Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Facebook--A brave new world for ministry

I remember back in 2004, I was a lay minister at the ELCA's campus ministry at the University of Nebraska. Each summer, the ELCA campus ministers all gather for a conference--while I was there, one of the speakers told us how important it was for us to make sure that whichever university we worked with gave us a university email address, something that ended with a .edu. The reason, he said, was because there was this new website called "Facebook" that had started out with some California colleges, and college kids were signing up and using it to tell their friends what they were doing and to meet new people. It had just recently gone national, but in order to register, you had to have an address that ended with the .edu suffix. He said the thing had grown like wildfire and he wouldn't be surprised if soon it wasn't the primary way college kids kept in touch. 

It's less than 9 years later now. You no longer need a university email to register. Facebook is used by people of all ages, companies, non-profits, churches...in fact, if Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. Most of my extended family live in different parts of the country than I do, and Facebook has become our primary means of keeping in contact. Even my 85 year-old grandmother (Hi Grammy!) has a Facebook account, and loves to see pictures, videos, and stories of her grandkids and great-grandkids' daily lives.

Facebook has changed the way we do relationships. 

The church, as the body of Christ, has always been about relationships. If we've seen such a fundamental addition in our personal and business lives about how we connect, then it only makes sense that it would have an effect on our faith communities as well. How do we as a church live into this brave new world of digital connectedness? 

First of all, we need to be a part of it. We have this amazing tool at our fingertips (literally!) that allows us to create groups, allows us to instantly be in touch with a huge variety of people, allows us to quickly and easily make available pictures and ideas, and not only allows us to put these things out there for consumption, but encourages feedback and communication. It allows us to have a significant presence in the daily lives of our parishioners if we so desire. If church leaders have personal Facebook profiles and post about their daily lives, it also helps break down those invisible walls that many people have, assuming that pastors or other church people aren't "real people" like everyone else.  

Second, we need to model how to use social media well, responsibly, and spiritually. There is so much crap out there that gets passed around on Facebook and other platforms. What previously had been relegated to chain emails (or chain snail-mail) can now be instantly linked, viewed, commented on, and passed along even more efficiently. That said, there's a lot of good stuff out there too. We need to be wise in what we post and how we post it, modeling how to integrate our faith in with our lives.

Third, while social media is no replacement for in-person contact, we need to remember the power of social media to help us stay connected in times when we ordinarily wouldn't be. A very powerful example is when a congregation's high school seniors leave for college. In the past, we'd have to wait for breaks to see them again and catch up, perhaps sending a letter or a care package once in a while. Now, all it takes is a "like" on a picture they posted, and they know that someone from church is thinking about them...or jotting a quick note on their wall. Or sending a private message if they posted about breaking up with their girlfriend or bombing a test just to check in and show support. 

I have a real-life example of this sort of thing. Back in 2010, the young man who had been my congregation's seminary intern the previous year was killed in the earthquake in Haiti. Ben Larson was one of those people who was beloved by pretty much everyone who met him. At the time he was with our congregation, I was the youth director, and he and I had become good friends. We had worked together closely in a number of areas, one of which was the Confirmation program. When the earthquake happened, I was at Luther Seminary for my January on-campus intensive courses, and even in the midst of my own grief I felt horrible guilt that I wasn't back home to be there for the congregation's youth who had looked up to him so much. So I took to Facebook. I posted a message in our youth group page inviting anyone who needed to talk things through to do so, and did the same on my personal wall. I'm getting teary-eyed right now as I remember this, because thanks to Facebook I was able to have conversations with some of my church kids, and even more importantly, they were able to minister to each other. One such exchange was so powerful, in fact, that I cut and pasted it into a Word document and saved it to my computer just to keep for future reference. I'm going to post it here...all the names have been changed (except mine and Ben's). I didn't fix any of the misspellings or grammatical mistakes, either...this is the way the conversation transpired with me and 3 high school freshmen:

Jane
I don't see why this had to happen. Ben was such a great person, why did he deserve this?
Yesterday at 9:03pm ·

Jane
It's not freaking fair.
Yesterday at 9:05pm

Matt
Jane...you're right. It's not fair. It sucks, and there's no getting around that. Ben didn't deserve this. At times like this, all we can do is cling to God's promises, trusting that God loves us and is mourning alongside us, and remembering Romans 8: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." That's the kind of love that Ben lived his life knowing, and spent his life showing to those around him.
Yesterday at 9:50pm

