Thursday, December 2, 2021

Facebook, Tongues, and the Root of Evil

Facebook has been in the news a lot recently for all the wrong reasons. Even before a whistleblower shared documents with the public that Facebook knew that its apps (including Instagram and WhatsApp?) were causing eating disorders and mental illness, it was general knowledge that Facebook has become a place for practicing conspiracy theories, anger, and name-calling. At its worst, social media can function like a self-feeding outrage machine that leads to arguments between loved ones and "unfriending" family members. 

The nastiness has led many people to quit Facebook (or Twitter, etc.), while lawmakers and other leaders debate creating laws to manage algorithms, control online speech, or otherwise "fix" social media so they "do no evil" (as Google's slogan once said). If these apps are evil, people are asking, how do we get rid of them or control them better?

At the same time, Facebook has been an amazing gift for my church. When Covid hit, I jumped on our church's Facebook group and started asking a question of the day on weekdays. I thought it would give us something to reflect on for the 2-3 weeks (insert laugh track here) that we were isolating from each other. After a few weeks, we started posting a weekly "Mental Health Check" image we borrowed from another church that encouraged people to share a colored heart or emoticon to express how they are doing. These prompts started long conversation threads, personal sharing, a lot of "I never knew that about you," and digital prayers and signs of support. I have heard from multiple people that they have learned more about other church members in a few months on Facebook than they did in a decade of talking in person at church. 

Twenty months later, we are still doing daily questions and weekly check-ins, not just because Covid continues to impact our lives, but because they have become a vital part of our community building and loving one another. If Facebook is evil, how can it do such good? I'm disgusted by the news of how social media companies have manipulated their systems to generate clicks and eyeballs while knowing it was actually hurting people, but simply deleting it would also remove me from my church's online group that has been a real source of hope and healing for me. How do we make sense of this?

In the book of James in the Bible, the author takes a large section of the letter to address a related issue -- the tongue -- and their reflection is helpful for us, I think. By "tongue," they are referring to speech and warn that our words can do great good or great harm. They write: "With it [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so" (James 3:9-10). 

Though the author specifically calls the tongue "a restless evil"immediately before this, I think these two verses instead argue that it is a neutral object or a tool and how it is used can be evil or good. God's intent, the author is saying, is for our words to proclaim truth and praise and help for other people. When we use them to tear people down or hurt them, that is an abuse of the tool God has given us. The evil doesn't come from the tongue or words, but in how we use them. In other words, evil comes from within us, not the tongue. 

Sound like anything else in the news? Facebook, Twitter, and "the socials" are not evil or good in and of themselves. The evil or good comes in how we use them (and how their programmers craft them to trigger us). Like many things, they can bring out the best or worst in us, but we have to be aware of what we are doing with them. Do my comments and posts "bless the Lord and Father" or do they "curse those who are made in the likeness of God"? 

We can get too caught up in wondering whether an app -- or book, or show, or whatever -- is good or evil. Instead, James invites us to ask, "How can I use this to praise God and serve others instead of cursing and hurting?" Perhaps we can't use something for good, and then we should get rid of it. 

Until I can't use it for good, I'll be posting grace, hope, and love on Hope to see you there. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” -Taylor Swift, “All Too Well”

Friday, October 29, 2021

What's Outside Your Zoom Screen?

One of the things I've enjoyed about doing so many things on Zoom since Covid hit (okay, maybe the only thing I've enjoyed) is getting to see into people's lives in new ways. I love looking at what people have hanging on their walls and how they've decorated because it makes for great conversation starters. "Where was that photo taken?" "What's that trophy for?" "Is that a cello? Do you play?" Sometimes a pet will wander into the frame and I get to ask about this member of the family I've never met. Even if someone uses a virtual background, I love to learn why they chose the one they did. 

At times, I also wonder what's not in the frame. When I lead a service or study group, I always take time ahead to check what is on the screen when I turn it on to remove anything I don't want people to see. Dirty laundry? A stack of used dishes? Better put those away or change the camera angle!  

