the people around me, and I thank God for them.

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