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.

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 – Why are we here? – Sunday, November 10, 2013

November 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 10, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.

Audio: 

First Reading – Psalm 145
Second Reading – Luke 20:27-38

“Why are we here?”

It’s Sunday morning again.  We just had the time change last week, so it’s still a little light out in the morning, but it’s getting darker and darker as the days go on.  Some of us have tough work schedules, and Sundays are our only “real” day to relax.  Besides, the Giants game starts at 1.  So why are we here?

That’s the title that I chose for this week’s sermon.  Why are we here?  What draws us to come to church on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or whatever day of the week we attend?  What draws us to our own personal spiritual practices?  What draws us to attend committee meetings or to teach Sunday school or to help out with a charity event?

So WHY are we here?  What is the reason?

As I talked about with the children, Psalm 145 is a psalm of praise.  It even says so.  If you look in the Bible, you’ll see that just above the first verse it says “Praise.  Of David.”  In fact, the Hebrew word for psalms means “Praises”.  Among others, the last 6 psalms in our Book of Psalms are psalms of praise.

As Presbyterians, we are part of the Reformed faith, and as PCUSA Presbyterians, we have a Book of Confessions.  Several of the confessions in that book have a statement like this one, which comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which some of you may have learned in Sunday School or Confirmation):

Question:  What is the chief end of man?

Answer:  Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

(This was written in 1640, so please excuse the masculine language for us and God.)

So, Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

We are called to glorify God.  And not just now, but forever.  We are told that “one generation shall laud your works to another” and that “all flesh will bless his holy name for ever and ever.”  There’s a long list of verbs in the passage:  to extol, to bless, to praise, to laud, to declare, to speak praise, and join with all flesh to bless.  These are what the psalmist would have us do for God.  And as I told the children, these psalms were written to be used in worship, so these are what we sing that we will do.

And we do that in worship.  We sing praises to God, as we did and will do in several of today’s hymns.  We do that in proclamation.  Our reading of scripture and the words of the preacher speak of God to us and others.  And it’s not just those of us up here at the microphones – as we confess, as we pray together in unison, or as we pray silently while one leads we are showing others here and elsewhere what God’s message looks like.

We do that with our hands and our feet and our voices, when we help others, inside and out of the congregation.  And I’m going to talk more about that later.

We do this, because God asked us to.  Told us to.  Commanded us to.  This is what God created us to do.

So that’s WHY we are here.

The next question is … why are WE here?

And to a certain extent, this is something that we have to each answer individually.  Speaking for myself, I could easily say that I’m here because this is my Field Education assignment.  But that’s too simple.  I could say that I’m here because I’m in seminary, or that I want to become a minister, but that doesn’t explain the time before I started seminary.  My story began long before that, and although my own story involves 15 years away from the church there was clearly a time when I was an adult and not forced by my parents to come to church, but I come anyway.

Most of you are in that situation – you don’t have to be here.  Now, don’t get up and leave – this argument is coming around to the point here in a minute.  Most of you are here voluntarily – you decided to be here.  Some of you might be here because your parents are here, or because someone that you love is here.  But you’re here.

Most of you are now or were at some point members of a church, for many you were or are members of this church.  In order to become a member you made a profession of faith in one form or another.  You said in front of the Session, or the church council wherever, or the congregation that you believe in Jesus Christ, and that you accept the teaching of the church.  You agreed to participate in the life of the church.

So that’s probably why you are here, and that’s why I am here.  But why are WE here?

God calls us into community.  The Israelites were a community of faith.  Jesus created that community of faith in Him, a community that was sent into the world to proclaim the gospel starting with Pentecost.  We worship God in community.  We mourn in community.  We pray in community.  We celebrate and we play in community.  We eat in community.  We work in community.  And we go out into our community as a community of faith, working and playing and meeting and supporting our community as a group, and as a part of the greater church.  We teach in community – through our bible study and Sunday school and youth group, and through scripture and preaching.

And we live that community every Sunday.  And all week long.  On special days.  When hurricanes and cookie walks happen.  When Christmas and Easter happen.  When we need, and when others need.

We are part of a community.  We’re part of the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian community.  We’re part of Presbyterians in the Plainfields.  We’re part of Presbyterians everywhere.  We’re part of this neighborhood around Watchung Avenue itself, and all of North Plainfield, and the surrounding area.  And we are identified by our faith in Christ, a faith that is strong enough to get us up on a Sunday morning in whatever weather to come here.

So that’s why WE are here.

Now, why are we HERE?

In 1916, a new independent congregation of the Presbyterian church was chartered here.  In 1907, this building was built.  Before that, in 1893 the mission that was meeting here affiliated with the Crescent Avenue church.  The Crescent Avenue church in turn traces its history back farther, to Scotland, to Geneva, to Rome, to Jerusalem.  And why?  Why are there Christians all over the globe?

Jesus calls us and called us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  His apostles began that, following the message of scripture to proclaim the gospel and ensure justice, and take care of those in need.  And to do that we need a presence in every place.

And so we are HERE, in North Plainfield.  And we as Presbyterians, and as Christians as a whole are here in the Plainfields.  To proclaim the gospel, work for justice and peace, and to take care of those here and around the world who are in need.

