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.

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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

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.

Manifestation of God

January 11, 2011 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Religion 

In the Christian world, we are now in the season of Epiphany.  It starts January 6th (the day of Epiphany) and ends Ash Wednesday.  In Greek, the word that “epiphany” is derived from means “manifestation, shining forth, revelation or appearance”.  It’s a dual-use term – both meaning a time that the invisible God appears and a sudden realization of the larger essence or meaning of something.  It’s the “aha” moment and/or a moment of the presence of God, perhaps at the same time.

My story of vocational discernment and the winding path of the last 25 or so years includes a few instances where I am hard pressed to explain something without God’s involvement.  In one case I had a vision during a worship service at a youth conference.  In another case I had a dream with a strong message.  Ultimately these events led me to make the decision that the ministry is my likely future.  I start at Princeton Seminary in the summer or fall.

Last January there were several events that happened at a critical point in this journey.  One day I went to a job fair and found myself trying to reconnect with a seminary.  Another day a friend had coffee with me on a very rainy morning when I was feeling very off-kilter, and gave me advice that led to the heavy-duty discernment that followed.  And on another January day (before the other two, I think) something else happened.  Something else I haven’t written about on this blog yet.

I’d been praying to God for direction.  I’d been lamenting God’s absence from my life, God’s refusal to answer my prayers.  I felt that God had decided to ignore me.  To make my job layoff happen and then leave me hanging.  To call me to the church, back to the church, and to heavy church volunteering, but still to leave me wondering about whether the church should be my future.  I felt alone and that God was not present.

In the mornings at our house, our routine has been set for years – caused by jobs.  (And we still do this, even though I really don’t need to get up at a specific time.)  My wife gets up at 6am and gets into the shower, then comes back out and crawls back in bed until it’s time for me to get up at 6:30am.  Then we get up and feed the cat and do the rest of the morning things.  That time between 6 and 6:30 has become a time of drowsy wakefulness where I’m somewhere between dead to the world and fully awake and waiting for 6:30am (different levels of consciousness on different days).

On this particular day, Carolyn was in the shower.  I was lying in bed face up.  I suddenly had the feeling that I was standing next to the bed.  And that God was next to me.  I had a sense of an orange fog being next to me (orange being VERY clear) and knowing that it was God.  And that two things were happening at the same time.

One impression I had was that God was standing next to me, facing in the same direction as me, and was otherwise quiet.  Just standing there at my side (left side for some reason) facing the world with me.  And throughout this experience I had a sense of eerie calm – that all was well with the world.  I’d felt that sensation once before during the vision mentioned above.

At the same time I also had another impression.  I was facing the world.  God was standing beside me facing me, yelling at the top of God’s lungs, and gesturing wildly.  And I wasn’t hearing or seeing it at all.

And then I was awake, still lying in bed, Carolyn still in the shower.  And the sense of calm and all is well and God is with me remained.  When Carolyn came out of the shower, I told her all about it.

It came at a time that I needed to know that God was with me.  The imagery of God trying to tell me something and me not getting it at all was also clear.  And it set me up for other events later that week and month that have set me on my road to a second career.

I usually experience God’s presence through others.  A friend at lunch or coffee.  A youth in youth group.  A stranger being helped.  Someone who tells you how much you’ve helped them and you can’t really figure out what you did.  A thank you for your hard work.  The whole congregation during a particularly moving worship service.

But once in a while (more often than I deserve), God shows up for me in a very personal way.

A private, quiet, Manifestation of God.  An Epiphany, which prepared me for other epiphanies to come.

Thanks be to God.

This blog entry is part of a synchroblog.  Here are other blogs that are taking part:

Mike Victorino – What To Do?

Beth Patterson – A Robust Universe Includes The Botched and Bungled

Jeff Goins – The Manifestation Of God

Jeremy Myers – Pagan Prophecies Of Christ

Minnow – When God Shows Up

Alan Knox – A Day I Saw Jesus

Ellen Haroutunian – Stories of Epiphany

Liz Dyer – God Breaking Through Moments

Kathy Escobar – orphans

Josh Morgan – The Manifestation Of God

Steve Hayes – Theophany: the manifestation of God

Sarah Bessey – In which Annie opens the door of her heart

Christine Sine – Eve of Epiphany – We Have Come, We Have Seen, Now We Must Follow

Tammy Carter – Blessing The Beloved

Katherine Gunn – Who Is God

2010: My personal Year in Review

December 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Candidate Process, Job Search, Life, Religion, Seminary, Work 

I haven’t done a Year in Review post for a few years because I didn’t have any good news then. The two New Years after the layoff were times that I survived rather than showing improvement. This year was different. Very up and down, but averaging to up.

