Thursday, March 21, 2013

Virtual communities of care

Have you ever been the recipient of a group hug? An actual, honest-to-goodness group hug given out of love and support and care? Or have you ever had a group of people lay their hands on you as they prayed for you? There's something incredibly powerful and incarnational about that kind of group touch. To feel hands gently laid on you or to feel a multitude of arms wrapped around you, as holy words, set-apart words specifically for you are spoken on your behalf…there’s nothing quite like it. It’s uplifting. It’s transforming.

Okay…so now, imagine you’re sick. Very sick. Maybe you even know you’re dying. Imagine being able to receive that sort of group hug or laying on of hands from dozens, maybe even hundreds of people. Not only the ones who can geographically be present, but including people who are scattered all over your state, all over the country, all over the world. What if some of these people were even complete strangers but who had made a decision to be consciously invested in your well-being anyway and participate in the hug or laying on of hands?

What if, after the hug, you could re-create it on demand, whenever you needed it…poof, just like that?

In a sense, that’s the kind of presence websites like CaringBridge offer. It’s like a gigantic virtual group hug for people and their loved ones who are in the scariest, most depressing, most vulnerable points in their life.
That said, virtual community is never a substitute for actual, flesh-and-blood community. However, it can be a powerful accompaniment to that community. The power lies in a couple of areas. First, just the sheer numbers and the potential for the sheer geographical reach. In my HuskerMax community, there have been times when I’ve posted prayer request items. People all over the country, and even sometimes in other parts of the world, have responded. To know that people scattered so far and wide are praying on your behalf can be an incredibly powerful thing. Sometimes, these end up even being people that you’ve never met.

Another advantage to an online caring community is that you have the ability to go back and bring up those messages of support and love at any time. A hug or a spoken word is beautiful, but once the hug is done, it’s done until you’re given another one. Once a word is spoken , while it can be recalled through memory it’s still not tangibly there in the same form. With online messages though, you can go to your site and read them any time you need. If you’re having a particularly bad day, you can pull up the site and remember…literally, re-member, bring back the body. Re-read and re-experience the virtual hug or the virtual laying on of hands by the wider community.

It’s a different kind of presence. But a potentially powerful one. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Faith in a Digital World

We are living in a digital world. (I feel like I should follow up that line with "and I am a digital girl.")  As people of faith, this really is a brave new world in which to navigate. We have the ability to connect with people we never would have connected with before, in ways that never would have been available before, with materials that we never would have had access to before.

There is an entire "digital culture" that has sprung up with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, many chances to engage with this culture. Depending on how we choose to engage, that can either be a positive or a negative. 

Because you see, there's a lot of crap out there that masquerades as Christian spirituality. And now, the crap has even more of a platform by which it can be spread. The kind of stuff that just turns people off from the faith or that paints a picture of Christianity far different from how I'd ever understand it or want to live's all over the place. Here's just a couple of pictures I found on Facebook in the past 10 minutes:
I'd hope my financial decisions might play into the equation somewhat

So if I just keep scrolling and don't hit "like," that means I don't accept Jesus?

And it's not just pictures. Videos, songs with images attached, sermons, video blogs, regular written blogs like this one, thoughts on message boards or on platforms like increasing our opportunity for witness we also increase the opportunity that the message we're sending isn't a good one.

We have been given an incredible amount of power with these relatively new technological tools--the power to create and to communicate that creativity in ways evangelists in an earlier day would have only dreamed of. And in the words of the great evangelical film Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility." 

How do we wield that responsibility? When the culture of Christianity engages this digital culture, what message are we sending? Is it a message of hope, of God's love for the world and our love for our neighbor? Are we doing justice, loving kindly, and walking humbly?