In this building?  Yes.  We do that with the Y, and we do that with Headstart, and we do that with other groups that use our space.  We do that with our special events for the presbytery and the general public.  But also so much more than what we do this building.  We walk for hunger.  We grow food with our Catholic neighbors.  Many of us serve God by helping others in some other way in some other charity, or through our occupations.

The psalm talks about God upholding those who have fallen, giving them food, and watching over those who cry out.  God could do that by pointing a finger – ZAP.  But God also can, and does do that with the help of his creation.  That’s us.  God also hears their cry and “saves them”.  That’s us too – whenever we hear the cry of pain, we take care of people’s needs.  We hear their cry for spiritual food, and we give them scripture and preaching.  We hear their cry to be with others, and we give them community.  And sometimes we are them, and our cries are heard and we are fed and cared for and taught.

When Hurricane Sandy hit last year, we sprung into action.  First we did what we needed to, checked on our homes and our own families, but quickly we turned to checking on each other.  All of the members of the church.  Some folks offered space in homes that still had power and heat.  Some folks came and checked out the church building.  A lot of people made phone calls to each other to make sure that everybody was OK.  And then we turned outward as a church– to see what the community needed.  We put together a meal for those needing food – because of trouble getting food or because of missing paychecks.  And we did not lose our community.  We got lucky – we got our power back about an hour before worship on that first Sunday after the hurricane – but we were ready to worship over in the fellowship center in the cold, if that’s what needed to happen.

That’s why we are HERE.  And this is WHY … WE … are HERE.  To praise God.  With our voices, with the work of our hands and our time and our talents and our treasure and our faith and our love.  To bring God’s message to all who need it.

To bless God’s holy name for ever and ever.

Amen.

Sermon – A Place for You, Sunday, September 29, 2013

October 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.  Audio is not currently available and as a result I cannot post my exact words – here is my manuscript.

First Reading:  Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Second Reading:  Luke 16:19-31

It was a crazy thing to do.  Jeremiah, buying a field at Anathoth, in the middle of Jerusalem, a city under siege by Babylon.  Jeremiah surely knew better – he’d spent years and 31 chapters warning the Israelites to shape up and follow God’s covenant, and then when they failed he told them that they would be going into exile.  Today, this would be like buying land in the middle of Detroit, or Damascus, or Camden.  Sure the land would be a bargain, but why would anybody want that land, want to live there, under siege?

In the Presbyterian Church – and by that I mean the PCUSA denomination that we are part of, things look a little disconcerting too.  In May the numbers came out and we lost just over 100,000 members in 2012.[1]  That’s about a 5% loss.  Two-thirds of that loss came from the silent departure of members – those who were removed from the membership rolls for inactivity.  It’s not just us either – all Protestant denominations are shrinking, and the Catholic Church is barely holding its numbers.  And yet, a Pew Research study says that while increasing numbers report that they are “unaffiliated”, 80% of Americans still say “I never doubt the existence of God.”[2]

In her book “The Great Emergence,” the church historian Phyllis Tickle talks about the different big changes that have happened in the Church since Christ left us and Pentecost happened.  She sees a pattern.  About every 500 years, we get to arguing with each other and go through a process where the way that we do church is overhauled.  She calls it a Great Rummage Sale – we sit down and figure out what we do that is important and should be kept, what we do that isn’t as important as we thought and should be jettisoned, and sometimes what we stopped doing and should do again.  The first of these started with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the early church worked out exactly what we believe about Christ.  Our definition of Jesus as fully human AND fully divine comes from that meeting.  It sounds a little boring now, but trust me – the fights over whether Jesus was of two natures in one person or two different persons in one body were just as nasty as fights over gay marriage are today.  People were excommunicated.  The second big change was the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054.  Then, and most importantly for us, came the Reformation in the 1500’s.  Each time the church changed in a radical way – both the winners and the losers – and each time it was difficult for those living in the church.  Phyllis Tickle’s assertion is that we are going through one of those times again now, and that we are looking at what we do with an eye towards cleaning house.

           Old and New Chancels Things change here at this church, too.  Before the Memorial Service for Virginia, her daughter Debbie brought some old picture directories and other booklets of Watchung Avenue over the years.  This space where I am standing underwent a major change, one that I’m sure that some of you remember.  The picture on the front of the bulletin has the old look at the top, and today’s look at the bottom.  The pulpit used to be at the center, the choir used to sit where these curtains are, and this raised area was round.  There were more pews up close.  Also, the events that the church holds each year have changed.  The leadership has changed – when this church opened Shannan could never have been ordained, being a woman, and neither would the five women on the Session today.  I wasn’t here, but it seems likely to me that at each change the church had people in favor and against who felt like winners and losers – it was certainly painful at some point.

            So what do we do?  How do we get ready to ride the wave of change?  Will there be a spot for us on the other side?

In my first career I was trained as a Project Manager.  Some of that came out last year with the revision of the Bylaws.  One of the things that project managers need to understand and be able to work with is Change Management.  You can change the organization that you’re in, but you need to do it right.  You need to make sure that you’re making the right change.  You need to make sure that the change matches the direction that you want to go in.  You need to make sure that the change matches your values, that you aren’t selling yourself out with the change, OR avoiding change that must be made to live your values.  And it’s very important that people understand why the change is needed, and that you plan to help people along the way.  You need to be there for those people who are uncomfortable with the change and help them through it.  You want them to feel there is a place for them on the other side.  That’s especially true in the church.

The Session here is talking about that.  One thing that they’re looking at is the difference between Technical change and Adaptive change.  Technical changes are those that you already know how to make, and are generally clear.  If the boiler breaks, you fix it or replace it.  If people are having trouble reading the bulletin, you print it on bigger paper.  You run the Stewardship campaign each year to make sure that we have enough resources to operate.  You schedule Church School for the children. Things like that.

Adaptive change is change that isn’t quite so clear.  You know that something needs to be changed, but you can’t even tell what the problems are.  You have to learn what the questions are before you can find the answers.  Maybe you need to learn how to do something new to answer the need.  Adaptive changes might be things like moving to a mostly electronic newsletter (while still printing it for those who can’t get it online).  Or working with other Plainfield churches to figure out what the Presbyterian community here will look like.  Or studying discipleship as a church in order that we may make and become good disciples.

She doesn’t say it in quite this way, but I feel certain that Phyllis Tickle would call the change that the church is undergoing Adaptive Change.  The whole church knows that things are changing, but they don’t quite know how.  The whole church is realizing that the way that we are doing things isn’t quite working the way it used to, but we don’t yet know how to change it.  We’re worried about where the young people are.  We’re worried about how to reach the people living around the church.  We’re wondering how to be socially responsible Christians in a difficult world.  And while we’re considering change, some folks are uncomfortable with the idea of change.

Scary?  Yes.  Necessary?  I’d say yes.

Jeremiah was in that sort of “what do I do?” place too.  He’d been held in the court of Zedekiah – a ruler that the enemy King Nebuchadnezzar had put in place over Judah.  He was imprisoned there because he’d been speaking out, saying first to shape up, and later telling people that losing the battle was inevitable, and that they would be at best exiled to Babylon (and at worst, might end up dead).  And then the call from God came to him, telling him to do this crazy thing and buy land in a place that he was telling everybody they’d be forced to leave.  He had to work through intermediaries to buy the land, and the process also ensured that the purchase would come to the ears of many.  And he followed God’s orders and put the deeds in a sealed earthenware jar.  This was the closest thing the Israelites had to humidity and temperature controlled storage – you put the document in a big pot and sealed it up to protect it – the Dead Sea Scrolls were found like that.  He was told to make sure the deed lasted for a long time.  Why?

Because God was telling Jeremiah that there would be a place for him after the exile ended.  After the great upheaval, he would be back to use that land.  God said explicitly, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  The Israelites would again have a home.  The previous three chapters are a letter that God told Jeremiah to send to the exiles already in Babylon, promising them that they will return, and prosperity will return again to Israel after the captivity – after the change is complete.  Jeremiah had the word from God to have faith and he did have faith, that there would be a place after it was over.

And it is the same with us.  Our faith, our belief call us to make a home for all.  While change will bring discomfort for some, we are in a time when change is a must.  And we must be sure to bring everyone with us to the best of our ability.  It will take bending by all.  Those who are uncomfortable with change will need to give it a chance, and keep an open mind.  Those who are pushing for change will need to listen to others, and help them to understand why the change is being made, and to make accommodations where possible.  We need to get through the change together, with new people as they join us.

Jeremiah lived in interesting times.  Times of great change.  Life was difficult, different, and confusing for a while.  But Jeremiah went into the change knowing that it would all turn out well in the end – that he and his people would be returning home.  Prompted by God, he planned for that time when the Israelites would return.

And so it is with us.  We live in interesting times, with great change.  Life is confusing, difficult, and the church of the future may be quite different from what we grew up with.  We go into the change with that same hope.  That God, through Christ and the Spirit, is making a home for us.  That we will have a place in the church on Earth and the church in heaven after the changes.  That we should plan for the 200th anniversary of this church.  And that we should keep moving forward into the future.

Amen.



[1] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2013/5/30/stated-clerk-releases-pcusa-2012-statistics/

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few ways to fix this.

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

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

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

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

4. A few last thoughts.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This list continues tomorrow with part 2.

Sermon – Outside the Bubble. April 28, 2013

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

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

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

New Testament Reading:  Acts 11:1-18

Ann Elyse:

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

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

Mark:

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

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

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

Ann Elyse:

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

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

Mark:

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

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

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

Ann Elyse:

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

Mark:

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

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

Ann Elyse:

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

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

Mark:

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Elyse:

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

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

Mark:

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

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

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

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

Ann Elyse:

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

Mark:

And so we Praise God for the gift of the Spirit

Ann Elyse:

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

Mark:

Make disciples of all nations.

Ann Elyse:

Get outside the bubble.

Both:

Amen.

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

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

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

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

Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the church?

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

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

“Where we are!”

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

“Where we are!”

And that is a wonderful thing.

Amen.

 

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.

Life-status update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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