The photo I included with this post is one I took on a Sunday this past January when we had a bad snow storm and my staff decided to lead worship from home instead of driving to church. I reorganized and decorated my bedroom so that there was a simple wall with crosses behind me and my books, communion supplies, and everything I needed was within reach, but off camera. On the computer it looked like I was in a small chapel, but in person, it was the messy hodgepodge you see here (including a barely comfortable seat). 

Most of the time, I'm not embarrassed by other "real life" things being in the picture, but I don't want distractions for people seeing my screen. But sometimes I want things to look better than they actually are and I've had conversations where people have complimented someone's home or office and get the response, "That's only because you can't see what's behind my camera. It's a real mess in here." 

A recent comment like that made me wonder, "What do we hide outside our public Zoom screen?" Do we really show ourselves in our camera view, or do we carefully curate what people will see like I did for that worship service in January? (And if I'm being completely honest, I even tidied that space up a bit before taking a behind-the-scenes picture I would share.) 

And I'm not just talking about Zoom, either. How honest are we about the mess that's "out of sight" to most people? There's been a lot of controversy lately with Facebook and social media because of the negative impact they can have on self-image and mental health. A lot of that negative impact is because we can do a tight camera shot on the best and most exciting parts of our lives -- or even photoshop them to perfection! -- and other people assume that small slice of life is the norm. Social science has shown that even when we know we are trying to show a "perfect" life to others, we assume everyone else's "perfect" life is real. 

I've also witnessed many examples of "imposter syndrome" at church. Imposter syndrome is a real thing where someone assumes they are an imposter, that everyone in a group belongs except for them. For example: "I'm the only one here who questions my faith." "I'm the only one here who has to yell at my kids." "I'm the only one here who has embarrassing secrets in my past." In reality, the "imposter" is usually part of the majority, but everyone in the majority assumes, "I'm the only one..."

Outside the Zoom camera and behind the public Facebook life, we are all imperfect people with literal and figurative dirty houses and dark, stuffed closets. I've learned many, many times in my life that the things I think make me strange or alone are almost always shared with someone in a group. And when I learn that I'm not the only one with a dirty house, or frustrating kids, or whatever, I find strength to both be honest and get better. Pretending that the perfect life on the Zoom screen is an image of my whole life leads to anxiety, exhaustion, and fear, but being able to say, "my house is a mess" can build community, trust, and love. And those are the things we're really looking for anyway, right?

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

Please read: I should say that I'm not promoting that we share everything we keep private. Oversharing brings a raft of problems itself and everyone does not need to know everything about me or you. I am saying we shouldn't hide every ugly thing off camera and deny that they exist. Like the example above, we should be honest that what you see looks good, but there is a big mess off camera. e.g. I am open about living with depression and anxiety, but the details of that are just for me, my therapist, and my closest friends.

“Don't tell me that you can't, and that you're gonna back down. You're gonna stand here and fight for it” -Lucy Spraggan, “Fight For It”

Friday, October 1, 2021

What Isn't Good in the Creation Story

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash
One of the most influential scriptures for my understanding of God and faith is the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. In these chapters we see a glimpse into God's character and vision for the world (and human lives in particular). God creates order out of chaos. God is creative and imaginative. God is concerned with the relationships between parts of creation. And throughout it all, one word keeps coming up: "good."

(By the way, this post is not about whether or not creation is "true" or happened in seven days. If you're looking for that, I'd recommend reading Bishop Barron's article at Word on Fire. He spells out better than I could how to approach the "problem" of evolution and creation.)

As God is creating, everything is "good." Light and dark are good. Fish are good. The sun is good. Trees are good. And humans are good. 

The Hebrew word for "good" is "tōv/tōvah" and as I understand it, the use of the word in this chapter doesn't reflect a moral status (like "you're a good person"), but means that things are "as they should be." Like if you planned a party and everyone had a good time, the food was fantastic, and everything happened like you wanted it to, you'd say, "this is good." 

Everything in creation is good. Until Genesis 2:18, when God finds something that isn't good. And guess what isn't good. 

Mosquitos? Nope. 

Volcanoes? No. 

Brussel sprouts? No. 

The thing that isn't good? "It is not good that the human should be alone." 

