Jeff Was Right: My End of Day Thoughts on the New Media Conference

The New Media Project conference yesterday was a whirlwind of meeting people I’d heard of and hearing people I’ve read online. The task of thinking theologically about social media, about the ways the project case studies (like The Young Clergy Women Project, which is why I was there) use and think about social media was fascinating and fun. The theological papers from the researchers were great too. That is, if you liked seminary and sometimes miss sitting in classes talking about theories of the atonement and ecclesiological models of the church. Which I did and do.

Though, really, in seminary, I found some of those questions much more overwhelming to assimilate into my life. Maybe I still do, because at the end of six theological papers and two panel responders, my brain was done and I couldn’t think of the story I had wanted to share that summed up the afternoon for me. But now I’ve gotten some really good barbeque and a decent night’s sleep, so here’s what I wanted to say about incarnation and theories of salvation and models of ecclesiology and the whole enterprise.

Jeff was right.

Jeff has long ago given up blogging, and probably has no idea why he started twitching after I hit publish. We lived across the hall from each other in seminary, and spent two years with our families having great dinners and drinks and discussions. Jeff and I saw eye to eye on… um… not much really, other than how to make a really cool fire for the Easter Vigil*. His Golden Spike award for being the most Anglo-Catholic high church student sat on his television, staring through the open doors at my John Calvin low-church student award. But Jeff shaped my seminary education as much as almost anyone else, and here is why: Jeff would wander into our apartment at random points of the day and ask me crazy questions, and then we’d be up to ridiculous hours debating something, and Tripp would just laugh at us. And then crash on Jeff’s couch.

So, back to the New Media conference, and my story about why Jeff was right. On one of those nights – it was already somewhat late – Jeff stormed, more than wandered, into our living room – he’d clearly been having a day –  and said, “SUSIE! Have you decided what you think about salvation? Does it come from baptism or do you believe in universal salvation? You have to decide because this stuff matters!”

Yes, Jeff, it does. When we are presented with new tools, new media, new methods to communicate in the church, we have to use them as the church. Which means we need to think about what it means for a people saved by the Incarnation to find community in virtual space. We need to think about how people created in the image of God ought to interact with our own creations. The metaphors and language we use for being the church ought to shape how we are the church on the web.

Here are the six theological essays to get you started or to keep you going, from the New Media Project’s research fellows. The fellows don’t all agree with each other, and I’m not sure that I agree with all of them either. But the discussions and ideas are rich starting points for the work of deciding what we think about salvation and incarnation and social media. Bring your own comfy chair, stiff drink and great dog if you have them – that’s how Jeff would have done it.

*For an indoor smokeless fire, get a heatproof bowl and mix epsom salts with rubbing alcohol. Light a match, drop it in, and ka-blam – the new fire is lit. I recommend practicing a few times, because its just cool.

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All I Could Say

A Sermon for Advent 3, after the shootings in Newton, CO
For the story, the room was darkened, and candles were lit at the end of the story, and again with each repeated line from the Gospel of John. 

What then, should we do? John the Baptist and all the prophets of Advent have reminded us – though none of us need the reminder this week – that the world is not as it should be. In the face of hard realities, the people in the wilderness ask questions: What should we do? Who are you really? Are you the one who will bring change to the world?

These questions maybe aren’t so different from the ones we have been asking since Friday morning, when the violent tragedy in Connecticut – and the shootings at an Oregon mall – ended the lives of so many children and adults. Sometimes, questions are the only response, the only prayer, we know how to offer. How? Why? How could someone do such violence? How did he get in? How – Why did this happen?

Questions are part of tragedy and loss, and the grasping for answers is a way of dealing with the shock, the emotions of grief. We are not alone in our questions. The people of God have been seeking – even demanding – answers for thousands of years:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever?

How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?  Psalm 13:1-2

Return, O LORD; how long will you tarry? Be gracious to your servants.Psalm 90:13

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?   Habakkuk 1:2

Some of these questions have no answers, and maybe never will. Some of our questions are simply lament – crying out to God when crying is the only prayer that makes sense. Every once in a while, the questions are the way forward. On Friday afternoon, my friend Joanna asked this question:

how do we keep on keeping ourselves open, brave, and tender in a world in which things like this can happen? 

Christians, among others, tell some of our deepest truth in stories. So, once upon a time, a mother and father lived with their three sons in a cabin in the woods. As the couple got older, they began to wonder which son they should leave in charge of their home. They came up with a simple test: Whoever could fill the house would inherit the home. Each son had one day, from sunset to sunset, to fill the small home. The first son loved to paint and create art. He worked all night creating new paintings and hanging his work to fill the space. At the end of the day, though the house was beautifully decorated, it was really only about half full. The second son, who loved books, spent his day carrying and stacking books. At the end of the day, the family enjoyed his great library of stories and knowledge, but the house was really only about two-thirds full.

On the third day, the youngest son who was quiet in nature, seemed less busy. His parents worried that he might not participate at all. But at the end of the day, just as the sun set, he invited the family into the house and lit the candles he had placed around the room. The house was full, of the warm glow of candle light. The youngest son inherited the home, and as far as we know, lives there still with his brothers.

In other words, in perhaps more familiar words, here is the only answer I have found to Joanna’s question:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The only answer I have found – though its not a simple answer – in how to keep open and brave and tender is to practice light.

In the wilderness of Advent – when trees are bare and there is more darkness in the world, and now, after this week, it seems like there is more darkness that people ought to bear – in this wilderness, John the Baptist stands and calls us to live for the Light.

What then are we to do? We listen to John’s words, calling ourselves and one another to turn towards light: to be generous with our resources and our compassion, to be honest and fair in our daily work, and to shun greed and violence and all the ways we see fellow children of God as something to be used instead of people to be loved.

We grieve and cry together. We pray and sing and give. We who are able hold the light of Christ for those who are too burdened to carry it for themselves. We hold on to hope – the kind of hope demands that we turn whatever we can around, to work for that which we hope for. We practice the ways of God, who wipes away all tears, and abides in peace that moves beyond understanding.

In a short while, our church school will help up practice light by celebrating St. Lucia, whose very name means “light.”

St. Lucy’s day is December 13th – the anniversary of our church. You’ll hear more of her story in a while, but the feast of St. Lucia is especially important in Sweeden, where winters are long and dark. At the darkest time of year, children dress up and bring light in the darkness, sharing food with their families and with those in need.

The saint who shares our birthday is celebrated for bringing light into darkness. The Christ we worship and the Christ are waiting for is the light in the darkness, and God calls us to be light to the world as well. Light may not seem enough – maybe even isn’t enough – to fill the spaces left by grief and violence and disaster. But light shining in the darkness– and the hope it brings – is the gift we have, the story we tell, and life we prepare for in Advent, at Christmas, and throughout our lives as Christians. May God give us the open hearts, tender souls, and brave actions needed to live in the light.

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Waiting For Messiah

After a few year’s of singing Handel’s Messiah each December, nothing sounds like Christmas to me quite as much as the beginning notes of “For Unto Us A Child Is Born.” Even when we sing them at a rehearsal in September. Who says time travel is out of our reach? A little music, a particular sense of smell – memory has to be the key. Take that and run with it, science folks.
Anyway. I’m not singing Messiah this year. With a few changes in our family life, the choir just didn’t fit this fall. Performances are last night and today, but I won’t be attending. A quirky thing about my musical tastes is that what I like to sing in choirs, and what I enjoy listening too aren’t even really a Venn diagram. They’re more like hemispheres. I may listen to a track or two, thanks be to Spotify, but no full-blown immersion in the telling of the story of Jesus who was and is and is to come.

And that is really what I’m missing about the rehearsals, as I gear up for Advent. Messiah rehearsals have become a way of  interacting with Scripture that is bodily, and so far for me, irreplaceable. Why is “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” the beginning of Christmas, when it isn’t the first piece sung by the chorus? Because I remember that first year, and that first performance: I was pregnant with Bliss. I remember rehearsing and wondering if the baby would be a boy or girl, and feeling the contrast of the bouncy joyful runs with the feelings of nausea and total anxiety. I remember singing “his yoke is easy” when it didn’t feel that way at all – my idea of following Jesus didn’t seem to be matching up with the rest of the world (yeah, I know, but Handel left those verses out). Yelling at God in your head while singing the almost-perky chorus is quite the prayer experience.

Advent is like that for me: a liturgical season of contrast. Apocalypse, anticipation, joy, hope, anxiety. Dark and light. Part Hallelujah chorus and part Surely. Welcome back, favorite season of mine.

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Storytime: Lady Hahn and her Seven Friends

by Yumi Heo

This book is based on a nineteenth century Korean story, with an unknown author. In some ways, its a classic moral tale. Aesop could come up with a pithy summary, I’m sure. But that doesn’t make the illustrations any less fun!

The slightly-less-than-pithy summary goes like this: Lady Hahn is a seamstress, and her seven friends are her sewing tools – scissors, needle, thread, and the rest of her supplies. One day, the tools begin arguing about which of them is the most important. (Why yes, this does sound like the disciples.) Not surprisingly, Lady Hahn gets annoyed and tells them that SHE is the most important, and shoves them in a box. The friends start to think of the ways they are treated poorly and run away. Everyone realizes in the end that they are all important and play their own roles in sewing and creating. Like I said – its sort of a neat and tidy moral tale.

And yet, this same point is made All. Over. the Bible, especially in the New Testament. More than one of the Gospels records Jesus telling the disicples not to lord their authority over others, that the last shall be first, and they must serve one another. Paul uses the metaphor of “many parts, one body” in multiple letters. The lesson of many gifts working together without arrogance seems to be an important one all over the world and in all times. And this version has pretty silk shirts.

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Storytime: The Wind That Wanted To Rest

By Sheldon Oberman
Illustrated by Neil Waldman

And, here is my first story book offering. Since I attended a great conference on Sabbath this summer, led by the fantabulous MaryAnn McKibben Dana, the name of this book caught my eye. It is, indeed, about the need to rest.

The old winter wind is tired and wants a place to rest. He tries to rest in a noisy town but its too busy and loud for resting. But everywhere else he turns, he is sent away for fear of the potential (or actual) damage he can do. With no rest and lots of rejection, the winter wind gets angry and bitter. Finally, a child sees his sadness and invites him to stay. The wind leaves behind a gift for her and her family.

The pictures were pretty enough that I read the book at the library while Bliss played on the computer there. I grabbed the book thinking about the importance of rest and sabbath – that sabbath is good for us, and a gift to humanity. Thinking about it more, its also a story of defusing conflict with kindness rather than raising the temperature of a fight. And, of course, it is about the ways rejection and acceptance shape who we are and what we do, and therefore shape the world around us. Bullying for little kids, anyone?

PS: The link is to Amazon, but you know, local bookstores and libraries are worth your time and money.

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Storytime: Preaching the Word. And Pictures.

Insert obligatory yeah, I’ve been away from the blog explanation here. Let’s all move on now, shall we?

The fantastic children’s minister at one of our churches hosted a program for parents about faith at home. It was great, but not really the focus of this post. She made an off-hand remark that when she goes to the library, she grabs a bunch of picture books to find ones she really likes for work and home. Then she read one of them to us. When was the last time you sat in a room of adults listening to a picture book being read? It’s fantastic.

Earlier this summer, we found a book at the library for Bliss that I just loved. Its about gifts and talents and getting confused about where our gifts are held. I ended up reading it during a sermon at church.

So, I’m taking at least some of the children’s minister’s advice, and starting to grab a stack of books at the library. When I find ones I like – good stories, possible metaphors, and hopefully beautiful pictures – I plan to put them here. Easy retrieval and all. Enjoy!

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Sunday Sermon: Eschatology and Choice

Preached (roughly this text) at St. Paul’s Lansing

A few years ago, there was a short-lived TV series called Eli Stone. It was a typical law firm show, where lawyers fought with each other at their firm but mostly win their cases in court. What made this show different, was that the title character had a brain aneurysm which caused him to experience visions that seemed real to him – everything from members of the law firm putting on full-blown Broadway numbers in the boardroom to being chased by planes in the street. Eli came to believe that even though the visions weren’t literally happening, they served a guide for what cases to take and how to win them. Everyone else came to believe that Eli was crazy – except for the few who believed in him. And sadly for fans like me, the network came to believe that the premise of visions guiding a law firm wasn’t a good television show.

One of the reasons I liked the show was that is was a great parable for a life of faith. Finding truth and guidance in particular visions is part of what we do as Christians. Now, these aren’t generally the kind of hallucinations that happened to Eli Stone, where we are working away at our desk when the room turns into a pirate ship. But our lives, as followers of Christ, are shaped by what we believe the kingdom of God does and will look like. Jesus proclaimed a vision of what the kingdom of God would be, of how God was bringing a new creation into being. He taught in the synagogue that he came to preach good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, set the oppressed free by proclaiming the time of God’s favor.
In Revelation, we hear that in the new creation, too many people to count – from every nation and language – will worship at the throne of God, and hunger and thirst will be no more, and God will wipe away all tears.

Jesus walking among us, his teaching and healing, and then ultimately his crucifixion and resurrection were the actions of God to inaugurate this new creation, this vision of a world infused with God’s loving presence.

The question that has plagued Christians ever since is simply: When? When will these visions of the new creation come to be?  In theology, the word for this question of when – and what – is eschatology. Es-cha-tol-o-gy. That’s the academic term for what we think of the end times- for Christians, it means how we think of the coming reign of Christ.

Now, Christians generally fall into two categories – the ones who think that we fall into two categories, and the ones who don’t. Ok, maybe not. But the question of eschatology – on when the reign of God will begin – seems to have two answers. For some, the reign of God began when Jesus overcame death on Easter morning, and we who know the love of Jesus are living in that reality. For others, the reign of God is still far into the future, and this world that we know is not part of God’s final plan.

There is of course a third way: that Jesus was the beginning of the new creation, and we see glimpses of the power of resurrection leaking through into our lives and our world. There are thin places, where the kingdom of God is clearly already here – but there are the hard realities of our world that remind us that God’s vision for the new creation is not yet here.

So what’s the point of all this theological talk of end times, and why does it matter? I think it mattered to Jesus in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Jesus taught about God’s dream for the world: when people would be healed, the hungry are fed and all will worship God in spirit and truth. But the reign of God was always going to begin from God’s beloved people Israel, not with the other nations. Jesus could have even used Scripture – instead of the ethnic insults of the day- to justify his refusal to help her. Maybe this story would be easier to hear if he had.

But when this foreign woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, she is asking – Will you live in the vision of the new creation where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female or will you live in our current reality of division? And so Jesus had to decide: if I know of the future kingdom, when the knowledge of God will cover the earth, when peoples from every tribe and nation will worship at the throne – do I live now as if that can be true or live as if that reality only belongs to some faraway future? It took the wit and strength of a mother’s pleas for Jesus to hear the question. But her persistence – and his engagement – became an opportunity to live in the promised reign of God – to live into the vision of a new creation, even though the promised kingdom wasn’t fully in place.

As followers of Christ, we have to answer the same question: will we live in the “already” or the “not yet” of God’s vision for the world?
We can choose to claim the presence of Christ here and now – to see the ways that the healing and restoring power of God are working in the world around us, and to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world. We may have to listen closely for those grace-filled openings – if Jesus nearly missed a moment of healing, certainly we are capable of forgetting the hope that lives in us.

And this is our hope: that the love of God, the power of resurrection in Christ Jesus, will eventually work its way into the fabric of the world so that we will become and behold a new creation. There will be no hunger or thirst. There will be no reminders of caring for the poor as we heard today, because we will not have the rich and poor. Boundaries, limitations, and divisions will be healed as quickly as the demon left the girl.

Heaven knows that we do not live in that reality yet, that the kingdom of God is not yet fully here. For many people and places, the healing, life-giving power of God does not come into the world fast enough. Not every person in need of these stories gets to live them out here and now. But as people of Christ, we can bring the hope of God’s vision into the world around us.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. Through our hope in Christ and the love of God, by claiming our place in the vision of God’s kingdom, our lives can become this prayer for the world.

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Habits and Dreams

I have this memory of writing down a long list of ideas for the blog, and feeling really inspired. You know the times when ideas are just flowing and connections are easier to see? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow.” (Watch his TED talk!)

Sadly, that memory was part of a dream, because that list isn’t where I put it. My dreams can be annoyingly realistic sometimes.

Still, it’s interesting (to me, at least) that after eight years of blogging, at multiple pages, that I’m still dreaming about being better at this writing process than I am. Some folks that I like to read (Elizabeth, MaryAnn, Mihee and Katherine all come to mind) are pastors and writers – they write not only for the habit, but because its who they are. That isn’t really me, and that’s fine. Blogging to me is a way to think, a way to interact and reflect, and a practice. I write specifically because I’m NOT a writer, but the pastoral calling involves a great deal of writing. Its good for me, and I think good for my work whether that’s hanging with Bliss or preaching or leading worship or sitting with people.

Yesterday’s sermon at our church was about habit and practices. She talked about the ways we eat food, and the slow food movement as metaphor for the way Jesus works on our souls. She also talked about a study that found the number one way to spark a deeper spiritual life – across theologies and denominations- is for people to spend time every day reading and reflecting on Scripture. The key seemed to be doing it every day – it didn’t seem to matter much whether it was 15 minutes or an hour.

I think habits lead to dreams. Blogging here with some frequency led to dreams of blogging with ease. Imagine what we could dream if we had the habit of encountering the living Word each day through Scripture.

“There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible. If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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New Horizons: Poetry of Hafiz

I was recently introduced to the poetry of Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the fourteenth century. I’m just beginning to dig into it a big – poetry has never been a big part of my life, really – but it has some fascinating images and ideas. I find them especially striking in more modern translations. I’m especially loving this one, found at PoetSeers – click to find the rest of poem, translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

Several Times in the Last Week

Ever since Happiness heard your name
It has been running through the streets
Trying to find you.
And several times in the last week,
God Himself has even come to my door-
Asking me for your address!
Once I said,
I thought You knew everything.
Why are You asking me
Where Your lovers live?’
And the Beloved replied,
Indeed, Hafiz, I do know Everything –
But it is fun playing dumb once in a while


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Monday Meditation: How?

How do babies pinch their noses?

How do zebras take naps?

How does chalk go on the ground?

We’re entering the question phase of the preschool years around here. How? When? Why? Bliss isn’t quite at the 300 questions per day rate, but its coming. Sometimes, I have no idea. Sometimes I tell her the answer to a question and she doesn’t believe me. Sometimes she just keeps asking over and over and over again. Sometimes, I think the “persistance” parables of Jesus were maybe less amusing at the time.

And yet – the constant questions are a kind of meditation in and of themselves. Its a way to interact with the world that is curious and open and interested. Its a little bit of science and a little bit of faith all rolled into one. Such is the mind of a preschooler. The openness and curiosity she’s showing? Such could be the mind of any engaged Christian, if only we’d ask.

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