Sunday, March 24, 2013

Prayer in Digital Media

              (Baby Jesus Prayer-Talladega Nights, clean version in case anyone is easily offended)

I am pretty sure that I am not the only person who immediately went to thinking about the Prayer to Baby Jesus in the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights when we started talking about the representation of prayer in digital medai, and in particular  Joe Nelms' prayer as referenced on the IC2643 course site.  I'm not convinced that Nelms' prayer is really a prayer at all, it seems more like an advertisement/shout-out to sponsors and a joke referencing the Talladega nights video.  Enjoy!

Moving along, there seems to be three major representations of prayer in digital media.

First, the sort of prayer that desires to be as inclusive as possible, such as Gene Robinson's prayer at 2009 Inauguration.  Gene Robinson is a retired Episcopal Bishop, and the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, and his appointment in 2003 was a source of much controversy in the Episcopal church.   This prayer begins with an address of "God of our many understandings"and includes petitions for social justice, as well as support for the LGBTQ community, and ends with a petition, "every religion's god judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable."  Robinson seeks to create an open space for prayer and emphasize that the role of a leader (both in prayer, and on behalf of President Obama) is not about dividing people, but bringing them together.

There is another sort of public prayer, the kind that does not necessarily forcefully advocate for a specific religion, but makes assumptions about the religious convictions of those present.   Rick Warren's prayer, also at the 2009 Inauguration, is an example of this.  He stated scripture, said that all people and nations would be subject to God's judgment, and pleaded for forgiveness for the sins of all. His use of language carries a set of assumptions about the Christian faith.  An interesting observation from this video is that Rick Warren called for all to pray the Lord's prayer, and yet, when the camera panned the crowd, very few people, including President Obama, were praying along.

The third type of public prayer appears to operate from a position of defensiveness and a desire to prove one's religion as above others.  Bradlee Dean's prayer to Minnesota House Chamber is a representation of this. Bradlee Dean used the address "father God" at least a dozen times, and only referenced Christians in his prayer as being people of faith, as well as closing the prayer with the statement "Jesus is the head of the denomination, as every president up until 2008 has acknowledged", a not-too-subtle dig at President Obama.  As a side note, if I was Mr. Dean and invited to pray on behalf of the MN House of the Representatives, I would have worn something besides a rumpled nylon tracksuit.

With regards to my own personal prayer practices in digital cultures, the most important takeaway is to remember never to make assumptions about your hearers/digital congregation.  I think this applies to real life as well.   My pastor has referenced her work as, "I am not responsible for what people believe, but I am responsible for what they hear."  Therefore, clearly communicating your prayer is important.  If you are going to make bold theological claims about the identity of God in your prayers, do so unapologetically.  This is why I respect Rick Warren.  Additionally, while prayers are not a time for advancing a particular agenda (I'm looking at you, Bradlee Dean), there should be a forum for discussion, clarification, or deeper prayer.

Just as a pastor might pray for a specific need in the congregation, and members can follow up, digital prayers should provide space for commenting.  All of the prayer videos except Bradlee Dean's had comments enabled.  While looking at comments is usually tiresome for me, I rather enjoyed it this time around.  In the midst of all the typical anti-Christian rants and pro-Christian diatribes, there were people who were raising their own prayers and advancing the prayers in each video.  That is a beautiful, organic outgrowth of digital media.

Why are kids leaving church?

This is one of the reasons that I am most passionate about the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  I think these are painful truths.  This article was posted on a friend's Facebook page, and I clicked through and found that it resonated for me:

Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church

Some painful truths from this article:

"we've taken a historic 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as 'cool' to our kids.  It's not cool.  It's not modern.  What we're packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we're called to evangelize."

we don't offer the "full timeline of the Gospel for every season of life.  Instead we've dumbed down the message pumped up the volume, and are surprised when youth get smart"

"Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we've given our youth an internal, subjective faith."

"Our kids are smart.  They picked up the message we unwittingly taught.  If church is simply a place to learn life-application principles to achieve a better life in don't need a crucified Jesus for that."

Any thoughts?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Life from behind a screen

There is a picture that is floating around the interwebs right now of St. Peter's square at the time that the name of the pope was announced in 2005, and again in 2013. (I would attempt to post the picture, credited to NBC news, but blogger is acting up and giving me fits today and locks me out every time I attempt to post a picture.)  In 2013, everyone appears to be recording the event from behind their smartphone.  My tremendously gifted friend Keith Anderson wrote a blog about this event, This is the world you live (and lead) in now.

I wonder if I would be doing the same thing if I was there, and I am awfully ashamed to admit that I probably would be.  I default to living life from behind a screen.  And it makes me wonder what I am missing when I set out with the intent of never missing anything at all.  Because for all of these videos that I have taken, I have never really looked back at them.  I wonder if this is merely a symptom of the discontent and impermanence that accompanies post-modernity.  Everything feels unstable and impermanent and we try to cling to anything.

Do you agree?

What you have you missed in an attempt to never miss anything?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Empowering Communities of Care

A little bit of life fighting
through an interminable season of
cold and darkness. 
This week in my Gospel and Global Media Culture class we were asked to look at the site Caring Bridge as a case study for engaging in community care by way of digital media.  We were asked to think missionally about our presence in such sites and what that means for our ministry in empowering communities of care.

Caring Bridge provides an opportunity for people experiencing a serious illness or injury to share regular updates with their communities of support. In their own words or the words of those closest to them.  It allows for a centralized location to disseminate updates so that everyone who cares about a certain individual has access to correct information, and that the person experiencing illness or injury does not have to tell their story over and over again.  It also provides a place for friends and loved ones to leave messages of support in a location that does not demand an immediate response.   In my experience in social work and in CPE, I have learned that having agency on any level with regards to one's personal situation in a time of crisis can be hard to come by.  Caring Bridge allows someone to tell their own story in their own words.  They can choose what to share and what not to share.

For all of these reasons, Caring Bridge is useful for the minister to begin a dialogue of pastoral care, but the nature of public church leadership demands that we go beyond merely keeping updated on Caring Bridge posts or occasionally making comments in the guestbook on such a site.  Ministry is tremendously relational, and as church leaders, we as ministers must take initiative to reach out to those in our communities of care.  Caring Bridge is a useful place to start conversation, but it cannot be where the conversation ends. Many people feel vulnerable and ashamed to ask for help when they are experiencing illness or injury.  It falls to the pastor to ask if this individual wants to have a visit, then, there is an option to exercise personal choice in a situation where there are so many things outside their control.  It is not possible for the average pastor to be on top of every conceivable pastoral care concern, but this is where the body of Christ comes in.  If a community knows that their pastor cares deeply about them, they will come to her/him in time of need and encourage others to do the same.  It becomes a missional activity.  Social Media is particularly advantageous in helping pastors keep abridge of what is going on with their people.  Best practices for all social media usage by minsters still apply to utilizing Caring Bridge.  But above all, Caring Bridge provides the opportunity for the minister to have a jumping off point in the caring relationship, as well as have a better idea of what the individual's larger support network looks like.  I think it is a very useful tool when utilized to enhance traditional pastoral care relationships, but definitely does not replace them.

Additionally, I received a very interesting piece of advice from a pastoral care professor about a year ago in a funeral praxis.  He suggested setting an alert in your phone or electronic calendar about one month, six months, and one year after the death or serious diagnosis of a congregation member/their close family member.  Caring Bridge sites can help you keep track of these dates.  You can just send a short email or note by mail, but having this very simple outreach can make a world of difference in a time of unbearable grief.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A New Pope and Social Media

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
It has been fascinating to watch the news unfold this afternoon as a new pope, Francis I, a Jesuit from Argentina, named Jorge Bergoglio, was elected to lead the Catholic church.  I am not a Catholic, nor do I agree with the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, but I am hopeful.  This man seems to be humble and committed to social justice.  Apparently he is also pretty conservative, but the fact that he a Jesuit (never happened before) and the first modern day pope not from Europe, and didn't take a previous name, instead picked a brand new one,  gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, change is afoot.

What is even more fascinating is how the social media world exploded with this news.  It started with posts of "white smoke..."  then evolved into anxious waiting about when he would emerge onto the balcony, and when it was announced that he was from Argentina and a Jesuit and was taking the name Francis I, all sorts of exclamations about how this was hopeful.  Then once it was discovered that he was conservative, some disappointment, but it has all been followed by prayers.  I enjoy this sort of digital presence.  My friends all over the world (Catholic and non), and I am definitely doing the same, are excitedly retweeting and devouring all sorts of news.

Eight years ago, when the last pope was elected, there was no twitter, Facebook was still in its infancy, and our news still came from broadcast media sources.  But the new pope is already tweeting. In Spanish.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Easter is Coming

This is a few years old now, and I remember watching it for the first time a couple years ago, but it has surfaced again in one of my classes, and my preaching professor, Dr. Karoline Lewis, is the narrator.  I think it is worth a reminder in the midst of what seems like a never-ending season of darkness.  

Easter is coming...

Preparation for Public Ministry

The Sunday at Humble Walk
Lutheran Church when we baked bread for our
Eucharist during the service instead of singing.
I am a part of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA.  Our bishop, Jim Gonia, is a visionary leader and this morning I found this blog post in my Facebook newsfeed:

Preparing Leaders for Ministry

He raises issues that have haunted me for years about the existing process of assignment/seminary education:

1. The gifts and passions of individual leaders-while important-are subservient to the places where leadership is needed.

2. Seminaries are attempting to train leaders for ministry on the basis of the gifts recognized within them

3. There is a dilemma that occurs when the gifts and passions that a candidate has to offer don't fit with existing opportunities for ministry within the church.  Inevitably, our new leaders end up in first calls that do not allow their gifts and passions to flourish, or end up waiting a very long time for their first call.

He raises the idea that perhaps we redefine congregational "need" not in terms of an empty position, but in terms of what will propel a community of the faithful more fully into God's mission.  He suggests that we become more intentional about using the energy and gifts of newly trained leaders who might demonstrate a better understanding of and commitment to our theology than many "cultural Lutherans."

He ends the post by saying, "I've said before that the church we are being called to become is not the church we have been.  How will our preparation of leaders reflect this?"

I have felt stuck in this terrible tension of how broken the system of seminary education is and how it is breaking me.  This blog post from my Bishop demonstrates first, that I am not crazy, and second, that there are leaders who see that the church does not have to be stuck in 1955 or stuck in the understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ in the upper Midwest.  It gives me so much hope.  Because I love Lutheran theology, I love scripture, I love what the wild and rampant Holy Spirit DOES to people's lives.  I am not ready to throw out this entire thing, despite what I feel like at Luther Seminary sometimes.

It is terrifying to look beyond what we have been.  It is exciting to see what we might become.  But we cannot dig in our heels and beg and plead that nothing ever changes.  Because that is unrealistic.

So thankful today for prophetic voices.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Testimony (ugh, I totally hate that word)

Is this testimony?  What is?
1. A formal written or spoken statement

2. Evidence or proof provided by the existence or appearance of something.

Synonyms: evidence, attestation, witness, proof

Common parlance for Christian testimony:  the story of how one became a Christian.

Ugh.  I think I hate the word "testify" in a Christian context.  Mostly because it is usually equated with things like this...

This is what I think about when I usually hear
about Christian testimony.
What can it mean it witness to Christ, to testify, in the midst of digital cultures?  

My immediate reaction about Christian testimony is telling.  Part of me does not even want to get near the idea of Christian testimony, digital or non, because I find it to be so obnoxious and off-putting.  And in digital cultures, it just means that you have a much wider reach for your hateful rhetoric.  Take for example, Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church (note when navigating to this website, the title is NSFW, and you will be offended if you are a reasonable human being).  This could be considered digital testimony.

On the other hand, you have such things as Unvirtuous Abbey, a twitter account that describes themselves as "holier than thou, but not by much.  Digital monks praying for first world problems."  This is the sort of testimony that I can get behind.  You can tweet your prayer requests and Unvirtuous Abbey retweets or responds.

There is also Lent Madness, a digital movement that is also a Lenten devotion, in which saints of the Christian church are put into a March-Madness like bracket and people read about the saints and vote for their favorite.  This is also the sort of testimony that I can get behind.

What both of these things have in common is that they do not take themselves too seriously, they are fairly inoffensive and the process of testimony is participatory.  In many ways, Christian testimony in a digital context is reflective of the wider change in communication with the advent of social media.  Christian testimony in digital cultures is no longer the model of a speaker/writer disseminating information about their religious experience in one direction to an eagerly receptive audience.   Digital witness to Christ must provide for an exchange of information, story, and experience.  It should be participatory.  Digital testimony must not be aggressive, but rather open and hospitable.  It is not about being right or wrong, but about sharing experiences and being willing to learn.

So what can it mean to witness to the Gospel in digital contexts?  I think it means being real, being open, and sharing one's experience of being a Christian.  Without expectation for a certain response (conversion, repentance, etc) or judgment.  This blog is actually testimony.   But I still experience a visceral recoil at the idea of "Christian Testimony."  Yuck.  I guess I am afraid of being lumped in with all the crazy Christians who give the rest of us a bad name.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

What is Gospel?

7 ft lobby Jesus at the hospital where I did my CPE
The reflexive Lutheran answer that I have to the question of “what is Gospel?” is to immediately say, “a promise, given FOR YOU.”  This probably has something to do with the fact that I am currently in Lutheran confessions class, but the idea of what the Gospel is can be summed up using the idea of “because…therefore…” as opposed to “if…then…”  The Gospel is a promise received not because of anything that we do, but because of who we are. It is the promise of God fully entering into this broken world and redeeming us all through the death of Jesus Christ. 

So what does this mean for communities of faith?  I have always considered ministry to be highly contextual, and that my preaching and pastoral care is for a specific person (or people) at a specific time for a specific reason.    Context matters.  You have to know your people in order to preach to them, and they have to know you in order to hear the Gospel from you.  This is the “FOR YOU” essence of the Gospel. 

Social media provides an opportunity for us to know one another.  I have said before that the Facebook wall posting or quick response to a tweet is essentially the post-modern version of running into someone in a grocery store aisle or in line at the post office.  They are quick ways to connect in a community of faith outside the church walls.  I think social media is the party telephone line, or small-town cafĂ©, or general store conversation of the post-modern era. 

For me, pastoral authority is derived from relationships with others, it is not something that is bestowed along with a seminary degree or as a result of wearing a clerical collar.  In order to preach, provide pastoral care, forgive sins, and preside over the sacraments, one must be in a community and in relationship with other people.  This is why Lutheran pastors are only ordained while they are in a specific call, not ordained in perpetuity like some other denominations. 

Interpersonal connections are absolutely essential to the body of Christ.  The very root of what the Gospel is, Jesus Christ, exists in relationships.  The promise of the Gospel is that God became incarnate to dwell among us, to be in relationship with us, that we might be saved from sin, death, suffering, and all misfortune and continues to do so.  This is not to say that we will never experience these things, because we absolutely will, but to say that these things will not have the final word in defining us and that we have a God who will bear through them with us, and commands us to bear with one another as well. 

This is what we affirm each time that we celebrate the Eucharist.    That God is fully present in and among us.  This is why the sacraments are communal for Lutherans, that we baptize and provide communion in the presence of one another.  Gospel needs community and the community needs the Gospel.  

Monday, March 04, 2013's not just about providing coffee and cookies

My friend Amy sent me this picture today with the caption, "Shame: it never goes out of style."

I have seen far too many terrible church signs.  I wonder what the hope is with posting these sorts of messages.  Because seeing that on a billboard certainly does not make me want to come check out your church.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

I love these people

Sometimes you feel like this...

Then these people send you this picture saying they are pouting because they are sad that you are sad, they miss you, and can't wait for you to come home.

Only 22 days until I am back home in Denver for Holy Week.

Repent...or perish?

One possible take on a very difficult text... (preached at Humble Walk Lutheran Church on 3/3/2013)

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices  He asked them, 'Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way the were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.'  

Then he told his parable: 'A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, 'See here!  For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?'  He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'  

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen. 
I struggled a lot with this Gospel text this week, and I know I am not the only one.  We have two seemingly disparate stories tacked together, and a message from Jesus, “repent or perish” that doesn’t seem to sit so well.  I think we struggle with this because we have two distinct understandings of what it means to repent, and neither one of them is particularly helpful. We sometimes like to think that by repenting and turning to God, our lives will automatically get better and nothing bad will happen to us, or by repenting, we are doing exactly what God wants from us and we will be blessed richly.  The temptation with this text is to interpret it as what WE are capable of doing.  That if we repent, we can somehow avoid death.  If we do everything we are supposed to do, we can escape suffering.  This is not true and there is something powerful about naming this reality. I think my own discomfort from this text stems from the idea of what it means to repent.  We are told by the world that to repent means to “change your ways,” feel badly about what you have done, and never make the same mistakes again.  This idea of what it means to repent seems more like avoiding a threat than living into a promise. 
 Jesus is in conversation with a group of fellow Jews.  Those talking to him tell a story about how some Galileans were killed while offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Pilate, the Roman leader who would later order the execution of Jesus, entered into the temple along with his guards and murdered a group of Jews so brutally, “their blood mingled with their sacrifices.”  Those telling Jesus the story were no doubt faithful Jews who carried with them the most implicit understanding of the Jewish faith: do good things, follow the laws you have been given, and you will be rewarded.  And its accompanying conclusion, if bad things happen to you, it must be because of something you did, or there was something you didn’t do and should have.  I do not think that those in conversation with Jesus are trying to prove that they are better than those who were killed, but they are legitimately baffled that despite all their best efforts, suffering still exists.  If people were killed while worshipping God in the temple, it truly could happen anywhere.  Above all, they are asking out of fear,  
”What if this happens to me?”        And how can I avoid it?”  
            Jesus tells them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  Jesus answers his own question with an emphatic “no!” and the command, “repent or perish.”   He states that doing good things has nothing whatsoever to do with avoiding suffering in this world.   Jesus offers another example.  What of the group of people killed while building a tower at Siloam?  They were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Were they deserving of suffering and death?  No!  Jesus responds again, “Repent or Perish.”  
I do not believe that to “repent” means to turn towards God one time in some sort of decision to “choose” Jesus from behind door number two, and then proceed to never do anything sinful again.  Because we are just not capable of doing that.  We confess our sins and receive absolution for them, and five minutes later we are back into the same thought patterns and behavior that got us there in the first place.   I do think that repenting means to turn patiently again and again towards a God who is relentlessly waiting and wants to love us back into wholeness, to the God who tends and nurtures us in spite of us.  To repent means to seek to draw closer to God and to our neighbor.  Repentance does not come from shame, but rather, is a response to God’s love, not a prerequisite for receiving it.   To repent means to turn in faith, despite all evidence to the contrary, towards the sort of God that we hear about in the parable of the fig tree that follows.
Jesus says: “there was a fig tree in a vineyard.  The owner of this vineyard came looking for fruit on this tree and found none.  He tells the gardener, I have been looking for fruit from this fig tree for three years, it hasn’t produced any.  So cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?  The merciful gardener says, “leave it alone for one more year.  Give it a second chance, let me take care of it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good, if not, then it can be cut down.”
The vineyard owner is operating out of a common understanding of the way the world works.  If the tree is fulfilling its purpose and bearing fruit like it is supposed to be, great, but if not, cut it down and make room for something more productive.  We are this fig tree.  That despite all our best efforts, we will never produce enough, we will never BE enough, we are always at risk of being cut off at the roots of who we are by the relentless demands of the world to DO more, BE more, HAVE more.
The way of Jesus is the gardener who shows the tree mercy in spite of the fact that it has yet to produce anything useful.  Just as the gardener takes special care of a tree that for all intents and purposes does not deserve to be saved, so too will Jesus nurture us and refuse to allow the ways of the world to define us.  Our God is willing to dig around the base of our withered lives and spread manure around that we might grow.  God gets God’s hands dirty, both in tending the fig tree and in fully entering into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. 
            But this parable is unfinished. We do not know with certainty if the fig tree is spared destruction.  We only know that it is spared destruction FOR NOW.  But what we do know is that in the midst of all this teaching, Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem, where all of these parables will be finished through his death on a cross.  This parable is not about what we are capable of doing, but rather, what is done to and for us.   This is radically countercultural in a world that demands that we produce good things, pull our own weight, and live up to the ideals of others.  But the cross tells us that we might live only by dying and gain something only by doing nothing.  There is literally nothing that we can do on our own to be saved, because the action is God’s.  And we can know that with all certainty.   
            Repentance is not about doing one thing to avoid having something worse happen to you.  Repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved deeply and profoundly by God, the sort of God who bears with us through all suffering.  A God who is a gardener who loves us not for what we produce, but for who we are.  Repentance is about the ongoing recovery of our identity as beloved children of God.  Amen.