The human, Adam (literally, "dirt creature"), has all of creation to himself, but it isn't enough. Because one of the most important things we need isn't something we can eat or build or hold in our hands. We need community and companionship. 

(Quick side note: The word used to describe the woman, Eve, is helper ("ézer" in Hebrew). Contrary to many interpretations, "ézer" does not mean "servant" or imply the person holds less status. The most common "helper/ézer" named in the Hebrew Scriptures is God. God does not hold less status than Adam; neither does Eve.)

When I first noticed this detail, it struck me as deeply profound and key to unlocking the larger messages of the Bible. I think this verse demonstrates for us that when we are alone, when we have broken relationships with God and each other, or when we aren't "helping" one another, then things are not "as they should be." 

God intends for us to be in loving and helping relationships with one another as God is with us, but the rest of the Bible is about how humans break those relationships with God and other humans, how we forget the importance of community and connection, how that leads to death and pain and suffering, and how God works to bring us back to this truth: "it is not good for you to be alone."

In a time where the world seems mad to divide into "us and them" and tells us constantly that the only people we need are Me, Myself, and I, we can easily recognize that things are not "tōv," not as they should be. May God draw us back to the truth of Creation again and again: the world is full of good, but it is not good for us to be alone. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“But you can't judge a book, by looking at the cover; You can't love someone, while messing with another; no, You can't win a war, fighting with your brother; You wanna have peace, gotta love one another.” -Black Stone Cherry, “Lonely Train”

Friday, September 24, 2021

Naked Leadership and Coaching for God

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Have you ever had a dream where you show up in school naked or realize you are talking to a crowd wearing no pants? 

Embarrassment dreams like those are exactly how I often felt early in my career as a pastor. Not that I ever forgot to wear clothes to work, but whenever I had someone ask me a difficult question I didn't have an answer for, I felt naked. "Where is God when...?" "Why would God...?" "Why won't God answer my prayer?" 

I wanted to have a simple, logical answer for them. I'd love to have nice proverbs like, "God never gives us more than we can handle," but I've lived enough to know that they aren't always true AND simple phrases like that are rarely what people need to hear when they are asking tough questions. Yet, I'd try to string together something that sounded logical and smart and pray it was helpful somehow. Because I hate not having a answer. I'm an introvert that often thinks through every possible angle to a problem before I speak or act because I want to be prepared for every possibility, every question, every problem. That way, I'm never wrong and never surprised. 

Still, I felt naked, like a fraud. After all, wasn't I the expert? Wasn't it my job to have the answers to everyone's question? What good was my Master's degree if I didn't feel like I'd mastered anything?

In turn, it created a vicious cycle with my depression and anxiety, because it made me certain everyone was disappointed in me and I was worthless, which drove me to build my facade even stronger. 

Eventually, two things happened. First, I got to a point of desperation where I said, "God, I can't do this anymore! I can't solve every problem and I don't know how to be right all the time!" And God's response was, "Now you get it. Would you stop trying to be a savior, get out of the way, and let me do MY job?"

Second was a piece of wisdom I found in a weekly newsletter I received: "Leaders don't need the right answers. They need the right questions." 

I'd been trained to think of pastors as the "experts." Just like going to a doctor who diagnoses the problem and prescribes a remedy, I first saw my job as doling out spiritual prescriptions and wisdom. The problem was that I didn't always know how to treat the problem or it was chronic and needed more than a couple "God-pills."  

Instead, I slowly came to see pastoring as more like a personal trainer or a coach. I didn't need to have the answers, that was God's job. I needed to help people recognize what spiritual health looked like, where to find it, and guide them in ways that enabled them to hear God's answers. I have more experience and a deeper pool of resources, but that's not the same as an answer. 

I've had to be okay with not being the expert in the old sense, but a fellow traveller who knows what questions to ask. Now it feels less like I'm naked and more like I'm honest. God doesn't call us to be perfect, just faithful. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“To wrestle the angel for more than a name” -Switchfoot, “Twenty-four”


Thursday, September 9, 2021

WHO Is My Enemy? Or WHAT Is My Enemy?

