Sunday, February 28, 2010

Days 11 and 12: God in the Whirlwind

We have just had the most amazing weekend. I haven't had time to miss Facebook, which is saying something, because every other day of my "fast" I have really missed it.

Friday night, a group of folks interested in starting a new Presbyterian church in Knoxville met at our house to explore possibilities. There were 11 adults and 6 children. Everyone shared a strong desire to be part of a group that could pray for each other, and wasn't afraid to be "real" with one another. They want to start doing mission rather than just talking about it. They also want a safe place to explore and question their faith, and they want to worship in new ways, because they are tired of traditional church.

This morning our group attended church with a predominantly African American congregation in the center of town. They are a congregation of about 50 members, the product of a recent merge of two churches. The service flowed beautifully; there were children making happy noises and no one gave them the "evil eye." Everyone, and I mean everyone sang the hymns with gusto. And the members were warm and welcoming, without even acting shocked that 10 white people had suddenly appeared in their midst. Afterward, the pastor gave us a tour and showed us a room that would be perfect for our worshipping community. He said once the renovations are finished it could be our space, to use for whatever purposes we might have. He also told us that several of their members would probably like to be part of what we're doing, and the pianist would be interested in participating if we would have him. Our group was so excited to hear all of this, and you could feel the Spirit as everyone looked around, imagining worship in this amazing space that was being offered to us without our even asking.

Afterward we gathered in the home of one group member and shared lunch, and made a plan for gathering together through Lent. I must admit I'm blown away by how all of this is falling into place. If ever there was a time when God was making moves, I think it is now. No one is trying to push their own agenda, instead all seem to genuinely want something greater, a real relationship with the Lord. For once, I do not feel the need to coerce people into church attendance, or into service of some kind. They are gathering because they feel drawn to Christ in this way. It is beautiful to witness.

I don't have any grand theological insights today, but wanted to share this story of something new unfolding in our town. I can't remember a time when I have felt so swept away by the Spirit into new territory. I have absolutely no idea where this is all going to end up, but amazingly I feel no anxiety. Thanks be to God!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 10: In Praise of Facebook

I was honored with a very kind email from a sorority sister from my Sewanee days today. She wrote in response to reading this blog, and it warmed my heart and reminded me of the many positive things I enjoy about being on Facebook.

It is because of Facebook that she and I reconnected after nearly 20 years. I have to sing the praises of our internet community for that. It is almost magical how in one day I can receive messages from people so varied as a college friend, a minister colleague, someone from my opera-singing days, a person from my home church in Florida, a neighbor, and a church member, to name only a few.

I find it fascinating that while we are starving for a feeling of belonging and community in our own back yard, we are thriving in community on the internet. And for a person like me, who is terrible at keeping in touch, it is a God-send. I am able to keep up with folks as far away as Tbilisi, Georgia while at the same time instant messaging my next door neighbor about the grey fox in our shared back yard. So many people from different parts of our lives all gathered into one ether-consciousness.

So, ten days in, I am reflecting in gratitude on how Facebook has enriched my life by putting me in touch with some amazing people around the world and from every phase of my life. It is a remarkable age we live in, and sometimes it does us credit to enjoy the way things are.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day 9: I Don't Know What to Call Day Nine

The worst part of worship prep for me is the sermon title. Oh how I hate having to commit to a topic by Wednesday, when the sermon itself will not be preached until Sunday. So much can happen in between! And no matter how much preparation and research I put in, there is always something left to write early Sunday morning. Always. I struggle to feel comfortable with that living aspect to preaching, because I honestly think it's the Spirit's way of keeping me out of the way of the message. But I'd really like to tie everything up nicely in each sermon, give it a really fabulous ending and then receive high-fives from everyone in the receiving line at the back of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, it never works that way.

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon that was well on its way to being finished early on Saturday night. It was on the Transfiguration from Luke 9. I had done some language work on it, read a few commentaries, and it was 3/4 done. And then, it was as if God turned out the light and said, "it's finished. Go to bed." So I did. The next morning, the anxiety to work out a good ending never came, so I went to church with my 3/4 completed sermon. I got up to preach, knowing full well that I had no ending, but I was still not bothered.

When the black type ran out and the blank page took over, the words from Luke 9:35 rang out as if they were being spoken aloud in the sanctuary: 'This is my Son, my Chosen One, Listen to Him." So simple, yet so clear. It was as if the voice spoke to us all, coming from that powerful event two thousand years ago to the present. Jesus spoke of love and justice and did it in a powerful and subversive way. "Listen to him," the voice said.

Silly, silly preacher woman. Every week, I, like poor Peter on that mountaintop, have hoped to build some sort of permanent dwelling for the prophets of God with my words. Some sort of lasting tribute in each sermon with perfectly crafted sentences and sound theology. But I, like Peter, have been missing the point. We can't contain the glory of the Lord in a dwelling place, a Temple, or an award winning sermon. The words worth repeating have already been written. And God has commanded us through scripture once again to take heed.

Day 8: Too Much Time On My Hands

I have given up a few minor addictions in my lifetime: caffeine and Tetris being probably the most onerous. With caffeine the worst part is physical, a headache that lasts for a week and a weird fatigue that makes you wonder if you've contracted some horrible sickness. With Tetris it's just a matter of waiting until you no longer see the little colored blocks falling when you close your eyes.

But giving up Facebook, which I consider another of my minor addictions, has left me with a new sensation. Extra Time. This afternoon I got all the laundry folded and then did the dishes, had a good conversation with a friend on the phone, made dinner for the kids, attended a budget meeting and still had time left over to wonder what to do with myself next. I'm not used to having that kind of extra time. And even though most people say they just wish they had more time in the day, I wonder if we're really all that comfortable with having enough time to do what we need to do.

Because when every waking moment is not filled with tasks, we're just left with ourselves and our thoughts. Time to crank up the radio or find a volunteer opportunity. It's much easier to plow through a bunch of activities than it is to hang out with our own unique, fearful, wonderful, quirky, insecure, overwhelmed selves. And we've got to keep the loud music and the wild schedule going or something worse might happen: God might have something to say to us as well.

Personally, I do think I try to drown out my own thoughts and the voice of God with silly activities. I'm not proud of it but it's the truth. Because if God actually gets a word in through all the noise in my head, it might be a call to some place I do not want to go, or a command to forgive someone I enjoy hating, or a nudge to look in the mirror and recognize that a bad situation just might be my own fault. Better to keep the static going so when Jesus asks, "Can you hear me now?" I can answer, "you're breaking up...what was that? Hang on, I'll have to call you back later...."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 7: Response to Bruce Reyes Chow on "What Not to Give Up For Lent."

I just found out that our own PCUSA moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, has written an article on why not to give up social networking for Lent. Oops! Guilty as charged! Since I've been outed for going against the moderator's wishes I thought I should at least respond. He's got some thoughtful insights, as usual. I do feel that I 'know' Bruce even though we have never met because of his commitment to internet communication, and he is my friend on Facebook, for which I am grateful.

The big tag line in Bruce's article is this: "If the community one finds on social networking is something to give up for Lent, would it be OK for folks to give up going to church?" The assumption seems to be that internet social networking is comparable to church membership and he goes on to give three scenarios one should consider before giving up a network like Facebook. The first says if the networking/church has become destructive and an addiction, by all means give it up--possibly for good. The second says if the networking/church has kept one from God and that overshadows the good the connection brings, give it up and then return to it with "better practices for the long term." The third says if the social networking is life giving and positive, keep it and find something else to give up. (All my paraphrasing..apologies to Bruce).

I think that's all really good advice. I probably fall somewhere between categories 2 and 3. I do, for the most part, find my interactions on Facebook to be life-giving, affirming, and community-building. That said, I do think it can become addictive, and it does feed on narcissistic tendencies, and I recognize the need to watch those in myself.

But I disagree with Bruce on his assertion that giving up a social network for Lent is comparable to giving up church attendance. The church is first and foremost a center for humans to worship together. Part of the human experience is being rooted to earth inside a physical body. When we engage with people on the internet, much of our physicality is lost. We barely even move. I do not think it is possible to worship God without engaging our entire being, at least some of the time, during worship. Even if we post-modern folks consider church to be merely a social club with a God agenda, we still cannot be fully engaged in that community without fully engaging our bodies. There is an entire section in our Presbyterian Book of Order regarding Space and Time in worship. That is because physical space matters.

We are more than well-crafted sentences. We are flesh and blood, and full intimacy of faith depends on physical proximity to one another. While a social network like Facebook is a wonderful way to maintain contact with loved ones far away, share pictures of our kids on vacation, make new friends, and even promote good causes and extend the web of care, it is not a substitute for a home visit, a shared cup of coffee, or a good long hug, and it never will be.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 6: Liturgy for the Techno Age part 2

I am still thinking about liturgy for worship in the modern age of technology. It occurs to me, at least in my personal life, that a prayer of confession surrounding the use, or misuse of the internet in particular would be helpful. So many of our church problems or issues now stem from communication problems that surround emails, Facebook or otherwise. Have you been on the receiving end of a "nasty-gram" regarding church business? Have you written some angry diatribe, pushed send, and then wished to God you hadn't done it?

I can answer yes to both questions, and I'm fairly certain that I am not alone. The fact is, emailing makes communication easier on the one hand, and it destroys it on the other. In my opinion these email blunders are a sign of our basic cowardice. We wouldn't dare say half the things we say on the internet to someone's face. Just look at the garbage that gets posted as comments on any public site.

There is no point burying our heads in the sand and swearing off email, nor is there any benefit in remaining angry with ourselves for this cowardice. It's one more form of total depravity. When offered an opportunity to share harsh opinions without immediate repercussions, we jump at the chance. But we can take responsibility for the things we write to one another, and we can acknowledge our tendency to behave badly at the computer screen.

I would love to see a prayer of confession something like this spoken by almost every Session I've ever worked with. And I wonder if there might be a place for this type of language in congregational behavioral covenants:

Gracious God, we are a fearful people. We fear confrontation, and yet we are desperate to be heard. Our anxiety of controversy is so high that we resort to cowardly means to share our views. Forgive our mean-spirited, knee-jerk reactions through email. Forgive our use of words as weapons. We also know that we are quick to take offense. Give us a patient heart, and the courage to ask someone what their true intent is before responding in anger. Forgive our insecurities, Lord. Give us words the build up rather than tear down, and cover our debates and disagreements with your justice and your love. In Jesus Christ we pray these things, Amen.

Day 5: Liturgy for the Techno Age part 1

At a preaching conference this past summer in Montreat, North Carolina, the worship leader invited us all to take out our cell phones. We all did so, and she acknowledged that we were all probably thinking, "yes, yes, silence those stupid things. There's no place for them in worship." But instead, she asked us to hold the phones in one hand and to place our other hand on top. She acknowledged that without this particular technology, many of us would not have been able to get away from our jobs and families to be at the conference at all. We then prayed for all the people with whom we kept in touch for the week using our phones, and praised God for those connections that would not be possible without them.

I loved that prayer! It was the first time I saw a technological device embraced as good and helpful in a worship service. So it occurred to me there could be liturgy written for worship with the specific intention of lifting up the joys brought by technology. The church I most recently served might pray the following prayer of the (21st Century) people:

Lord, thank you for this screen and projector, which illuminate your words, and cause us to lift our heads to speak your name. The colors and images there show us your love in new and exciting ways! Thank you God, for the knowledge and craft of those who work our sound system, for through them we hear music which gathers us in and won't let us go until we have felt something real. Bless our website God. Even now, there may be someone who is searching for a place of faith where they can be themselves and belong. We offer up all: screen, DVD, and computer, to your glory. Guide us we use them to do your will. Amen

It sounds a little silly when I read this out loud; somehow the modern words seem out of place in a worship setting. But maybe that's part of the problem. Why shouldn't we pray for guidance as we use our phones, our laptops, projector screens, iPods, and the internet? If we start acknowledging the world we live in in our worship practices, then maybe somehow our worship will become more relevant to the world.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day Four: Wisdom from Desperate Housewives

Facebook was a major illustration in today's sermon at presbytery. The preacher, a friend of mine, compared our churches to our Facebook pages, saying that on Facebook we make ourselves sound so productive, healthy, and interesting, even though the reality is we are a sitting at home in our bathrobe eating chocolate chips out of the bag trying to come up with clever things to post. She said that people in church behave in a similar way. On Sunday mornings, we dress ourselves up, put on our happy face, and show up to worship squeaky clean and with perfect children. Little does anyone know that behind the fake smile lurks depression, a looming divorce, mental illness, grief, loss of our job, or any of a number of heartbreaks.

At a recent church meeting an Elder told us that church is the last place she wanted to be when things were going badly in her life. She said she liked to come to church in a happy frame of mind, and she liked to receive an uplifting message. If things are bad, she said, best to keep it to yourself. I pity her, because what happens when one is no longer able to keep up the facade? Then the perfect and happy church can easily become a place of pain. Is it right to stay away from our faith community because we're having an off day? What does it say about our church that we don't feel we can bring our whole selves to the table?

In Acts 2:43-47 the author Luke describes life among the first followers of Jesus Christ. "All who believed were together and had all things in common." (v. 44) This is followed by a description of a life in which the people shared meals, worship time, and even their own possessions. This life of true fellowship, or koinonia in the Greek, was the model for the early church. They had ALL things in common. That means the good, the bad, and the ugly. Although communal living is not practical for everyone in our current society, the spirit of sharing that Luke wrote about is worth considering. Would it make a difference in your life if you knew church was a place you could take your hopes AND your fears, your successes AND your failures, your perfect days AND your chaos?

In one of my favorite scenes from Desperate Housewives (yes, I watched the first several seasons) Lynnette, mother of four, has a nervous breakdown because she feels overwhelmed by everything going on in her life. When her friends find her curled up and crying at the neighborhood soccer field, they gather around her and share stories of times in their own lives when they had been pushed to the brink of insanity by some stressful event or emotional upheaval. Lynnette looks at each of them and cries out, "why don't we TELL each other these things? It would be nice to know we weren't alone!"

That's what the church can provide. We may not be able to agree on doctrine, or politics, or even what color to paint the walls in the fellowship hall. But we can share our stories with one another: the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly. Because the church at her best should be one place in this world where we are not alone.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day Three: Is Praying More Like a Text or a Phone Call?

Yesterday I heard the news that a plane had crashed into a building in Austin, Texas. I have a friend in Austin and instantly wanted to know if she and her family were alright, and what news she'd heard from ground zero. She and I met about 2 years ago through a mutual friend on Facebook, and since then we have logged hours of instant messages, but have only spoken on the phone twice. But due to my Lenten fast, I was forced to call her on the phone. What followed was a 45 minute conversation in which we not only discussed the crash, but branched off into psychology, theology, plans for a family trip together, and sharing about our frustrations and joys with our small children. We shared in less than an hour what would have taken probably 6 months to cover over Facebook, between instant messages and wall posts.

Why have we mostly forsaken actual talking, on the phone or in person, in favor of text messaging and internet blips? How is it that we can think of email and wall post interactions as a cultural advance, when through them we cannot hear voice inflection or see facial expressions? Why do we choose a mode of communication that slows us down and limits what we can say?

If I'm honest with myself, I prefer the text or the IM because I can engage in it on my own time. If I'm feeling overwhelmed by all I have to do in a day, it's easier to fire off a quick text to someone than it is to speak with them, exchange the polite greetings, inquire after their family and health, and sign off respectfully. Have you noticed that many emails dispense with the "Dear So-and-so" and "Best Regards, So-and-so"?

On the third day of my Facebook fast I am thinking about prayer, and wondering if our technological advances have not only affected the way we communicate with each other, but also the way we communicate with God. I was at a family retreat recently where we learned about a deck of cards resource for parents: prayers for the "family on the go." It was the prayer equivalent of text messaging to God: short-order phrases of gratitude or petition to say while driving to the store, waiting in the drive-thru line, or watching a soccer game. With this type of prayer a person could pray all day long without interrupting his or her schedule. The parents of young children who were present at the retreat, including myself, lined up to get our own deck.

All kinds of prayer are valid, and there is certainly a place for these types of prayers. But if all we do is text-message God, sending canned messages smashed in between events in our harried lives, then I think we miss something important.

Like a phone conversation or a face to face meeting, prayer with God could instead be a real conversation. When we meet people and actually talk with them, we get to share our stories in detail. When we spend time with others our relationships become stronger based on shared experience. Couldn't the same be said for our relationship with God? We might stop every now and then, and instead of sending the text message, go to meet God in the world. Invite God into our home or our workplace, and strike up a real conversation. There is a risk here, because it means we need to make ourselves available for a call at all the inconvenient hours of our busy lives. But our lives could be richer for it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day Two: Now What?

So, here it is, Day Two of my Facebook fast, and I'm in the shower imagining all the great status updates I can put up already: "I've already chosen the winner of American Idol." or "After a long imprisonment the Sun is out! Call the police and lock it away before it does any damage!" or "New toilet today...finally!" Then I realize, I won't be posting any of my oh-so-clever updates. I become aware in that instant how much time I actually spend crafting status updates in my head during the day. Something will happen and I'll think, "ooh, that's a good one. How can I get all that in one line?" It's like having a little news reporter in my head deciding which story ideas would be the most interesting. It's also a little Narcissistic. I wonder, is the constant stepping out of myself to view what's going on so that I can comment on it keeping me from being present in the moment; from feeling actual joy, sadness, fear, whatever? I'll have to pay more attention to that.

I've also spent some time reflecting on the reaction I've gotten from folks when I've told them I'm giving up Facebook for Lent. To my surprise, the majority have been negative. "Why would you want to give that up?" someone asked, "It's a form of communication, not a luxury!" One friend warned me that folks would feel abandoned by me because Facebook is a community, and to give it up is like giving up on a relationship. I hadn't thought about it that way.

At last night's Ash Wednesday service we had ashes placed on our foreheads, with the line "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." A reminder of our mortality, and the sense that we're just a blip on God's Holy "to-do" list. A reminder of our humanity, and the contrast between who we are and who God is. It makes the running news reporter commentary in my head seem downright silly. What would God's status update be for the day? "God...was most displeased to hear Pat Robertson's comments about Haiti." or "God...saved a few lives today, but left others to die. C'est la vie." Or is God's status update always the same, something like: "God....loves everybody. Wish they'd pay attention once in awhile."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day One: The Journey Begins

Perhaps someone famous said it, and if they didn't, someone should. Anything that you feel you can't live without could be a stumbling block to a healthy life. And so it is that I begin this Lenten journey of giving up facebook for forty days. Do I have doubts that I can live without it? Absolutely! And the truth is, I'm nervous about it. How will I keep in touch with all of those newly essential people from my past? How will I communicate without (horrors!) picking up the phone and speaking directly to people? How will I make public my opinions on politics, church life, and American Idol?

It occured to me, after the decision to go AWOL from the facebook community for 6 weeks, that it might be interesting to explore how the change affects my daily living. Is it possible to drop a new communications technology and survive? Will there be a sense of reclaiming some of the old-school methods of reaching out to friends such as text messaging and email? Will I spend more quality time with my kids, or find a new escape?

Not to mention the spiritual implications. There'll be alot of empty space in my day. I spend alot of my free moments trolling the facebook seas looking for a friend or discussion or funny video someone posted. Anything to feel connected. What will my brain do with the radio silence? The hope in Lent is that we spend more time focused on God's love, our own humanity, and the awesome wonder that God actually wants to be in relationship with us.

So invite you to join me on this journey. Like all good journeys, I have no idea where it will ultimately lead, but I know God is my companion always.

Soli Deo Gloria