Thursday, June 30, 2022

“Midnight Mass,” Mars Hill, and Religious Extremism

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
In one week last fall, I finished two very different series that were recommended to me for very different reasons from different people but had nearly identical lessons. 

The first was a documentary podcast series from Christianity Today called, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Over thirteen episodes (plus two bonus episodes), the series traced the ministry of a mega-church in Seattle and its “young, restless, and reformed” lead pastor, Mark Driscoll. Mars Hill became one of the largest churches in America, appealing especially to young adults and men in a notoriously unreligious city. But, as the name suggests, the church fell apart publicly and suddenly when Driscoll resigned in the wake of an investigation into his leadership that alleged abuse and bullying. 

The second series was "Midnight Mass," a Netflix horror series that was the most popular streaming show in the country for a few weeks. (Note: NO spoilers ahead.) Normally it never would have been on my radar, but three different sources offered the same basic review: "I normally don't like horror, but this was different and it raised a lot of questions about religion that made me think, but I think it would offend a lot of Christians, and I really want to talk about it with someone." With that intriguing trinity of recommendations, I started watching it and ended up binging it with my spouse and daughter who wandered in while I was watching. And talk about it we did! 

It's the kind of show that is difficult to say anything about without giving away spoilers, but the basic premise is that a small fishing village on a New England island is dying. After a new priest unexpectedly arrives at the Catholic Church that serves as the heart of the community, strange things begin happening -- some terrifying and some miraculous -- and there are disagreements about what they mean. Once you learn what is happening and why, but you are left wrestling with questions about ends justifying means, the difference between faith and cultishness, the meanings of love and life, and so much more. 

It was these nagging questions that form the bridge between these two series. Both are asking deep questions about one central question: When does religion move from being a medicine to being a disease?

In the case of Mars Hill, the host tracks the way the church helps many people develop their faith and become better people, but often does so with methods that are antithetical to the character of Jesus. Despite narcissistic, dishonest, and vengeful behavior, Mark Driscoll grows in power and people that get in his way become "bodies under the bus" as he says in one infamous conversation. As long as the church is growing, people believe, Mark must be correct. Over time, the church becomes focused on promoting Mark Driscoll instead of Jesus, while the differences between the two are ever more stark. 

Likewise, in "Midnight Mass," there are people who are willing to defend and overlook what should be objectively evil as long as it also brings blessings and miracles. In both cases, people will use scripture and theological language to excuse bad behavior or attack those who are trying to speak the truth. 

I found myself feeling very uncomfortable on multiple occasions in both series as I would hear Mark Driscoll or a villain in the fictional series use theological language and Bible lessons that I largely agree with (and have at times used myself), only to have them land on a conclusion completely opposite of what I believe. 

On hearing and seeing how people are wounded by those words, I had to think deeply about my own vocation and the authority I have as a pastor to shape what people believe is true. I was reminded of times I have been less than Christ-like in my leadership or hurt people in the name of my higher priorities.

Both series are powerful because they make the audience stare at the worst of religious extremism and abuse, but neither one is really anti-religion. They also celebrate what is beautiful and life-giving in religious practices. They offer compelling examples of how faith brings out the best in people, even in the worst of times. They are haunting and compelling because they show how thin the line can be between good and evil, how good intentions do not guarantee virtuous outcomes, and how easily we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are on the side of God as we banish God from our presence, just as the religious leaders of the Gospels crucified Jesus in the name of defending God. 

I highly recommend both series to anyone who likes to think or who wants to wrestle with the questions I've outlined. I'm still thinking about these months after finishing them. Be warned that you will really want to talk to someone about them. I'm available if you know how to reach me. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Bad decisions, they don’t feel bad at the time; consequences, they don’t always fit the crime.” -NEEDTOBREATHE, “Riding High”



Thursday, June 23, 2022

Politics and the Pulpit

Photo by Brad Dodson on Unsplash
It has long been said that one should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. Whether that was ever universally true, we now live in an era in this country where political affiliation has become a litmus test for whether I should be polite in someone's company at all. And religious affiliation and language has become tied up in political discourse in very unhealthy ways that undermine faith and distort the Christian message. 

