For Everyone Born – a problematic hymn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charge to the Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sermon on John 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt – A Review

September 13, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Books, Religion 

Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, currently of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, has published a new book:  Reframing Hope.  I’ve recently finished reading it and here I present a review.

Disclaimer:  I’m a friend of Carol.  She sent me a free copy of the book to read and review.  And I’m even mentioned in the book.  So I’m a bit biased.  And let me just say this – it’s really strange reading someone’s book and knowing the backstories behind the stories, having participated in some of the conversations that she mentions and discusses.  That’s particularly true of Chapter 3 – Reexamining the Medium – where she discusses Twitter and other social media.  OK, that’s out of the way.  On with the review.

Merritt’s primary thesis is this – the modern world is ending, postmodernism is taking hold, and the Church needs to adapt in order to survive.  While spelling that reality out, she documents different ways in which the adapting part of Christianity (though not necessarily the Church as institution) is succeeding in reimagining the faith for not just a new generation, but a whole new way of “doing church”.  She uses the psychological term of “reframing” as a model for that reimagining.  Merritt states that we are using outdated frames to measure church success:  numbers, attendance, income.  We need to reframe our idea of church success and particularly church methods and ideas in order to work within a world that is changing from modernism to postmodernism.  And interestingly enough, that reframing often includes a return to ancient ideas and practices.

Merritt centers all of this study of the past and present and imagining of the future within the idea of Hope.  She feels (and I agree) that younger generations – Generation X through the Millenials, particularly the latter – show a great deal of promise in their zeal to make the world a better place.  She feels that spirituality and community-building are on the rise, and contrasts them to the modern ideas of power and structure and hierarchy.  Merritt feels that there is a movement of the Holy Spirit happening and a vitality of the newer generations, and that it’s important for us to recognize that and welcome it.

Merritt begins the study in the area of Authority.  The locus of authority in the church today is changing from books (as recently as 100 years ago only available in libraries at a distance, and before that only available to a learned few) and pastors in the pulpit to a new locus in the Internet, random conversations, and outside the church.  Where once only the very well educated were seen as authorities on spirituality and theology, today individuals are able to “publish” their ideas on the Internet and share them without a need for a title like Reverend or a bunch of letters after their name.  Even more notably, the Internet and social media have allowed people who are interested in these subjects to converse with experts in the field, and even to form friendships with them.  Shoot – today a wannabe pastor like me gets to converse with published authors and Moderators.  And it’s not just ideas that are discussed – we aren’t spending a lot of time on “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” questions.  Practical notions about how to express our spirituality in community, how churches are governed, and sermon ideas are exchanged between people who have never met.  And in the midst of that, ancient spiritual practices are lifted up again and seen in practice today.  Merritt ends the chapter with a study in contrasts.  In today’s world, there are two competing ideas – the idea that centralization is king and “bigger is better” and the empowerment of people at the edges.  These movements are contradictory and happening simultaneously and in my opinion reflect the practical struggle between modernism and postmodernism.  And we are expected (particularly pastors) to live with feet in both movements simultaneously – ministering to those rooted in the modern world and those rooted in the postmodern world.

Merritt follows this study of authority with stories of Re-forming Community.  The big question in the Mainline Protestant church today is “how can we keep the young people from leaving?”  “How do we reach out to a younger demographic?”  Today’s church is aging, and the average age of members is getting so high that even the Sunday Schools are starting to empty – because the parents of those missing children are missing themselves.  Our churches are worried about closing (and some have closed).  At the same time communities are springing up to deal with the questions of spirituality and faith.  These communities are sometimes appearing within the traditional church structure, but more often than not are growing organically across denominational lines and even inter-faith.  Even the idea of community has changed – from “whose are you?” (what group do you belong to OR what are your beliefs) to “who are your friends?”  The traditional idea of belonging to a group that has chosen to accept us and which has sharply defined boundaries has shifted.  Today’s new communities are marked more by their permeable boundaries and sharing of concepts across faith and practice lines.  Traditions are not rejected and replaced as they were in the evangelical movement (with its move from hymns and organs to rock bands and light shows) but instead are combined and formed into a new creation.  To me, it looks a bit like spiritual Legos or Play-Doh – the basics are the same but the shape and size and color of the new community are created by taking pieces from many communities, old and new.

