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.

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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.


Candlelit Labyrinth

August 31, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Religion 

This past Thursday, I went up to Camp Johnsonburg for one day of Family Camp.  It was good to reconnect with friends from years gone by.  I had some conversations that may help my faith growth and/or discernment processes.

This was the last full day of Family Camp for the week.  As a result in the evening there was the special Communion vespers service (I ended up reading the scripture).

After the service, Lorelei led a candlelight labyrinth.  At Camp Johnsonburg there is an outdoor labyrinth made of stones laid on the forest floor under some trees.  At the center is a big tree with a cross leaning against it.  The camp tradition is to carry a stone with you while walking the labyrinth, and to leave it at the foot of the cross when you are done.  The labyrinth has been there 10 years – the stones are in a huge pile covering the bottom 1/2 of the 5′ cross.

I’ve walked this labyrinth during the day alone, during the day with campers of all ages, and twice in the winter as part of a retreat.  Each walk is a different experience (even when you lead it 4 times a day with campers).  But the candlelight labyrinth is VERY different.

I helped set up the candles.  We took tea lights and placed them on flattened silver foil cupcake papers laid on flat rocks around the labyrinth.  Just before we arrived, a few of the Leadership Training Program reunion youth lit them.

It was late twilight when we arrived, and fully dark (on a cloudy night) when we were done.  At the beginning of my personal walk, I was able to see the path without the candles.  By the time I finished walking all the way in and then retracing the path out I could only see the path WITH the help of the candles – and then just barely.  For the first time that I’d walked this labyrinth I was uncertain of my path.  (Indeed, one youth tried to finish and kept accidentally jumping paths.  He gave up and walked out across the stones when he was still going 10 minutes after everybody else.)
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As I write this I’ve been unemployed for over a year.  While I continue to perform my church duties and even take on additional ones, I’m struggling with God:  both with some kind of sense of call, and with frustration with my continued joblessness.  I’ve reached a point where I feel like I believe in God, but I don’t think God believes in me.  And yet I still feel drawn to God and to the religious world and life in some form.  It’s very confusing and very painful.

As I walked this time, a metaphor became clear to me.  I experienced it as a future sermon illustration.  The candles were like God’s presence in the flame (Holy Spirit, if you will).  I had walked this labyrinth many times, but THIS time I was uncertain of the path.  I was only able to see the path with the help of the candles.  So then go parts of our lives?  Only able to see the path with God’s aid?  God is with us assisting us to find our path?

For now it’s just a future sermon illustration and I don’t feel like it applies to me.  I do feel rather abandoned by God.  But perhaps there will be a day when God finally gets around to giving me a path or showing me what the path is, and this metaphor will be more concrete for me.

Next year I’ll be President of the Deacons and need to preach, so at the very least I have an idea to file away for 18 months or so.

May you find your path, and help others find theirs, with God’s help.

A quick update

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion, Youth 

There’s been a lot going on lately since my last post.

The job search continues.  Yesterday marked 11 months since the layoff.  I do have one possibility pending that would be a 1/2 time consulting job.

At church we’re shifting a bit to handle the resignation of our Associate Pastor which is effectively effective immediately.  This may result in some actual responsibilities for me in my role as Vice-President of the Deacons.  We’ll see.

Last week I went up to Camp Johnsonburg to serve one day as Volunteer Chaplain.  This mainly involved leading bible studies and labyrinth walks for various age groups, but I was also involved in evening vespers.  There was a really neat session with a Senior High unit.  The chaplain (Lorelei) and I were invited to a session called “Questions and Answers” and we had no idea what questions would come up.  We did our best to answer them unprepared and several stories from my life (most written here) were able to serve as at least partial answers.  The most concrete question we got I was able to answer once I was back at home (with a major assist from my Twitter followers) and get the answer back to camp before the unit went home.  I’m going to be repeating this role again later this week.
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The God Complex Internet radio program continues every Monday at noon EDT, 9am PDT.  I’m serving as webmaster for the program and during the live show I coordinate the public chat room.

I’m still busily getting ready for the Montreat Youth Conference later this month (week 5 – July 26 – August 1).  I have all of the items that I need to bring as a Small Group Leader and I’m working on going through the SGL manual now with a Bible in the other hand to prepare myself.

Carolyn was gone for about 10 days out of 14 a few weeks ago working on a problem machine at her company’s California facility.  This included one 44-hour “day” on the last trip.  I think she’s mostly caught up on sleep.

Job Search – day 6

August 21, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Work 

(This is about yesterday.)