Given that landscape, it's important for churches and pastors (like me) to spend more time talking about politics, not less. 

To begin with, we need to redefine what we mean when we say "politics." Most people use the word "political" to mean "partisan." Politics is really just the process by which a group of people decide how to live together. Who has power within the group? What guidelines will be used to make decisions? What will be acceptable behavior? 

From that perspective, Christianity makes many political assertions. The Bible says an awful lot about loving the neighbor, honoring the humanity and dignity of every person (e.g. "the least of these" in Matt. 25:31-46), taking special care of the marginalized people in society (e.g. foreigners, orphans, and widows in Deut. 14:28-29), and acceptable behavior (don't kill, steal, or lie; be generous and compassionate). Jesus was executed, in part, by political leaders because he was challenging their power structure. Churches are, in a way, political organizations that are seeking to live as a community guided by the teachings of Jesus as their core. 

When it comes to secular politics, those same principles should guide Christians in how they live with their non-Christian neighbors and, in democracies like ours, how they make decisions when they vote. Of course, there is a lot of complexity and nuance in how we follow the teachings of Jesus in a church and the complexity is magnified when we seek to follow them in a diverse, secular society. 

One problem is that secular political parties are not guided by the same principles; they are founded on  ideas like individual and property rights, national defense, and social responsibility. The policies and priorities of parties can often overlap with scripture and teachings of Jesus, but no political party has ever fully embodied the Christian message. 

In addition, people of deep and sincere faith can disagree on what the best policies are to reflect our faith. The social statements that have been written and approved by my church body, the ELCA, are great examples of this. 

Especially in a country like ours with only two competitive parties, all this means that Christians have to make compromises in voting because we have to vote for a platform or candidate in total. My faith may lead me to agree with one candidate on policies A, D, and E, and the other on policies B and C, but neither on policy F. Which principles do I prioritize to make a decision? 

This is where it's important for a church or a pastor to speak on politics, not to elevate one party over another, but to help Christians understand what Jesus says about how we are to live together and to reflect on how they may align with current issues. (For instance: What does mercy and redemption look like in a prison system? If Jesus repeatedly warns about excessive wealth, how should we shape our fiscal policy?)

We confuse "political" and "partisan" because they often mean the same thing in practice in the US; to take a political stand is to fully adopt one partisan package over another. What really troubles me is that more and more often, it seems as though people are adopting a party platform and fitting their faith to match their partisan politics. Many then use their faith as a justification for policies that have little to do with Christian teaching and/or defend their politics with the same existential ferocity usually practiced by religious fanatics. (I have seen some Christian politicos dismiss Jesus' "love your enemies" command if the enemy is their political opponent because "they" are "evil.")

I believe a lot of this problem is caused because we have not talked about politics in church, have not encouraged people to think theologically about their politics and how they vote. If we have, we have simplified it to one party is always good and one is always evil, instead of acknowledging that no political party or leader can really be that pure. 

It's also important for us to talk about faith and politics more because it gives us a better sense of perspective. Politics is important because it has real impacts on the lives of people here and now, but the church has thrived and outlived many, many governments, movements, philosophies, and leaders. I am often passionate about who I vote for because I hope they will better reflect the values of my faith, but I always remind myself that they are not a replacement for God and my allegiance is finally not to a party, a president, or even a country, but to Jesus. The kingdom of Jesus will always outlive our imperfect attempts to recreate it in our politics. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Oh, time will tell eventually, oh, I am not your enemy.” -The Rescues, “Get Back”



Thursday, June 9, 2022

Is Faith a Destination or a Process?

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash
I remember bumper stickers when I was a kid that read, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." The idea behind the stickers was that we can't bomb and kill our way to peace. Though nations often rely on military means to achieve "peace," it's unwise to think one can use death and destruction to subdue an enemy and then have everyone be friends the next day. If true peace needs trust and cooperation between opponents, violence always creates the opposite.

I've been thinking about that phrase a lot recently in my Bible studies and devotional time because it seems to me we are often taught to think in terms of results: How to get the promotion... How to guarantee your kid goes to the Ivy League... How to win...