I started the year still looking for a secular job and having little luck, depressed after just barely missing out on a job right before Christmas. (Irony: after I made my decision to change direction, the person that they picked left and they wanted to interview me again.) That all changed with two days close together in January. One day a good friend accompanied me to a job fair at Rutgers, which turned that day from a depressing trip to a job fair to a day with a friend and by-the-way time at a job fair. We also had lunch with the campus Protestant chaplain at Rutgers and I found myself asking her to have the local seminary contact me. Later I realized that I had no idea why I’d asked for that. A couple weeks later I had a rough Monday morning and the same friend met met for coffee. That conversation led me to make the decision that I had to do serious vocational discernment and seriously consider seminary. What followed that decision is a long story that gets told as the year follows.

February found me stretching in many ways. I started auditing a class at Princeton Seminary and meeting with folks from the seminary and my church about my sense of call. I started serving on my first presbytery committee. I started spiritual direction. And at this point in my journey I was on a dual track – religious vocational discernment and secular job search.

March found me working a part-time job for a local ecumenical group serving as the project manager for a June justice revival weekend. It also found me working full-time (to start) for the US Census counting noses at group living facilities and service-based locations (shelters, food banks). Regretfully the Census job didn’t pan out as advertised and the “full-time” work ended up being at best 15 hours a week and only lasted 3 weeks. But it did give me a technical break in unemployment that allowed me to form my own small business. That business continues to provide a small amount of income and will hopefully do so as I go forward in school. March also found me being approved by the Session of my church to apply to be an Inquirer in the PC(USA).

April found me making what was nearly the final turn to the new direction. The justice revival work got going in earnest. I started the Youth Ministry Certificate program at Princeton Seminary with a retreat before the annual Youth Forums. And I started some steps to take care of the space between my ears.

May was packed with growth for me. The work between my ears got going in earnest. My justice revival work was in high gear before the June weekend. I got to be in the audience of The Daily Show and spend a great evening with two friends. And I got to go to the Unconference (in Maryland in 2010) and make new friendships that I hope to have for years if not forever.

In June the justice revival happened and was an amazing and tiring weekend.  And I began preparations for July.  Also in June I began working on the family stresses that were created by my discernment process and change of career.

In July I got an opportunity that I’d been hoping for since I returned to the church and started working with youth – I got to go to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium.  The youth director at my church wrote the Small Group Manual, and as a result I was able to attend as Small Group Staff, Small Group Leader Trainer, and as a Small Group Leader.   My presbytery’s delegation was housed across the street from the dorm that I was in, so we got to spend a lot of time together.  I had a blast, and attending Triennium cemented my sense of call.  After that trip, the last obstacle between me and my new career path was resolved, and my new journey began.  At the end of July, Carolyn and I got to take a short vacation that we desperately needed – giving us time to reconnect and re-explore each other.

August was a quiet month of preparation work.  I spent the time getting ready for the new year at church (in my new role as President of the Deacons, and with new youth staff) and preparing to meet with CPM.  The Committee on Preparation for Ministry of my presbytery approved me as an Inquirer at the end of the month, beginning the official process towards ordination as a PC(USA) minister.  I also began my work on applications for Princeton Seminary.

September was a very busy month with the beginning of the church year and with seminary application preparation.  At the end of the month I submitted my Princeton Seminary application and kicked off the process of obtaining references.

October was a time of celebration.  Carolyn and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary.  We also one week later spent 3 days visiting Princeton Seminary in the role of prospective student and wife.  Both of us felt very comfortable with that visit and very much at home.  And the big celebration happened a week later at the end of the month, when I received my acceptance for the MDiv program at Princeton!

November brought a chance to enjoy success and reorient myself to my new direction.  I delivered my commitment letter to Princeton Seminary while attending the Emerging Adulthood seminar early in the month.  The rest of the month was spent completing some work between my ears and preparing for the holiday season.