Mary
Jane, he's touched so many lives, and still is. I know he's touched mine. While I was crying in English randomly when Ms. Smith had to bring up Haiti I texted Tom and we were talking and I told him how I can't help but be angry with God. And Tom said at one of the confirmation meetings Ben said when you are at your low points in life that's when you get closer to God. I know am, and times like these are our true test of faith.
Yesterday at 10:29pm

Matt
Mary, you're so right. God doesn't give us those low points in life, but God does work through those low points, helping us remember that he's with us through it all...good and bad. And so often, it's those low points where we lean on God the most and draw closer to him.
Yesterday at 10:36pm ·

Tom
We are all going to miss him so much. And this tragedy will bring us closer to God, and be a major point in our faith stories.
12 hours ago

Matt
I'm so proud of all of you guys right now...it's important to ask these hard questions, and it's important to support one another through the pain and anger and sorrow and grief that we're all feeling. That's part of "living among God's faithful people." You are living that out.
12 hours ago ·

Mary
Thanks so much, Matt. I really do feel like we are all supporting one another and it's really great to know who's all behind us. I sometimes forget were not alone in this world. And Tom, your completely right.
11 hours ago

Mary
And Jane, sorry for flippin out at lunch today. Apparently, you and I grieve differently and I just didn't know how to handle it. I was angry when I found out then sad the next day, and I just didn't want to talk about it. Sorry.
11 hours ago

Jane
Its totally cool Mary. We all have our own way of grieveing. Mine is talking about it and just letting it go. And your right tom, this would be a big part in our faithstories. but i just didn't want to say it when i was 14. I wanted it to be when I was older and i could handle it a lot better. Matt, I just don't see why this all has to happen. He waas working for him the whole time, and he made him die while he was in the middle of serving him. It's not fair.
4 hours ago

Matt
Jane...I completely share your anger at the unfairness of all of this. But I don't think God made him die. I think God is right beside us, grieving the loss of one of his greatest servants on earth, but reminding us at the same time that he's already overcome the power of death. It's times like this where all that stuff we talk about in Confirmation actually make a difference in the real world...it's not just church talk. These horrible, awful things that we see happening, our pain at losing our friend, our knowing that there may be as many as a half million other stories in Haiti just like this one...THIS is when the cross makes a difference. THIS is when the promise of resurrection, and Jesus' promise that he will ALWAYS be with us in Matthew 28 all make a difference. It doesn't take the pain away, it doesn't make things any more fair, but it gives us hope when life seems to be at its darkest.
3 hours ago

Jane
I have always thought it was church talk. Your right. Now is the time to do all that. It's just really hard for me to deal with something like this.
3 hours ago


Matt
Jane, I don't want to give the impression that I'm calmly sitting here hugging the cross nicely with a warm fuzzy feeling. Like you (and so many others) I'm dazed, bewildered, angry, and heartbroken...and I am clutching so fiercely and tightly to the cross and God's promises because there's honestly nothing else I can hold on to in the face of all of this.

I'm glad you're able to be so open about how you feel, because I'm sure there are plenty of others who feel the same way and haven't been able to (or haven't felt like they should) put words to it.
3 hours ago 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks

In my previous post, I reflected on the opportunities for and implications of participatory knowing through the many new digital, online tools available to us.  A major potential difficulty, especially with tools that often rely on the written word such as Facebook and message boards, is the possibility of misunderstandings due to the limitations of writing. When we speak, we can use verbal and non-verbal cues to help illustrate the intent of what we're saying. We might use hand gestures or facial expressions, or raise or lower our volume or pitch...it's the stuff that we do almost unconsciously to create meaning.  When we write, so much of that just isn't available to us.

While the issue itself isn't a new one, some of the implications are still things that we're living into as people who are figuring out what it means to cultivate relationships online. In a hyper-connected environment like Facebook for example, it's easy to make a comment that some of your Facebook friends will understand in the way you intend, but others may not have the contextual background information needed for the meaning you mean to imply, or may just misunderstand your tone...it happens all the time. It's more significant in these online communities specifically because of the very word "community." For those of us using an online presence as a tool for helping cultivate faith communities, there's even more at stake as there's the very real possibility of a part of the body unintentionally causing injury to another.