For the last 9 years, I've been an active participant on, a message board dedicated to discussing Nebraska Football. My "handle" (username) there is LutheranHusker, which I picked as a way to remind myself that whatever I posted, others (rightly or wrongly) were going to associate with the church, and specifically with the Lutheran church. It was both an intentional witness and a way of self-policing what I said. There's a section of the message board called the Cafe', which is where I do most of my actual posting, since there are many others who know MUCH more about the game of football than I do. The Cafe' is for all non-sports related discussion, and over the years, whatever the topic might have been, I've tried to visibly and publicly view that topic through the lens of the cross. There are Christians from all over the faith spectrum on that message board, as well as a number of atheists and at least one self-described religious pagan. I've discovered that if I'm honest about where I'm at, thoughtful about about how I've come to be there, and humble in listening and considering the perspectives of others, that others respond with questions, constructive conversations, and sometimes their own faith stories. That's not something that happens overnight, nor is it something a person can go about doing with the express intention of trying to convert people. It's a function of time because it's built on relationship, and it's a function of authenticity because that too is built on relationship. 

What's interesting is that it's gotten to the point where if some news story on faith comes up, they're wondering what my perspective is going to be. NOT because I have all the answers, but I think more likely because I'm willing to ask the questions. 

Here's one such thread (FYI: they refer to me as "Luth"):

I like to post links to my sermons from time to time there. Last spring in one of my sermons I talked about one of the HuskerMax guys, known as "Pops" on the board. Pops is an atheist biker Vietnam Vet hippie ex-heroin addict who is also one of my favorite people in the universe, even though I've never met him in person. This is a link to the thread where I posted my sermon, which led to some amazing self-disclosure from Pops:

And one more...this thread begins a little more PG-13. It was started by an atheist who goes by Red Phoenix who, while he has a lot of respect for those who take their faith seriously and who treat others with kindness, also enjoys poking at folks. He began with a sort-of offensive synopsis of the Christian story, and I have no doubt he was hoping for shocked indignation as a response. Instead (as I like to do), I treated the thread theologically, and what came out of it was a sometimes off-color but sometimes incredibly profound discussion of life and faith and the Bible and personal history and testimony. It's found here:

I bring all these up not because I'm some be-all/end-all internet ministry guru. Who knows...I've had enough conversations, I've probably been heretical at some point. But the key is that even when folks disagree with me (which they often do), because of the relationship we've built over time they know that I've put thought and faith into what I've said, and in an instant digital culture where both of those things are often lacking, that can be refreshing and transformational.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon from 3-10-2013: Coming to Us In the Storm

Ein Gev kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at about
2:30 AM on Jan. 16, 2013
Coming to Us in the Storm
March 9-10, 2013

Many of you know that I had the opportunity in January to spend two weeks in Israel and the West Bank with a group from Luther Seminary. While we were there, we spent 3 nights in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a big lake—about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. We were able to take a boat ride across the lake one morning, and it was just incredible. The sun was out, there was just a hint of a breeze, and the water was peaceful as we crossed from where we had been staying to the town of Migdal, which in the Bible was called Magdala and was the home of Mary Magdalene. You simply could not ask for better weather that day.

That night, however, my roommate woke me up at about 2:30 in the morning. “Matt,” he said. “It’s a windstorm. On the Sea of Galilee.”

We’re seminarians. We get excited about stuff like that.

And sure enough, I could hear the wind beating against the little cabin we were staying in. I grabbed my camera and walked outside, into some of the fiercest wind I’ve ever been in. There was no rain, but the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by these high ridges, and sometimes when the conditions are just right the wind will sweep over them with a fury and down into the valley where the lake is. The branches on the palm trees were blowing straight sideways, and you could see the water on the lake was incredibly choppy. I took a few pictures and went back to bed. In the morning when I got up at 6, it was still going. After getting ready for the day, I had some extra time before I had to join the rest of the group for breakfast, so I walked down to the lakeshore and took this video:

Talk about bringing Scripture to life.