The same often applies to churches. How to increase attendance... How to guarantee deeper faith...

On one hand, there's nothing wrong with having goals. If we don't know where we're going, we likely won't go anywhere. But I wonder if we too often make the result the only thing that matters. 

If the end result is all that matters, how we get there isn't as important. Did I make someone else look bad so I would be preferred? Did I take advantage of unfair of a privilege someone else lacked to get ahead? Did I twist the truth to get someone on my side? As long as I achieve my goal, I can justify what I did to get there. 

But there are consequences to a "whatever it takes" mentality. I see many politicians openly lying or practicing character assassination to make sure their party gains or keeps power while implying, "We'll be virtuous once we get past the election." But why would should someone be trusted once they have power if they were untrustworthy getting it?

In another example, a bombshell report on the Southern Baptist Convention came out recently that laid out how victims of sexual abuse by pastoral staff were ignored and silenced for years in the name of protecting the institution and concerns about bad press damaging their evangelism. Or if anyone listened to "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill" podcast, you'll remember the infamous comment by a pastor bragging about "bodies under the bus" of his success. 

When the end goal or success itself is the only thing that matters, how you get there doesn't, but like the way to peace, it's unreasonable to bomb your way to victory and then believe everything will be magically perfect afterwards. 

And it seems that Jesus rarely takes such an approach. Though he talks about building the Kingdom of God and aims to "save the world" (not a small goal!), he spends a lot more time teaching about the process of faith than the destination. He tells people simply, "Follow me" (e.g. Luke 5:27) without telling them where they are going. When James and John ask to sit at his right hand, he warns them against seeking power and tells them to serve one another (Mark 10:35-45). And when he teaches to "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek," he doesn't say, "Then you'll achieve what you are hoping for." It isn't a "how to" manual with a goal in mind, but more "be like this and let me worry about the conclusion."

In fact, when he tells the disciples he is going to be arrested and die and says, 

"You know the way to where I am going," Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:4-6a, emphasis mine)

 In other words, you don't need to know the destination, Thomas; you know me. Follow me and you will get there. He goes on in the following chapters to assure them to stick to what he's taught them. It's like, 

  • Step 1: Be loving, generous, forgiving, kind, patient, hopeful, at peace, and welcoming.
  • Step 2: If you are (insert any emotion or situation here), see Step 1.

One might say, "There is no way to Jesus. Jesus is the way."

I have found this idea that "Jesus is the way" helpful as there are many things going on in the world around me and in my personal and professional life that are uncertain or out of my control. Over the past two years, almost everything has felt unsettled or temporary. Even when I know where I'm going, it can change or there are detours constantly. But I can tell myself, wherever you are, be loving; whatever happens, be kind; in good or bad, be caring. It gives me a focus and sense of grounding. 

I may not know the final goal, but I know the way. And that's more important.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I thought that everything would turn out right, now look what I’ve become: a man I wouldn’t have respect for if I met me when I was young.” -Jars of Clay, “Left Undone”


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

What About the Other Common Factor in Shootings: Men?

Photo by Abbat on Unsplash
I've been in shock and anger this week following the news of yet another school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas. The second deadliest school shooting in our history (something is wrong when we have enough school shootings to rank them) is sadly just one of several mass shootings in recent weeks, including a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and a church in Laguna Woods, California. And those are just a few examples in a year where we are averaging more than one mass shooting per day in America. (Lord, have mercy.)

Well-worn paths of arguments about gun rights and restrictions are in the news again. Though I have my thoughts on guns, I find myself thinking more about a different question this week: What's wrong with men in our country?

It's an obvious detail that rarely gets discussed following a mass shooting, but the perpetrator is almost always a man. (Various sources I found put the figure at 94-98% of mass shooters.) And the shooter is  frequently a younger man. (The Buffalo and Uvalde killers were both 18.) 

Why? What are we doing that makes so many men think they should get a gun and start shooting at people when they are upset? As a man and a church leader, this question haunts me because I feel a responsibility to correct whatever is causing the problem.

This is a question that needs in depth research for a real answer, but let me offer a suggestion: the way masculinity is portrayed and taught in our culture is horrible. And it is literally killing us. 