On Wednesday, I headed up to the local church camp to talk to the chaplain about my job situation.  Lorelei is one of those “mother to everybody” people at camp and is trained in spiritual direction.  We talked about the options related to taking a church-based or non-profit job.  In the end, we circled around the ideas that:  1)  I shouldn’t make too radical a change in work assignments right away – an IT job in such an organization might be a good start, 2)  I’m not hearing a call to ministry at the moment, 3)  I’m not sure that working at a church-based or non-profit organization would pay well enough to avoid a major change in lifestyle all at once.  One note that surprised me was the idea that I am moving towards working with people more than in the past.  My recent work experience bears that out – I’ve been less interested in fighting with the computer and more interested in working with and through other people.  Hmmm.

In the afternoon I was able to do some networking with former camp staff colleagues from years ago because Family Camp was going on.  I talked with a bunch of old friends, and one in particular is in my local area and might be able to help.
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Finally, returning to a place where I get to be myself helped in the healing process after a job loss.

No solid conclusions yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer to figuring out what I want to do.

Montreat Youth Conference, part 1

August 5, 2008 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

Last week I went to the Montreat Youth Conference as an adult advisor for my church’s youth group.  During the trip, I had an experience that was … well … let me just describe it.

First, a little background.  I’ve written before about my experiences with the church and my departure from the church almost 20 years ago.  If you don’t want to read that, here’s a summary:  very involved as a youth (deacon, Synod YAD, church camp), in college a few things happened and I left the church completely.  I began searching for a congregation related to my return to church just about 3 years ago this month, and joined my current congregation later that fall.  I’m currently serving as a youth advisor for the Sr. High youth group, co-chairing a committee, and I’m about to start serving as a deacon again.

During Monday night’s worship at Montreat, the song “Here I Am, Lord” was sung.  This song was very popular at Camp Johnsonburg when I was working there, and I was happy to sing it again.

Around about the 2nd verse, I started getting very emotional and tearing up.  Around about the 3rd verse, I started to get a picture in my head – one that I can’t claim came from me.

The picture showed something of a timeline.  Over on the left side, there was a dark black line that represented my religious involvement of the past – from about age 13 to age 19.  On the right side, there was another shorter dark black line that represented my religious involvement of the past few years.  There was a big blank space in between.  As we sang, I saw the picture of a jumper wire (almost like a car’s jumper cable, but more like something used in electronics work) connecting the two lines.  I have been considering my religious life of the past to be different from the present.  I believe that the message here is that they are part of a single whole and remain connected.

So I was standing there, singing, tears in my eyes, and a picture in my head that I didn’t put there.

In my mind, this was a full-on Religious Experience.  Maybe even a Vision.  I mean … if there had been a shaft of sunlight and Baptist dancers flying through the air I’d be a Blues Brother now.  It was a really weird experience.

I’ve been skeptical of those who claim to have visions or have other divinely-inspired events in their lives.  Not anymore.  I think I get it now.  A later discussion with a family member produced that person’s story of a similar experience.

At the time that this happened, I had no idea what it meant.  I’m still not sure that I do.
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The first thing that I did was ask my youth director to join me at The Huck for some ice cream so that I could talk about this (and another youth joined us for “Introvert Time”).  On the way we met Jorge Gonzales who was doing music for the week and I got a chance to thank him.

Later in the week I might have gotten some idea of the meaning behind this.

All youth and adults participating in small groups were assigned to a Small Group of about 30 people.  Those groups were broken down into smaller “Threshold” groups of about 6.  I got an opportunity to talk about this experience with my Threshold Group, but due to time constraints I barely got through the story before we had to move onto something else.

The theme for the week was “Throw Open the Doors”.  There were door metaphors tossed around during all activities.  On Friday (the last day of the conference), our Small Group leader asked “what doors have opened for you this week?”  I had a few ideas in my head, and the one that I chose was:  Don’t let the experiences of the past (meaning negative ones) color your view of your experiences of the present.  When I said that the Small Group said things like, “Dude.  That’s not just a door – that’s like a big gate or something.”

Later that evening we had the closing worship.  The preacher was Michelle Thomas-Bush (who I met through this blog).  She told a story about her 20th high school reunion.  At the reunion she met a man who had been in school with her.  He explained that he couldn’t remember anything about his high school experience at all.  He was being abused by his parents at the time, and all of his memories of that period are one big black mess.  He came to the reunion in order to rediscover his high school memories.  He was the life of the party, talked to everybody, and learned a few things.  At the end of the evening he talked to Michelle again.  She asked him if he’d learned anything.  He reported a few memories of good times and stupid high school tricks, but his main message was that this night was his New High School Memory.