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash
On August 22, the assigned New Testament, or "epistle," reading for church was Ephesians 6:10-20. Most Christians would recognize this quickly as the "Armor of God" passage, where Paul tells the church to prepare for spiritual battle by putting on the Breastplate of Righteousness, Sandals of Peace, the Sword of God's Word, and so on.

It's something I've seen depicted in many Sunday school coloring pages and described in youth retreat Bible studies. It's pretty cliché to me.

But you know how you can watch your favorite movie a dozen times and then realize you never saw something happen in the background that totally changes the meaning of a scene? This Sunday was one of those times for me when I heard this text read.

In verse 12, Paul tells the church that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but ... against the spiritual forces of evil..." 

Now, Paul has been beaten, ridiculed, and imprisoned for what he preaches and he frequently is writing to churches that are facing similar treatment for their faith (including the Galatians). But Paul says, "It's not the person who beat me who is my enemy. The real enemies are spiritual forces of evil." We might hear that phrase and think about demon possessions, but I think it also means the forces of bigotry and selfishness, or the lies people have believed that have warped their hearts and minds, or the pain and hurt they feel and want to take out on others. 

Paul wants the church to battle evil, but don't attack "blood and flesh" because they are human beings made in God's image who God wants to transform. (After all, Paul was one of those twisted, evil-acting people before literally getting knocked on his butt by Jesus.)

This really hit me square in the face because of how much I've been hearing about "those people." "Those people are being stubborn and selfish." "Those people can't think for themselves." "Those people don't understand the real world." "Those people are ruining our country." "Those people aren't really Christian."

I'm guessing we can all identify some of "those people" in our lives, but the truth is I've heard these statements made by people on both sides of our social divisions about "those" on the other side. We need to learn how to bridge those divides (that's a topic for another time), but Paul's advice may be helpful here: our struggle is not against the flesh and blood of those people, but against the spiritual evil that motivates the worst in them (and me), the forces of sin and death that convince us our only hope is to be afraid and defensive.

Once this occurred to me, I realized something about the "armor" that Paul describes: if we take it literally, it shouldn't lead to violence and hostile conflict. He says to use "righteousness," "truth," "peace," and "faith." The only "weapon" he names is the "sword of the Spirit, that is the word of God" (emphasis mine), which is more like a surgical tool for removing a tumor than a weapon meant to kill. 

Rather than a muscular, militaristic Christianity, Paul is promoting a "warfare" that is its opposite: instead of seeking destruction, act with truth, healing, and peace. Or, he might say, "When things get rough, the plan doesn't change: love God, love neighbor, and be the virtues you want in others."

For as cliché as this passage has been for me, I've never heard it taught as anti-militant imagery or how to not fight evil the way the world does. But it makes sense. After all, if we are soldiers of some kind, then our "general" is Jesus, who didn't say, "Go get 'em" but "Father, forgive them," and who won a victory by submitting to death. 

Who am I battling? What am I battling? How am I battling? Hmm...

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“The dawn to end all nights.” -Broken Bells, “The High Road”


Friday, September 3, 2021

Cutting Through the Media Noise to Listen for God

Photo by Thiébaud Faix 

The world is very loud and angry today. We are bombarded with news about diseases, natural disasters, political arguments, economic roller coasters, and more. It often feels like it's not shared so much as shouted at us by people who can't tell the difference between opinions and facts. And that doesn't get into the messages from advertising, movies, and television programs. 

It's no wonder that I hear from many who just want to tune out or ignore the news or say they don't know what to believe or trust anymore. I feel the same way at times. 

In an interview last year, I heard a recommendation from Kaitlyn Schiess that I have found helpful ever since. She was speaking about her book, "The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor," on the Holy Post Podcast and suggested using two simple questions to cut through the noise of news (especially political).

-What is this telling me to value? -What is it telling me to fear? 

I'd suggest the obvious third question is: How do those answers line up with my values? Better yet, How do they line up with Biblical values?