December has been a time of waiting and preparing.  With the help of friends, I’m working on preparing for seminary.  I’m building lists of books to read before I start.  I’m trying to decide about whether to pursue Summer Language (an intensive 10 week program for Greek or Hebrew) or take one last summer trip with my church youth group.  And I’m reorienting my thinking.  One bright event of December was a chance to meet a Twitter friend from Atlanta, one of her friends and a local friend for lunch at Drew University.  I also unfortunately spent the end of November and most of December fighting a sinus infection that took a lot of my energy.

Overarching the year were a few events that do not fit the chronology well.  From late spring until today (and continuing) I’ve been doing a lot of work in my head to grow, and to process the changes that such a large career shift creates.  That large shift has also produces some stresses – in family, in friendships, and in relation to my church.  I’ve worked hard with those involved to try to navigate the emotions produced and the logistics involved.  This in turn has created further growth and improvement in me, in my relationships, and hopefully in the others impacted.  This work has been HARD, but well worth it.  And the relationships that have been involved I believe to be stronger now.  I won’t say that pain is necessary to growth, but I will say that getting through pain successfully often produces growth.  Last, a note that a few serious illnesses of family members came in the fall and that was rough too.  Those family members are on the mend.

Also not fitting the chronology well were the growth of a few new and old friendships through shared experiences.  I can only hope that I have given to them as much as they have given to me.

All in all, this year was a very up and down year.  I am thankful for my wife and friends who supported me through it, who listened to my ravings and pain, and who continue to stand by me.  While it has been rough most of the roughness has taken place in the service of growth in the right direction.  And there have been some glorious moments of celebration and happy-dances.  I’d never have believed that I’d jump up and down in my kitchen past age 40 until the day I opened my seminary acceptance letter.

I end the year with a new direction when I had no direction.  I end the year with strengthened relationships.  And I end the year with new friends that I value greatly.  And I end the year with a much, much stronger sense of the direction that God wants me to take, as well as many reminders that God is always with me.

I’ll take it.

How to prepare for seminary?

November 15, 2010 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

I’m in an unusual situation.  Most people don’t apply to seminary until near the application deadlines.  (Princeton Seminary’s deadline is February 15, and most apply in January or February.)  I am ten months from starting the Fall Term next year (or eight months if I take advantage of the Summer Language program) and I’ve already been accepted and have confirmed my attendance and paid the deposit.  Most people are also already doing something before seminary, either school or work.  I’m not – I’m at the end of a period of unemployment and I have a very-part-time business.  So I’m in the rare situation of having a lot of time before seminary starts and a lot of free time (whether I like it or not).

So I come to you, particularly those of you who have graduated from a seminary or are attending one now.

What would you do to get ready if you had a lot of time to do so?  What would you read?  What activities would you undertake?

There are a few required activities that I will be undertaking related to both seminary and the PC(USA) Inquirer process.  I will be scheduling the required Career Counseling (ie. psych eval) soon.  And I have to work on getting my NJ state-required vaccinations.  But that’s about all I’ve come up with.

Help me out, either with comments here or on Facebook or twitter.  Thanks!

Princeton Theological Seminary, here I come

November 3, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

So, Mark … anything new going on?

I’m so glad you asked.

I’M GOING TO SEMINARY!

Princeton Theological Seminary

Ok, let’s back up a bit.

A few months ago, I told you about my change in career and life direction.  I’ve continued pursuing that direction.  (If you follow that link, it backs up even farther)  In late August I was enrolled as an Inquirer in my presbytery, confirmed by my presbytery in September.

I’m geographically bound (my wife has a job here that pays well enough for me do follow this path), so my choices for a Reformed seminary came down to two:  Princeton Theological Seminary and New Brunswick Theological Seminary.  Both are fine seminaries with different focuses.  Princeton focuses exclusively on the full-time student who is able to complete their M.Div. degree in 3 years (4 for a dual degree).  Princeton is a PC(USA) seminary, and is very academic.  New Brunswick (a Reformed Church in America seminary) focuses on the part-time student (though some students attend full-time) and emphasizes the practical aspects of ministry, with a concentration on urban ministry.  Princeton Seminary has an ivy-league-like setting surrounded on three sides by Princeton University, and has about 600 students at any given time, with about 475 of them in a Masters program.  New Brunswick is in a mixed college/urban setting, surrounded on three sides by the Rutgers University College Avenue campus (where I earned my undergraduate degree in Computer Science).  New Brunswick has smaller graduating classes of 50 or so.  Princeton has some ethnic diversity, but New Brunswick is so diverse that it’s hard to call any ethnicity a majority.  Both share about the same gender diversity.  Theologically the student bodies are quite different.  Princeton’s students are 50% Presbyterian, with the rest scattered among many denominations and non-denominational backgrounds.  New Brunswick has few Presbyterian students (and not even a majority of Reformed students) with a very wide spread of denominations and non-denominational backgrounds.  Both reside in my presbytery, and have connections to my Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) and students from my presbytery.  Princeton is a very residential school – nearly all students live on campus in either dorms or apartments.  New Brunswick has very limited housing and most students commute (and many work full-time and study at night).