Sound familiar?  Yeah, I thought so too.

I’m still working on how to apply these revelations to my life, though the implications for my church life are pretty obvious.  Back in December, I wrote this about how those once hurt by the church may keep looking over their shoulder for trouble to come again.  I think that part of the message is clear – stop looking over your shoulder.  We’ll see.  Being a Christian is hard.

As for the rest, that is not quite apparent yet.  More in the next post on the conference.

OH. Hmmm.

July 23, 2008 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

This weekend, I’m off with 3 other adults, 2 college students, and something like 8 or so high school youth to the Montreat Youth Conference (week VI) at the Montreat Conference Center in (you guessed it) Montreat, NC.

I’ve been a little nervous about this trip.  So much so that I think I’m annoying our youth director with questions, which he is patiently answering.  I don’t have any good reason to be nervous.  I trust the youth director and the other adults going on the trip.  The college students and youth going on the trip are great and I expect fewer than average problems with them or their behavior (as compared to what I read on Youth Ministry websites).  I’ve heard nothing but good things about the place and the conference from a large number of people.

I’ve been telling myself that the reason that I’m nervous is that the last time I went to a church youth conference was the Youth Triennium in 1986 – when I WAS a youth.  That I was just worried about whether the 40-year-old air-conditioning-loving, out-of-shape, used-to-sleeping-in-his-own-room me could keep up.

While shaving this morning it hit me.

Triennium wasn’t the last time I went to a church youth conference.

Several months after Triennium, I went to a weekend retreat sponsored by some of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s NJ chapters.  Here’s what I wrote about that previously:

Back in 1986, I was a freshman at Rutgers University.  On the first day, I was wandering around campus looking at the booths that various student organizations had set up.  One of them near the Busch Student Center was for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  They were giving away ice cream.  I figured that as a rather religious person (at this point I was already a deacon and serving on two Synod committees) I should take a look and find a campus christian fellowship.  The local Campus Crusade for Christ seemed too fundamentalist for me, so I tried out InterVarsity.

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In October I took a retreat with them for a weekend in the woods.  It turned out to be a very cult-like situation for me.  The 48-hour retreat turned out to be (as experienced by me) 24 hours of telling me
how terrible my beliefs are, and then once I stopped fighting them, 24 hours of pouring in their own beliefs.  As expected, those beliefs were strongly conservative.

Fortunately, my personality turned out to be strong enough to resist such tactics.  I made the right noises and they stopped treating me as the “resisting” attendee and moved on to other people.  Once I returned to campus, I never went back to their group again.  And as I wrote before, this was the first step in my turn away from the church

This hit me like a ton of bricks today.  My last experience traveling away with youth to a place foreign to me was a negative one.  While I’ve done some overnights with the youth in the past year, those were either at the church or at Camp Johnsonburg where I felt very comfortable and always knew that I had the ability to leave (since it was at home or I was driving my vehicle).  I wasn’t miles away from home without control over my movements.

Having realized what has been going on in my head, I feel much more comfortable now.  I’m shifting rapidly from nervous to excited.  This is going to be fun!

It’s amazing how things from your past can influence the way you perceive the present.  Not a new lesson for me (by a long shot), but a newly reinforced lesson.

If you or anybody you know will be at Montreat for 7/27-8/1, leave a comment or send an e-mail.  I’d love to say Hi.

What’s going on

July 18, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Ham Radio, Life, Religion, Youth 

My blog has been quiet, and light on what’s going on in my life.  Most of that is due to the Sword of Damocles question about what I should write here.  (By the way, more input is desired in the Bible Study on blogging.)

Here’s a short roundup of what’s been happening and what is going to be happening.