I know we could start a long debate about what "Biblical values" means, but I think we can rely on the plain words of a few classic verses as common ground:

  • Paul lists some core values in Galatians that he calls "the fruits of the Spirit": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 
    • Do the shows you watch celebrate and encourage these values?
  • Jesus names a list of people who are "blessed" at the start of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12): those who are meek... merciful... pure in heart... peacemakers... those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... 
    • Is this the type of person you are inspired to be by the media you consume?
  • In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul names love as "the greatest" practice of Christians and shares what love does NOT look like: "love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth." 
    • Do the voices you listen to promote love or the opposites that Paul names?
These questions aren't meant to shame you for the media you consume. And they are not to say that any news or program that doesn't fit this model is "evil." These are questions to help us critique what we are hearing and hear it through a Christian lens. 

I'm not expecting any of us to be taught Godly values by watching the news. That's not their job! Their job is to share information and get viewers to watch. The answer is not to never consume news or media, but to consume it wisely

As Christians, we are called to reflect the goodness and wisdom of God to the world around us, to be part of the renewal of creation started in Jesus' death and resurrection. We should shape the world more than we're shaped by it. 

What are you learning to value? What are you learning to fear? How close is that to what God values in the world? Hopefully the right questions can lead us towards the answers we need.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Let me learn from where I have been; keep my eyes to serve and my hands to learn.” -Mumford and Sons, “Below My Feet”

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Faith in Media: "Ted Lasso" and Confession

Photo by Izuddin Helmi Adnan on Unsplash
When I was on vacation this summer, my best friend insisted that we watch "Ted Lasso," the Apple TV comedy that had just been nominated for a boatload of Emmys. I had heard it was good, but hadn't watched it because my family didn't subscribe to Apple TV+. The headlines and word of mouth I'd seen on the show was that it was heartwarming, hilarious, and the perfect escape from pandemic-bad-news overload, but... 

Wow... It was so much more. 

I wasn't expecting it to also be about Christian ideals like community building, confession, and reconciliation.

If you're not familiar with "Ted Lasso," it's a comedy starring Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach who is hired to coach a Premier-level soccer club in England. He is over-the-top positive and spouts more funny metaphors than a caffeinated Southern preacher. (See what I did there?) Meanwhile, everyone around him is unhappy, unfriendly, or hoping for his failure. At it's core, "Ted Lasso" asks, "How do we overcome differences and pain in order to be decent and kind to people?"

(I should note it is rated TV-MA because there is a LOT of swearing and frank conversations about sex. If that's not okay for you, don't watch it.) 

As all the characters travel the path to being better human beings (including Ted), there are misty-eyed moments of joy and head-smacking mistakes. It was the way mistakes are addressed that really blew me away because they are a fantastic model for confession and forgiveness. And not the confession and forgiveness with God that Lutherans do at the beginning of worship, but the kind all Christians are called to practice with each other. Or, if you aren't religious, the kind of reconciliation your therapist would model with you. 

For example (paraphrased as best I remember it):

Roy: "Oi! Don't use me as a pawn in your f------ lover's quarrel!"

Keely: "You're right. That was wrong and I'm sorry."

Roy: "Thank you."

Or (without spoiler details):

A: "I lied to you."

B (sighs): "Well, I forgive you."

A: "What? Why would you do that?"

B: "Someone hurt you, and that makes you do crazy things. I've been there. And me holding it over you won't make anything better."

The show is full of moments like these. Of course, similar moments in real life might not be so quick, but the basics are still pure gold. People are honest about being hurt or doing bad, they own the guilt when they were wrong, they listen to each other, and sometimes they need to revisit the problem later or do something to make it up to someone. (And it never feels forced or sappy like an old sitcom.) 

Now, not everyone becomes best friends and there are characters at the end of the season who are still very flawed, but time and again, the show celebrates healing relationships, caring for the team, and efforts to be better people. When there is so much polarization and division in our country right now, it was refreshing to watch examples of how to fix problems and heal relationships instead of holding grudges and seeking vengeance. 

Some people would probably call it unrealistic for people to act like this regularly, but to me it sounds a lot like: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." It also sounds a lot better than the alternative we live in now.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Somehow our hearts are still in it, but all our innocence has left.” -NEEDTOBREATHE, “Seasons”