Merritt also speaks about the importance of denominational structures in the new world.  She highlights the good in denominations:  continuity, shared support, and the weight of numbers that makes big things possible.  She calls herself a “loyal radical” – one who embraces some of the ideas and innovation of the Emerging movement but is still a loyal member of her denomination – Presbyterian Church (USA).  (And she points out the groups that Phyllis Tickle calls “hyphen-mergents” – the presbymergents, anglimergents, etc.)  She lists three factors that distinguish the Loyal Radicals from the Emergent church:

  1. Loyal radicals have strong ties to their denominational histories, where Emergents sometimes reject that history
  2. Origins – the postevangelical emergent movement grew out of a meeting held by Doug Pagitt to raise up the next generation of evangelical leaders – and can be very antidenominational.  The Loyal Radicals reached similar ideas and practices due to their loyal reactions to their denominations, which many of them still love.
  3. Social justice – Loyal radicals are much more open to women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) leaders; indeed their presence is demanded or the movement is seen as exclusionary.  Postevangelical emergents have had their leadership develop organically and the net result has been that that leadership is dominated by primarily white, straight men while in some places women and LGBT folks are excluded from leadership.

From there Merritt moves on to discuss the effects that the Internet and social media in particular are having on faith.  This is a balanced look by someone who lives in that world every day.  (Indeed – she and I have tweeted at each other WHILE I’m writing this review about another matter.)  She discusses the positives of the Internet and social media:  communication and friendship between distance-separated people who would be fast friends in person if they lived near each other, the ability to carry on discussions simultaneously and asynchronously, the instantaneous access to information and opinions.  (I have to echo those virtues.  I’ve made very close friends through social media.  It’s fun to meet someone in person for the first time who you’ve been friends with on the Internet – most of the “new friend” awkwardness is gone and you have that “known each other for years” feeling.  And the base of knowledge in a community of hundreds who will answer questions randomly is hard to beat.)  She also considers the downsides:  the questionable community by those who are never together in person, the loss of communication in a text-based medium, the dehumanization that anonymity produces, the ability to claim more support for your ideas than may exist and to take potshots at others from behind your screen.  In the end she concludes that the new medium is good and that communication has changed forever.  She challenges us to both accept the new and the good and also to be aware of the risks.

From here, Merritt moves into a discussion of the effects of these changes on different areas of interest to the church:

  • The Message – Merritt discusses the power of story.  The narratives of our Scripture, the narratives of other faiths, the stories of our lives – they all have the power to change people and lives.  There is power in the linking of the stories of God and the stories of the person sitting in the next pew.  All of this reminded me very much of Donald Capps’s work on narrative, particularly his book Reframing – A New Method in Pastoral Care.
  • Activism – She speaks of the power of these new ideas in bringing about the reign of God.  She speaks of the power of the new mediums of communication on activism for social justice.  At the same time, she speaks of problems that this shift causes.  There is a subtle ageism in movements fighting sexism, racism and homophobia.  There is a divide between the activists of the 60’s who gave their all of their causes and the younger leaders who have not been mentored, and who see an “us versus them” mentality in the battles of their elders.  Merritt gives examples of how today’s communication methods are being used in activism with good results.
  • Environmentalism – Merritt speaks of the current state of the environment and the ways that we have become insulated from the natural world.  She speaks of practices that have the potential to make things worse if we aren’t careful – such as the effect of the use of bottled water on the quality of tap water.  She includes ideas of how to prevent and counteract the separation from the land that we are experiencing.
  • Spirituality – Here the author discusses the split between mind, spirit and body that was fostered by Modern ideas – the split between secular and sacred that has left us feeling that the two cannot coexist.  She speaks of the importance of presence and the fears and realities of digital technology on physical presence (her conclusion – it can hurt but often helps build community).  She lists different areas of spiritual practice that need our attention to reintegrate body and spirit, daily life and our faith.  In the end she concludes that the evangelical concentration on individual faith and the liberal concentration on social justice are two streams that are starting to flow together – integrating our faith and correcting the errors of our past.