So...the thing about the punctuation marks. I ran across this funny article, but as with much humor, a large part of why it's funny is because it deals in the reality of who we are. The author makes a "modest proposal" of introducing 8 new punctuation marks to written English, to help alleviate some of the problems I've mentioned. It's definitely worth a read, and can be found here.

Participatory knowing in faith communities

The notion of "participatory knowing" assumes that learning is not just a one-way street. It's not just a learner, acting on a thing to be learned by learning it, and there's not just a teacher, acting on the learner by teaching them. Learning and teaching are both a two way street, and so this effect is compounded when we learn and teach in a community--if we were to draw a picture, there would be multiple arrows going in multiple directions. 

And because of that, it's not just the learner who is changed by the thing being learned. It's also the teacher being changed by the learner--it can even be the thing being learned itself, as multiple perspectives give it new edges it never would have had otherwise. All parts of this act of learning participate in what ultimately becomes a transformative experience.

All of that is very nice educational theory, but it goes beyond that. It has some pretty incredible theological implications, stuff that very quickly gets right to the heart of what it means to live life as a Christian. We proclaim that we were created for community. We were created for community not only with God, but with one another. When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, his reply is that there's really two. All the law and prophets hang on these two things, to love God and love your neighbor. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, speaks of all the walls that have been broken down in Christ through the cross. There's no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female...he goes on, and we could fill in our own blanks there, couldn't we? What sorts of categories do we use to divide ourselves? In Christ, those walls are no longer there.

This educational theory, Jesus' focus on our community with God and with our neighbor, and Paul's insistence on our unity in Christ are all three different ways of articulating a basic truth: when we interact with others, we are changed. When we learn from others, when we learn with others, when we do things with and speak with and pray with and walk with others, we are changed and they are changed. And the more people we experience this with, the more complex the transformation.  In fact, In 1 Cor. 12, Paul says it's kind of like the way a body functions. This living, breathing, changing thing. Which I guess shouldn't be all that surprising...if there's one thing we know from watching Jesus' ministry, if there's one thing we experience in the cross and the empty tomb, it's that God is about the business of transformation.

We have the chance to be a part of this sort of profound transformation in our faith communities...not only in worship and Bible study and service and everything else that happens in a traditional congregational setting, but now thanks to these amazing technological tools we have at our disposal...tools like Facebook, like online message boards, like blogs and blog rings and such, we have the chance to experience community in some new and different ways, ways that never would have been possible even ten years ago. While nothing can truly replace flesh and blood closeness, these sorts of online tools give us even more ways in which we can bump up against each other--even more opportunities for relationship and the resulting transformation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

My son is 9 now...this is a story from when he was 4, and is something I remember every year on Ash Wednesday:

For the previous two or three days, Kiddo had been looking forward to Ash Wednesday. He couldn't stop talking about going to church and having the pastor put the ashes on his forehead. He told his friends at daycare, he told his friends at preschool, and he couldn't stop telling Mommy and Daddy how excited he was about the ashes.

Our church has two Ash Wednesday services--one at 5 PM, and the other at 7. We had planned on going to the 7:00 service as a family, and I was scheduled to assist with the imposition of ashes at that service. That afternoon, though, I got a call from Sweetie--she was 8 months pregnant and had been fighting a pretty good cold--saying that she just didn't think that she'd be able to make it through a worship service.

I couldn't just take Kiddo to the 7 PM service myself, since I was going to be up front, and we knew that Kiddo would have none of sitting with someone else. And we also knew that if he didn't go to church, he'd be crushed. Sooooooo...I left work early, picked him up from daycare, and took him to the 5 PM service.

On our way, he asked, "Daddy, why will we put ashes on our forehead tonight?"

Hm.

Well, we had talked about death before...the subject had first come up when we were talking about Easter some time ago...and he understood the concept that only Jesus had come back to life, but once we were dead, we would live in heaven with God, but wouldn't be alive again on earth. And, more importantly, he was fine with that understanding. So, rather than using the more generic answer of "to help us remember how much God loves us," I decided to expand it a little bit.

