When I served in my first three parish situations, it was in the age of electric typewriters. I’ve previously written that my earliest experience in a pastoral setting was in 1968, when I was a seminary student serving an internship. That was a number of years before churches were computerized. This is not to say that I was ignorant regarding computers. Far from it.

While in college, I spent three summer breaks working at what was then the “home” plant (as in birthplace) of IBM. During an unfortunate semester off from school, I worked secretly on the iconic IBM System 360 mainframe computer. I’d tell you something about that work, but I signed a “company confidential” agreement, and no one ever told me the secrecy was lifted, so my lips are sealed. But, yes, I did know computers, or at least the tiny little pieces I personally made possible.

In the mid-1980s, when moved into my office at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church, I had already been exposed to the wonderful potential that computers and “word processing” brought to the offices of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education where I taught video. The church also had computers by that time, but not one for the new Associate Pastor (me), and I knew the things were terribly expensive and not in the budgeted future for me. But I discovered in a closet down the hall an old discarded IBM computer and keyboard, and I rejoiced to find it still worked.

Keep in mind that the old machine was little more than an electronic typewriter with floppy, very floppy, disks for storing a few bits of memory. Our various machines around the church offices didn’t speak to one another, much less to the outside world. But just having that tiny cursor blinking on my green screen was exciting.

Eventually, after moving to my Vermont church in the early 1990s, that old IBM was no longer sufficient for even my modest usage. Joan and I splurged on a new IBM “Aptiva,” one we bought through the IBM employees’ purchasing program. That meant that an IBM-er who attended the Vermont church and who worked at IBM-Burlington got the computer for me at a discount. It was a very exciting day when he showed up with the boxes and set the thing up. He exuded, quietly so that Joan nor God could hear, “This thing will kick ass!” It was that fast. Or, at least that much faster than the dinosaur I was getting rid of.

Small, rural churches don’t have large staffs, of course. That’s an understatement. I was the pastor, but also the church secretary, typing the worship bulletins, the church newsletter, and correspondence, so that Aptiva was –dare I say it? — a God-send. OK, that’s an overstatement. But it was almost fun to choose fonts, depend on spell check, and look things up in the CD-Rom  dictionary and encyclopedia. Soon, churches had lots of resources available on disk, and the world opened up. But still, no connectivity.

However, when the Internet finally found its way to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, life changed forever. Of course, it was a primitively slow dial-up connection, but we had email!  And that meant that some of the isolation we felt in our rural town would be dispelled as lines of communication opened up with friends from Virginia, fellow pastors in Vermont and beyond, and even strangers who offered news of the wider church, theological reflections, and…sermon helps!

There was this thing called “PresbyNet,” and it gave us a sense of community, with “meetings” that centered around common interests or unique ones for that matter. A discussion of the week’s Lectionary readings helped with sermon preparation. Need an illustration or humorous story? Check out that meeting. These meetings were the precursor of Facebook groups, complete with moderators, lurkers, and those who over-offered, if you catch my drift. I can’t stress enough how this medium opened up the world to a pastor serving one of only nine Presbyterian churches in the whole state. Why, that portal to the “outside world” could very well have become addictive. And abused.

It would not be long before complete sermons floated around in cyberspace, and some pastors certainly took advantage. Not me, of course. Frankly, I enjoyed the art of sermon prep and writing, both the challenge of the task and the fruits of the final manuscript. But, I don’t know of a pastor who didn’t (doesn’t) crave a good story or a novel take on an ancient parable. And our libraries of printed books could only carry us so far. So, there was the Internet as a resource library, and it was invaluable.

The most remarkable thing happened one afternoon in my study in the church manse. It may have been the first year that our annual Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly was available on line. The image was not very sharp, and because the signal come to us by phone lines, the picture would freeze up. You can imagine that the process was a bit frustrating. But, it was live! And important. And this local pastor, sitting in his 1840 manse in a village of, maybe, 60 people, was watching the business conducted at a national church meeting many states away, as it happened. This was the dawning of the new age of communication. It was remarkable, but as I signed on for the first time, here’s where the surprise came.

Within minutes of my establishing the on-line connection with that meeting in progress, one of the TV cameras at the General Assembly swung toward a microphone on the convention floor, and there, offering his comment to the G.A. Moderator, was the Rev. James MacKellar, who sang tenor in our church choir every week, and who mentored me throughout my years in the Vermont church. I don’t know if I startled Joan or not, but I must have shouted, “Joan, look! It’s Jim MacKellar…speaking right now on the floor of the G.A., right there on my computer!”

I realize as I type this blog that you may not understand the significance of that Internet moment. After all, you can read email and tweets on your wristwatch these days. (And maybe movies too, but why would you want to?) The sermons from our church are “posted” on YouTube and if you are looking for a church home, you check the Internet, not the “Yellow Pages.” But back then, it was so new, it was almost miraculous.

Just thought I should note that.

Forty days in Lent…forty reflections on my vocation as a pastor. Tomorrow is Sunday, thus a sabbath. But we pick up on Monday with some unpleasantness in my last call. May as well get it over with.

Advertisements