Today’s gospel lesson takes place immediately after what we read about last week, the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus had performed this incredible sign, and the people were so amazed that John 6:15 says they were ready to take him and make him king by force. Jesus had gotten away and gone to the mountain because that’s not what he was about. That’s not what he was there to do. He was a king, but not the kind of king the crowd wanted him to be. And so eventually, when evening comes and the crowds had all gone away, we come to the beginning of today’s reading where the disciples decide it’s time to go. What’s interesting here is that Jesus still isn’t with them. They’re on their own—but they’re pretty much on their home turf. They know this part of Galilee really well, they know the lake, and they’re not far from Capernaum, which was Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s hometown.

The second half of Verse 17, where the author tells us that “it was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them,”  at first looks almost like a throwaway line, a description to help us envision the setting. But there are a couple of very important details in there that the author gives us, details that aren’t just descriptions of the scene, but theological claims. The first is that it was now dark. The theme of light vs. dark is huge in the gospel according to John. If you turn back and look at the first chapter of John, Jesus is described as the light of the world. In John 1:5 we have that beautifully powerful verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The Holden Evening Prayer service on Wednesdays during Lent begin by quoting that verse as we sing, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.” Jesus as the light shining in the darkness continues all throughout John, and so what we have in verse 17 of today’s reading takes on additional meaning. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. In this gospel account, darkness always represents bad things—death, or ignorance, or fear, or separation. So it’s dark, and why is that important? Because Jesus had not yet come to them.

And then a windstorm comes up.

Not when they’re safely on shore like I was in January, but when they’re in their boat, 3 or 4 miles out on the lake. And as I experienced, there’s no telling how long a storm like that might last. It’s not as though you can just hunker down and tell yourself, “well, this will probably be over in just a few minutes.” So there they are, trapped in a boat in the middle of a lake with the wind blowing and the waves growing and with the darkness surrounding them. And they cannot see Jesus anywhere.

Does any of that sound vaguely familiar to you? Does any of that sound like a time in your own life? Have you ever been trapped, with things swirling all around you, feeling out of control, with darkness surrounding you, with the waves getting higher and higher and you just want to cry out, “Where are you, Jesus? Where are you, God? Where are you, Holy Spirit? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe there are circumstances in your life that are completely beyond your control, and you’re just being carried along on the choppy waves not knowing where the shoreline is in the darkness. Maybe you’ve done something or said something…sinned in thought, word, and deed by what you have done and by what you have left undone. And now you’re in so far, in so deep over your head that you just don’t know if you’ll ever make it safely to shore again.

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that in the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us.

In John, there is no calming of the storm, which is honestly something I appreciate, because if you remember what Pastor Tobi has been saying, what we refer to as miracles in the other gospels, John refers to as signs. And a sign is something with a purpose, something that points to a greater truth. The sign here in John isn’t that Jesus calms our storms, and I’m so glad that’s not the lesson I’m supposed to take away from it. Because sometimes there is no calming of the storms in our lives, is there?  Sometimes there is no easy fix, no savior standing up in the boat and commanding all the circumstances of our lives, “Peace, be still!” In those times, we don’t have to worry that we’re doing faith wrong, we don’t have to wonder if Jesus has just decided that we need to flounder, we don’t have to believe that because Jesus hasn’t fixed it all that we’ve somehow not measured up to God’s standard or that God simply doesn’t care.

The sign we’re given in John is that Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes alongside us. In the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us. Even in the middle of the raging wind, even though it involves what should be impossible—walking on water—Jesus will not leave us alone. Jesus is present beside us, and like the disciples, we can be assured that even in the midst of the storm, he will accompany us through it all and to the shore.

And it’s not up to us to come to him. The disciples don’t have to row to where Jesus is. They don’t have to figure out how to get to where he is standing—Jesus comes to them. Jesus walks across the raging water to come to where they are. And Jesus comes to you, too. In the storm of your sin, in the wind and the waves of your life whatever they may be, Jesus comes to you. It’s not up to you to make it happen. You have been called by name through the waters of baptism. Jesus comes to you and for you in the bread and in the wine of Holy Communion. Jesus promises to be beside you all the way to the shore. That is the promise of the cross. That is the promise of the empty tomb.

We are never promised that there will be no storms in our lives. In fact, as those who Jesus has called to take up our cross and follow him, we know that those storms are part of what it means to live as a broken, sinful people in an imperfect world. But because we are people of the cross, we know as well that the brokenness, the storms, are exactly where we expect to find God…or to be more precise, where we expect God to find us.

In verse 20, our translation has Jesus saying, “It is I, do not be afraid.” In the original Greek, it is simply ego eimi,  I AM. “I AM. Do not be afraid.” I AM is the name God calls himself when speaking to Moses in the burning bush all the way back in Exodus. “Tell Pharaoh I AM is the one who sent you.”

We’ve already talked about one distinctive feature of John—the importance of light and dark. Another distinctive feature of John is that Jesus makes these I AM statements 23 different times, using the Greek ego eimi. This isn’t just a simple word choice. It’s  a powerful claim. John is reminding us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, light of the world, is one with the all-powerful I AM who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the freedom of the promised land. The same all-powerful I AM will go on to defeat death on the cross, leading us all out of our own slavery to sin and into the freedom of God’s promised kingdom—and not only heaven, but also the kingdom that comes on earth as it is in heaven when we are free to live not just for ourselves but for our neighbor.

In the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us. Not wind, not water, not even the cross nor even death itself stops Jesus from coming alongside us and telling us, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with my cross forever. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Now go. Go love one another, as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are my disciples.”


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Thursday, March 07, 2013

What is "gospel?"

In front of the traditional site of Jesus' tomb
at Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
with the Bible open to Mark's resurrection account.
This week in my Gospel and Global Media Cultures seminary course, I've been challenged to publicly answer the question, "what is 'gospel?'"

In about 500 words. 

Okay, here goes. Game on. 

What is gospel? Gospel is the Word from God that gives life. Through no doing of our own, through no merit of our own, but simply out of sheer grace, God came to us took on flesh in Jesus. The One who was present at the creation of the universe, the Word who spoke all into being with a word, the One in whom we live and move and have our being, lived and moved and dwelt among us. In his life he brought new life, he brought healing, he took the outcast and the sinners and the oppressed and downtrodden and brought them in, erasing the human made lines and walls that had served to exclude them. He proclaimed these things as a sign of the inbreaking reign of God. But we wouldn't have any of that, and killed him for it. When our structures of power and authority are threatened, we respond with violence. The cross was our ultimate no to the ultimate yes of Jesus, but through Jesus' resurrection it became God's ultimate yes to humankind. God decided that violence would not have the final say. God decided that death would not have the last word. God was so relentlessly insistent on being who he is for us--a God of boundless grace and infinite love, that he defeated what we thought was our ultimate power--the power of death. God raised Jesus from the dead, and now Jesus lives, and that was a gift for all of humankind, because through that gift of new life we too are promised new life. Abundant life now, and eternal life even after death. Not as the solution to any sort of divine equation, not as the balancing of some sort of scales of justice, not as the appeasement of anger, but as a loving gift to you. For you. With absolutely nothing on your part to do to earn it or deserve it.

Gospel is therefore both now and not yet. It is now in the promise of baptism, it is now in the body and blood, the bread and wine broken and poured for you in Holy Communion. It is now when we love God and love our neighbor, when the hungry are fed and the sick are healed and the lowly brought high and the outcast brought in and the community we were created to be a part of with each other renewed and restored. That is where we find Jesus--in the broken things. That is where we see Jesus' face--in the faces of the lowly, in the faces of the sinner. That is where we experience Jesus at work--on the margins, on the other side of the walls we have built, on the other side of the lines we have drawn. We experience all of these things as a foretaste of the feast to come, as a glimpse of God’s final reign in the New Jerusalem at the end of time, and so Gospel is also not yet. It is not fully consummated. At the very heart of Gospel, then, is hope. Not wishing, not wondering, but the hope that is born from trust in God’s promises.

And that's my first shot at a definition of Gospel, Charlie Brown. What do you think? What did I write that you would affirm, what would you challenge, what would you add or leave out?