We are all aware of the traditional tropes of masculinity. Real men are like John Wayne or Don Draper. They are strong and can fight when necessary. They are always in control of themselves and their surroundings. They rarely show any emotion except for (righteous) anger. They never ask for directions (or help), won't admit when they are wrong, and never back down from a perceived threat. 

If that's the normal or ideal image of a man, I can speak from experience that it creates problems very quickly in the real world. Here are just a few:

  • If I don't know an answer or am wrong about something, I'm not a real man. 
  • If I struggle in a job, I'm not just failing in a job, I'm failing as a man because I'm not in control. 
  • If I try to seek help with the problem, I'm even less of a man, so I never risk the honesty that is needed for deep, loving relationships that can help me feel secure. 
  • If I feel shame or sadness about my struggles, I'm not a real man. I can't explore or address my emotions because I'm not supposed to have them in the first place. 
  • So hurt often turns to anger at the person or situation that is causing my hurt because they are making me feel less manly. 
  • And then if they are a threat, I have to fight them with all I can, which often creates new problems that I'm failing at and the cycle continues. 
This isn't just unhealthy masculinity, it's an unhealthy humanity. Without a way to break this cycle, the likelihood of violence and anger only increases because they are the only acceptable ways to be "manly" with big emotions.

As a pastor, what I find even more troubling is the way this model is frequently layered into Christian teaching as not just normal, but godly. Sometimes it's even called "Biblical manhood." So if I'm not being a "real man," I'm not just betraying myself, I'm betraying God. 

But that's not what I see in scripture. 
  • When Moses acts with anger and strikes a rock instead of speaking to it, God rebukes him. (Numbers 20:2-13)
  • David is remembered favorably for admitting his fault and humbling himself before God when he has committed adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12). God calls him a "man after my own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14). 
  • The early apostles in Acts never fight back when opposed, even when they are violently attacked (e.g. Acts 16:19-34). 
And more importantly, it's not the way Jesus lives as a man: 
  • When Peter draws a sword to defend Jesus at his arrest, Jesus rebukes him, heals the man injured, and says, "all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:51-54).
  • Jesus allows himself to be humiliated by spending time with prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, and other social outcasts. 
  • Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek..., the merciful..., the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:1-11)
  • He commands people to "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies," and teaches passive resistance (Matthew 5:38-47).
  • Jesus wept (John 11:35) and confessed his fear (Matthew 26:38-39). 
Philippians specifically notes that Jesus did not exploit his power, "but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ...[and] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross" (2:7-8). In other words, Jesus wasn't a muscular warrior man, but was human in a way that both demonstrated the love and justice of God and was vulnerable and humble in order to elevate others. If Jesus was fully God and fully human, then his example is what all men (and women) should be emulating. Jesus is what Biblical humanness looks like. 

Throughout history, the message and example of Jesus has challenged cultural assumptions about what it means to be men, women, leaders, citizens, patriots, and just humans. The way we've idealized a certain type of masculinity needs to be challenged and changed because it is costing lives. As we look for solutions to gun safety and mental health, I will also be looking solutions that create a healthier, more Jesus-like idea of masculinity. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Like men need long life to know that they ain’t right.” -NEEDTOBREATHE, “Survival”



Thursday, May 26, 2022

Lamenting the Violence (Pastoral Letter on the Uvalde Shooting)

"Thoughts and Prayers" by A. Mattson

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? … How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2)


The past two weeks have been punctuated with awful violence. 


On May 13, a public playoff party in Milwaukee turned into chaos when gun battles broke out and injured 21 people. The next day, a racist gunman entered a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and killed 10 people. Then the next day, a man walked into a church in Laguna Woods, California, and shot 6 people, killing one, because of political hatred towards Taiwanese independence. And then this week, we saw yet another school shooting in which a young man killed 19 children and 2 adults, and wounded 17 more. 


And if all of that weren’t horrifying enough, the war in Ukraine continues to kill over one hundred people per day, according to one estimate, and a bombshell report came out over the  weekend that the Southern Baptist Convention has spent decades ignoring or belittling victims of sexual violence by church leaders.