"It's to help us remember that even though someday we'll die, that God loves us..."

Kiddo finished my sentence for me. "...and we'll be in heaven with God. And Jesus." (I decided to hold off on dealing with his 4 year-old tritheism...all in good time.) =)

He seemed satisfied with it all. And so we got to church, and the service began. There was a responsive chanting of Psalm 51, followed by a time of confession, and then came the imposition of ashes. We were about 2/3 of the way through the psalm when suddenly, Kiddo grabbed my leg and looked up at me. His lip was trembling.

And then he began to cry. The heartrending, plaintive, authentic cry of a child in anguish.

I sat down, took him on my lap, held him close, and whispered, "what's wrong? Is the music too sad?"

Looking at me with a scared, sad, expression in his eyes, he whispered back, "I don't want the ashes on my forehead."

I was dumbstruck. This had been the highlight of his week! I asked him, "why not?"

He looked me in the eyes.

"Daddy, I don't want to die."

I almost burst into tears right then and there. Somehow in our conversation, he had internalized that having the ashes put on his forehead would make him die.

I immediately felt like the worst dad in the world. Ever. I had made my son think that he was going to die. And worst of all, that I would let him.

I held him tightly, and rocked him, and whispered assurances that this was just something to help us remember how much God loves us, and that it was not going to make us die.

As Psalm 51 came to a close and the rest of the congregation intoned "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise," I wiped the tears from Kiddo's eyes, and he smiled.

"Okay, Daddy. I want to remember. I want to go get the ashes now."

Later that evening, when I told the story to our pastor as we got ready for the 7:00 service, he turned to me and said, "You know, those tears meant your son gets it. In his way, he gets the meaning of Ash Wednesday better than the majority of the other people in the pews."

He was right.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

June 27, 2010 sermon: Freed From Fear, Freed For Service


Freed From Fear—Freed For Service
June 27, 2010

If I were to make a top 10 list of the greatest works of Western literature,  Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, would be somewhere on that list.  It’s an amazing story of sin and redemption, of love and hope and pain and loss, and ultimately of law and grace.  The main character in the story, Jean Valjean, spends 19 years of hard labor in prison for stealing a loaf of bread so he could eat.  Prison hardens him, gives him an edge, makes him distrustful of everyone around him.  His attitude becomes one of “hurt the other person before they have a chance to hurt you.”  At the end of his 19 years, he is paroled, but is forced to carry a yellow ticket everywhere with him and show it to anyone he comes into contact with, so they know he’s a parolee.  For Jean Valjean, being freed only becomes a new kind of imprisonment, and makes him even more cynical and bitter.  Four days after being let out, he arrives, cold, hungry, and broke, at the house of a bishop.  Nobody will house him or feed him or give him work.  He’s desperate.  And angry.  Here’s the scene from the 1998 movie…you may recognize Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean:


   
Don’t forget.  Don’t ever forget.  You’ve promised to become a new man.  Jean Valjean my brother, you no longer belong to evil.  With this silver, I have bought your soul.  I have ransomed you from fear and hatred.  And now I give you back to God.” 

God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

What the bishop did for Jean Valjean was an act of costly grace.  The bishop sacrificed his pride, his silver, and his sense of justice.  But in taking that act, he did something that Jean Valjean never could have done for himself.  Not only did the bishop ransom him from fear and hatred, he ransomed him for a purpose.  He said “And now I give you back to God.”  An act of complete and utter selflessness broke Jean Valjean’s bondage to living for himself…it gave him the freedom, and the mission, to live his life for the sake of others
.
My friends, what we witnessed in that scene was the power of cross-shaped grace in transforming our lives.  It is that same power that Paul concerns himself with in our passage from Galatians.  We’ve heard over the past few weeks about the identity struggle that the early church had.  The church saw itself as a sect of Judaism, so they had that heritage and those laws to look to, to help shape their identity as a people.  However, they were also attracting a large number of non-Jews to the faith, especially as it began to spread into areas that were not primarily Jewish.  The question became, how do we handle these folks who didn’t grow up with these laws, customs, and heritage?

