Moderator Candidate Meet and Greet – Save the Date

February 29, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Religion 

On the evening of Friday, April 25 there will be a Moderator Candidate Meet and Greet event at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ.  All 4 candidates for Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA) have agreed to attend as long as timing and schedules permit.

More details will be forthcoming.  The event is being run by the Central Jersey Moderator Candidate Host Committee.  The session of the church has graciously allowed the use of the building without charge.
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I’ll have more information as time goes on.  We will be inviting all commissioners, YADs, Presbytery Moderators and Presbytery Stated Clerks from the 7 NJ presbyteries.  We will also invite the TSADs from local seminaries once they are chosen.  There should be room for other interested Presbys as well.

This seems like a good time for introspection

February 27, 2008 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

It’s Lent.  In a recent post I took a deep dive into my soul to figure out what my principles are.  Today it’s time for another dive.  (Now that I’ve finished writing this, I see that it is VERY long.  Sorry about that.)

Depending on when you mark the starting point, it’s either coming up on 2 years or 18 months from the beginning of my return to church experience.

Today’s question – how has it changed me?

Spiritual Practices – Prior to this process I was a C&E (Christmas and Easter) Christian.  Both were with Carolyn at her church.  Except for the occasional wedding or funeral, I set foot in a church twice a year.  Sunday mornings were for reading the paper, watching an old movie on TCM and waiting for Carolyn to get home from her church with bagels.  Sometimes it was a good time to schedule a small airplane flight.

Today, Sundays are busy days.  I’m up with Carolyn at 7:30am and read most of the paper before heading to church.  After church about every other week I have Confirmation Class or occasionally an early Sr. High youth group activity or Adult Forum.  Sunday evenings almost every week are taken up with the Sr. High youth group.  Some Sunday afternoons are given to a church activity (alternate worship or other special event).

I also have a church meeting one evening every other week or so.  Work for those groups (youth, Project Open Door, other groups) takes up some personal time during the week as well.  The 2nd week of the month is the worst – I have Youth and Young Adult Council on Tuesday evening, a ham radio meeting Wednesday evening (not church), and Theology on Tap on Thursday evening.

As I write this I’m noticing that it’s turning into a list of “church time” rather than a list of spiritual practices.  To a certain degree that’s because I feel that any work done on behalf of the church is a spiritual practice.  On the other hand – that’s about it.  I really need to come up with a daily practice (or at least 3 times a week).  I had settled on taking Lent to read the book of Acts and all of Paul’s epistles – I need to get more comfortable with Paul.  Most of the problems that I have with our beliefs right now come from Paul’s writings.  Unfortunately I’ve been busy enough lately that I haven’t picked up the book.  I gotta fix that.

Using My Gifts – Prior to joining the church, my gifts (spiritual and otherwise) were used at work and that’s about it.  Maybe a little time providing Family Technical Support for computer and other electronic issues.  Even my flying was generally for me rather than helping others.  One exception was Camp Johnsonburg, but now I see that my re-involvement in camp was just the embryonic stages of this process (and continues today).

The first few months after I joined the church I wasn’t using my gifts at all.  I was waiting to be invited to do so.  (Well, I was writing here, but I don’t know how much of that was use of gifts and how much was letting the ideas out of my head.)  Finally I mentioned that to someone and I was invited to work with the youth.  About the same time I got involved in the Green Team and wrote a paper on the bible and environmentalism.  Those writings and activities along with my blogging got me noticed by others and I was invited to help start Project Open Door.

Now I’m co-chairing Project Open Door, working with the Sr. High Youth group and youth council, blogging about the church, I’ve been asked to do another short-term task, and I’m informally working with the pastor and others on things within my knowledge and ability (like consulting on the church website and kicking around ideas that resulted in the church’s blog).

I’m using a lot of skills built outside of church for church work.  These include:  communications, planning, project management, execution, writing, technical skills, and with the last lock-in – percussion.  I’ve also brought back some old ones that I’d developed in the last church go-around:  caring deeply about youth, working with youth, church and theological knowledge, Presbyterian stuff, working with volunteers.  I have to be honest – when it comes to church and theological knowledge I feel somewhat inadequate at the level that I’ve been using those skills.  I have no formal theological training outside of Sunday School, confirmation, and a religion minor in college.  I feel very much that I’m using the “fake it until you make it” method when it comes to working with theological concepts and relating them to others.  That’s one reason that I keep looking for validation from my pastor, youth director, and others – I want to be sure that somebody is watching me as the novice carpenter plays with the power tools.

Working with People – I’m an introvert.  I test out as a strong introvert.  I have sufficient speaking and musical experience to have gotten over the fear of speaking with strangers and in front of groups.  Most people would consider me somewhere between outgoing and at least fairly social – few would consider me shy.  The truth is that I’m a “loud introvert”.  I am able to speak and work with others, but few get to see what’s going on deep inside.  (This blog being the one big exception.)

I had a challenging childhood when it comes to social skills.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I carry scars today from many failed social interactions as a child.

Up until coming back to church, my “working with people” experience was limited to:
– work (almost all of it)
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– family and friends

The “church” world is very different from the work world or even the family and friends world.  In the work world, it is permissible to be selfish or closed as long as you are furthering the company’s goals.  In my work experience being selfish and behaving in ways that I consider to be unethical seem to be the norm and you get rewarded for such behavior.

I have to say – I find working on church committees to be the most frustrating part of my return to church.  The committees (a generic term encompassing anything that involves meetings) have gotten a lot done, but the lack of efficiency in church work is maddening for a project manager and IT person like me.  In the work world, the strength of your idea is priority #1, and a secondary priority is how others perceive you as a person.  The church world flips that – the work that gets done is not nearly as important as HOW it is done.  Everybody has to have their input heard, and everybody has to be extremely careful not to step on somebody else’s toes while getting the work done.  There’s probably a truism about church committees that says that 10 to 20 percent of the team do 80 percent of the work.  I don’t mind doing the heavy lifting – but I do dislike having to pussyfoot around the people who are doing the remaining 20% of work (or none at all).

I operate best in an environment where people speak their mind and lay all of their cards out on the table.  When you believe that somebody else is saying what they truly think and feel it’s a lot easier to ignore the rough edges and to be able to determine when they are actually upset or are just making noise.  I’ve said before – I believe that church debates should be like hockey fights, with the two players bashing each other on the ice but then going out for a beer after the game.  The same is true with committee work – let’s bump and slash each other up and down the ice a little but as soon as the whistle blows all of the little annoyances are forgotten.  Church isn’t there yet, at least as far as I can see.

The really ironic part of all of this is that I enjoy the “systems” work behind church committees.  I like working with complex systems and finding the best and most efficient way to achieve objective X using resources Y and Z.  I like the PCUSA polity in that it’s a complex machine built on some simple principles.  I suspect I’d make a good clerk at some level of the polity.  The unfortunate fact is this – in order to get to have an impact in positive ways you have to also put up with all of the negative baggage of interpersonal interaction with volunteers.

One very dark spot here is the online interaction with other Presbyterians nationally on the Internet.  The divisions in the PCUSA end up turning into chasms online.  When people are able to hide behind their computer screens (even when they use their real names) they seem to feel that respect and humility are no longer necessary.  I confess to falling into that trap from time to time.  What bothers me most is the partisan nature of discussions.  There are websites where poor behavior by those who agree with the website owner towards those with whom he disagrees is tolerated and even encouraged, while poor behavior by the other side (often in reaction to the owner’s supporters) is punished.  There’s something about the Internet that leads people to believe that the rules of discourse and interpersonal behavior do not need to be followed.  It’s really sad – it hurts the mission of the church more than it helps.

The very bright spot has been my work with the youth group.  As I said before I’m an introvert.  Introverts lose energy through social interaction – often introverts will talk about a party draining their energy.  Extroverts on the other hand gain energy through social interaction.  (That’s a simplification, but true enough for now.)  I can tell when I feel most at home because social interaction actually gains me energy.  I’ve only felt that in a few situations – my marriage, Camp Johnsonburg much of the time, work at the Synod level as a youth, and my current church’s Sr. High youth group most of the time.  I LOVE working with our youth.  They are refreshingly open and honest and unafraid to say what they are thinking.  The feedback that I get leads me to believe that I’m making a difference.  One very telling anecdote – in Confirmation class we were talking about how we view the world.  We were asked to identify whether we were an optimist or pessimist.  I’m a pessimist.  When I raised my hand to answer, one of my favorite youth turned to me and said “Really?”  That shows how much I enjoy working with the youth – they turn me into an optimist.

Me Outside of Church – This is a toughie.

I work in a culture that is often 180 degrees removed from what we call Christ-like behavior.  I’m struggling with that very openly right now.  What do you do when behavior that you are taught is unacceptable is actually rewarded?

I believe that prior to getting reinvolved in church I did the right thing (morally) most of the time.  I was probably a bit rougher around the edges than I am now, but the difference is small.

Now I believe that I’m more intentional about right behavior.  I can link it to my beliefs more exactly.  I do know that I talk about church more than I used to and do so positively.  Before I returned to church, “church” was a negative and “Christian” as a term generally applied to the fundamentalists who try to control everybody’s behavior.  Now “church” is a good place and a good people and “Christian” is a standard to live up to.  I don’t think I’ve reached the annoying point yet, but I do look for opportunities to invite others to the faith when they appear.  Nobody’s biting yet, but my line is still in the water and there have been a few nibbles.

I think I’m going to have to ask a few people to see if they see changes in me.

There is one downside.  I think I’ve lost some free time with Carolyn.  She is only involved in one church activity outside of worship (the garden ministry – which doesn’t interest me).  I am involved in many at my church and so far she hasn’t been interested in joining any of them on a regular basis.  This means that my church membership has reduced our time together.  I thought that stopping my flying would help, but it seems that I just traded 1/2 day on the weekend at the airport for 1/2 day on the weekend at church.  Add a few days during the week and our schedules miss a little more.  I’m hoping that this will work itself out over time.

Thank you for reading.  This is very long and I appreciate you reading it.  I welcome any feedback, affirmations or corrections.

A disappointing weekend

February 25, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion, Sports 

This was one of those weekends where nothing quite goes your way, but it’s not really anybody’s fault.

Friday evening I went to a Philadelphia Wings lacrosse game.  A friend of mine (from camp and church) has season tickets and we’d made arrangements for this game way back in October or November.  I was looking forward to “catch up” time with her.  Unfortunately (for me), she recently started dating the guy who sits behind her at the games.  Carolyn and I enjoyed the game (it was close until the 4th quarter when the Wings went on a tear and blew out the other team), but we felt a bit like 3rd and 4th wheels.  I can’t really blame my friend for concentrating on a new romance.

Saturday was quiet at home.  I got the bills paid, some reading done, and rested.  Nothing bad there.

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Sunday evening our youth director had planned a big “Bible Goes To the Oscars” program.  He worked really hard – we had a red carpet and special lighting and movie stuff all over the place.  We were going to have the youth do bible skits and then give awards for things like “Best Jesus” or “Best Supporting Disciple”.  Only 4 youth showed up (with 5 adults).  I think the issue is that many of our youth are involved in theater productions at the various high schools next weekend.  We had to punt and switch to a discussion of films that have made a difference in your life and relating them to faith.  Again – not really anybody to blame but not quite what we wanted.

One bright spot – I asked my pastor a pressing question for me regarding ethics and the workplace.  He mentioned it in his sermon yesterday.  He didn’t have an answer, but he posted the question to others on the church’s new blog.

Four out of Five Dentists Approved this Sermon

February 18, 2008 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

My pastor preached a sermon yesterday on Building Character.  Audio Version Here Written Version Here

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on Character.  The first was about Character itself and a little about virtues.  The second part was on whether or not suffering builds character.

This week’s sermon was about building character.

Rev. Jeff Vamos talked a lot about practices and how we improve our character by behaving as if a desired practice or attribute were already part of our character.  He added an illustration.  One of the good habits that he picked up after getting married was flossing.  Up until that point he hadn’t flossed but now he was a confirmed flosser.  He talked about the benefits of flossing to all parts of the body (apparently flossing is correlated with good heart health).  This portion of his sermon is the reason for the title of this blog entry.

He also provided other examples.  He quoted a story from CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  A man who was not particularly handsome wore a mask for years that was beautiful.  At the end of those years he took off the mask and looked in a mirror.  He discovered that his face had grown to match the shape of the mask and that he was now handsome in his own right.  This metaphor illustrates the point – do the right thing and doing the right thing will become second nature.

In Confirmation Class after this service we talked a bit about what people remembered from the sermon.  Once we finished talking about floss it became clear that the points of the sermon and particularly the illustrations had sunk in with the confirmands and mentors.  The Confirmation class lesson was on the Christian Worldview.  One of the key points was that as Christians we are expected to BE the church IN the world.  Church is not something that we put on as we park in the lot or along Route 206, and then take off as we leave the building.  Church, Christian, Godly – these are things that we are expected to take with us into the world.  More that that – this is what we are expected to BE to the world.  We are called to be and do what Christ wants us to be and do with everyone.

Jeff touched on this in the sermon.  He spoke of how Steven Covey in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People suggests that people write a mission statement for their life.  Our pastor has challenged us to do the same.  (And Jeff realizes that now HE has to write one)

Now, corporate mission statements tend to be short and to the point but also very vague and buzzwordy.  My employer’s mission statement (at least it’s printed on the mug they gave us labeled “Mission Statement”) is “Enriching people’s lives through beautifully designed and crafted products.”  Pretty vague, eh?

I prefer a list of goals or rules to live by.  I accept the challenge.  Here they are:

Mark’s Goals for How to Live His Life

  • Know yourself, and be authentic.  Be yourself as much as possible in each situation.  Build a reputation for honesty, openness, and willingness to speak your opinion.
  • Behave ethically.  Do not cheat others.  Take only what you have earned or are willingly given.  Build a reputation for trustworthiness and ethics.
  • Be courageous in your dealings with others.  Speak truth to power.
  • Help the underdog.  Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.  Speak to your friends on behalf of those who are in conflict with them.
  • Deal respectfully and honestly with your enemies, even if they do not do the same with you.
  • Help other people as much as you can.
  • Try new things.  Move out of your comfort zone and grow.
  • Be dependable.  If you say you will do it, do it.  Exceed expectations where possible.
  • Be a loving husband.  Treat Carolyn at least as well as you treat others and usually better.
  • Be a loving person.  Show love to all who are able to accept it from you.  Quietly love the rest.
  • Be nice to animals.  Take special care of any pets that are your responsibility.
  • Be generous with your resources.  Your resources are like manure – they aren’t worth a damn unless you spread them around, encouraging things to grow.
  • Your talents are some of your resources.  See above.
  • Expect the best from others, but allow them room not to meet your expectations.  Accept failure from others more often than you do from yourself.
  • Take other people at face value.  It is more dangerous to try to read their minds than to accept that they are being authentic to you.
  • Be sure to care for yourself.  Guard your health without impeding your other goals.  Practice moderation.
  • Grow spiritually.
  • Model the behavior that Christ desires to others.
  • Have fun.  Sprinkle humor liberally throughout your life.
  • Eat your vegetables.
  • Floss.

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As you read this and think of me, please remember that these are goals.  I’m no more likely to be completely successful than you are.  It’s taken me almost 40 years to willingly eat my vegetables (though I have been flossing since college).  The goal about taking people at face value took a LONG time to learn.

How about you, readers?  Anybody else want to take a stab as a mission statement or set of goals?

PUP 3 – Naysayers 0 – Overoptimistic 0

February 13, 2008 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

The PCUSA General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission issued three rulings today that have to do with the Peace, Unity and Purity report, essential tenets, ordination, and indirectly homosexuality.

(For those who don’t know what I’m talking about – the General Assembly PJC is like the Supreme Court for the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination.)

In the first case involving the Presbytery of Olympia, the PJC ruled that the PUP report’s Authoritative Interpretation did not change ordination standards (including the “Fidelity and Chastity” standard).  It further ruled (referencing the next case) that an ordaining body may not establish a list of essentials or standards to which each candidate must conform in all respects.  In other words, no checklist where if you fail any item you may not be ordained.

The second case involving the Presbytery of Pittsburgh contains most of the meat of these decisions.  The GA PJC ruled that the Fidelity and Chastity standard remains in effect until amended or removed from the Book of Order.  It ruled that you may not scruple a behavior – only a belief.  It also ruled as above that an ordaining body may not establish a list of essentials – that they are redundant and unnecessary and therefore “an obstruction to constitutional governance”.  (Side note – expect the conservative Naysayers to make a statement about “Scriptural governance”.)  The PJC also ruled that each examination for ordination or installation must be done individually.  “The examining body is best suited to make decisions about the candidate’s fitness for office, and factual determinations by examining bodies are entitled to deference by higher governing
bodies in any review process.”  An important note is that the GA PJC decided that they had not been asked to rule on the presbytery’s prohibition of ministers performing “same-sex marriages” within the jurisdiction of the presbytery because that clause had not been argued.

The third case involved the Presbytery of Washington [state].  In this case, the GA PJC ruled:

  • that the Resolution A passed by the presbytery is void.  This resolution required adherence to all statements in the Book of Order that contained the words “shall”, “is/are to be”, “requierment” or equivalent expression for anyone being ordained.
  • That the presbytery may not require adherence to a list of essentials, including the document “Biblical Standards for Christian Leaders”,  by ordained or installed ministers.
  • That the presbytery may not require any standards for elders or deacons.  The presbytery had in both documents (Resolution A and the BSCL) intended that they apply to elders and deacons within the presbytery and there was a threat to take action against any ordained officer who refused to sign and “subscribe” to the BSCL document.
  • In a Concurring opinion, the presbytery was reprimanded for their processes in handling the presbytery minutes and the confusion as to the state of these resolutions that was caused.

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Here’s my analysis.

This is a victory for those who crafted the Peace, Unity and Purity report.  It is also a victory for those who said “Nothing has changed” in response to the complaints after the General Assembly adopted the report.  Some conservatives (though he took some of the invective back here) have railed that the recent presbytery decisions ordain or re-install gay ministers meant that those who said “Nothing has changed” were lying.   It’s just not true.  Our Presbyterian system takes TIME to work through new ideas and new rules.

So this is a loss for the Naysayers who complained about the PUP Report.  Truly, these decisions reassert traditional Presbyterian doctrine – that each ordinand/transferee is examined on their own merits.  None of us are perfect – the ordaining body (presbytery, session) must make a decision in each case on the merits of that person alone.  And the “fidelity and chastity” clause is still in force – in my opinion to the detriment of the church.

This is also a loss for the folks in the lesbian and gay (and liberal in general) community who saw the PUP report as a backdoor to ordination of homosexuals.  This is particularly true in the case of Scott Anderson, who was on the PUP task force.  The PUP report as amended and passed by the General Assembly truly changed nothing.  Lisa Larges (who was approved to seek a call) and Paul Capetz (who was reinstated to the office of Minister of the Word and Sacrament) will probably face remedial cases related to their status.  I believe that this GA PJC would overturn their presbyteries’ votes to accept their ordination while they assert a lifestyle in contradiction to G-6.0106b.  I’m sad to say this because I feel for them and believe that G-6.0106b should be removed from the Book of Order.  My commitment to the PCUSA is shaken every day by discrimination against homosexuals.  But these are the rules today.  We have to change them or accept them, or leave.  We can’t just ignore them; when we do the whole connectional/convenantal structure is brought into doubt.

It is important to note that even the GA PJC sees a need for alternative resolution of conflict.  In the 3rd case listed above the PJC quoted its report to the upcoming General Assembly:

There is little guidance in Rules of Discipline about how the conciliation and mediation should take place… . The experience of this Commission leads us to urge the General Assembly to consider adopting revisions to the Rules of Discipline that would promote alternative forms of dispute resolution and consensus building in lieu of adversarial judicial process. The Church should strive to resolve disputes in a manner that minimizes divisiveness and expense and promotes consensus, leaving this Commission to resolve disputes by judicial process as a last resort.

Let’s hope that the General Assembly listens to them.  The best part of the PUP Report is the part most often ignored – the need to TALK and LISTEN to each other when resolving disputes.  Too often today we are talking past each other and appealing to higher authority to solve our disputes.  That just leaves us angry and frustrated.

Lock-in – How did it go?

February 12, 2008 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

It went well.

The night was planned as 9pm to 8am for the youth with the adults arriving about 8pm.  I got there at 7:45 to help get started.

We ended up with about 14 youth and 5 adults.  Only 2 people who had signed up failed to arrive.

The evening started out (after some setup) with a group “introductions in a circle”.  Then we moved on to “Hula Hoop Dodgeball” for about 45 minutes.  At the end of the dodgeball anybody who participated ended up on the concrete floor trying to soak up the cool from the concrete – it was VERY energetic.

We followed that up with pasta and ice cream (no, not at the same time).

We had a very good serious discussion about life and faith.

We then had a lot of unstructured time.  There was one room with multiple video games.  The chapel contained a jam session complete with electric guitars, piano, drums and later acoustic guitar.  I played drums for possibly the first time in 18 years or so and I’m glad to see that while I was rusty I still remembered a lot. (Muscle memory runs deep if you do something long enough)  A few youth were impressed with my rendition of Wipe Out.  In a third room we were showing movies for the rest of the night.
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About 3:45am I went to the designated quiet sleep room and tried to sleep.  I was joined by another adult and a youth later.  We all got up for good about 7am.

At 7am we cleaned up (very well) and held a very short worship service (during which 1/2 of the group was asleep at any given moment).  Then the parents started arriving and we headed out.

This was mostly a fellowship event, but the serious discussion was very deep and very serious.  There’s a layer of profound depth hidden below the external picture that our youth project.

I slept most of Sunday, and took Monday off from work to reset my internal clock.  I think I’m 80% back to normal now.

I had fun.  I got to be me – the authentic real me as opposed to the me that I have to show the adult/working/controlled image world – with a group of very authentic people.  It was a pleasure.

Besides – how often do you get to play drums in a church at 3am?

First Lock-In

February 8, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

I’m a little nervous.

I’ve been working with the youth at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville for about a year now.  In that time I’ve been there for them at regular Sunday night meetings, gone on one overnight retreat at Camp Johnsonburg, and worked and taught the Confirmation Class.  All of those were easy – it was like falling off a log for me.  Even the teaching didn’t cause anxiety – I knew the material and knew the confirmands and I knew it would go well (and I think it did).

Here’s the thing.  We’re having a Senior High Lock-in Saturday night to Sunday morning.  The PCOL lock-in tradition seems to be a “no sleep” tradition.  I believe that space is provided for sleeping but it sounds like the majority of the youth will be staying up all night.  I’m OK with that.

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I’ll be fine.  The retreat starts at 9pm, so I suspect the adults need to be there about 8pm (I haven’t actually been told yet).  It ends at 8am.  I’m planning to take a serious nap on Saturday afternoon, have nothing planned for Sunday, and I’m taking Monday off from work to reset my sleep cycle.  I’ve volunteered to chaperone the sleeping room (assuming that can be done while asleep).  I just might be tired and a bit cranky at the end.

It should be fun!


February 5, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

This past Sunday during worship our Director of Children’s Ministries, Robyn Campbell, did the Children’s Message.  Her question to the kids was simple.  We had done Levi Sunday the previous week and the kids understood that we were doing good things for people.  The question that Robyn asked was “Why?”  She specifically told the kids not to answer now, not to answer in Sunday School, but to go home and talk to their parents about the question.

Later I bumped into Robyn while making copies for Confirmation Class.  She told me that her question was driven by something I’d written a week ago:

The youth know right from wrong and have a vague sense that it’s the Christian thing to do, but I believe they’d be hard-pressed to link their right actions to our beliefs.  We aim to fix that.

Wow.  I knew that a few folks from the church were reading my blog but I had no idea that Robyn was reading it.

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Second, thanks for the affirmation that my bloggy babbling is actually doing somebody somewhere some good.  This blog has been a way for me to get ideas out of my head and onto paper – a necessity for somebody like me who has trouble getting his brain to stop at times.  It’s also a way to connect with other people.  I’ve been blogging with a tiny hope that it’ll help someone somewhere someday.  I’m glad to see that it does.

The world truly is an interconnected web, and I’m often surprised at some of the connections.