Gifts for Seminarians

December 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary 

It’s Christmastime.  I was looking for gift ideas for folks who wanted suggestions for gifts for me.  I asked my crowd on Twitter what gifts made sense for someone who would be starting seminary in the near future.

They came up with these suggestions.  I have linked the suggesters Twitter profiles.  (NOTE:  some of these folks are Protected on Twitter, and some of the protected folks are open to new follow requests. You may or may not be successful in following someone).

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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.

Family – putting the fun in dysfunctional

December 24, 2007 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Life 

Saturday was the Smith family Christmas get-together.  We had to hold it early due to my brother’s police employment (he has to work Christmas).

Mom and Dad went to China last summer.  They gave each of us a Beijing olympics 2008 t-shirt.  Translation of sizes was difficult, so they guessed.

I opened mine:

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Yep.  She actually said that.