  • Car Accident – This happened back on June 20.  As I said before – minor damage and no injuries.  My car has been repaired.  I’m apparently at the beginning of the subrogation process – my insurance company has decided that I’m not at fault and has submitted a claim to the other driver’s company.  The other driver got a ticket for Careless Driving, so it should be an easy decision in my favor.
  • DirecTV – I have two DirecTV DVRs.  One of them developed hard drive problems and was randomly rebooting.  That has since been replaced for what amounts to Free.  It was just a pain, but much less of a pain than expected.
  • Deacon – I perform my first deacon duty this weekend.  I’ll be putting juice and iced tea on the table in Fellowship Hall after the service.  As one other blogger said, “They also serve who stir and pour.”  I’ll be greeting in August, and Officer Training and Installation will be in September.
  • Camp Johnsonburg – I’ve assisted twice with Sunday check-in.  Once I was a medical check person for the “no medication” line, and the other time I managed the medical form paperwork process (an all-paper process that is a bit labor-intensive for 200+ campers).  I was pleasantly surprised to run into one of my youth group members checking into the camp’s Leadership Training Program (a 3-week program that is essentially Counselor training).  I’ll be back again in August for one more Sunday.
  • Youth Group – I drove the youth mission trip to and from Philadelphia where they stayed at and worked with Broad Street Ministries.  By all reports a good time was had by all and several report transformational experiences.  I’ll be going with the youth group trip to Montreat for the Youth Conference (week VI) starting next weekend.  I’m a smidge nervous about that – the last time I did a week road trip with a bunch of youth was my trip to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in 1986, when I was a youth.  I’m hoping that a mostly out of shape 40-year-old can keep up.
  • Birthday – it was quiet, which is the desired result.  I didn’t ask for much, and the presents that I received were thoughtful.  I got a lot of cards with old people on them for some reason …
  • Ham Radio – I participated in the national Field Day at the end of June.  I was only able to help set up in the morning and operate for a few hours in the afternoon.  This event is when amateur radio clubs and individuals all over the country set up their equipment in the field (we were at Mercer County Park) and demonstrate their ability to operate in an emergency.
  • Home, Wife, Cats – all about as good as usual.

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Blogging will be non-existent between July 25 and August 3 or so due to the youth trip.  It may be light until then, unless I think of something compelling to say.

Start of Summer Meme

May 29, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Life, Religion 

I’ve been tagged by Toby Brown of Classical Presbyterian for a meme.

Start of Summer Meme

Whether it’s the smell of the grill, the taste of fresh lemonade, the glow of fireflies or the pull of your fishing line, many of us have distinctive senses about what makes for the sign of summer.

So, you all know the rules–fill it out on your own blog and tag other blogs. If you have no blog, answer it in the comment section here.
Let’s dive in!

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1.)  What first tells you that Summer is here?

Two things:  First, the need for air conditioning.  Second, the First Sunburn of Summer.  The latter generally happens in late April on a gray cloudy day when I’m out at a festival of some sort and forget that I need a hat on my sparsely-populated head.

2.) Name your five of your favorite distinctively Summer habits or customs.

  1. The Summer Afternoon Nap
  2. Cooking on the Grill
  3. Mowing the Lawn
  4. Volunteering for check-in on Sundays at church camp
  5. My Birthday

3.) What is your favorite smell of Summer?

The odor of the first few big, fat raindrops that fall before the full thunderstorm hits.  This is the smell that signals a reduction in humidity and temperature in the near future.

4.) What is your favorite taste of Summer?

Grilled cheeseburgers.

5.) Favorite Summer memory?

Sitting around the campfire in the evening at Work Camp at Camp Johnsonburg, circa 1984.  Work Camp was special.  The 50-70 campers were spread across all age groups from entering 3rd grade to graduating from high school.  The cost was half of a regular unit because the work camp spent mornings doing work on the camp.  I remember painting buildings and one year even re-shingling a roof.  The younger kids did things like cleaning campfire cooking equipment and lanterns.

Every evening the entire work camp would have a campfire together.  We had our own leaders (the same every year) and our own set of regular songs.  The evening campfire was a cross between the traditional campfire, a bible study, and a worship service.  The work campers were a close-knit group – many came from two churches that founded the work camp and they and others repeated work camp every year – but they readily accepted new people.  It felt like a giant family even more than regular camp.

I’ll pick one specific memory.  In 1985 I was a CIT (Counselor in Training) and for work camp I got to co-counsel with the Associate Pastor of my church (my youth pastor).  He was also the chaplain for the week.  The last night of work camp was always a communion service.  At the time I was already a deacon, and the Book of Order limited service of communion to elders or “deacons, if sufficient elders are not available”.  The communion service that he and I served at was my first chance to serve communion – something that was only ever repeated the following summer at Triennium.

Alas – Work Camp is no more in that form.  The closest thing today is that some churches will send a group (youth or adult) up to live in a cabin for a week and do a project.  Those folks don’t interact with the camp program much.

6.) Extreme heat or extreme cold? Which would you choose and why?

Extreme cold.

For one thing it’s easier for humans to “fix” extreme cold.  Heating is generally easier than air conditioning.  I dislike temperature extremes at either end.  Secondly, I’m a real homebody and love the snuggly “stay inside” call of a cold snap.

7.) What books do you plan to read for the season?

Because of the economy (national and personal), I’m re-reading things from my shelf.  Most of that is science-fiction.  Right now I’m reading The Tower and the Hive (Rowan) by Anne McCaffrey.

One book that I have ordered is:  Fearless Fourteen (Stephanie Plum, No. 14) I like the Janet Evanovich “Stephanie Plum” series in part because it takes place in Trenton NJ but also because it’s REALLY funny.  Note – those easily offended by foul language, risque topics and less than Godly behavior probably won’t like these.

8.) How does the Summer affect your faith? Is it a hindrance or an ally?

An ally.

I’ll preface my remarks with a reminder that I’m a strong introvert.

During the rest of the year, church alternates between hard work, painful interaction with some (including some nasty fights on the web … ahem), and high moments.  I love working with the youth group, see the value of my work on committees (though they are a form of stress for me sometimes), and experience the difficulty of an introvert functioning in a large community.  We are called to be in community, but our current structures aren’t really designed to make introverts comfortable.

In the summer, all of the “large group” aspects of faith get less intense.  Our church has no air conditioning, and as a result attendance on Sunday drops WAY off.  Committee work slows down or stops completely.  The youth group doesn’t meet regularly which is both a bad thing (I miss them) and a good thing (I can get to sleep earlier on Sunday evening).

There are a few summer-only things too:

Church Camp – Carolyn and I will go up to help with check-in a few Sundays this summer.  We generally spend about 3-4 hours in the afternoon doing medical checks or doing the complicated and crazy job of managing the medical paperwork.  For that work, we get the privilege of spending the whole day there.  We generally arrive in time for Staff Worship in the morning and then have a leisurely lunch with our camp friends.  Sometimes we stay for dinner (if it’s not too hot) with 100-200 excited kids and staff.

Montreat – for the first time, I’m going with my church’s youth group to the Montreat summer youth conference (week VI, in case you’re going).  I’m doing this with some trepidation – the last time I did something like this was Youth Triennium in 1986 when I WAS a youth, but it should be fun.  We have something like 10 youth and 4 adults going for the program plus another adult in a support role.

Last, let’s not forget that my return to the church was sparked by a conversation at camp at lunch on a Sunday that I did check-in.  Summer is generally pretty good to my faith.

Let’s see.  I tag:

Cheesehead in Paradise
Alan of Some Amusing Blog Pun
Gannet Girl of Search the Sea
Adam Walker-Cleaveland of Pomomusings
Little Miss Sew and Sow

Good Weekend

October 1, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

I’m tired, but happy.

Friday evening I headed out to church to be the 2nd wave driver for the Sr. High retreat.  There were a few youth who played football who needed to leave later than the 6pm departure time.  I got there at 6:15, and the first wave in the big van didn’t leave until 6:30.  Ultimately we all got to camp and settled in about 9pm.

We headed out to the waterfront and held a campfire, complete with singing and S’mores.  I’m not usually a big fan of s’mores (I prefer to eat the components separately), but I had one anyway so that the vegetarian youth could roast a marshmallow (they contain gelatin, you know).  After that we finally got to bed around midnight.

The next morning was quiet.  After breakfast, we headed into the woods and did a trust/togetherness exercise that involved walking along a rope strung between trees with your eyes closed.  It was done alone, then with a guide, then alone again.  It’s sort of a “walking with Jesus” exercise.  After that we had a talk about when God is and is not present in your life and the youth got into some pretty heavy topics.  I was very impressed with the way that this group handled people’s difficult times without making fun – that’s pretty rare in this age group.

The rest of the morning was “free” time.  A group played football in the meadow while others rested in the lodge.  We ended the morning with a game of “Have you ever….” Jenga.  This uses the book “Have you Ever …?” along with a Jenga game with the tiles numbered (by hand).  Each participant pulls a tile out of the stack, places it on top, and the number on the tile is used to find a numbered question in the book.  If tiles are recycled you just add 100, 200, etc. to the tile number.  We got the stack up to 29 levels before it fell.  (The record is 40 plus two tiles.)

We had lunch, and then headed home.

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Sunday was another church-packed day.  The morning service included an introduction of our 3 seminary interns (with CAKE at the Fellowship Hour).  After Fellowship time, Temple Micah invited us to join them in the sukkah that they’d built on the front lawn of the manse.  There was also the 2nd half of an adult forum series on Presbyterian beliefs that I attended (tough choice, but I’d already done the homework for the forum).  (Discussion for another post – what the heck are we doing listing people’s pledges by size for comparison when we’re doing Consecration Sunday that is supposedly NOT about the numbers?)

At the end of the adult forum I got recruited to usher at the afternoon Jazz Vespers service, which brought me back to church after a 2 hour rest.  The music was provided by Presbybop, a jazz quartet founded by Presbyterian clergy.  The service was attended by about 130 people, and was wonderful.  Presbybop has taken some traditional hymns and jazzed them up while retaining the proper feeling and words.  We sang two of those, and other music was included.  Rev. Bill Carter did the homily.  The service was based on the Book of Common Worship’s “Evening Prayer” order of worship – appropriate to the setting sun.  The congregation was energized by the service.

After the service, dinner was provided by the choir.  Excellent food was catered from Chuckles with dessert from church members and the leftovers from Fellowship Hour in the morning.  Carolyn and I sat with the youth group for dinner, and met Rev. Karen Hernandez-Granzen of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton.

After dinner we headed back to the sanctuary for a one-set concert by Presbybop.  Folks, these guys know their jazz.  You can find them on iTunes, and their CDs are for sale at  The congregation was brought to their feet at the end for a standing ovation (and we did get an encore).  It was hysterical to see the upright and sometimes elderly Presbyterians swaying and nodding their heads to the wonderful jazz.  I saw one guy air drumming using the pens from the prayer card racks in the pews.

I’m still short on sleep, but it was a truly wonderful weekend.

Meetings and trip

September 27, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

It’s been another busy week in Mark-land.

Sunday we had the real Sr. High youth group kickoff session.  We had fun, got introduced to each other, played around, and ate ice cream.  It’s a good group of youth including not one but TWO exchange students.

Monday evening we had the first meeting of the Welcome and Outreach Task Force that I am co-chairing.  As I’ve said before our charter is to study visitors, inactive members and the local community and then to make recommendations on what the church could do to create an atmosphere of hospitality and invitation.  It was a good meeting – mainly kept to start up tasks and ideas.  We have two challenges.  First is scheduling meetings – the folks on the team are really busy and it’s hard to find a 1.5 hour time slot that works for everybody.  Fortunately I discovered (after some hints from the pastor and another team member) Meet-O-Matic.  That should help.  The second challenge is that we have one team member who has no Internet access (or inclination to get access).  We’ve appointed a team member to be that member’s “Internet buddy”, and we’ve covenanted not to make any decisions via e-mail without getting her input.

The team is very diverse (as diverse as we could get given the congregation’s demographics).  We have people who have only been attending our church since last spring and people who have been members for over 25 years.  We have a pretty good age spread, and the gender balance is good.  The skills and interests of the group members are fairly well balanced, too.

One interesting concept that came from this meeting is the definition of our “mission field” – the land area that we are targeting.  The traditional idea was that we serve a 3 mile radius from the church building.  However, over 1/2 of the team lives outside of that radius.  This means (by extrapolation – and it does work out that way) that a significant percentage of the church membership drives past another Presbyterian church or three (not to mention other denominations) to get to our church.  We are thinking that we might have two tiers – the 3-mile “local” tier and a larger area.  We decided to add “active members outside the 3-mile radius” to the list of groups studied to see what draws them to drive a distance to be part of our community.  We’re also going to be mapping the households using software yet to be determined (Google Maps?).
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So that was Monday evening.  Did I get a break Tuesday evening?  No.  Carolyn decided that this was the week to re-seal the driveway while it is still warm enough.  (It did need it)  So I got home Tuesday evening and it took the two of us just about 1 hour to put a coat on the driveway.  She was nice to me Wednesday evening and put the 2nd coat on herself (a thinner coat).  I just had to cook dinner.

Tonight is laundry, and then Friday evening I’m going with the Sr. Highs up to Camp Johnsonburg for a quick overnight retreat.  We’ll be home about 3pm on Saturday – just in time to see Rutgers play Maryland (my brother’s alma mater) in football.

Sunday I’ll have church in the morning.  I’m attending an adult forum on what makes Presbyterians different from other denominations.  I have homework to do – matching the names, dates, and a short summary of the Confessions.  Sunday evening the church is doing the first ever Jazz Vespers.  The youth are attending together, and I’m probably going to bring Carolyn along too.

Who was it that said “You can sleep when you’re dead.”?

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