There was nothing wrong with Jewish Christians continuing to observe the Jewish purity rites…clean and unclean foods and the like.  In the first section of our Galatians passage, Paul is pointing out what he sees as blatant hypocrisy on the part of Peter.  He had begun to eat with Gentile Christians—non-Jews—and by extension had been lax on the Jewish food laws.  But then, when some Jewish Christians came to Antioch where he was, he stopped eating with the Gentiles.  The implication was that in not following Jewish law, these Gentile Christians were second-class citizens. 

And that’s what got Paul’s blood boiling.  In verse 14, he recounts a showdown he had with Peter, telling him, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Touché.

Then he gets into the meat of his argument, telling Peter, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.”  One of my seminary professors says, “there are two kinds of people—those who divide everything into two groups, and those who don’t.”  Paul is one who does that…in his eyes, one is either a Jew or a Gentile.  He’s saying that even those who have been Jews from birth, those who have been given the gift of the law, are unable to be saved by that law.  So why then is Peter using the law to divide the community?  Observance of the law does nothing for a person’s eternal life, whether that person is Jew or Gentile.

Why?  Because God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

You and I, we hear this passage and immediately our thoughts turn to our individual salvation.  Martin Luther interpreted it in that sort of context, and we, as 21st Century Americans, we whose very identity is defined partially by our rugged individualism—of course we’re going to think in those terms as well.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and we’ll get there eventually.  But that wasn’t Paul’s primary concern.

His main concern was with community.  His concern was that the Jewish Christians were using the law to exclude other Christians, instead of standing unified under the cross as the sinners that we are.  He reminds Peter, and us today, that our identity as humankind isn’t that we fulfill the law, but rather the opposite, that there is nothing any of us can do to live up to the law’s demands.  God’s law wasn’t given to divide.  God’s law was given to draw us all to the power of the cross.  Paul is pointing out that every time we draw lines that seek to divide or exclude, we are always going to find God on the other side of the line.  “If justification comes through the law,” Paul writes, “then Christ died for nothing.”

The silent question the bishop was asking Jean Valjean, the silent question Paul is asking the Galatians, and the silent question our Scripture passage asks of us today are all the same question: are you going to live lives of fear, or are you going to live lives of grace?

While it’s an important question to ask ourselves individually, it’s an even more important question to ask ourselves corporately, as those who are called to be Christ’s body on earth.  The world looks at the church and it sees a body that builds walls.  It sees a body that divides.  It sees a body that lives out of fear more than out of grace.  Sometimes these conclusions are unfair, but quite often we as the church—the whole, universal, worldwide church—have given the world good reason to come to those conclusions. 
However, God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

Now this doesn’t mean that we’ve been given free license to do whatever we want, to live however we want to live.  The bishop didn’t tell Jean Valjean “with this act of grace you’re free to do whatever you want to do.”  Paul even says “But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?  Certainly not!”  What it does mean is that we’re living by a different set of motivations.  We don’t serve others to build up points to try to get to heaven or win God’s favor.  In fact, the cross is what has freed us from all of those old insecurities, all of those doubts, all of those fears that we just don’t measure up, that God can’t possibly find us acceptable, that there’s no way that we can earn a spot in heaven.  You know what?  There is no way, no way at all, that we can earn ourselves a spot in heaven.  Nothing to worry about.  We can’t do it.  But the cross, the empty tomb, God’s promise to us through Christ, that is what’s done the job for us.  The word that Paul uses over and over in this passage, the one translated “justified,” is the greek word dikaios.  It is a courtroom word, and has the sense not of actually being innocent, but of being declared and treated as though we were innocent.  Through the cross, God sees our guilt but still acquits us.  It’s not a whitewashing of sin, it’s God grabbing us by the collar like the bishop did to Jean Valjean, looking us right in the eye, and telling us, “Don’t forget.  Don’t ever forget.  You’ve promised to become a new person.  My brother…my sister…you no longer belong to evil.  With this cross, I have bought your soul.  I have ransomed you from fear and hatred.”

God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

So we are free.  Free to break down the walls that fear has built.  Free to live in community with those we agree with, as well as those with whom we disagree.  Free to live not for ourselves but given the mission to live in loving service to others.  Free to recognize that God’s law doesn’t divide one person from another, but rather unifies all of us as one gigantic category of people—redeemed sinners at the foot of the cross.     

Amen.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE