For The Someday Book

Archive for August 2013

I haven’t written much in awhile, due to a flurry of other writing and speaking engagements that have demanded my attention. One of them occurred last week, when I was invited to present at Distilled Spirit, a conversation about God and life modeled after Theology on Tap. The event was sponsored by a neighboring UCC congregation and held at Epicenter’s Moonshine University, the nation’s only institution dedicated to teaching the art of distilling spirits.

I had a great time presenting about “How My Mind Has Changed about the Bible,” while people sipped bourbon and giant distilling equipment sparkled in the background. Talk about a cool venue! It’s not every pastor who can say that she spoke at Moonshine University. Like the geek I am, I pulled out my camera and took pictures of the whole experience. Explaining myself to the gathered audience, I said, “I have to have proof I did this. Nothing is real until it’s up on Facebook.”

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The distillery at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

The words came lightly at the time, but I have been contemplating them ever since.  Where did that idea come from? Did I really mean to suggest that my experience didn’t count unless it had been shared on Facebook? What does that imply about reality and our relationships through social media?

I traced the root of my comment back to something I had heard (and believed) about the church’s presence in social media. I heard someone remark that the world of the next generation existed online, and if the church wasn’t there, it was as if we didn’t actually exist. Just as the physical building of the church makes its presence real in a neighborhood, its web and social media presence make it real in the online world.

I also remembered hearing an expert in the Millenial Generation, most well known for being digital natives, talk about the way the presence of smartphones in our lives had changed social reality. Through the device, one’s entire network of friends and family and schoolmates and extended acquaintances travels with you everywhere you go. You can share life’s experiences with them in real time, even if they are a continent away. You expect them to be present with you everywhere, and to share in everything.

That’s what I was feeling with my compulsion to share pictures from Distilled Spirit. Through Facebook, I have an extended network of family, friends, and clergy colleagues with whom I share my life. The once-in-a-lifetime experience of speaking at Moonshine University was incomplete until I was able to share it with them.

This is an essential part of the human experience, with a new technological twist. We have always sought new and creative experiences, and we have always turned those experiences into stories and memories to be shared with others. Whether it’s swapping hunting and fishing tales around a campfire, writing letters home, or posting on Facebook, our best experiences are incomplete until they have been transformed from experience into story and shared with others.

News–whether it’s good news, bad news, or Gospel–doesn’t become real until it is shared with others, no matter the means of communication. A soldier at war is alive until the telegram arrives at his or her parents’ home. A relationship is real when it becomes “Facebook official” and you change your online profile. A marriage appears intact until you announce to friends and family that you’re separating.  A pregnancy takes on new dimensions when you start to share the ultrasound pictures. A new job is finally certain when you’re allowed to tell your friends–and your current boss–that you start next week. Even the reality of a loved one’s death only begins to sink in when we have to tell others he or she is gone.

Social media just adds new dimensions to that same reality. You experience something in the world, and then you re-experience it when you share it with others. Just like we can’t wait to see the look on someone’s face when we tell them about a terrific experience, we can’t wait to read our friends comments and replies online.

That’s why I have begun encouraging my congregation to make use of their smartphones in worship. Rather than seeing their desire to take pictures, tweet my sermon or check Facebook during worship as a distraction, I see it as a way of making the experience real and memorable, owning it as a part of their life story. I see it as part of spreading the Gospel good news. Borrowing an idea from Michael Piazza at the Center for Progressive Renewal, I now invite the congregation to “check in on Facebook and then check in with God” as they listen to the opening prelude. Sharing the experience of worship at our church with their online community–even if it means looking down at their smartphone during my sermon–makes it more real, not less. It’s not a blanket call for people to be playing with their smartphones during church, but it is a recognition that reaching over to grab the iPhone might be a way to go deeper with the message, not to ignore it.

Even more, it can be a great opportunity for evangelism. If an experience is only memorable and meaningful when we tell the story to others, by all means, we should be using every means at our disposal to facilitate that telling about God. Let us cement the Gospel story in the story of our lives by placing the church’s events alongside the first day of school, lunch at a fancy restaurant, feet at the beach, family at the holidays and funny cat photos in our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter feed. While there are limits to be sure, perhaps we should encourage our gathered congregations to integrate their spiritual and social lives by “checking in” at church and tweeting lines from songs and sermons. Our online lives enhance and expand our real-life experiences because we can share them with friends.

So, look everybody! Here’s me talking about the Bible at Moonshine University. How cool is that? You never know where Jesus is going to send you.

Here's me at Moonshine University!

Here’s me at Moonshine University!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Crown Publishers, 2012, 419 pp.

0806_gone_425This was a great summer thriller, and a perfect escape novel. I don’t often read thrillers, but this one came highly recommended, and the story was eloquently written and intricately told.

Nick comes home one day to discover that his wife Amy has disappeared. There are signs of a struggle, but no signs of where she might be. The story is told in alternating chapters, one voiced by Amy, the other by Nick. The story unwinds the intricate, tangled web of their complicated relationship, even as it details the efforts by police, family and Nick to find out what has happened to Amy, whether she is alive or dead. Without giving anything away, let’s just say I started out liking both characters, then disliking one, then liking that one and disliking the other, then back and forth again, and ended up uncertain if I liked either of them anymore–and it didn’t matter, because I was already so attached to them that likability was no longer relevant.

Flynn’s prose was a big step above the average thriller. For example, I just loved this little bit, voiced by Nick:

It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. … I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. (72-73)

This particular example drew me in because I resonated with the sentiment, but the book is full of other keen observations that add to the interesting characters and plot.

Gone Girl is summer reading at its finest. Go and enjoy it.

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene H. Peterson, Eerdmans, 1992, 197 pp.

Under-the-unpredictable-plant1This book was just what I needed at this moment in my personal and professional spiritual life. Eugene Peterson always challenges me as a pastor and a person, even though I do not always agree with his assessments. Under the Unpredictable Plant posed just the questions I have been asking about my own vocation in ministry, and offered a rich depth of responses. Many of the ideas reappear in The Pastor, but this is a different arc on the theme.

The structure of the book follows the book of Jonah, and the image of the prophet who declines to follow God’s command, then finds himself confined in the belly of the fish, then makes his way reluctantly to Ninevah, only to find himself upset by both success and failure. Peterson begins in the introduction to discuss the gap between “personal faith and pastoral vocation.” It is a chasm I know as well–when it seems like following God will upset “successful” ministry, or when “successful” ministry seems to cost personal spirituality. I awakened to it most dramatically during my sabbatical last year, when I again found the time and space to be a Christian first, pastor second. However, the truth remains that my spiritual relationship with God is always lived out in my pastoral vocation.

I always appreciate his wisdom on the mundane nature of most pastoral tasks, and the beauty that lies therein.

The pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation… Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds… There is much that is glorious on pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Ninevah-like place: a place for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin. (16)

Peterson offers a scathing critique of contemporary pastoral ministry, especially its emphasis on programs, numbers, and efficiency. He gives a graceful description of what the pastoral vocation should instead be: the task of bearing witness to Christ in the daily tasks of people’s lives:

We are there in our congregation to say God in a grammar of direct address. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray (the two primary modes of our address). … We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is already there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (86-87)

While I found his critique true in many ways, and I want to honor that central pastoral task, I question whether the vocation he describes is possible in today’s congregations. While his interpretation of the pastor is spiritually and biblically sound, it is not necessarily financially sound in today’s shrinking ecclesiastical reality. Or, while we probably should be spending all our time and energy in biblical reflection and spiritual direction, we will not likely be able to earn a full-time salary doing so. Which may or may not be a positive thing–because the biblical prophets and pastors were fairly bi-vocational themselves, rarely paid for doing the Lord’s work, and never expected to run programs, grow churches or “service” a congregation. Perhaps a return to what really matters in this pastoral work–preaching and prayer–will not fund our pensions, but will revive the meaning of the vocation. Yet that is a tough choice for those of us already enmeshed in full-time ministerial work.

I imagine I will return to Peterson’s work again in the future, as a reminder of the struggles and purpose of my vocation. It is too easy to lose my way, and Peterson helps me find it again.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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