I visited New Brunswick last May during one of their open house events.  I had time one evening to meet faculty, staff, current students and other prospective students.  I was able to attend chapel, receive a tour of the campus (primarily the library), and attend a class.  What I discovered was a very family-like atmosphere – it was clear to me that the faculty and staff truly care about their students as individuals.  The class that I attended was professionally taught and intimate – about 30 students for a course that would have over 100 at Princeton.  The main building is about the size of one of Princeton’s academic or administrative buildings, if not a little smaller.  I felt that I could study there, but I also felt out of place demographically and theologically.

I have had MANY connections and experiences with Princeton Seminary.  My church employs 4 seminary interns each year, and we have 3 Princeton students not “of the congregation” under care for their own journeys.  I have attended events like the Institute for Youth Ministry Forum.  On the advice of a friend, I audited a class at Princeton last spring.  I have a large number of Twitter friends who are current Princeton students or alumni.  A few church members and staff relatives are employed at the seminary.  My presbytery work and the Revive! event last June brought me into contact with many other folks who fit all of those categories.

Last spring during the Youth Forums, and on days that I audited the class or had a Revive meeting on campus, I sat on the steps of Miller Chapel and tried to imagine myself as a Princeton student.  It was a lot easier than I expected.  Being there just felt right.

So I worked diligently on my application from August through the end of September.   I wrote my long essay and the short answers that were requested by the application.  I found friends who would write my references.  In short – I treated the application project like any of my other projects and pursued it relentlessly and with a smidge of overkill.  I submitted my application at the end of September.  My last reference was received on October 22.  I’d already had my interview on October 6, so my application was complete at that point.

From October 20-22, Carolyn and I (she wanted to go) attended the Princeton Seminar – a three-day admissions event at the seminary.  We had time to eat and meet with student hosts, faculty, staff and others.  (The President, Iain Torrance joined Carolyn and I and our campus host for the first dinner – to our surprise and delight.)  We were able to attend classes and hear presentations from different administrative departments.  We ate at the campus dining facility – both private catered meals and along side the students.  We were also given a walking tour of the campus.

Two different things stood out during the visit.

First, I was comfortable there.  REALLY comfortable.  So comfortable that I’ve only felt as free of anxiety in a few other places in my life – at my home with Carolyn or at Camp Johnsonburg.  The morning before we left for the visit Carolyn asked me if I was nervous.  I thought about it and answered (to my surprise), “No.  I suppose I should be but I’m not.”  I found the classes fascinating.  I found the conversations stimulating.  I found the presentations interesting.  And throughout it all I had none of the nervousness that I’d expected to have – given that I was being evaluated even while I was doing the evaluating.

Second, I kept bumping into people that I already knew.  Carolyn and I ran into my spiritual director in the first 10 minutes on campus.  I met one twitter friend for the first time, and bumped into two others (literally bumped into in one case).  I sat in a class taught by my CPM chair, with one student who is a member of my church.  I ran into students from the class that I audited last spring.  I ran into people who worked on Revive with me.  I ran into people that I had only previously met at Camp Johnsonburg.  In short – all of my church-related worlds collided during this one visit.  It’s as if many, many, many of my church experiences intersected at a single point – at Princeton Seminary.  Biggest of all for me was the sense that I got from my friends and prior contacts that they were happy to see me at Princeton.  For an introvert like me, that is hugely important.

During the visit, I thought I’d heard the Director of Admissions mention that the Admissions Committee meets monthly, with a meeting “this Wednesday” – which I took to mean the day that our visit started.  I assumed that I’d missed the deadline and would be waiting a least a month.  The Wednesday after the visit I received a thin envelope from Admissions at PTS.  After a moment’s panic I opened it only to read “Your application is now complete and we will begin processing it.”  Heart-attack averted.  On Friday, I e-mailed a Princeton staff member who is on the Admissions Committee about a church-related issue, and got back the reply “I hope we see you as a student at PTS next year!”  I took that as a good sign.

This past Saturday, I received a thickish envelope from Admissions.  I brought it inside to the kitchen where Carolyn was cooking.  I casually tried to sort through the mail to make the pile of things I should open, and about halfway through the process just dropped the rest of the mail and tore open the envelope.  “Congratulations!  It is my great pleasure to inform you of the decision of our Admissions Committee.  You have been accepted into candidacy …” and that’s as far as I got before I started jumping up and down like a six-year-old (scaring Carolyn and the cat).  I immediately send a DM to one of my favorite friends who has served as native guide through the process, called my Session Liaison, and then tweeted the news.

This morning I spent some time in silent prayer about this decision.  Both schools have pro and con attributes and arguments, but there is one clear direction.

Tomorrow, while I am at Princeton for the Institute of Youth Ministry Conference on Emerging Adulthood, I will stop by Admissions and drop off my Letter of Confirmation and deposit.

I will begin my Master of Divinity (M. Div.) program starting in the Fall Term of the 2011-2012 academic year, making me a member of the class of 2014 at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Next September I will be a seminary student.

And I’m happy, nervous, and have this feeling of rightness about it.  I believe God is in this decision, and all of the little interactions over a number of years that led up to it.

Into the future

September 2, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Seminary, Work 

Hello, folks.

I know that this blog has been dormant for a while.  The main reason was that I was being very careful not to post anything related to my job search that might upset a future employer.  As you know if you go back into my history, I’ve been mostly unemployed since August 2008.  More recently working with the US Census allowed me to create my own small business without upsetting the unemployment folks and that has been operating at a part-time sporadic level since last spring.

Throughout my unemployment period I repeatedly heard a call to ministry.  Sometimes it took the form of a thought that perhaps I should go to seminary.  Often it took the form of me simply noticing that I was choosing to spend my free time while unemployed increasing my volunteer work in the church.  I also found myself thinking that my church work was more important that my job search at times.  A number of times it took the form of a surprise opportunity to stretch my ministry skills into a new area, and succeed, and I credit God with providing those opportunities.  Once in the last 2 years I had a sense of God’s immediate presence, which felt a lot like my previous dream and vision.

All of this came to a head this past January.   Several events – conversations with people that I know, and my hard work back home the week that my church’s mission trip was caught in Haiti after the earthquake – led me to the point where I felt that I “can’t not” consider seminary.  So I took a few steps in that direction.  In the spring I audited a class at Princeton Seminary on pastoral counseling.  I spent a LOT of time talking to people who have already gone through the vocational discernment process.  My wife and I went to considerable efforts to determine whether or not our relationship could handle the change in career to one that pays less and demands more.  We consulted a financial planner to make sure that our cash flow and retirement planning would allow for me to have five years (the next year, 3 years of seminary, and a year after seminary looking for work) of very low income.  I prayed a LOT – sometimes for God to help me make it happen and sometimes for God to take away the call.  Ultimately I reached the point in August where my wife and I (among others – see below) agree that going to seminary and likely going into ordained minstry is the right choice.

While this discernment was going on (and believe me, it will continue essentially forever but will be very focused for the next few years) I started the official process for becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  My Session voted to recommend me to the presbytery Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) as an Inquirer in March.  I met with CPM this past Monday evening and they voted to recommend that the Presbytery of New Brunswick enroll me as an Inquirer at the next meeting in 2 weeks.  So from the official side I’m on my way.  Our denomination has a very planned and regimented process of care, support, discernment and gate-keeping where the CPM committee will work with me (and my church Session, and to some degree the seminary) between now and the day that I may someday be ordained into my first call to make sure that God, the community and I all see that Call to ministry.  That’s moving now.

My plan at this point is to start seminary for my Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree in the Fall of 2011.  Our financial plan calls for me to work on a very part-time basis for each of the next 5 years.  So for the next year I hope to find some combination of small business work, project work (hopefully church-related or something similar) and a regularly scheduled part-time job (again, ideally church-related or something in the non-profit field) that makes up about 10-15 hours a week.  At the same time I’ll be continuing to discern, work on seminary applications, and volunteer at church and elsewhere.  My wife has a solid well-paying job here so we are not looking to move either for school or the future.

So that’s what’s going on.  If you have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments.  I do plan to reactivate this blog going forward to keep you updated on the journey and to again open up the release of writing that I felt needed to be temporarily stifled by my job search.  Watch this space!