In her conclusion, the author sees Hope in the future as people find new ways to organize and BE community in this world.  She illustrates this with stories  positive and uplifting and poignant and painful all at the same time.  But she sees hope, and shows us a glimpse of how to foster it and reframe it for the rapidly changing world in which we live.

OK, Mark.  That was 1800 words on WHAT the book says.  How about the review?

I live in this intersection of modernism and postmodernism.  I grew up with a father who was a school principal and later superintendent – a paragon of the Modern world and the old picture of authority.  I’ve always been heavily involved in technology and the Internet – particularly during and after college.  That has put me in contact with people (including Carol) who were and are at the bleeding edge of the “new way” of communication.  That in turn has led me to be in contact with folks who are currently thinking and talking and praying and working around the new way of doing and being the Church.  A number of people have told me that this “new way of doing church” is a part of my personal call.  I’m in more or less the same place as the author, though we’ve taken very different routes.

The book rings true to me.  As I said in the disclaimer, I have been a part of a number of the conversations and events that she relates.  There is a big shift in the church coming – one that has also been alluded to by Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence.  The church that exists today just does not speak to younger people and they are voting with their feet.  It’s not so much anger with the church that is leading young people away – it’s apathy towards the church.  We just don’t matter anymore.  At the same time I know that for those youth who ARE in the church we matter very much and their lives are transformed.  Our message just isn’t getting through and I believe it’s because the world changed around the church and the church failed to change its communication methods.  Many people accuse the church (particularly accusing liberals and postmoderns) of changing the message itself in an effort to reach new people.  In some areas it’s true that the message has changed – homosexuality being one of them.  But those changes have always happened – with slavery and the place of women most recently.  It’s really the methods of communicating the message that are failing today.

One thing that I struggle with is how to create a church that can speak simultaneously to ALL generations.  I don’t feel that we’ve reached the point of abandoning that goal – I still think it can be done.  But it WILL take a decision to recognize the failures today and to accept new ways of being the Gospel to the world.

This book does a lot to show the way to that future.  Merritt shows us what new ideas and concepts and practices are being used today to bridge the gap between the Modern church and the postmodern world.  But more importantly, she shows us how those new ideas and concepts and practices fit within our faith – that the new is not necessarily a compromise of faith.

Additionally, this book is written in a very accessible manner.  Some other books that discuss the same ideas and subjects are written in a very academic manner.  This book is one that can be read by anyone.  No extensive knowledge of church history, theology, or philosophy is needed.  This book is written for both those in the academy and those in the pews.

No review would be complete without some negative feedback (sorry, Carol!).  My only issue is that the author in a few places speaks of her personal history – as someone who has roots in the evangelical church, as a woman entering the ministry – as if those experiences were generally applicable to a large part of a generation.  Those stories sounded completely true to me as Carol’s experience, but I question how applicable they are to American Christianity.  No doubt my background contributes to this reaction – at the same time that Carol was growing up in the South I was growing up in the Northeast in a New York City suburb, in a town where we had multiple faiths (1/3 of the town was Jewish) and evangelicalism was very limited.  I grew up with a woman who was my neighbor AND the Associate Pastor and our church Session was at least 1/2 female.  I saw a different force operating on young people – apathy towards the church and faith in general in an atmosphere of social and career climbing where the victims didn’t matter.  The net effects are the same – the kids aren’t in the church – but the causes are very different.

If you are interested in understanding the forces at work in the reshaping of the church, and in particular are looking for some methods of communication and practices that can bridge the gap between how we have done church and how we will do church, buy this book.  And read it.  But more importantly talk to others about it.  Kick the ideas around.  That’s what it’s gonna take to get from here to there – from where we are today to the Kingdom of God.

Getting Ready for Montreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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