Following previous tragedies — like Sandy Hook, the Sikh temple shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charleston Nine, Parkland, the Miller Brewery shooting, and probably more —  I have written a pastoral letter (such as I am now) to offer perspective and hope. Each one gets harder, and I must admit I am struggling to find the words to write this time. The words that keep coming to me are from a hymn based on Psalm 13: “‘How long, O God?’ The psalmist cries, a cry we make our own, for we are lost, alone, afraid, and far away from home” (“How Long, O God,” Ralph F. Smith).


How long, indeed. 


In the midst of my pain and frustration at yet more violence, these words remind me of a gift from Scripture that we often forget: the practice of lament. In our culture, we often focus on the positive and dismiss the negative, but this isn’t what we find in scripture. Almost half of the Psalms are laments; the book of Job is pages of complaints about the injustice of the world and demanding to hear from God; the prophet books are filled with commands to repent and weep over the evil people have done; and there’s even a whole book called “Lamentations.” 


Instead of ignore the negative and focus on the positive, the Bible encourages us to name the negative and pray for the positive. After all, it’s not a surprise that the world is not as God intended it. Since the beginning, humans have been rebelling against God’s plan for the flourishing of life on earth in favor of our own ideas. (That rebellion is what we call sin.) 


Lament is a way of naming the world’s brokenness and that we are victims (and perpetrators) of that sin. Though lament can feel overly critical or negative towards God, it is one way of us turning back to God for answers, which is what we should be doing anyways. If human rebellion created these problems, we need holy wisdom to solve them. 


So I have words of hope that I will continue to share and suggestions for steps forward, but I also invite you to join me in lament. I have been crying to God about the evil in this world, and I will pray for “Your kingdom come,” and I will listen for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to lead me forward so that I can be part of the healing. And then I will hope in the last stanza of the hymn: “‘How long, O God?’ The psalmist cries, a cry we make our own. Though we are lost, alone, afraid, our God will lead us home.” 


In God’s Grip,

Pastor Ari


"I'm trying, I'm trying to sleep, but I can't, but I can't when you all have guns for hands." -twenty one pilots, "Guns for Hands"

Suggestions for Faithful Responses


Pray Honestly and Personally

Pray to God and don’t be afraid to ask questions like “How long?” Or “Where are you?” Martin Luther said prayer is “rubbing God’s ears with God’s promises.” (“Hey, God! You promised life and peace. Where is it?”) But it’s also helpful to pray, “How can I help?” Ask for help in being a peacemaker. 


Read the Psalms 

Whatever you are feeling or experiencing has been seen by God’s people before. The Psalms are a wonderful record of the highs and lows of our experience with God. They make beautiful prayers, conversation starters, or just reminders that we are not alone. 


Be Aware of Your Feelings…

Sometimes we dismiss our feelings, but they are an important part of how God created us. Anger and pain can be warning lights that something isn’t right and needs to be fixed. When we are aware of them and ask, “Why am I so upset?” or “What specifically is making me feel hurt?”, those questions can help us get to the root of the emotions and how to respond constructively. 


…But Not Driven by Them

At the same time, if we let our emotions control us, we can create more problems. If fear or anger hardens into hate against a person or group (“it’s their fault…”), it continues the cycle. Sin is a disease in all of us and indulging it on one side does not correct it on another. The men who took guns into public places did so because there was a “they” who needed to be eliminated. 


Connect With People

One root of violence is frequently social isolation, loneliness, and a lack of loving relationships. The pandemic and other trends in our society have created more, not less, of these. We can’t prevent all evil and no one action is guaranteed to prevent evil, but many drops of water turn a mill. Chat with a neighbor or relative, send a note or text, meet someone new, or just smile at everyone for a day. We are called to love God and our neighbor; the best way is often to love God BY loving our neighbor. 


Write to Your Legislators

We are blessed to live in a country that allows us to elect and petition our government and as people of faith, we are called to speak up for the vulnerable and suffering. I will be the first to acknowledge our government is not as responsive to voters as it should be, but it is an important tool we have and I have seen letter writing change policy before. 

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 Facebook.com/pastor.ari. 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”